“I Didn’t Think Americans Could Look Like You”: Reflections on Being a Fulbrighter of Color

July 17th, 2017

Written by Nikki Brueggeman (ETA 2015-17)

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Wanted: Foreigner model for tourism advertisement. White only, please.

I glanced over the ad posted on the foreigner Facebook page for the city of Jeonju. What followed was a tense discussion in the community about the ad’s content with the original poster finally declaring, “stop bringing your [western] ideas of race into this. Korea is different!”

For me, it was another Tuesday in Jeonju. South Korea, like every nation faces challenges when it comes to dialogues surrounding race, culture, and immigration. While I count my positive moments much higher than my negatives, I consider the narratives of people of color as essential to Fulbright Korea’s history.

The author with a doll found in a hostel in Seoul, South Korea.

Since its conception, Fulbright Korea has been a space of cultural exchange and through it people of color have shown communities the complexities of identity within American culture. While we face challenges, it is in these moments that Fulbrighters of Color step forward to humanize the situation and expand dialogues.


Korea Showcases FIFA U-20 World Cup

July 17th, 2017

The 2017 Under(U)-20 World Cup kicked off with excitement on Saturday May 20, 2017 as the host country, Republic of Korea faced Guinea. You could feel the energy starting to build during the opening ceremonies which featured a flying soccer ball drone, traditional Korean dance, and the up and coming K-Pop group NCT dream performing the tournament’s anthem, “Trigger the fever.” The fever was truly palpable when the whistle blew and chants of, “대한민국!” (Dae-han-min-guk, Republic of Korea) erupted from all corners of the sold out Jeonju World Cup Stadium. I attended the game with two fellow ETAs and we were treated with a game full of skill and class by both sides. For much of the first half the game was even, with the two teams going back and forth until Korea’s Lee Seung-woo, Barcelona youth product, ended the deadlock on a deflected shot outside the penalty box. Except for the lone goal, the parity between the two teams continued well into the second half until Korea pulled ahead with two late second half goals (with one being by fellow Barcelona youth product Paik Seung-ho) en route to a 3-0 victory.


ETA Spotlight: Mat Goldberg and Hannah Shannon

July 4th, 2017

Mat Goldberg (ETA 2014-17) and Hannah Shannon (ETA 2014-16 and current JET ALT) are joining forces to design a cross-cultural, leadership English camp for Korean and Japanese students this summer. Amid their busy schedules, they gave FKAR the inside scoop to the upcoming Korea Japan English Camp. Read on to learn about the inspiration, potential challenges, and more for the Camp!


The Soundtrack to Change

April 19th, 2017

Author’s Note: This article contains links to Youtube clips so that you may listen to the music. I have also added links for to further reading and more detailed information about lyrics and origins of particular songs. This article is also available on my personal website. This article is a continuation of my coverage of the protests in South Korea. Read the previous article, “A Time for Protest”. All photographs were taken by Cara Mooney.

Friday, March 10, 2016, 10:59am — My students sit tensely with anticipation as we watch the television and wait for the the impeachment results from South Korea’s constitutional court. Cheers erupt around the classroom to the unanimous decision to uphold the impeachment of President Park Guen-hye.

This decision came after months of protests that moved millions to expressed their feelings on streets across the country. I have only attended a number of protests in Gwangju and Seoul during the height of the Park Geun-hye scandal and protest fervor. Having witnessed these demonstrations, I was struck not only by the sheer number of participants, but also by the music— this soundtrack to change. Throughout the world, music has driven socio-political movements from stirring rebel Irish passions to igniting anti-Vietnam war sentiments in the USA. These protests would not be the same without the music unifying the people’s feelings and emotions, and rekindling memories of the past when Koreans fought and died to bring about democracy.

These protests have not always been so sanitized and peaceful. Modern South Korean national identity is rooted in the struggle for democracy against an authoritarian military government. The southern city, Gwangju, where I currently live, and the larger North and South Jeolla provinces in particular have a long and bloodstained history. May 18th, 1980, known simply as 5.18, marks the Gwangju Uprising, when hundreds of student activists and civilians protesting the martial law, were brutally tortured and massacred by the government, under dictator Chun Doo-hwan, in order to suppress the democratic movement. This event become a powerful symbol of the power of the people and helped to usher in a distinct genre of lyrical social protest known in Korean as minjung gayo (민중 가요), or “protest song”, an offshoot of Korean folk songs, as a part of the larger minjung or people’s movement (Chang 211) .

