Becoming Canadian

Becoming Canadian

"Any day is a good day to become a Canadian citizen," the judge told the crowd of future Canadians, including my Serbian friend, "but this ceremony is occurring during a very special week." I turned to meet the eyes of my friend beside me, my friend's Canadian wife. She and I both thought he was referring to the contentious American election happening that very day, just south of the border. As it turns out, he was referring to Veteran's Week, celebrated around Remembrance Day on November 11. 

It was weird to think of someone becoming Canadian. For most of my life I had taken it for granted, having been privileged with the honour the day I was born.

Talking Politics: Freedoms of Speech in Canada and Around the World

Well here we are, federal Election Day in Canada. This has—as the media constantly reminds us—been the longest-running election campaign in Canadian history. It’s important to be informed, though it can be exhausting to try to navigate the constant barrage of mixed messages...

Gratitude for Being Canadian

Earlier this month, Henley & Partners, a firm specializing in residence and citizenship planning, released its annual Visa Restrictions Index. Of 219 destinations, Canada is tied for fourth place. With my Canadian passport, I am free to visit 170 countries without a visa—or at least pick up a visa upon arrival. That’s something I’m thankful for.

There are 13 other countries above us. Eleven of those are European; Germany and the United Kingdom are at the top with 173 easy-to-visit...

Korean Parliament First Fistfights, Then Passes Bill

It's the same old parliamentary story: one party wants to pass a bill, opposing party has concerns, negotiations fail, both parties wrestle each other to the ground like wild animals in expensive clothing. It's a tale that has passed down from news programs to viewers for generations---well, as long as South Korea has been a democratic country, that is.

Screenshot from the Reuters video

Screenshot from the Reuters video

Democracy is supposed to give people voices, but here in Korea, it means fists. I don't know how this isn't embarrassing for politicians here, especially since it is a common occurrence. Just a few months after I moved here, there was a fight (video) in December 2007 about now-President Lee Myung Bak's fraud investigation. A man had to be removed from the room by stretcher. Last year in December, there was another one (video), this time about the free trade agreement with the US. Someone involved in this fight suffered head injuries; not surprising when you hear that sledgehammers were involved. And now this year there have already been two: one in January (video) and one this week (video), both ending with some hospital visits.

I haven't quite been able to understand what January's brawl was over (a protest or blockade or something---though I'm beginning to think it doesn't really matter), and the one this week involved opposing views on a media bill. Which was passed, by the way.

The Koreas Call Hillary Clinton a "Funny Lady" & a "Role Model"

This week, Hillary Clinton made the news for her exchange of words with North Korea. After she likened North Korean leaders to "unruly children" whose antics should be ignored, they responded: “We cannot but regard Mrs. Clinton as a funny lady, as she likes to utter such rhetoric, unaware of the elementary etiquette in the international community,” the North Korean statement said. “Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping.” (New York Times) That's a harsh statement, especially compared to her visit to Seoul earlier this year.

In late February, she made a speech at Ewha Women's University, where she impressed the audience of a few thousand female students. After the appropriate applause for her equally appropriate speech on women's empowerment, there was a town hall-like Q&A session. She spent the hour answering personal questions about her upbringing, finding love, her family and balancing motherhood and her career, feeling a little "more like an advice columnist than a secretary of state" (New York Times). A couple weeks later, Clinton was voted as the most respected international role model for women by the school's freshman students.

Got Beef?

Despite the massive demonstrations just a few months ago, American beef is on the rise here in Korea. Imports resumed on 1 July, after a five-year hiatus, and since then it has taken hold of 20% of the market. Australian beef still reigns with its 60% share, but American beef is already the second most popular beef import. On 2 July, Han Seung-soo, the Prime Minister of Korea, ordered American beef (worth 260 000 won) for him and his family in a high-profile dinner. He did so to help remove the stigma of US beef and show the people that it was safe.

