Easter Sunday, Korea 2014: On family, memory and the ongoing tragedy of the Sewol
It’s a cloudy morning in Busan, another in string of dreary, cool days, but at least I’m up to enjoy it. One of the pluses of my recent motorcycle wreck and subsequent hospitalization is that my sleep schedule has shifted. For the first time in life I can count myself as an early bird, though I doubt this distinction will hold after I’m up and moving 100 percent. Like my mother, I have always been a decidedly nocturnal creature. I am convinced that such proclivities course through our veins, that they’re buried deep in our DNA.
Today is Easter, which makes me think of family, especially my mom. She was an avid celebrator of holidays, and Easter in our house was no exception. In the days leading up she’d marshal a couple of us to assist in the dying of the eggs, an activity that I fervently relished as a kid. Every year it was the same: a big pot of boiled white eggs and Paas Easter Egg dye, which was mixed with water and vinegar to achieve its result. The sharp odor of the vinegar pinpricked my nostrils and stung my eyes; even today one whiff transports me back to the dining room table with my sister Molly and my mom–hard at work dipping–a cigarette in one hand and a thin wire egg holder in the other.
On Easter morning we were treated to baskets filled with chocolate and of course, dyed eggs. Sometimes even a small wrapped gift was included, transforming the setting into a mini springtime Christmas. The chocolate usually took the form of a giant rabbit–and it really was a case of bigger is better. Afterwards I would compare my booty with that of the neighbor kids. Most prized was the solid chocolate bunny. The cheaper hollow version was usually consumed over the course of the day. The solid rabbit was an investment in chocolate and literally could be gnawed and sucked on for days to come. Often the possessor of the prized solid bunny would never even finish the thing: the half-melted hindquarters were eventually discarded, covered in a nasty film of dirt, dust, and drool, turned repulsive to the chocolate saturated child.
Though my parents were certainly guilty of going all-in with regards to the commercial aspects of Easter, they didn’t indulge our every whim, and they made sure that we never forgot just why we were celebrating this day: All sugary contents of the basket were to be left untouched until AFTER mass.
And Easter mass was long, the longest mass of the year, clocking in at a good three hours. I remember being too small to see over the pew, essentially walled in as the old French priest droned on over the microphone in completely unintelligible English, blessing what seemed to be every single item in the church: In the costume and prop-heavy world of Roman Catholicism, this adds up to a lot of stuff. I fidgeted and wormed and swung my legs, dreaming of release, when I could run free, giant chocolate rabbit in hand. My mother acted as camp guard, silently castigating me with offended brown eyes, non-verbally suggesting that my squirreliness was an affront to God himself. The only respite from my utter, existential boredom was the constant shifting of positions: STAND, SIT, KNEEL, repeat. I am still convinced that these were invented solely to occupy those of us who find sitting still for long periods of time an exercise in torture.
After mass we’d pile into the big brown Chevy and head back home for a home cooked feed. On a couple of lucky occasions, I recall heading up to Tacoma, where we met up with some other relatives and were then unleashed upon a proper restaurant for Easter brunch. There were six of us in my immediate family and we could eat. We ‘d decimate the buffet, piling up on bacon, sausage, biscuits, home fries, pancakes, french toast, custom omelets and eggs Benedict smothered in oozing lakes Hollandaise sauce (my aversion to mayonnaise goes back as far as I can remember so I never partook of the latter). One year, after the meal, we posed for pictures in front of a rhododendron bush in bloom. A few years ago I came across some of these photographs when cleaning out my mom’s stuff: My dad wears a grey jacket and blue tie, and is puffed up with pride (and food)–all bushy mustache, glasses, and a closed-lip smile. My mom sported a pink dress and smiles uneasily; unlike my hammy father, she was never comfortable in front of the camera.
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Despite my parents’ best efforts, religion never really stuck with me. This, combined with the fact that I have no kids of my own, means that I haven’t celebrated Easter since I was a child myself. Over the years I would call home on Easter, knowing that it was an important day for my both my parents, whose faith was deep; but they’ve been gone for sometime now, so the day barely registers in my mind. It’s just a thing that I used to observe, from a period so long back that it seems like another lifetime.
