Yesterday in class I suggested that my students say “What do you think of…” instead of “Howabout…?”, since the latter is a pseudo-Konglish-y phrase thrown around all the time by even the most advanced learners as a segue from one topic into another—”Howabout Ameleekano?” was the inspirational disaster hurled my way in a fascinating discussion of coffee preferences (“Why do you like it?” “It is very delicious.”)—and as a more interesting example and possible kindler of more fruitful conversations I said the students could ask each other what they thought of Park Geun-hye, the new president of South Korea and the daughter of the dictator and (more-or-less) founder of the country, Mr. Controversy, Park Chung-hee. There was at once a collective gasp from the entire classroom. Eighteen students gaped their mouths and eyes: I had committed some sort of faux pas. A few minutes earlier I had used the word “porn” to help a student explain why he didn’t like checking his email, a risky term to employ in such a conservatively uptight place, and the only response was a series of knowing smirks; but Park Geun-hye seemed to actually frighten them. Finally after a lengthy pause one girl who spent six months in New York City—and spent the last class being wooed in English by the aforementioned possessor of the porn-laden email inbox—”Do you have a promise tonight?”—explained that talking about President Park was too serious and left it at that.
Although I wasn’t alive when the previous President Park was in power, I’ve read a thing or two about him, and while I supported his daughter in the election over her “liberal” opponent, who represented the garbage dump of a district in which I used to work and who was foaming at the lips at the thought of kissing Kim Jong-un’s fat, distended fingers—I also can’t help but feel a little frightened when I read in the news that President Park has made a speech or met with some foreign dignitary or offered to extend a hand to North Korea’s clenched fist. It feels as if the man has squeezed the assassin’s bullets out of his body and pulled himself up out of his grave to rule the country again, forcing dissidents into gulags or lining them up before firing squads, erecting factories and apartment complexes wherever he plants his feet, and squeezing every last penny he can from his American and Japanese backers, just before publicly denouncing them to crowds of screaming patriots. Not every newspaper or magazine article constantly refers to the new president as Park Geun-hye; for brevity’s sake, and for terror’s sake, journalists sometimes just write “President Park”, though President Park died over thirty years ago.
The students at the university are mostly liberals—a note on usage: in South Korea, liberals support North Korea, dislike or despise the United States, and believe that South Korea’s enormous conglomerates (like Samsung and Hyundai) should be broken up or weakened; conservatives oppose them; it would be better to refer to liberals here as nationalists, while conservatives would seem to be more international in flavor—and this means that they probably voted for the other guy. Now in American terms I’m pretty far to the left (I voted for Obama twice but I’m completely against the drones and consider much of his presidency a disappointment), but in Korea I’m a conservative, and I think it’s madness to even consider sending aid to the North—a former ambassador just penned a New York Times editorial which should have been called “Let’s Try To Buy Off The Fascists With Food And Money One More Time!”—but this is an idea that probably lies very close to the hearts of many of my young students.
I remember reading a story somewhere of an old Jew who survived the Holocaust telling his children and grandchildren about how paranoid he still was: he would still make mental lists of all the people he knew, and guess which ones would turn him in to the Nazis if they were somehow to come back to power, and which ones would shelter him if he had nowhere else to go. As I’ve written before, these Korean college students are nice, polite, and hardworking, but I can’t help suspecting that if columns of triumphant North Korean soldiers were doing the goose step past the tombs of Gyeongju, my students would be belong to the former camp, rather than the latter.