Saturday, May 31, 2014

Gwangju, South Korea, 5-18 (Day 4) Part II

Image of man in wheelchair in pottery workshop with woman working at table
Mr Kim in the pottery workshop
After the events recognizing the 5-18 Student Uprising from 1980, we returned to the Holiday Inn, the hotel where I stayed in Korea.  Many conference guests left that afternoon, but I stayed until the next morning.  With some free time, my new friend Jin Bread took me to see the Han Ma Um Independent Living Center, one of several centers in Gwangju.  Mr. Kim, who had been around throughout the conference and paid for beer two nights in a row, worked at Han Ma Um, and was waiting to meet us. He toured us around the center.  They make all kinds of pottery there.  From what I understand, they haven't yet, but plan to launch a business, with pottery sales as a way of generating income.  There is also a performance space in the center. Mr. Kim plays the guitar and is in a band. 
Stage at the Han Ma Um Independent Living Center
Stage at the Han Ma Um Independent Living Center
After the tour, Mr. Kim brewed some green tea.  We sat around drinking the tea and talking for a little while, then I returned to the hotel.  I wanted several hours on my own to pack and rest up for long trip back to Chicago.

When I told people I was going to Korea, many people mentioned the food, especially the beef. "You've got to try the beef!" a few people exclaimed.  In the four days I'd been there, the closest I came to Korean Beef was the short ribs at the Holiday Inn Lunch Buffet.  So for my last meal in Korea, even though a conference organizer told me I could return to the Holiday Inn Buffet, I ventured out to the streets of Gwangju.  I wasn't necessarily looking for Korean Beef, but I wanted something new. 
Holiday Inn Gwangju
More importantly, I wanted something that wasn't the Convention Center Buffet or the Holiday Inn Buffet. I walked up a street toward a bar called the "One Shot," where a group of us had been two nights in a row.  I was familiar with the street and it looked like there would be a lot of options. There were a lot of options, but once on the street, and peering through the windows into restaurants, I got nervous.  After four days, I knew about one word in Korean -- Hello.  There was  no guarantee I could communicate with anyone in the restaurants.   I was looking for a place that had a menu posted on the door in English, or places with big pictures of food on the wall.  A few times, I found places that met the criteria, but there were all kinds of shoes piled up at the door and I could see customers inside wearing flip flops.  Concerned I would break some sort of protocol, I avoided those places.  I ended up walking well past the One Shot bar before I bit the bullet and walked into a place. It was a small joint, kind of like a Vienna Beef greasy spoon in Chicago, with a counter, a menu posted above the counter, and about ten tables on a hard tile floor.  Two of the tables were occupied.  The man who greeted me spoke no English and handed me a small laminated menu with tiny Korean script.  There were a few pictures above the counter.  I pointed at one and after a little bit of back and forth with the man who gave me the menu, he went to place my order with the kitchen.

The soup he delivered a few minutes later appeared to match the item in the picture to which I had pointed.  Nevertheless, I had no idea what it was.  It had a thick but translucent red broth, with noodles the consistency of Ramon, cabbage, some other vegetables, some sort product that could have been fake meat or processed meat, and, to my surprise, sliced hot dogs.  I tried to eat all of it, but there was a lot.   After about twenty minutes, I paid, walked back to the hotel, and tried to find the dish I ate on the Internet. My best guess is Hangover Stew.

Image of a red stew in a bowl --Hangover Stew
I hope it was the stew.  Because while I never had any Korean Beef, it sounds kind of cool to say I had Hangover Stew.  

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Day 4 in Gwangju, South Korea -- 5-18

Late last summer, my wife learned there was a remote possibility of a trip to Tajikistan.  If the trip were to happen, she would leave within just a few weeks.  Knowing that the trip might never happen, she spent hours on the computer, studying the government, culture and people of Tajikistan.  She never made the trip, but my wife inspired me to research South Korea when I received an invite to present at a conference in Gwangju.  One of the first things I learned about when researching South Korea was the the May 18th People's Uprising, an event that helped shape democracy in South Korea and that appears to still have a dramatic impact on the day-to-day lives of many people who live in Korea.  I was thrilled to learn that, as a guest at the World Human Rights Cities Forum 2014, I could request an invitation to attend a government ceremony commemorating the May 18th People's Uprising.

