I woke up later than usual this morning,
so I had to forego my newspaper-reading.
When I got home this evening, I was shocked to find
this article in the Tucson paper that begins:
SEOUL, South Korea — Police arrested a 70-year-old
man suspected of setting a fire that destroyed the country's
top cultural treasure, the 610-year-old Namdaemun gate
in Seoul, authorities said Tuesday.
The Great South Gate of Seoul.
Imagine the Arc de Triomphe, in the middle of its great 12-avenue traffic-circle,
bombed out...Paris just wouldn't be the same, non?
Seattle without its Space Needle, London without the Tower Bridge...
the Coliseum in Rome, destroyed in an explosion--
it would be like the face of a beautiful woman,
nose disappeared in some ghastly accident...
Built at the end of the 14th century, when Seoul was established as the capital of a new dynasty, the venerable gate had survived every foreign invasion (Manchu, Japanese, Western) and even the 1950-1953 Korean War, when the city changed hands repeatedly, razed each time by Communists and/or "U.N."-forces...it survived all those catastrophes--a symbol of the 'phoenix-city,' rising from the ashes each time...
(photo from a postcard I got the last time I was in Seoul, way back in 1993)
The gate survived these six centuries only to fall to arson at the hands of a vengeful, greedy old man.
(last two photos from today's www.iht.com)
...and here's why the guy did it:
The police in Seoul said the suspect had complained about a land dispute with a development company, saying that he did not get enough compensation from the developer for about 100 square meters (1,076 square feet) in Gyeonggi province near Seoul.
The suspect "committed the crime after nursing a grudge" over the fine and what he considered insufficient compensation for his land, Kim told reporters.
According to police, the suspect said he picked the 610-year-old landmark because it was easily accessible. He had initially planned to carry out an arson attack on another cultural landmark or the public transportation system, but called off those options because of heavy security and fears of a high death toll, police said. (here's a link to the entire article in today's IHT)
All that for a price-dispute over a plot of land only a thousand square feet in size!?
And this wasn't the guy's first time trying to burn down ancient landmarks; the article continues:
The suspect had been charged in 2006 with setting fire to Changgyeong Palace in Seoul, which caused 4 million won in damage. For that crime, he received a suspended sentence of 18 months in prison and was fined 13 million won, Kim said.
(my photo--the steps leading up to the Throne Hall at Changgyeong Palace)
(Internet tourist-website photo of the palace complex, with new skyscrapers constantly being built all around)
Thankfully, he didn't succeed in doing that much damage two years ago...
Why this need to blog about a burned-down gate in a faraway place?
I guess it has to do with the question, "Where are you from?" With the moving I've done, both in my childhood(my father was in the army), and in my adult life, I've always had a hard time answering that question. When I was in elementary school, I either answered--"I must moved here from Germany," or "I just moved here from Arizona." Inevitably, my genetics being what they are, the kids (and adults too) would then say, "No, really, where are you from?" So I would answer that my mother was Korean, my father not, and that I was born in Seoul, Korea. (Yes, I am, ahem, a Seoul-man.)
"Oh, well, then, you're from Korea." Well, that 'helpful' reply is not so true.
I mean, yes, yes, I was born there--but can you really say you're 'from' a place when you left before your first birthday?
Later, when I finished college and moved to Seattle, my answer to the question would be "I moved here from Georgia." "Really...but you don't have the accent?" would be the usual reply. And even in 'cosmopolitan' Seattle, people, when looking at my half-Asian face, would then say, "no, really, where are you from?"
Then came my one-year-stint in France. "D'où êtes-vous?" "De Seattle." It was too complicated to explain any further...and most of the time, in Paris, that answer would suffice. But it felt wrong saying that, since I had only lived in Seattle for a year before...but saying that I was 'from' Georgia didn't feel right either, since it never felt like 'home'--yes, yes, I spent most of my growing up there, but neither one of my parents was from there, we had no relatives there...it will always hold a special place in my memories, but I am not 'from' Georgia...
Years later, my wife and I went to Nicaragua...and then last summer we moved to Arizona.
In my classroom, at least a third of the students are immigrants. (47 languages are spoken in the school where I teach.) When you ask where they are from, they have, for the most part, a ready, firm answer.
When they ask me, I try to give a brief break-down of where I've lived...but at the end, they almost always ask--"No, really, where are you from?" I try to say that I can't really answer that question...at which point, one of my students, from Honduras, said "So, meester, guehr gwur joo born?"
That's a good an answer as any, I guess...it's what's on my birth certificate.
But really, when people ask where I'm from, I feel like blurting out: born-in-Korea, grew up in Germany, Arizona, Georgia, then lived in Seattle, France, Seattle, Nicaragua, and now in Arizona again. Too much information. But that is my honest and final answer...for now.
