Monday, August 31, 2015

Changwon Meets Berkeley

When I left the school where I taught in Korea back in June of 2014, I gave a small speech to my students that included what has become a life motto of sorts: "This isn't a 'goodbye', but a 'see you later'." I never promised that I'd return to Korea after one year to visit, but then I did. And none of my students promised that they'd come to California, but then one did!

My student JH, who wanted to be called by his English name in my class, is in the middle of his second year at a prestigious science and technology university in Korea, but he decided to spend a semester abroad as an exchange student at UC Berkeley, where I am now doing my graduate studies! This guy is going to become an electrical engineer or have some other kind of brainiac career, but for a few months he is going to study comparative literature, German, and art alongside some of California's brightest students at the world's best public university.

I'm so glad that I've kept in touch with many of my former students through Facebook, because I don't think I would have heard that JH was coming here if I hadn't. But when I did find out, I was ecstatic. I mean, I know it's not easy for Korean students to go abroad: they might have the ambition, but not the requisite English skills or the money to afford it. Most of Changwon Science High School's alumni believe that their earliest chances of coming to the States for their education will be for graduate school or even post-doctoral programs.

But one way or another, JH found himself in sunny California two weeks ago, rode the BART from SFO to Berkeley's campus, and has already had several orientations and three days of classes. I met up with him yesterday and we had a great conversation about all of the bits of culture shock he's experienced so far and what he plans to do during his short stay here.

We had lunch at Bleecker Street Bistro, where he had his first avocado ("It kind of tastes like potato; I like it.") and remarked that the way Americans say "please" and "thank you" all the time was really impressive (I told him we're nothing compared to Canada). In Berkeley, he is amazed by the weather ("I heard that it never rains.") and by the way cars come to full stops to allow pedestrians to cross the street, and he is unsure what to do about panhandlers, since they can be more aggressive here than they are in Korea.

I was excited to hear about his classes and told him I wanted to make sure he had the best semester possible. "I'm not your teacher, anymore," I said, "but I can still help you. Here's my phone number; call or text me if you ever have a problem." When I taught him, JH's English skills were at the top of his class -- discounting his peers who had actually lived abroad in English-speaking countries -- but he still admitted that he felt completely lost during his first comp lit lecture. Well... I'll be honest; I felt the same way in my freshman English seminar way back when. I hope that this is just the first of many ways JH and I can connect in the coming months.

Changwon Science High School meets UC Berkeley! What a fantastic reunion! :)
JH and me in front of Berkeley's famous Sather Gate

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Until Next Time

I was tempted to make a list of the things I regret not having had time to do during this summer that I've spent in South Korea. But I thought better of it. A more positive use of my time would be to count all my blessings from the past ten weeks, short as they were.
저는 이번 여름을 한국에서 지냈는데 시간이 없어서 못 했던 것에 대해 생각 하고 싶었지만 하지 않기로 했다. 대신, 이 10주간 축복들을 회상하는 건 할 가치 더 있다고 생각한다.

I lived on my own and I learned so much. My understanding of the Korean language and culture have progressed as much as I had anticipated, if not more.
저는 혼자서 살았고 많이 배웠다. 제가 한국말과 한국문화를 이해하기가 생각 만큼 (아니면 생각 보다) 나았다.

I had reunions both planned and unexpected; all brought me joy. I made many new friends from many different countries and reconnected with old ones, too.
친구를 만나는 건 예상한 것도 있고, 우연히 만나는 것도 있고, 다 좋아했다. 여러 나라에서 온 새로운 친구들을 많이 사귀었고 예전의 친구들을 다시 만났다.

I watched a lot of really good movies (and one musical)!
아주 좋은 영화들과 뮤지컬 하나를 봤다!

I explored forests; I climbed mountains; I ran around in rainstorms.
숲을 탐험하고, 산을 올라가고, 소나기에서 뛰어다녔다.

I discovered new and exciting areas of a city I thought I was fairly familiar with.
서울은 제가 잘 알다고 생각 하는데 새롭고 재미있는 지방을 찾았다.

I marched in a parade; I showed my pride; I fell in love.
행진을 하고, 자기 자존심을 표시하고, 사랑에 빠졌다.

I read a lot and wrote a lot (not all of it in this blog).
많이 읽고  많이 썼다.

And for all of these amazing opportunities I think the scholarship I got from school and I thank God from whom all blessings flow.
이렇게 굉장히 좋은 기회에 대해서, 저에게 장학금을 주셔서 대학원을 감사하고, 하나님이 저를 사라해서 축복 너무 많이 주셔서 감사합니다.

Tomorrow, I go back to California for grad school, year two. I don't know when I will come back to Korea. But that's what I said last time, and as it turned out, I was back within a year. So we'll just leave it at that.
내일 저는 캘리포니아에 돌아간다. 언제 다시 한국에 올지 완전히 모른다. 하지만 지난번에 똑 같은 말을 했는데, 결과는 1년만에 다시 왔는 거... 그러면 그냥 기다려 봅시다.

다시 만날 날이 있겠다!

Friday, August 7, 2015

국제 시장 - "Ode to My Father"

In Korean class, we watched a film called "국제 시장". The Korean title translates to "International Market", a reference to the famous traditional marketplace in Busan, but its English title is "Ode to My Father".
"The greatest story of the most ordinary father"
I didn't know too much about the film beforehand, only that it is currently South Korea's second-highest grossing film ever (despite only being released last December). Also, people tend to describe it as South Korea's version of "Forrest Gump". I could certainly see many thematic parallels: both movies follow the life of one man across a backdrop of important national events and tell tales of loss and reconciliation, change versus tradition, and hope amidst terror.

The story is about a man named Deok-soo who, as a child, loses his father and a younger sister during the Hungnam Evacuation (during the Korean War). Along with his other younger siblings and his mother, the family relocates to Busan and struggles to get by even after the armistice, with Deok-soo begging for change and chocolate bars from American GIs after school. Always needing more money to support his family, Deok-soo spends his entire adolescence and early adulthood working odd jobs and even moves to Germany to work in dangerous coal mines. The dramatic and colorful stories from the past are interspersed with scenes in present-day Busan, when Deok-soo is an old man (who speaks with some excellent Busan satoori) reliving his memories one by one.

Everyone says that "Ode to My Father" is a sad movie. While that is certainly true -- I cried more than once -- I think it's more accurate to call it a movie that exemplifies the Korean sentiment known as 한 ("han"). Now, han is hard to explain. According to this article in the Korea Times, it is a "deep-seated sense of grief and grievance [against] very powerful agents of injustice." It is a mixture of sorrow and resentment in response to wrongdoing and manifests itself emotionally in a variety of ways, not just sadness. More peculiarly, however, han can accumulate, both within a person and among a community, or even, as it is most often cited, throughout a nation. Han can become the emotional vehicle for a national lament, and it is this kind of han that "Ode to My Father" so masterfully epitomizes.

Deok-soo as a young beggar boy in 1950's Busan
You see, South Korea possesses a history that bursts at the seams with woe. It may be a developed country today, but for the past seventy years, it has struggled with brutal colonization, abject poverty, a civil war that divided its people, utter dependence on Western nations, and throughout all of this, a sense of shame that it could not provide for its people until it finally pulled itself by its bootstraps into the twenty-first century. Thus, Korea as a nation feels han: because families like Deok-soo's were separated by a war they did not start, because it could not afford to educate all of its children, because young men had to labor and die in far-flung foreign countries in order to make enough money to send home. Every remarkable event in this one character's life was connected in some way to the constant struggle against an invisible -- or perhaps many-headed -- oppressor.

It's no wonder that this film's most ardent fans comprise the generation that lived through all of these atrocities. Korean 할머니 and 할아버지 (grandmothers and grandfathers) now in their seventies and eighties, as well people who grew up in the tumultuous decades following the Korean war, really drove the tickets sales that boosted its ranking. It's said that the older generations watched and rewatched the movie not just to experience the catharsis that came with two hours of nonstop han, but also because of 그리움 ("keulium"), or nostalgia. Despite the bleakness of the characters' lives in the movie, there are small moments of joy and a dogged determination to hold on to the past.

Deok-soo dancing with his first love in 1960s Germany
For example, although Deok-soo's life in Germany is almost literally a hellhole (for twelve hours a day, at least), he still gets to meet the love of his life, a Korean nursing student at the local hospital named Young-ja. There's a sense in their scenes together that the wonders of youth and infatuation can make months of eating stale bread while covered head to toe in coal dust worthwhile. And as the present-day Deok-soo continuously refuses to sell the humble imported goods shop he inherited from his aunt, we see a familiar narrative: the small business owner in conflict with with impertinent developers who only want high-rises and care nothing for tradition.

