You may have heard of the Sewol disaster here in South Korea. The stories of this tragedy are hard to miss in international news, so you can imagine the impact it has here. There are allegations of mismanagement and improper response. Some perceive government disrespect for the families of the victims. The Prime Minister resigned, and the people aren’t happy with President Park, either. There is general public outrage, and obvious public sorrow.
It’s interesting, being on the outside of a disaster such as this. I have no personal attachment to the tragedy. I was not personally touched by any of the deaths resulting from it. My only tangential connection to the whole ordeal is the fact that I’m living in the country where it occurred. Of course I feel sorrow for those who died, and for those they’ve left behind. Of course it is shameful how many of these deaths could have been prevented. But I’m left out. I can’t reach out and connect with any of these people. I can’t talk to them. I can’t try to console them. I can’t tell them how I wish I could turn back time for them. We don’t share a language or a culture. I’m only a visitor here, watching their lives grind to a sickening halt, while mine continues, unabated.
Except in the media, the evidence of the nation’s sorrow is not outwardly apparent. This is especially true for foreigners like myself. The people next to me on the bus could be talking about the disaster, and I would never know. This weekend, however, I witnessed clear evidence of the effect it is having.
While walking the downtown area, I stumbled upon a stage where dancers were performing before a large crowd. Off to the side, men were lighting candles in paper lanterns. At first glance, it appeared to be a laid-back festival for only the most reserved Koreans. Until my friend spotted the bowtie symbol which has been chosen to represent the tragedy.
We had stumbled upon a vigil.
Soon, hundreds of paper lanterns were passed to the crowd. Over loudspeakers, a monk began to chant. Other monks, seated close to the stage rose, chanted along with their amplified brother, and walked deliberately with their lanterns toward the street. A procession formed behind them, every member holding their own lighted candle. Soon there were hundreds of mourners marching the streets, lighting the night with a long line of bobbing lanterns.
The unremitting chant, and the solemnity of the monks left an elegiac feel to the procession’s beginning. Yet as the crowd passed and the average age regressed, the magic broke. Teens trudged along, talking on their phones, and laughing with their friends.
These children are too far removed from those who lost their lives to feel much of anything but an obligation to their parents to attend a ceremony. Gwangju is too far from the coast, from those affected. Like me, they never knew the fallen. Though they were fellow Koreans, to them, their loss could have happened a million miles away. They’re still young, still caught up in the innocence of adolescent immortality. They would have survived. Such a tragedy could never befall their parents.
The parents, though they wear masks of pain for the country’s loss, show a glimmer in their eyes: the relief that this didn’t happen to them. The relief that their offspring breath air, not brine. Drive a couple hours or so south, and you’ll find parents who no longer smile. Perhaps I’m not the only one who feels somewhat distant from this. For certain, I’m not the only one who is glad for the distance.
Stay safe everyone. Go hug your parents.