December 5, 2010

The fight continues
so many die
you know it’s not the answer
yet you continue to try

My cold blooded brother
why can’t you see
despite your offense
we try to concede

I’ve lost so many children
and yet refrain from attack
because I value brotherhood
and know there’s more than that
-Y. Keren. K – International Studies major

Yet the government threatens the North
Which never threatens them really
Only provoking them more
While lost people in the country
Wander, panic and will die eventually
Without a country.
-Anonymous – Business Admin. major

Feel Betrayed yesterday’s happening.
I ask you why you did.
Do just regular military training.
you just find excuse.
No imortant than human’s life.
Think about what you did.
-SC Hong – Human Ecology major

The upper land is Korea
and the lower land also Korea
but all Koreans aim at each other
The names are same
but our minds are different above all

Just 60 years of a long and long period
we just only have lived for 60 years
but the thing that is left to us
is not the same history nor longing for each other
but just hatred holding a rifle
– Anonymous, History major

For whom does this fight arise?
We are all Korean
Hope two become one.
– SJ, History Major

One day it happened without any notice
The bloodstain of 60 years ago hasn’t dried
A longing for unification fades away
beyond an ashen shell smoke
Nobody knows the end of the labyrinth
on this peninsula cut by the frigid sword
two of us built the rigid wall
Now we, who have the same face but different landmarks
aim our rifles at each other’s chest.
-CYW, Social Sciences Major

In Korea, all young men must serve in the military for a period of about two years. Most of them do this in the middle of their university years, leaving school often after the second or third year to serve. I absolutely love having these students in my classes when they return from service. They sit in the front row, their bright, nervous eyes following my every move. Without fail, a shift happens in every one of them while they are away. They return to school grateful and determined to make the most of life, unsure of how to fit back into the world, worried that they’ve lost all their English skill, and still quietly confident in something deeper within them. They come back as men.

My heart is sore from thinking about those of my students in the middle of this transition right now, trying to serve and get back to their families, girlfriends and studies who now have to contemplate the nearness of violence.

My facebook page and email inbox has been full of messages urging me to stay safe, and perhaps, come home. It is hard to explain how complacent one becomes about the North Korean threat after having lived here for so long. I have already been here through five major incidents, starting from 1996. With each incident, my fear lessened, and I started to follow the lead of the Koreans around me, taking it all as just another news story.

I will always remember the first time I heard an air raid siren. As a brand-new teacher, nobody had warned me that there was always a civil defense drill on the 15th of every month. I and my roommate, Didi, were at home for lunch when the siren started. Praying and cursing, I ran downstairs to ask our apartment security what we should do. He was sitting in his cubicle, watching tv, feet up on his desk. Unable to speak any Korean, I pointed to the sky and and shrugged my shoulders in the universal body language of confusion. He laughed, and spread out his arms like an airplane and proceeded to make bombing noises. I went back upstairs and prepared to die what was to be an apparently hilarious death.

In 1996, a North Korean submarine landed on the South Korean coast, with 24 NK commandos being ultimately killed after trying to infliltrate. I registered with my embassy, and carefully studied the Canadian embassy’s evacuation plan, which involved me somehow getting myself to the closest American air base ( kilometers away ) and getting in line behind all the Americans, and then Brits, to wait for a seat on an evacuation flight. In 1999, a naval battle broke out in the Yellow Sea. I would go out clubbing on a Saturday night and see all the other teachers with little backpacks on, containing passport, valuables and 1000 dollars US, ready to run should war break out between tequila shots. I half-heartedly tried to put together a “running” backpack, and even tried to stuff my cat in the main compartment to see if he would fit. ( He refused. )
In 2002, while Korea was hosting the World Cup, a South Korean ship was sunk during yet another naval battle. I sat at an outdoor meat restaurant with my husband and a small group of Korean and expat friends, and watched the Korea/Turkey game in my red t-shirt, talking for a moment about the clash, and then turning back to our soju, Kalbi and cheering. In 2009, there was yet another naval battle. I did the dishes. Then, this year in March, the Cheonan warship sunk, presumably the work of North Korea, taking with it 56 South Korean lives. I held my breath, just for a moment.

Over time, I have learned to take my cue from the Koreans around me. With each skirmish, I have watched them look at tv screens, shake their heads, and then turn back to the routine. Countless times, I have turned to my husband and asked, ” But what would we do?” only to have him say, ” Don’t worry. It’s not going to happen. ” It seems almost impossible to describe the feeling one gets when living here for a long time. I honestly don’t know if it is fatigue or fear that brings about this particular feeling of apathy about the North. I just know that over time, I have become numb to it.

This most recent incident has woken me. The poetry at the beginning of this post was written in my English through Creative Writing class which met the next day. I had expected that my students would be too focused on other things to really care, or that there would be a strong sympathy with the North, which is often seen on University campuses. I was stopped in my tracks as I read over their shoulders. They too, were wide awake to the fact that their lives of exams, and blind dates and job searches could change at any moment. They were angry, and scared.