It is in this area, however, that one might be able to pick at a weakness in the film, namely the way it has whitewashed or wholly ignored certain parts of Korean history, under the guise of patriotism. This is a tricky issue to handle, because the director, Yoon Je-kyoon, has already stated that the film has no political aims or undertones. However, it isn't possible to create a movie meant to inspire a love of country without at least passively taking a stand on certain very unlovable things about Korea's recent past. Even I noticed the lack of any mention of the huge political unrest during the early 80s. And while Forrest Gump got to meet US Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, Deok-soo doesn't even brush the collar (옷깃만을 스쳐도 인연이다!) of any of his country's leaders, whose regimes were often dictatorial, and the absence is more than a bit conspicuous.

This excerpt from an LA Times review brings up another point I wanted to make: Lee Taek-kwang, a professor at Kyunghee University in Seoul, [says] that "Ode" reflects the conservative ideology that for many years exhorted South Koreans to forego individual rights in the name of national development. Referring to one scene in "Ode" where Duk-soo shuns a discussion with his wife to stand at attention for the national anthem, Lee told the Kyunghyang that "Ode" "effectively endorses the idea that the state can exploit its people."

At first I found the aforementioned scene to be funny, but after a moment's thought, I realized that it was actually convicting. The film's protagonist is endearing and the sacrifices he makes for his family are awfully inspiring, yet a close scrutiny of his life and ideology from another angle reveals that he is no more than the model citizen that an autocratic, brutally capitalist government wants. Although Deok-soo ostensibly joined the Korean forces in Vietnam because he needed money to help his family, the narrative is structured such that it is his patriotism that brings him back to the battlefield. He is not a powerless refugee, but a savior to the people fleeing war, as he did when he was a child; and there is a hefty message in that.

Yoon created "Ode to My Father" as a dedication to his actual father, who died when the director was in film school. He claims that he wanted to help Korea's younger generation understand the tribulations that their parents and grandparents had to endure to help bring the country to where it stands proudly today. In this sense, he has certainly created a masterpiece tear-jerker that drives the point home. A simple scene in which Deok-soo pens a letter from Vietnam to his wife really struck my heart: in it, he wrote, "It’s such a relief that it was us, and not our children, who were born during such a difficult time," and Young-ja sobbed on the floor of her home while I cried silently in my seat. The singular thought that filled my mind as I walked home that day was, "How little I know about what life was like for my father and grandfather and their generations! How scarcely I've asked them about their past sufferings!"

I wonder, often, how much today's young Koreans, including those in this country and in the global Korean diaspora, understand the concept of han. It's supposed to be a national sentiment, so can someone outside the country's borders carry it? Or is it solely the ethnic connection, which even a child adopted from Korean is meant to be able to feel because of the blood that runs through their veins? Or both? (I am certain the director intended both.) So then what about a random non-Korean American like me, who has learned about Korean history and spent a good chunk of his adult life living here? When my soul hurts with compassion and sorrow from watching a movie like "Ode to My Father", I don't know if I can call that emotion han. I have built jeong () with many Korean people, some of whom feel like family, but does that make me a part of the in-group? Can han be learned or appropriated? Tough, abstract questions, these...

But I can say at least that watching this film has not only given me a better perspective on the historical context that grounds both Korean ipseity and collective identity, but also enlightened for me parts of the unique debate over how this identity ought to be preserved and represented now and in the future. Besides all of this, "Ode to My Father" is a beautiful and satisfying film, so I highly recommend it.

- - -

P.S. There is a very cool story about the casting of one of the actors in the film. I vaguely recognized her when she first appeared on-screen, but I never would have guessed exactly where I'd first seen her. But after I read an article about how she was cast, I was extremely surprised! You can read the article here, but I warn you that there are major plot spoilers in it. So if you plan to watch "Ode to My Father" but haven't yet, save this article until afterward. Seriously.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Gay Christian Debate

The Gay Christian Debate
July 25th, 2015

"Does the Bible condemn homosexuality?"

Last Saturday evening, a public debate was held at the Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon, Seoul, between Pastor Paul Warren from Sojourn Fellowship (Incheon) and Reverend Daniel Payne from Open Doors Metropolitan Community Church (Seoul), with moderation by Calon Webb. The topic of the debate was the position of the Bible on homosexuality. This topic has undeniably come under close scrutiny in recent months in South Korea, as the tension has mounted between some vocal conservative Christian groups and the country's LGBTQ community, especially after this year's Korea Queer Culture Festival on June 28th.

I attended the debate and took six pages of notes over the course of the 2.5-hour event. The purpose of this post is to recap the main points made by each pastor as succinctly as possible, and I will add some of my own thoughts at the end. The debate was conducted in English, and it was videotaped, so that a recording with Korean subtitles can be made available online in the near future.

Both pastors were allowed a twenty-minute opening statement. Reverend Daniel (henceforth DP), who takes an affirming position on homosexuality (i.e. the Bible does not condemn it), began by stating that both he and Pastor Paul (henceforth PW) approached the question under the assumption that the Christian Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God, and thus that whatever the Scripture says and means should be followed by professing Christians. DP stated that the Bible is a very complicated book; it has historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts that must be understood. And homosexuality in its modern, twenty-first century context is different from homosexuality as addressed in the six most-cited "anti-gay" passages of the Bible. For example, the sin of Sodom was the sin of inhospitality, not homosexuality per se; also, the Levitical laws against homosexuality were a reference to pagan ritualistic temple prostitution. In these passages and in others, DP stated that homosexual activity of a very specific sort was condemned, but not committed homosexual relationships of the kind we may find today.

PW's opening statement led with the idea of a "back to Creation" ethic of sexuality that could be identified as a common theme throughout the entire Bible. For example, the account of the creation of the world in Genesis highlights the importance of male and female complementarity as part of God's design for humankind, and Jesus' teachings on marriage in the Gospels upholds this. PW countered DP's interpretations of the Sodom and Gomorrah story and the Levitical laws by insisting on no ambiguity in the wordings of what was the sin in question, and similarly challenged DP's explanations of certain Greek words used by the Apostle Paul in his letters to the early church.

Each pastor was then given ten minutes for a rebuttal. DP clarified that the Bible does clearly bless heterosexual relationships and marriage, but is merely silent on the issue of their modern homosexual counterparts. The Bible's sayings regarding marriage should be taken as a descriptive account of the cultural context, but not a proscriptive set of unalterable rules. PW re-emphasized that the descriptions of sins in the Bible were, when taken at face value, inclusive of any kind of homosexuality, and also added that the Bible in its entirety, and the direction it appears to point toward, should be considered in cases of modern issues like same-sex marriage.

Following the rebuttals, DP was allowed to ask PW specific questions in a cross-examination format, followed by the reverse. There was discussion of the meaning of the word "abomination" as found in Leviticus and the case of eunuchs mentioned in the New Testament. Most relevantly, PW reiterated that the Apostle Paul should have been aware of consensual adult homosexual relationships (from ancient Greek writings), so what kinds of relationships that are under question today are not actually new. And DP was asked to define a Biblically-based sexual ethic, so he referenced a passage in the book of Galatians that identifies godly actions and relationships as those that might produce "spiritual fruits", which does not restrict the relationships by gender or orientation.

After a short break, the members of the audience (totaling about fifty) were asked to submit questions to the two pastors. They were asked to clarify issues such as the Bible's stance on lesbianism, transgender people and relationships, and the literality of the Biblical ordinance to "be fruitful and multiply" (i.e. have children), among others.

Actually, the question I submitted was selected by the moderator, and I'd like to share it. I addressed my question specifically to Pastor Paul: "There are LGBTQ Christians in our churches. How do we include them in the church community without relegating them to a second-tier class of believers?" I asked this because I believe that regardless of what any church's official position on homosexuality is, the fact is that LGBTQ people exist and some want to be a part of the community; yet too often the solution is to allow LGBTQ Christians to be members but prohibit them from marrying or taking on leadership positions -- in other words, they are discriminated against. PW's response was, "We don't want to kick anybody out or say that anyone is less. Some might advocate celibacy for LGBTQ Christians. But according to the Bible, there are no second-tier believers; believing and repentance always go together." DP's response was rather pointed: "Your implication is that if I am in a gay relationship, then I can't be a true Christian. The traditional side can't truly love LGBTQ people who are in relationships, despite their intentions, from this point of view. The sad thing is that I've experienced, in Korea, young queer Christians who have ended their lives because of the church's traditional teaching."

It became a little bit personal at this point, but otherwise, the debate was completely civil. There were more audience-submitted questions about the importance of procreation, how an LGBTQ individual should deal with an unaccepting Christian family, how Biblical interpretation has changed through history, and whether or not God hates gays. In closing, each pastor was given ten minutes for a closing statement. Both of them used their time to cite certain eminent Biblical scholars from both pro-gay and anti-gay sides who interpreted the six most relevant Biblical passages in different ways. DP's closing remark: "The church has changed its mind about slavery, an institution undoubtedly supported by the Bible, and hopefully in the future it can do the same about homosexuality." PW's closing remark: "Sin should not prevent us from being Christian. The struggle we all have with sin is guaranteed. I welcome you all to take up your crosses to follow Jesus."

