Archive | June, 2010

World Cup and the Koreas

24 Jun

So yes, the World Cup fever is high everywhere, and even a non-sports fan like myself has become hyped up about this global event. I am a shameless fan of South Korean football team, especially when it comes down to WC, you see. I was there in front of the Seoul City Hall jumping up and down with millions of other people in the pouring rain in 2002. I am possibly the least patriotic person that you’d see, if you’ve had some conversations with me ever (and trust me, it’s out of love!), but in terms of football, I am the biggest patriot alongside with my parents who have never lived abroad before :).

So the running jokes/rumors are that 1. I’m not Korean (well this is almost partially true), 2. I have 3 teams to cheer for in this World Cup which are: South Korea, US and North Korea- At least one of them has got to do well, right? Haha, yeah, funny, I know. But the strange thing about me is that I was still cheering hard-core for both of my Koreas, not so much the US. Yes, I do admit that before the whole bonanza of WC got started, I used to joke around with my friends about how North Korean players would suffer big time if they don’t win (the usual style, like they’ll be sent to the labor camp, etc). As I think about it now, I do regret it, especially after seeing the big loss of the North Korean team that we all had witnessed against Portugal. Sometimes, I’m in a 14 year old boy mood when it comes down to making bad jokes.

For every North Korea game, I secretly wished that they’ll kick the other teams’ butts, so that they know that this mysterious country that doesn’t actually get acknowledged as a country by several countries in the world, including South Korea and Japan, can show “something” to the world. I wanted them to show the world that this country which often gets ridiculed simply because of its (not-so-)”dear” leader and the Party’s more than unique political philosophy (like, buying another Ferrari for our dear leader will do our country good while the entire population has next to nothing to eat) will show the world that they can do something other than being a pariah.

My now not-so-secret wish perhaps came from my Koreanness. I am an 80s child who was educated in the anti-Communist, red-paranoid South Korean public education system of the 90s. But at the same time, we were continuously reminded of the fact that North and South Koreas are in fact just one Korea, one people who must eventually get together. I think I was already an idealistic kid even at young age, and this strange patriotic education (“you should love and hate North Korea”) left a strong impression in my development. Fair enough. Then I left the country around the turn of the century (ha, it sounds so grand!), and South Korea has changed a lot.  I’ve seen different presidents coming and going, some more liberal and (therefore) pro-NK (previous 2 pres) and some not so (the current one). Samsung and LG became global brands (although not many people know they are Korean, actually). Limited numbers of travels and trades became available between the South and the North (South Korean investment in North Korea for more exports and job creation while South Korean companies get tax benefits and take advantage of cheap labor and capital).  The direction of “unification education” has become not so much about anti-Communism, but more about how we should bring peace in the North-South Korea relations. To me, it seems more human, although a lot of people may criticize it saying that the lefty (=Marxist=dangerous: Korea is a very conservative country) politicians has screwed up everything, including spoiling “North Korea” by giving them only carrots but not sticks. I mean, who are we really talking about when we say “North Korea?” The leader? The people? The party members? The ideology or the idea of NK? I get confused.

But really, why is that any of my business anyways, you may ask? To me, who became a stranger by choice, watching the meaning of “being-Korean” changing was unsettling while all these changes have happened. I mean what did I expect? While I was changing, the country was changing, too. While I was becoming more “non-Korean,” the Korea I knew was becoming something different as well. And perhaps this is just like how NK and SK have become to be such different entities as well.

And going back to football now… So the individual who actually inspired me to make this posting is the football player of the North Korean national team, Jong Tae-se (정대세). Recently, I’ve read many articles about him, not simply because he is the possibly the best player in the team nicknamed “People’s (or North Korean) Rooney,” but because of his unique background of becoming the representative of North Korea, rather than South Korea as his passport says.

