Sunday, May 29, 2011

Glimpses of Korean history

Earlier this month, we set aside a day to visit the city of Kwangju, a place where our missionary predecessors flourished. The city has a long tradition of missionaries, who notably founded a hospital, a girl’s school, and a nursing school. We were lucky enough to get tours of these places, and also to visit the mission house (an interesting mixture of Korean and Western architecture) and the missionary graveyard, a beautiful site located on top of a hill.

Missionary graveyard 

Kwangju is very significant in recent Korean history because of the democratic movement, culminating in the uprising on May 18th, 1980. In brief: On that day, a protest against the government, mostly by unarmed students, turned disastrous. Paratroopers were ordered to suppress the protest and they did so violently, with the use of clubs and bayonets, eventually even opening fire on the crowd. Not only were many protesters murdered, but innocent bystanders were killed in the crossfire. This led to enraged protesters organizing to fight back, and more than a week of hostilities ensued until the city was retaken by the army on May 27th.

At the memorial parkThe uprising was in response to the military dictatorship of Jeon Du Hwan, an ROK general who had taken control of the country via a coup in December 1979 (generally), and the May 17th announcement of the expansion of martial law in Korea (specifically). While the uprising did not achieve anything directly – martial law was not lifted, and Jeon remained in power for eight more years – it is nonetheless an important moment for Korean democracy. The courage of the protesters and the people who resisted the government’s brutality were continuing inspirations for the rest of Korea not to give up hope. The response to the massacre also revealed depths of kindness and generosity in people as they reached out to help each other – sharing food, donating blood, and so forth – and to comfort their grieving neighbors. We paid a visit to the memorial park that currently stands in Kwangju in testament to those terrible events, but also to the spirit of resistance that flourished there.

Our other field trip this month was to one of the most significant lines in the world. I never realized that the DMZ was such big tourist business, but apparently it is; 500 tourists come through a day, on average. Mostly they’re foreigners – South Korean residents have to undergo a three-to-six-month background check if they want to visit, presumably so the government can ascertain that they aren’t spies or anything else suspicious like that.

Even so, it’s not the most convenient tourist destination in the world. You have to go through an agency (which isn’t cheap, by the way), you have to sign a release saying that your family won’t sue if you get killed, you get inspected twice by soldiers on the way in, and there are lots o’ rules. To name a few:

  • You have to dress properly. No sleeveless shirts, no shorts, no pants with holes, no flip-flops or sandals without backs to them, no national logos, and so on.
  • No carrying bags of any kind – anything that could be hiding a bomb or a weapon.
  • No pointing, waving, or making other weird hand gestures.
  • No cameras with large lenses and no taking pictures, except in a few very limited areas.

These are concerns having to do with security and with the very tense relationship between North and South, but also nobody wants the North Koreans taking pictures that could be used in propaganda. They are constantly watching the South Korean half with binoculars and cameras.

But before we get there, let’s take a step back. That wasn’t our first stop. Before that, we went to Unification Park and  At Unification ParkImjingak Park, which wait on the road north. Unification Park is home to numerous monuments to the heroes of the Korean War, such as the monument honoring journalists who were killed in the conflict; the monument to ten suicide bombers who gave their lives attacking a North Korean camp; and a couple of monuments to individuals who performed acts of incredible bravery. At Imjingak, you can see Freedom Bridge, which was built in a hurry by South Korean soldiers fleeing North Korean forces; a very old train, riddled with over a thousand bullet holes, that was left behind enemy lines after it was attacked; and four statues facing north, who represent South Koreans looking back towards family members they left behind. There are also numerous banners and ribbons demanding peace and unification for the two countries, once one. And there is an altar that serves an important purpose. It’s a Korean tradition (one that originates in Confucianism) to return to one’s hometown and honor one’s ancestors, for example on Chuseok. But after the division into North and South Korea, people with roots in the north could no longer return there. So an altar was built at Imjingak as a place for those people to come instead.

Only afterwards did we continue our journey north, towards Camp Bonifas, the last outpost before the DMZ proper. There we were debriefed and presented with a history of the place before boarding a military bus and heading for the Joint Security Area. This is where diplomatic talks are held under the aegis of the U.N. Originally, the JSA was shared between North and South, and soldiers from both sides could cross the Military Demarcation Line freely within that neutral zone. But after a conflict in the 1970s in which several people were killed, the division became strictly enforced.

The whole area, by the way, is a landmine zone. The roads and the outposts themselves are in areas that have been cleared, but wandering off the paths is inviting one of the tens of thousands of landmines still in the ground to go off under your foot.

029The actual JSA meeting buildings are very small. We were allowed to go into one, where two soldiers were standing guard. Specifically, they have one guy watching the door that opens on the North Korean side. They secure that door during tours, because there have been incidents where the North Koreans have tried to pull people through to the other side. (We only actually saw one North Korean guard, standing across the way watching us through binoculars.)

As for the guards on the South Korean side, they are chosen from among the elite. They are often black belts in multiple martial arts, know multiple languages, and are tall and imposing-looking. They wear military police helmets and have huge sunglasses so no one can tell where they’re looking. On duty, they stand in a taekwondo ready stance.