- - -

The debate ended with an audience poll on whether they thought the Bible condemned homosexuality or not. I was not counting the hands raised, but it seemed that all three times the poll was conducted (before the debate, in the middle, and at the end), the audience was split about three ways between Yes, No, and Decline to Respond. There was mingling afterward, and then a large contingent went out to eat a late dinner (including both pastors). All in all, I enjoyed the debate for the intellectual stimulation, and I learned a few new things. (As a religion major in undergrad, I have already read quite a bit on the subject of Christianity and homosexuality, but there is always more to discover.)

I realized that the event was certainly catered toward English-speakers, and thus the handful of non-English-speaking Koreans in the audience may have felt somewhat lost during the debate. Also, there were no references to the current same-sex marriage debate in Korea. But the video is now available on YouTube (click here!) and the Korean translation are being worked on, so when those are made available, I will edit this post to include them. To be perfectly honest, the Gay Debate has been going on for decades in the US and in Western Christianity, but in Korea and the rest of Asia it has only just begun, so in my opinion, this kind of exchange ideas needs to happen in Korean, and soon.

Lastly, I am fully aware that this blog post left out huge chunks of the debate -- I'm especially sorry that I could not include full discussions of the excellent audience questions at the end -- but if you are curious to know more about what was said, leave a comment! I would be happy to send you my six pages of notes...

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P.S. I should also put in a plug for Open Doors, the church that I have been attending this summer. It is a gay-affirming church affiliated with the Metropolitan Community Church denomination and offers a weekly Sunday service in English with Korean translations, located in Itaewon. Any Koreans or foreigners in Seoul are welcome to attend, regardless of religious background, sexual/gender identity, or interest in Christianity! Haha. I've learned some good stuff here in the past few weeks and made new friends; I will be sorry to leave in August.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

인자와 겸손

"사람아 주께서 선한 것이 무엇임을 네게 보이셨나니 여호와께서 네게 구하시는 것이 오직 공의를 행하며 인자를 사랑하며 겸손히 네 하나님과 함께 행하는 것이 아니냐?" - 미가 6:8

"He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." - Micah 6:8

This particular Bible verse has been on my mind a lot recently. In context, the book of Micah is a collection of sayings by its eponymous prophet that detail God's judgment against Israel and other nations but also provide glimpses of hope for a better future. In this chapter, God is telling Israel, through his prophet, that what they need to do in order to get back into his good graces is not more burnt sacrifices or physical offerings, but three simple (yet also extraordinarily difficult) actions: act justly, love mercy, walk humbly.

공의를 행하며, 인자를 사랑하며, 겸손히 행하는 것이다.

I can understand where a lot of Christians are coming from when they point out sin and moral corruption in our society and generation. To stop wrongdoing from occurring by publicly calling it out looks like an act of justice. This is, after all, what prophets are best known for doing.

But that is only one-third of what the Lord requires of us, isn't it? All the protest and castigation directed toward sinners sounds less like justice and more like direct hatred when it is delivered with mercy or humility. I think this must be because it's so easy to nest in one's own moral high ground, and because it feels so good to be "in the right".

Indeed, mercy and humility are not easy virtues to carry. It's not comfortable to identify our own privilege and admit that we might have an unfair advantage over people we'd rather dismiss as lazy or sinful. It's difficult to look at something we believe is wrong and consider that we ourselves might be wrong. And it's nearly impossible to judge ourselves by the same standard by which we judge others.

As hard as it is to carry out these three simple tasks God requires, I don't think it is actually beyond any of us. A sermon preached at church a few weeks ago highlighted something that I've heard hundreds of times before but only recently began to see in a fresh and relevant light: "Change is brought about by everyday people."

평범한 사람이 변화를 가지고 오다.

This applies to the prophets of ancient Israel, and to most of the major "heroes" of the Bible. They were ordinary people. Sinful people. People who probably wouldn't have chosen the adventures they are now known for had they had the choice. Sometimes, prophets came from great lineage, and sometimes they were plucked out of an orchard randomly to deliver an important message.

If ordinary people could, in the Bible and in history, become vessels of such great importance, why not now? God doesn't require us to be financially successful, famous, or socially influential. Actually, all he requires is justice, mercy, and humility. 공의, 인자, 겸손.

Anyway, I didn't think I'd be gaining any major spiritual insights while spending a short summer in Korea, but as it turns out, I don't get to decide when God wants to tell me something, so I thought I'd share. Hopefully it can be a bit of encouragement to anybody who is fighting for social justice, anybody who finds themselves targeted by overwhelmingly "justice-happy" Christians, or anybody who considers themselves ordinary but still wants to let God do cool things in their lives.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

North Korean - South Korean translator app

It should surprise nobody by now that the languages spoken in North Korea and South Korea are not the same. The two countries have been geographically separated for decades, with no free communication allowed across the border between them. In addition to that, North Korea's government initiated purges of the language long ago to get rid of foreign words or borrowings (from English, Chinese, or Japanese) and replace them with pure Korean translations. As a result, while South Koreans might want to eat 아이스크림 ("ice cream", transliterated) on a hot summer day, a North Korean will dream instead of 얼음과자 ("ice snack").

When I visited North Korea last year, I found myself unable to understand much of the Korean that I heard being spoken. Of course, my Korean listening comprehension level is fairly low, but it wasn't just me -- even the Korean-Americans in my tour group who were fluent in (South) Korean had some difficulties. Most of it was due to the differences in vocabulary, but there was also the intonation of North Korean, which would have been considered a mere dialectal difference back when Korea was unified, but is now one of the markers of the two languages' divergence. (The line between "language" and "dialect" is a fairly blurry one, even for linguists.)

Anyway, when I came across this advertisement/PSA for a new app called 글동무 ("classmate"). I like the name -- the whole phrase means "classmate", which directly references the app's usefulness for North Korean students struggling to keep up in South Korean classrooms, and encourages a camaraderie among youth. Also, the first word (글) on its own means "writing" or "knowledge". The second part (동무) on its own can also mean "comrade", but I don't think that was intentional.

I have taught camps and tutored students from North Korea in South Korea before, and I can say that an app like this would be very helpful for most of them. (For others, especially younger students who basically grew up in China while their families were in hiding, it would perhaps be less useful than a Chinese-Korean dictionary, but those already exist.)

And in addition to the app's usefulness, its beautiful, simple design and hi-tech programming (it can use the phone's camera to identify unknown words automatically and offer translations immediately) are really compelling. This amazing app is the brainchild of linguists, computer programmers, and sociologists who saw a need in South Korea and came up with an elegant solution. I hope that the work I will do in the future can be as beneficial as this!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Korean Hip Hop Dance Crew Just Jerk

Hat tip to Glen for sending along this amazing hip hop dance piece by the Korean dance crew Just Jerk. 정말 대단한다고 생각합니다. I'm not usually a big fan of hip hop, but this performance is mesmerizing and, interestingly enough, not exactly immediately identifiable as hip hop. It's actually a fantastic tribute to more traditional Korean dance and music styles. How so?

First of all, three of the four songs come from the soundtracks to movies and dramas set during the Joseon Dynasty (the fourth is a hip hop piece by a Korean artist), and secondly, the costumes are obviously inspired by traditional Korean costumes. For the first half of the performance, the dancers are wearing masks, which makes me think of Korean masked dances, broadly known as 탈춤 (talchum). These kinds of dances always tell a dramatic tale, and similarly, I can see how this piece by Just Jerk has a musical arc and a sort of choreographed story.

It's pretty common knowledge by now that the South Korean 힙합 (hip hop) and 비보잉 (b-boying/breakdancing) scenes are huge, and that Korean b-boy crews win international competitions. There must be something in the water here... although one of my Korean instructors once tried to explain that this American genre's popularity in Korea was due in part to the fact that dance circles and community performance aspect of b-boying were similar to Korean folk dancing styles like 풍물 (pungmul) or 농악 (nongak). I don't quite buy it, but all the same, performances like the one I've shared above do in fact do a wonderful job in connecting the traditional with the young and modern.

Speaking of young, I checked out Just Jerk's Facebook page, and boy, they all look fresh out of college, or maybe even younger. 수준이 아주 높고 타고난 소질이 있는 듯! Also, as I scrolled down their wall, I was really surprised to see that they have toured internationally to do workshops, and one of their recent locations was UC Berkeley! How cool. Cal's huge dance community is always holding workshops, but I didn't know they brought people in from as far away as Korea. 미래에 JJㄴㄴ캘리포니아에 투어 하려고 다시 오고, 저는 공연을 볼 수 있으면 좋겠습니다!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Konglish Jokes

I made up some Konglish jokes. They will only be funny if you understand and can read a bit of Korean, and also if your standard for humor is extremely low. I have been testing these on my classmates for the past week and they all want me to shut up. :)

1. What country do all the dogs come from?

2. What did the annoyed mother tell her annoying baby?

3. What is a shepherd's favorite number?

4. Looking at a map of Asia, if China is a dragon, what is 한국?

5. What do people get at the post office every day?

6. How does a cow apologize?
소 소리

7. What does oil do to bugs when you fry them in it?

8. What hairstyle do you get if you want to look like the US President?

9. Where do you go if you want to put a new building in the middle of Busan?

10. What do you call a movie about rice cakes?

Extra credit! A Japanese joke: What did the one cat say to the other after it took its food?
내 거!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Chance Run-In at a Baseball Game

Nexen Heroes (Seoul) vs. NC Dinos (Changwon) at the Mokdong Baseball Stadium, Nexen's home base.
Last weekend, one of my classmates invited me to a baseball game in Seoul. She's a fan of Seoul's team, the Nexen Heroes, and she knew that I was a fan of Changwon's team, the NC Dinos1. We went with other exchange students as well as my friend's homestay family, which included a teenage son, SW, who is crazy about baseball! All of us got seats in a section of the stadium heavy with Nexen fans, and SW was very enthusiastically using his pink thunder sticks to cheer on his team, so much that his parents kept telling him to sit down and be quieter.