On May 18th, my fourth and final full day in South Korea, many of us from the conference boarded one of the four buses lined up outside the Holiday Inn and headed for the National Cemetery for the 10 a.m. event.  On the bus, we were told that just as many people are furious with the government for the way it handled, and continues to handle, the Sewol Ferry Disaster, many people are unhappy with the official, government sanctioned event to commemorate the May 18th Uprising.  The details about the fury I didn't understand, but the disconnect was so significant that families of victims from the May 18th Uprising refuse to participate in the government event.  Rather than participate in the government event, the families and other progressive organizations staged an alternative event about half a mile away from the government ceremony. 

Scene from Audience of official Government May 18th Event
Guests in white hats before Official May 18th Event
Though I've never been to an event on the White House Lawn, the government sponsored May 18th Event reminded me of what a White House Lawn event might look like.  After disembarking from the buses, we checked in at security, picked up a pass, then passed through another security check point with bag inspection and metal detectors.  Once through the two check points, we found seats among hundreds of plastic chairs set up for the event.  Each chair had a program and a funny looking, but effective, white paper hat lay on top of it.  The hat was designed to protect us from the sun. The ceremony itself was barely 25 minutes long.  Two government officials spoke and a choir sang a few songs.  By 10:30, we were out of our seats, milling around, and ready to head back to the buses, which weren't scheduled to return to the hotel until 11:30.  That's when the Director of the Gwangju International Center announced that he would be willing to lead a group up the road to the people's alternative event.  That announcement made the difference between my time in Korea being a memorable, rewarding experience and being a deeply moving, significant experience.  I never figured out what connection the Director had to the May 18th People's Uprising, but during the walk up the road, he spoke about the events with clarity, as if he knew directly people who had been there and were impacted.  The People's event was in the middle of a hilly cemetery.
image of grassy cemetery on hill.  Many people sitting amongst rows of cemetery
People's May 18th Event
A stage was at the base of the hill.  Rather then chairs, people sat on the grass.  Toward the top of the hill, some people stood, or kneeled next to graves, a few of them with their heads down and a few of them weeping.  I made my way to the top of the hill, where I could better see all the people on the hill and the surrounding landscape.  The program reminded me of the program from the candlelight ceremony the previous night.  Two different singing groups sang empowering songs that inspired the audience to join in with raised arms and fists.  I was on the hill for about 10 minutes, watching the performance, looking at grave sites, and observing the people. 

Grave site at People's Cemetery, Korea
Grave Site at Cemetery
We couldn't stay long.  We had to head back to the buses. On the walk back, I overheard the International Center Director and a Conference Guest from Sweden talking about the May 18th Uprising.  They brought up the United States Involvement in 1980, at the tail end of the Carter Administration.  I asked the Director to repeat what he had said.  He told me that the United States supported the military, not the people's uprising.  According to the U.S. Government, what happened in 1980 was not a democracy movement, but rather a movement that threatened national security. 

Of course, I don't know much about the issue.  But if that's true, it would seem to be disappointing.  

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Cities, Disability, and a Candle Light Ceremony

Day Three of the trip to Gwangju, South Korea was the day of my presentation for the World Human Rights Cities 2014 Forum.  I was one of six presenters who were part of the "Cities and Disability" Session.  One speaker was from Brazil, an architect who worked for the Municipal Government in Curitiba, a city of about 1.8 million.  The other four speakers were from Korea, two from Gwangju and two from Seoul.  As far as I could tell, three of us were disabled.  The first speaker works for an independent living center in Gwangju.  He used a power wheelchair. He kicked off his presentation by indicating that it might be a little hypocritical for Gwangju to call itself a human rights city, considering that less than 20 percent of the bus fleet is accessible to riders with physical disabilities.  He also suggested that barriers to access would remain because local authorities care more about budgets than the human rights of people with disabilities.  He compared local authorities to the crew of Sewol, which was concerned with profits, not the passengers on the ferry.

