One of the first places I went to after arriving in Seoul was the Han river. This body of water splits the massive city in two and is lined by bike paths and parks boasting all types of recreational and athletic areas. I’ve always felt there is no better place than parks to understand the bunwigi (분위기), the atmosphere or ambiance of a place. That is perhaps most true in South Korea, where locals know really well how to enjoy their leisure time.
Every weekend during the summer I headed to the river and meandered through the mazes of family-friendly tents decorated with fairy lights. I lined up at the convenience store to use the hi-tech ramen machines only found by the river, and then slurped away as fried chicken boxes were delivered to large circles of friends playing drinking games. Before returning home, I’d rent one of Seoul’s public bikes and giggled as I caught glimpses of couples in matching outfits with tripods capturing Instagram-worthy pictures.
Once I began my placement, alongside my escape to Seoul’s green spaces, my weekends became filled with the vibrant energy and loud chants of the local feminist movement. From sitting with 40,000 other women in the 100-degree summer weather, demanding the end of cyber sexual violence, to huddling together with my coworkers in the winter, in padded jackets with hot packs in hand, at Gwanghwamun Square to keep the Me Too movement alive, I’ve been able not only to truly live Korean feminism but also see the fervor young women are bringing to the cause.
When I told a language exchange partner that I came to Korea because I wanted to learn about the feminist movement, she asked, “Korea is famous for feminism?” My response was simply, “Not yet.” The recent wave of feminism in Korea has received a lot of backlash, even as the Me Too movement took off with force early last year, but regardless of the scrutiny, more and more women are choosing to cut their hair in protest, challenge traditional beauty standards, and claim feminism as their own.
In the past six months, I’ve participated in protests against cyber violence, pro-choice marches, Me Too movement performances; tabled for the passing of an Anti-Discrimination Law; attended feminist meet-ups; and helped set-up speak out events for sexual violence survivors. In October, I attended the trial of a famous theater director Lee Yoon-taek (이윤택), who became the first of the many high-profile men accused of sexual assault under Korea’s Me Too movement to be sentenced to prison. That day, as I stood alongside my coworkers from the Korean Sexual Violence Relief Center (성폭력상담소), the survivors, and lawyers as they cried and embraced one another, I felt truly lucky to be a part of the movement in this point of time.
I also have had opportunities to connect with different generations of feminism in Korea. All the first feminists graduated from Ewha Womans University, where I work on their women’s studies journal. Seeing how they are making efforts to connect with the second wave of young feminists has allowed me to gain a new perspective on feminist memory and intergenerational collaboration. Despite the different nature of my two affiliations, the practice of sharing food and eating together in both offices has brought me closer with my coworkers, practice Korean, and allowed me to eat lots of delicious food.
In the coming months, I will work hard to improve my Korean skills and am looking forward to taking a more hands on role in projects. Some of these include facilitating a workshop series on Feminism in collaboration with the U.S Embassy’s American Center and helping to organize a feminist flashdance event with my coworkers. But perhaps more importantly, I want to continue to discover Seoul’s neighborhoods, enjoy the nearby mountains and city parks, and always take the time to look outside the subway windows as I cross the Han river.