Far and Away: Returning from Yeosu and Raising a Voice for Korea Women’s Hotline

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May 29th 2011
Published: June 1st 2011
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Suncheon BaySuncheon BaySuncheon Bay

SUPER windy and chilly day... but cool clouds.
Oh, Yeosu!
So, as Mr. Kim (my old co-teacher) says, “Time flies like an arrow.” It’s hard to believe my Yeosu trip finished up so quickly and I’m already back in Seoul. Yeosu was everything I expected it to be—and more—but all I know is that I wasn’t there long enough! I had a great time catching up with old friends, my host family, and my former fellow co-teachers. My schedule was chock full, and it was so wonderful to still see these relationships—though barricaded some by time and geographical space—continued regardless, and that even though I’m a oeguk who only taught at the school and lived in Yeosu for a year, I feel that there’s still a connection there—whether it’s jeong or in-yeon or whatever you might call it. And I really felt that connection, which was one of the surprises. After living so many places, I’ve gotten used to wanting that connection, but seeing it fade. Of course, at the same time, I’ve been blessed with lifelong friends who’ve been there for me regardless of time, space, or my failures to e-mail (ha, these days, I blame grad school). But, anyway, these old friends and so-called family were quite a blessing to me, and I hope when I go back, I’ll be able to spend more time with all of them.

As far as other Yeosu stuff goes, there’s not too much to report. I didn’t spend too much time sightseeing, as my main mission there was to be with people, but I did get the chance to (1) see the high school’s festival (for those of you who haven’t read my old blogs from when I taught, it’s essentially a day-long series of performances by each homeroom class of first- and second-year students (sometimes featuring the teachers as well) followed by an evening of individual and small group performances by various talented students who (I think?) try out. I was quite impressed by all their work, and quite entertained) and (2) go to Suncheon Bay with my host mom and her sister—two of the most loving and lovable people in the world. We had a good time touring around, though it was super windy, and I really appreciated their kindness, sweetness, and generosity as they’ve continued to open up their lives and families to me. It helps, when you’re so far away from home, to have a place you can call home, even if just for a little while...

So, overall, a great, brief, and jam-packed trip full of meeting folks (I ate SO MUCH I could’ve exploded by the Friday night I returned to Seoul), and I will certainly miss (yet again) all those who’ve been a part of my life there...

Oh, and I forgot to mention: I found Yeosu quite the same, but also quite changed. The city is preparing to host the 2012 World Expo, so there’s been quite a lot of development since the announcement (which I think was 2007 or 2008—the “tryout” happened when I was there at some point, and I think it was in 2007...). The bus system is much improved, the riverside’s been turned into a beautiful park (which had been underway in one of my previous trips, but is now mostly completed), and Dolsan (the small island on which my host family lives) is completely transformed. I’m not sure what to make of all of it. Some of it is great, for sure, as it makes Yeosu a more accessible and attractive city. However, I miss the quietness of Dolsan, for example, and some of
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All together now... Aren't we so cute?
the simplicity that surrounded the nature around us (for example, they’ve put up these art-deco-ish street lamps all over the Dolsan seaside, whereas I thought something less intrusive was more striking, as the view, even at night—or, perhaps, especially—is gorgeous without some of this decorative lighting). But, I guess that’s the price of development (?). Also, as in other parts of Korea, THERE ARE COFFEESHOPS EVERYWHERE. It’s like an Alexis Heaven. When I lived there before, I had to scramble to find a good cup of coffee—not the weak, ta-bang style stuff. I remember Jackie (my Korean friend who I’ve mentioned before, for sure, and was lucky enough to meet up with again) and I were super excited when Tom and Tom’s (a coffee chain in Korea) moved into Yeoseo-dong (one of the downtown areas). That was, like, the only option. At least for takeout coffee—the rest, well, it was there, but... Different. So. Coffee fever. I wonder if it’ll last... or if it’ll just be another fad...?

Shout!: Raising a Voice with Korea Women’s Hotline
So, I came back to Seoul on Friday night and have been graciously hosted by one of my co-workers from the Korea Women’s Hotline, Ranhee
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A series of comic-type posters dealing with how to respond/how people respond to domestic and sexual violence
(who’s been my main mentor and “boss” at KWHL—she’s been a real blessing, in fact). When I told her when I was coming back to Seoul for this weekend before leaving for the US, she insisted that I save my money and stay at her apartment with her and her sisters (instead of at the hostel). They’ve all been super hospitable and welcoming, and I couldn’t have asked for a better final few days in Korea. So, here’s an electronic shout-out and thanks to all of them!