I can’t offer any kind of political analysis except to say that what makes this time feel different has much to do with the transition of power in the North, and that the South currently has a President who is as far from the previous ” Sunshine Policy” as one can get. This was also an attack on land, with civilians dying and homes destroyed. This also follows the attack on the
Cheonan, much too soon. South Koreans are still grieving the young lives lost on that ship. How much more will they take before they decide to fight back?

That day, I got off a bus on my way home and stopped in front of a tv screen in a convenience store window with about 10 other Korean passers-by and watched the images of gutted homes and black smoke clouds. I looked at the faces around me, and a chill went through my heart.

Still, it is not as simple as getting on a plane and going home. My husband is still of fighting age, and would automatically be drafted were things to escalate. Even if he and I could get out, how could we leave his mother, his brother and extended family behind? I have spent 14 years abroad, and have no work or credit history in Canada, not to mention that all my property, possessions and money is here. My whole life is in this country. I am not willing to leave it unless it will cost me my life.

I am angry that everything I have is held in the hands of a few hard-hearted men. I am angry that South Korea, a country that has managed to grow and prosper at an almost unreal rate, keeps getting kicked by it’s jealous brother to the North. I am angry that my mother-in-law has to contemplate the possibility of a second war in her lifetime. I am angry that one of my Creative Writing students who is graduating this semester, just got a job and had to sit in my class and write a poem about how he is willing to fight.

Yet, once again, a few days have passed, and emotion has started to dull. I don’t think anything will happen in the next month. Possibly – not in the next year. Still, I am closer to believing that something will eventually happen. My husband and I sat down over yet another meal of kalbi and soju, and this time, we made a plan about what we would do if things spun out of control with no warning – because if it is to happen, that will be how it will happen. An overreaction, a miscalculation. A mistake.

** Thank you to my Creative Writing students who allowed me to share some excerpts on this blog. You are all an inspiration to me.


  1. I share your feelings, Shelley, just not so eloquently. Thanks for posting them and for posting the student poems. Brag on them from me.

  2. Awesome post Shelley. Stay safe and I am glad that you have a plan. If it does happen, there may be no warning. It is easy to forget, here where that kind of violence is very far away, that there are places where war is one mistake from reality. Somehow when a friend is in the middle it becomes real and frightening. Let’s hope that Kim’s successor is a peaceful man.

    • Thanks Michael. I look forward to seeing you when we are at home. šŸ™‚

  3. When the First World War started your great grandfather wondered – why is this happening.
    When the Second World War Started your grandfather wondered – why is this happening.
    When the Korean War started your Grandfather wondered again – why is this happening.
    When the Cuban Missle crisis started and your Grandfather was again flying a fully armed fighter I wondered – why is this happening.
    When all my friends were being killed in a place called Vietman I wondered – why is this happening.
    When I was in high school and they shot John Kennedy I wondered – why is this happening.
    When I was in Memphis and they shot Martin Luther King, the streets filled with army tanks and I wondered – why is this happening.
    When I was in Montreal during the FLQ crisis and they killed Pierre LaPorte the streets there filled with army tanks and I wondered – why is this happening.
    When the Taliban blew up New York City I wondered – why is this happening.
    And now North Korea is shooting at my little girl and I am wondering – why is this happening.
    If Kim Jong-un wants to be the most famous leader in the whole world all he has to do is “Give peace a chance” and re-unite the Korean Peninsula after 60 years.

    • Another wonderfully-put reply dad. You should have your own blog. Really. šŸ™‚

      • Well said Mr. Collins.

  4. shelley,
    your students’ poetry is poignant. but the guy who has the job yet sits in your class writing a poem about how he will fight – he stops me cold.
    another young man who must boast of his willingness to fight and die. it’s expected of him – to fight and die…it’s his responsibility as a young man, and if he desires anything else – like compromise or peace – his manhood is questioned. it’s such a tragedy, such a trap. he is expected to willingly develop all the internal personal values that accept violence so that he will be able to be violent for his country…even more, he is expected to put a high value on violence in the name of all that is the national good. when i was a young high school senior in 1968, my teachers shoved ernest hemingway and the red badge of courage down my throat, educating me that as a man, i must conquer my reluctance to kill because i must willingly and effectively kill in order to be a man.
    and yet, if this desire for violence leads a young man down a bad path where he is violent in any other but the nationally sanctioned way – God help him. he will be reviled. our leaders, even our educators want young men with violent cores. and our society demands that they also have superhuman control over these violent cores…even when the young men are unformed adolescents. such unrealistic, impossible demands…such destructive hypocrisy.
    furthermore, i find it revolting that you need to have a personal escape plan, and i find it saddening that koreans just shake their heads and then move on.
    wish i could see the 2 of you in the holidays. i may yet catch a military hop to korea…then you might show me the town.
    john in FL

  5. Shelley,

    hope your vacation is going well. Waiting for your next entry.

  6. Wow Shelley…didn’t know you were doing your own blog! It’s really great. šŸ™‚

    • Mark,
      Sorry for the late reply. I was travelling for Christmas. Had dinner With David on my last night in Vancouver and thought of you. I am so looking forward to digging through your novel. Thanks for linking me, and I will do the same as soon as I get around to putting a blogroll on my sidebar. Hugs.

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