Inspired by American folk singers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, this particular musical movement acquired the name norae undong (노래운동) or “song movement” and brought “political awareness and cultural activism into the domain of Korean popular music”


Utilizing Regional Alumni Facebook Groups

April 19th, 2017

FKAR is happy to announce the creation of the Regional Alumni Facebook Groups! 7 groups have been created in cities with heavily populated program alumni. These groups are meant for you to easily connect, network, and share relevant information with the Fulbright Korea community in your area.

Below, you can find the group closest to your current residence and become a member. FKAR is planning to create more groups in the future, so hold tight as we work through this “beta phase”.

Program Alumni in Atlanta

Program Alumni in Boston/NYC

Program Alumni in Chicago

Program Alumni in DC

Program Alumni in Houston

Program Alumni in Korea

Program Alumni in San Francisco

Don’t see your city? If you are interested in creating a Regional Alumni Group in your area, please contact FKAR for more information on how to get started!


Researcher Spotlight: Ben Young

April 19th, 2017

Ben Young
Junior Researcher 2016-’17

Can you provide a small bio that outlines your hometown, education background, and a fun fact?
I was born and raised in Rochester, New York. I went to a public high school and then attended The College at Brockport, State University of New York, which is a small state school located 20 miles outside of Rochester. I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from SUNY Brockport and I’m now pursuing my PhD at George Washington University in DC. I’m very proud to be from Western New York (which is not New York City!) and I’m still quite close with my high school buddies. One fun fact about myself (more like a weird fact about myself) is that I memorized the nicknames of all Division 1 colleges when I was a kid and, for some odd reason, I still remember them. I could have learned something useful, like Chinese, but instead I memorized nicknames of college sports teams.

Can you provide a brief overview of your research/dissertation?
My dissertation looks at North Korea’s relations with the Global South during the Cold War era. Many people don’t realize that up until about the mid-1970s, North Korea was ahead of South Korea in most indicators of economic output. This had a massive effect on the foreign policies of the two Koreas. During the 1960s and 1970s, there were many newly independent, postcolonial countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, which is what I refer to as the Global South. These countries had to choose whether to diplomatically recognize North or South Korea. The choice was not as obvious back then as it might be today. So, for my dissertation, I trace the history of North Korea’s links to Latin America, Africa, and southern Asia. During the Cold War era, North Korea often gave financial and military assistance to many postcolonial countries. The isolated and rogue North Korea, that we know today, is a relatively new phenomenon. I think it is important to historicize North Korea in order to better understand their worldview and policies. Since its inception, North Korea has been a revolutionary country that sees itself as under siege from an aggressive and morally corrupt world. During the Cold War era, this worldview resulted in a proactive foreign policy. Now, North Korea’s foreign policy is reactive.

What inspired you to choose this research? What got you interested in North Korea?
I was very interested in Russian history when I was an undergrad at SUNY Brockport. I took all of the Russian history courses I could at the time. However, I really wanted to study a country that was still communist so I read every book I could on North Korea. I became obsessed with the place. My first trip abroad was actually to North Korea in 2012. Most recent college graduates to Cancun or Paris. I went to Pyongyang. So, that trip just propelled me further into North Korean studies. I still have good friends from that trip to Pyongyang. It was full of interesting characters. As for this specific research topic, I found that most contemporary analyses of North Korea lack historical depth. I think history is very important for understanding such an opaque country. With historical analysis, you can establish patterns in North Korean actions and make their seemingly unpredictability more predictable. Also, the history of North Korea’s foreign policy, specifically its relations with the Global South, is severely under-researched but critically important. Just look at the recent killing of Kim Jong Nam. Where did it happen? It wasn’t in North Korea or China. It was in Malaysia. That did not surprise me. For a long time, North Korea has conducted nefarious activities in Southeast Asia. It’s been a space where the North Korean leadership feels quite comfortable conducting violence against it political rivals.

What do you hope to do with this research? What are some of your future goals?
I hope to turn my dissertation into a book and eventually become a tenured professor at a college/university or work in a Korea-related capacity with the U.S government or a think tank.

What is your experience with Korea? Have you lived in Korea before?
I visited North Korea in 2012, which propelled me into the field of Korean studies. A year later, I taught English at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul and then studied the Korean language at a tiny Buddhist school in the South Korean countryside. This is officially my third time living in South Korea and fourth time on the peninsula. I’ve also lived briefly in the ethnic Korean region of northeastern China.

What are your thoughts on the current and future relationship between the Trump administration and North Korea?
Well, it’s frankly worrying. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently said that a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea is not out of the question. That would trigger a full-out war and millions in both Koreas would die. I think this administration needs to do more than nothing, which is what Obama did. However, it needs to be well thought out and balanced. The North Koreans are master tacticians and may be able to manipulate the next ROK president (who will probably be a leftist) and the inexperienced Trump administration.