man in wheelchair giving presentation.  Desk in front of him, screen behind him.  Man to his right holding paper as accommodation
First Speaker of the Cities and Disabilities Session
Not that I was hoping to hear disparaging comments about a city I knew very little about, but if we were going to sit through six hours of presentations (mine included), I was happy that at least one of us was ready to challenge the establishment.   The second speaker expressed the same sentiments, in a less direct way.  He was an expert on Universal Design.  He opened his talk by explaining that he was asked to talk for an hour about highlights of Universal Design in Gwangju, but that he would be hard pressed to find enough highlights to fill an hour of time.  He did talk about the baseball stadium, which I had visited the previous day. He mentioned something about Universal Design that I had never heard.  He said that for every five male restrooms in the stadium, the stadium was required to build eight female bathrooms.  Considering the long lines I have seen coming from women's rooms at concerts, stadiums, theaters, and restaurants, it makes perfect sense and seems like a insightful application of universal design.

The fourth speaker was the architect from Brazil.  I hung out with her and her husband a lot at the conference.  She spoke about work Curitiba had done to improve access, and stressed that changes were being made with participation from the disability community.  Throughout our time together, she often stressed this approach -- the social model approach of "Nothing About Us without Us."  Nothing should be done on behalf of people with disabilities without the input of people with disabilities.   It might have been the translation, but the final speaker, a professor from Seoul, seemed to be a little behind on this approach. She hesitated when talking about consumer driven peer support, as if she was not sure if this was the right philosophy.

image of group of about thirty people, some in wheelchairs, posing in front of room for photo
Participants and some of the attendees at Cities and Disabilities Sessions
Though I looked at my paper too much, and fell behind on my power point, I felt pretty good about my presentation.  I covered my material and may have made somebody laugh (with a joke) at least once.

I was thrilled and energized to complete the presentation, and felt pretty good about all the work I had put into it, but the day got ever better after the conference sessions.  At seven o'clock, we all loaded up on buses lined up outside the hotel and drove down town for a candlelight ceremony recognizing the victims of the April 16 Ferry Disaster in South Korea.  Evidently, each
Saturday, Seoul hosts a candlelight ceremony.  People plan to do so until the government apologizes and launches an inquiry into why emergency services (like the Coast Guard) didn't respond appropriately.   Gwangju doesn't host ceremonies each Saturday but did on May 17 because it was the eve of the traditional May 18 Recognition Events. Though what happened in South Korea is a tragedy, especially for all the families involved, I was happy to participate in the candlelight
image of stage and crowd at outdoor ceremony in evening
Candlelight Ceremony on May 17 for Sewol Ferry Disaster
 ceremony.  A group of us made our way near the stage and sat amongst the crowd for nearly an hour, watching the speakers, musicians, and performers.  According to a woman with our group, emergency services on the water could have saved so many more people.  They had two hours to do so.  But they only rescued passengers who were on the deck.  They never went below deck and told the passengers in their cabins to evacuate.  Indeed, that does deserve an apology and an investigation. She explained that citizens of South Korea are also furious with the media for not being critical of the government response to the sinking.

Friday, May 16, 2014

World Human Rights Cities Forum 2014 -- Day 2

large group of people on stage with steps leading down from center of stage
Group shot after Opening Session on May 16
Today was the second full day at the World Human Rights Cities Forum in Gwangju, South Korea.  The morning started with breakfast, where I sat down next to a man who is a participant in the conference.  I've never been much of a talker, but I did my best to start some conversation with him.  We had met briefly the evening before on the elevator.  My conversation attempts fell flat though.  While we sat, he got four times in a short space of minutes to get more food at the buffet.  It's not like he filled the plate each time, but he got up a lot.  The fifth time he got up, he didn't return.  He left without saying good bye. 

