The Stories that Feed Us

by Kellyn Gross

On May 18, 1980, at 8:32 A.M., an earthquake struck Mount St. Helens in Washington State, resulting in a debris avalanche and subsequent volcanic eruption that decimated the surrounding earth for 16 square kilometers, killed 57 people and destroyed more than 200 homes. The blast was heard from as far away as British Columbia, and winds carried volcanic ash 2,000 kilometers across the United States in just three days. Then-President Jimmy Carter surveyed the damage on May 22 and said that it made the moon look like a golf course.

My dad always tells the story of how he awoke that Sunday morning after a late night out to find darkened skies and five centimeters of ash on his pickup in Western Montana. He still has a bucket of Mount St. Helens ash in the storage shed behind my childhood home. And even though the eruption was two years before I was born, stories like these have always fed me as a Montanan. That day in May holds enough significance in the Pacific Northwest that people still ask, “Where were you when Mount St. Helens erupted?”.

But after two years of teaching English in Korea, May 18 has taken on a new significance for me. Instead of wondering about people’s whereabouts when a volcano blasted itself 24,000 meters into the sky, I’m now curious to know, “Where were you during the Gwangju Uprising?”.

Two weeks ago, and for my second time, ISC media team members Dae Han and Taryn and I visited both the National Cemetery and the Mangwol-dong Cemetery in Gwangju for its May 18 memorial events. On that day in 1980, a popular citizen movement that had been building momentum in Jeollanam-do erupted with such force and dedication that students and everyday working people later liberated the city for one week. The uprising was an embattled response to people being brutally beaten and murdered by their own military and police for demanding democracy over the dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan. The Carter administration supported the suppression in order for multinational corporations like 3M, Bank of America, Chase Bank, Citibank, Dow Chemical and the Rockefeller family to be ensured of their investments in the country. And to quote, yet again, then-President Jimmy Carter at a press conference that summer: “We would like to have a complete democracy with full and open debate, free press and elected leaders. The Koreans are not ready for that…”. For had the Nobel Laureate surveyed the damage at Gwangju a few days later, he might have morbidly said that the massacre made the Kent State shootings look like a picnic.

So, when we got off the 518 bus at the National Cemetery the night before the official ceremonies, and we walked past the stretch of fluttering ribbons with hand-written wishes for a better society; and we encountered the indifferent police officers; and we saw the sun setting behind Democracy’s Gate at the foot of Mount Mudeung, I thought about the stories that feed us. I thought about the difference a day can make in the lives of people living an ocean apart, and how begotten tales can either be honored or ignored.

A small crowd had already gathered at the entrance to the cemetery, people listening to various speakers whose voices wavered between exasperation and hope. Most were sitting on small foam seat cushions on the pebble cement, and we grabbed a couple ourselves to join them on the ground. Beyond Democracy’s Gate was the grave site, each headstone adorned with a circular black and white photo of those killed by the military and police reprisal. I vividly remembered from last year’s visit that some of the faces are solemn, but almost all of the faces are young. I had felt such an eeriness at seeing those images of the young and wrongly departed, as they are immortalized as such. They can never grow up or old in loved ones’ memories or in their hearts. This deprivation would be evident on the faces of many at the old cemetery the next morning.

At that moment, my attention was to the grand preparations that were being made for the government-sanctioned memorial. But with visitor parking crammed full of police buses, the preparations didn’t seem in consideration of the sacrifices of the minjung, or the people, as much as for the Park administration’s protection and public image. President Park Geun Hye had returned from her first visit to the United States a week before, where she stated that the ultimate goal of the Korea-US alliance was human happiness. Even the media declared that the summit meeting between Park and President Obama reaffirmed their countries’ shared values of liberty, democracy and the market economy. Prior to my May 18 visit, I found nothing on-line that questioned if her father’s own presidential legacy had ever affirmed human happiness, or liberty or democracy. And I use the term “presidential” loosely, as Park Chung Hee was none other than a dictator whose reign engendered the ugliness of the Gwangju massacre, and the Miracle on the Han River was nothing short of a curse for that region.

