A Synonym for “Less American”

Let me tell you a few things.

I’m 40% Korean, 40% Japanese, and 20% American. This does not mean I’m a descendent of Jeremy Lin nor I speak Mandarin.

My mom has a last name Kim and first name Miyuki. This does not mean she is a chinc or a tiger mom.

My grandmother is Japanese American, and she has a strong accent. This does not mean she is not American enough nor she should feel the shame of being Asian.

For decades, the word ‘Asian’ has been a term that homogenizes 17 million Asian Americans; (pause) a term that justifies the rest of the country to force us to fit into the stereotypes and to hind behind our heritage; A SYNONYM FOR ‘LESS-AMERICAN,’ ‘SHAMEFUL,’ ‘EXOTIC,’ AND MANY MORE; a term that makes you assume that your Chinese classmate is an awkward math genius or a musical virtuoso.

But I believe the word ‘Asian’ should mean nothing more than my ethnicity.

I refuse to conceal that every time you confuse me with some other nationality that I might share similarities with, you turn me into a racist joke and strip away my individuality.

I refuse to appreciate J.K. Rowling for making her only Asian character Cho Chang an overachieving nerd, and to remain silent to the media that portrays Asian women as hypersexual, exoteric objects.

I REFUSE TO LIVE IN A SOCIETY THAT LABELS ME AS MINORITY, BUT TREATS ME LIKE A FOREIGNER; a society that protects me as a secondary role, but never as a leader; a society in which my ethnicity is regarded as a long list of derogatory terms engraved as an enduring tattoo on my back; a society that forces me to suppress my heritage in a culture that appropriates it, fetishizes it, and marginalizes it.

And I ask you, to see beyond the word, and learn who I really am.

What is ‘LAON’?

In the beginning of the year, I became a part of a group called ‘LAON Culture’, a student-run online magazine on Korean culture. Run by Korean students studying in the US and in Korea, LAON aims to explore various aspects of Korean culture such as history, music, art, and food. We write articles with various themes that reflect the views of Korean students, and try to promote Korean culture to the world. I’m currently working as the Art & Society section editor. We are also raising fund to run the website and for the Liberty in North Korea through ads and articles. Come visit us and give us some support!

LAON: Explore Korean Culture

The Yellow Ribbon

“Guys, let’s take a class picture!”

One of the students shouted to his friends with a big smile on his face. A group of students turned around with arms around each others’ shoulders, and gladly started to look for a photo spot.

The students all looked delighted. Maybe they were a bit tired as they all had to leave home so early in the morning, but they were excited to go on their first high school field trip. The students got together on the dock, shouting out each others’ names to make sure everyone was joining the picture. It was April 16, 2014 in Jinju, South Korea. It was a nice, balmy spring day, just another ordinary day in April, when the sophomore class of Danwon High School was leaving to Jeju Island for a trip. It was the day when 400 students, 50 faculty, and 100 passengers boarded the Sewol Ferry without realizing what they would face for the next 24 hours.

9:00 AM.

It was about time for passengers to finish boarding the ferry. Nothing seemed to be wrong so far. The students were overjoyed to be on such a huge ship; some started hanging out in their friends’ rooms, while others went to the cafeteria on the first floor. Music spread loudly on each floor. Students were talking to each other with excitement, and teachers also found places on the ship to relax. Everything seemed perfect.

1:30 PM.

Someone on the second floor found water seeping onto the floor. It first looked like a water leak in the corner that didn’t seem to be a big deal. However, after a while, a couple of students on the same floor found out that more water was coming into the ferry from the outside. It was not only the water that started to threaten the passengers; the ferry started to tilt. It didn’t take long to realize that the ferry was capsizing, with more than 400 passengers, mostly 18-year-old teenagers, on board. Frustrated, a number of students reported what was happening on the boat to sailors, teachers, and people outside the ferry. They called the crew members through the intercom in their rooms, sent text messages to their parents, and even called 911 to let the police be aware of what was happening in the middle of the East Sea.