Unfortunately for SW, the Nexen Heroes suffered a devastating (and, to be honest, embarrassing) loss against the NC Dinos, who are one of the best teams in the league this year despite being only two years old. The NC Dinos were leading by a few runs in every inning, which I pointed out gleefully to my rather disgruntled classmate. I took a quick selfie and posted it to Facebook, with the caption, "서울에서 넥센과 NC 다이노스 야구 경기를 보는데 다이노스를 혼자 응원해서 좀 쓸쓸하다 ㅋㅋ" (I'm watching a Nexen/NC baseball game in Seoul, but because I'm the only Dinos fan [in this section], it's kind of lonely, lol).

Then, in the sixth inning, something happened that made the Heroes commit error after error after error... maybe it was the fact that it had begun to drizzle? In any case, the Dinos were able to score ten runs at the top of the sixth, bringing the score to 16-5. Ten runs. What baseball team can score ten runs in a single inning?! The scoreboard couldn't even show double digits for runs, so after the tenth run, the numeral "9" was changed to an "A".

I stopped goading my classmate after that because I felt bad about how my team was trampling hers underfoot. Poor SW resorted to praying for a miracle beside me. On the other side of the stadium, however, the devout NC fans were singing and having a whopping good time. I have always been impressed with NC's fans -- I was once told that the Changwon team's fans all had to jump ship from the Busan team (Lotte Giants) when the Dinos were formed in 2012, and then they worked extra hard to build up their fan base in opposition to their neighboring city. As a result, the NC Dinos fans are among the most ardent in the country. I mean, this was a game held in Seoul (5 hours from Changwon), yet enough fans showed up in their section to hold their own against a stadium full of Nexen supporters and their sound systems, mascots, and cheerleaders.

One of my former students (from Changwon Science High School) is one of these die-hard Dinos fans. How did I find this out? Well, it was quite an unexpected and serendipitous meeting. Shortly after I posted the aforementioned photo to Facebook, she saw it pop up on her Facebook newsfeed. (We weren't friends on Facebook, but another one of my former students Liked the photo, and she saw that.) Realizing that we were both at the same game, she walked over to the other side of the stadium, judging by the background she could see in the photo, and then found me!

I was extremely taken aback when I saw her. This is a student who graduated in fall of 2012. I had only taught her for one semester and hadn't seen her (online or anywhere) for two and a half years! The first thing she said to me was (in Korean): "Teacher! Do you remember me?" It took me a moment because her hairstyle was different, and she definitely looked like a third-year college student, not a high schooler. But I remembered her name. In fact, I remember the exact conversation we had, nearly three years ago, when she explained why her name was rather unique among Koreans because it came from a native Korean word that had no hanja (Chinese character) counterpart -- her name means "sunset"2.

When I told her that I remembered her, she was so happy she didn't even know what to say next. Also, as it turned out, she hadn't kept up with her English studies, so she was very much speechless. She told me that she loved the Dinos and was even wearing a jersey that had been signed by the team. I was just amazed at this coincidental reunion. I wished my student best of luck in school, told her that we ought to meet up again sometime, and took another selfie before she went back to join her fellow fans. Later, during that improbable sixth inning, I texted her, saying, "WE'RE WINNING!" and she replied, in English, "Perfect!" plus a lot of emojis.

You know, I can't remember all of my former student's names. I can't even remember all of my current Korean friends' names -- it's just harder for me to mentally store and retrieve Korean names, compared to English ones. But I will never forget a student's face. And I'm glad my student didn't forget mine.

That night, I was thrilled that my team won, but what really made my day had nothing to do with the game at all. It had something to do, I believe, with the sunset.

- - -
1In Korea, professional sports teams are literally named after their corporate sponsors. Nexen Tire Corporation is a Korean tire manufacturing company. Its name is a portmanteau of "next century". The NC Dinos are owned by NCSOFT, a video game development company. Thus, I know many names of Korean sports teams, but I rarely know what city they are meant to represent.

2Okay, her name doesn't actually mean sunset. It actually refers to the glow of the sun at sunset or sunrise, which is... what, Rayleigh scattering? Or just... red sky (in the morning, sailors take warning...)

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Legal Battle for Marriage Equality in Korea

The year 2015 has seen marriage equality (legalization of marriage between two men or two women, also known as gay marriage or same-sex marriage) coming into effect in Ireland by popular vote and in the United States by Supreme Court ruling. Now, the stage has been set for Korea's own legal showdown, as a well-known gay couple has filed a lawsuit against the district office that denied them a marriage license in 2013.

Kim Jho Gwang-soo, a film director perhaps best known for his feature film Two Weddings and a Funeral as well as his LGBTQ activism, and his partner Kim Seung-hwan (David Kim), have found themselves at the forefront of the battle for sexual minorities' equal rights, at least in terms of media focus.

The following is my translation of the first few paragraphs from a Daum News article:

On the afternoon of July 6th, a film director shed tears in front of many cameras, supporters, and a large audience. Behind him was a court house, and before him was the world's prejudice. He said to those before him, "I beg of you to recognize our relationship before I die." He was Kim Jho Gwang-soo, one-half of the country's very first gay couple that held a public wedding ceremony in 2013.

The couple (부부) Kim Jho Gwang-soo and Kim Seung-hwan appeared at the Seoul Western District Court (서울서부지방법원) in Mapo-gu last Monday afternoon. The two of them had filed an appeal against the proceedings of the Family Registration Public Office, and this was the day of their hearing. Previously, the two had held Korea's first gay public wedding ceremony on December 10th, 2013, which is International Human Rights Day (세계인권의 날), and had also filed applications for marriage licenses. However, the Seodaemun District Office refused them, citing the civil definition of marriage. This is the country's first gay marriage lawsuit, and the case has now begun.

(I especially like how the Sino-Korean word "부부" was used to refer to the couple, since the Chinese characters "夫婦" refer to a man and a woman, but its usage for the case of Kim Jho Gwang-soo and Kim Seung-hwan acknowledges, in a way, that their relationship is equal to the traditional kind of couple. At the same time, the gender-neutral English loanword 커플 is also used to refer to them in this article, which is also progressive in its own fashion.)

From a HuffPost Korea article, the Seodaemun District Office's reasoning for rejecting their original license was that "same-sex marriage is invalid due to the settled civil definition of marriage" ("동성 간 혼인은 민법에서 일컫는 부부로서의 합의로 볼 수 없어 무효") as being between one man and one woman. However, the couple's appeal, submitted last May, states that, "nowhere in the civil law are there provisions against same-sex marriage, and through an interpretation of Section 36, Clause 1 of the Constitution that recognizes the right to marriage and equal rights, same-sex marriage must too be accepted." (민법 어디에도 동성 간 혼인 금지 조항이 없고, 혼인의 자유와 평등을 규정한 헌법 제36조 1항에 따라 혼인에 대한 민법 규정을 해석하면 동성혼도 인정된다")

During the news conference, Kim Jho Gwang-soo said, "I promised not to cry in court, but actually I ended up crying," and "I only ask that you recognize our relationship (단지 우리 관계를 인정해달라는 것), but I want to know why we are receiving so much hate. I've done my military service and fulfilled all my obligations as a citizen, so why do I have to appeal to the court, crying [for my equal rights]?"

The HuffPost article also has plenty of photos (courtesy Yonhap News) from the news conference following the court appearance (which was not open to the public). In the audience were supporters sporting rainbows and carrying signs saying 평등, 사랑, 존업 (Equality, Love, Dignity). There were also, of course, protesters, who carried signs saying things like "A male daughter-in-law? A female son-in-law? NO!" and "Our children need a mom and a dad!"
The news conference following Korea's first same-sex marriage lawsuit appeal (Yonhap News)
Every single one of the articles I've seen about this trial have referenced the recent US Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality. Even this opinion piece written by Kim Jho Gwang-soo himself (which I will try to translate later, but it's so long...) begins with the news of victory from America and a quote from President Obama. Historically, Korea has taken cues from the United States in the political and social spheres, but when it comes to rights for sexual minorities, many of the Korean groups that oppose them are actually playing the anti-foreign intervention card in a gamble to preserve Korea's moral traditions.

