Friday, 9 May 2014

Elegy for the Sewol Tragedy: Waiting For A Miracle. Some personal thoughts

Read KimchiBytes.
Read The Secret Map's fictional "letter from Sewol"
Read Brother Anthony and Korean poet Ko-Un's creative effort: art and grief go together well.
Photos taken at the City Hall and Cheonggyecheon Plaza memorials for the Sewol Ferry victims.

The character 왜 means "Why"
Why why why why why?
Analysis aside, here are some personal thoughts:

If you're connected to Korea, you've probably spotted this image. On social media, everyone had this image or a yellow ribbon like it as their online profile photos.
The Korea Herald explains that the yellow ribbon campaign commemorated, and as time went by, mourned the victims of the April 16 Sewol Ferry disaster. The text says "하나의 작은 움직임이 큰기적을," translated by The Herald as "one small movement, big miracles." The ribbon pictured first turned up on April 21st, but there were no such miracles after the rescues made on the first day. We are still waiting.

As the mourning continues, I notice something I have always admired about Koreans:  in times of great joy or crisis, the entire nation galvanizes. South Korea is usually fractured and polarized: north/south, Gyeongsan/Jeolla, political and class and generational fault lines all regularly explode into public antipathy. Yet World Cup Fever still carries everyone away, the figure skating hero captures our eyes and dreams, and then she is no longer Yuna Kim, but "Our Yuna." It becomes "Our team." There is also "Korea's singer" "Korea's little sister" and Korea's representative X in diverse fields. When a Korean does well abroad they are suddenly everyone's brother, sister, uncle, aunt. The same spirit brings Korea together in times of grief and crisis. People pulled gold teeth out of their mouths, and gave up heirloom gold, to help out during the 1997 Financial crisis. Why? Because it's "Our" country, and "Our" crisis. Much of the language at the Sewol memorial in City Hall is familial, or collective.
At the City Hall Plaza memorial.
Those yellow ribbon images again.
This heart was made of yellow paper boats, hand-folded.
And all of Korea grieves now, because these are "Our" children, taken away through entirely preventable causes. "We" failed to protect them. "We" let scofflaws and crooks willfully put lives at risk over a profit margin, and it is already too late for "our" lost children.

One feeling I've picked up is that these are not isolated cases, either. "We" feel that it could have been any of us. Everybody went on school trips like this. One day my son will. Everybody has boarded a train or a boat not knowing whether it cleared its last inspection with room to spare, or just barely, or only because somebody was hurried, or called in a favor. On the streets, we have all passed the preschool with a plastic slide instead of a fire escape, tut-tutted helmet-less scooter drivers weaving through traffic. In my first year, a fire lit by some kid in my seventh floor hagwon was doused with water carried from the bathroom sink, because the legally required fire extinguishers were locked in the owner's office. In my second year, our seventh-story kindergarten had one day of classes on the second floor while the fire inspector came by, because the seventh floor had a permit for special activities but not regular classes. Our secondary fire escape was a pulley. Just this January, I saw a car tear through a crosswalk at passing lane speed, and had a middle-school girl crossed two steps faster, I would have seen her die. These are anecdata: not much on their own, but Korea's workplace injury and traffic fatality statistics confirm what the smell test suggests: there but for the grace of God go any of us.

This "Graduation class photo" really hit me.
News stories corroborate. Here, Popular Gusts lists some of the incidents that could been wake-up calls. Fake certificates at a nuclear plant. The Daegu subway fire. Sampoong Department Store. Seongsu Bridge. These names are repeated like a shaman's grief ritual. All the low or no-casualty incidents like this (KTX 2013) and this (KTX 2011) appear and disappear on page 6 of the paper. Remember the time Lotte Adventure in Jamsil was shut down? Barely a blip on the public memory radar. And the most recent collision between two subway trains, only a few weeks after this tragedy suggests that those in charge of safety standards are still dropping balls.

At times like this it feels to me like Korea is two different countries at the same time, one built right on top of the other. The first is a corrupt kleptocracy, a country of dirty fire traps, short cuts and sweat shops, held together by guts and profit, run by wealthy wheeler-dealers with well-placed friends, populated with beaten down factory workers, low-wage drones, headlong delivery drivers, and the discarded humans who didn't run fast enough, now collecting recycling material on the street. Buildings with poor foundations, sketchy wiring, bad welding and corners that aren't square, literally or figuratively. Get it done, do it fast, next contract. All of Korea looked this way from the 1950s to the late 80s. Let's call it Grimy Old Korea, and have a moment of silence for Jeon Tae-il, the martyr of Grimy Old Korea, and the patron saint of what came after.

Korean language doesn't always include pronouns.
Literally, it says: "Sorry. Won't forget you."
Spirit of the phrase: "We're sorry. We won't forget you."
People could lay white flowers on the display, and bow.

