This day, we headed for a conference for a small number of returnees to Korea. The conference was the sixth in a series of such discussion called by CJ Park, a professor at Hanyang University, in his capacity as one of the heads of the multi-cultural studies department there. Their department received a grant to reach out into the local community in which many returnees live to offer the half-day conference of returnees and students in the department, under the (loosely translated) theme of “Multi-Culturalism in Korean Ethnic Groups.” The returnees are people who were born in Korea, moved out of the country, and then returned as older people or even senior citizens.
We took the subway almost to the end of the line, over an hour south of downtown, in an area that looks a lot less like Seoul and a lot more like a regular town or small city. The campus, like many university campuses in Korea, is designed for large numbers of people. It looks institutional, devoid of personality, like it jumped out of the ground yesterday. Not exactly ivy league. We found the place by walking – we were supposed to take the bus, but found out belatedly that the buses don’t run on Saturdays. A kind soul decided to show us the way, but it was a long walk and the guy walked so fast that I was already hot and tired by the time we got into the neighborhood and he pointed out the building in the distance.
Along the way, Steve took a photo of “Gag Story,” apropos of nothing except that some years ago, he also had taken a photo of “Gag Chicken” in another area of Seoul. Evidently the “gag” label means something in Korea. Another mystery to solve someday…
The conference venue was a building at the university that apparently doubled as a wedding hosting business as well as a conference center. After getting into the building and being bowed into the room by hired greeters, we knew that we were not in the right place. We checked the second floor, as he instructed, and found a large sign announcing the multi-cultural festival. After calling C.J., we found out the entire group had adjourned to a nearby restaurant for lunch. CJ eventually found us, and led us to the restaurant, where we sat with the students.Steve got a few photos of the participants, who had warmed up to each other quite a bit by the time we got there.
A Korean brand of multi-culturalism
Korea has better retirement support and better medical insurance for retirees than some of the countries returnees came from, such as Sakhalin Island, China, and North Korea, we had heard from CJ at our previous meeting. This relatively attractive economic environment for seniors has resulted in a new wave of returning senior citizens in South Korea, each with their own culture, history, and story to tell.
The conference gave each of the returnees to tell their own story to the group. The discussion was structured by having the participant returnees seated in the circle, and tell their personal histories to one another. The students and other onlookers sat in a wider circle in the background. Two women and two men participated with a one man and one woman facilitating the discussion.
Sun Mi Ho, a woman who began life in what is now South Korea, told a fascinating and at times horrifying story of being born to a traveling family, in a trajectory that took her from South Korea to Sakhalin, to North Korea, China, and eventually back to the South. Her parents left her two brothers with their grandparents in Kyungsangbokdo (now South Korea), and brought little Sun Mi and her sister with them to Sakhalin Island, and later to what is now North Korea.
Ho said she did not plan to end up in China, and finally South Korea, but for the fact that one day her young adult daughter went missing. She talked to and bribed several traffickers of women in the border region she was living, trying to determine if her daughter had ended up being sold to a Chinese husband through a trafficking business. She and her mother decided to go to China personally and find out.
The happy ending to the story is that she was reunited with her daughter and her elderly mother survived the harrowing journey. I am hoping to use the transcript of the proceedings plus my own recording to tell this story in Sun Mi Ho’s own words. The Lantern Festival Parade
We then took the subway to Dongguk University, one of the major Buddhist universities of Seoul, to see the start of the Lotus Lantern festival, which started with a sort of a Buddhist cheer rally, at an outdoor amphitheater and involving thousands of people, about 40 percent of them monks. There were a lot of gray outfits and a lot of straw hats in the audience (since they all have bald heads). There were also a lot of spectacular outfits created for the parade, as we were to see later.
I saw more Korean traditional drumming groups before and during this parade than at any other time. The music of one group would blend into the music of another after we got walking faster than the parade. There were hundreds of teenagers, who had been on temple stays with the final event of the temple stay the festival and parade. They looked a little overtired. I think you get up at about 4 a.m. for a temple stay. However, the whole event was cheerful, upbeat, colorful, and a bit bizarre. At one point, there were huge floats pulled by about 20 people apiece. One was a lifesize, moving elephant, with a deafening roar, followed by two smoke-belching, fire-breathing (as in real fire) dragons, both with recorded, more-deafening dragon screeches.
At some point, we ducked into a Japanese restaurant, went to the second floor, and perched in a window seat, watching the parade from above while eating our ricebowl concoctions. The parade stretched into the night, rendering the people of the parade almost invisible and putting the focus on the many different kinds of lanterns, which waved and bobbed in the night.
It was plenty of walking, probably more than five miles from the beginning of the parade. We were exhausted, and at the end of a long, and eventful day. But we had an eyeful at one of Korea’s most popular cultural festivals of the year. It was beautiful also to see thousands of people operating a huge event with maximum cooperation, cheer and good will. Even the organizers, it seemed, were having a nice time, attempting to keep things on track by yelling “bally bally” (hurry up!) if any parade participants were lagging behind. However, there were virtually no police, no disorder, not even a harsh word said that I could tell. Buddha’s sense of harmony certainly permeated the whole event.