If you had to sum up one fact for people to learn about North Korea, what would it be?
That’s a difficult question to answer, as there is a lot of misinformation out there on North Korea. It’s important to remember that North Koreans are not automatons but people with their own emotions, beliefs, and fears. They will be the agents of change in that country.

What do you do in your spare time in Korea?
I’ve recently become interested in South Korean cinema and watch 1-2 movies per week. In the future, I’d love to teach a course on South Korean cinema. My favorite South Korean movies are The Wailing and Memories of Murder. South Korean cinema is very similar to Russian literature. That might be why I like it so much. If people abroad really want to understand Korean culture, watch South Korean movies.

Do you have any advice for those interested in conducting research in Korea?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Whether it’s a librarian or an establish professor in your area of study, don’t be afraid to shoot them an email or ask them in person. South Koreans will go out of their way to help you once you make the first move. It can be quite nerve-wracking to do so but it’s worth it in the end.

Do you have any tips on learning Korean?
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. As someone who had to take weekly speech lessons as a kid, language, let alone a foreign language as difficult as Korean, has never come easy to me. When I initially started studying Korean, I really struggled. However, I kept with it and have improved a lot since I first started. What really helped was a summer studying Korean at Middlebury Language School. Middlebury requires that you speak only in Korean. That really improved my Korean and made me feel more comfortable making mistakes in the language. If you are afraid of making mistakes in Korean, you will never approve. The best people to practice Korean with are taxi cab drivers in Seoul. Most do not know any English and do not slow down their speech for you.

What’s your favorite part about living in Korea?
South Korea is a really safe country. That might seem absurd to some Americans considering the fact that the neighbor up north can cause quite the ruckus from time to time. However, on a local level, this is a safe country and I’ve heard many stories of foreigners accidentally leaving stuff in the Seoul subway and having it be promptly returned to them. In America, that stuff is gone and most likely re-sold on Ebay within a day. Also, South Koreans are active participants in their democracy. They don’t take it for granted. I think many Americans take democracy for granted and forget that democracy is not the norm in much of the world. I will have to say though that I find the excessive consumption and emphasis on beauty in South Korea to be repulsive at times. This almost singular focus on wealth and image creates a rather toxic and stifling atmosphere. I don’t think young South Koreans are very happy and many want to leave South Korea and live abroad. There is too much pressure on young South Koreans to conform to unrealistic standards that South Korean society has placed on them.

Is there anything else you would like to say?
I want to thank my family for being so supportive of my Korea-related endeavors. I don’t come from a family of academics but my entire family has been so kind, loving, and supportive of my academic pursuits. I really appreciate that because getting a PhD is not an easy or quick path to take.

 

Ben Young is a Fulbright Junior Researcher in Seoul (2016-2017), and a PhD candidate in East Asian history at George Washington University.


Oh, The Places We Go: Traveling After the Grant Year

April 18th, 2017

Traveling is one of the best ways to expand the mind and challenge oneself. For many Fulbright Korea grantees, they take advantage of their location in East Asia to adventure before returning home. This past month we spoke with three alumna who utilized their time after Fulbright to explore the world, and they share their advice for anyone thinking of packing their bags for their next adventure.

Breauna Oldham & Adrienne Winzer (ETA grantees, 2015)
Taiwan/Hong Kong/Macau

Adrienne: Bre and I went to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau for three weeks after our first grant year. My favorite location was Taiwan. The sights were good, but it was the food that made the trip. I recommend visiting the night markets, especially Raohe – its where you can find food, souvenirs and other amazing things!

Breauna: Hong Kong is super hot so bring light clothing. There are so many areas to explores, so take advantage of the city bus tour buses. However, with Macau you only really need a day to see everything.”

Tess Zaretsky (ETA grantee, 2015)

Vietnam

Vietnam is a beautiful, lush country filled with friendly smiles and spice-filled food. Da Lat is a small mountainous town in Central Vietnam that provides the most idyllic environment to canyon through waterfalls and hike into the clouds. It is without doubt my favorite place I’ve ever been to. Head south to Saigon and if you’re daring enough, rent a motorcycle and eat street banh mi’s you can get by on 5-10 dollars a day and about 20 bucks per night in a hostel. It’s filled with backpackers so I suggest lightly planning and going with the flow based on the people you meet!

Thailand

Koh Lanta, Thailand: though it takes a few hours to actually get to this island from the mainland, Koh Lanta is unbelievable and should definitely be the Thai beach that you/anyone chooses. The majority of the population is Muslim, so the food is much different than anywhere else in Thailand. The beaches are crystal clear and you can even stay at a super nice resort for maybe 25-30$ a night.