As a child, though, my first memories of 'abroad' and 'family' were intimately tied up with Seoul. Periodically, my mother and I would go back to Korea and visit our relatives, who lived for the most part, in and around the country's giant capital. (The Korean equivalent of "all roads lead to Rome," seriously, is 'all roads lead to Seoul.')
I remember driving around Namdaemun, seeing the boulevards that radiate from it all torn up--the subway was being put in. The outskirts of the city were still third-world at the time, but the center was getting ready for the '88 Olympics, when Seoul would make its entrance as a 'first-world-city.'
And that's exactly what the city did--in one generation, the city went from being almost completely razed in the Korean War, to being the 12-million-thronged-capital of the most-wired nation in the world. (There are actually 'boot camps' now for its urban youth so that they can overcome internet addiction. Seriously. The world's largest Starbucks is in Seoul. Your cell-phone was probably made there, too...) Confucianism replaced by conspicuous materialism, dotted with pagodas...
Nostalgia has the strange ability to transform noxious fumes into the scent of memory; whenever I now smell diesel on a cold winter morning, I think back to the winter when I was 7 years old, holding my uncles' and older cousins' hands while wandering the backstreets near Namdaemun...the steaming food of street vendors under a sky scrubbed blue by a passing Siberian cold front...Men on bikes piled high with socks and cheap calculators, zipping between the buses and trucks on the boulevards leading to the market districts...Women carrying babies on their backs, wrapped in pink and orange blankets...the bins of dried squid alternating with strawberry-yogurt-candies...
And the ancient gate, Namdaemun, presiding over it all...
I found this photo, (of me, taken by an uncle, I suppose), from my mid-teen-years, when I spent a summer, during the monsoon-rainy-season, in a village outside of Seoul, where my grandmother was living...The enveloping humidity, surrounded by impossibly green rice-paddies...and cows, many cows...all framed by low mountains. But the city still drew me, and it was close...Many days involved getting off/on buses near Namdaemun, and The Gate, lost in its swirl of traffic, embodied, to my melodramatic adolescent mind, the ability of a civilization to keep the best of its old while creating its new...
Later, in my young adulthood, I would think of my parents getting to know one another on the streets surrounding this gate...of my mother socializing with her co-workers after-hours around this gate...my father picking up my mother for dates (in his Buick!) near this gate...and then later wondering at what their life must have been like, with their language and culture barriers, before I was born, near this gate...
I've not been back to Korea for nearly fifteen years, now. I know that the gate will be restored, rebuilt to its 14th-century glory...but the fact that it could so easily go up in flames...just got me nostalgic...and got me thinking about 'where I'm from.' And if I can't easily identify just one place to be from, I guess a gate is as good a symbol as any for my birthplace.
Flammable, but solid. A place to be from, perhaps, but mainly a place to walk through, a portal of departures and arrivals for those who move.
when I saw this column (reprinted below) a few days ago, I instantly 'clicked' with the sentiments of the writer:
'Where are you from?'
By Ranjani Iyer Mohanty
International Herald Tribune Wednesday, February 6, 2008
It seems an innocuous enough question, but it's one that brings me to a grinding halt. Then I usually take a deep breath and launch into my speech: "Well, I was born in Bombay, but my parents come from South India. We moved to Canada when I was seven. After university, I've lived and worked in Canada, England, Holland, Portugal and India."
Sometimes I wish I could give a one-word answer, but I feel it just would not adequately describe me. And maybe in today's world of high mobility, varied interests and greater accessibility, it doesn't describe a number of us anymore.
I've absorbed some things from each place where I've lived, and therefore am definitely a composite. In school, we used the term "cultural mosaic" to describe Canada, and I feel I'm that, all by myself. It sounds better than "schizophrenic."
Being a cultural mosaic can lead to a sense of uprootedness. I feel I'm a visitor everywhere, always a bit removed from any situation I find myself in. Sometimes when I visit friends who have lived in one place their entire lives, I sense a stability and continuity that I can only envy. They don't need to figure out which doctor to call, nor look up words in a foreign-language dictionary to describe a particularly embarrassing condition. They don't need to find out where to buy fresh fish, or what is a good price to pay.
They don't have to repeatedly answer questions like, "Where are you from?"
When you find yourself doing these things again and again over the years in different countries, you have to ask yourself, "Am I making progress?" While my friends are moving upwards in their lives, am I simply moving horizontally?
In Portugal, they have a name for us: estrangeiros.
Describing expats (including himself) in his book "Imaginary Homelands," Salman Rushdie wrote: "Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools." Physical movement can lead to an intellectual movement as well. Edward Said, in a lecture titled "Intellectual Exile," called us "marginals."