But with growing international pressure, plus domestic pressure as events like this year's enormously successful Korea Queer Culture Festival (and Pride Parade) greatly increase the visibility of Korea's LGBTQ community, the issue is sure to take center stage in the near future. And when that happens, the status quo could very likely change. The hope is that while the United States took around ten years to come around to complete marriage equality (with the last two years in particular seeing the tides turn dramatically -- watch this amazing video illustration!), Korea, a country whose public opinion and social environment can evolve quite quickly, will shift in favor of full rights for sexual minorities in even less time, followed soon by its laws.

Links and Sources
Kim Jho Gwang-soo's HuffPost Korea opinion piece (Korean) and a public Facebook post he wrote about his feelings about the legal battle ahead (Korean)
My Fair Wedding, a documentary about Korea's first publicly gay couple, came out on June 4th (English)
- Three short articles (in English) about Korea's first gay marriage lawsuit, here and here and here.
- Two longer articles (in English), from The Telegraph and Korea Joonang Daily.
- The articles (in Korean) that I translated/used as sources, here and here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Korea Queer Culture Festival & Pride Parade 2015 (퀴어문화축제와 자긍심 퍼레이드)

"In a world where I can be myself, all love is equal."
This year's Korea Queer Culture Festival had its opening ceremony on June 9th and its closing parade on June 28th. I went to both events and took photos to share with you all.

(I have translated this post into Korean. But I have not had it checked at all, so it's going to be messy. Sorry in advance for the errors!)

올해 한국의 퀴어문화축제는 6월9일에 개막식이 열리고 6월 28일 자긍심 (프라이드) 퍼레이드가 열렸다. 저는 사진을 찍어려 갔다.

(저는 한국어를 잘 못 해서 실수가 많이 있르 것이다. 미안합니다!)

To my Christian friends: a good number of you may be against events like Pride and the values that it stands for. I understand this. Years ago I also used my religion and my deeply-held beliefs about Biblical morality to fuel my disapproval of all things that had to do with LGBTQ expression.

저의 기독교인 친구들에게: 아마 너희들중에 이런 행사와 성소수자의 이상에 반대하는 사람이 많은 것 같다. 저는 너희들의 생각을 이해한다. 저도 이전에 기독교와 성경을 믿기 때문에 동성애와 다른 성소수자의 표현을 싫어했다.

My point of view has changed, however. I believe now that it is only fair that LGBTQ people have the same rights as everyone else: the right to celebrate their own culture, the right to get married, the right to create families and contribute to society without being condemned or threatened because of their differences in gender or sexuality.

하지만 이제 저는 생각을 바꿨다. 지금 성소수자들이 평등권리를 받야 한다고 생각한다. 퀴어 문화를 즐기는 권리며, 결혼 권리며, 가족을 이루는 권리며, 혐오나 협박 없이 사회에 공헌할 수 있는 권리도 필요한다.

Furthermore, I believe that the Christians who have historically opposed LGBTQ activism have done so in a largely unloving and foolish way. While Christ calls us to love even our enemies, Christians were the first to cast stones at the oppressed sexual minority communities, or else stood by and watched discrimination become entrenched in society without lifting a finger to help. Christians should have been the first to help an oppressed minority, because God's love transcends petty human ideologies.

또 한, 이전에 성소수자의 활동주의에 반대하는 기독교인들은 야박하고 어리석게 했다고 생각한다. 예수님이 우리가 원수를 사랑하라고 했지만, 억압당하는 성소수자들을 공격하는 사람들이 기독교인들이었다. 선소수자들이 사외에서 차별을 당할 때 손가락도 까딱하지 않은 사람들이 기독교인들이었다. 오히려 기독교인들은 먼저 도와줘야 했었는데요. 왜냐하면 하나님의 사랑이 인간의 이상들을 초월하기 때문이다.
Seoul Pride Parade 2015
So here I was at Seoul's Pride Month events, happy to see Korea's LGBTQ community come together in strength and solidarity, and at the same time dismayed (yet unsurprised) to see huge numbers of conservative Christian protestors loudly declaiming against homosexuality, AIDS, public indecency, and gay marriage. They flew the Korean flag and a cross flag to symbolize the ideals of faith and tradition that drove them to protest, and they countered all of the Pride events with rallies and performances of their own.

그런데 제가 퀴어문화 축제를 다녔는데, 한국 성소수자들이 같이 모이는 것 하고 그들의 공동체의 결속을 보여줘서 고무적이고 감동적이었다. 반면에 수 많은 보수적인 기독교의 시위자들이 ‘동성애 아웃’, ‘에이즈의 광란’, ‘동성결혼 싫어’, ‘외설죄 반대’라는 구호를 시끄럽게 소리치는 것도 봐서 조금 속상했다. (역시 보수적인 기독교의 시위자들…) 신앙과 전통의 상진주의 위해 태극기와 기독교의 십자가 국기를 올렸고 퀴어문화축제에 반대의 그들은 자기의 행사를 열렸다.

I just want to show you what it looked like from the perspective of a non-Korean, Christian, gay man. I went to enjoy the events, and I went with friends, and I never at any point felt unsafe. I was happy to see the joy and pride at KQCF. I hope that the Christians who support LGBTQ rights will be encouraged that even in a conservative country like Korea, a celebration like this can happen. I also hope that the Christians who do not support LGBTQ rights will see despite their opposition, the right way to win hearts is not through anger, disgust, or despair, but through love.

저는 그냥 직접 목격한 것을 좀 보여드리고 싶다. 저는 한국인 아니며, 예수님을 사랑하는 게이 남성인데 올해 퀴어문화축제에 즐겁게 지내려고 갔다. 친구들이랑 무사히 다녀왔다. 제가 KQCF에서 행복한 분위기와 모든 사람들의 자긍심이 보일 수 있어서 기뻤다. 여러분, 성소수자를 지지하는 기독교인들이 한국과 같은 보수적인 나라에서도 이런 축제가 열려도 되는것에서 위안을 찾으시면 좋겠다. 그리고 성소수자의 권리에 반대 하는 기독교인들이 다음 진상을 아시면 좋겠다: 남의 마음을 얻는 것을 위해서 가장 좋은 방식이 분노, 혐오, 절망으로 아니고 사랑으로 해야한다.
Dance performances at KQCF 2015
To my Korean friends: a good number of you may be curious about what KQCF is, even though it has been held annually in Seoul for sixteen years now. Here's my short explanation: Some people think homosexuality is something that recently came from Western societies into Korea. Actually, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) people have been in Korea for hundreds of years, but the recognition that sexual minorities are normal and not mentally ill or perverted is more recent. And even more recently, there have been movements around the world to show acceptance of these sexual minorities.

저의 한국친구들에게: 아마 너희들중에 ‘퀴어문화축제’가 뭣인지 궁굼할 것 같다. 한국에서 지난 16년 동안 열렸거든요… 어쨌든. 동성애가 서양 사회에서 한국에 들어온 것이라고 생각하는 사람도 있다. 사실은 LGBTQ (레즈비언, 게이, 양성애, 트랜즈젠더, 퀴어 등) 사람들이 한국에 옛날부터 있었지만, 이 성소수자들이 실제로 정신 장애가 없고 변태가 아니라는 인식이 현대까지 안 나왔다. 그리고 더 최근에 전세계에 성소수자의 승인을 구하는 운동들이 시작되었다.

Seoul's "Korea Queer Culture Festival" began in the year 2000. LGBTQ activists have had to fight to gain recognition that LGBTQ people even exist in Korea. But there are more hurdles to overcome. Discrimination against LGBTQ people is widespread: in Korea, a gay or lesbian couple cannot get married, a person can be fired from their job for being queer, and, of course, LGBTQ teenagers can be bullied to the point of wanting to commit suicide. Activists and allies in Korea want to change laws and public opinion in Korea so that Korean society will become a safer place for sexual minorities.

서울의 ‘퀴어문화축제’라는 행사는 2000년에 세웠다. 이 전에 한국의 성소수자들의 존재를 대채로 인식되지 않았다. 요즘은 퀴어 사람들이 옛잘 보다 자주 보일 수 있지만 성소수자에 관한 사회의 문제가 많이 남았다고 생각 한다. 성소수자에 대한 차별이 정말 많다. 예를 들면 한국에서 게이나 레즈비언 커플의 결혼은 불법이다. 그리고 어떤 성소수자가 성적 성향 때문에 일에서 해고될 수 있다. 또, 퀴어 청소년들이 자주 자살하도록 괴롭힘을 당하고 있다. 한국 성소수자 운동가들 하고 동맹자(친구)들은 한국이 성소수자에게 안전한 사회가 되도록 한국의 법을 개정하고 여론을 바꾸고 싶다.

