The most entertaining reply I get is that if I love Korea so much then I should just live there! Well, okay, I can do that. They tell me they’d rather die for lack of pennicillin than leave their beloved country. Whereas I’m a traitor. I have no loyalty to my homeland.
The Beat January 2003
This Saturday I follow Caleb as he makes the rounds through our neighborhood. All up and down our street, ajummas sit gossiping, shucking garlic or picking persimmons off trees. Caleb greets each group but is intent on a specific place. We reach a courtyard entrance and he clicks the ringer. The gate swings open and an old man pops his head out of the front door to greet us. Caleb bows, takes off his flip-flops before leading me into a bedroom where a high school girl sleeps off last night‘s study session. Caleb proceeds to shake the poor girl, and when that doesn’t work he pulls her blanket off and grabs her hair, saying, “get up” in Korean.
Sometimes when I walk down in our local market strange men and women yell to me, “Caleb’s Papa!”
This weekend is a two-day trip to the countryside with my kids and mother-in-law. My mother-in-law carries three packs with her. One is a change of socks and underwear. The others are food and drinks. Each bag seems to weigh as much as me, filled with fruits, candies, and canned drinks. I offer to buy lunch but she shuffles away before I can insist.
Most westerners believe Korean women are naturally weak and helpless. Korean girls enforce this stereotype through excessive diets and knock-kneed, finger-sucking mannerisms. But not long after the first child is born, a stout ajumma replaces the flimsy little virgin. In place of the timid girl is the aggressive, blustering woman we submit to on subways.
So we sit down on the train and my mother-in-law begins opening bags of goodies for us, tossing emptied bags into the aisle, stuffing pear peels into torn vinyl seams and the net pouches attached to each seat. Like all old Korean women, she refuses to believe someone might not be hungry. She wakes me up to offer me apples, peaches, pears and persimmons, then three kinds of juice, a beer and soy milk before finally allowing me sleep. My son has picked up this Korean habit. Two year-olds in America are greedy. My child will climb on my chest and force-feed me.
Its 9 pm and we‘ve returned home from a five hour train ride with our two sons. Our oldest crawled over seats and demanded candy and cola for the whole ride. The youngest has a cold.
We approach our home’s front gate with children, backpacks and boxes. Oddly the store is closed, but I hear the faint pulse of hands clapping and voices howling. A light shines out from beneath the door leading into our spare bedroom. My wife is mumbling emphatic tones, shaking her head and hissing. I follow her into the next room, where she kicks in the bedroom door. Standing on a small dinner table, my mother-in-law is wailing out a trot, shaking her arms and hips. Surrounding her are old women clapping, cheering and toasting. The room is covered with empty soju and beer bottles. Upon another table are three gas burners frying black Cheju shit-pig.
I head towards the scent of burning grease. But then the room is silent. My mother-in-law‘s face wears the look normally reserved for guilty teenagers. The ajummas have fled. I sit down, eat, and empty soju bottles into an unused shot glass. Jang-mo-nim collects beer bottles, appeasing my wife‘s newly cultivated temper.
A female friend from Michigan arrived in Busan about three months ago. She is a tall, robust girl with impressive breasts and thick curly hair. Needless to say, the average Korean man is possibly intimidated, by both her physique and intelligence.
But love comes when least expected. Two Korean men are now obsessed with her. One is a divorced playboy with a Russian fetish. He is apparently fascinated with my comrade‘s breasts, as is the occasional taxi driver telling her “boobs number one!” This man‘s height places him at a convenient point of view.
The other man took her out last week. He said he liked her because she was sexy. I‘d not warned her of the Konglish translation – sexy girl. She figured it out. After dinner her date suggested a video-room. One hour into the movie she went to the WC. When she returned, her date lie stretched out on the vinyl couch naked, smoking a thin cigarette and smiling. “I love you,” he said. She tossed him twenty thousand for cab fare and went home.
It’s 11 pm, we‘re all sick tonight, sitting on the heated kitchen floor watching Korean soaps and blowing our green running noses. I’m listening to wind rattle the splintered, dry-rotten window frames. Outside the store wash-water from neighbors’ kimchi tubs freezes to the tarmac. Vegetables stiffen, seem to wilt, but in two days will be bigger and greener, in front of me on the little floor-table with a dish of peppered dwenjang and samgyeopsal.
The metal store gate screeches its welcome and in hops a snot-nosed ten year-old neighbor girl wearing sandals, shorts, and t-shirt. She skips to the door, grins and bows. “Dad wants liquor and cigarettes,” she says. Then she stumbles back out, cradling two bottles of soju, two packs of cigs, and an ice cream cone.
The Karen clans, Soi Min tells me, fare the worst of all the clans in Burma. Some of Battle Creek’s refugees are Karen. Typically they have almost no education, and they’ve experienced unspeakable atrocities. Yet they’re kind, polite and hungry for education.
