June 26, 2014

Civil Disobedience

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Sometimes a lesson comes about in a way you could never imagine and teaches you something about life and people that you could rarely have expected playing things safe. Now I would never recommend to anyone that getting arrested overseas is a good idea, but sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe in.

Going back as early as my arrival in Daejeon in September, 2011, there have been groups protesting one cause or another right on the steps of City Hall, just across from my apartment. When one group left, another was soon to follow and the site right on the busy corner near the subway exit and post office seemed to be a very popular place to raise public awareness for one injustice after another. It was also a very critical location for politicians around election time to set up trucks to blast campaign propaganda at all hours of the day.CivilDis04

Normally I would support this public forum for communicating all things good and bad, except for the location’s proximity to my open windows, their start and finish times, dogged Korean determination, and the maximum volume of music and noise allowed by Korean law.

Fed up with my inability to enjoy some early morning sleep in a country billed as “the land of morning calm” and no longer amused by this bitter irony, I got dressed early one morning and went downstairs to see what all the fuss was about this time. It seemed that nearly 20 taxi drivers were recently laid-off and the local union was protesting, to anyone who would listen, like clockwork every morning from 7-9 am. With CDs and a wireless mic plugged into a pretty powerful PA system, the group mixed traditional Korean anthems with loud and fervent rallying cries. It was this raucous din that roused me from my slumber just like the barnyard rooster, Pedro, in my student’s storybook, “No Eggs Maria”each weekday morning. As far as I was concerned, this was far earlier than any sane expat (or Korean) would normally choose to arise.

My first attempt at getting involved just consisted of yelling at the entire group briefly and telling them spontaneously (and rather clumsily), in English, to “go suck a cock.” This is a phrase that I have never uttered before in my life and I am still not sure why I used it then. I then stormed off, embarrassed, and yet wildly energized. My next visit the following morning lasted about thirty minutes, during which time I simply yelled “Boo” repeatedly in between all their yelling and music. This time, I was approached first by the main protester, who was confused and very polite about the whole thing. I am guessing no one in the history of Korea had ever protested a protest.

CivilDis02Again, perhaps confused regarding my intentions, a rather large and unfriendly looking public official or security guard from City Hall came over and gave me the bum’s rush, physically urging me to be on my way with a pleasant smile. When I stood my ground and yelled “boo” right in his face, he retreated to my amazement, bemused and bewildered as to exactly what was going on and how to best handle it.

After about 30 minutes of persistent heckling, I again returned home with my teaching voice as hoarse and as rough as old sandpaper and my spirits refreshed. I decided at once that the cries of one against the impassioned chorus of many was no match. I began to not only realize the serious nature of the protesters efforts, but that a new strategy would need to be employed if I was to make any headway towards peaceful morning slumber. I thought long and hard about either stealing their car keys or microphone, or killing the power to their speakers, and even about bringing down some loud music of my own. My natural inclination was towards playing Beastie Boys, in fact. While these options may have given me some temporary satisfaction, I chose instead to try a little diplomacy and tact.

Later that day, nursing my sore throat with some warm and delicious Korean quince tea,  I enlisted the help of our grammar teacher, David, to help me translate a letter addressed directly to the protest group leaders.

“I have lived near City Hall for over 2 years. There have been very many protests here in that time. I have been forced to listen to all of them, including loud music and amplified yelling at very early hours. This rudely disrupts my sleep and personal time.

I appreciate that you want to protest your cause. I fully support your right to do so. However, you are being thoughtless to those who live here and inconsiderate to my right to live in peace and quiet.

Please consider your tactics. Is your message reaching your target? Is there a better way to accomplish your goal? Why are you punishing your neighbors?

If you do not choose another method or location, I will continue to protest and disrupt your demonstrations. 

If you agree to reconsider, I will join you in support of your struggle and help you any way that I can.”

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Although I was unsure about who to give the note to and when I would do so, I felt more comfortable with this approach.

Meanwhile, the only break I got from this morning unpleasantness was on weekends and Korean holidays. Fortunately, a three-day vacation was approaching, as was my hope for some solid morning sack time. This also provided a perfect cover for an escalation on my part against those I now viewed as the enemy. I decided on the first morning of the holiday to cruise by the protest site and cut down, but not vandalize, the groups many protest signs hanging around the subway exits near City Hall. The government offices were all closed and vacant and the streets were as quiet as a church on Thursday. The scene was set and I was able to cut down three separate banners. I left two on the ground right where they fell and rolled one up and took it with me.

On Monday after the long weekend, panic broke out at the protest site as I viewed the scene happily from my 12th story apartment. The protesters seemed to be completely unprepared for such a turn of events. Who would ever dream of protesting the protesters?