Of course, KQCF is also a big party, too. LGBTQ people value freedom, love, and equality for all people regardless of who they are. The reason the celebration can be a little bit wild is probably a direct response to the intensity of the community's historical oppression. If you go to a Pride event and see crazy costumes, leftist slogans, or people behaving in a way that is surprising to you, I encourage you to remain open-minded and remember that there is a reason for all of the things people do and believe, and that it is better to try to appreciate that reason than to immediately dismiss it because you don't understand.

물론 퀴어문화축제는 축제이잖아요. 성소수자들은 사람들의 차이에 상관없이 자유, 사랑과 평등을 소중하게 생각한다. 축제가 가끔… 광란(격렬?)하는 이유는 성소수자들의 역사상의 억압에 직접 반응인 것 같다. 너희들이 프라이드 행사에 다니시고 괴짜의 의상, 좌파 구호나 이상한 사람을 보시면, 므음을 열기를 바랍니다. 인간행동과 우리의 믿음이 개인에 딸라 다른 것을 잊지 마세요. 남의 다른 자가표현을 알아듣지 않아서 싫어하지 말고 그들을 이해해보시기 바랍니다.

To my LGBTQ friends: Have courage, and happy Pride!

우리 게이, 레즈비언, 양성애의, 트랜즈젠더, 퀴어 등 친구들에게: 용기를 가지세요. 힘내. 화이팅. 해피 프라이드!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Half the Battle

A scene from tonight's taekgyeon class. We have just finished our warm-up.

관장님: Okay, um... now get on the floor.
[My two fellow trainees and I do as we are told.]
관장님: Now do eopdeuryeo palkuphyeo pyeogi1.
Me: ...?!?!?! What is that?
관장님 (in English): Do push-up!
Me: Oh, okay. How many?
관장님: One hundred.
Me: One hundred?!
Other guy: What?!
관장님: What's the problem? Be grateful it isn't two hundred.
[Seventy push-ups in, I notice that my fellow trainees have stopped.]
[Thirty push-ups later, I collapse to the floor.]
Me: Aigo2... So, uh, how many did you do?
Other guy: Oh, I just did fifty.
Me: Fifty? Come on! Well... at least pani sijak... ida3.
Other guy: What?
Me: Um... pani sijakida?
관장님: Pani... Oh! You mean sijaki panida4.
Me: Ah, that's right. Sijaki panida. Haha, I'm so stupid.

- - -

For those for whom this made very little sense, an explanation: I meant to encourage my fellow trainee with a proverb that I had recently learned in Korean class. The proverb is "시작이 반이다," which is basically equivalent to, "Starting is half the battle" (or the clever rhyming version I found online: "Well begun is half done"). He'd done fifty push-ups, and he was halfway through!

Unfortunately, I mixed up the two nouns in the expression and ended up telling him something more along the lines of, "Half is just the beginning." Even if it did make any sense, it probably wouldn't have been very encouraging at all! You've already done fifty eopdeuryeo palkphyeo blah blah whatever, but that's just the start of it... *cue evil laugh*

When it comes to using the new Korean words and expressions I've been learning in class, I inevitably make foolish mistakes. In the best case scenario, I bring a conversation with a Korean friend to an awkward halt because I sound like a stilted textbook example. In the worst case scenario, my friend decides to switch to English because they literally can't make sense of what I'm trying to say.

But in embarrassing times such as these, I remember another proverb, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained." Or the Korean version: 범의 굴에 들어가야 범을 잡는다5. You need to enter the tiger's den if you want to catch it. In my case, the tiger is fluency in a foreign language and the cave is an endless abyss of silly and awkward misunderstandings.

- - -

1 '엎드려 팔굽혀 펴기' is a ridiculously long word for 'push-up'. I mean, seriously?!
2 '아이고' is a common Korean expression of pain, discomfort, or dismay.
3 '반이 시작이다' does not mean anything in Korean.
4 '시작이 반이다' is a common Korean proverb.
5 In Chinese (for the heck of it): 不入虎穴,焉得虎子.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Flag We Fly

Happy USA Day! Barack and Michelle Obama paid a visit to the US Embassy's booth at Seoul Pride last week!
Today is the Fourth of July, also known as Independence Day. This is the holiday when Americans commemorate their declaration of independence from Britain (way back in 1776) and celebrate American values such as liberty, freedom, democracy, and the right to shoot other Americans if we feel threatened by their existence. Just kidding about that last one...

Except that it's not actually something to kid about. As an American, I feel very lucky to have certain privileges such as the power of my passport, a top-tier education, and, well, freedom. But I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that my country is flawed and deeply imbalanced. Though I have able to reap many benefits in my life, many of my fellow citizens suffer daily from systemic racism, hiring practices that put them at an inherent disadvantage, social expectations that don't support their self-expression, and a majority culture that shamelessly and ignorantly allows all of this oppression to happen.

Anyway. I'm proud to be an American, but I will not let my flag fly idly and be silent about the problems our country has to solve. What day is better to reflect upon how to improve America than the anniversary of her birth?

P.S. The photo above was taken at the Korea Queer Culture Festival! Many more photos and a recap post to come soon. Congrats USA, and thank you Supreme Court, for passing marriage equality in all fifty states. Happy Pride!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Return to Changwon

Last weekend, I returned to the city that I called home for two years, Changwon. Because I only had a few days to visit, I wanted to meet with as many people as possible, including my host family, friends from church, friends from language class, former colleagues, and even a former student. These were all people who changed my life in some way or another during my time in Korea, so I was very happy to meet them again. Happy is actually an understatement: from the moment I stepped off the train and saw my city with my own eyes once more, I felt a deep contentment and familiarity that must have come from a different level than the one that produces such fleeting emotions as happiness.

The familiarity was a curious feeling, too. From things as simple as getting on one of the city's insane buses again and remembering my old route home, to moments of reconnection like catching up on my host brother's now-terrifyingly enormous insect collection, to joyous reunions with old friends that included meeting new ones, every moment was tied to something or someone I'd known well all of eleven months ago. As quite a few people remarked, it was as if I'd only left yesterday. I think one year is not really that long a period of time, and most people did not visibly change (with the exception of my taekgyeon master's son, who is now in his terrible twos!). So it was indeed easy to kind of fall back into the swing of things. Except that never in my two years in Changwon did I have such a whirlwind of a weekend, consisting of reunions with dozens of different people.

Selfies galore, with: Eunjin, the CSHS English department, a former student, my taekgyeon masters, and a Fulbright buddy!
So here's what happened in detail. I took the KTX high-speed rail down to Changwon on Friday after class, and arrived in the evening in time to get dinner with Victoria, a fellow volunteer for Changwonderful, at TGI Friday's (how appropriate). Later that evening, I reunited with my taekgyeon 관장님 (gwanjangnim) and 사범님 (sabeomnim), the director and master/trainer at my old martial arts gym, and did the whole Korean drink-and-eat-and-drink-some-more thing. I had a wonderful time with them, and also discovered the greatness of flavored soju! I really cherished the opportunity to catch up with 관장님 and 사범님, because aside from people at school and my host family, I spent more time with them than anyone else in Korea. (관장님 even let me crash at his house over the weekend, and I spent a lot of time playing with his young son. 관장님 is like a big brother to me; I love his family and owe them so much.)

But even better, through my broken Korean, I was able to relate to the both of them some of my concerns about graduate school or about life in general, and they gave me some much-needed advice. You see, I often have doubts about my decision to continue in academia, partly because it's so hard and partly because I wonder if I'm actually doing anything meaningful with my life. I'm quick to point out that even though I am grateful to be back in California, I was actually happier on a day-to-day basis when I lived and worked in Korea. But 관장님 said something that reminded me of what many of my friends advised back when I was initially deciding on grad school: that I had to leave Korea to move on with my life.

I guess I don't like to be so blunt about it, but either way, since I've turned the page on that chapter, it's no use trying to go back to it as if I haven't already started the next one. I was also touched when 사범님 told me, or perhaps admitted to me, that in his many years of training in taekgyeon, he never worked so hard or enjoyed it so much as when I attended the gym. Heh, that definitely could have been the 순하리 talking, but I appreciated it nonetheless.

On Saturday, I joined 관장님 for his Saturday youth sports classes, including soccer, jump rope, and dodgeball. I met up with my old language partner Eunjin for lunch in the Garosu-gil area, and we had a great time catching up and discussing everything from our past baking adventures to movies staring 빵형 (aka Brad Pitt... brownie points if you get the joke!). I am so grateful that even though Eunjin's English is better than my Korean, she is always patient with me and will let me struggle through an explanation of how the book and movie versions of World War Z are completely different but good in their own ways without embarrassing me at all. And in the evening, I had dinner with my host family (I lived with them for my first year of Fulbright) and caught up on old times. Their dogs are still super cute and super annoying.

On Sunday, I met up with one of my former students, JW, who is now in his second year of university! He contacted me on Facebook and said that he was going home to Changwon, so he wanted to meet up. I was thrilled, because I don't have many opportunities to meet former students, especially those who don't currently live in Seoul. JW really wanted to practice his English, and I felt just like I was back in school doing lunchtime conversation club again. Except this time JW was really eager to talk about university life, and he asked for American TV show recommendations.