As we made our way out of the DMZ, heading back for Camp Bonifas, we stopped briefly at the Bridge of No Return. This was the location of the final POW exchange of the war. When the North Korean prisoners crossed the halfway point on the bridge to return to their own, and the South Korean prisoners did likewise, it marked the last time that people traveled freely between the two countries, once one.

Another tour that is available (although we didn’t do it) is a tour that goes to the third infiltration tunnel. For those of you who don’t know, South Korea has so far discovered four tunnels drilled through the rock under the border, all of a sufficient size to move a lot of troops through them quickly, all well-positioned for an attack on Seoul. The South Korean government has blocked off these four tunnels, but it is believed there may be quite a few more that they have yet to find – possibly up to a total of 17 tunnels in all.

Seeing all of this really brought home to me the wrongness of the situation. I had always known about the Korean War and the division of the country, but seeing a people armed to the teeth against itself is a lot more powerful than reading about it in a history textbook. After all, how frightening is it to draw a line of barbed wire across your country? How horrible is it not to know if your relatives on the other side of the border are alive or dead? And how messed up is it that we accept that as a matter of course these days?

For more pictures of Kwangju, see here. DMZ trip pictures are here.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Are you being served?

Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” – John 13:8

A couple of weeks back – on Palm Sunday, actually – I came walking into church with a big bowl full of water and a towel. “Okay, folks,” I announced to my youth group. “Today I’m going to wash your feet.” It seemed appropriate, at the beginning of Holy Week, to reenact one of its defining moments of love; to think about Jesus, the servant Lord, and how we, in our turn, can serve others. A nice neat meaningful little Sunday school lesson, wouldn’t you agree?

One problem, though: nobody wanted to get their feet washed.

I really should have seen that one coming, honestly. After all, doesn’t the Bible story turn out the same way? Peter doesn’t want Jesus down on his hands and knees, scrubbing away his grime. He doesn’t go into details about why, but clearly the idea is an uncomfortable one.

In the same way, my youth group friends were not down with the foot-washing thing. The moment I declared my intentions, I was confronted with panicked expressions. “Why didn’t you warn us about this?” they asked me. And although they repeatedly balked at the idea of me taking a towel to their feet, they offered to do mine instead.

I took a couple of important lessons from this. First of all, don’t spring ritual cleansings on people – not even during Holy Week. But in a more general sense, this story has become representative of the struggles of my year of service.

Every day I’ve shown up at my children’s center, eager for something to do. Anything, really, provided that it’s useful. It doesn’t have to be teaching English. I just want to help. Heck, I would scrub the bathroom floor with a toothbrush if that might be helpful.

But it wouldn’t. You see, our children’s center is a fully-functional place. It already has a wonderful staff and facilities for all its needs. It does not, repeat not, need me. That was an important illusion of mine that has been shattered. Don’t get me wrong – I never at any point leading up to my YAV year thought that I was going to be saving the world or changing things with a capital C. But I did think I would be a little more useful than this.

In fact, to date, I have done much less serving than being served. At first at the center, I was a dependent and a guest. People brought me drinks, washed my dishes, and just generally didn’t let me do anything, no matter how simple, for myself. That hospitality was hard to bear. I kept trying to say that I could handle myself – that I could even help out with things! But I got shot down pretty consistently. There were days when I thought I was going to go crazy sitting watching other people do all the work.

Slowly, bit by bit, things did start to change. They began to include me in other aspects of center life, and to let me help out with chores that weren’t dependant on being fluent in Korean. I was so absurdly grateful . . . If you had told me a year ago that one day I’d be overjoyed at being allowed to mop the floor, I would have recommended that you take yourself to the hospital and make sure you didn’t get your head hit. But these days, I feel like I’m starting to wise up a little. And in my work (or, sometimes, lack thereof) at the center, I recognize a more complicated process going on than my former idea of simple serving.

I may feel helpless and frustrated, even patronized, when I am not working, when others are doing things for me. And that’s exactly why I have to recognize that they must feel the same way. It’s not any better a solution for me to serve them one-sidedly. After all, how arrogant of me is it to assume that I am the only one who wants to be involved, working hard on something that is meaningful? I’ve come to realize that the concept that I am the only one who can serve, even if it is only unconsciously held, is one with unfortunate implications: it implies an offensive sort of superiority, and it’s the same fallacy that Jesus had to call Peter on: the most important lesson of serving is learning how to be served.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Yes, I still work at a children’s center

. . . although you would never know it, to look at my blog. In fact, I am so far behind that I find myself condensing events of the last few months into one short, easy-to-digest post, whereas once I would have tried to write about them in detail. Oops. Shoulda kept on top of that. Here are some of the high points of the spring, anyway.

  • February 25th concert. We spent the winter vacation honing our musical skills all day, every day. Going to the center back in those days meant the constant sound of recorders, ocarinas, xylophones, bells, piano, violins, and singing: the kids were all 031hard at work practicing the songs they were to perform (from memory). I was put in charge of the handbell choir, which was mostly made up of the younger kids. We spent hours every day practicing the songs “Butterfly” and “Morning Greeting” (better known in the U.S. as “Frere Jacques”). Then on the day of, everybody squeezed into their matching outfits and climbed onto the stage of the community center next door. I was very impressed with all the kids, and thought that the choir sounded especially good (although obviously no one was better than the bell players!). It was a great opportunity for the kids to show off for their families, their teachers, and each other.