But he also listed three positive aspects of the condition: We never see things in isolation, always through a double perspective, "in terms of what has been left behind and what is actual here and now," and therefore we derive our own interpretations of them. We "look at situations as contingent, not as inevitable," as the result of choices we've made. We have the opportunity to begin afresh in each new situation, and perhaps even to do things that we would not or could not have done in our earlier locale.
Call us what you will - global nomads, gypsies, citizens of the world - we are better understood now, or at least better tolerated, and not least because we've increased in number. During my first stay in India in the early 1990s, people used to wonder why I, looking obviously Indian, should talk with a strange accent. There was a term then that was supposed to described me: ABCDs - American-Born Confused Desi (Indian). It served as a good catch-all phrase for those who didn't care to know the details.
I don't hear that term anymore. Many families have a son or daughter living abroad and parents who visit them yearly. And when they hear me speak, they wonder what part of North America I'm from. When I tell them I grew up in Calgary, they ask if I've met their aunt's son-in-law's sister's friend. There are also many Indians who were born abroad or had immigrated who are now returning to work in India.
What will be the acronym for them? Maybe we don't need one any more. Nowadays even my accent doesn't stand out anymore. When Madhuri Dixit and others who've been in North America for only a couple of years return with a much stronger twang than I have, people wonder why I don't sound, look and act more . . . North American.
As movement becomes more the norm, our countries - whether they be those of our parents, of our birth, of our upbringing, or of our current residence - may no longer define us. Maybe then the question will not be "where are you from?" but rather "where are you going?" Quo vadis?
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty, a writer, editor and cultural mosaic, currently lives in New Delhi. http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/02/06/opinion/edmohanty.php
===(and if you're interested in reading more)=======
Here's the editorial from the Korea Times
Out of Grievance
Arsonist Suspected of Destroying National Treasure
An old Korean saying goes that 10 people cannot capture a thief. This adage can be applied to the loss of the Namdaemun gate, a 610-year-old landmark in Seoul. It is a pity that police, firefighters, cultural property managers and citizens could not prevent an alleged arsonist from sneaking into the wooden structure and setting fire to it. No matter how tightly the nation's top national treasure was guarded, it might have been difficult to keep the gate off-limits to potential perpetrators dabbling in vandalism.
People have expressed shock and anger at the Sunday destruction of the symbolic icon of the nation. Many of them said their hearts were burning when watching TV footage showing the invaluable cultural asset burning down. They were surprised to learn how negligent cultural property administrators, city officials, police and firefighters were in preserving and protecting the structure. How could police ignore a pedestrian's report that a stranger climbed up the gate? How could firefighters fail to take quick and proper action to bring the blaze under control?
The case demonstrates that South Korea has a long way to go to join the ranks of advanced countries in preserving their cultural assets and heritages. We are ashamed of losing the National Treasure No. 1 which had survived foreign invasions, the 1910-45 Japanese colonial rule and the 1950-53 Korean War. The gate, originally called Sungnyemun, is the incarnation of national pride. But it seems that this pride has been burned away with the charred structure.
Police said Tuesday they arrested a 70-year-old man on suspicion of arson. Investigators said the suspect, identified by his surname Chae, confessed to the arson, adding that he committed the crime out of grievance because he was not paid in full for land he sold to be developed. According to the initial police investigation, the arson was a premeditated and carefully planned crime. He reportedly made advance visits to several historic relics, eventually choosing the gate as his target.
Chae also committed arson in April 2006, destroying part of a Joseon Kingdom palace in downtown Seoul that was listed as a World Heritage. A local court sentenced him to a suspended jail term for causing about 4 million won ($4,250) in property damage.
It is also disturbing to learn that Chae had allegedly thought of committing a terrorist attack on trains to vent his dissatisfaction over the compensation money estimated at 96 million won ($120,000), far short of his expectation of 400 million won.
However, it was quite difficult to detect the suspect's criminal schemes in advance.But what really matters is how to respond to such arson when it occurs. The fire took place around 8:50 p.m. Firefighters rushed to the scene but they failed to take immediate and appropriate action to extinguish the blaze. It was obvious that they did not know how to put out the fire. In short, lack of fire-prevention measures led to the destruction of the national treasure. It is imperative to take radical steps to protect the country's cultural properties from vandalism.
The loss of that gate is a cultural tragedy. I'm so sorry.ReplyDelete
Your experience and that of the columnist are very similar. Thanks for sharing both.
Very beautiful post, Joe. Thanks for sharing. The politics of identity are fascinating indeed - all the more so in the modern, increasingly nomadic age we live in.ReplyDelete
By the way, Devon and I put in an application to attend the 2009 International Convention and Seoul was our second choice (after Nairobi, which I'm guessing my not happen, what with current events). We'll have to get some insight from you on what to expect and what to see if we're assigned to Seoul.ReplyDelete