I also got lunch with Courtney, who is the Fulbright teacher who has taught at CSHS for the past year, and we discussed life in Korea and the ways she's grown and learned this past year. We also talked about religion and sexuality. I am so impressed with the way Courtney's mind works. It's wide open and ready to listen to anything and everything, as if everyone she encounters is a vendor giving out samples of food she's never seen or tasted before, and it is all delicious. She has embraced the differences of others, as well as the discomfort and the weirdness of living in a foreign country, far from home for a year, with as much energy as a kid at an amusement park who might not be tall enough to get on all of the rides but doesn't care a bit.

In the afternoon, I went back to Redeemer Changwon, a small church that meets at a cafe in the downtown area. I began going to the church a year ago when it was just a handful of friends wanting a fresh, community-based church experience. I was happy and encouraged to see how it's grown since then. And my old friend Traylor gave the sermon, too! Good on him. He preached from 1 John, which, curiously, is a book that I've heard quite a few sermons on in the past few months. It can't be pure coincidence... It was great to catch up with the church folks again, and meet some new friends. We all went to dinner together afterward at El Loco, an excellent Mexican restaurant with prices much more reasonable compared to here in Seoul.

Monday was the long-awaited day in which I went to visit the school where I taught for two years. As soon as I walked on campus, I felt really... in place. As if it were just any other school day and that I should probably get to my classroom or office in a minute. It was exciting to bump into old teachers and students and see them do a double-take. Many of them stopped to greet me and chat in Korean, and they kept saying, "어떻게 왔어요?" Those two words literally mean how and came, so I interpreted it as, "How did you come here?" So I told them that I took a train. To my embarrassment, it's actually, "How come you came here?" So I modified my answers: "I'm here to visit." And to reconnect. And to relive some amazing memories.

Courtney was gracious enough to let me visit her classes that day, including her two classes with the third-year students, who were my second-years last year. I was excited to see them, and they were excited to see me, and they kept commenting about my hair, so I told them about topknots and 상투 and they vacillated between thinking it was cool and thinking it was horrible. Yet for all the thrill of the reunion, let's be honest: it was still English class, and they were still pretty loathe to speak English! Not that much has changed, I suppose! It was actually a bit sad to see how these third-years seemed so tired after so much time stuck in the grueling high school routine. I am looking forward on their behalf to four or five months from now, when they will have finally finished. I also got to meet and play a game with a class of first-years, i.e. students who had no idea who I was. That was a riot, too! They are just the same as my old classes of energetic, not-yet-jaded first-years. They associate California with beaches and CalTech, wail when I tell them that I don't have a girlfriend (and don't want one), and think that my being able to write a few words in hangul on the board is worthy of infinite admiration.

Besides visiting students, I also got lunch with Courtney and the other English teachers, Saerona, JJ, and a new teacher I hadn't met before. It was so sweet of them to be so welcoming and hospitable. Saerona also made me a small gift. (I'd brought some chocolate from the US, but I wish I'd brought the San Francisco coffee again, as I did once, because the teachers in the main office still remembered how good it was... haha.)

And then, too soon, the day was over, and I got on a bus to go back to Seoul. After seventy-two hours, my heart was full.

- - -

I really want to go back to Changwon again, but I don't really know how feasible that will be, as my schedule gets busier and busier, and the time I have left in Korea is already winding down. I wanted to write more about this fantastic, nostalgic, much-needed weekend. Every meal and every conversation deserves its own post, actually. But most of it wouldn't be of very much interest to anyone but myself. I've just spewed out a lot of words on the Internet about something that is very inconsequential to the world at large... what's the point. Well, if there's anything you take from the post, I hope it's this: there was nothing that I loved in Korea more than the people that I met here and formed positive relationships with, and they are the only thing that will keep me coming back.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Korean Taekgyeon Association(s)

Imagine a situation in which you cannot speak English but begin to learn slowly, taking lessons with an American teacher. After about a year and a half, you put your studies on hold for another year. Then, you get a great opportunity to study abroad! Unfortunately, the English language program is in Scotland. So you hop on a plane to Edinburgh and, upon arrival, wonder if anything you learned from your American teacher is even going to begin to help you understand what the heck all these ruddy Scots are saying.

Or suppose you've been learning how to swing dance, having first picked it up in Philadelphia. After some time, you go home to LA and make a beeline for the first swing dance venue you see an advertisement for. Unfortunately, none of the footwork you've just barely mastered is, well, working for you. After half an hour of utter confusion, a particularly astute dance partner identifies the problem: "You learned lindy, didn't you? This is a West Coast swing bar."

This is the kind of situation I currently find myself facing. Actually, the swing dance style mix-up literally did happen to me once, but I'm now referring to my decision to continue studying the Korean martial art taekgyeon this summer. Previously, I studied taekgyeon in Changwon for about a year and a half, and I even went as far as obtaining my first-degree black belt. So, I had been looking forward to picking up where I'd left off this summer.

However, two obstacles to this goal have surfaced. The first is that, having never practiced while I was in California this past year, I'd forgotten pretty much everything that I'd learned. Secondly, the closest taekgyeon training center in the same league as the one I'd joined in Changwon was too far away from where I live in Seoul, so I had to join a different league (or association). And the style of taekgyeon at this gym is so different that I basically have to re-learn the basics!

That's right, even in such a small country, for a traditional martial art that almost nobody practices anymore, there are still a number of different leagues or associations for taekgyeon that practice the art differently. According to my taekgyeon masters, there are three. But after doing some random and confusing Googling and Naver searching, it looks like there could be as many as half a dozen. Here's a list of some organization names that I found:

한국택견협회 - Korean Taekgyeon Association
세계택견본부 - World Taekkyon Headquarters
결련택견협회 - Kyulyun Taekyun Association
대한택견연맹 - Korean Taekkyon Federation
현함윗때태껸연구회 - World Wide Taekkyeon Organization

In Changwon, I trained at a gym associated with the first one, KTA. Now, in Seoul's Gwanak District, the gym I go to is part of the second one, WTH. Then there's the Kyulyun Taekyun Association, which is supposedly the third. And the other two... well, the WWTO is based out of Los Angeles, which makes it unique. But I'm not sure, really, how they're all related. Taekgyeon history purportedly goes back thousands of years, but its modern iterations are all about three decades old. Even so, the variations are quite striking. All three styles teach taekgyeon a little bit differently. Frankly, all they seem to have in common is how they romanize the first syllable of the name of the sport.

(For the linguists out there, regardless of spelling, the proper pronunciation is [tʰɛk̚.k͈ʲʌn]. The diacritic below the [k] represents 'strong/tense' articulation, whatever that really is...)

Anyway, the long and short of it is, I'm happy to be practicing martial arts again, but it's definitely a struggle, because I have to undo bad habits, reconsider how I think about every movement before executing it, and accept that even though I have a black belt, I'm still just a beginner. It's a humbling experience. I've had to come to terms with the fact that in order to improve, one has to admit that one is not perfect, or even the exact opposite of perfect. Or, to put it bluntly, you can't get good at it until you realize you're not good at all.

On top of that, my new gwanjangnim, or master/instructor, isn't really the most patient guy. I kick once, and he cuts in, saying, "No, no, no, no, no! Like this." I kick once more, and he cuts in... Rinse, wash, repeat. Haha. Obviously, he makes every move look as easy as eating rice cake while lying down*. But he's also lightly sarcastic and easily distracted. He can't seem to fathom how I can be strong enough to bench press him yet too uncoordinated to execute a double footsweep. The other day, right in the middle of a warmup, he stopped everything, sat on on my back, and told me to do five push-ups. Then he scolded the younger kids for not taking their training seriously. It was kind of funny.

... Yeah, anyway. Ten hours of taekgyeon a week is doing my mind and body some good, since I was pretty 정신없다 (which means something like... going stir-crazy) beforehand. Because it's a different style, though, I also have to try hard to remain patient despite my inexperience and relish the novelty and the ways my brain expands by learning, instead of getting frustrated with where I am. Flashback to my very first taekgyeon class, more than two years ago! It was always my dream to learn martial arts. When I think about it, I'm in a very lucky position indeed.

- - -

*Reference to a funny Korean idiom I learned the other day: "누워서 떡 먹기".

Saturday, June 13, 2015

More on Seoul Pride, Protests, and Human Rights

I just wanted to share this incredible photo shared on the KQCF Facebook page (courtesy Newsis). It's an aerial view of Tuesday's KQCF opening ceremony, in which you can clearly see just how many protesters attended the event.

Despite the protesters not having a permit to organize in Seoul Plaza, they showed up in droves and encircled half of the plaza. They had megaphones and posters and spent the entire evening singing, praying, and shouting at everyone on the other side of the yellow-lit barrier.

The barrier was manned by city police officers, who can also be seen in the image as the clumps of yellow who physically kept the protesters away.