  • Going to watch some soccer. Daejeon is home to a World Cup Stadium, which was our destination for some Saturday afternoon fun one weekend in March. The Daejeon City Football Club (DCFC) was playing FC Seoul in one of the first games of the season. The outcome was disappointing for soccer fans; at the end of the game, the score was tied up, and since apparently they don’t do overtime, the match was called as a draw. But for those people who could care less about sports (me), it wasn’t a problem. Hanging out together was a lot of fun in and of itself.010
  • Earth Day drawing contest. Around Earth Day, the Expo Science Park had a festival to educate people about environmentally-friendly behavior. This included booths where you learn about buying green products; craft stations where you made stuff (keychains, hankies, etc.) out of recyclable materials; free plant giveaways; and, last but not least, a drawing contest for kids. The topic: “The area where I live.” I suppose the idea was for kids to draw the things they found beautiful about their neighborhood. Interestingly enough, the kids I teach seem to share living space with dragons and robots. And the sky there is yellow.

Kids drawing 19

  • May 5th celebrations. 5/5 around here is a national holiday known as “Children’s Day.” Everybody gets the day off work and school, and the kids often get presents from their parents and grandparents. Our center children went to a festival in a local park, where they were having a talent show, and showed off their skills dancing to a K-pop song. Then everyone chowed down on snacks (like tteokbokki!) and had fun doing the activities, like jump rope, walking on stilts, and making balloon animals.
  • Music camp. We recently took an overnight camping trip to Muju Resort up in the mountains surrounding Daejeon. (Not actual, outdoor camping, to be clear – we stayed in a building.) We brought our recorders and our ocarinas and our singing voices to learn some great new songs (for next year’s concert, maybe?). There was plenty of time to play outside, too. And at night everybody curled up on the floor and giggled themselves to sleep. Ah, good times, good times.


And now you know why I have no time to write. I’m totally busy, with all this on top of the usual stuff! At any rate, that’s a quick summary of what’s new (and not so new) in the world of Becky Francisco. Continue to stay tuned!

Somebody start an import company, quick

Oh man, I am so behind on my blogging. I haven’t written a proper blog on my YAV work since Christmas, and believe me, I feel bad about it. I’m currently working on rectifying that. In the meantime, please accept this to tide you over.

“This” is a list of things that I really enjoy about Korea and Korean culture, things that have often caused me to ask, “Why hasn’t this caught on in America?”

1. Tteokbokki. A popular and cheap snack food that combines the soft squishy goodness of tteok (rice cake) with a kick of spicy flavor! (Actually, I could go on and on naming Korean foods I like that need to be more widely known in my home country. Tteokbokki gets special mention because I just think it is really delicious.)

Korean street food, mmm

2. Heated floors. In our YAV house, and in many other places around Korea, heating comes via hot water flowing through pipes under the floor. This is brilliant because a) the rising heat warms the house very efficiently, and b) I’m the sort whose feet are always cold. Seriously, we’ve been very toasty this winter. I think this system works better than what we have in our house in the U.S.

Press the button for zapping action!3. Mosquito-zapping tennis rackets. We’ve all had the experience of that pesky bug bothering us, the one we just can’t seem to swat. Well what if you had something with a nice large surface area – much larger than your traditional flyswatter – and it electrocuted your bugs so that you didn’t have to worry about whether they were properly squished? If you live in Korea, this doesn’t have to be just a pipe dream! I’d bring one home, but I don’t think they would allow it on the plane.

4. Combination Bible/hymnals. Why not cut down on the number of heavy books in your church? Place all your worship aides in one volume, like the Koreans do!

5. The jjimjilbang. When you’re all stressed out from working hard at your YAV placement, why not drop in at the jjimjilbang? For just a few dollars (seriously), you get up to 24 hours of access to the sauna-like facilities. The main focus is the hot rooms (the salt room, the soot room, the red soil room, etc.), which are available at varying temperature levels and degrees of humidity, all the way up the bulgama, or cooking pot, which is slightly cooler than sitting in boiling water. The idea is to get clean by sweating. There are also cold ice rooms to cool you down when the heat is a little too much to take; massage chairs; quiet rooms for resting; cafeterias to supply your food and drink needs; and often play rooms for children. You can also stay there cheaply overnight, if you don’t mind sleeping in the traditional Korean-style (i.e. on the floor).

6. Lobster crane games. Okay, so maybe this last one is just for kicks. There is one of these on my walk home from work. Yes, it is what it sounds like. You put in some coins and you try to use the crane to pick up a live lobster. I really don’t know what the person who made this was even thinking. I wish I had a better picture than this to show you, too.

Lobster crane game

That’s all for now, folks. And I swear, more is coming, including: an update on children’s center activities; info about our recent trips to Kwangju and the DMZ; and some reflections on my life as a volunteer. Until then!