Alumni Spotlight: Where Are They Now?

April 18th, 2017

The FKAR team had the privilege of interviewing Julia Bach (ETA ’06-’07), who generously offered to share her insights on the Fulbright experience and its impact on the work she does today.

Julia Bach, ETA 2006

 

What is your occupation/future occupation?
Since graduating college, I have been involved in the field of education-very much with a global focus. Since completing my year in Korea, I have taught in the US, gotten my masters in International Education Policy, worked with teachers in India and taught in Malawi. I am in the process of applying for further studies and know that living and working abroad will continue to be an important part of my life. 

What is your biggest piece of advice for a current ETA?
Accept invitations that people extend to you. Spending time with your co-teacher, host family and other colleagues is a wonderful opportunity to see and do things you would not have the chance to do otherwise. 

How did your experience as an ETA impact your life’s work?
In the last 10 years, I have spent more time living and working outside of the US than within it. I think my year in Korea solidified my passion for exploring the world. I was always interested in education, but my experience as an ETA, working within a school with a number of talented colleagues, taught me that there are so many different approaches to education and teacher learning. 

What was the biggest challenge you faced as an ETA?
It has been a while, but I remember two types of challenges. One was related to work: I was a novice teacher and desperately trying to maintain the attention and engagement of 35 six year olds. I had some wonderful suggestions and valuable input from the classroom teachers which helped enormously. It was also challenging to constantly play catch-up with conversations and situations. Because of my students, I did learn quite a bit of Korean, but fast paced adult conversations made my head spin.

What is your favorite memory from Korea?
I had such fun with my colleagues. I remember chaperoning field trips and having my numbers read, enjoying dinners after work and making kimchi with colleagues. They graciously included me in the life of the school which made the experience very special. I also lived with a host family where the little girl was learning to read. I would strategically sit next to her mom when it was story time so I could also practice my reading.

What is your favorite quote?
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” ~ Nelson Mandela


Fourth Point: ETAs Interact With Their Communities

April 18th, 2017

Besides working as cultural ambassadors through Fulbright, their schools, and homestay families, Fulbright Korea ETAs work within their communities. These activities, commonly referred to as “fourth points” (the fourth responsibility after schools, homestay families, and Fulbright) are a way for Fulbright grantees to get to know Koreans while having fun and engaging with Korean culture. From making traditional Korean crafts and practicing calligraphy to joining a volleyball league and taekwondo dojang, there is a huge range of “fourth points.”    The following paragraphs are a glimpse into several ways Fulbright grantees are interacting with their communities in their free time.


Rebecca Bower, Uiseong

I started playing volleyball as an extra-curricular activity during the second semester of my first grant year. Prior to joining the club, I struggled to form friendships with co-workers outside of my English office. After joining the club, which consisted of both teachers from my school, as well as other local elementary schools, my friendships suddenly exploded. Teachers who were too shy to even look at me before became more eager to talk to me. Some of the teachers have become close friends of mine, so now that I’m in my second grant-year we have been doing other things together like weight lifting, basketball and swimming. I’ve also been able to join a second club in another city, where I have been able to make more friends. Volleyball is the catalyst that elevated my first grant year, and continues to be the highlight of my life in Korea now that I’m in my second grant year.

Zack Horne, Gyeongju

When my host dad asked me if I wanted to learn a traditional Korean instrument, he failed to mention the cost – which I assure you was steeper than expected – until we were in the car on our way to our first lesson. Luckily for me, this was my second week in Gyeongju and I did not yet have a bank account, so I got to defer my cost to a later date! Despite that rocky start, learning the traditional Korean bamboo flute, or 대금, has been a fun and new experience for me! I am not a stranger to music, as I have played the violin since I was 11, but I also haven’t learned a new instrument since that violin! I had totally forgotten how simultaneously fun and frustrating learning an instrument can be. It took me a good three lessons before I could even make a sound on the 대금. While progress is slow and frustrating at times, learning the 대금 has been largely rewarding, and I feel that through this instrument I get a glimpse into one of Korea’s beautiful traditions. While this new instrument may be bamboo-zling (see what I did there?), I hope to keep learning and eventually bring this newfound talent back home to serenade the masses.

Jason Addy, Daegu

When we were advised to choose a fourth point during our grant year, I was sure it would be dance for me.  Thankfully, I was blessed to be placed in Daegu, which is one of the bigger cities in Korea, so I knew I would be able to find something.

