Sewol Vigil

Dancing in memorium. 

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.

Lighting candles for those lost.

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.

Monks lead the procession.

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.

Not sure why he stepped out of line...

Stay safe everyone. Go hug your parents.

Enter Homesickness

So, I’ve been here in South Korea for a little over four months now, and I have honestly not felt a single pang of home-sickness. South Korea isn’t that different from any other Industrialized place I’ve been. Yes, there are differences, but nothing so jarring that it throws me into a panic, or makes me want to go back home. The differences are all pleasant, and slightly reassuring. The differences tell me that I’m doing what I should be, and that I’m in the right place for this time in my life.

A potted flower near Yang-dong market, Gwangju. Not nearly as interesting as a wildflower, if you ask me...

This all changed a couple weeks ago. I was struck by a difference I didn’t realize could rattle me so much. For the first time in my life, I’m missing out on Texas wildflowers.

People who aren’t from Texas often don’t understand why Texans are so wild about wildflowers. Many Americans don’t know what the state flower of their home state is. Every Texas knows. Even people who aren’t from Texas probably know that it’s the Bluebonnet. If you want a picture that’s as Texan as it can be, it has to have bluebonnets.

But the Texas wildflowers aren’t limited to bluebonnets. Texas is huge, and it has a lot of different climates, which means lots of different flowers. But what makes the wildflowers so meaningful, I think is the vastness of Texas.

If you want to go anywhere in Texas, you have to drive. You have to drive a long time. Sometimes you have to stop and get a hotel for the night, and then drive some more the next day. It can get absurd. For most of the year, this driving is boring. The fields and hills and mountains and cows and oil rigs are monotonously black, brown, and beige. Miles and miles and hours and hours of tedious, torturous banality interrupted only by the flashing blue and red of a state trooper.

The one time of year this changes is spring. The grass, dead and browned by winter, slowly changes to brilliant green. As the wildflowers come into bloom, the fields, and hills come alive with vibrant patches of blue, red, yellow, and purple. Suddenly, touring the vast emptiness of Texas is a joy. Every mile becomes exciting as beautiful new swaths of color come into view. The speed of Texas highways blurs the flowers into intoxicating impressionist artworks.

Cherry blossom in Gwangju, South Korea

As spring began here in Korea, I was fascinated to see the flowers begin to bloom around me, especially the cherry blossoms. It was wonderful to see the gorgeous pink and white blossoms, and to walk through clouds of their heady aroma. But the cherry blossoms were all too fleeting, and now they are gone. The only flowers left are those planted by people. They fall into neat patterns, carefully planned, and expertly maintained. There are circles of purple, waves of red, rings of white. At fifteen foot intervals, there are squares of yellow, with a touch of orange. I find the carefully-constructed sanity of it bewilderingly boring.

I long for the stochastic nature of wildflowers, for never knowing what will be around the next bend. I miss the surprise of finding a brilliant shock of orange and yellow, where yesterday there was only green.

I’m sure that once spring begins to slip into summer, I’ll stop wishing for gallardia and thistle, for indian paintbrushes and bluebonnets, but for now, I miss home. I miss staring off into the sunset from the Hill Country surrounded by haphazard arrangements of flowers, listening to the hum of bees, and waiting for the oncoming cicadas to tell me when summer has well-and-truly arrived.

Ahh, those beautiful Texas wildflowers.

Happy Earth Day, everyone.