The End Game, and historical memories

July 15, 2007

written by Matty (for a change, thanks for the hard work the past few weeks Dominica!)

some music for your listening, er… pleasure(?): Sam Cooke, “Change is Gonna Come.”

Oh boy, it’s come to this, the end game. I started to leave about a year ago, in my head at least, and now I’ve started to come back, again, a little bit early. I could say it’s gone fast, but that wouldn’t take account of the cold, dark, long February that seemed to last forever. I could say that it’s gone slow, but that wouldn’t take account of the fact that it seemed like yesterday that I was having one last swim at Brighton Park and one last beer with my Ann Arbor homies. So, I’ll just leave it at, “it’s gone.”

I’ve been spending a lot of time doing things back home already, getting a new homeowner’s policy and changing the car insurance – a far cry from venturing through the mountains in search of remote hermitages, I know. But the tide of reality is rising, and the boat needs to be ready to sail. Already, the halting last (second last?) goodbyes, the promises of “one more visit before I go,” the plans of “last time doing X,” etc. etc. Two weeks and change, with one week spent in Gwangju and Haein-sa doesn’t leave much leeway for fulfilling all the finalities, but we’ll see what we can do.

Currently, we’ve sped up the final days by hosting an old friend from Ann Arbor (well, who we met in Ann Arbor, but is actually part of the Chicago/Wisconsin crew and now living in Libertyville, IL). This is her first time in Asia and she seems to be enjoying herself thoroughly. It’s giving me yet another chance to take in sights I’ve yet seen in my 13 years of coming and going here.

Sights such as the Seodaemun prison, a museum dedicated to memorializing the patriots who gave their lives in the anti-colonial Independence struggle against the Japanese in the early 20th century. While I had hoped that this site might serve as an interesting entry point for our guest, giving critical insight into a key frame of the contemporary Korean mindset (namely, as a post-colonial state, still recovering from the trauma of a horrific past century), there was quite a bit of disappointment. We certainly were able to learn a bit about the predations of the Japanese and the trying circumstances facing Koreans as they were forced into the modern period through the wrenching gyre of the Japanese Imperial war machine, and there was certainly some admiration for the blunt force utilized in dioramas that left little to the imagination, yet. . . the blind nationalism that seemed to set in stone the monolithic ideas of an Evil Japan continuously torturing a Pure Korea was too much to take. Moreover, whatever pedagogical benefits may have been possible in the bold portrayal of the harsh truths of colonialism, even to the expectedly young audience, were wasted within a knee-jerk nationalism that only served to solidify already fixed and narrowed conceptions about Korea as perennial victim. That this reactionary nationalism was the true pedagogical purpose, and not some larger goal of developing a much larger and more encompassing hatred of torture, injustice and imperialism in general, was given credence by the presence of numerous bits of grafitti stating, “F**K Japan!” and the like.

In “The Memories of August 15 (Day of Liberation) Reflected in Korean Anniversaries and Memorial Halls,” (click link for PDF of the whole article) SNU Professor Jung Keun-Sik states the problem as such:

Displaying pictures or items of persons who were actually incarcerated in
this facility resulted in leaving out certain aspects that should have been included in the exhibition, and also ended up causing some problems. First, it generated a question of how other penitentiary facilities maintained during the Japanese occupation should be addressed in the exhibition themes of this Seodaemun facility. Second, the history after 1945 was completely dropped in the facility’s general programming, and it raised an even bigger question of how the issue of incarcerated left-wing prisoners produced by the political situation that followed the Liberation, and the incarcerated persons who were involved in democratic campaigns afterward should be addressed or included in the exhibition’s format
and contents. Third, the actions of the socialist activists were also ignored.
Fourth, the persons who were devoted to national liberation movements yet were incarcerated in other penitentiary facilities were left out as well. And fifth, other “general” criminals unrelated to political issues whatsoever yet incarcerated here anyway, were left out as well.

While this criticism might be parried by nationalists with the tired claim, “You have to understand, we are still recovering… ,” such rebuttals lose their validity when you have counter-examples to show that Korea is certainly capable of doing better in terms of historical memory. For example, the Donghak Peasants Revolution Memorial Hall in Jangeup, for example, uses the particular struggle of Korean peasants and links it up to the worldwide democratic revolutionary movement. Of course, this move is easier, because the Peasants were fighting with other “Koreans” (I use quotation marks because at that time, there were no such people calling themselves as such, there were peasants and the people who stole from them, without the new identity of “countrymen” to ideologically bind them). Fast forward to 2007 and we have the category “Korean,” pure and victimized, that can be used as a refuge against the “Others” whether Japanese, or American, or whatever. As a result of this maneuver, the museum fails to address anything that happened after the colonial period, as when Syngman Rhee used the prison to torture his political enemies, or when Park Chung-hee used the prison to torture his political enemies. Korean on Korean torture, of the same sort and in the same place as the present museum, gets erased – and what is left? Nationalist ignorance, xenophobic hatred, and political impotence – an altogether depressing story. ahuuuuu…..

But, let’s don’t end there. We moved on, to Namdaemun, where I managed to find a cane for our slightly ailing friend. While this wasn’t a big deal, in some ways it was quite fulfilling. We didn’t have much time and Namdaemun market is HUGE. We didn’t have time to wander, but I wasn’t making any progress. So, following the sage wife’s advice, I inquired at a pharmacy. They didn’t have canes, but they had directions. I followed said directions, and minutes later, voila, a cane. Trivial, yes, but with no minutes to spare on bad language skills, it was in some minor way a validation of the language training that this year was supposed to benefit. Yeah team.

From Namdaemun, on to Bongeun-sa. This is the second of the two major urban temples in Seoul, the other being Jogye-sa in downtown. It was nice, impressive, but I was a bit too hot and busy to really enjoy it. Still, another Seoul attraction seen for the first time, so, enjoyable.

Sunday was on to Jangdeok-gung, one of the major palaces in Seoul. This one is special in that is only open to guided tours, so you have to show up at a certain time. A particular highlight were the king’s ancient Daimler and Cadillac. Smoooooth. But most spectacular was the “hidden garden” off o’er the hills and up the mountain a ways. The sounds of the city were entirely absent, though only hundreds of yards away. Sweets songs of rare birds drifted through the blowing leaves. I could have stayed here for the whole afternoon. Alas, we only got about ten minutes.

Then, a trip to Insa-dong, where we began our last bit of tourist shopping, including what may be my most exciting purchase of the trip, a hyeonpan or name plaque for the new house. I won’t say more till it’s ready to go… don’t want to jinx it. Let’s just say I’m very eager.

Tomorrow starts the week long trip. I won’t be around for a little while. Till then, be well.


One comment

  1. Matty and Dominica,

    Saying good by is a part of saying hello, the continuing circle of life.

    The mind is like a digital camera – it never runs out of film. You have your memories for as long as your brain functons. You’ll always have your Korean thoughts just as you brought your American heritage with you to Korea.

    Just breathe it all in and remember.



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