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.

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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.