January 21st, 2017
Protesters gather in front of the former Provincial Office in downtown Gwangju
A Time for Protest
Written by Cara Mooney, ETA 2015-17
The world is watching South Korea. I am watching too.
Politics has saturated into my daily life in South Korea. It comes in snippets of news I hear from taxi radios and public televisions. It filters through whispers in the gyomushil (교무실, faculty room). I see it in the impertinent remarks made by students attempting to be funny. It is carried over the beat of samulnori (Korean percussion music) down the street and the angry call to action from truck-mounted loudspeakers…
Since October, 2016, the country has been rocked by a political scandal over President Park Geun-hye’s connection to Choi Soon-sil, a woman without security clearance or any official position, who was found to be secretly giving counsel to the president and had access to presidential and government documents.
Already, it has come to light that Choi Soon-sil was found to have used her clout and influence to extort ₩77.4 billion (around $60 million) from Korean chaebols (large business conglomerates), embezzle money from two of her foundations, in addition to rigging the admissions process at Ewha Womans University so that her daughter would be accepted. There is a palpable sense of betrayal and rage against the government and President Park for colluding with her confidant, Choi Soon-sil.
Placards reading 당장 내려야 (Step down now!) and 박근혜 퇴진 (Park Geun-hye Resign!)
Following this news, protests rapidly sprung up across the country, with the largest protests being organized in Seoul. With approval ratings for the president below 4%, massive demonstrations have continued to grow in size for the sixth straight week in a row. The most recent protests on Saturday, December 3rd proved to be the largest rally in South Korea’s history with organizers estimating over 2 million people on the streets in Seoul alone. Police put that figure around 350,000, a still remarkable number. President Park Geun-hye said on November 30th that she would allow the National Assembly to determine her fateand only hours ago, the vote was passed to
The entire country has waited for this moment and shown it through their resilience, activism, and dedication that has culminated in immense demonstrations. By and large, these protests have remained very peaceful, captivating the international community. However, South Korea has not been known for their peaceful protests. Police and demonstrators have clashed in the past, with police turning powerful water cannons and pepper spray on demonstrators. In April of 2014 following the sinking of MV Sewol Ferry, South Korea’s worst maritime disaster, strings of protests erupted across the country, with many turning violent. In recent protests, many demonstrations have been led by the people who lost family from Sewol. They are calling not just for her resignation, but her arrest.
As a Fulbright Korea ETA, I feel like I am experiencing an incredible time in Korea’s history. I live in Gwangju, the heart of the political left of South Korea. Even before President Park was elected, the North and South Jeolla regions have always pulled left, favoring the Democratic Party, a social-liberal political party, in opposition to Park Geun-hye and the Saenuri Party.
I have seen the impressive protests in Seoul twice now, and although they dwarf the protests in any other city, I feel they lack a spirit that I find when I stand among the crowds in Gwangju. For those unfamiliar with this southern city, it was the place of the infamous and tragic May 18 Democratic Uprising in 1980. Also known as the Gwangju Uprising, it was a mass protest against the then national military government. It was brutally repressed, with the official death toll at 170 (unofficial estimates range as high as 2,000), many of whom were college activists. While the Uprising was unsuccessful in bringing about democratic reform in South Korea, it is often considered a pivotal moment in the country’s struggle for democracy.
May 16th, 1980 – days before the Uprising – university students protested by lighting torches in the fountain of the square in front of the Provincial Office, known as the ‘Torchlight March’ (횃불데행진). In the moving video above, modern protestors emulate this by lighting torches in the same place as years before. [Image from the UNESCO Memory of the World Gwangju 5.18 Archives]
Once again, people fill the square in front of the former provincial office, where the Uprising and subsequent massacre occurred. Standing in the throngs of protestors, there is a pulsing energy; a tangible emotional charge. A strange feeling grips me as I stare across the sea of heads. All of the protests have retained an almost concert or festival-like atmosphere: street vendors dole out food and toys, and entire families–babies in tow–lay out picnic blankets along with their banners and flags. Protest organizers pass out candles, plastic placards, and seat cushions. Everything is a whirl of colors and candles numerous as stars. It is difficult to not get wrapped up in the chorus of “Park Guen-hye out!” or not to feel moved by the impassioned voices of orators and singers.
The main street in Gwangju filled with protesters.
Relatively new to democracy, the Korean people are still struggling to get the government they deserve. Their anger has been pointed towards improving the country, and through peaceful, cohesive demonstrations, they have come so close to realizing their goals. In a year of political controversy, strife, and increasing violence and discrimination, I feel like I have stood witness to something greater than a simple protest. It gives me hope that people everywhere can unify under our own banner for positive change.
