Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Fulbright Researchers (2014)

Last year, I wrote a very long post that detailed the research projects of the Fulbright Junior Researchers. (They make up the other "half" of Fulbright Korea; every year we have about 120 teachers and two dozen researchers.) Though I'd planned to do the same after this year's spring conference, I quickly became too busy to transcribe my notes.

This morning, while cleaning my desk, I came across them again. They're not as pretty or doodly as my notes from last year, but I still think the information is worth putting down somewhere. So, better late than never, here are brief descriptions of some of the 2014 Fulbright Researchers' projects:

Multicultural Korea
Dorry Guerra informed us that in 2010, 1 in 3 Korean births were multicultural -- that is, babies were born to one ethnically Korean parent and one non-Korean parent. Korea now leads the world in international marriages. This is a cultural phenomenon due largely to the fact that men in rural areas of Korea can't find wives, so they marry immigrant women from China or Southeast Asia. In a sense, these women are mail-order brides, but whatever their circumstances, they arrive in Korea and then they and their families have trouble fitting in. Korea's bloodline ideology, the idea that Korea is one completely homogeneous race and should stay that way, is actually a recent bit of propaganda that promoted national solidarity in the early 20th century, back when the country was in a shambles. Now that that is changing, what is going to happen to the multicultural families? (By the way, Korea is not nearly as homogeneous as the history books like to claim: their blood has been pretty well mixed with Chinese, Japanese, and Mongolian over the centuries.) According to Ms Guerra's estimates, up to 10% of the country will be multicultural by 2050. That's a huge jump from one generation ago. She warns that belief in racial essentialism, or the idea that the different races have deeply-rooted "essences", is a reliable predictor of stereotyping, prejudice, and conflict. So if Koreans generally believe in racial essentialism, then multicultural Korea is in for a rough ride for the next few decades.

Chaebols
Mike Chung gave an economic lecture on the Korean 재벌, or conglomerate. The word chaebol is derived from the Chinese 財閥 (cai2fa2), or "wealth clan". These rose to power during the regime of Park Chung-hee in the 1970s. His government, to put it frankly and with a touch of bias, allowed certain businesses to cheat for the sake of national economic growth. Now, the conglomerates hold unimaginable power over the country. They are seen as both necessary for its success and dangerous and unfair for a developed country that needs to switch to a more fair-play mode.

Korean Adoption
Hollee McGinnis (who was published in the last issue of the Fulbright Infusion!) talked about the mental health of adolescent adoptees and orphans. Following the brutal Korean War in the 1950s that ripped many families apart, 2 million children without parents have been sent to orphanages. In contrast, 85,000 have been sent abroad for adoption, and less than half that number have been adopted domestically. The statistics for 2010 alone show that 15,700 children needed care, 1,400 were adopted domestically, and 1,000 were adopted internationally. There were 8,590 abandoned infants. So the problem of parentless Korean children is not just (or no longer) a direct result of war. But adoption is still stigmatized in this country: it is usually carried out in secret so that a family's friends and neighbors don't know that the new child is actually from another family. Infants are preferred over children and adolescents. Also, because sons in a family usually perform ancestral rites on traditional holidays, and without a direct blood connection this can be seen as wrong, females are also preferred over males. So, Mrs McGinnis' organization, Also-Known-As, provides help and support to adoptees as well as their families.

(Another researcher, Andrea Cavicchi, also focused on adoption, especially on its history -- the 1962 Family Planning system instituted by Park Chung-hee, the controversy surrounding "baby-selling" during the 1988 Seoul Olympics -- and on the issues that make it so enticing for unwed mothers to give away their children. In fact, tens of thousands of orphans do not actually indicate that Korea has an orphan problem. It has a child abandonment problem.)

Nuclear Energy
Andrew Ju told us that South Korea imports 97% of its energy. That's quite a lot, but understandable for a country that has so few natural resources. Unfortunately, less than 1% of the energy that the country does produce is renewable. On the other hand, Korea's nuclear program, which began in 1978, is the fastest-growing in the world, and it exports a ton of its nuclear energy. (Well, these statistics may have come before the near-nuclear meltdown at the Kori Nuclear Power Plant in 2012, which led to some shutdowns and public outcry against nuclear power. And then there's Fukushima...) Anyway, South Korea wants to continue using nuclear energy, especially since it stands to gain quite a bit from an energy alliance with the US. But I personally hope that it decides instead to lead the world in green energy.

Healthcare and Migrant Women
Sangita Annamalai cited the rapid birth rate decline in Korea (now at 1.24 children per woman, the 5th lowest in the world) and connected it to the rise of immigrant wives for men in rural Korea. The subject matter is related to Ms Guerra's project on multiculturalism, but Ms Annamalai focused on the women themselves and on the public health resources made available to them in a country and language not their own. She went to public and private migrant shelters in rural and urban areas, where women who came to Korea through marriage brokers and found themselves struggling could go for help. There, she found that Chinese (or Chinese-Korean) women had much fewer problems than most; that Vietnamese women had problems with using contraceptives and tended to begin having children right away, which led to even more adjustment difficulties; and that Eastern European women could sometimes pass as half-Korean, but were generally more outspoken than Southeast Asian women, which led to domestic trouble. When the difficulties become too great, the pressure put on these women (by the government and even by the public women's shelters) to reconcile is strong, because in the event of a divorce, the citizenship of the wife is revoked. It's quite a sticky situation, isn't it?

