Understanding a Nation in Mourning

14 May 2014
Author: Jeannie Cho Lee

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When I was 16 years old, I spent the summer in Seoul and stayed with my Aunt and Uncle who had three cousins around my age. One day I was out with my eldest cousin who is five years older than me and we walked by a young girl who looked to be around my age, smoking a cigarette. My 21-year old cousin walked straight over to this girl, a total stranger, and snapped the cigarette out of her mouth.


“You are too young to smoke,” he scolded her. “I bet your parents don’t know that you are smoking. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Smoking is bad for you!”


The girl, who was as shocked as I was at this sudden intrusion in her private moment responded, “Sorry oppah [older brother]. I was just stressed about my upcoming exam. I shouldn’t be smoking. I am ashamed. Sorry, sorry.” She bowed her head several times and scurried away quickly.


Watching my country in mourning over the past few weeks about the tragedy that led to the death of over 200 high school students, my thoughts keep going back to this small incident during my teenage years. I was the same age then as the hundreds of teenagers that died in the devastating ferry accident. I remember being surprised at my cousin’s action and even more surprised at the girl’s response. In the eight years I lived in New York, I never saw a stranger react so emotionally to something that another complete stranger was doing – whether it was imbibing alcohol, smoking, doing drugs or a number of illegal or unsavory activities that were rampant in the lower east side of Manhattan where I attended high school. I had forgotten how Koreans feel like part of one large, extended family.


The tragedy brings to light the best and the worst in the Korean culture: the heroic, sacrificial character as well as the cowardice and duplicity; the innocence and belief in the system by the youth and the incompetence and corruption that may be the reality; the sense of responsibility felt by some individuals within the government and large companies while at the same time, many turn a blind eye on safety concerns and focus on financial gains.


What we are all trying to figure out is, how did this happen? Comments about Korea’s strong adherence to Confucius values and rigid hierarchical structure have been partly blamed for the high death toll. Had students not listened to the command over the intercom about staying in one’s cabin and not moving, the survival rate would have been much higher. The values that Koreans hold dearly, such as respect for authority, could have contributed to many deaths. But this is an overly simple explanation since numerous small events and details, such as the early desertion of the ship by the captain and his crew and the inexperienced and inept response in the midst of danger of those in command of the ship and by the government, were equally important.


Rather than blaming and pointing the finger at those who could have done more, it is now time to grieve, to understand for ourselves why the pain of the loss is so deep, to identify the gaps in public safety and response methods which will help all citizens in the future and most importantly, to realize that we really care. The one thing that touches me in the midst of my own small grief is that we care deeply.


I keep thinking back about the incident with the young girl who was sneaking in a cigarette. It was that moment that I understood instinctively something unique about the Korean culture: As Koreans, we learn to care so deeply that there are no strangers – only people that resemble our sisters, brothers, mothers or fathers. With our reputation as a hermit kingdom combined with our strategic geographical position wedged among the world’s superpowers, we were forced to remain a tightly knit, extended family in order to survive. Without the close links and resilience, we would have been annexed by China and other larger, more powerful countries centuries ago. Let’s not forget that Korea was colonized by Japan from 1910 until the end of World War II when efforts to eradicate the Korean culture failed miserably.


Now, nearly a month after the tragedy, the entire nation is still in deep mourning. The loss of over 200 teenage students is like the loss of one’s own sister, brother, child or cousin. We are a nation that puts our hearts on our sleeves, whose emotions often guide us as often as rational thinking. But we are also resilient with a strong survival instinct and that is why I know we will survive this — this incident will make us stronger, upgrade our safety and emergency response systems and hopefully clean up some of the corruption and collusion in shipping and other industries.


For now, we need to mourn. We have just lost our sisters, brothers and our own children.