Sometime this year, a Korean politician said something that enraged the citizens of Bucheon and Incheon who were going about their business. He said, “Those who get divorced go to live in Bucheon; those who are ruined, to Incheon.” Some citizens were so upset by the comment that they sued him for defamation and contempt of the people of Bucheon and Incheon. I scoffed, wondering, “Does he mean people who were born and raised in Incheon are ruined even before they start?” But I wasn’t angry or insulted. I was only surprised at his rude and lazy mindset of regarding those who were divorced or in economic difficulty as losers and stereotyping a certain region as having these characteristics.
After I graduated from high school, I enrolled in a university in Seoul. At the first year orientation, I met people in my class from various parts of Korea, including Yeosu, Busan, and Jeju Island. When I said that I came from Incheon, one of the upperclassmen said, “Wow, how did you come to this university from Incheon?” Perhaps because of the numerous snide jokes belittling the region I grew up in from that day on until now, I feel indifferent to that comment. He was definitely not talking about the distance I had to travel from Incheon to Seoul. He meant that I must have worked hard to get into a university in Seoul from a city like Incheon, where the education level is low. But his next comment is what made me despise him until the day he graduated. “Oh, that’s right. You mean you got in through a special program.”
If I were to be lazy and make the same stereotyping mistake, it seems that our society is full of people who only feel safe when they do whatever they can to belittle and affront someone and establish a hierarchy. All kinds of factors— such as level of education, appearance, occupation—become criteria for discrimination. But of them all, the tendency to measure an individual’s value through the place they are from has become strongest. This is due to the government’s “balanced regional development policy”. Those who were able to enroll in Seoul through the “regional balance program” were belittled as “regional balance insects”, and employees who went to a school in the Seoul region click their tongues at new recruits hired as part of “regional talent programs”.
In this day and age when it is impossible to move up in society through income alone, the myth of meritocracy has long been dispelled. The rumor about apartments whose values increase by KRW 100 million overnight is an exaggeration, but housing costs in Seoul are climbing more steeply than ever before, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots is increasing just as rapidly. The public obsession with the results of hard work has become so strong that our society has become oversensitive, not allowing even a little reverse discrimination: people who have gained ’10’ after putting in an effort of ‘100’ cannot stand to see someone else gaining ’10’ after only putting in 90. In such an atmosphere, even policies that were implemented to correct discrimination against the socially disadvantaged come under fire as reverse discrimination.
Yet parents still feel the same as before. If it is difficult to move up the social ladder, then they want their children to start off on a higher rung. No one can blame parents for wanting the best for their children, but the problem occurs when those parents step over the line. Parents who commit the crime of falsifying the resident registration information for their children to attend a school in a nicer neighborhood, or parents who teach their children not to hang out with children who live in government rental housing no longer exist only in the news. Some even send their children to larger churches in the city instead of smaller local ones. What would Jesus think of those people who selectively choose which neighborhoods to love?
Children who were born without any spoon in their mouths are helplessly exposed to discrimination and are scarred without doing anything. Tragedy does not happen only to the children who are discriminated against—the children who are raised by parents who take discrimination against the weak as a given instead of respecting others will end up becoming the same kinds of adults as their parents. The upperclassman who insulted me about my hometown and the way I got into university probably read the works of Karl Marx and many other great thinkers. He no doubt scribbled the answers to his finals from the perspective of an individual suffering from the structural irrationalities of our society, such as the gap between rich and poor, sexual discrimination, and the collusive links between politics and businesses. But perhaps four years of studying sociology wasn’t enough, because he discriminated against me without realizing that he was discriminating. Because speaking and acting are performed by the body and not the mind.
Ghost crabs the size of my thumb scrambling across the mud flat by the coast of Incheon, jjajangmyeon at Incheon Chinatown. To me, these are the small brook and spotted oxen the poet Jeong Ji-yong missed about his hometown. What can I do to prevent my unborn children from remembering these things as something shameful?
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