On the bottom right, you can see the stage for the opening ceremony and a pretty sizable crowd of LGBTQ supporters and media. I mean, if it hadn't been for MERS, I'm willing to bet at least three-fourths of Seoul Plaza would be filled with attendees. You can also see a giant rainbow heart that was created using lighted balloons, right in the center of the field.

While we're on the subject of Seoul Pride, I'd like to share a post on Buzzfeed that shows more photos of the event and the protesters. It's rather bluntly titled "Seoul's Pride Events Are Off to a Pretty Terrible Start". And here's another article, from the Korea Observer, that describes the hate-filled atmosphere of the protests in more detail. While the situation does look bad from this point of view, I guess I want to say that a more positive outlook is both possible and necessary. Like I've said before, the LGBTQ activists in Korea have faced fierce opposition every year for over a decade, and I have faith that they will remain strong to fight the good fight for the rest of Pride Month and in the years to come.

And on a more positive note, Human Rights Watch published this open letter to the Korean president and government, urging them to take a stronger stand for LGBTQ rights and to permit the Pride Parade on the 28th (which was controversially denied a permit a few weeks ago). From the letter:

"The Seoul authorities’ failure to allow the LGBT pride parade is in stark contrast to the leadership role South Korea has taken internationally on LGBT rights. At the United Nations, South Korea voted for both the 2011 and 2014 Human Rights Council resolutions that called for an end to violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and that authorized development of global reports on the status of LGBT rights."

They're right. If South Korea wants to remain in good international standing in the field of human rights, it should let its actions speak louder than its words and protect the LGBTQ minority and also fight for their equality in the right to assemble, to marry, to adopt, etc. (But even if the rest of the developed, democratic world did not support LGBTQ rights, I'd hope that South Korea, a country that has experienced profound oppression in its recent history, would be able to recognize what's really happening here and rally for an end to institutional homophobia regardless.) I'm working on a translation of this short article on HuffPost Korea about how ambassadors and representatives from over a dozen countries took a stand for LGBTQ equality at last Tuesday's opening ceremony. Good on them for not caving to Korea's conservative crazies who want all LGBTQ-supporting foreigners to leave the country! And let's hope that the city government (at least) has a ready response.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

KQCF 2015 Opening Ceremony

The LGBTQ community in Korea has recently been facing extremely strong opposition, and with this year's Korea Queer Culture Festival (퀴어문화축제, otherwise known as Seoul Pride), simmering tensions seem to have erupted into a full-scale war. I don't mean to exaggerate, but there has certainly been more controversy than ever, especially in the past week.
Tonight was the opening ceremony (개막식) for the festival. The event was meant to be a party and a celebration of LGBTQ identity, expression, solidarity, and rights. Unfortunately, the dates and locations kept shifting during the planning process because of fierce opposition from anti-LGBTQ groups (mostly made up of conservative Christians), and to top it all off, protesters numbering in the high hundreds -- perhaps even a thousand -- showed up at Seoul Plaza to try to drown out the opening ceremony with hymns and prayer.

On top of that, as most of the world may know by now, South Korea is experiencing an outbreak of MERS, a flu-like virus that has infected several dozen people and landed over a thousand more in quarantine. Although transmission has been limited to hospitals where previous patients have been treated, a rising panic over a possible epidemic has led to the temporary closure of many schools, the cancellation of some large events, and an exponential rise in sales of hygienic masks to wear in public. The organizing team of KQCF had, a few days prior to the event, announced that as a precautionary measure, they recommended that people not actually attend the opening ceremony and instead stay home to watch the live stream.

I deliberated for a while over whether or not I should go. I really wanted to support the community's efforts and use my physical presence as a display of my solidarity. Many other foreigners in Korea agreed with me (the issue was discussed extensively on Facebook), but there was the worry of jeopardizing all of Pride by risking actual MERS transmission or even physical altercations with the anti-LGBTQ protesters, neither of which would look good through the media's lens.

In the end, I told myself that I had nothing to be afraid of, so I bought myself a mask, hopped on the subway with my camera, and traveled to City Hall.

The first thing I saw were city police in their signature yellow vests. Then, I heard the music. But it wasn't the vigorous pop music I'd expected. As I exited the subway station, I saw the signs (literally) and realized that I had walked directly into the anti-LGBTQ protest. Not that there was any way to avoid it. I walked around for a bit, taking in the huge crowds of protesters, and I actually couldn't figure out where the KQCF opening ceremony was at all. Finally, I got my bearings. Seoul Plaza is a large circular field. In one small section of the field, a stage for KQCF had been set up, and people were running around taking care of last-minute details for the event. Around the stage, a police barricade had been erected, with officers standing at even intervals. And then, all around the edge of the giant field, was a long unbroken line of protesters, every one of them holding up a sign or grouped together praying and singing. Between the two camps were two lines of police officers and several yards of empty grass.

To my dismay, I saw that the protesters outnumbered the event supporters by at least five to one, and they were loud. They were prepared with posters, megaphones, and flags, and they were belting out "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in Korean. I walked among them and took photos and videos of their posters. Most were emblazoned with slogans like "Homosexuals, OUT!", "Gay sex transmits AIDS", "Ban Ki-moon, is homosexuality a human right?", "I am against same-sex marriage", so on and so forth. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. They were so serious.
The poster in the middle says "동성애 (homosexuality) out! out!", and the one on the left is a rant about AIDS.
The media were everywhere. Many people were filming and interviewing both the protesters and the supporters on both sides of the police line. I realized that I would probably end up in some footage broadcast somewhere or posted online... but then I also realized that with my mask and my hat, I would actually be pretty difficult to recognize. At least, nobody looking at me had any reason to suspect that I wasn't just another curious Korean citizen. I guess therein lies another aspect of the mixed blessing of being Asian. I could pretend to be an innocent bystander, but any white person at the event was assumed to be a foreigner and, by proxy, an LGBTQ person or ally. As I stood filming, a Korean clergyman carrying an anti-LGBTQ sign strode past and yelled at two white people nearby, "Jesus died for you!"

After not too long, I'd had enough of the protests and slipped into the barricaded area. I had to work my way past protesters and police, and once I arrived on the other side -- after I literally crossed a boundary (liminality, anyone?) -- I had a brief moment of, what can I call it, epiphany? It dawned on me that even though I could have been anyone, Korean or foreign, Christian or not, gay or whatever, while I was on the protesters' side, as soon as I physically arrived in the space deemed "LGBTQ", I had become the target of the protesters' hate. Honestly. Just because I was standing in a certain roped-off area in Seoul Plaza, I became an object of disgust, fear, and rejection. The Christians were yelling at me, and at everyone else at the event... and yes, it was more than a little bit unsettling.

On the Other side, though, I found the LGBTQ community and allies happily holding up supportive posters of their own, dancing with large glow sticks, or sitting on the grass waiting for the event to start. It was about ninety minutes behind schedule due to certain obstacles encountered during setup (read: protesters). But then, as my friend remarked, "Now comes the part where we just sit back and enjoy the show."

The KQCF opening ceremony, finally! There were dance performances and many, many speeches to sit through. It was formal, yet amazingly spirited, especially for the (relatively) small audience. I think that everyone who got up on the stage was extremely brave for doing so. Whenever the music stopped, we could all still hear the raucous singing and chanting of the protesters, but as time went on it got easier to tune them out. Several of the speeches addressed the protests directly. Seoul Pride has always faced opposition, and this year, while being more intense, was really no different than usual. The organizers took it in stride and responded to the haters with grace and wit. I am so proud of them.

To be honest, I couldn't understand a lot of what was going on, for two reasons. First of all, my Korean listening proficiency isn't that good yet, so I could only grasp about 50% of all the speeches. Second of all, they had Korean Sign Language interpreters! And that was distracting, because I was trying to pick up a few KSL signs while listening to Korean and having to interpret it in my head. But anyway, I think I got the gist of the night: despite oppression, opposition, and possible epidemic, we have to show our love and resist the unjust powers that be. 사랑하라, 저항하라!

By the time I left, I knew that while I and the Korean queer community have every reason to be discouraged and upset, we have strength and we have each other, and that counts for a lot. I was encouraged by tonight, and I have a good feeling that the rest of Seoul Pride will not only rise to meet future challenges, but actually transcend them altogether.
One of the opening acts for the event. The crowd was sizable, despite the MERS scare!
One of my favorite moments was when all of these ambassadors and representatives from other countries spoke in favor of human rights and equality. The one with the mic in this photo is a representative from the USA!
And I almost choked up here, too, when members of the clergy representing four religions came up on stage and spoke out in favor of equality and acceptance. The one speaking now is from a progressive Presbyterian church called Sumdol Hyanglin Church (that I would love to go visit!).
And just for good measures, more protesters I encountered as I left, around 11pm. These people were singing and waving their candles around like it was some sort of vigil.
I'll probably write more about Seoul Pride in the future, but it's been a long day and I really need to sleep now. Goodnight world; I hope I can wake up to a brighter tomorrow. :)