Resounding Silence

"What do you think about Korea?" These words are one of the common threads that bind together foreigners living in Korea. Most foreigners receive this repeated conversation almost daily. Always it is asked with good intentions by an inquisitive English-speaking Korean, eager to know what "us" foreigners think about "their" Korean country.

Thus initiates the problem: Does one answer truthfully in an all-out tale of the positive and negative experiences in Korea, or does one answer with selective, positive-only, truths? Even further, does the inquisitor ask because he is hoping to hear good things about his country, or does he really want to know . . . ?

Yesterday while taking the bus home from work, I was contemplating the various contradictions of Korea while observing the lights reflecting softly off the Han River. After the bus stopped and picked up some people, a young man sat next to me. He seemed pleasant and polite. He introduced himself and inquired if he could ask me a few questions.

Although I was relaxing while absorbed in reflective meditation, I had no problem talking to the young man because I liked his demeanor. In addition, being an inquisitive soul myself, I enjoy seeing others who are not afraid to ask questions--any questions. I have faith that ignorance is the vice that keeps humanity from rising above the self-imposed divisions and petty power-struggles that often engulf individuals, and for that matter, nations. I enjoy meeting people who are glad to overpass any form of ignorance through seeking truths.

That is how it started: he asked and I answered. He asked me questions about Korea, and I chose the easier option of telling him only selectively positive truths; "Yes, I really like Korea. . . Seoul's an interesting city with much history and modernization, existing side-by-side. . . I especially like Kyoung-Bok-Palace and Nam-Dae Moon. . . Yes, I've traveled to most places in Korea, and Sorak Mountain is my favorite. . . I never get tired of travelling to country temples. . ."

I told him, and he seemed overly pleased with my level of personal enjoyment and knowledge of Korea. He also seemed delighted to be able to have this chance to successfully communicate in English and I felt content to be a positive part of that. The only problem was I lied to him. Don't get me wrong, I didn't say one thing that was not the truth, but still I lied to him . . .

I have lived in Korea for almost four years now. Much of my time here has been interesting, educational, fascinating, and character-building. What began as a one year experience has turned into a four year life. My time in Korea became a treasure to me, truly making it my second home. People helped me to adjust and I quickly learned about some of the jewels, both obvious and hidden, of living in Korea.

After some time, I found an even more precious jewel: my wife. My wife is Korean, and I have been married to her for almost two years now. Like most couples, we met, were interested in each other, started dating, etc. Our skin pigments and cultural upbringings were much less important to us than who we were and what made us unique. I feel in love with her and she with me.

Unfortunately, some people cannot see the simplicity of this. To my disgust, though not to my surprise, there have been times when people have confronted her on the street and have loudly scolded her for being with a foreigner. I use the word "confronted" because the obscene words that have been used (and believe me when I say they are obscene and hateful) are not fit for print. These words are covered in blind hate and ignorance. These words are not suggestions or softly stated advice, but the piercing evil words of degradation -- in public -- on subways, on buses, in parks, taxis, and on streets. In all of these situations the theme has been that my wife should be ashamed of herself. Why? Because she honestly loves me, and I truly love her.

Again, one of these situations happened last week. While it was not particularly bad in comparison to some of our other situations, it was bad enough. It is like saying, "This rotten milk is not as bad as that rotten milk." Are they not both rotten, and will not both make you sick . . . ? On our way home from a movie, we were verbally confronted on the bus -- loudly.

Although I was bitter and frustrated, by the time we got home I thought the situation had passed. While my wife and I were relaxing and watching the television, I suddenly felt my wife's shoulder shaking. Turning, I noticed she was genuinely crying. I was saddened by her words: "I am Korean. I was born in Korea and my family is Korean. But sometimes, I just hate my country. My home is Seoul, but sometimes I really do hate living in this city--my city. Sometimes I wish I had never been born here. Do you know what it feels like to truly hate your country and home? It is the same as hating yourself!"

