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.

10 Million Against Me

I still remember the eyes of the belligerent, old lady piercing through me with disgust. “Go back to your country, you Japanese bitch.” She called me a bitch in front of strangers passing by in the street. Listening to the tsunami of such vulgar words, I stood frozen in time, seared with an embarrassment that I had never felt in my life. I wanted to scream back at her. Tell her I was doing the right thing for my own country. But not a single word escaped my mouth as the lady continued to look down on me, with cold condescension. Soon, I tasted the salty tears streaming down my cheeks, lowered my head to avoid the weird stares people were giving me, and grasped my picket sign with a firmer grip. It was one of those unusual days of August, 2015, the day when over 10 million people of Seoul, the city I truly love, turned back against me. It was the day I declared with an unwavering voice: “I am Korean, and I love Japanese people.”

Kota called me on the day he came back to Korea for summer. He asked me to meet him at a café nearby to chat as usual. Kota was one of the few people with whom I could openly share my stories, not just because he was a nice person in nature, but also because he had been my friend for 12 solid years, since my childhood in Chiba, Japan. He was always there for me back in Japan when I was one of the few foreigners in town, and even in Korea where I had a hard time finding my true identity between the two distinct cultures. Just like me, with my Japanese grandmother, Kota also had a family with members from both. There was so much common in our lives. That day when he arrived in Seoul, I soon found myself excitedly heading to our rendez-vous, wondering about just how much time we would be able to spend together, for we had so much to catch up. As I took a step into the café, I found Kota right away, and our animated conversation began immediately. In the middle of the hour-long talk, Kota took a pause with a slightly serious look and changed the subject. “You know what, Jimin. I was wondering if people like you and me could do something to make a change.” He continued, “You know—to improve relations between Korea and Japan.” While I gave him a confused look, he started to explain what he had realized through a number of encounters with people from both places. Both Korea and Japan suffer from anti-Japanese and anti-Korean sentiments respectively that stem from decades-long political disputes. Since the Japanese colonization in Korea during WW2, Korea has argued that the Japanese government needs to apologize for its wrongdoings such as drastically massacring the majority of population and forcing a number of Korean women called ‘comfort women’ into sex slavery for the Japanese army. However, the Japanese government did not make any official apology for its wartime atrocities. Such irresponsibility outraged the Korean public, creating a sense of hatred that has been passed down through generations. Even now, a majority of Koreans hold prejudices against Japan and rule out any effort to start a conversation between the two nations.

Just as what Kota told me, I have experienced the seemingly unbreakable wall of prejudices between the two countries. As a quarter-Japanese Korean, I have had numerous moments in which I had to confront people caught up in the distorted images of the two countries. In 8th grade, a boy in my history class publicly humiliated me in front of the whole class by calling me a Japanese monkey when discussing the imperialist period. There was also a professor from a prestigious university in Seoul who argued that the Japanese were all merely trying to bury their faults in the past, without any evidence to support his theory, at a famous conference I participated in. My closest neighbor in Japan unconsciously implied that most Koreans are radical extremists who never make any effort to solve the political disagreement between the two countries. All these first-hand experiences as a person with dual backgrounds made me nod to Kota’s story without thinking twice. I knew that someone had to take the initiative to spread the idea that we should stop judging others by their nationalities and move past the prejudice that hinders true development. I knew that the closed attitudes we have towards each other do not better the situation, making it much more unlikely to recover from the various conflicts that ought to be resolved for the better future. The in-depth conversation with Kota blew a sense of courage into me. I realized that I was not the only one who felt the serious need for a difference. I felt the responsibility to serve as the bridge between the people from the two different places as someone well aware of both cultures, and I realized that I should be the one to take the first step for a positive change. So after nodding my head once again, I said to Kota, “Let’s do this.”

