Friday, May 7, 2010

Reflections on Korea

It is well known that when I travel I have the tendency to get all big eyed and want to know everything about every person near me. I want to get to know the people so I can learn about the culture. I try wherever possible to delve deep into the culture and reflect on it. When I went to Antarctica I had a lot to reflect on, a lot of thinking to do and a lot to assess. I almost feel the same about this trip to Korea. I had a really intense whirlwind experience. I feel like I didn’t get to delve into the culture as much as I would have liked to but I did get to go deep into one aspect which I wanted to know more about.

I come from a military family. Three generations of my family have served New Zealand overseas as part of our forces. I grew up being dragged to battlefields around the US and going to air shows and historic places all over NZ. I am also the second generation of my immediate family to have been to Antarctica.

I am known to care just a lot about everyone I come into contact with too. If you are my friend you are my friend. I will do almost anything for you… except share my food when I am hungry… I will die for you but I will not share my gyoza, get it?!

So when I go on trips or tours like the one to the Korean DMZ I need to take a step back and reflect on the experience. I need to process it and put it into the context of my life and how I live it.

Going to the DMZ was the fulfilment of a dream. I can now say that I have faced North Korea and shown no fear, even if they were only watching us from afar.

What struck me when I was there was that I was actually there. I couldn’t believe that I was standing beside the table on the wrong side of the demarcation line with an RoK soldier blocking the door to the DPRK.

The next thing that struck me was that these men stand at ease but aware all day, no toilet breaks, just watching, keeping their eyes on their ideological rivals.

What I thought while looking at the bridge of no return was ‘I wonder what went through the heads of the prisoners of war who were given the choice of walking north or south never to walk in the opposite direction ever again. How did they choose one?’

In the gift shop I wondered whether I was doing the right thing buying DPRK money and stamps, I still do wonder a little.

On the way back to Seoul, I thought, ‘d**n I want a choco-pie!’

Upon my return to Japan I gave my host father my brown envelope. Told him to look at the contents inside. As he pulled out the set of DPRK notes and stamps and the UN Declaration absolving them of responsibility should something happen his father got all excited and insisted on being shown everything. He was very proud of us. He thought it was great that I had dragged his granddaughter on this tour. I’m not entirely sure why but I suspect it might be something to do with us getting a better understanding of war and what it’s like to live with that fear of ‘I could be shot at any second’, perhaps.

Grandpa’s reaction got me thinking about why I wanted to go to the DMZ, what I wanted out of that experience and what I got out of that experience.

One of the reasons I go places is to say that I have been there yes, it’s true, I went to Paris because one day in 2001 Mr Buckley asked me in Theory of Knowledge class ‘how do you know that Paris exists if you have never been there?’… thank you philosophy, now I want to go everywhere to prove that it exists!

The second and most important reason I go places is to gain understanding. Seeking to understand a place, a situation or a culture is something that is important to me. Once I understand them I can try to make them understand me. That is the main reason I went to the DMZ. I wanted to know why this technical state of war is still in existence and how the South Koreans deal with that. I wanted to see for myself what it is that makes this place so tense and so important. I wanted to feel what the men whose job it is to safe guard the Republic of Korea from ‘the hermit country’ feel.

I know I can never fully understand but I do know that the tension I was experiencing for the short time I was there is a tension that those men experience every second that they are on duty. I say men, but really some of them are just boys doing their 2 years military service so they can get on with their lives. I would say that many, if not most, of them were younger than me. I feel lucky to be a woman when I think about that (because South Korean women do not need to do their two years by law). I feel even luckier to come from New Zealand where military service is a choice rather than a legal obligation.

During my ponderings about Grandpa’s reaction I realised that for those men that war is real. For me at the time that war felt real. Coming out of the JSA I did feel a sense of relief. Just feeling the eyes our security guard on me and seeing his pistol in its holster was a little unnerving I do have to admit.