This year is different. I sit here, at my desk, in my tenth year in South Korea. The TV rests just feet away, flashing endless images of the Sewol ferry disaster. My wife sleeps poorly, splitting her time between the tiny screen of her phone and the larger screen of the television, starving for a morsel of good news. So far there’s been none.
It was Wednesday when the boat went down. I first learned about it just after eleven A.M. at the beginning of a class I teach for housewives–a group of smart women who all speak remarkably good English. It’s a free talking course, meaning just what sounds like: we discuss whatever is on our minds. The Sewol came up immediately. They were all noticeably worried, but these concerns were immediately put to bed when one of the women stated that she had just heard great news during the drive to class: All the students had been rescued.
The women collectively exhaled and smiled. The crisis had been averted. In perhaps patronizing turn, I remarked on how far Korea had come, how the country’s past reputation for public safety was less-than-stellar, how twenty years ago the outcome would have not been so good.
The women agreed and we quickly switched subjects.
It wasn’t until later in the day that I began to doubt the “everyone is rescued” story. Articles and posts on the internet presented wildly conflicting information. It seemed that many people, perhaps hundreds, were still missing. Did that mean they were still in the ship? Or perhaps, in the chaos of rescue, they had just not managed to count everybody.
Minhee and I went out for dinner at a shabu-shabu restaurant near my school, and it was here where we learned the grim reality of the situation. 179 people had been rescued, but nearly 300 were still missing. The earlier count had been wrong, mistakenly doubled up. The passengers–almost all students from Ansan’s Danwon High School–were presumedly trapped inside of the ship, which had been almost fully submerged for hours now. Their parents were gathering in a gymnasium in the small port of Jindo, near the scene of the sinking. Both authorities and them were holding out hope. I could find none. It was now dark and the water was cold. Perhaps a few air pockets existed, but hypothermia would set in soon. The Sewol had been transformed into an underwater tomb.
As the days the wore on and scenes from the choppy grey water were replayed, the tally on the upper right screen of the TV changed little, with just a few numbers added to the official “dead” category. As of writing this, it stands at 179 rescued, 28 dead, and 269 missing. At this point we can probably merge the “missing” with the “dead,” which now includes a former member of the “rescued:” Danwon High School’s vice principal, Kang Min-kyu, who was so wracked with guilt and grief that he hanged himself from a tree.
This story has just been an endless barrage of bad news, cock-ups, and seemingly willful ineptitude. It’s been a cocktail of incompetence and negligence that far surpasses the criminal. The captain wasn’t on the bridge at the time, despite the fact that the area was known to be treacherous. And most unbelievably, after the ship began listing he told the students–over the loudspeaker–that they should sit down and “stay put,” essentially passing a death sentence on hundreds. He was among the first to be rescued, in flagrant violation of every maritime convention known to mankind, and once safely ensconced in the hospital, he inexplicably saw fit to dry out his roll of fifty thousand won bills that had gotten soaked during the sinking. This was his priority, it seemed. He seems to have done almost everything wrong, and, not surprisingly, the country is calling for his head.
And then there’s the government response. Despite the fact that hundreds of divers have been on the scene, almost none have made it inside of the ship. Weather, poor visibility, and strong currents have been blamed. Offers of on-the-water aid from both the U.S. and Japanese navies has been spurned. Information has been spotty, contradictory, and inconsistent. Parents have been stonewalled, and to the outsider it appears that the rescue effort has consisted mainly of putting around on boats and some pulling bodies from the sea.
What I do know is that this country is in shock, but that shock is turning to grief coupled with incandescent anger. This is a national nightmare for Korea, by far the biggest catastrophe this nation has faced since I moved here nearly a decade ago. And this is now my home. It has been for sometime. Watching the endlessly looped footage takes me back to a massive tragedy that struck my country: the attacks of 9/11. Though different in nature and circumstance, I can imagine that the Korean people are going through a similarly harrowing emotional process. My heart aches when I see shots of those students longing to see their friends once more, of those parents screaming out their children’s names. I too am sickened inside, and burn with indignation when I contemplate the details of this fiasco and see clear as day just how preventable these deaths were.
So here we are, Easter Sunday, Korea, 2014. Hopefully the observant can find some joy in the spirit of the day. But for most folks, there will be no solace, because unlike the story of Christ’s resurrection, no one trapped in that boat will ever come back.