The forgotten unknown war.
I crossed out forgotten, because I never remembered it in the first place. In fact, up until this weekend’s movie blitz I never knew ANYTHING about it.
This might come as a shock to non Koreans and Koreans alike that an ethnic Korean would know so little about something that so directly or indirectly deeply affected their and every other Korean’s life, but I’ll wager it’s not so shocking to other adoptees.
The only thing I did know about the Korean war was that it was before I was born, and I wasn’t even sure how much before I was born: I just knew it was extremely annoying to always be asked, when people quite obviously could see I didn’t match my parents, if I was a war baby or not. So I learned to educate them that no, that was before my time. Oh, how the west always wanted to romanticize the Asian orphan. War baby. Daughter of a whore. That’s truly what everyone wanted to believe. And it truly added to my allure and also devaluation by white men.
So watching this movie was an eye-opener for me. Especially because I embraced the “ain’t gonna study war no more” anthem of the 60’s, which was also before my time. So I didn’t. Not at all. Because that war was about another race, not me, because I was not one of those people from that place (wherever THAT is)…
I didn’t know, for instance, that the North had nearly taken the entire peninsula or that the bulk of the war was spent keeping China at bay.
Missing from the above documentary was any pre-war analysis. I got some sense of what liberation meant from a few moments in the Korean movie Welcome to Dongmakgol, which is about an idyllic village untouched by time or war where a lone U.S. pilot and some stray North and South Korean troops manage to overcome their differences to save said village.
After centuries of rule and oppression, once the Korean peninsula was liberated, it was still being pulled in all directions by others. And still is today. Greatly weakened by poverty to the north and over-consumption to the south, Korea still doesn’t have a secure sense of itself: only that it must survive.
A member of the progressive party tells us of her protest days during the pro democracy movement and how her father locked her in a closet for days so she couldn’t join the violent demonstrations. She talked of their battle cry: FIGHTING! and how it’s just a fashionable meaningless thing to say now and she’s embarassed by what used to make her proud.
All around me are uniforms, at the schools, at the department stores and restaurants, the banks, and the salary men in their suits. Maybe these are remnants of militarization. Kindergartners yell out chanted response to calls from their teachers, and if we only dressed them in drab and put red ribbons in their hair, it’s not a stretch to see communist China. They like this. They thrive on it. To follow in a uniform manner builds solidarity and fosters fond feelings that the adults here still cherish. You are one of many. You belong to something. Even protesting is uniform and orderly.
I asked my student yesterday if he was a leader or a follower, and he said follower. Why? Because leading was too hard. To lead meant you had to be concerned about everyone and take care of them. “You mean, like a father figure?” I ask. “Yes,” he replied. I told him that in the west, we thought of leaders as those with the best ideas, who could inspire others; who made things happen. No. A leader took care of people.
I know that being part of the armed forces was the only secure thing my former husband ever had in his life, the closest thing he had to a functional family, and that when I worked for the military industrial complex myself I came to appreciate its rigor: one always knows the rules, your needs are always met, and you are never alone. Not having these three things strike terror in the hearts of Koreans, and so they live a life full of fear. Maybe this is what Tobias Hubinette meant by comforting an orphaned nation. The entire country has no leader, no father figure. And without an oppressor, who is the enemy? The uncertainty of that is stressful, almost too much to bear. And so they cling to uniforms, Dokdo and Tsushima, changing Japanese revisionist history, and keep the fight alive, trading arms for English, because without a fight there is only oblivion.
In the course of this recent movie marathon of mine, orphans of domestic or international variety come up far too frequently. Maybe a third of the random Korean movies I’ve seen have an orphan in them. A third!!! You’d think maybe one a year would be excessive, but no…now tell me someone’s conscience isn’t disturbed…In a forgotten country reeling from a forgotten war, in an orphaned nation, we cast-offs are co-opted as symbols of everyone’s collective hard knocks, yet we have no purchase. We were jettisoned for survival due to our inconvenience and we are beginning to be courted back again for survival and convenience. And when we aren’t co-opted symbols of THEIR hardship and tragedy, then we are envied our flight OUT of Korea, to a land of milk and honey.
“Nobody imagined adoptees would return,” Mrs. Seol of Holt said. Nobody imagined anything but their own escape fantasies. Over 76,000 have returned: way over half of all adult adoptees. Definitely not the neat ending they’d wanted.