Wow. So many thoughts going on in my head right now. Today was our every once and a while English speaker’s brunch on the US army base at church. Mr. Lee and I were sitting with an American expat expat couple – meaning the husband works as a businessman for a multinational corporation, and they live a very American expat experience in terms of living in foreign national housing and sending their son to an international school. The wife is now heavily involved in a North Korean defector program which helps to bring North Koreans to the South, resettle them, and advocate for their human rights. In addition to tutoring a young defector in English, she is also involved in trying to make the organization an NGO which is causing some conflicts. The original mission statement written in preparation for applying for NGO status was rejected by the Koreans involved in the process because, for legal, social, and safety reasons, it was too explicit in terms of defining and stating their actual role. The Koreans’ position, and the legal advice given to my church friend by an American expat lawyer, is to be very vague in terms of the work they do – perhaps even omitting ‘North Korea’ from the statement altogether. However, the Westerners (mostly American?) I think, were very much against vague statements. Therefore, my friend was asking our opinion on the situation.
Mr. Lee, an American English university prof, and myself all agreed that from the Korean perspective, the vague statement was best. Not only is it necessary from a legal perspective, but also because in these sorts of things Korean just is vague. I read somewhere that English puts the responsibility for providing meaning on the speaker while Korean puts that responsibility on the listener. I used to think that so much of my confusion in conversation with Koreans (especially those who are older or in positions of power) had to do with my low Korean ability, but I’ve come to realize that part of it is my inability to read between the lines and speakers’ propensity to make vague statements, especially when the topic requires sensitive treatment. But in this specific situation with the North Korean group, I also told my friend that I understood the Westerners’ need to have something specific on paper. With vague statements, it might seem to them that the group was unfocused, or worse yet, attempting to deceive in a malicious way. In the end we concluded that when it comes to Westerners and Koreans working together, communication problems happen less because of a difference in actual language, but in the expectations each side has because of their linguistic and cultural views. I advised my friend to go with the vague statement, but also to make sure that the Westerners were told why (culturally, not just legally), such a statement was needed, and to communicate this fact in a way Westerners would appreciate and trust.
My friend also discussed the difficulties in working on North Korean issues because many North Koreans themselves felt it was inappropriate for anyone but North Koreans to be involved in developing programs for defectors, and how many South Koreans reacted very negatively to her helping this middle school aged defector. Together, we all discussed some of the history behind discrimination against defectors and how Americans could get involved in North Korean issues without angering North Koreans themselves. It was a good and productive conversation…but it was also tiring. Tiring because it was about trying to explain South Koreans to an American, trying to explain Americans to a South Korean, and trying to validate everyone’s perspective while bringing them into dialogue with one another.
In the same conversation, by friend mentioned that she was looking for non violent, non sexual, subtitled in Korean English movies for her North Korean student because she wanted to give her some fun things to study and be able to help her conversation skills by discussing the movies they watched together. However, being an American expat couple, they didn’t have many subtitled movies. Mr. Lee has over 700 movies, most including subtitles, so I offered to peruse our shelves and find something for her. While doing so, Mr. Lee remembered that he had a movie called 우리학교 (Our School); the movie is about a school that was once sponsored by North Korea in Japan where ethnic Korean students (often North Korean passport holders) go to school in Japan. He though my friend might like the movie because of her interest in North Korea. Well, I was also intrigued by the movie, so I sat down and watched it this afternoon. Before watching it, Mr. Lee cautioned me that it was important to focus on the sentiment behind the movie and understand that the film was the darling of netizens both because it showed the kind of school that rarely exists in South Korea these days, and also because the movie focused on jung, in this case, the underlying connection between people of Korean decent regardless of country.
So I watched it. And then it ended. And then I sat blankly looking at the screen trying to process all the different thoughts and emotions running through my head. First off, even with my limited Korean skills, there is an obvious difference between the sentiment conveyed in Korean and the sentiment translated into English. In the film, ‘Korea’ is often referred to as ‘Joseon’ which is the North Korean term for the whole of Korea, but an English speaker would have a very different emotion when reading the translated ‘Korea’. The students also talk about Korea (North) and Korean as ‘our country’ and ‘our language’ which is the normal way South Koreans talk about their country and language, but when 3rd generation ethnic Koreans living in Japan use these phrases (and when they have North Korean passports), the English ‘Korea’ and ‘Koreans’ can’t really communicate the sentiment implicit in those phrases. There were a lot of those kinds of linguistic gaps for me, so I wonder how many other things were there for native Korean speakers.