I'll let it go.  At the Plenary Session that morning, he was a speaker.  Maybe his mind was on his speech.  The morning was Welcoming Sessions and Plenary Session.  The afternoon was another plenary session, a break out group, and an informal meeting of disability groups and advocates.

It's interesting to travel half way around the world and hear things that mimic issues in the United States.  In the morning session, a woman spoke the Brazil 2016 Olympics, and the displacement of people to make way from the construction of stadiums.  The city now has thousands more homeless people while there are hundreds of thousands of unoccupied housing units.  This was like Chicago during the 2016 Bid.  Groups opposed to the bid warned of the same displacement issues, and in Chicago there is an issue of unoccupied Chicago Housing Authority Units.  In the afternoon, I sat in on part of a session called Cities and Violence, which privatization as a form of violence.  A woman from Japan talked about the privatization of the Japanese workforce, how more and more the ranks of full-time employees are giving way to part-time contractual workers.  The contractual workers struggle more and more to earn a living because companies are low balling bids in order to land the contracts.  Similar to stories I hear in the United States about contractual workers.  And in the meeting with the disability community, stories out of Korea and Brazil regarding transportation, health care assistance and design echoed the United States. 

image of large group of police on right, pepper spraying protesters on left of frame
Bus Protest in Seoul, South Korea on April 20
One of the best parts of the day was meeting up again with a man named Kyung-seok Park, an advocate who visited Chicago and Access Living in 2002.  He runs a group called Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination.  They've led successful campaign against inaccessible transit in South Korea, and now work on transportation, asset, and personal assistant issues.  Last month they protested against the inaccessibility of bus lines that run between cities in Korea.  They staged the protest on April 20, which is Disabled Persons Day in South Korea.  The police were waiting for them with pepper spray. 

The working relationship between SADD and the Independent Living Centers in Korea appear to be similar to that between Access Living and ADAPT.  ADAPT does more of the civil disobedience, direct action work, while Access Living supports ADAPT's effort and works more through legislative and legal channels.

Tomorrow afternoon I give my presentation on Independent Living in Chicago. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Day one in Gwangju, South Korea

Picture of street in gwangju taken from pedestrian overpass
Gwangju South Korea.  Picture taken from Pedestrian Overpass.
I arrived in Gwangju, South Korea on Wednesday, after a 13-hour flight from Chicago to Seoul, a bus ride across Seoul, and a one-hour flight from Seoul to Gwangju. During the 13 hour flight, I used the restroom four times, which seems kind of reasonable for such a long flight.  Luckily, I had an aisle seat.  The two people to my left used the bathroom one time each.  One time each?

I am in Gwangju for the World Human Rights Cities Forum.  The Forum was launched in 2011 to connect cities across the globe committed to human rights.  Gwangju has history of peace and democracy.  Most recently, in 1980, students led a democracy movement to
                                                                                       protest against what at
picture of three men around bus kiosk in Gwangju South Korea
Talking about bus accessibility during tour of Gwangju
the time was a military dictatorship in South Korea.  The movement was shattered by violence.  Many students were killed by government soldiers. The event is known at the 5-18 Movement, because the events happened on May 18.  While I am here, there will be local ceremonies to honor the event and the students.

I've been invited to speak about Disability Rights and Independent Living.  Yesterday, my first full day in Korea, I was taken on a tour to study some of the access features in Gwangju.  One of the coolest visits along the tour was to the new baseball stadium, called KIA Tiger Stadium.  The stadium follows Universal Design and before construction began the architects invited members of the disability community to give input on the features of the stadium.
photo taken from stands of baseball stadium, overlooking field
KIA Tiger Stadium

Monday, May 12, 2014


No posts since late November of 2013.  I didn't think I'd come back to the blog, but tomorrow I leave for Korea. I'm scheduled to speak at the Fourth World Cities Human Rights Forum in Gwangju, South Korea on May 17.  I'll probably never make it back to Korea in my lifetime.  That, more than anything else, is a good reason to start posting again, at least temporarily.