Spring in Korea (pronounced "bohm," like a prim Brit's understated description of the flowery explosion) is truly stunning. The plum trees have been showing their gentle whites for a couple of weeks (now there's a living room paint color: "Plum White"); the forsythia yellows are shouting out from the hedgerows; the camelias and magnolias (I HATE it when people say "man-golias") offer lush backdrops that attract students' selfies like mamas to chocolate. I love these signs of renewal and hope.
And, frankly, here's why I resist: They're Japanese.
"What?!? That's SO racist!" you may exclaim (or at least think quietly to yourself). And, yes, I suppose it is. If there's one thing Americans are taught, it's to accept people of all races and places. But, since coming to Korea, I've read many novels about Korean history that's bathed in tension with the powers of Japan, China, and Russia; I've visited history museums; I read the daily Korean newspaper (not in Korean, dear reader: the Joong-Ang Daily is in English). And I've learned again and again that the Japanese have not been kind to Korea. So, as a Korean resident trying hard to appreciate the local language and culture, I just can't like the Japanese. Or the stuff they brought here, including the cherry trees.
"Now," you might well say, dear reader, "Japan invaded and colonized Korea a long time ago! That all ended the Korean war!!" Well, yes. But the Japanese took a vast amount of Korean resources during that time from 1910 to 1950 or so; they required that Korea abandon its cultural traditions, and only allowed Japanese to be spoken or taught in schools during that long occupation. Even today, the Japanese continue to claim a tiny but important set of Korean islands; to promote the label "Sea of Japan" instead of the historically correct "East Sea"; to downplay the sexual slavery that marked their colonization and which continues to mark the lives of now-elderly Korean women. A local folk museum graphically depicts Koreans being tortured by the Japanese imperialists.
|Folk Museum, Hyeunghae-eup, Pohang, South Korea|
Thinking these thoughts, I asked my beloved Korean tutor "Why don't Koreans rip out the Japanese cherry trees given all the awful history with that country?" She paused for a moment, thanked me for understanding Korean history in this way, then she smiled and simply said "The trees are too beautiful to rip out."
Oh. In that moment, I saw a new aspect of grace that made me see the cherry trees for what they are: a stunning collection of fleeting joy that showers upon us. Not a political symbol or a historical marker of oppression, but an expression of joy. What a wonderful gift indeed.