May 9, 2008 Author: Beth Salerno
From Tuesday to Thursday this week, Pyeongtaek University students have been partying. Each department had a booth for cooking food, games of chance, tarot card reading or whatever they wanted to do in order to bond together and raise money. I had a ball trying to catch fish with paper nets, tossing coins onto “roulette boards”, eating some quite good Korean food, and laughing with students. Events occurred continuously in the new amphitheate, from student band concerts to plays to the May Queen competition. Most of the bands sang American songs in English (although I’ll have to take their word for it - I can’t understand the English in most rap songs even when the singers are native speakers). In the evening (after sane people went to bed), major Korean singers performed, ensuring students rarely made it to their not yet cancelled morning classes.
At the same time, the front page of every newspaper has been blaring news about protest rallies in Seoul, demonstrations in the street, planned strikes by workers and students, and ministers apologizing. People here are quite worried about the resumption of U.S. beef imports, fearing that insufficient steps have been taken to prevent mad cow disease.
It is easy to see that much of the beef issue has been hijacked by opposition politicians and anti-American demonstrators. I have had students write to me and ask me for a calm explanation of whether it is safe to eat U.S. beef because they do not feel like they can get answers anywhere else. From the newspapers you would think Koreans hated Americans and feared we were specifically trying to kill them with tainted meat.
But the reality was made clear at the University festival. In one corner, the Mad USA Cow. For about $1.00 you could buy three water balloons and pelt your friends, while they pretended to be the cow. In another corner, Korean students cheered wildly while five U.S. soldiers tossed coins onto a board of numbers, sometimes winning coins, more often losing everything they threw. The American Studies department proudly sported their tee-shirts with ”We are different” on the front and the big A for America on the back. Whatever the students’ concerns may have been about U.S. beef, they had no concerns about Americans. One soldier said to me, “I never thought people would be this friendly. They don’t sound friendly on paper.” That contradiction is absolutely crucial to understanding Korea.