After I got into Seoul late on Friday, I spent all day Saturday with Ranhee and the KWHL staff at a function in Namsan Tower Park for one of their campaigns called (best English translation) “Shout!” Essentially, it’s a public education campaign about giving voice to and speaking out about issues surrounding domestic violence, sexual violence, and women’s/human rights, etc. It was pretty awesome, and the turnout was bigger than I expected. The day started with some speeches, a sort of skit, and the Seoul Police brass band *former band geek snort of enthusiasm*. What a kickoff! Then, a bunch of tables/booth kind of things were set up around different educational ideas—everything from current Korean laws, to a true-false test around domestic violence (for example, “If I call the police and report domestic abuse, I automatically am divorced from my spouse,” etc.), to a booth that dealt with Korean language issues around patriarchy and these problems (for example, you had to pick which you thought was the worst/most offensive language choice(s) (things that have been maybe regularly used) and better ways to state them—i.e., one of the Korean terms for widow literally means “waiting to die,” so people had to write alternatives that would be more equitable and such... The one that made me laugh the most was a little subversive one (and also kind of politically incorrect, considering my broad term for feminism) that said (in Korean) “liberated woman”--ha. *whomp*). It was pretty awesome overall, and it was really cool to see all these people of all ages participating. And it was nice to be able to participate, too, and learn more about the ways that even Korean language enshrines and enacts gender discrimination, issues, etc. (as do many languages, though all in different ways). And according to Ranhee, the soundtrack they were running the whole time was composed of protest
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KHWL Shout! Event
songs—I wish I could’ve understood them. So, another moment of solidarity—but also seeing activism and education/outreach at work. It was a fun event (most of the things were game-ish, but dealing with a serious issue), and if you completed activities at all the booths, you got a prize! So, way to go KWHL for getting these folks involved and continuing to get the word out.

This is even more important at this point since Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality just released a grand plan to stop domestic violence (supposedly based off of a plan implemented in Minnesota at some point). However, KWHL doesn’t support the plan for a variety of reasons, or so I was told when I got back to Seoul (evidently the Ministry announced the plan while I was in Yeosu, so the KWHL were mobilized all week to respond in the media, etc.), partly because of the way it relies on policing domestic violence, which is difficult, to say the least (reporting the abuse to authorities is important, but doesn’t “solve” the problem, especially as abusers’ violence tends to escalate after reportage, splitting up, etc.). So, from what I gather, KWHL’s stance is that the issue

At the KWHL Shout! Event
is far more complex than the Ministry allows for. I guess we’ll see what comes of that.

But, I think what I’m trying to say is that it’s not just about the government intervening or calling the police on an abuser/assailant, and so on. Education is a key component in preventing abuse/violence of all kinds, so I admire what KWHL is doing—and how they’re making talking about these issues more plausible even in Korean culture among people of all ages (and there were literally all ages at this event). So, congrats to you, and I’ve been honored to work with you these few weeks!

To be honest, I feel like I haven’t written enough about KWHL and the great work they’re doing—but they’ve actually been the group I’ve worked with most. Certainly, I was happy to be a part of the Korean Council’s work, programs, colloquia, etc., and to meet all the activists there, at the Wednesday protests, and at the House of Sharing. But, really, the bulk of my work and research here (as far as the daily stuff) has been with KWHL. I’ve (clearly) mentioned them a few times here in this blog, but don’t know
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Preparations and setup
if I can emphasize how important they are to the Korean landscape of feminism and human rights. Granted, at this point, I’m probably a little biased—they’ve really been helpful and welcoming to me, and they’re one of the groups I feel I’ve gotten to know most. However, they really are one of the flagship groups to come out of the feminist movement in Korea, originating, like many political and social justice groups, at the start of the democratic revolution/post-dictatorship in Korea (in KWHL’s case, in 1983). They’ve been a part of the landscape here for a long time, and work for everything from domestic violence legislation to providing services for survivors to providing equality between the sexes in the workplace.