2:00 PM.

“Good afternoon, passengers.” A single voice from a crewman spread out to the entire ferry through speakers in the midst of the confusion. “Our ferry is having a minor technical problem. We’re trying to get things settled down shortly. Please be seated and do not move around.” A short pause followed the announcement. People were all shocked; they couldn’t believe how the crewman could dismiss the problem as a ‘minor technical issue’ when the ship was tilted almost 40 degrees, and water was about to fill up the entire room where students were in.

“Should we just ignore him and try to get out of the boat?” one of the students shouted. “I mean, maybe he knows what’s going on. You know it’s always best to follow what the adults say. Let’s just follow instructions.” Reaching the conclusion that attempting to escape from the ferry by themselves would lead to much more danger, students decided to follow the instructions and remained in place, waiting for someone to come.

2:45 PM.

Now the ferry was almost completely tilted sideways, and objects toppled over, injuring people and blocking their way out. People started to wonder why not a single rescuer was coming even after they reported what was happening a million times. Passengers were desperately grabbing the bars on the walls not to drown into the water and protect themselves from shelves falling down. A girl who was probably too shocked to cry finally burst into tears; she turned on her phone that was almost out of battery to give her mom the last call.

“Mom.. please.. answer me,” she spoke in a wining voice. “I’m so sorry that I have been a terrible daughter. I just wanted to let you know that I love you so much.”

3:00 PM.

After hours of suffering and frustration, students finally saw twelve rescuers breaking through the window to save the 400. Yes, twelve rescuers from a local diving center. There was absolutely no national coast guard from the government. There were only twelve divers when there were hundreds of passengers about to face death inside the completely capsized ferry. The windows were almost impossible to break as they were facing a large amount of pressure. The rescuers tried hard to find hidden exits and drag passengers out of the ferry, but all they could save was 40 students who were on the upper floor. Passengers on the lower floors who were the first to drown did not even have a chance to be saved.

5:30 PM.

Articles about the incident were finally released, and the media was soon flooded with reports of divers pulling body after body from the wreckage, and the list of names of passengers who were found alive, dead, and injured. It was thirty minutes later that the government finally sent groups of national coast guard to try to save the passengers. However, they were too late. Now their job was mostly not to save the victims, but to drag out the dead bodies. Parents of the passengers arrived in the island of Jinju to see if their daughters and sons had been saved, already dead, injured, or still missing. The entire sea was now flooded with tears and agony after the disastrous incident.

Two days later.

While the national coast guard continued their work of pulling body after body from the ferry, families of the victims started to ardently protest against the government and the owner of the ship. They wanted to learn the truth of what had really caused the disastrous death of hundreds of young souls.

“Why didn’t the government send the coast guards right after the incident was reported?” “Where was the captain of the ship when the ship started sinking?” “Why did only 12 local divers come to save the passengers?”

There were millions of questions to be answered. What was unveiled by the media was shocking: people found out that when the ferry started to sink after taking a sharp turn off the Southern coast of Korea, the captain immediately ran away from the ferry alone with the help from the Korean Coast Guard, leaving hundreds of passengers. While hundreds of innocent people were about to face death, the captain, who was supposed to be the most responsible for the incident, saved himself before anyone else. Such news stirred a public outcry, making people ask for a sincere apology from the captain and the government who tried to so easily get away with their responsibilities.

Meanwhile, there were still parents in a camp on the coast near the sinking ferry. With their children still missing, they were waiting for the reports from the divers who found dead bodies.

“A corpse of a girl in Addidas jeans, a yellow shirt, and Nike sneakers was just found,” someone shouted, and three parents who thought she might be their daughter rushed outside the camp to see the dead body. Soon, one of them confirmed that she was her daughter, embraced the dead body, and wailed. It was a complete nightmare. People all knew that there was no hope that their children would return alive as almost a week had passed since the incident. However, parents had the hope that a miracle would happen.

