This will likely be my last travelog as we leave in 36 hours and have a ton to smush into our schedule. I’ll post some additional pictures and reflections in a week or so when I’ve had a chance to process it all.
That being said, I can safely say that this trip has changed me in ways that I wasn’t anticipating. This whole idea was supposed to be a baseball trip with maybe a few weird foods thrown in. Sure, we saw baseball, and, sure, we ate some weird things (squid?), but it was the people that struck me during our short time here.
We toured a couple of the King’s Palaces including Changdeokgung Palace near our hotel yesterday. These date back 600-700 years during the Joseon dynasty. That dynasty was based on neo-Confusionist philosophies dating back to Chinese foundations with Buddhist overtones. It brought clarity to the strain this society is facing in 2017.
The palaces were built with a heavy emphasis on height and structure. This is the foundation of Korean culture – heirarchy, respecting your higher ups and your elders, and recognizing the family dynamic. Palaces that housed the King’s bedroom, for instance, were literally built higher than the surrounding rooms. Entire buildings were built for the King. And the King also had his own Secret Garden. The campus is massive with several separate valleys and pools built for the King.
Everything was built with the King in mind. Every tree. Every pond. Every gazebo. We missed the English speaking tour, so we had to tag along with the native language tour. We walked nearly a mile and a half around the campus up and down steep hills. We finally stopped at a lake and Sungwoo turned to me and said, “That word he just said – johwa – it means harmony.”
It was at that point when it all started to click into place. Builders made a place for the King to seek peace and harmony at their own expense. The yin and the yang benefits only the highest ranks – and even then it’s difficult to obtain.
It would only be minutes before we saw the modern day equivalent.
After all the walking we were pretty hungry for some lunch, and we weren’t near the larger restaurants – so we found a Vietnamese restaurant that had some pretty legit fried rice.
As we were resting our weary feet, a battalion of police officers – all not more than 18 years of age – walk past us. Then another battalion – then another. Sungwoo seemed completely unfazed. “Another protest” he sighed.
We said, “here? Right now?”
Yep. We stumbled in the middle of a pro-Presidential rally. With a journalistic curiosity, I grabbed my camera and waded into the crowd. (Don’t worry, Kara, Brett was safe.) Sungwoo explained that this group was mostly the elders – conservatives – who would rather disband Parliament than have the President removed from power.
Walking through the crowd, two things struck me – the first was how angry yet peaceful the crowd was. There were easily 3000 people there. The second was that there were several people holding both South Korean flags and also United States flags.
I was curious and one woman saw I was American (maybe the Royals hat and Royals jacket and that I was fat tipped her off) and said to me in broken English “we love US! US does not want!”
She meant that the United States would be embarrassed at their scandal (maybe she hasn’t read a US paper lately). But the bond between that generation and the United States ran deep and her point was that removing a President in a system the US helped rebuild after the Korean War would be disrespectful.
I get it. Here’s these young whipper snappers trying to disrupt the status quo. Yeah, the President is kind of an idiot and selfish – but that’s no reason to burn it all to the ground. Her point is valid.
We began walking back to our hotel when we stumbled upon ANOTHER protest. This one was moving through the streets of downtown and featured a flatbed truck and several people shouting from a bullhorn. This protest, however, was hip. It featured K-pop music and organized chants. The protest we left just minutes earlier featured only angry speeches.
The second protest was from the Removal forces aiming to remove President Park from power. This Friday (today when I post this,) a decision will be announced on exactly how that might happen – maybe even that it will happen. So the tension that we have felt over the past several days has only grown. (On our way back to the hotel tonight, we ran into an even larger protest with an even larger police force.)
The protest passed us – if featured about 1000 people with large yellow and green flags but was much more jubilant and spirited.
Finally, we stopped in a quieter area to kind of catch our breath. It was very clearly an art district as there were several art studios and an Art museum as we walked past. After eating what might’ve been the greatest egg, cheese, ham, and toast sandwich I’ve ever eaten, I came across a blackboard with “Before I die…” written in many languages.
I stopped. I couldn’t move. Sungwoo and the rest of our party continued down the street, but I became emotional reading the parts that were in English and imagining what the words that weren’t said. There were hundreds of little notes and messages in many languages.
Korea is under assault by technology, culture, tradition, religion, and enemies that were once brothers. Hell, I even learned today that the mountains of Eastern Korea that we drove through today were formed when the tectonic plate under China collided with the tectonic plate under Japan. Korea was literally formed from a conflict between two lands.
During this amazing trip, I have seen smiles, anger, young, and old on display. I have seen the yin and the yang of Seoul. What I have not seen is harmony. These are not harmonious times – not only here, but back at home.
Before I rejoined the group nearly back at our hotel, I grabbed one of the pieces of chalk and wrote in one of the blank spaces my own prayer for the world I leave behind and the world I am returning to.
The trip has changed the way I look at the conflicts of my country. sure, there are those who want to see President Trump succeed and those who want to see him fail. But I tend to side with the thousands of other faces I saw this week – those who were hurrying to catch a bus or those who were walking out in the cold or or those who were crammed like sardines
on the Hell Train heading home at 11 pm or those who clearly didn’t give two shits about politics. They just wanted to get through their day. They just wanted to get home to their peace and tranquility.
I wrote in the white space on the blackboard… Find harmony.