For the next few weeks, the I contemplated ways to effectively increase awareness of the prejudices prevalent in our society. After days of organizing ideas we had conjured up, we came up with the idea to join the ‘AND Project’ on Facebook, a social media movement that aims to bridge people from Korea and Japan. It was a brand new movement that was originally founded by Ackey and Yumiko, two graduate students in Japan, and I was able to join them as a co-organizer. The basic idea was to create an online page in which people from both countries could build friendships by posting images of themselves holding signs that say, “I am Korean, and I love Japanese people.” or “I am Japanese, and I love Korean people.” We believed that genuine cultural exchanges occurred in the process of developing true friendships with others with an open mind, and hoped that our online page could create a platform through which true understanding between the two cultures could bloom. I still remember the click I made to officially publish the post online for the very first time, full of anticipation, wondering what responses would return.

It was more interesting than expected to see how people reacted to posts and messages on the AND project. One day, I found myself looking at our Facebook page and yelping out of pure disbelief that we had reached more than 200 likes in a month. Not only did we attract attention worldwide, but we also got messages from a variety of people, transcending generations and nationalities, ranging from a Korean high school student eager to make Japanese friends to a Polish businessman impressed by the social movement happening on the other side of the world. A college student from Israel even sent us a message asking if he could benchmark our idea for his program for rehabilitating the bilateral relationship between Israel and Palestine. I could hardly believe what was happening, for just one month had passed since the launch of the project. Watching people trying to become more engaged in our project and communicating with others, people whom they would have not befriended otherwise, I started to realize what people really needed: a chance to get to know each other and become true friends through constant interaction. Until then, I was confident that our project was making a positive difference.

After months of continuing our efforts online, Kota and I decided to organize an off-line campaign in Myeong-dong, a popular place for tourists in Seoul. We planned to create a booth with posters and pickets that say, “I’m Korean, and I love Japanese people”, along the street where hundreds of people passed by. Our goal was to voice our opinions in a public place where various people got together so that we could share our stories and ideas in person. Days flew by, and we prepared pamphlets and postcards beautifully decorated by Korean and Japanese high school students willing to support our project. Finally, the day came. We first arrived at our booth, carefully laid our posters on a single leg table covered with a banner, and prepared to start our new campaign. As our project had gone viral online, I was confident that our campaign at Myeong-dong would also become popular, and that there would be quite a number of people who would be willing to tear down xenophobia barriers. However, it did not take long for me to face the most insulting, disparaging moment of my short life. Hundreds…Thousands of people all seemed to be busily heading to their destinations, without any interest in the teenage girl holding pickets and posters in her hand. “Does anyone want to be friends with people in the other parts of the world?” I shouted. All that answered me was the buzzing sound of a nearby construction site. Hardly anyone gave me a single glance, except for several kids who seemed intrigued by our childish logo and postcards.

Soon, I found an old lady approaching us, strutting toward our booth. She grabbed one of our pamphlets, skimmed through our posters, and frowned. In a few seconds, she screeched, “Do you guys ever read the news?” She shouted, “Well, you must know how we’ve suffered for centuries because of Japan. No matter what, Japan is bad. We must not forget what they have done to us.” As she finished, I tried to explain to her that we should still move on from the past. I added a tiny voice. “But I mean…”

“Aren’t you shameful of what you are doing? Go back to your country, you Japanese bitch.” She completely cut me off without giving me a chance to persuade her. And there I was, tongue-tied, deeply hurt by her striking words. The campaign was an obvious failure. I left right away, crying all the way back home. I kept wondering why it had seemed impossible to confront the old lady at the moment. It was not the threat of her forceful words, nor the mere humiliation I experienced in front of hundreds of strangers. It was rather due to the genuine fear that the majority of people in the world were refusing to embrace others, to get to truly know each other, and to listen to the voices of people who try to enact a change. Just as how 10 million population of Seoul rejected me, people do not always listen to the voices of the few, and it is definitely more than difficult to influence the mindset of people who have already lived with bias embedded in their lives. However, someone needs the courage to shout out loud, “Listen.”

It took me months to acknowledge the fact that I needed the courage to stand up to people, even if they refused to listen to me. I needed to reassure myself that although it is certainly difficult to become the true activist who imposes a change on the society, I could definitely become that activist if I could confront every possible obstacle, even if all 10 million inhabitants of Seoul I love rejected me. I opened my laptop again, logged into Facebook, skimmed through our posts, and convinced myself once more to keep trying. For I believe with all my heart that there will come a time when Koreans and Japanese become true friends and proudly say, “We love each other.”

