Student protests bloom

In a letter from South Korea, expat American teacher Rolf Potts takes a close look at one of the students' annual spring rituals -- political protests.


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Rolf Potts
May 19, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

SOUTH KOREA -- Before I set out to work in Asia, a friend told me that the best way to avoid the initial culture shock is to embrace tunnel vision. All the new sights, sounds and smells, he said, should be treated like they were part of some voodoo superstition where you lose your soul if you look too long into the lens that's taking your picture. Obviously, my friend had never been to Korea.

Six weeks into my stint as an English teacher in the southern port city of Pusan, I was drilling pronunciation with a class full of middle school girls when I heard what sounded like shotgun fire outside. I opened my blinds and looked down to see 100 or so helmeted police in black storm trooper outfits and plexiglass shields charging up the street through a cloud of tear gas. Directly in their path -- forming a vague skirmish line at the front gate of Pusan National University -- a mob of masked student demonstrators hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails. The spectacle looked like a Shakespeare-in-the-park production of "Star Wars."

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I had a great view of the drama. I took my students to the window and excitedly asked them to interpret the action for me. They became bored after about 10 minutes and politely asked me to finish the English lesson. When tear gas started to seep into the classroom, they calmly tied handkerchiefs around their faces and sat waiting for the next part of my lecture, looking like a studious platoon of Zapatista guerrillas disguised in burgundy middle school uniforms.

I didn't know it at the time, but this was part of a rather normal springtime ritual in Korea. As is the case at many Korean colleges, Pusan National University students have the option of joining political demonstration groups in the same way that they can join a reading circle or a ham-radio club. Street protests -- which are always held during the mild spring months -- have become a theatrical, somewhat listless coming-of-age ritual for young students here. A bar mitzvah with the possibility of hospitalization, if you will. Something to do on a Tuesday.

My boss at the time took sadistic pleasure in the demonstrations. Positioned in the waiting room under a big yellow banner that bore our language school's slogan, "You Can Do" (an admittedly embarrassing maxim, the professional equivalent of a real estate agent operating out of a pup tent), Mr. Jang refused to let any of the teachers cancel classes or dismiss students early. He was slowly going bankrupt after having owned our language school for 12 years, and sometimes I wonder if the student demonstrations outside were all he had left in life. At 5 feet tall with an overgrown shock of hair hanging in his face, he looked like Jim Bowie as envisioned by Jim Henson, feverishly rallying troops at the Alamo. The mere sight of him restlessly standing watch over the front door had enough Pavlovian resonance to send "The Muppet Show" theme song jangling through my subconscious.

Two weeks into protest season, Mr. Jang turned up sick, so I sent my middle school girls home and went outside to get a closer view of the action. Out in the street, the student protest leaders stood in ranks, waving banners and singing songs that sounded suspiciously close to "Edelweiss." At the fringe of these ranks, a small task force of students stockpiled rocks and toted crates of premixed Molotov cocktails with all of the feverish excitement one might find shortly before an American college keg party. Fifty meters down the street, a deep rank of riot cops checked their padding and limbered up behind their shields, as if preparing to shag fly balls at a batting park.

The impasse lasted about 20 minutes. The cops made a few loudspeaker warnings; the students waved their flags and pulled some more songs from their repertoire. Things didn't really get going until a trio of masked students brought out a small cardboard coffin, draped it with a paper American flag and set it on fire. I was later told not to take this personally; that the flaming American flag is merely a traditional motif at demonstrations, as innocuously lost to history as mistletoe at Christmastime.

The riot cops, however, took the open flame as their cue to close ranks and attack. The students fell back to the PNU front gate as the cops moved in swinging truncheons and extinguished the fire. The students rallied after a couple of minutes, and rocks started to fly. The riot cops retreated, regrouped and charged again. The students responded this time with Molotov cocktails. This went on -- ebbing and flowing like a majestic liquid dance -- for about half an hour. I stood on the sidewalk mesmerized by the strange glamour of it all -- not noticing until the last minute that a huge black truck had pulled into police ranks and tilted a cauldronlike tear gas cannon at the students.

I have since been informed that this cannon can fire 50 rubber-sheathed rounds of tear gas at once. All I noticed at the time was a staccato of orange flashes and a deafening roar.

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The gas canisters whistled over my head and skittered along the sidewalk beside me, belching their peppery powder in looping clouds. I took off running amid a surge of panicked students. The air around me dulled into a stinging gray haze. I hurdled a pile of burning cardboard, rounded the corner into an alley and waited out the charge of riot cops among a handful of students and shopkeepers.

I'll admit it was a thrill. For a brief, adrenalin-pumped moment, I felt like it was all a part of something larger than me: something meaningful, something monumental.

It wasn't.

The students in the street had been demanding the resignation of then-President Kim Young-Sam in the wake of his alleged corruption. The thing is, President Kim's term was due to expire in a few months anyway. He wasn't up for reelection. Those students might as well have been out protesting gingivitis.

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Ironically, the big loser of the evening was me. At home that night, Mr. Jang saw me on the TV news and busted me the next day. I had to work Saturdays for the next two months.

I'm not bitter from the experience. In a way, I don't even blame the students for protesting a lame-duck president. These days, self-righteous political melodrama is hard to come by, and if you can't wrestle angels, you may as well chase after the wind.


Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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