Whew. Just finished up a crazy stretch of a bunch of projects all mashed together. Fortunately, this short break comes right at the beginning of the Lunar New Year’s holiday. A nice breather…
So, what have I been up to? Let’s start with a happy anecdote from yesterday. After meeting with my Running Store Hyoung, I went to Seongmi-san to the local spring to get my yaksu (medicine water, really, just spring water). Having replenished my supplies, I stopped for a bite on the way home. I chatted up the workers as I ate and had a grand lunch, leaving me all jaunty…(jauntier than normal, that is). As I walked home with the glow of work well done, I saw a halmoni coming my way. For some odd reason, I was overtaken with the desire to say “Hello” in English. Then I hedged, and as I did, she walked by, smiled a huge smile and said to me, “HELLO!” in English. Surprised, my pleasure only began. “I LOVE YOU!” came next! What else could I reply but, “Hello, I love you too Grandmother!” A bright shiny day indeed.
Okay, going back a little further. This time last week I went to Gwangju for the weekend to accompany some Fulbrighters and two journalists who have been covering Korea for a long time. Don Oberdorfer is a journalist and author who wrote Two Koreas. Sam Jameson worked for the Chicago Trib and LA Times, covering Korea during its turbulent years of military dictatorship. He was present in Gwangju in May, 1980, when a large massacre went down in response to a huge rebellion that took place in opposition to the martial law that was ordered after the assasination of former dictator Park Chung-hee.
They hadn’t been to Gwangju in a long time, so it was a trip back into the past for them. Luckily, I’ve lived in Gwangju for a year (1997-1998) and studied the massacre extensively. I was able to give them some facts they would have otherwise not known, so, it was a pretty satisfying experience.
For instance, there is a plaque there at the cemetery commemorating a visit by the very General Cheon Duhwan who was responsible for the massacre. I had told them at lunch that this was the case, and they were quite shocked to believe such a thing was possible. This is what’s called “the setup.” Because when I finally showed them where it was, they all understood and have a good laugh. You can see Sam about to stomp on something set into the pavement. That’s the plaque! Visitors have made a ritual of stomping and spitting on the defaced monument when they come to pay respects to the martyrs of the democratization movement. It’s an interesting spot, indeed.
We were also graced with a special ceremony in the honor of our guests. I must admit, it was a bit forced, as we really didn’t have much choice but to just stand there and do as we were told as they said some words about personal sacrifice and the tragedy of the massacre. With a grand score blasting through an incredible sound system, both journalists noted a not so subtle congruence with events they’d witness in Soviet Russia. Indeed, propaganda happens, all ’round the world, on all sides of the political spectrum.
I could handle it fine and all, but there was one moment that was a bit beyond my limitations. Now I should say as a disclaimer that I’ve been to this memorial many times and paid my most sincere and solemn respects on my own numerous times. So, my respect for this place and its history is not to be questioned. Nevertheless… on this day…. First of all, I was a bit surprised that the otherwise empty memorial on this cold and windy day would have this staged ritual ready. Second, the music was really loud and bad. Thrid, the script of the ritual was so simply over the top in its propagandistic nature, it was hard to take seriously, and I’m someone entirely in solidarity with the cause! So the whole mixture of forced reverence with bad aesthetics had me teetering on inappropriate laughter, a malady I’m cursed with, as some of my comrades past (back in the USAFA days) and present know all too well. But then, the coup de grace. As the fewminute long ceremony came to a close, the MC, speaking into a microphone that amphliphied his voice a 000 times, even though we were the only people there in this huge space andhe was but 5 feet away, said, “Ok, we have finished the ceremony. Now, please…uh……” His eyes started darting, the English panic setting in… what to do? “Uh….. pray?”
I know it was horrible of me… but… the intonation, the inappropriateness of the word choice (totally understandable mind you for an ESL speaker), all of it was too much. My laughter became like an unjustly prisoned man doing everything in his power to emerge from his depths in a dark cell to seek freedom in the light of day. I held it back, but it wasn’t easy… can you tell in the picture above?
Beyond the historical tourguiding, I got to meet up with fellow fulbrighter Elaine. That was certainly a highlight, as we not only like a lot of the same things, perhaps more importantly, we hate a lot of the same things too. After our traipsing around Gwangju, we went out with some professors and the journalists for a very nice dinner, with lots of bottles of beer and soju all waiting for us on the table when we arrived. Not wanting the bottles to feel unappreciated, we smothered them with love.
This all led to a very interesting discussion with one of Elaine’s Professors, a very hip divorcée who did what few women in Korea have dared to do in the past, but more and more are doing now, thanks to their economic freedom: dropping their philandering husbands. After sharing many drinks together, and not a small amount of quite personal history, Professor Yooha was a bit offended that I handn’t yet asked her name. Elaine and I laughed very hard, because in Korea, such a thing is entirely inapporpriate for me to do. But her rejoineder that “In Korea, this entire conversation is inappropriate!” got the best of me, so, I switched to English, raised my glass and said, “Please do tell me, what’s your name?” She was pleased and we smiled at one another lovingly.
Later, just the kids headed out to the singing room. It’s like karaoke, but much more private. You have your own room, so, the craziness gets ratcheted up just a wee bit. Purrrrrfect.
The trip was also marked by two firsts. One: I had the extreme misfortune of being so stupid as to forget my picture ID to show before I boarded the airplane from Seoul. Luckily, my pitiful face got me on. On the way back, I went to the counter explained (er, lied) about my problem and was told, “sorry, it’s impossible” to which I responded “Impossible, but I really have to get back right away… a wedding.” “Hmmm…really? Uh, follow me” And then she walked me through the gate after writing my name in a notebook. So, if Osama comes through Korean airports and doesn’t have a picture ID, we know we’ll at least have his name written down in a notebook somewhere!
Finally… the seond first. I enter the bathroom in this big building shared by numerous entertainment establishments. It’s like 3 in the afternoon. I go to do my business and notice a strange noise, but I can’t figuere what or from where. Another noise… ah… that’s a woman, from outside. Another noise… no, that’s inside. another noise… that’s a woman inside the bathroom, in that closed stall…. doing the do, and I don’t mean doodoo. Another guy had entered by this time, I waited for him to hear the first noise. He did and did a doubletake, looking at me, and then the door, and then at me again, looking startled. Loving lovers as I do, I wanted to drop a couple of 10,000W notes over the top of the door, my kinde, gentler way of saying “Get a room!” But, they sounded like they were actually quite content, so, I saved the money and bought some pitchers of brew for my mates instead. Ah, Korea…