[VIEWPOINT]A strange but enviable truthI believe that I am a person of exceedingly Korean values. I take pride in the uniquely Korean sentiments and dispositions carved deep in myself, but at the same time, they sometimes make me shudder with self-loathing. A series of events I have experienced in a foreign land let me look upon myself anew.
I shipped my belongings before I left Korea, but due to the truckers strike at the port of Vancouver, the boxes arrived a month late. I tried to get Internet service, but the communications service company union was on strike. Fifteen days after I signed up for the service, the modem was delivered. Just as everything was arranged for me to begin a new life abroad, the teachers union went on strike, and every single public school in the area shut down overnight. My son was in an elementary school, and I was taking language classes run by a government organization. We both had nothing to do and nowhere to go.
Being very “Korean,” I was worried and harried by the string of misfortunes. How can schools close down? How can the teachers refuse to teach, not even just for one or two days, but for two weeks? Strikes by public employees’ unions are strictly regulated by law.
The British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that the teachers’ walkout was illegal. The court imposed a heavy fine on the union and froze its assets to cut off the supply of funds needed to maintain a strike. Moreover, independent special prosecutors were appointed to investigate the teachers who participated in the strike. However, the compromise plan proposed by the teachers union was not accepted, and as other unions supporting the teachers union joined the walkout, the crisis is not likely to end anytime soon.
At first, I was dumbfounded by the situation and then felt angry and frustrated. However, what surprised me more was the attitude and perspective of the local people toward a series of events that is simply inconceivable in Korea. First, they remained patient. They acknowledged the crisis, refrained from speaking up and observed how the situation unfolded. The parents associations called for a prompt settlement, but they remained neutral, refraining from condemning or blaming any one side.
The media didn’t criticize the teachers for taking the students as “hostages,” or pressure the union to return to work first and then negotiate. The media devoted more pages and time to analyzing the difference in positions of the government, the employer in this case, and the teachers union than covering the complaints of the “victims.”
I spotted many cars honking to support the teachers demonstrating in front of an elementary school near my place, and according to an opinion poll, more than half of the local residents back the walkout. Regardless of the immediate losses, the people understood that a wound forcibly sutured by an external influence will reopen in the end and know who will be on their side when it is the local residents’ turn to fight for their rights.
The patience, which seemed wondrous to the eyes of a stranger, is a lesson they learned from experience and is a part of their culture. When bus and train unions went on a strike simultaneously a few years ago, they put up with the inconvenience by carpooling until the unions and the government reached an agreement after sufficient negotiation.
During the month that I did not have my belongings, I made a dining table and a desk with my son, using newspapers and cardboard boxes. During the month I did not have an Internet connection, I experienced the silence and peace of a world without the Internet. It isn’t easy for a mother to spend the whole day struggling with an energetic 10-year-old boy all alone, but the workplaces, which are thoroughly considerate of working mothers, and the various daycare systems made me realize that children do not learn everything at school only.
I was reminded of a saying by Antonio Gramsci. The Italian politician and theorist said that unlike a political society, which was maintained by the power of “rule,” a civil society was reasonable, non-coercive and voluntary, and operated by the consensus of the people. Being exceedingly Korean, I find Mr. Gramsci’s theory a strange yet enviable truth.
* The writer is a novelist. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Byeol-a