In late June, the Korean TV channel MBC, whose program "PD Notebook" needlessly informed its viewers that Korean were more susceptible to BSE than other ethnic groups, issued an apology for the misinformation, stating it was a "translation error." This came after a month of pressure of journalists and politicians who say this program really increased Koreans' paranoia about eating American beef. This apology wasn't good enough, though, and, in mid-August, the channel was court-ordered to apologize on-air and say that it deliberately exaggerated some information and created some mistranslations.

Now, just three months after imports resumed, it's not an issue that I ever hear about anymore. My question is, when will Canadian beef be allowed back into Korea?

Crazy Cows & Korea

Korea's "Immortal" National Flower

The Mugunghwa (Rose of Sharon, or hibiscus syriacus) has been an important flower in Korea for thousands of years. The Silla Kingdom (which ruled for almost 1000 years, until 935 AD), called itself the "Mugunghwa Country."

Today, the flower is mentioned in Korea's national anthem ("Mugunghwa samcheolli hwaryeo gangsan" or "Rose of Sharon, thousand miles of beautiful mountain and river land") and is found in other national emblems, like the Coat of Arms.

The government adopted the Rose of Sharon as an official symbol of Korea after the country was liberated from Japan. The Rose of Sharon has many characteristics that make it the perfect national flower for Korea. The flower blooms for a long time (from early July through late October) and there are thousands of blooms on each plant. It's a tough plant that can bloom in difficult situations; cut and placed in a vase, the flower lasts longer than many others. Korean word mugung means "immortal".

The strength and beauty of the flower represents the Korean people and the many trials they have overcome.

Dokdo, Korea & Japan

In spring 1592, Japanese ships landed in Busan, Korea, intending to invade the country and find passage to China. This was the beginning of the Imjin War, or Seven Years War, between Korea and Japan, and the beginning of a difficult relationship between the two East Asian countries. In the late 1800s, Japan was an emerging country that wanted to protect itself, and Korea was seen as a threat. Nothing personal; just a little too close for comfort. Japan sought to annex the country before someone else---someone more dangerous---could. To get Korea, Japan fought China for several months between 1894 and 1895 and fought Russia between 1904 and 1905, winning both. So, on 22 August 1910, Japan officially annexed Korea.

For 35 years, Koreans endured harsh colonial rule and cultural genocide

For thirty-five years, Koreans endured harsh colonial rule. This period in Korea can be considered a "cultural genocide" because of the suppression of the Korean language, removal of Korean artifacts, modification of old songs and poems to refer to Japanese emperors instead of Korean emperors, and physical alteration or destruction of Korean temples and monuments. On top of that, the Korean people suffered immeasurable pain and destruction. Some people were burned or buried alive, some men were conscripted into the Japanese military, some women were forced to serve as "comfort women" to Japanese soldiers, and some families were forced to change their surname to a Japanese name.

While some scholars argue that Korea gained some economic benefits during the Japanese Imperial Period and suggest that things could have been worse if Russia or China had won the opportunity to annex Korea instead of Japan, this period definitely didn't improve the personal relationship between the Koreans and Japanese.

Today, the Japan-Korea rivalry surfaces in the dispute over the ownership of Liancourt Rocks, two small islands known as Dokdo ("solitary island") in Korea and Takeshima ("bamboo island") in Japan. The islands, currently occupied by Korea, are located roughly halfway between South Korea and Japan in the East Sea. Small and rocky, there's not much to see on the islands, but they're located in a valuable fishing area and could potentially hold natural gas reserves. Both countries are desperately searching old documents and maps for proof of territorial claims.

In July of this year, the Japanese government decided to mention the dispute in new junior high school textbooks and claim the islands as Japanese. Around the same time, the US Board of Geographic Names changed its listing of Liancourt Rocks from South Korea to "Undesignated Sovereignty." Korean politicians and citizens protested both issues, and the US quickly reversed its decision and relisted the islands as under South Korean control. At the height of the "textbook scandal," the South Korean government temporarily removed its ambassador from Japan and protesters killed live pheasants (the Japanese national bird) in demonstrations in Seoul.

When asked to make a poster advertising Korea, one group of my students chose to make a poster advertising Dokdo. Looks like the Japan-Korea rivalry isn't going away any time soon.