Are you confused yet :)? I’ll explain, based on this Korean article (sorry that there is no English article that is written this well- I’ll try to summarize as much as I can) that I read this evening. It is an interview of a documentary movie maker, who produced a doc film about Chosun Schools and the students, observing their identity developments (both school and the kids; I will try to get the film if I can). So Jong is actually a third-generation Korean born in Japan. His grandparents were forced to immigrate during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and when the war was over, they could not move back, and Japan would refuse to give them Japanese citizenship (even until now). Then the Korean War happened, and now these “Chosun (Korea’s old name during the monarchy)” people had to choose either one of the Koreas for their citizenship (mere paperwork, but of course it signifies way more than that). Jong’s father’s family has chosen the South Korean one (although his father does not support either one of them politically, according to some articles) and mother’s family, North. As North Korea is not considered an official country, she is a person of no nationality. Following the father’s citizenship, Tae-se, along with his brother (Jong Yi-se, also a football player playing for a K-League team), has South Korean citizenship. He went to one of 70 or so “Chosun Schools.” They are often perceived as North Korean schools, as it is supported somewhat by Cho-Chongryon (Korean acronym for General Association of Korean Residents in Japan; many people believe that they are North Korea supporting Koreans in Japan although this is not necessarily true) and yes, somewhat by North Korea (at least it used to). The Schools were initially established by the first generation Koreans in Japan (around the 1945 Independence) with much sacrifice and struggles from the Korean community who wanted to maintain Korean tradition and identity- really, who “we” are. The Schools were censored by Japanese government very much, due to its connection to North Korea, perhaps. Unlike the popular belief, the school apparently has various “types” of Koreans, whether pro-NK or not so political. The type of education that the students get there is very patriotic, and the curriculum really wants to teach them who they are as Koreans in Japan (who have suffered much racism and antagonism over the period, socially, politically and policy-wise and therefore need to prove themselves to be worthy of respect from themselves, from Japanese people and others) and why they should become special individuals when they grow up.

Yes, you may think these schools are old-fashioned and backward. But it made me understand, at least partially, why Jong cried so much as he was paying respect to “his country” before the NK-Brazil game (This NYT article shows the picture of him crying on the left, not to mention the article itself is pretty decent). It was the mixed feelings of an individual who has had to make his own identity in a very confusing, difficult way. He was born in Japan, but not granted the citizenship. He was born Korean, granted South Korean citizenship, but he never grew up there (while many South Koreans probably wouldn’t consider them as part of “us”). He grew up with a “South Korean” father and “North Korean” mother who do not necessarily identify themselves with either (perhaps his mother closer to Cho-Chongryon, the Korean article says). He had to pull all the strings (his family connections to FIFA) and more so that he can play for the North Korean team to do his “patriotic” duty as a Korean (neither South or North, but the entity that he yearned to be a part of and to work for) as he was educated in his Chosun School But he is also crazy about Wonder Girls (the South Korean pop sensation singing “Nobody”) and other SK popular culture. It seemed to me that it was a moment of all these things coming together for him. I mean, being everything is a better way of saying being nothing, and being everywhere means belonging nowhere. Being a Korean person who can play so many different roles -as Japanese, North Korean, South Korean or American- may not as well be a “real” Korean but a hybrid nomad who still wants to do something for his/her origin.

All in all, I feel for Mr. Jong and North Korea. Yes, the country lost to Portugal 0-7, but so what? Simply by getting this far, making the final 32 countries in WC (come on, India, Indonesia and China, what have you done with so many better-fed people :p?), North Korea, in a way, was able to be a legitimate participant of this global festival that every single country and person in the world has the right to enjoy, whether they are filthy rich or dirt poor. There’s still another game to go against Cote D’Ivoire, and I only hope to see another nice, gentleman-like play that the NK players have shown so far throughout this year’s World Cup. I still cheer for my “North Korean Rooney” and the rest of the team, because I’m Korean, too.

Tomorrow (June 25th) is the 60th anniversary of the Korean War. Mid-20th century is the most tragic and fascinating part of Korean and world history to me. My friend Fabi sent me a link to photos on They are scathing visual memories of human stupidity, and I highly recommend it. World Cup or no World Cup, such history has influenced who we have become.


what are you living for?

14 Jun

Ok, I admit it. I have been a lazy bum for past 2 weeks. It might just be my usual, repetitive, terrible habit of being lazy, but I DID get started on writing my trip to Yogyakarta, Indonesia, to visit my dear housemate Ambar. Well, I suppose it’s a bit too late, as the memories are fading away quite rapidly, other than the great relaxing time away from my small island.

Well, as I mentioned, past 2 weeks have been some of the pointless period. Yes, I have 2 project going on right now. One is with the Centre on Asia and Globalisation (notice the British way of writing it :)) on access to remedies for the people whose lives are impacted by lack of business ethics. It’s a huge project led by Harvard Kennedy School all over the world, and the Centre is in charge of the Southeast Asia region. Check BASES Wiki out which is an information sharing info on grievance (complaint) mechanism, access to remedies (justice) within the larger context of business and human rights. It’s not complete yet, but still pretty impressive, considering the ambitious scope of work. We all got to meet the people in charge from the Kennedy School, and it was very inspiring to talk to the experts who will compile work from all over the world. My subgroup has been working on the construction sector in Singapore and Malaysia (think I mentioned it), and I’ve learned quite a lot about it, working with colleagues who are more or less experts.