There is another Korea built over top of Grimy Old Korea. Construction started in the 1990s. This is a Korea where taking a year abroad happens. Where kids grew up with cellphones, and people visit coffee shops and have photo blogs. Its citizens grew up wondering where to find free wi-fi, unlike their grandparents, who grew up wondering if they would eat meat that week. In this Korea people buy organic. They buy new shoes instead of visiting the cobbler near the bus stop. They wrinkle noses at squatter toilets. Let's call the country they live in Shiny New Korea. It has public parks that are no smoking zones. Grimy Old Korea smokes there anyways, though.

At City Hall 
Money is part of it, of course. Living in Shiny New Korea is pay as you go, and Korea is as safe as you can afford it to be, up to a point. Not all rich are part of Shiny New Korea, though. If you've ever had gangsters evict a tenant, or settled a grievance with a lead pipe, you're part of Grimy Old Korea. And not everyone trying to inhabit Shiny New Korea is privileged: the distinction cuts across generation and education and geographical region as well as class. Many would-be Shiny New Citizens are simply concerned parents and grandparents, buying second-hand foreign imports less for the prestige and more for the assurance that German and Swedish inspection codes are less susceptible to greasy palms. They scour blogs and word-of-mouth networks to verify what's good, what's safe, which preschools meet fire codes and run background checks on their teachers, and which restaurants don't disinfect. Those hours spent looking things up are the tribute they pay to ward Grimy Old Korea off another day.

The parents and grandparents with blood, skin, and kin in the game hope public transportation and public buildings are managed and inspected by members of Shiny New Korea, doing their jobs to the letter, and not the other kind. But even if you spare no cost, track the user reviews and get the import with extra airbags, sometimes Grimy Old Korea runs a red light coming the other way, and there's nothing you can do. Grimy Old Korea cannot be shut out entirely, and it can snatch away your kid, your dream, or your health, just like that.

To be fair, Grimy Old Korea had a good run, and accomplished a lot: the vitality, the entrepreneurship, the energy and determination of those same generations that filled the country breakneck quick with fire traps, tombstone apartment blocks and smokestacks, also demanded and achieved, at great human cost, a democracy wherein the Shiny New Citizens are free to complain about the wi-fi. Korea's modern history is knotty, and resists simplifying narratives.

Memorial at Cheonggyecheon Plaza
Academics and technocrats would employ the language of uneven development: advancement always follows the money first, before extending to everyone else. And in a country that developed as quickly as South Korea, it's no surprise that the contrast is sharp. Parts of this country feel like somebody threw a white tablecloth over a table cluttered with takeout. Of course the crystalware is crooked: there's a side dish beneath it! But with countries, you can't just clear and wipe the table before setting out the nicer new dishes. And some of the old dishes are nice, in their fashion.

Shiny New Korea and Grimy Old Korea don't often see eye to eye. Grimy Old Korea sidesteps the accusations of recklessness and ruthlessness with the language of nation building. It takes a tragedy like this for Grimy Old Korea to hang its head, to stop pleading "It's what everybody was doing!" and agree that they all rushed too quick, overlooked too much, and favored filling their own coffers over designing a nation made for its people.

Inside a globe of yellow ribbons:
the white flowers used in Korean funerals
Maybe this tragedy, after so many ignored warnings, will finally be the violent turning of a new leaf. Maybe the shame on one side, and rage on the other, will finally stop settling for band-aid solutions and transmute into real change, real accountability, until Grimy Old Korea is a closed chapter, and public safety is no longer a luxury for the moneyed. That would be a different kind of miracle than we started off hoping for.

There was a promise implicitly made in Grimy Old Korea's heyday, that the nation under construction would be worth the work. That sacrifice and strain would mean future generations enjoy a better nation than the parents inherited. That was the deal. There is a yearning for Korea to be prosperous, but to round that out by also being compassionate, not just toward shareholders, but toward the strangers who live and die, grieve and starve, and still check nervously for Grimy Old Korea barreling toward them at every crosswalk.

I wish that the next generation of leaders, contractors and entrepreneurs would see their neighbors, and moreover their customers, tenants and passengers, as part of the great "We," not just during times of crisis and joy, but all the time. The delivery that we want right now is not the one that buzzed by on a sidewalk motorbike, with a metal takeout box that nearly clipped my son. We'd rather have those in power deliver on that promise made in the 60s and 70s, that one day we will be able to enjoy, in peace and safety, the fruit of the sacrifices and griefs we have been asked to bear for too too long. We've worked so hard and lost so much: why are we still so unhappy? Why do these things still happen?

The takeout delivery always arrives on time, but the delivery that really matters, has been delayed again and again. And with our yellow ribbons waving in the downtown, maybe that is the miracle we are still waiting for.

People could write a note on these papers. So I did.

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