All photographs © Cara Mooney 2016
FKAR had the opportunity to interview Heemang Kim, a grantee of the Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) program, for this winter’s newsletter. The Fulbright FLTA Program is designed to develop Americans’ knowledge of foreign cultures and languages by supporting teaching assistantships in over 30 languages at hundreds of U.S. institutions of higher education. The program offers educators from over 50 countries the opportunity to develop their professional skills and gain first-hand knowledge of the U.S., its culture and its people.
Heemang shows off her newly-acquired baking skills.
How did you choose to apply for the Fulbright Grant?
Before I went to graduate school, I was a teacher at a middle school in Mokpo and while there, I worked with Fulbright ETAs. I was inspired by their passion and hard work. Fulbright’s mission of cultural ambassadorship especially fascinated me and encouraged me to apply for the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) program.
How long is your grant period in the U.S.?
9 months; I started my grant in August 2016 and will finish in May 2017.
Can you briefly tell us about your day-to-day life in the U.S.?
I’m working and studying at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. My first priority as an FLTA is teaching. This semester, I’m teaching an advanced Korean-language course to undergraduate students. Also, I hold Korean cooking and conversation class every month; so far, we have made 팥빙수 (patbingsu), 김밥 (kimbap), and 떡볶이 (tteokbokki). In addition, I volunteer at a primary school for community service once a week. I teach the children about basic Korean language and Korean culture.
What do you like the most/the least about the U.S?
The best thing about the U.S is variety. Various people from different backgrounds work and study together, and they respect each other. I’m learning from them every day.
What do you miss the most about Korea?
양념통닭 (Korean fried chicken) and talking to my close friends and family in my mother tongue.
What are the biggest differences you see between the university experience in the U.S. and in Korea?
I was really surprised when a student started eating a sandwich in the middle of my class (laughs). Besides that, campus life is very similar between Korea and the U.S.
What is the general perception of the U. S. in Korea? Are those perceptions correct? In your opinion, what are U.S.’s greatest strengths and weaknesses?
Before I came here, my knowledge about the U.S was mainly from Hollywood movies. I thought people in America would develop romantic relationship easily, but I was totally wrong about that. Everywhere, people live and love in a similar way because love is the most basic instinct of humanity.
In my opinion, the greatest strength of the U.S is tolerance for individual differences. I think that’s because the U.S earned its freedom from its history and experience, and not from books. Therefore, seeing American people acknowledge the differences among one another is very important to me. The greatest weakness is the public transportation… I miss the buses in Korea (laughs).
Heemang explores Chicago’s “Bean”
Can you describe a situation in which you felt it necessary to be an ambassador for your country? For example, has there been a situation in which you needed to clarify erroneous stereotypes or assumptions about Korean culture? How did you handle that situation?
In the midwest area of the U.S, where I’m staying, there is limited diversity compared to other areas in the U.S. So, sometimes I encounter various questions or preconceptions about Korea or Asian countries. Sadly, most of those questions are awkward or sometimes offensive. For example, “Are you Chinese?”, “Do Asians speak the same language?”, “Do you need Kimchi?” (when I was teaching calligraphy).
At first, when I had these types of experiences, I was confused because I wasn’t sure if it was offensive or if I was overreacting. Later, when I told the people that it was offensive, most people said they didn’t mean it in a bad way, which made me feel more confused. However, I talked to many friends, professors, coworkers, and students about this issue, and they shared advice with me. I tried to explain why I get offended by the questions, and we discussed how I should deal with these situations, and what I can do to promote my country as a cultural ambassador.
First, I realized that the reason I felt offended by those questions was that sometimes I interpreted them as, “My [mother] language is not sophisticated enough that I can understand other languages and cultures,” or “I don’t care about what you are doing now. I just want to make sure I know something about your country.”
Second, I could deal with these issues with a clearer reaction and without feeling too emotional. For example, I can notify them if I felt offended by it, first. Then, I can explain how it could be interpreted by other people. Finally, as a cultural ambassador, I can give a better explanation of my culture. The most difficult thing about this is not being emotional. One of the most important things we all should remember is, no one culture is better than another, but there are varieties of cultures, and we should appreciate them as they are. I hope that I can do my job as a cultural ambassador successfully, and that I can contribute making a better world where people understand each other.
Has your experience here helped you gain an ability to communicate effectively within and among diverse cultural groups?
Oh, definitely. My experience as an FLTA has changed all my prejudice against different cultures. And I’m still learning a lot. I used to take a long time to become friends with new people because I felt insecure with strangers, and I was afraid of being rejected. However, my FLTA colleagues and the many nice people here taught me that there are no barriers to being friends, and if you open your heart to them, they will open theirs to you, and every culture deserves to be respected. I’m really grateful for my FLTA friends because they are very patient with me and kind to me. Rather than “Foreign”, the ‘F’ of FLTA means “Family” to me.
Finally, what is your favorite English slang word/phrase you’ve learned since arriving in the U.S.?