I then printed up the prepared text in both English and Korean, laminated it, and delivered it with my business card to the taxi group after their scheduled two hours of public nuisance.There was a great sense of satisfaction from what I perceived as a brilliant stroke of diplomacy and logic after delivering my message. I marched off confident that I had indeed struck a blow for the common man and for those in my building and neighborhood no doubt suffering the daily annoyance caused by this rude, yet well-intending gathering of ousted drivers.

The next morning, I was blasted out of bed, right on schedule, by an even louder barrage of old-time Korean hymns and even more bitter and fervent shouts for justice. It seems that my letter (in my estimation) had only incensed the protest organizers and further emblazoned their solidarity. Either I had greatly underestimated their commitment, or I had played right into their hands.

This made what happened next all the more hilarious in retrospect, but at the time I think I was just as mad about them as they were about their cause. I don’t mind a good protest and I really support their right to do so peacefully as long as they want. What really annoyed me was the lack of consideration for those living in the area, seemingly punished daily for no reason at all. Was this all a part of their plan?

I decided to return to the scene of the crime and cut down even more signs, this time ripping right through the center of them with a pair of scissors; ruining them permanently. While I got away with a few at first, some of the protesters eventually saw what I was doing and chased me down the block, tackled me, took my phone, and then forcibly restrained me until the police and security arrived. In a flash, all my hard work and growth in Korean seemed to flash before my eyes. At the very least, I was going to be late for school that day, but visions of jail time, canings, deportation, and a potentially embarrassing international incident all flashed though my head.

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What happened next was all the more surprising and made the entire incident even more memorable and humorous. First, I was briefly questioned by two uniformed officers called to the scene. I was not frisked and I was not cuffed. In very broken English I was questioned simply “why did you do it?” I was then slowly escorted into a police car and taken to the police sub-station in my neighborhood. Once there, the casual and relaxed way I was treated was really bizarre. I was approached by the desk Sergeant and asked the very same question, “why did you do it?” Once my response was translated, an air of laughter and joking permeated the squad room. My fears, however, were the reaction at my school and especially my director, Sunny Kim. I gave the officers one of my business cards and was terrified to see Sunny enter the station just a few minutes later. I felt like a student who was in big trouble in more ways than one and I was sent to see the principal. Her smile and overly friendly demeanor threw me completely off guard and continued as she laughed and joked in Korean with the entire office. What was going on and what would become of our brave hero?

After being questioned briefly by a very nice and dignified detective (a sort of Korean “Columbo” ) who explained my situation in English and set the tone for the entire experience, I was offered coffee and learned that Sunny had already made financial reparations for the sign damage to the tune of about $150 (U.S). It seemed that this was the custom in this situation and perhaps helped me avoid a more serious charge. The detective went on to explain the situation in more detail and really outlined the use of these tactics by less educated and more blue-collared workers who feel their method is the best (and perhaps only) way to bring attention and action to a cause they believe in.

When the three long and tedious hours of paperwork and fingerprinting at Police headquarters were finally finished, I had Sunny snap a picture so I would never forget my adventure and brief taste of the Korean justice system. Ultimately, the consensus was that the protesters are a public nuisance and to many Koreans, an embarrassment. The spot is famous for all manner of disruption and the group in question was on notice for previous noise violations. The situation would now be monitored closely and that the group was on notice. Amazingly, everyone I encountered at the police station shared my position that the protest was obnoxious and not always the most effective way to address an issue.

What surprised me was the fact that the incident was deliberately written-up in my favor and with the intention of having all charges dropped by the district attorney as a result of my cooperation and promise to cease and desist my own protests. I also learned a lesson that now, in retrospect, should have been abundantly clear from my arrival. Despite their fierce national pride and sad history, not all Koreans are unified on all matters and that there is a class system and cultural hierarchy that closely follows the lines of education. What I would call Korean “hillbillies” are justifiably adamant in their right to protest, while more cultured and civilized citizens believe that it is perhaps an antiquated and undignified means to raise awareness and right a wrongdoing. The end result was a quieter and more closely monitored situation, leading to happier mornings throughout my neighborhood and the gratitude of the other teachers in the building.

With unending apologies to my director and a spotless record for the remainder of my stay, this whole incident was a valuable lesson in many ways and perhaps an accidental high point of my time abroad. While I was slightly embarrassed and humbled by the whole ordeal, I would not change the experience one bit. It is important to stand up for what you believe in no matter the consequences. However, to portray any country or culture as homogeneous and unified is to do it a disservice. Education is the beginning and end for everything no matter where you go and my arrest is a constant reminder of its value to me in my life and as my purpose to teach and serve as a career moving forward. Thanks for the lesson.