Having so much experience with well-adjusted Korean ESL students, I tend to approach my Burmese students with the same level of animation that Koreans have. So I’ve walked towards new Karen students ready to shake their hands and pat them on the shoulder.
But when a Karen sees you approach in this way, he has this look about him, this posture that says maybe you’d better slow down and back up a foot or two. Keep in mind most of these refugees are about five-foot tall. It doesn’t matter. You can sense that it’s best to tread lightly.
It’s like when a good, loyal, loving dog, (let’s say a Staffy-Bull since Staffies are loyal, affectionate and tough), has had to spend his life caged, starved and beaten so that he seems to despise everyone and everything.
And then he’s suddenly released into a new environment. He knows that things are different now, and yet he doesn’t know how to orient his thoughts in this new environment. Everything he knows is based on the abuse. And so you never know how he might interpret your actions or how he might respond.
It’s very sad, to meet Karen and realize how they’ve had it. But like I said, somehow they have this spirit, it seems to me intrinsic, that keeps them appearing positive, and definitely hard-working and caring; their values have not been destroyed by genocide, and they long for the American Dream.
I asked Soi Min where he was stationed, “Mizoram, Bangladesh and Chin State in Northern Burma.”
I asked what he ate, “Bamboo shoots and snails,” he smiled, like a fox, swallowing a mouthful of buttered yam. I asked about rice, “We carried only rice and matches. Sometimes only matches.”
He said that that the Mizoram, clans from Northeast India, supplied (and supply) medicine and beans. Sometimes his unit and other rebel units cultivated gourd and corn in the jungle. During seasonal Spring and Harvest they bought pigs and feasted with villagers. During monsoon they hid in bamboo thickets so thick that nobody bothered them except leaches and mosquitoes.
I told him that I know all about Himalayan leaches! How they stick like the worst kind of booger! Like sticky white rice, only sucking your blood at a magnificent rate, all brown and hard and swollen on the main vein of your thigh.
He said he had to carry netting with him at all times but had got malaria anyways. I told him I’d seen the clouds of mosquitoes but he just laughed at me, this guy!
He did this for three years, while his wife, also a Burmese refugee in India, snuck into Burma to hand out anti-government pamphlets.
This was in Mizoram State, a border-state full of jungles and no-man’s lands, one of the most beautiful places in the world. One of the poorest – and richest.
Burma has always been one of Asia’s richest countries in natural resources.
Rubies, lots. Oil and gas. Teak. Hydropower. Any gemstone or metal imaginable almost.
And the people in Burma, nothing but poverty, brutality and despair for 99% of the population.
The Junta Formerly Known as SLORC (as I like to call them in honor of the artist formerly known as Prince) uses the methods of George Orwell in 1984. Newspeak. Thoughtcrime.
Newspeak is a clever form of linguistic segregation. Although linguistic segregation exists everywhere around the world and in every culture, the Burmese Junta takes it to it to the extreme.
They use that shifting of words, changing definitions that Orwell wrote about. For example, SLORC or State Law and Order Council. Their actual mission is to break laws and create disorder.
The name SLORC changed after a bit, just as names do in Newspeak. They changed to SPDC, State Peace and Development Council, whose mission it is to be violent and destroy. Eventually this name will change, and then finally there will some man from 1984, beating you to death, until you finally understand his logic. He holds up three fingers and says, “How many?” You answer, “five,” and he tells you that your mind is getting healthier every day.
This is Newspeak, and so we will speak new, today. That sort of thing.
Burma’s junta calls Burma The Union of Myanmar. Would you guess that it’s the same kind of union we have in America? No? No – and yes.
The Union of Burma is actually a bunch of warring clans. Each clan, each village, speaks a different language and has different customs. The communication difficulty creates culture shock and xenophobia, and so not only do the clans fight against one another, but each village hates the next village, each family hates the next family, and so on and so forth as it’s been since before written text, in them thar hills; Himalayan Hatfield and McCoy, Bloods and Crips, Blacks and Whites, so on and so forth.
On a national level the government promotes the kind of xenophobia that would make the folks at Fox News envious – with huge rallies against all outsiders at any level, whom they accuse of being, “democratic,” (which in Burma’s Newspeak, means to be a western colonial power like America or England).
Oh yes, the Burmese know all about Christopher Columbus.
The military leaders in the meantime do not allow any minority languages in the schools (like America’s English Only Laws).
This means each minority is bound to fail in school (like in America) because they only know the language that they spoke at home most of their lives, on some giant hill a three days walk from school. In each village the people have spoken nothing but clan languages for centuries and consider it a point of pride to maintain their identity (like minorities in America).
Language segregation has been used, successfully, by Burma’s rulers for centuries also, so it should be no wonder that George Orwell discovered his muse for three different novels, 1984, Animal Farm, and Burmese Days, in those jungly hill stations that Soi Min kept telling me me about.
To Be Continued…..