The week before I left for Yeosu, I got the privilege/opportunity to interview some of the staff members, and they gave me a great insight into the past, present, and future of feminism and women’s rights in Korea—as well as the work that KWHL does. (Note: As I’ve used feminism throughout these posts, I’m using a more inclusive version that many people don’t consider—i.e., “feminist” doesn’t mean “man hater” but someone (regardless of sex/gender) who seeks, works for, or
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supports equality between genders/sexes in all areas and also seeks social justice/equality on a broader level, noticing that the factors that affect gender issues/rights/etc. are multiple and complex, including race, class, etc. As among many in the US, in Korea “feminist” has become a bad word of sorts—but one that is interpreted as the narrower, exclusive, almost parodic meaning of “anti-male” or “feminazi.” Thus, as one of the KWHL interviewees/staff member said when I asked her what advice she had for future feminists, “There’s too much of a gap between feminists and non-feminists. Everyone can be a feminist.” And, personally, I agree. I was also told by another interviewee that many people in Korea think that feminism is outdated—no longer needed. In other words, gender equality has been fully achieved. But, in both the US and in Korea, I (and these KWHL co-workers) seem to disagree with this idea. Progress has been made, but there are many more steps to go...) So, it was interesting to hear their personal/institutional perspectives—as well as to learn more about the organization, its work, and their roles in it. One of the challenges they face nowadays, besides societal resistance to many of their goals
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Pop quiz about domestic violence
(again, due largely to the patriarchal structure of the society and also the division of private/familial vs. public), is actually attempting to deal with the government. For example, in 2008, many KWHL members attended a protest on a matter unrelated to KWHL’s goals (the FTA beef protests that burgeoned in Seoul in the summer of ‘08); then, in 2009, when KWHL submitted some projects/proposals to the Ministry of Gender Equality, the Ministry rejected them because KWHL members attended the demonstration(s) (KWHL then sued the Ministry and won in 2010, the courts recognizing that denying the projects/proposals for this sort of participation was not legal—and paving the way for organizations similarly discriminated against to file suit). As one of the interviewees said, “The government really, really hated us... Every government organization hated us.” As another example, according to the interviewee, a company donated to KWHL, and because of that, the government investigated that company’s tax situation, and thus, commercial companies didn’t want to invest in KWHL’s projects/programming. (I’ve seen this at work in other organizations I’ve worked with in the US, so I feel for them on this one. Makes fundraising quite difficult indeed.) Of course, KWHL is a progressive organization,
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(On the left) What would you say if someone hit/was trying to physically attack you? (Ex--Get away! Stop it! I'm calling the police!) (On the right) What would you say to someone (friend, mother, sister, etc.) you know is being physically abused?
and as I heard from multiple people, all of this depends on which party is in power.

“Elections are really important,” Ranhee (my main contact mentioned above) conceded during her interview. “But I think we overcome and are overcoming.” And progress has been made. KWHL’s work over the years has helped bring into law the first domestic violence legislation in Korea (and more laws that followed about sexual/domestic violence, human trafficking, and other key issues of importance to KWHL), thanks to KWHL many more people in Korea now know about their rights and issues related to sexual/domestic violence, etc., survivors have more resources—the list goes on (and I have more paperwork that details these things, but they’re all packed away in some suitcase by now).

Yet, the work is hard and the rewards are often slow in coming—but still, these women (and women and men the world over—it just so happens at this NGO the employees I met were all women, though many of the volunteers I met are men) keep at it, day after day. They keep at it even though it seems impossible, even though the government sometimes stands in the way, even with society’s resistance,
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KWHL Staff! Keep up the good work!
even though tragedy strikes. For example, the first day I showed up to volunteer and meet the staff, I found out that one of the women (a domestic violence survivor, I think) who’d been using their services had just committed suicide. (Note: This is not uncommon in these situations in Korea, or in other countries. My colleague, Sasi, did research on domestic violence in refugee camps in India, and many of the victims/survivors felt they were so trapped there was no way out but suicide. In Korea, it’s a serious problem as well—both related to this and on a broader scale. In fact, I read that Korea has the highest suicide rate of all developed countries. For an interesting look at this, see the case of Choi Jin-Sil, who committed suicide while in the midst of divorcing an abusive husband (causes of the suicide are unclear, though, as she left no note). There are also many, many news articles about this case.) Change is indeed slow in coming, both at the personal and global levels. But still, they have hope—which gives me hope. “I think we... are just trying and trying and trying... Our society is getting better and better,” Ranhee
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Staff and volunteers posing behind the booth dealing with Korean language choices...
said. “Someday, if the earth not destroyed” she laughed and said something in Korean about the apocalypse, “we will get our goal.... ” (Indeed, laughter is another way to cope with dealing with this day-in and day-out.)

Perhaps most enjoyable to me were the interviewees’ comments regarding how to encourage future feminists, both in Korea and worldwide. As one of those feminists perhaps needing encouragement, it was fun to hear what they would say—as well as how their thoughts overlapped and diverged. Here’s a small sampling: “Let’s get going!” “Don’t be sad!” (This was after discussing during the interview how hard it can be to work everyday on these difficult and slow-changing issues.) “Don’t worry about your money—you can live!” (This was said with a laugh, but I know she was at least half-serious.) “ need waiting.” “ must be loving.” “Travel a lot. See many things.” “Listen.” “Don’t be scared.” “Don’t judge easily.” There’s more in Korean that I need to translate (some of this was in English and some in (easy) Korean), but these are the highlights. I guess I was most amused by comments like “Don’t be sad” paired, for example, with another interviewee’s “Don’t
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One of the staff members explains some of the current legislation around domestic and sexual violence, and the additional protections/rights KWHL would like to see in place. (For example, under current law, only children and women are covered by Korean laws around these issues.)
be scared”--makes feminism/this work sound quite daunting—ha.