Korea Day at the Freer and Sackler Galleries

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On the way to Sackler Gallery (Freer is now closed for renovation)

It was another balmy spring day in Washington DC. Hundreds of visitors were lining up in the front garden of Sackler Gallery, holding fans and kites with Korean traditional decorations. It was the ‘Korean Day’ of the year, an annual family festival that introduces Korean traditions through various cultural activities. This year, the gallery prepared a wide spectrum of activities from hands-on art program to Gayageum (가야금, Korean traditional music instrument) performance, to increase awareness on Korean cultures. As a high school Minhwa artist and Haegum (해금, Korean traditional music instrument) player who has studied traditional arts for eight years, I was impressed at how Korean traditions are getting popularity in DC and wondered how the gallery would portray our unique cultures. Without any hesitation, I headed to Sackler, the Smithsonian’s museum of Asian art.

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Pamphlets of ‘Korea Day’

From 11 AM to 4 PM, visitors were welcomed to participate in five programs that each introduced different aspects of Korean cultures and traditions. Kids were excited to go to hand craft sessions and make yeons (연, Korean traditional kite) and bu-chae (부채, referred as fans) with traditional decorations. Visitors ranging from a young student to an adult watched Taekwondo demonstrations that show one of the most well-known Korean traditional sports. It was more than glad to see how a wide spectrum of people from all races and age groups got intrigued by Korean traditions and joined the programs. However,  I could easily tell that most of the booths lacked sufficient resources and staffs. All they had were a few papers, wood sticks, and several color pencils for kids to color their worlds.

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Kids making Korean traditional fans (부채)

There seemed to be no staff who could give proper instructions nor rice paper and tools needed to make traditional kites and fans. According to an intern who was supporting the festival as a staff, the fund provided from the Korean government this year decreased by more than half than last year. Such lack of support from the government made it inevitable for the gallery to prepare the event with the minimum amount of money they could possibly spend.

On the last floor of the gallery, I soon found a place that caught my attention at once. It was the exhibition of Minhwa artworks, the form of Korean traditional folk art that I have worked on for years. Works by a Korean American artist Min Sun Oh were exhibited right in front of the souvenir shop.

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Minhwa exhibitions (Korean traditional folk painting)

Minhwa is unconventional form of traditional Korean art that was highly prosperous in the 17th century. It represents the freedom and will of common people and expresses their innermost thoughts and dreams. This unique type of painting has various themes such as wealth, health, happiness, prosperity, and longevity of lives that were conceived as unique values of Korean cultures. I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Prof. Jungsil Lee from Washington University of Virginia who coordinated the Minhwa exhibition booth at the festival. She is the one who provided a great support to the festival of this year by inviting several Minhwa artists and asking the museum to promote more programs relevant to Korean arts. She told me that she was disappointed at the lack of Korean art pieces at Sackler compared to Chinese and Japanse works and started to ask the gallery to put a more focus on Korean arts. This Minhwa exhibition was another effort for her to increase awareness on Korean arts.

Talking with her about how traditional arts impacted her life, I was able to rethink about the power of traditions and cultures. I believe that cultures like arts and music could be used as a great tool when bridging people with different backgrounds. As an international student studying in the States, I see how the diverse population of the States with people from a number of different places have prejudices against each other without any effort to know about others. I do believe that art and music could be the best way to draw attention so that we could appreciate all forms of cultures. This would be the first step of cultural exchange, and I think programs such as Korea Festival are the best opportunities for us to let ourselves open to all cultures and values. However, I do believe that there are various ways we could improve the program. I couldn’t help thinking that the booths and activity sessions of the festival were at a superficial level. They were showing very basic parts of Korean traditions and ultimately failed to provide the visitors with the chances to take a deep look into Korean cultures. People who come to such event are the ones who are already interested in our cultures and are willing to take a deep look into them; however, all that the gallery was showing were very basic like Taekwondo and yeons. I believe we could introduce a more various aspects of our cultures that would be more compelling to get to know about.