19 May 2004

From 1996 to 2004, May 18 Revisited: Part IV

May 17 was little different than May 16, except perhaps the mood was even more like a carnival – they even had a juggler at one end of the street. Few themes reflected May 18, but rather June 15 (inter-Korean summit), Nogunri (Korean War era massacre of civilians my U.S. forces), the Iraq War, the Korean ownership of TokDo and the over-riding theme of unification of the two Koreas.

The programming was haphazard, there was a part where sirens wailed, the sound of helicopters was heard, and red and white American flags rained down on the crowd. Earlier in the day, they had a guy in a George W. Bush mask in a cage taunting people, who could in turn throw beanbags at him.

But while May 17 was disappointing, May 18 made me and my traveling companion (a former student of mine) rather sad. In the morning, there was a brief ceremony over at the new cemetery, including a speech by President Roh Moo Hyun. Except the way the place is set up, Roh and the other speakers are not visible to the vast majority of the audience. Rather, there is an invitation-only section for politicians, visiting foreign guests and a few chosen families and injured from May 18.

This main stage is blocked from view by a series of white tents that house the metal detectors. The rest of the folks simply watch the speeches on a large television screen. Roh may as well have been in China or the United States as in Kwangju.

The mood around the graves, too, was muted compared to eight years ago. Most families, it seems, prefer to come at a time when the grounds won’t be crawling with national media seeking that perfect picture of a crying grandmother or a weepy politician.

But the biggest shock came this evening, when we turned onto Kumnamno around seven PM and saw… well, regular traffic. There are no events scheduled for May 18 aside from the very brief service at the cemetery. No demonstrations, no songs, no silent memorial… nothing. According to a local Uri Party official, the local businesses complained about the street being closed so often, so May 18 is a day for “reflection.” The real party will start May 19 with a series of concerts and fireworks.

My conclusion from all this, which my associate shared, is that May 18 is no longer for or about Kwangju. Even the musicians performing on May 17 were from different areas of the country. Kwangju is being forgotten amid the nationally-sponsored events. Instead, it is a time to yell about the United States, the Iraq War, genetically modified foods, handicapped rights, and, most importantly it seemed, to sell food, balloons (I saw several vendors with their Spongebob Squarepants balloons for sale), and pose for patriotic photos – students standing atop a bus waving fake rifles and real flags, a few people standing in a row holding torches, with no explanation of what they were doing, who they were, or why they were even there, children walking on the backs of their elders carrying the unification flag. These are the new May 18 memorials, with May 18 and even the city left far behind in the thoughts and memories.

I may write more on this, I have pages of notes, as well as more to write that is floating in my head, but I must sleep. Tomorrow it is onto a bus to get onto as plane to get to home. And while I say that national healing is good, the impression I get from those who lived through May 18 is that there is none. All there is is the repressing of memories once again, living with the failure of May 1980 rather than the sense of pride and the knowledge of history that dwells deep within the souls of the people, but may never be fully revealed.

So don’t let pain and the appearance of failure or defeat keep you from embracing your memories and your past – both the good and the bad – for without that past, you would not be you. It is not something to dwell on with an assumption or wondering of whether you could have or should have changed something, but an appreciation of the pain and sorrow, joy and celebration, drudgery and discovery that shaped and formed you and made you something unique.

Well, enough pop-psychology and personal affirmation, sleep beckons and a bus awaits my arrival early in the morning.

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