South Korea Ferry Disaster: Experiencing National Grief as an Expat

South Korea Ferry Disaster: Experiencing National Grief as an Expat

foreign-correspondent badge finalThe first message was from my friend Leah, asking if I was safe. The next, twenty minutes later, was from my mom. Even after I reassured my mother that I was safe, she still asked me to call her. They were worried I had been on the Korean Sewol ferry that, at that point in time, was sinking into the sea.

Soon several people sent me messages checking on my safety. After reassuring everyone I was fine, I decided I should post on Facebook just to let everyone know I was okay. I told everyone I was safe and not to worry about me, to instead worry and pray for the people who were trapped on the boat and their families.

All of South Korea has been in mourning because of the Sewol tragedy. There have been candlelight vigils around the country. Yellow ribbons, a symbol for wanting someone to come home, are hung up outside of stores, homes, and schools. Many Korean people have changed their profile pictures on various social media outlets to pictures of yellow ribbons. Festivals in the upcoming months have been cancelled to allow people to mourn. My Sunday language exchange group and many of my students’ class trips and picnics were cancelled for the same reason.

“I’m angry,” one of my Korean friends said to me. “I’m angry because I keep thinking ‘how could this happen?’” Many people feel the same way.

Televisions in shops, at bars, and in homes are constantly screening the news. I spent four hours at my friend’s home the first weekend after the boat sank, just watching news coverage of the disaster. In the upper left corner of the screen, there was a box displaying the number of people saved, dead, and missing. Four hours passed of watching divers go repeatedly into the cold water in attempts to save some of the people trapped in the boat, and the only change we saw was when two people went from missing to dead.

Many people are angry. After one of the language exchanges I go to on Thursday nights, a group of us went out for drinks and some food afterwards, and the topic of the Sewol ship came up.

“I’m angry,” one of my Korean friends said to me. “I’m angry because I keep thinking ‘how could this happen?’” Many people feel the same way. People blame the government, the president, the captain, the crew, the ship. Conspiracy theories are running wild, and as I write this, all hope of finding any more survivors is gone.

At my taekwondo class, one of the middle schoolers I take lessons with asked me if I knew about the ship.

“Yes,” I answered. “It’s so sad.”

One of my elementary school students drew a picture of the ship on my white board. He captioned the drawing with a small speech bubble coming from the ship that said ‘help me.’

She nodded. “Very sad. When my mother hear the news, she cried. Everyone is sad.” I looked at her and then her younger brother and sister who were playing just a couple of feet from us. Her brother, who is ten, had spent the first five minutes before class watching the news about the ferry with our teacher. It’s not hard to imagine why their mother cried. The students trapped in the ship are probably only a few years older than her oldest daughter. The thought of watching your child sink slowly into the ocean, facing drowning, lack of air, hypothermia, or starvation, is enough to make any of us cry.

Many of my students have asked me if I know what happened. I worry about them and how they’re processing this. One of my elementary school students drew a picture of the ship on my white board. He captioned the drawing with a small speech bubble coming from the ship that said ‘help me.’ He also wrote the total number of people saved, dead, and missing. He knew the numbers off the top of his head.

Even though I’m an expat, I’m feeling the pain with the people from my new home. Our sadness is certainly not the same; I cannot pretend I know exactly how the people of Korea feel about this event, but together we are watching this tragedy unfold and together we are grieving.

 

 

South Korea Ferry Disaster: Experiencing National Grief as an Expat

About Kylie Genter

Kylie GenterKylie Genter is an English teacher in South Korea.

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