The truth is that much of her pain comes from her strong desire to love and be proud of Korea, but her overwhelming disgust and sadness with how some people treat her because she loves a foreigner continually hardens her heart.

I can honestly say that I have anger towards the people who feel that it is their duty to humiliate and shame my wife and I. But in equal honesty, I do not allow it to affect me too much. I know that in every country, including my homeland the United States of America, there are many people who are individually twisted and hate-driven. I do not make excuses for these people, and I try (albeit, not always successfully) to not let their toxic individual negativity swallow my positivity. I usually succeed in seeing those people as who they are -- foolish and hateful of most things, including themselves. My anger does not lie with the bringer of hate, because those people are nonsensical enough that I do not expect more from them. My true disappointment lies elsewhere . . .

As I earlier stated, I lied to the young man who sat next to me on the bus. I mislead him about my inner emotion to this country and its people. My real feelings about Korea are all the good things I did tell him, yes, but they also include many bad things. While I didn't want to hurt his national pride with my opinions, maybe I should have told him my true feelings: I am disappointed with Koreans as a people.

Mind you, I am not disappointed with Koreans because of the people who confront my wife and I. As I said, there are bad people everywhere, and I will not judge the people of a country or city by the hateful extremist, for god's sake, then every country would be judged as rotten. Instead, I am disappointed in the masses of people who have observed these public incidents but have chosen to sit silently trying to ignore those uncomfortable situations.

Those situations may be uncomfortable for some, but they are terribly hurtful for others. I am tired of being yelled at about how Korea is ashamed of my wife, how my wife is dirty, how she has betrayed her country, how she is a whore. But I am even more tired of being surrounded by numerous Koreans, who in their silence, condone the ideas and actions of the single hate-driven accuser. After time, because of the lack of support from those Korean citizens who surround us, the accuser's cries become connected to the silent cries of the masses. A man filled with hate is hateful, but a man who is aware and understands cruelty, yet sits in silence in the face of hate appears just as hateful.

While in public, if only once, someone would have told the condemning man to leave us alone; if only once, someone would have told him to not be so cruel to strangers; if only once someone would have told him that he did not represent others' opinions; if only once someone would have told him that he was foolish and ignorant; if only once someone would have stood up as an individual and said what he believed, then maybe I wouldn't be so disappointed with my fellow citizens of Korea . . .

And now reflecting on those situations, I suppose that is what I should have told that young man I met on the bus. In honesty, I want him to understand, because I want Koreans to understand. I believe this young man would agree with me that the accuser in those situations is wrong. Yet, I am certain he, like others, would not intercede. Why? Because it is hard to be an individual and stand out where others do not; it is hard to draw attention to yourself; it is hard to make the decision to be willing to accept confrontation in return for helping others; and it is disturbingly easy to close your eyes and pretend that the cruelty you witness is none of your business. When any member of a society suffers, when a fellow member of Korea suffers unjustly, and you can help cease that suffering, then you must act to do so.

This is what I will try to explain to the next person who asks me my opinion of Korea. I will explain not out of anger, but out of desire to have him understand. I want to love Korea, I want my wife to always love her homeland and I want to feel that we, as a family, will always be accepted here. I do not want to be disappointed with Koreans.

My wish is that they will understand the pain that we feel when we are walled-in with their silence while being irrationally confronted out of hate; and I wish that this understanding will give Koreans the courage to not be afraid to stand up as individuals for what they believe. My hope is that they will not only support us when witnessing situations similar to ours, but also support others who can use their emotional defense, such as the battered woman, the isolated student, the poor or the powerless.

When Koreans, as a people, are willing to draw attention to themselves and take the suffering away from others, to be an individual and denounce cruelty and injustice that is witnessed, then I will be glad to tell those who ask my feelings of Korea that I am proud and impressed with the Korean people.

by: Joel Eckel, Chungang University lecturer


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