In the air of the late afternoon is the last chill of winter riding on the steady breeze that twists its way through the towers of office space in downtown Seoul. From this classy yet comfortable porch outside Café Mamas near Myeongdong, I can see the bright red and pink blossoms telling me that it is most assuredly spring.
On a day like this, I had no excuse to remain indoors. Despite my constant eagerness for new experiences, I have found myself retreating inside over the past week. The surfer I was supposed to be hosting this week had a last minute change of plans, so I have had the afternoons all to myself. With the entire day free after noon today, I decided that I must seek out something new. Since my day of “urban hiking” when I first arrived, I have been craving the opportunity to just wander and take pictures. On that walk, I found my way to City Hall, a futuristic building of green glass, but it was closed on that holiday adventure, and I have wanted to return to see it properly. As I correctly surmised, it was open today, but my visit to the building was only a small piece of this adventure.
Rising out of the City Hall subway station, I decided I would find some lunch before returning to the main attraction. Wandering a few kilometers up the road, I found an arcade of restaurants, clearly frequented by the workers of the bank that owned the building above them. While enjoying a pricey plate of pho mein (~$11 – that’s on the upper end for me), I found myself constantly distracted with my phone. In between bites, I flipped through screens of my browser as I read intently about the campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures of major energy companies in the U.S. As someone who typically only a takes a few minutes to inhale any size plate of food, I picked my way through the noodles for nearly an hour as I devoured more words than food.
Last night, a student approached me about a subject I had brought up in class: campaign finance reform. After some great discussions with some of my advanced students about politics and democratic government, I started digging deeply into the issue. The more I learn, the more I realize how disastrous of a problem it is in Washington and many statehouses. With modest effort, I was able to concisely explain to him the way the Citizens United decision and legislative actions have opened the door for major corporations and wealthy individuals to launder money through 501(c)(4) groups that in turn feed the so-called “super PACs” that have pushed political spending in the United States to astronomical levels. It was one of the most exhilarating few minutes of my teaching career.
A couple weeks ago, I shared with you my objectives for my time in Korea: learn the language, keep writing, pay off my debt, and stay fit. None of that includes researching the latest failings of American government. Some people watch TV shows, others chase idols, but I study politics when I need a diversion. However, just like that moment you realize that the entire season of House of Cards is on Netflix, it has started to consume my life. And just like any guilty pleasure, it has caused me to reevaluate my goals and desires.
After finally finishing my lunch and forcing myself to put the phone away, I made my way back toward this supposedly super green City Hall. However, I would run face-to-face with politics in action. As I made my way up the main thoroughfare, I heard the distinct echo of an agitated protestor shouting into a microphone. While twisting my neck to find the source, I started to notice some things that made today special. I had been walking alongside a long line of laborers in their government-issued uniforms and red strips of cloth tied round their heads. The line stretched a hundred meters ahead and behind me. Interested, I followed. As we walked, we passed a row of buses, marked with the emblem of the Seoul Police, riot gear stacked outside.
Across the street, a small group had assembled before a small stage. They were docile, but the man on the stage with the microphone shouted passionately. Finding my way across the street and into the crowd, I tried to decrypted what was going on.
Remembering my eager student, who had earlier attended such a rally, I took a picture to send to him. He got back to me in a few minutes. As it turned out, this particular group had assembled in front of the building of a major media company to express their belief that the botched rescue effort after the sinking of the Sewol Ferry – which was carrying over 200 high school students, nearly all of whom perished – was actually a government conspiracy. Today’s rally was small, perhaps a hundred people, but this sentiment has had growing support. Despite my interest, I wasn’t gaining anything hanging around where no English was being spoken.
Continuing on, I found my way, finally, into City Hall. It is a beautiful building, well-suited for a sustainable future. The walls grow with green plants that help regulate the building’s atmosphere. This is only one of the many innovative features of the building. You can learn more here.
Despite my interest, I would not stay long. Though the lobby was peacefully quiet, I could hear the faint booming of loudspeakers. Outside the glass facade, people had gathered – a lot of people.
Because of the event, the front doors were closed, so I made my way around back. As I walked along the side of the building, I heard the tones of a Soviet-esque chanting proletariat song becoming less muffled as I neared the corner of the building. When the crowd came in sight, I knew I had found the real event for the day. I also found the comrades of red-banded workers I had walked alongside earlier. At the entrance to the old city hall (now a library) they had constructed a large stage, on which were two dozen singers with microphones held powerfully in one hand.
This was protesting, Korean style. As I would later learn from my civically engaged student, these people were government workers expressing their discontent with talk in the government over reducing pension benefits in order to fight the growing national debt. Probably over a thousand had turned out (Korea Herald reports that over 8,000 finally made their way to the square), and the crowd was continually growing. At first, I was impressed by the sheer number filling the main square. However, I started to notice that despite the plethora of flags and banners, the actual engagement was pitiful. The MC for the day, a severely agitated young woman, made occasional calls for the audience to repeat her riling demands, but the response was practically inaudible. In spite of the blasting amplifiers set up around the square, the crowd remained silent. Perhaps it was too early in the day, but there was a general lack of energy throughout the uniformed mass.
Perhaps it was for the best. Their presence was technically illegal. Government workers in Korea do not have the right to collectively protest. The police I had seen earlier had been brought in to maintain order if this protest became unruly. Based on what I saw, the protest was unlikely to get to that point, and news reports confirmed that the officers remained unnecessary.
Although the participation appeared to be compulsory, I must respect the number who turned out for the event. South Korea is a young democracy, having transitioned from a dictatorship less than three decades ago. The national government is currently embroiled in a scandal that has already seen the resignation of the prime minister and further tarnishing of the president’s already-imperfect tenure. I have heard from my students that disillusionment with the democratic government is growing among Koreans, but the protests I saw today show me that there is still a vocal segment of the population that is willing to exploit the rights they have and press the government for more. This is democracy, rule of the people, in action. Whether these demonstrations will have a real effect on policy remains to be seen, but I must respect a group who at least feigns interest in their own governance.
As I piece together what I saw today and the knowledge I have been absorbing through internet research, I am discovering where my true passion lies. People fascinate me. Most likely due to my almost complete failure to understand people, the interest in sociology and cultural anthropology has guided my search for future study. The issue becomes, though, what exactly I will do until I have the resources (financially and temporally) to pursue this academic interest. I certainly have a desire to learn languages that will enable me to interact with people around the world, but the process of learning a language is fundamentally different from that of learning information. Language is the method by which we transmit information, and learning it is often devoid of any real or new information, particularly in the beginning. It may take years for me to learn enough of any language, Korean or otherwise, to be able to discuss such issues as culture and politics. I am far too impatient for that. At the same time, I remember the utter impossibility of trying to learn many things at once (you can read my naive optimism here).
On Wednesday, I will be flying to Chongqing, China to visit Luisa during what will be the longest break I will have while in Korea. Hopefully I will have a little time to unwind and contemplate my priorities during this time.
Thank you for reading as always. I hope you continue to enjoy my senseless ramblings.