From January 21 to March 26, AAC (Arlington Arts Center) is hosting the ‘Curators Spotlights’ that exhibits artwork of professional local artists. Last week, I helped my Adv. Art teacher Mrs. Dixon installing her work with cocoons and butterfly wings. Mrs. Dixon is a highly experienced artist who works primarily with living organisms. She incorporates her art with entomology, and her work reflects the beauty of nature.
It is so grateful that I am able to seize all these opportunities to enjoy art and develop my perspectives near DC and take an amazing art class from a talented, experienced artist. Check out AAC website for more information! Here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I still remember when I encountered the civil rights movement for the first time back in 4th grade, reading a history book for kids. Skimming through a twenty page long text about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, I learned that the civil rights movement in the 1960s was an enthusiastic social movement lead by a few African American civil rights activists who voiced out for equality for all. What I learned a few years later as a high school student in the United States is no different from what I read back then as a ten year old. My history textbook still portrays the civil rights movement as a predominantly Southern, youth, male oriented mobilizing event that helped galvanize support for ending legalized racial discrimination with its primary focus on integrating blacks to the mainstream whites. However, such vague coverage of the movement ultimately misses much of the organizing base at the heart of the movement. Not only does it misrepresent the ultimate goal of the movement, but it also fails to address the unrepresented groups who greatly contributed to the freedom of blacks.
Through textbooks and media, a majority of historians have claimed that the ultimate goal of the blacks was to achieve equality and integrate to the white community. This means that the blacks urged to go to desegregated schools with white kids and gain suffrage to simply participate in the white politics. Such account fails to show the essential goal of the movement that millions of blacks craved for decades. The ultimate goal of African Americans was to get their identities and cultures acknowledged in the country, not to simply assimilate to the mainstream whites as second class citizens. A deep look into African American education in the 1960s shows such effort to preserve their cultures. In 1963, a number of African American cultural pluralists requested secondary schools in New York City to include African American studies in their curriculum. As the schools did not accept their request for change, they decided to boycott public schools for their failure to recognize blacks as a distinctive group whose history and cultures should be fully recognized and taught. They, instead, created Freedom Schools in which black students could learn about the history of the African Americans. Such educational change suggests that blacks endeavored to develop understanding in their identities and history, resisting to assimilate to the whites, losing their cultures.
Recent accounts of the civil rights movement also fails to address the involvement of unrepresented groups such as women and elders. Most historical texts illustrate youth and men as the main force of the freedom movement in the 1960s, especially in the black power movement. Popularly misunderstood as a spontaneous rejection of nonviolence, the ‘Black Power’ movement rose in the late 1950s was in fact a self-defense act by all ranges of people mostly in the South. While the civil rights activists took nonviolent actions to protest against the inequality imposed on the, those involved in efforts to register to vote were occasionally attacked at home, while they mostly relied on guns to protect themselves. Since the legal system failed to work for African Americans in the country controlled by White supremacy, they were the ones who had to defend themselves. Unlike the common misconception that self-defense was the province of men, and that women were naturally nonviolent, women and elders were also highly involved under such harsh circumstances.
Self-determination, liberation, and justice: values of the civil rights movement have been championed through decades as the core of American liberation movement. There is no doubt that such movement greatly challenged the devastated situation of African Americans and developed freedom and democracy in the United States. However, there needs to be a clarification about the misconception of the ultimate purpose of such movement and the groups of people actively engaged to enact a change. The civil rights movement was not a sole freedom act created by for integration of blacks but rather a large scale of revolution for true recognition of people regardless or races.
“As you guys can see on the map, the Korean peninsula here was divided between a Soviet-blacked government in the North and an American-blacked government in the South…” It was another typical day at Episcopal, and I was sitting in my AP US History class, gazing at the map on the screen. Mr. Reynolds was pointing at a map that shows the Korean peninsula, the place where I come from, while explaining the containment policy during the Cold War. I was a bit zoning out at first, but something caught up my attention right away. The map on the screen said the body of water besides the Korean peninsula is the ‘Sea of Japan’, not the ‘East Sea’. It is one of the ongoing geopolitical disputes between Korea and Japan that has been continued since the world wars in the 20th century in the wake of Japanese imperialism. I clearly knew that the map was misrepresenting the name of the hotly disputed region. Soon followed the moment I raised my hand and shouted out loud in the middle of the class, “It’s not the Sea of Japan. It’s the East Sea.”
There is a decades-long history behind the high-stake struggle between the two Asian powers over the names of the body of water located between Korea and Japan. The Korean government has asserted that Koreans have used the name ‘East Sea’ for over two thousand years, even 700 years before Japan was officially adopted as a country name. It is also claimed that the body of water was started to be referred to the ‘Sea of Japan’ since the Japanese annexation of Korea in the early 20th century. Despite of the Korean government’s claim that its name has a greater historical legitimacy than that of Japan, the region has been known internationally as the Sea of Japan since the 17th century with most international bodies, including the United Nations, using the name today. The government and grassroots organizations, aiming for redressing misrepresentation of history, have endeavored to persuade the international community to recognize the name ‘East Sea’ as the official nomenclature of the sea area. The effort did make a change in some places, such as Virginia. In April 2014, the Virginia House of Delegates passed legislation that requires textbooks to include both names by a wide margin. This change was finally made due to the endless effort of Korean Americans in the state to push state legislatures to rename the sea. Yet, official publications produced by a number of international communities are still in need of reform.
I started to wonder how many more times I would encounter such misrepresentation of Korean territory and history and how many of those I could redress. It has only been a few years since the Smithsonian museum started to indicate ‘East Sea’ and ‘Dokdo’ in its map, and prep schools in America still teach Asian history according to the imperialism ideology that rose in the 20th century. I’m sure there still are hundreds of schools that use the wrong map in class, hundreds of museums that misname the sea, and probably hundreds of people in the world who know the Sea of Japan, but not the East Sea. The problem is, not all of those would be accepting like my history teacher who gladly corrected the map after I gave him my opinion. Most of them may be like, “Well, why don’t you go by what everyone else in the world says?” Would I be able to bravely voice out even when surrounded by a hundred of people who have been taught the inaccurate version of history?
I soon realized that it is my responsibility to stand up and correct the sanitized version of history with sufficient historical evidence that backs up my argument. It is not because of the mere fact that I’m Korean. In fact, I’m a person who has dual backgrounds of both Korea and Japan as a quarter-Japanese Korean who grew up in both Tokyo and Seoul, and I definitely understand the stances of both countries. This is a problem that should not be viewed in a simplistic nationalism framework, but rather a larger issue that all of us are supposed to care about with the responsibility to resolve geopolitical disputes that have been deeply rooted in human history. What we have to do is to reach out to spread the truth, listen to others who try to correct the misconception, and try to be aware of disputes that are still ongoing around the world.
After what happened in my history class, two new files of documents were placed on my laptop: articles about the East Sea and geopolitical disputes present in and out of Asia. I came to realize that I should be fully aware of the historical evidence of why the East Sea is a legitimate name of the sea region and of information about a variety of issues regarding territorial conflicts all across the world. Yes, it is not easy at all to resolve the centuries-long conflicts that our predecessors have passed down to later generations. But if every one of us tries to take a step forward and spread the truth, there will be a change.