When I put myself in the shoes of the men and women who live in the villages inside the DMZ I wonder what it’s like to have to be guarded whilst tending your crops. I wonder how I would feel if I lived facing the threat of the DPRK each and every day. I can’t really fathom how they must feel. I can’t grasp it.

It floors me to think that just down the Unification Highway is Seoul. That these people can just get on with their lives not showing any fear. Just about forgetting that there’s barbed wire fences and guard posts just up the road. While I was getting my nails done in Myeongdong just an hour’s drive away a man was standing half covered by building, watching enemy soldiers watching him. It also floors me that it has been like this for the best part of 60 years. I just find it all so hard to grasp. I’m trying though, it just might take a bit more reflection.

What I did get to understand though, was how the South Koreans seem to bear no animosity towards their civilian North Korean neighbours. How they want them to share in the freedoms and prosperity that they have. How they see them as (and may well be in actuality) family. How they want to be re-united. How they want them to sit down at the table and share in a chocopie. And with that I am going to reach into my Lotte Duty Free bag and eat me a Lotte Chocopie.

In the spirit of South Korean kindness. Chocopies for everyone!!!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

I went to Korea for Golden Week

On Friday morning last week I boarded a train in Takaoka City, Toyama and headed off to Kansai Airport. I was bound for Seoul, Korea.

I met up with my friends who studied abroad at my high school in New Zealand and we headed off for a weekend of shopping, sightseeing, learning and eating.

Korea is a place I have wanted to go to for quite some time. It’s a place that not many New Zealanders seem to want to go to. That’s understandable, I mean why go to Korea when you can go to Thailand or Malaysia for much cheaper. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about going there for quite a while because it’s the middle ground between Japan and China. Clean, safe and capitalist whilst having awesome markets and amazing food. The language even sounds like it’s across between Japanese and Chinese strangely enough. I had no fears cruising around Seoul with my Japanese friends and felt completely safe at all times even with my big purple handbag and brownish blonde hair.

One of the reasons I wanted to go to South Korea was that it is, in fact, still engaged in one of the last relics of the ideological war between the communist world and the capitalist world. I took a tour to the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) in part because I am my father’s daughter and in part because I felt it was a way to gain a deeper understanding of a war that I briefly and superficially studied in my Asia-Pacific Politics class during my Bachelor of Arts. I can tell you that I learned at lot in the 6 hours we spent on a bus with ‘the handsome Mr Kim’ from The Service Club. 78,000 won well spent! The Handsome Mr Kim told us about how the South Koreans feel towards the North Koreans and was incredibly knowledgeable about the DMZ and the Republic of Korea military, perhaps because he is a South Korean man and so had to do compulsory military service.

We took the Panmunjom tour to the Joint Security Area, a tour that South Korean citizens have to jump through hoops for months to be able to do and even then might not be allowed to do it. It takes you as close to the DPRK as a civilian can get without having to jump through hoops for months and then have to pay minders and whatnot. It was an amazing tour worth a blog entry of its own but I want people to do it if they go to South Korea so I’m not going to rave about it anymore. Instead I am going to point you in the direction of . If you have the guts I would definitely recommend doing a tour to Panmunjom. I’ve reflected a lot since coming home and I feel like it brings a thing or two home if you know what I mean.

We stayed, shopped and ate in Myeongdong. It’s a really vibrant shopping district with awesome nightlife. We also visited Gyeongbok-gung Palace, Heounginji-mun Gate, Insadong shopping area and Dondaemon shopping area. I really enjoyed my trip to Korea. Things are really cheap, the food is really spicy but amazingly flavourful. The whole experience was amazing. The place is so colourful and bright. The people are remarkably kind, even if they are almost always trying to sell you something.

I am going to write another entry about my reflections on the DMZ tour and the reaction of some friends and “family” to my trip.

Don’t be misled though, I didn’t just go there for the DMZ, I went there for some culture too you know. Words cannot really describe the experience I had in my less than 3 days in Korea though. I really wish I was better at describing my intense/whirlwind trips with words.