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. :)

Sunday, June 7, 2015

SBS Documentary on Same-Sex Marriage in Korea

The following is my translation of an article from Star News that previews an SBS (Seoul Broadcasting System) special documentary about same-sex marriage. The documentary aired on June 7th, 2015. I'm doing this for two reasons: 1) to practice my Korean reading proficiency and 2) to stay on top of LGBTQ news in Korea. Parts in brackets are my thoughts and/or additions, and any mistakes are my own.

"SBS Covers Same-Sex Marriage in an SBS Special"
Star News -- Kim Sujin

To be aired on June 7th at 11:10pm, the SBS Special "We Got Married" episode (directed by Lee Kwang-hoon) will look at the controversy surrounding same-sex marriage in Korean society and consider whether Korean society, following various other countries' leads, might find some value in reconsidering its orientation [so to speak].

Currently 17 countries worldwide, 28 states of the USA, part of Mexico, and more have legalized same-sex marriage.
Around the globe, there has been a transition to recognizing legalization of same-sex marriage as a human rights issue. Even [some] conservative American church leaders have established a policy that does not prevent religiously affiliated pastors and clergy from officiating at same-sex weddings, changing the definition of marriage from 'the union of a man and a woman' who love one another to 'the union of two people', a neutral expression that makes no distinction for gender.

However, in South Korea, where prejudice and discrimination against homosexuals is severe, the dispute over the legalization of same-sex marriage has not even begun. The institution of marriage allows for social status and legal benefits, so homosexual couples find themselves unable to obtain rights and legal protections that heterosexual couples have been granted. Will same-sex marriage be approved? Will the changes this will bring be, as its opponents say, strong enough to destroy the basic foundation of society?

The question of the legalization of same-sex marriage, aside from the problem of sex, is a question of whether our society will be one that approves of diversity, bans discrimination and accepts universal values. Whether or not there is an answer to this more fundamental question is now coming to the forefront.

A couple that is not a couple
A couple consisting of two male office employees in their thirties made use of their summer vacation in 2013 to hold a small wedding ceremony. Although they had been living together for a few years, it was a day to officially acknowledge their status as a couple to family and friends. Although they live like a traditional couple, in public, they still are just unmarried bachelors in their thirties. They don't enjoy the rights and privileges of being a couple. When one of them falls suddenly ill at night and needs to be sent to the emergency room, because the other is not legally considered family, he cannot sign the hospital admittance consent form and, in the end, the parents who are in the area must be picked up and brought to the hospital. They have raised a family and make a living as a loving couple. But because they are of the same gender, the reality is that they are not legally acknowledged.

Birth of a new family
Although same-sex couples in South Korea live without revealing themselves, the world is changing. On May 15th, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg married his same-sex partner, and in the conservative Catholic country of Ireland, following a popular vote, an overwhelming 62% supported the legalization of same-sex marriage. The winds of change have begun to blow in Japan, as well. Two female celebrities had a public wedding ceremony, encouraging public debate regarding same-sex marriage, and an ordinance acknowledging the fundamental rights of same-sex married people in Tokyo's Shibuya District was enacted.

In the US, debate and research regarding the children raised by same-sex married couples is ongoing. Children of lesbians have been observed from birth to adulthood, and research results from interviews shows that no particular differences can be found between these children and those raised by heterosexual couples. It seems to be not a question of the parents' gender but of their attitude toward parenting that plays a more crucial role.

Jay, a police officer from San Francisco, has raised a family with his same-sex partner. They adopted their two children. One of them has a physical deformity on one side due to the birth mother's drug addiction. When nobody else wanted to adopt the child, this same-sex couple became the child's family. Jay's partner Brian quit his job to focus on raising the child, who is now in high school. Despite the doctor originally warning that the child would not live past a few years, now Jay and Brian have raised a straight-A, honor roll student who wants to become a physical therapist for other people with disabilities.

From the confident lives that the 4 members of Jay's family lead, comes the question we must ask ourselves: if this is not a family, then what is? In this SBS Special, which will look at love as it concerns sexual minorities [LGBTQ people], we will think seriously about in which direction our society must progress.

Original article in Korean here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Profluentia et Imprudentia

I have to be more careful with my words. This was the realization that came hand-in-hand with a gentle reminder that I am currently living in a country where I am not fluent in the language. Wait, let me revise that: I am reminded daily that I cannot speak Korean well, and these reminders themselves are not always gentle. Like when I struggled for an hour to open up a checking account only to be told finally that without an ARC it just was not possible.

