Beautiful Catastrophe


There is something quite unnerving about revisiting statistics for an event which is long in the past. You could look at it as a way of validating the pedestal a particular event holds in time, which may be important. Or you could see it as a way of glorifying something truly horrific, and is likely never to happen again at least not in many lifetimes to come. It is with these perspectives that I clicked on The Fallen of World War II, a digital montage visualising the war casualties between 1939 and 1945.

…more at fallen.io

First up I should say that this is a slick and impressive display of the true cost to generations after the war ended. For major countries it is hard not to see how this war effected them. Often the dialogue surrounds the victors, and the price they paid for so called freedom (because, you know, the US and Britain were invaded and ruled for a brief period. Oh wait). Perhaps with the use of this video you can get a strong indication of how other countries really suffered. Indeed a quick scroll through the comments on Vimeo will show the level of appreciation of the maker’s visualisation.

Yet, I can’t really applaud this interpretation beyond the actual aesthetic, as there are far too many concerns raised here. This is especially important as this year sees the passing of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and we will be reassessing this past in the coming months.

It is well worth noting, and I do have The Fallen of World War II to thank for this important point, that to have fought in the war, veterans now would be at least in their late eighties, many would be in their early nineties. It is highly unlikely that there are many remaining, regardless of what country they fought for, and soon there will be none remaining. It is with this in mind that we need to take more care about how we interpret acts in history.

It’s very easy to do a statistical analysis of a historical event. With World War 2 it’s is particularly convenient as primarily we are discussing the actions of armies, together with their large bureaucratic arms that detail the specifics of each and every recruit, from all those who survived to all those who died. Knowing all this information, like the average age of new recruits, the amount of people who signed up from a particular town or the amount of Sagittarians that died on a Tuesday in 1942 serves a function which distances us from the ultimate tragedy of the Second World War.

The names of some of the people who lost their lives during World War II (Image courtesy rootsweb.ancestry.com)

I’m kind of a geek when it comes to reading over figures and statistics in history. I’m interested in populations, costs, quantities, and pretty much any other detail which can be extracted. But statistics, whether disputed or not, are merely numbers. To turn the millions of people who died into levels on fancy a bar chart does not settle easily with me.

There is little difference in this elaborate display of colours and stickmen to a chart with the countries listed in alphabetical order and the number of casualties detailed beside them. Creating a graph that shows how many people who died rising epically into some digital stratosphere still holds the same level of shock as when the number 20,000,000 is printed. Short of celebrating one’s own ability to create a quite beautiful display, it doesn’t make the lives that actually make up these statistics any less or more valuable.

British troops arrive on Normandy beaches signifying the beginning of the Battle of Normandy which saw over 400,000 soldiers killed.

What I struggle to accept though, looking at the larger picture, is that for all these people who did die, how do we celebrate their story? Does Ireland, a country that suffered only slightly in the war, deserve to be any less remorseful about the events which took place in Europe and Asia? How does a country like Russia or China, two countries that lost a catastrophic number of people, actually account for these lives? These are places we can find it difficult to imagine life in during those times, but grief like love is a universal factor, we all suffer from it to a comparable level. To me it seems that these people’s histories, and the sheer size of their tragedy, have been forced into statistics before we could ever understand them truly.

We are fortunate that the rich television history of the twentieth century has documented many of the ways in which life was lived both on the battle fields and at home. Recently we have been extra lucky to see more real-to-life interpretations, or as real-to-life as we are willing to be trusted with. Story telling brings us closer to the sadness wrought by the sudden death of a comrade, or the brutality of a shrapnel injury.

It is a story that seems to have been ignored. The countries which suffered the greatest loss of life decided to forget what happened. Can you blame them? Even a country like Poland rarely discusses this. Indeed it is not a surprise that the war is not a topic of conversation on every German’s lips, but I can be sure that those people are more aware than anyone of the history their nation created. I wish the same could be said for Japan.

As for the gaping hole in the generations of Russian and Chinese people who had to have been slaughtered to have perished in the quantities they did, what narrative or remembrance can we learn to truly understand a greater significance of World War II? I would hope we can create one which is not dominated by fancy graphics and data, but by realities wrought in the death and destruction of individuals whose fate was decided by men in offices in search of some class of glory.

 

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P.S. Describing every German soldier who fought and died in the war as a Nazi is an unfair accusation. You wouldn’t say that all the Russians were communists, and all the Americans patriots, or whatever.

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‘I Just Want to Scream’ – Reading at PEN Korea Poetry Concert


This picture was shared with me by Alexandra Jade Rodrigues on the ould Facebook. It’s a really touching addition to the poem I kind of haphazardly shared here some weeks back. I say haphazardly as it was a knee-jerk emotional reaction to the tragedy, and it seems to have been a reaction which many empathised with. I’m grateful to Alexandra for sharing this with me, as it is a poigniant image which reflects the continued wait for answers, even when the news of the disaster appears to have left the newsreels of the international media.

