Thursday, December 15, 2005

GWANGJU the Land of Colors

in your land
you build monuments and paint cities
in your land
you buried the heroes with dignity
in your land
you offer flowers for the dead and ladies
in your land
you gave birth to democracy
in your land
you bring people together for solidarity

Walking past the towering memorial stones breathing the frozen air along the streets covered by bright carpet of autumn leaves is my first encounter of Gwangju. Baptized as the holy city and the cradle of art and culture in Asia, all the more i have extraordinary stories about the birth of this nation which took place in the most delicate time of history in Gwangju. I feel proud I walked the streets where once the great minds and the brave hearts fought for democracy that changed a nation. I honor all the rest of your sons and daughters who fought, died, sacrificed and marched the streets to free your nation. The many colors of your mountains and ridges along valleys of gold and red trees are memories painted on my book. My pen has celebrated the great history of your people where blood offered to the earth is no longer a sad story but a victory to remember. In my poetry you have come alive, in my heart you beat the new gesture of solidarity when you bring the hands of East and South Asians together in the name of democracy.

Gwangju, you have printed many colors in my mind. ...the pale gray that awakens the sun in the misty mornings that covers the black pine trees. ...the red cayenne pepper that spices up the dishes, bibimpap and the most favored kimchi. ...the tall white buildings that cut through the occasional passing clouds on an early winter sky. ...the black earth that withstand the cold of winter when hands of gold till your land. The golden tangerine and bright sunset colored persimmons are sweet refreshment that quenches the fury of homesickness. The steam of sauna and tea bath soothes the aching temperaments. The stones of many textures and shapes that come in different shades are my refuge in restless abandon of thoughts. The colors of many faces that surrounded me for three weeks are the foreign experience of Gwangju which made my experience more human and experiential. In your city I have savored the flavor of Asia in the theories of your scholars and stories of your graveyards.

In the many countries that have crowned my curiosity, Gwangju is one unique engagement where tombstones are living monuments of heroes and graveyards are modern day classrooms to students and tourists alike. I will always remember the day I visited the memorials whenI learned to bow to your ancestors in the most graceful motion like a dance touching the heavens and kissing the sweet face of your motherland. I kept with me in my memory box the full moon in Gwangju when I was walking along your streets when a leafless tree branch stood as the dignified backdrop of the Southern sky. How can I forget the smell of the market when fish are transformed into cakes, breads, pastries and pastes, desserts and not to mention soups and what-nots. I relish the hands of the stranger who gave me a superb sharp back scrub inside the sauna room when bodies celebrate the naked closeness.

Gwangju, home to The May 18 Memorial Foundation has paved the way to a new era of empowering communities in the name of peace and justice. This is a noble tradition when the spirit of democracy come alive through its generous grants to the participants of the Gwangju Asian Human Rights Folk School where twenty two activists from fourteen countries had woven together a story never written before.

The initiative in Gwangju introduced by the May 18 Memorial Foundation is a very significant step in bringing about a unifying element in the heart of Asia. South Korea has changed the course of the stars that has set the example in Asia so other nations may follow. Gwangju has started it, and so as the mother of democracy, it is now a sleepless city of great art and history carved on the walls of torture rooms, war museums, uprising junctions, riot streets, fallen bridges, hide away churches and common bathrooms.

The best of Gwangju is not only in its physical attributes where soaring monuments and statues are celebrated by the ordinary rhythm of life or in festivals, but there in many corners remain a pile of prayer stones and totems that are significant sites of worship and prayers. The reverence and respect to the dead and ancestors are one striking attitude of Koreans that has preserved a strong sense of nationalism and patriotism. I want to learn from this holy tradition in memory of this holy city where lifestyle and art are fused in the cultural identity of the place. Once a graveyard, now a museum of he brave souls. Once a poor city, now a sophisticated hub of art and culture where rich minds gave life to the poor spirit. Once a street of dead bodies, now a highway of hope and restoration. Once a sad story, now a great history. Once a quiet city of the victims, now a home to progressive sensitized individuals.

My stay in Gwangju made me fall in love again, with people, culture and history. As a woman, I became pregnant with ideas drawn from the many faces and lifeworks of my new found friends from all around Asia. As a student of life, I learned to respect other cultures more deeply as I try to preserve mine. As a crusader, I started the fight that no man can beat in the battle for only love shall conquer bad blood and hostility. As a radical I feel small compared to the grand work of my colleagues I call masterpieces of freedom fighters. As a traveler, I come home to a land where I feel nauseous before but now comfortable and wanting. Gwangju Asian Human Right Folk School has revealed many secrets and the greatest above it all is that humans are we, are not different but feel the same pain, feel the same love, feel the same joy and treasure the same life. In Gwangju, I may forget the street names and city landmarks but I will never forget the faces of the heart of people who cried with me, laughed with me, chanted with me, discoursed with me in that square room where we planted together the seeds of strong Asian solidarity and friendship among nations. In my luggage I carry your history book to freedom. In my heart I carry the fire of passion that gave birth to a nation.

(A reflection piece of Ms. Rosalie Zerrudo's experience of the Gwangju Asian Human Rights Folk School, November 2005, Gwangju City, Republic of Korea. Ros was chosen as the "Best Student" for this folk school. She is the project coordinator of ENIGMATA Creative Circle, Camiguin Island, Philippines.)

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