At first glance, the way the studio was run was very different from what I was used to in the US. My studio is actually more of a dance academy (학원) than it is the traditional dance studio I was used to visiting in the US. The dance pieces and choreography being taught are done so over a week, whereas in the US, I was used to just being able to drop in on a class and learning one piece of choreography for the day. I actually prefer this method better to dropping in to classes because it really allows me to fully digest the choreography with extensive practice.

Dance has been a huge part of my grant year and through it, I have made most of the friends that I have here. Dance in itself is a very community-oriented activity so by entering the dance community through my studio, I was able to feel more like I was connected and established in Korea. One of my goals was to make Korean friends as well and I was able to do that because of my studio. I would say my dance friends are among some of my closest friends here. Not only was I able to make friends, foreign and Korean, but through my studio, I was able to join a dance crew and perform at different events around Daegu!

If I were to give any advice to people interested in dance in Korea, I would say get out there and try! It might be intimidating to sign up for that first class, but you won’t know unless you try. In my experience, the people at my studio were so kind and accommodating in helping me pick the classes that would be best for me and I really felt welcome right from the first day. Even if you’d like to do it for fun, there is a great community in dance and it is a great way to meet people regardless of whether you decide to continue with it or not. Go forth and dance!

Kaitlyn Gulick, Seoul

My fourth point is Taekwondo. I started training in college and got my blue belt in Korea last year. I’ve been training in Korea for 2 and a half years now, including my time during orientation. Even though both of my dojangs have been in Korea, the way they react to me and the strictness and training styles are very different. For background, last year I trained at a Hakwon in a small town. This year, I train with a university’s international club. Maybe it’s because there are more people closer to my own age, but the university club pushes me harder. Sometimes I even think their expectations might be a bit too high for me; the master is very insistent that if I don’t miss practices, I can get my black belt in a year. On the other hand though, I haven’t been able to make friends through Taekwondo here. Last year, all the other students were much younger than me and this year, most people only attend for 2 months to a semester, so it’s hard to build lasting friendships. Kicking things and shouting for practice is a great way to de-stress after a long day of classes!

Laura V. Viera Gonzalez, Jinju

Asking around for inexpensive pastimes, I was told about Korean calligraphy or ink drawing. It seemed very interesting and saw that the materials could be found at any office supply store at a good price, compared to other art disciplines. While on my way to the first day of class, I realized what kind of mess I got myself into. Alone and with beginner knowledge of the language, I signed up for a class completely in Korean. When I nervously entered the classroom the teacher gave me a very warm welcome. Everyone else did the same and no one was startled by the foreigner in class. It was a 2.5 hour class with a break in between where we ate gimbap, fruits, cake, drank tea, and mingled a bit. It was easy to follow the teacher and understand how everything worked. At the end of our first class, a very nice ajumma asked where I live and offered me a ride when realizing it was on her way home. I recommend calligraphy drawing for anyone with any level of Korean and wanting to experience real Korean culture. This class was offered at a regional university and had easy access by bus. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this class would be one of the best experiences while living in Korea; and it’s a hobby that you can take back home.

Nikki Brueggerman, Jeonju

I have always been interested in the arts of other countries, so for my time in South Korea, one of my focuses has been on hanji, traditional paper art. I live in Jeonju, which has a long history of hanji, so finding a teacher was relatively easy. She taught me how to make some amazing projects that range from fans to boxes. While learning hanji has been fun, the relationship I’ve built with my teacher has been one of a lifetime. Our conversations are in broken English, Korean, and even Japanese. She speaks about five languages and has so much drive for life. Learning from her has been one of the highlights of my Fulbright grant.

Tien Le, Andong

At 8:15 PM on a Thursday night, I’m on a bus to the Andong community center across from EMart. I come into the room most often to laughter and always to kind smiles. Harabojis, ahjummas, ahjussis, and a handful of other English foreign teachers sit on the ground in a big circle surrounded by buks and janggus. This is a highlight of my week. Through this pungmul group, I’ve gotten to befriend an older crowd of Koreans. We’ve built a community on teamwork, rhythm, and an appreciation of the traditional Korean music of pungmul. But it also doesn’t hurt that we sometimes eat snacks and drink after our sessions. When I first started to learn the jjangu, I would be only focused on hitting the right beats and my left pinky would tremble after playing through the whole set. Now, I crave the musical high of having my whole body reverberating in sync with the buks and kwaenggwkari. While much of my time here in Korea has been navigating through a language barrier, this extracurricular activity has been a concrete and joyful reminder that people communicate much more than through just words. Catch us at our next performance on June 10th at one of the senior homes in the local area.


A Time For Protest

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