The film also dealt with the discrimination such groups face (difficulty entering Japanese universities if they are educated at Korean schools, inability to compete for school titles in sports, and protests against the existence of such schools), and interestingly enough, it dealt with the graduating class’ trip to ‘the Fatherland’ or North Korea and the students’ feelings of love toward North Korea after returning (exacerbated by protests from right-wing Japanese upon their return to Japan).
Throughout the whole movie I was trying to understand everyone. These Koreans in Japan – their grandparents and great grandparents were brought to Japan as labourers to do the lowest of the low work. And then Japanese rule ends in Korea, but the Korean War breaks out, so nobody returns home. After the War, North Korea is actually more prosperous for a time, so many of the Koreans in Japan choose North Korean citizenship and allegiance, and they were supported by North Korea at the same time they were being discriminated against by Japan. So of course this new generation, who has had protests outside their school, and not been able to wear the traditional Korean hanbok at times because it might draw violence feel a connection to a country that is mythologized in the textbooks they use and folk songs they sing. And then they go there and see the best of the best of Pyeongyang – of course they love North Korea.
But then I also put myself in the shoes of the Japanese – not those who want to prevent children’s’ sports teams from competing on a regional or national level, or those who threaten violence or impose discriminatory policies, but those who might understandably be annoyed by a group of people who talk about ‘our people’ and ‘our language’ living in their midst when the North Korean government has kidnapped Japanese citizens and put the country at risk with missiles and nuclear tests. And although the movie glosses over the ideological slant of the school, it’s pretty obvious that the school is very pro-North Korea.
And then I tried to understand how Koreans might feel connected to these people who, although they are interested in South Korea and unification, feel allegiance to the North. There’s definitely a feeling of connection because it’s often easier to acknowledge a common enemy in Japan than to recognize the massive mindset differences between North and South at this point in history which will make reunification a monumental task if we ever make it to that point. Of course, the movie really plays on the sentimentality of persecuted people of Korean ancestry trying to rediscover and keep alive Korean clothes, music, and dance even as those in the South are abandoning these aspects of culture. So yeah, I get why this played well in the South.
But as a non-ethnic Korean who is part of a Korean family, the movie also upsets me because in the present day, bicultural Korean-____ children, especially those with a parent from Southeast Asia, face massive discrimination in Korea. Here are children with a Korean family name, who were born and raised in Korea, and who speak perfect Korean who are considered other or lower or uncomfortable to be around because as ‘mixed’ people, Koreans can’t feel the same jung for them. I wish people could watch the discrimination of ethnic Koreans abroad and also apply those feelings of rage to how non-ethnic Koreans are sometimes treated on Korean soil.
And then, because this is just how my brain works, I also had to think of how this movie might play to an American expat with an interest in North Korean defectors. How, as part of a country with an ideal of people being able to belong to a country based on immigrating to a new land and settling there, she would have a hard time understanding how citizenship, belonging, and nation work in East Asia.
And then my head nearly exploded with trying to not only understand but also harmonize all these very different perspectives. Just yesterday I was sitting at Costco eating my post-Lent piece of cheese pizza and thinking (because I do most of my thinking in the middle of mundane tasks), of how my children were going to be blessed because they were going to be raised with three very distinct identities – Canadian, Korean, and Orthodox Christian. At that moment, I was thinking that they would be blessed because their various perspectives would help them to be more tolerant and able to apply what they knew about harmonizing differences to other situations and contexts. But now I’m also reminded that although in this modern and globalized a background in multiple perspectives is the future of our world, it’s also easier to just hold on to one identity. It’s easier just to be a right-wing Japanese protestor confident in your assertion that life would be better without ethnic Koreans in your backyard. It is easier for a ethnic Korean 3rd generation middle schooler to decide their identity is North Korean instead of a complex North Korean-ethnic Korean-Japanese resident identity. And it would certainly have been easier for me to have stayed in small town Ontario, stayed mainstream Protestant, and married someone from the same background. So much easier.
In the end, I truly believe in the importance of diversity, the beauty of complexity, and the necessity of empathy. Empathy is really a skill that modern people need to develop to help them to communicate, interact, and solve world problems, but it sure is hard sometimes. It sure is hard.