History shows that diplomatic summits are often more symbolic than substantive, and that was obvious at the National Cemetery that evening. Camera podiums, white chrysanthemum flower arrangements and VIP tents were in place. Multiple rows of plastic white chairs were arranged in arcs around the Memorial Tower—those arm-like granite pillars with folded hands that enclose a dark, oval stone to symbolize the seed of hope.  And yet, many of those seats would remain empty on May 18, as victims’ family members and local political officials were boycotting the government event once the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs had decided to deny the “March for the Beloved” official status at the commemoration—having it sung by an orchestrated choir instead of chanted by a passionate, albeit political, audience. We were then in company of those refusing to attend the ceremony, and they were pulling an all-nighter at Democracy’s Gate in defense of the anthem and the legacy of Gwangju that President Park often obscures to gain political points. And we had sung “March for the Beloved” at least five times before I left the crowd. I imagined that I would be singing it enough times to at least learn the first couple lines by weekend’s end.

When twilight came, rendering the small candlelight vigil a powerfully solemn sight, I smiled at a man with a small limp and a cane. He had wide-set eyes and a round face. He returned my smile with a kind smirk, nodded, and walked on calmly and with purpose. But a moment later, I felt a light touch on my left shoulder. I turned to see that same smiling face.

“I’m Jeon Tae Il’s younger brother,” he said in Korean. I recalled the name, but the person’s importance I couldn’t recollect. He repeated himself in English, “I’m Jeon Tae Il’s brother, Jeon Tae Sam.”  Dae Han reminded us of the older brother’s significance, and we all greeted the man. He handed us two business cards, smiled once more and walked away. Jeon Tae Il. The man whose act of self-immolation in 1970 brought attention to worker rights in Korea in spite of Park Chung Hee’s 17-year dictatorship. And his younger brother, another person at the vigil in spite of the dictator’s daughter.

We saw Jeon Tae Sam again the morning of May 18 at the Mangwol-dong Cemetery, the day already hot and hazy. The four of us talked before a large, flat granite altar in the middle of the cemetery that was lined on three sides with bouquets of chrysanthemums. People would approach the altar all morning, leaving flowers or merely kneeling to pray. Dae Han interpreted as Mr. Jeon said that it was imperative in the social movement that people work together—across cultures, age differences and national boundaries. I couldn’t agree more, as the backdrop of tombstones attested to the potential cost of people divided. The old cemetery is where martial law forces brought their victims from the massacre in garbage trucks to be buried. The graves were later exhumed in 1997 and the remains taken to the National Cemetery. And whereas the National Cemetery is an elaborate memorialization—or symbol—of the Gwangju Uprising, the Mangwol-dong Cemetery stands in somber fact of that fateful period. No Democracy’s Gate. No Memorial Tower. No Memorial House, or a government-sanctioned ceremony. The cemetery just looked as it has for years: a small, sparse hill lined with rows of short, grassy mounds behind rounded gray headstones. Trees yielded some shade at the periphery, some full of droopy white blossoms.

After speaking with Jeon Tae Sam, a local journalist soberly interviewed us. Taryn and I were some of only a few visible foreigners at the ceremonies that weekend, and the reporter was curious as to why were were present. I didn’t get a chance to ask her the same. A posed photo was taken, and then I meandered slowly up and down the dirt rows–stopping periodically before noticeable grave sites. They were noticeable because of the large portrait photographs of the deceased that were encased in front of the tombstones. Or because beloved books or journals of the lost loved ones were stacked atop trinkets and folded-paper cranes. Most importantly, they were noticeable because they have stories that remain—stories that feed the remaining.

At mid-morning, everyone sat in the dry grass to listen to speakers. A man first spoke on behalf of the “March for the Beloved” and those who were at this unofficial ceremony in protest. To not let people sing the anthem was a dishonor, he said. So we sang. We sang the song after he spoke, and before and along with a blind clarinetist whose version was the most rousing of the day. Each note from his woodwind hung on the breeze.

We sang the song again at the behest of Oh Jeong Ryeol, a social justice leader who bore witness to the atrocities of the Gwangju massacre. He admonished the Park administration for daring to ban the song that holds all of the emotions, hopes and spirit of the people. He called for reunification with the North, that the Gwangju people not die in vain. That he not die in vain, I suppose. Then he apologized for speaking too long and hoped that people wouldn’t think badly of him. He said, “I love you,” and then rose his arms over his head to gesture a heart. And we sang. Our love, our honor, our name, not leaving anything behind / Our solemn vow to march together throughout our lives.

I felt humbled. I felt honored. For two days, I was able to bridge time, distance and understanding to connect with the Gwangju people beyond the unjust history that we share. And I may not be able to say where I was when the Gwangju uprising occurred, but I can say that on the day that it’s honored, I was there. Being nourished by stories. Singing.


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