As you may be aware, some weeks back I was very fortunate to be invited as a reader at an international poetry concert organised by PEN Korea. The concert took place about a week or so after the tragedy. Initially I was asked to read only one poem, but following the tragedy of the Sewol sinking off the south coast, I contacted the organiser and asked if it was possible that I read my poem which attracted so much attention here, ‘I Just Want to Scream’. I was very fortunate that they ascented, and in the end I read my two poems. The first is a older poem Driving Close to the DMZ which was originally printed in Burning Bush II a couple of years back. This poem was followed by I Just Want to Scream.

In these videos shared with me by the concert organisers you can here me deliver both my poems.

Driving Close to the DMZ

I Just Want to Scream

This particular video includes a shortened and edited version of all the readers at the concert and is also worth your time and consideration.

Thank you again to Alexandra for the image, and to Sun A at PEN Korea for giving me the opportunity to read.

For more on PEN Korea please visit their website: http://www.penkorea.or.kr

The People -v- The Black Guy on the Bus


Courtesy of The Marmots Hole this piece of ‘news’ came into my world. I’m sure much more has been said and much more will be said.I’m sure much more has been said and much more will be said. If you are really interested I will allow you to spend your afternoon taking in the comments section in the post – there are some wonderful, inteligent commentors to marvel at. All of that aside I want to chime in with my own little tome. These are just a few things I was mulling over as I walked home from work (yes, today in that heat…perhaps I’m delirious) – I didn’t take the bus because I was afraid of ajjoshis, but because I need to lose some weight and I like walking at night during the summer.

In the above blog post, I felt much of the blame seemed to be levelled at the black fella who did the shouting at the poor old Korean ajjoshi. And, perhaps that is the right thing to do because I suppose he was morally wrong, right? He shouldn’t have turned around and aggressively responded by shouting choice phrases like “see these nuts?”. He looks like a big enough fella and the poor misfortunate old man was properly terrified – I’d say he didn’t expect a response like he got! Either way, he still shouldn’t have done it, right?

Of course, as an expat/immigrant/smelly waeg and someone who makes a living in the same industry as the gentleman asking the questions on the bus, I should be embarrassed and try to reason with the rest of the Korean community that “we’re not all like that”. We are rational. We assess the situation before flipping off the handle. We consider the whole situation before we lash out when someone addresses us rudely. Bollocks. We are as human as both the perpetrators of this mini-scandal on the bus and I wouldn’t be surprised if most people who read this will take a side, and rightly so. In fact I’d be concerned if they didn’t. I won’t as I prefer the fence to criticise those messing in the mud below my goldenness. I will ask you to consider a few things though in hindsight.

I’m going to run a few scenarios and express some opinions on this situation. Much of this has been built around Robert Koehler’s blog post but are not meant to be an actual attack on his (your) opinion, they are just some observations. I hope you like them.