My other project is with the Asia Research Institute, which is also within the University. It was more or less of a luck that I got to work with Dr Maznah Mohamad. I was almost desperately looking for someone who can help me learn something on my thesis topic, which is Islamic family law in Malaysia and women’s human rights. Well, most of you probably know that I have been dedicated in women’s rights issues and am a dedicated feminist (now I can hear people getting nervous, hehe). And while taking Political Islam class last semester with my favorite prof at the school, I got so passionate about learning more about it especially within the Southeast Asian context. And what more could be better if I connect it with what I am already passionate about? So foolishly, I choose this topic while I have almost no knowledge of Malaysia (of course some surface knowledge based on class reading materials and reading news articles) or the religion or Islamic law. What a grand commitment but, OK, now I’m committed to it now. I luckily found Dr. Maznah, and knowing the lack of my knowledge, she graciously took me as her research assistant/intern, and I’m currently assisting her research on comparative research on Islamic laws in Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia and her editing of some papers coming in from Indonesia which are a part of global research on Women’s Empowerment in Muslim Context (WEMC). Sounds so far so good, right?

I am so extremely thrilled about what I’m working on. BUT the problem is I have been losing my focus, big time. I feel disorganized, distracted, and lazy. And I keep asking myself, “Is this kind of life style what I wanted? Is this the person who I really am?” To be very honest, I’m quite disappointed at myself, regarding my recent work ethics. Sure, maybe I’m just being Korean/Singaporean/Asian, whatever. But during the semester, I feel that I don’t get the type of education that I want, so I wanted this break to be for something that I’m passionate about and that I can see myself pursuing for the rest of my life (not necessarily professionally but interest wise, at least).

I remember about 10 years ago (oh gosh, I’m getting old…), when I went to the US for the first time, starting this nomad life. My English was poor, I was an extremely shy and somewhat awkward girl who was fresh out of the airplane. I spent countless nights in the bathroom to finish up my assignment while the curfew hour never allowed me to do so. I worked hard and had my share lonely fights. If you ask me if I will ever do it again, I will say “I won’t even allow my great grand children to go through the same thing.” But what I clearly had as a 15 year old girl was the sense of purpose. As a small fish in a small pond that saw very limited scope of life ahead of her, I only thought, OK, my goal is getting in to one of the Ivy League or similar level schools. And guess, what, 4 years later, I did it. I was a top student at my small private school, and I remember crying of joy for the first (and last so far) time of my life, because what I achieved was something more than just getting in to a good school, but something that I longed for going through all the countless sleepless nights.

And about a decade later, I’m still a small fish, but I’m thrown in a humongous ocean, and I’m just flowing around, losing the sense of purpose and determination that I had as a young girl who had no idea what she was doing. The only same thing is that I’m still small (so small) and still clueless. But the difference is that I came to a realization that my path is not so well determined. I’m in graduate school and in mid-twenties, and for God’s sake, I thought I would be married with kids when I was 7 by this time. OK, I actually don’t care so much about that aspect now, but what have I achieved? Or better yet, what am I running towards to achieve? What am I doing? How can I introduce myself to the world other than “Hi, I’m a clueless small fish”? And my everyday life does not compensate this self-pity-filled quarter life crisis.

And last Friday, I was introduced to Felicia (not sure if the spelling is right…) by my friend Ayushi (check out her blog ; she’s a great writer) to learn about Nichiren Buddhist practice. She just texted me the day before, and I was like, why not? I thoroughly enjoy learning about different religions and their roles in the society, so it was my anthropological instinct that attracted to her suggestion, I believe. Anyhow, we got together with a couple more friends there. Felicia was very calm, soft-spoken, yet quite eloquent. We were simply sitting around and talked about our personal motivation/interests in the gathering. One of our friends, who is a doctor back home, started by saying that she had seen so many people suffering from sicknesses and diseases because of poverty. She said that she is very interested in the practice because of her life goal of relieving the suffering in the world matches the emphasis of Buddhist practice on peace and social justice. From then on we kept our conversations, and what struck me from the conversation (in which I was mostly a learner) was the importance of self-knowledge. Without knowing myself deep down, how would I even dare to be a helping hand for those who are suffering from injustice?

So I had my little “enlightenment” moment then. I have been focusing on my outer-self that is very much related to my social interactions with others. I know how to relate to others very well, and I enjoy meeting new people and the challenge of environment. But how much time have I spent to interact with myself? How much of inner strength have I developed? I’m not saying I don’t know who I am any more (well, maybe this is the case…). But all I felt at that moment was that I needed something that I can hold on to, even if I lose every external relations that I have with the world. I have identified myself with my social achievement (like getting into college, etc.) but not with my core.

Well, I don’t want to sound like an enlightened scholar as I am not. I’m still trying to find what I can do to increase the depth of my life as an individual. And when I do my best to push for such depth, I’m sure I will be more committed to the responsibilities that I need to focus on at this point.

Yes, I’m still a small fish, and let me finish with a spiritual note.

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain in to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

-Franciscan Benediction