by Leigh Hellman, ETA Alumni
This is part 2 of a 3 part series, published weekly here on Infusion’s website.
“What did they say was going on? What did the broadcasters say?”
“Mostly just to stay inside. They said it was North Korean spies who were making trouble and getting everyone worked up, and that the government was taking care of it.”
“Did you believe that?”
“I guess.” They look away. “몰라.” 1
Gwangju is a city for the brash, for the bluster, for the underdogs. It’s built on the backs of the farmers and the fishermen who brought the central business of the region to it and is sealed up with the sneers from the north and the east that brand it the equivalent of a hick town in a backwater province. Even its dialect—according to posh Seoulites and midland conservatives—is crude and harsh.
“Gwangju?” People—Koreans and foreigners alike—laugh brittle like they’re sucking on sour sugar drops. “Can you even understand what they’re saying down there?”
“I don’t know.” I smile without teeth. “Can you even eat the bland, limp kimchi up here?”
Koreans tell me that I speak with a Gwangju accent myself, although that only ever seems to come up after I’ve mentioned my hometown.
Gwangju is more thready back alleys—dotted with neon-tarp fortune teller booths and striped awnings shading food trucks selling cups of spicy fried popcorn chicken and sweet red bean-filled pastries pressed into the shape of carps—than it is ritzy thoroughfares, especially in the older east district. As the tendrils of urban sprawl creep farther out, the roads become wider and the steel-and-cement buildings grow up instead of over. In the west across the river, in the north past the public university, and in the south under the shadow of Mt. Mudeung (Gwangju’s favorite local landmark) neighborhoods that desperately aspire to the wealth, the sheen, the excess and the legitimacy of the nation’s first cities have taken root like garish weeds.
Ask a person in Seoul, in Busan, in Daegu or Incheon or Daejeon—ask them if regionalism is a historically relevant problem and they’ll probably say no. Probably say that people who complain about it are just disciples of conspiracy who can’t let things go. Say that some places are simply better—cleaner, richer, more developed, more invested-in. That’s how it is; there’s nothing else to it.
This doesn’t even feel like Gwangju might be taken as a compliment by the city’s nouveau riche but a one billion won2 address can’t unmake a history, and Gwangjuans tend to give themselves away rather quickly. If it’s not the aggressive slang, it’s the contentious mix of city naiveté and a combative unpretentiousness. The joke is that a Gwangju man—a South Jeolla man—would much rather fight than talk. At least, that’s a joke in the city; I’ve been told it again wide-eyed and straight-faced outside of the region.
Gwangju is a city with something to prove, a city that cares too much or none at all. Gwangju is proud like a twice-mended school uniform and defiant like cinderblock walls without insulation, daring the February frost to bite back. And maybe I’m drawn to it because it matches a streak of me that’s already there—an echo of a train yard jungle, a city of big shoulders that has always tried to elbow its way to the top.
The new city hall looks like a bloated white ship, everyone says so. Fifteen minutes down the road from the glitzy bus mega-terminal, smug faces and shiny oversized suits and white envelopes stuffed with green and yellow bills are in the perpetual process of rebranding the city on paper in bold, swooping fonts: Dynamic! Colorful! Creative! A Global City of Light!
Twenty minutes in the opposite direction, the road dead-ends at a massive roundabout and a perennial blue construction wall. Silk-screened signs announce a new pan-Asian cultural complex in the works; eventually, it will occupy the same block that housed Gwangju’s original Provincial Office three decades ago.
Park Chung-hee is often celebrated as the father of modern Korea, a nation categorized by economic prosperity and social restructuring. But it was a feat achieved while Park declared martial law, dissolved the National Assembly, and recast the still-young Constitution as an authoritarian document that granted the president theretofore unprecedented power. Although the Park regime had resembled a military dictatorship from the start, noticeable backlash only began surfacing after the new Constitution was introduced in 1971. For eight years, protests flared up and were suppressed in cycles but never gained enough momentum to pose any real threat to the increasingly totalitarian state. Park survived numerous assassination attempts over the years—including one that ended up killing his wife instead.
And then in 1979 one of the highest ranking members of his government sat down to eat dinner with the president, pointed a gun at him, and pulled the trigger.
May in Gwangju is just on the uncomfortable side of spring, when sweat stains start soaking through thin t-shirts and gauzy blouses. The days stretch long and the air hangs rank with pollen and arid dust swept across the Yellow Sea from the far western deserts of China. The humidity is thick like four layers of spongy foundation; it won’t dissipate until the rainy season breaks in July. The cherry blossoms have withered off their branches—for the most part—so there’s not much urban greenery left to distract from the exhaust fumes and grit kicked up by cars-motorcycles-taxis-trucks that weave in and out of traffic like it’s the last day they’re ever going to drive and they have to make it count.
Kids are restless in their academic shackles come May, even though they still have two months of school to go until summer break. Winter uniforms—thick wool blazers, white button-ups, sweater vests, and dark skirts or pants—are traded out for their material and pigment-ally lighter counterparts. Name patches, sewn onto breast pockets, start to show their wear.
In the stretch of road that slices through the downtown district and ends at that huge roundabout, an annual festival pops up. Korea is a country of festivals: festivals for everything—pears, butterflies, ice, mud. This particular festival isn’t all that alluring to the tourist; it doesn’t promise any free and delicious samples. The bilingual signs translate it as “Recollection” or “Remembrance”. Elsewhere, it’s just titled 5.18.
“What were people doing here at that time?”
“I was in college then. A lot of my classmates were out in the streets, but I didn’t join them.”
“몰라.”3 They stare hard at the lines dug into their palms. “I was a coward.”
Koreans, if they’re being traditional about it, bury their dead in the foothills and up the sides of mountains. The countryside is pockmarked with rows of raised earth mounds two-wide, sometimes designated by a decorative marble statue or an altar (if the family’s pockets are deep enough). Twice a year, roadways are littered with cars pulled off onto the shoulder at ungodly hours of the morning as mothers and fathers and children trek up makeshift paths to pay their respects at their ancestors’ graves. It was the second stop for us after the cinerarium; an overgrown hill around a blind corner near the northern border of South Jeolla, in the county of my father-in-law’s birth. A dog without an owner was tied to a pole near an old shed; it barked loud and lonely as we shuffled up and—ten or so minutes later—back down again.
Koreans don’t “do” cemeteries, not like Americans do them, but the highway running northeast out of Gwangju is peppered with signs for the May 18th National Cemetery. In the absence of a car, the intentionally-numbered bus 518 will take you from in front of the old provincial office to the cemetery gates.
A tower—the color of dead leaves and bent sharp at the top like geometrical hands clutching an obsidian-smooth egg—rises out of the brickwork. It’s flanked by rust-green statues, petrified scenes like the last wretched moments at the foot of Vesuvius. Pass through it and you’ll find grid terraces of gravestones all cut from what must have been one original template. The only real differences are the names, the smattering of engraved crosses and swastikas, and the black and white photo miniatures mounted on the side of each marker. As the graves stretch back the dates start to change, but for the first several rows they all read the same: ten days in late May of 1980.