Monday, April 28, 2008

The Olympic Torch Comes to South Korea

This weekend I made the trip up to Seoul, not only to have a relaxing weekend away from Hwasun but also to see the Olympic torch, which came through the city Sunday afternoon. You can read coverage and see a video of some of the more heated portions of the South Korea leg on (Since my camera's battery had died a painful death shortly before, I won't have pictures until I steal them from my friend.)

Since I had to come back to Hwasun to teach on Monday, I only went to see the torch at its starting point in Seoul, which was at the Olympic Park. I had mixed feelings about coming to see the torch - on one hand, this was a unique opportunity to be a part of the Olympics, which I think in general is a very positive event. On the other hand, I don't agree with China's policies in Tibet and Darfur. While I consider the China's Olympic games to be separate from China's government, I understand where the protesters around the world are coming from and think what they're doing is important. The more attention given to these issues, the better. So I felt a little guilty about attending the rally as merely a spectator, not a protester.

One of the girls I met up with in Seoul did, however, come with a "Free Tibet" sign, and was as far as I could tell the only one aside from a small group of protesters a few hundred meters down from us (more protesters showed up for other parts of the Seoul relay leg). At the park, we found a spot with a good view and waited for things to begin. The girl with the sign held it quietly, not saying or doing anything in particular. But we still managed to draw the ire of a group of Chinese supporters. It started as a small group, who told us that Tibet is and always has been a part of China; that it's already free. Then they started chanting "One China!" in loud voices, eventually drawing in more and more people until we were basically being shouted at by a huge sea of red and white. Eventually they stopped, after the girl with the sign stepped away from the area we were standing for a little while, so things wouldn't escalate too much. Since we had already attracted attention though, we got periodic visits from people taking photographs and holding their own signs up for us.

I have to make a comment about some of the signs I saw, because they really bothered me. On one side they would say, for example, "We want peace, we want one China." Generally a positive statement. On the other side, however, they would say things like, "Independence, no way, no way" or "We love Tibet because it's a part of China" - implying that Tibet as a separate entity wouldn't warrant their consideration or respect. If you're going to claim to promote peace, don't follow it up with a harsh political statement ("independence, no way") that in the end only feeds the violence.

Seeing the torch in Seoul was definitely a positive experience. I myself had come merely to experience the torch relay, not to make a political statement, so I enjoyed being a part of the event. I also learned what it's like to be shouted at by a large group of impassioned people, and, well, it's really scary. But it also makes me think about nationalism and how political opinions are formed. Also, witnessing a mass of people who have all come together for one reason and who care enough to drape themselves with flags, coordinate t-shirts, and paint their faces leaves a deep impression. Banners, cheering, chanting - it's hard not to get swept up in the enthusiasm. It's always a meaningful experience to see how people act, in both positive and negative ways, when they're passionate about something.

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