Chapter 1: Flight of the Friendship Force

My grandma traveled a lot during her senior years, often with group tours, including those arranged by an organization called the Friendship Force. Founded in Atlanta in 1977, the Friendship Force is a nonprofit cultural exchange organization that now has chapters in 60 countries, according to its website.

The Friendship Force chapter in Albuquerque, where my grandma lived, held its first exchange in June 1979, with South Korea. The group was originally bound for Busan, Korea’s second-largest city, but swapped it for Seoul when the number of so-called friendship ambassadors grew large enough to fill a 747, for Busan’s airport could not accommodate jumbo jets back then.

For the exchange, 400 Koreans arrived in Albuquerque on June 8 on the chartered Korean Air jet. The next day, 401 Americans boarded the same plane and departed for Seoul. The Koreans and Americans returned home on June 23 and 22, respectively. According to the club’s website, the trip cost the U.S. participants $378.

The visits went about the same on both ends: The ambassadors spent the first week of their trip living with host families in Albuquerque or Seoul, and the second week traveling around the country.

At a time when Koreans had to get the government’s permission to leave the country, the Friendship Force was hugely popular there, with five chapters across the country, for it was one of the few ways Koreans could travel to the U.S. The New Mexico trip was the third exchange for the Korean Friendship Force, after previously traveling to Montana and Washington state.

On arriving in Albuquerque, the Korean ambassadors were greeted at the airport by their hosts and the governor. Thereafter they enjoyed a mass hot air balloon ascension, an event at the convention center featuring both local and Korean entertainment, and day trips to Santa Fe and other nearby destinations. A TV crew from KBS accompanied the group for at least part of their visit to document the voyage.

As for the American ambassadors, according to an Albuquerque Journal article from the time, some of them took a 16-hour Korean language crash course at the local university a few weeks before departure. I’m not sure if my grandma took this class, but she did work at university so it seems possible, and among her mementos of the trip is a printed list of useful Korean phrases. Officials from the South Korean consulate in Los Angeles traveled to Albuquerque to help streamline the visa application process, according to the newspaper. If you had ever traveled to a Communist country, you had to apply in person.

After a 17-hour direct flight, the American ambassadors arrived at Gimpo Airport in Seoul and were taken to the Shilla Hotel, where a band played “Stars and Stripes Forever” to herald their arrival. My grandma wrote of the experience in her notes:

“As we walked into the auditorium at the hotel, the Koreans were all seated on one side of the room and the other half was vacant waiting for our presence. It struck me as an oddity at once to notice that ALL the Koreans — the whole half of the audience — had black hair. This should have alerted me to a situation that followed me the rest of the visit. Seems no one in Korea lets the hair become gray/white until they are old, bent, with one foot in the grave … hence I was the object of much curiosity.”

Thus the adventure began.

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