Then there was me, watching the heartbreaking news on the TV with my mom, wondering how it would have been if I been one of them. What if I had been one of the teenagers who left home as usual in the morning, excited for a field trip, and got on the boat without knowing what was coming? What if I were one of them who was extremely frustrated, but had to calm down and wait until someone reached out as the instructions said? It could have been me. It could have been anyone. While such endless chains of thoughts deeply saddened me, I was also outraged by the fact that what happened was not just a single accident, but rather symptomatic of a wider malaise in the country that reflects the defect of a security system, and the inability of the government to handle such a large scale accident. I felt unsafe living in a place where anyone, including myself, would not be able to be protected even when I stuck in a tilted ferry.

In the following days, thousands of teenagers across the country reacted to the incident, showing solidarity with the victims. A number of youth started a worldwide movement with yellow ribbons that offered hopeful messages to the Korean public that the missing passengers could still be found alive. I was one of those who went out to the public square in the center of Seoul with a yellow ribbon on my shirt, praying for the students who fought between life and death in the ocean. We all felt sorry for the victims, and promised them that we would be actively engaged in politics to prevent any further accidents. Yellow ribbons were hope. They were hope that we could make a safer place where the nightmare on Sewol would never happen again.

Nostalgia

Imagine you are walking along the streets of downtown Seoul, enjoying the usual scenery of the city: skyscrapers piercing the sky, metro stations connecting everywhere, and people busily walking with Starbucks Americano in their hands. You would probably pass by towering, fancy buildings that share the same look, people strolling in the park listening to K-POP with their Samsung phones, and kids playing with their I-pads at a café. After getting the general feel, it wouldn’t take long to realize that Seoul is a modernized city. It has been developed through technological innovations that have enabled Korea to rapidly transform from the destruction of the Korean War to a wealthy and developed country.

While such development has indeed made progress, it has also turned Korea into a place where people try to modernize everything with their endless obsession with what they call something ‘newer’ and ‘better.’ People pay attention to new I-phones, strong wi-fi connections, and tall buildings, yet hardly show reverence for their own traditions like architecture, music, and art. All the amazing traditions and spiritual values are considered merely ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘undeveloped’; thus our unique culture with its centuries of history have been ignored. As an ardent lover of Korean traditional art and music, I have been deeply concerned about our culture, being discarded by our society. I do believe that now is the time to bring ‘nostalgia’ to the country in order to make people pay attention to the ‘past’ with affection, not just simply devoting to the ‘future.’

Here’s my personal story of how I became concerned about the diminishing values of traditions in Korean society. Nine years ago when I first arrived in Korea after spending my entire childhood in Tokyo, I was eager to learn about my motherland and figure out what my true identity was. After deciding to reach out to learn various aspects of Korean culture, I attempted to learn the Haegum from a friend of my mom who worked as a teacher of traditional music.

When I first looked at the weird-looking instrument, I doubted that it would create a beautiful sound. However, as soon as I listened to the tune that the two strings made, I fell in love. It was amazing. It was unique. It was definitely not what a violin or cello could make. It was a sound that only belongs to the Haegum. I continued learning the instrument for eight years, and played it in various places like schools, churches, and local community centers. What I liked about the Haegum was not its mere sound; I loved the story behind each song and the beauty behind its dynamic melodies. Through a number of performances I had in different places, I was hoping to spread the beauty of Korean traditional music called Gugak. I hoped people would get to know that this music could be just as beautiful and entertaining as the classical music and K-POP that most people prefer. I hoped they could be mesmerized by the beauty of our music just like me who absolutely fell in love with Gugak. I hoped they could realize that things from the past could be just as beautiful as things of the present and future.

However, it was heartbreaking to see how most people reacted. People said Gugak is so outdated and old to appeal to a wide spectrum of people. They said Koreans no longer identify themselves with antiquated music like Gugak, but rather choose to listen to K-POP like Big Bang or Psy. They said people would never choose traditional folk songs over the viral songs of idols. They said we should create something more modern and new, rather than regenerating things from the past.

