Monday, November 16, 2009

30 Years Ago

On the subway heading downtown an elderly Bible preaching lady, Bible in hand, passed through our car, but unlike the majority of these lay-preachers who look directly at people and expound on the virtues of the Bible in stentorian tones, she monologued to herself up and down the car, eschewing her experiences on the beauty of the Bible, nodding to herself and exclaiming on her own comments. She was like an actress at final rehearsals - intense, impassioned, but seemingly unaware of her audience. She was phenomenal and I was cracking up at her range of sighs mixed with ululating tones. Enjoying the woman's presentation style so much, I realized people were getting some modicum of joy out of watching me watching her!

An arm's reach away a 60 or so year-old man finally asked in great English (another surpise!) if I understood. Haha, yes, I got the basic content but told him I was more interested in her unusual presentation and theatrics of "preaching". We talked a bit about the Bible workers, mostly women, who started moving around Korea as early as the late 1800s and he thought peaked in their ministrations in the 1920s. I wonder what the Japanese thought of the wanderings of these colonized people who were strictly registered under the 호적, the family or population census registry, and by registry were not permitted freedom of movement much beyond their villages, but he just shook his head.

Come to find out, he had lived in the US for 28 years, which surprised me as that would put him leaving Korea when it was under the very strict military government of President Jun Doo Hwan. His sister who had married a US soldier had extended an invitation to him, and that was how he got a visa during that restricted time, sometime near the infamous Kwangju Uprising (1980).

I asked him what had changed the most in the past 28 years since he had left, and his immediate response was the amount and demand for IT in Korea. [Well, that's too obvious, even since I first came here in March 1991.] When asked what had changed most about the people themselves, he talked about another ubiquitous theme of Korea, it's education. "The university students are ve-ry smart nowadays!! They know ma-ny things!!"

Back in 1991, I had met a Korean war bride who was just returning for the first time in 30 years since leaving so long before. I had asked her the same question, and her mind-boggling reply that "Now the people smile" was disturbing and reflected a time of hunger and suppression. Telling the man this, he agreed and said, "The students nowadays have no idea about hunger. They only study. We ate rice, but never just rice. It always had to be mixed with wheat." [I've read that millet, barley and beans were common rice bowl substitutes - check on this]. "We never saw meat ... well, we had it during the big holidays like 설날 (Lunar New Year's), 추석 (Harvest Festival/Thanksgiving) and at big festivities like weddings and important birthdays. Now the young people are BIG [gesturing 'fat' also with his hands and arms] and they eat a lot, and many kinds of foods. They eat meat every day and sometimes every meal. We didn't eat much ... it was a very bad time for us. The government made it very bad for us too. No, we didn't smile much. That really has changed."