North Korean Defectors
Stephanie Choi, who visited North Korea with me last February, gave her presentation about the acculturation of North Korean defectors in South Korea. There are an estimated 300,000 refugees from North Korea in the world: people who have escaped the tightly-controlled borders of the country seeking political freedom or just a better life since 1953. In the early 2000s, the number of refugees entering South Korea specifically grew exponentially as a result of a devastating famine in the North, but it has tapered off in recent years, following the death of Kim Jong-il and a tightening of security by Kim Jong-un's regime.

Today, the 26,000 defectors in South Korea make up just 1% of the country's minority immigrants. The North Koreans in South Korea are much different from the first waves of refugees. Instead of political elite who were lauded as heroes when they defected pre-Soviet collapse, defectors are now mostly women and children just looking to survive. And they are not treated very positively once here. After a long three-month investigation and assimilation period at Hanawon, where they are simultaneously interrogated in-depth about their background as North Koreans and scrubbed clean of that identity in order to fit in in South Korea, they encounter a host of problems. Some try to hide their identity, but their accent and unfamiliarity with basic skills required in a capitalist society, such as managing a bank account, can give them away. Others are fiercely proud of their background and, stating that you can't change where you were born, are involved in activism to try to change South Koreans' stereotypes about North Koreans (e.g. that they're staunch Communists, freeloaders, or a drain on governmental resources). Many are lonely and turn to each other for support (much like the Fulbrighters, scattered all over the country, tend to hang out together) or to religion. 80-90% are Christian, having been converted by missionaries involved in rescues and border crossings in China. These days, reunification is being talked about more and more. At the beginning of 2014, President Park announced that it would be possible by 2050, calling it a "reunification jackpot". I don't know how I feel about this, but I hope that whatever change occurs will come about peacefully. 땅의 통일, 사람의 통일. One land, one people.

Patriarchy and Politics
Chelsea Carlson researched women in politics, asking the question, "Why aren't there any?" Or at least, as many as there should be? Korea is notorious for its gender inequality, but why is this happening in politics? And will Park Geun-hye, the first female president, change things? Ms Carlson outlined the strictly-defined systems of networking in Korean politics: for men, their classmates, fellow alumni, and seniors/juniors (선배/후배) are all that matters, but women depend mostly on their families and husbands to make connections. This, coupled with a secretive nomination process to select candidates for publicly-elected office, makes it hard for women to get a foot in from the get-go. Women just don't have enough social clout to be elected, it seems, and the system, while not explicitly sexist, isn't helping. In my own opinion, Park Geun-hye utilized the networking system to secure her win. Her family is famous, of course, as her father was a former president(/dictator), and regional loyalty to the Parks is indomitable. Unfortunately, I don't think Park is a champion for women's rights at all; she has done nothing to close the gender pay gap or balance the systems of parental leave in order to help mothers return to their careers. So, gender inequality in politics will likely persist. Ms Carlson then offered a few ways this could be remedied, including a "local service requirement" for candidates (which women could easily attain and use to their political advantage), more transparency in the system, and even affirmative action.

(Another researcher, Aileen Kim, did her research project specifically on Park Geun-hye, and focused on the power of "dynasty" that helped secure her presidential win.)

Hip-Hop and Racial Consciousness
Whitney Barr countered the idea that Korea's infamous racial insensitivity could no longer be deemed as a mere product of ignorance, since Korean millennials have grown up with decent exposure to Western media and other cultures -- specifically, black and hip-hop culture. She explored the positive appropriations of hip-hop culture in Seoul, but also contrasted it with general dismissiveness or outright racism against black people, including the double-edged usage of words like 흑형 (black brother; Google that to get the idea) or 깜둥이 ("darky"), and the consideration of multiracial icons as purely Korean or "at least" half-Korean, discarding their other identity.

Performance Art
Adam Glassman described in colorful detail his experiences with shamanism and street dance in a project that aimed to capture Korean performance art in all its vicissitudinous adaptation to the present day. Why are shows like Nanta, in which the performers encourage tons of audience participation and turn it more into an interaction than a "show", so popular? Why has street dance skyrocketed in Korea in recent years? Mr Glassman suggests that it has something to do with the long-standing performers' directive to "create joy together" with their audience. Focusing on the 무당, or shamans, who practice a traditional religion in decline but still deeply-rooted in many people's belief systems, he described how the rituals they perform attempt to establish a tangible, physical connection between the people and the gods. Of the over 40,000 registered shamans in Korea, Mr Glassman was lucky enough to find one who opened up his home to him so that he could observe daily life and learn more about shamanism. From watching and recording the performative aspects of shamanism, he looked for similar patterns in modern iterations of performance art. Mr Glassman's eventual goal is to return to the United States to reinvent American theater, so that the audience is no longer merely a cold, voiceless participant but living and breathing, with just as much a stake in the performance as the performers themselves.

Miscellany
Other Fulbright research projects focused on more scientific matters that might have interested my students, but weren't necessarily compelling to me. One researcher is researching cancer treatment using electric plasma. Cool! But most of his lecture went over my head. Another is looking at the antihistamine effects of the Korean 다래, a fruit that is essentially a small kiwi. Also, two researchers did their projects on art and painting, and one of them is having a solo exhibition in Seoul in a few weeks! That's pretty exciting.

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