It was not just music that they treated this way. They also thought the same way for pretty much all aspects of the society: architecture, social infrastructure, art, pop culture, and so on. They believed that there is no point of focusing on traditional culture as it does not equate with progress.

I would say that the way in which old things have been undermined may have been understandable in the context of a country trying to forget its history and develop as quickly as possible. A lot of people do believe that since modernization has been the driving force of rapid economic development of Korea in the twentieth century, that we should continue pursuing fast, rapid, and massive development. However, I am frustrated that such an attitude would lead us to losing our cultural identity. Discarding our traditional values would eventually let us lose the cultural richness of a country with five thousand years of history. The country built upon Confucian ideals with abundant cultural traditions would end up being a country that only has high broadband speed and tall, shining buildings. What deeply concerns me is the loss of spiritual and cultural values we would face after the endless longing for technological development.

I believe that now is the time to take a step back from the aimless pursuit for modernization and bring nostalgia to Korea. Let’s take a look at the intricate beauty of Hanok, the Korean traditional house; the sophisticated tunes of Gugak; and the virtues of ancient Korean society. There are definitely various values that we could learn from the past and apply to the modern society so that we can preserve our cultural uniqueness. I also think that there is a role for people like me who have an understanding of Korean traditions to reach out and spread the idea of appreciating our unique cultures. I envision that Seoul in a decade will be a vibrant city with a perfect harmony of its fascinating cultural heritages and technology.

“Kosian? Korean!”

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“Kosian? Korean!” August 18, 2016

I live in a country that is often referred to have a racially homogenous population with only 3% of the entire population being foreign residents. In such a place where the majority of the population share the same regional background, it has been regarded as peculiar to have a family from a place other than Korea or to have a different skin color than the majority. In recent years, the previously racially homogenous nation started to face an influx of immigrants from mostly Southeast Asia due to the shortage of labor resulted from a significant decrease in the fertility rate. Such sudden demographic change was lead to an abrupt increase of ‘multicultural’ kids with one of their parents from Vietnam, Laos, or Bangladesh and the other from Korea. These kids are often called ‘Kosians’, identified as social minorities apart from the mainstream Koreans. It is not uncommon that the ‘Kosians’ suffer from serious discrimination in the public only because of their identities. After years of encountering with people with multiple backgrounds who have struggled with prejudice against them, I started to wonder why the society has classified these people as ‘Kosians’ when they are all ‘Koreans’ just like others. Why do we call them ‘Kosians’? Why do we judge them by their backgrounds? How should we eliminate these prejudices and promote diversity?

Project G’Love: Exhibition for Syrian Refugees “One Touch of a Brush”

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This summer, students from the US, UK, and Korea came together to raise a fund to donate socks for Syrian refugees in Turkey. We organized a series of events including the upcoming art exhibition on human rights. This students-run gallery will showcase human rights related art works of 20 students from all over the world. It will be located at the WCO stage (Anguk station Exit 1) on August 20-22th from 12 to 5PM. All profits made from the gallery will be sent to IACD (Institute of Asian Culture and Development) for donation. We would love to share our works and spread our cause. Please drop by and join us!

“Skyscrapers and Peony”

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“Skyscrapers and Peony” August 9th, 2016

On this piece, I tried to express the discrepancy between what I envision as the ‘real’ and ‘ideal’ Seoul. You could easily tell that the upper part of the piece represents the polluted city that almost lost its identity. There are trees, rocks, and rivers that appear on Korean traditional artworks on the mid-lower part of the piece; these are the symbols of neglected traditions of the country. In the center, there’s me, gazing at the peony blossom on my hands. The flower ultimately represents the essential ‘value’ of tradition. This piece as a whole not only implies the extreme emphasis of modernization in Seoul but also shows my earnest hope that Korea could one day re-discover its values of traditions.