Malaysia, Truly Asia

There's a place not far away
Different faces yet all the same
With a million dreams in one golden celebration (Malaysia)

Come and spread your wings
There's so much to see
There's a million colours right before your eyes
It's time to celebrate
One golden celebration

Malaysia truly Asia
Malaysia truly Asia

Malaysia celebrated its 50th year of Independence in 2007 and the commemorative tourism TV commercials were still playing in Korea well into 2008. The song from theses ads was quite catchy; it seemed as though no one could say "Malaysia" without adding "truly Asia" afterwards. Emails from friends read, Have fun in Malaysia Truly Asia! or, So how is Malaysia Truly Asia? I never thought of it as more than an ad campaign---until I arrived in Malaysia, that is.

I was picked up from the airport by a new friend who I only recently found out was Malaysian. He took me to a small outdoor restaurant where I met three of his co-workers and enjoyed a snack under the cool midnight moon. Over "pull tea" and crepe-like pancakes, he introduced me to Malaysia's unique and diverse cultures.

There are three major ethnic groups in Malaysia (Indian, Chinese, and Malay) as well as several traditional ethnic groups. It's not easy balancing the needs of all these different cultures in one country. "Malays of Chinese background say they're Chinese, not Malaysian," my friend said. "Malays and Indians are represented in government, but there's not so much Chinese representation, so Chinese-Malays don't feel Malaysian."

Over the next few days, when I was walking and riding though KL, I was impressed by the mixture of people. Unlike Korea, in which everyone has black hair, black or dark brown eyes, and white skin, I was suddenly surrounded by a potporri of people---dark-skinned Indians, Buddhist or Taoist Chinese, scarf-wearing Malays---who not only looked different but also spoke different languages and practiced different religions.

My friend told me that the Indians, Chinese, and Malays were about equal, each taking a third of the population. Travelling around the city, that estimation seemed realistic. But Malays actually form the biggest ethnic groups with about half the population, while the Chinese-Malays account for roughly 25% and Indian-Malays roughly 10%. Malay is the official language, which all students must study in school even if the primary language at the school itself is Chinese or English. Islam is the official and predominate religion, but Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, and other religions are also practiced in large numbers.

The diversity couldn't be overlooked; it wasn't long before I realized that "Malaysia Truly Asia" was more than a slogan. No, it's not perfect and the groups don't always get along, but Malaysia, in all its varieties, is Asia---truly.

Tourist Shot & Killed by North Korean Soldier

Before I read or heard anything about it in the news, my sister's boyfriend (all the way in Scotland) mentioned that a South Korean woman had been killed by a North Korean soldier while she was on vacation there.

What will this do for the already unsteady inter-Korean relations? North Korea claims the woman had wandered into a restricted area near the resort at Mount Geumgang early in the morning on 11 July. She apparently just wanted to see the sunrise. She ran when she was warned by the soldiers and was shot dead. The area was restricted and surrounded by a fence, but apparently the fence abruptly ended on a sand dune, where she supposedly walked, with little or no posted warnings for her to see.

The South Korean government argues that the reported time of death doesn't fit the evidence. How could a middle-aged woman walk over three kilometres in just twenty minutes, South Korea argues, especially on a sandy beach? But, stories from both sides have changed since the initial reports came out, making the story very confusing to follow.

While I think that the shooting was unnecessary, my big question is: why was she running away? When in North Korea, wherever you are and whatever you're doing, never run from a DPRK soldier.

Some South Koreans and foreigners travel into North Korea, but only to two designated areas (Kaesong city and Mount Geumgang) and on tours, which are, of course, highly regulated. The resort at Mount Geumgang, also known as Diamond Mountain, opened in 1998 and has since welcomed over a million visitors. I heard about the tour when I first moved to Korea and, after the excitement of my DMZ tour last fall, I was planning on visiting the Diamond Mountains to see a little bit more of North Korea. But, due to this incident and the sketchy investigation details, all tours to the Diamond Mountains have been suspended indefinitely.

Story timeline and news articles 
Visiting the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) 
Border Control: Rising Tensions Between North & South Koreas