  1. The black fella was pissed off, it is clear. Why? Because a man on the bus clearly told him to ‘shut up’, right? How busy was that bus? It was fairly packed. So how did he get his attention? I imagine it was far from a polite “excuse me sir, would you be so kind as to shut up”? Hardly. My guess is that he did either one of two things: shouted “hey you, HEY YOU! SHUT UP!”; poked him in the arm and looked him right in the eye and said in a far from friendly tone, “shut up”.  I don’t care what anyone says, when a stranger tells you to shut up on the bus, you will perceive that as a challenge. Shut up is not a polite term, and the ajjoshi who said it knew what he was saying. Remember, he was only 61. He may have looked older but he definitely was not senile and definitely capable of composing his own thoughts. If he knew ‘shut up’ and ‘I don’t know’ then he probably knows ‘be quiet’, although ‘please’ is probably pushing it. There are a lot of men in Korea who think that because they have a penis they are entitled to be right all the time. This kind of arrogance leads to many of the same men to be bullies, plain and simple. This is my own observation after over five years in Korea and of course I know not every man is like this, but there are many who are. Many believe the oceans should part for them if they were to attempt to cross the sea, but unfortunately this is not the case as the sea (I’m talking in metaphors now) also has to exist in the same space. That ajjoshi knew what he was saying and got his just desserts for thinking it was ok to say it. 
  2. Now, why did the ajjoshi say shut up? Because the black lad was talking ‘loudly’ on the bus. Well, this is even more ridiculous. The buses are loud. It’s hard to hear someone addressing you, and especially when you don’t speak the language. Even more so, few people talk on the bus, except when they’re on their phones. Everyone minds their own business, staring blankly out the window or into the screen of their smartphone, myself included. People don’t enjoy the bus – look at the faces of people the next time you see a bus passing. There are no happy faces staring out like the pictures we all drew to accompany “The Wheels on the Bus” song when we were five. This is not only in Korea, it is everywhere. Why? Because people are usually going to or coming home from work. If you hear people talking on the bus they automatically stand out. If they are talking in a foreign language then this is even more so the case. I’m sure this is not the first time that something like this has happened in the world, and I’m fairly sure a lot worse has resulted. To suggest that Americans or foreigners are loud and obnoxious on public transport is probably fair – I mean who talks on the bus? It’s almost as ridiculous as having a quiet beer on your own in a bar while you read a good book. Unheard of.   
  3. Why did he fly off the handle? Well for starters he admitted he was wrong and wanted to apologise. Then he said he was offended when told to “shut up” and he felt that the ajjoshi was disparaging black people. I can understand why. Black people do not have it as easy as the sunshine press in Korea would like to claim. The racism in Korea is very crude and old-fashioned. I’ve heard black people being referred to as monkeys, gorillas, and being clearly talked down to. This is the kind of stuff my grandfather comes out with, and he has dementia. I remember I worked with a black woman from New York who had an awful experience in a hagwon I was working in. The parents, pure and simple, didn’t want a large, black woman – who was also a proud mother and happily married – teaching their children. No reason was given directly, but we were not idiots. In the end she left the job. I’m sure her experience is not unique. That being said I knew a few other black guys who got on fine with their employers, and were very popular. Maybe it’s an attitude thing, which is where my point is here. Maybe the black fella, which is what he is constantly referred to as, was pissed off because he got the same shit everyday from his boss who looked just like the ajjoshi Remember what Eddie Murphy said: . He clearly didn’t understand the ajjoshi, but then again should he have? While we’ve no idea how long he has been in Korea, it is likely that no one has ever tried to address him in Korean because there is an assumption that because he is a foreigner he can’t speak Korean, so why bother learning (don’t say there isn’t – there is). That aside, the guy insulted him in an English that was probably sounding broken up and sylabic, and then proceeded to use the word 니가, or nee-ga, to a black guy. What would you think if you were there? And even if you did speak some Korean, you would have to be quite proficient to understand it as it can’t have been easy to understand what he was saying. I imagine that the well meaning ajjoshi also said it in as aggressive tone as he said ‘shut up’. Not everyone is perfect and to respond like he did to an accusation like that is a little immature, and thick to be honest (whatever happened to being above that kind of idiocy), but he might also have been pushed too far. When people are pushed too far they have been known to go to extremes and to take ownership of the situation. This may have been a situation like that.

So what happens next? The black fella has offered to apologise and will probably get a slap on the wrist – although remember if you listen carefully you can hear the black fella say something about the ajjoshi slapping him on the face, which means the ajjoshi should also receive an official telling off. I think he knows he has done wrong. Perhaps there’ll be some form of penance.  

Assholes aside, I truly believe most people here who teach English are decent, relatively lazy but well meaning middle(ish) class, who have a minimum standard of higher education (which counts as little these days in the circus of life, but it’s a start I suppose). I’ve also found that most American people here are quite open minded and accepting of the foreignness of Korea. I don’t know if this guy is an asshole. I would assume that he does fulfil some of the above criteria, which is something.

There are a few problems that I now see growing. Thanks to the internet, which of course informed of this unfortunate event, this event will probably be blown totally out of proportion. The police should handle it, and it should be forgotten, but with the combined opinionative forces  of youtube, facebook, twitter, and fire-stokers like my wonderful self, it will probably snowball to a ridiculous proportion. That being said, the vast majority of people will probably forget in a week when the next public transport battery scandal arises.

As for the black fella? Maybe he won’t get his contract renewed, maybe he’ll move on. He shouldn’t get deported otherwise there’s no hope for any of us if it ever all goes south. In the end, I reckon he’ll listen a bit more carefully in future. As for the ajjoshi? He has probably learned to watch his mouth too

Dublin Pride, June 25 2011


Hanging around in town (Dublin, not Seoul or Suwon) yesterday we stumbled on the Dublin Pride festival. I knew about it but hadn’t registered it until we were on Georges Street.

The biggest thing about the parade, as far as I could see, was the number of participants! It was quite spectacular, at least for me anyway. I have no idea about the number of gays or there rights/problems/social stigmas that are still attached to them. I know that they are definitely more out and about than back in the day, the day being when I was in secondary school or something like that. I found out later that there was around 30,000 people at it – that makes it second to Paddy’s Day in size and importance Continue reading