Of course, I could go on and on. I spent almost every weekday with this group for about two to three weeks, and then, of course, had some extra evening events with the Film Festival planning team as well as the weekend event on Saturday. My research on this subject has broadened and deepened immensely—both on the local, Korean level and on a more global level. I learned so much from those I worked with and was very inspired by them. And I could go on and on about some of the great feedback I got during these interviews and daily interactions. But, I think I’ll have to save all of that for another day and the future work/writing I plan to do with these experiences, interviews, and research. Just know that, in Korea (as well as in the US) there’s still a long way to go on this journey—but that all are welcome to work with us. And know that, if the statistics are right, these are issues that not only affect many Koreans but affect many people around us who we know and love in whatever countries, cities, neighborhoods we
Songyi, Rachel, and I after the Shout! eventSongyi, Rachel, and I after the Shout! eventSongyi, Rachel, and I after the Shout! event

Eating Red Mango bingsu... Yum!
live in.

Social Hour(s)
Of course, ending my visit in Yeosu didn’t end my social life. After the KWHL event on Saturday, I managed to meet up with two old friends of mine from undergrad (yeah, hard to believe—here in Seoul): Songyi (who I knew from MSN and whom I’ve visited pretty much each time I’ve come to Korea) and Rachel (my old roommate from college, oh so long ago). They came and kept me company as I volunteered at the event, and then we went out for a great Korean dinner and bingsu afterward. Then, later that night, one of the KWHL Film Festival team members threw me a going away party at her house and invited a number of our colleagues to join in. It’s one of the few Korean “house parties” I’ve been to, and it was pretty groovy (she set up a table on the roof of her apartment building and served us wine, cheese, and other delicacies—what a great farewell!). My last full day in Korea was fairly quiet, with a samgyupsal-type dinner and coffee with some former Fulbrighters—as well as a goodbye cake and other treats provided by Ranhee and her sisters when
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My crew at Top English TKD--thanks for making me feel so welcome!
I got back from dinner. It was great to see old friends, and I can’t express how grateful I am for the kindness of my new friends!

Taekwondo Update
For my TKD buddies: I know I mentioned earlier on I was trying to find a TKD dojang in which to practice, and my third week in Korea I finally did. For that whole week, I went to an English TKD dojang near Beotigogae Station, and Master Kang (the instructor) was totally awesome, helpful, and again, so welcoming. I enjoyed meeting and working with the other practitioners, and they were also so kind as to wish me well before I went to Yeosu, as after my last practice, Master Kang took us to “pajeon street” near one of the universities for some delicious Korean goodies and some good social time. I am fortunate to know I’ll have a TKD home to return to if/when I come back!

At some point during my three-week stay, I also had a two-hour intensive practice with an older TKD master near my hostel, which was pretty awesome because he kept talking about the “old way” and “new way” of TKD (the traditional versions vs. the newer, Olympic-sport style versions) and kept trying to teach me some of the “old ways”--i.e., all the lethal things you can do with your hands and feet. Well, no, that’s an exaggeration, of course—TKD doesn’t really work like that, and certainly not the traditional kind. But he did show me some different fists and things to make, pressure points for self defense, and all that kind of stuff. Very informative, and another great and helpful experience.

Next Episode...
Well, I’ve about written a novel, so I’d better save the rest for actually, I don’t know, writing a novel or something. Or at least a story. An essay. Something like that. If you have any questions about this stuff or want to know more, let me know. I can post some more, or sit down with you over coffee, or make a Pulitzer-prize winning article or something. Who knows? In the meantime, in my next entry, I’ll post a couple links to some similar organizations in the US, and wrap up with some final (shorter) ruminations. If you’ve made it to this point in this blog entry, congratulations. This kind of rambling is what happens when Alexis actually has time on her hands, and your a brave soul for reading it all (and/or perhaps the smarter of us if you skimmed to the end to see if there was anything important here—if this is you, I can tell what kind of student you were/are...)

Best wishes and much love from this side of the ocean, and keep fighting the good fight.

Additional photos below
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At a Taekwondo Dojang near HapjeongAt a Taekwondo Dojang near Hapjeong
At a Taekwondo Dojang near Hapjeong

Fierce. ^^ Or... about to lose my balance.

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