But this time, the reminder was gentle, and it came from a friend who has lived in Korea for longer than I have and knows a great deal more about it. We met up last weekend since he's currently doing his graduate studies at the same university where I'm taking language classes, and I have perhaps unceremoniously latched onto him as my go-to resource for cultural guidance and assistance with quotidian matters.

After I left Korea nine months ago, I forgot one of the basics of cultural communication, the one that is drilled into every language student's head from the very beginning: Korean culture is built on a hierarchy. In society, what this means is that the young and inexperienced always defer to their elders and superiors. Children obey their parents; younger students take orders from their seonbae (upperclassmen); the employer's word is law to their employees.

In language, this means that one's vocabulary and grammatical constructions change depending on whom you address. It's much more complex than a handful of polite terms. I would ask a favor of a friend using a wholly different grammatical form than that which I'd use to ask the same favor of my teacher or grandfather.

Of course, I didn't forget that this rule exists in Korean. What I have neglected to remain mindful of, then, is how strictly it actually applies to me.

You see, while I do I fairly a good job of blending in with the crowd here in Seoul (the expectation is that an East Asian face equals a Korean face, unless it's dressed in the outlandish garb of the Chinese tourist), as soon as I open my mouth, most people realize that I am very much American. My accent cues them off, and then my face and fashion sense fall into place with it. I guess this morning was an anomaly, when my new language instructor asked me if my parents were Korean, apparently surprised at my speaking fluency. Anyway, humblebrag aside, once I'm tagged as a foreigner, what has happened generally is that all linguistic rules are tossed and my stupid mistakes are forgiven. I can ask for a head of cabbage instead of a beer and nobody will fault me for it. I can stare dumbly at the real estate agent as he tries to explain the security deposit without him thinking that I am actually dumb. And, critically, I can use the wrong forms of address to everyone -- casual conjugations with a stranger, super-honorifics with my former student -- and I'll get a free pass because I'm still learning.

I am not saying here that I should make these kinds of mistakes. After all, as a perfectionist, I cringe when I catch myself saying something wrong or culturally inappropriate. But my point is that I do make these mistakes, yet I've been let off the hook so many times that I haven't really properly internalized the rules of what to say and when. Or at least, if I had had everything down after the first two years, I had promptly forgotten when I left.

And now I'm back and I'm making a fool of myself. Why? Because I'm here, newly determined to show that I have learned something after months upon months of intermittent language study, and along with this courage comes a fair bit of hubris, and from this hubris arises a situation in which my friend introduces me to his classmate, both of them my seonbae, and I immediately talk with him as if we've been buddies for years. So much for cultural competency.

Hence the gentle reminder: remember who you are and whom you're talking to. It may not be important to you, or any American for that matter, but it matters here.

My friend himself admitted that it took getting used to, being a graduate student in linguistics (a field generally as casual and laid-back as you can imagine; my professors at Berkeley eschew being addressed by anything other than their first names, for example), but in a country where hierarchy is deeply entrenched in the ivory bastion of cultural conservatism and academic tradition. The constant bowing, the formal pleasantries, the obligatory grad student drudgery for tenured professors: it's all here, and while my friend is just beginning to tire of it, I realize that I haven't even begun to process its reality.

If I really want to pursue Korean linguistics, then the hierarchy, ingrained as it is into both the language and the culture, is something I will have to acknowledge and accept. I don't like hierarchy; let me be clear about that if it isn't already obvious. But as an academic, I have to respect it, and step one is taking pains to use the proper honorifics in the right contexts.

Even with my Korean friends -- the ones with whom I converse freely in Korean, who only correct my many errors when I demand for them to -- I think it's time to be more disciplined about my language use. Who exactly is my nuna, my hyeong, my dongsaeng? It's admittedly a bit complex: is age the only factor? Should I ask my Korean friends for their opinion on how I should categorize them, or is that rude?

There's sure to be some discomfort as I recommence navigating this cultural landscape. I thought two years' worth of experience wasn't too bad, but it's nothing. And it's not just the hierarchy thing, either. I only have two months this time, and I wonder if tackling headfirst questions like my place in Korea as an American, the ups and downsides of rapid globalization, or the uncertain future of LGBTQ rights in this country are even worth my while. This summer, will I traipse through Seoul taking pretty pictures of food and blogging about the charmed expat life, or will I choose my words -- and thoughts and actions -- more carefully?