Landing in Gwangju at sunset, 23 December 2017, looking west at Yeongsan River and Boeing 737 engine. The people of this region, 'the cradle of civilization in Korea', have been repeatedly invaded and suppressed, and invariably pushed back. Under the Japanese, and then Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee, South Jeolla Province became economically and politically marginalized, its people the butt of jokes. Nevertheless this pocket of South Korea, and particularly Gwangju, played a central role in resisting colonialism and authoritarianism. I have Han Kang's novel Human Acts on my lap: I have traveled to Gwangju because of this, for Kang's agonizing exploration of the ghosts of 1980 Gwangju Uprising, for her brutalized and inconsolably sad survivors Eun-sook, Jin-su, and Seon-ju, who I can't get off my mind.
The grave of Sungja Yi, who was killed at 15 when government troops attacked pro-democracy protesters on 21 May 1980. She was among 54 people who died when army snipers positioned on rooftops fired at demonstrators. The May 18th National Cemetery was my first destination in Gwangju, and paying my respects to the victims of the Gwangju Uprising was the central purpose of my visit. Han Kang's Human Acts explores the wide ranging consequences of the violence perpetrated against students like Sungja Yi, including denying them decent burials and the bereaved the freedom to properly grieve their dead. Kang writes "After you died I couldn't hold a funeral, so my life became a funeral./After you were wrapped in a tarpaulin and carted away in a garbage truck." Some of the demonstrators killed at Gwangju were indeed transported to burial in garbage trucks. I was almost alone among the 482 graves on the sunny December morning of my visit, giving me quiet time to reflect upon the remarkable courage of those buried here.
This is what I thought was my farewell taxi ride to Gwangju Airport. Memories of my stay weaved through my thoughts as I looked out the car window. As it turned out I had to return to my hanok guesthouse as I forgot my laptop. I was having coffee and a sandwich in the airport snack bar when I made the chilling discovery of its loss. There was no lock on the door of my room, so before going out that morning to buy gifts I had hidden the laptop under a big wooden cabinet. The second taxi ride was a nail biter as there was more traffic and I came within 30 mins of missing my flight.
On my third day in Gwangju I climbed a small mountain to get a better perspective of the city. It was raining on and off, and just after I took this photograph the clouds burst and I got soaked to the skin. Near the bottom of the mountain was a shelter, and in it was a young couple cooking bulgogi on a camp stove. They offered me a cup of hot rice wine and a bowl of bulgogi and it warmed my body and soul. The man's name is Yeoung Jin-yim. We exchanged e-mail addresses, and that evening he wrote and said 'You seemed so cold because of the rain. Travel well and be healthy'.
Everywhere I traveled in Gwangju I was on the lookout for Eun-sook and Seon-ju. They would be between 55 and 60 now. Through these characters Han Kang imagines what it would be like to survive the Gwangju Massacre and the punishments that followed. They represent the living ghosts of 1980 who cannot return to 'regular' life, who cannot find happiness, whose lives have 'become a funeral',
My first meal in S. Korea and I had no idea what I was getting. I couldn't read the menu so pointed to what two women were eating at a neighbouring table. It was chicken, and each small piece of meat had a bit of cartilage, making it pleasantly chewy. The dish was fiery hot, so I really needed the beer. No-one seemed to be eating rice or noodles with their small dishes of spicy this and that, and I didn't know how to ask for rice, so my stomach just had to adapt. I ate slowly and felt happy that my Gwangju adventure had begun.
My room, in a hanok (traditional Korean house) a stone's throw from Daein market. The toilet and shower are in a small, separate building in the courtyard. As it was late December, it was cold out there, especially in the middle of my jet-lagged night. From Human Acts: "When she [Eun-sook] reached Daein market, a huge tank came roaring down the main road. They want to show everyone that it's all over she'd thought to herself, almost absent-mindedly. That all the protesters have been killed."