It’s the 60th Anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War. The Forgotten War, as some will call it, but if you ask my Papa, and many of the other veterans, and many of the people living here in Korea today who are over 60, the will tell you that this war is not forgotten. It is a war that still simmers at the DMZ, where soldiers from both sides stand at the ready to fire upon anyone and anything they see moving, no matter what pretty message you may hear. For the younger generation of Koreans who live here, they seem to believe that there is a hope that there will be reunification with their fellow Koreans above the demilitarized zone. They believe the 38th Parallel to be a political boundary, and not a national one (true story, The Guy actually got into quite a heated discussion with one of his teachers over this, and eventually let the subject drop).
Secretary of State Clinton and Defense Secretary Bob Gates hopped over here for official talks with the South Korean Defense Minister, Kim Tae-Young, who used to be my neighbor, as a weird little “my world is so small” factoid. As a matter of honor, they did a ceremony at the National Korean War Museum here in Seoul. In a gesture I was delighted to read, the USAG Yongsan put up on its Facebook page that all family members were “cordially invited” to attend the ceremony.
What a wonderful experience, thought I. The commemoration of joint forces by a laying of a wreath and a thoughtful gesture by these world leaders would be a beautiful thing to see. Kid and I decided to join a friend (who had called to let us know to check the aforementioned Facebook page for that information) and check out the whole thing. I thought it would be a wonderful gift for my Korean Veteran Grandfather, to send him some photos of this ceremony, of these people remembering his service and the service of countless others from so many nations, and from right here on this very soil who protected this country from being shoved off of the Peninsula.
But the information we were given was not very complete. People were turned away for improper attire. Sundresses and open-toed shoes, as it turns out, were not appropriate for attending this ceremony. Our bare shoulders were not appropriate and not to be in direct line-of-sight of Clinton and Gates and Kim as it turns out (even that was not uniformly enforced, as I saw a woman in a sleeveless t-shirt and flip-flops with three kids and a stroller leaving the ceremony later — a regular t-shirt, not a sleeveless shell). It seems that we just addressed the bare-arms issue when people asked if it was appropriate for Michelle Obama to attend official functions in sleeveless attire. (The answer? She said she would wear whatever she damn-well pleased to see her husband speak, and I agree!) As my mom reminded me today in a phone call, Jacqueline Kennedy wore a sleeveless dress to her husband’s inaugural address (bottom right of linked photo, Jackie is in a black sleeveless dress, and none of the other women are dressed so)… so it isn’t without precedent, which is what I wanted to tell the dude who told me that it is “common sense” to wear certain kinds of clothes to these kinds of things.
Which I thought was kind of an odd thing to say to someone … because I have a bit of trouble with my body self-regulating temperature at times. It was 95 degrees and ridiculously humid out Wednesday, and in Seoul, it is a good chance that I am going to be walking a good distance when going somewhere. We had on nice sundresses what covered our bodies in the socially acceptable way, but allowed us to sweat and breathe. In fact, I have worn the particular dress that I had on with black tights and dress shoes in the Winter with a sweater. It is a really versatile dress. I also wore the only shoes that I can walk in that don’t leave cuts and blisters on my feet right now when I have to walk long distances in this heat, which causes them to swell considerably for reasons I don’t wish to go into right here right now. I am really apologetic that they are Rainbow flip-flops, but they are well-made, leather, and fit and support my feet like I was born in them. The dress also has pockets, allowing me to carry a small wallet and my cell phone, and to hook my cane onto, freeing my hands for using my camera. It seems that I dressed according to my good sense for where I was going and what we were doing.
But people don’t really consider disabilities when they say flip things like that, and they almost always consider things like “common sense” in the scope of their own experiences.
So, as it stands, for the third time since I have lived in Seoul, Hillary Clinton has evaded me, and similar to my President Obama sighting, I managed to get a laughable picture to prove I was there.
Apart from everything else, I find dress codes for occasions like this quite classist.
Common people should not be denied the opportunity to partake in the events that their world leaders open up to the public simply because they don’t own proper shoes or more than one pair of pants. If someone shows up in blue jeans they should not be turned away. I doubt very much that Hillary Clinton agrees that proper clothes should separate her from people, and I have been advised by many people since Wednesday that writing to her would be a positive suggestion.
I live in a place where people wear blue jeans to work on a military base, and “peeky toed” high-heeled shoes are considered appropriate shoes, because they are the trend (and I noticed that they were allowable footwear, while flat-heeled sandals were not). It seems that the line is blurred, and left completely up to the discretion of whomever is standing at the door to decide who can and can not enter. Many people, especially people with children, or lower enlisted couples trying to balance budgets, don’t have the money to keep many sets of clothes just in case someone important visits. I keep my clothing utilitarian. I like it to be versatile and able to be worn through many seasons adding or taking away layers accordingly. I also like them machine washable and dryable. I just bought my first ball gown this year, which we saved up for with my writing stipend, and will attend my first Navy Ball this year (I was never able to attend them in years past because child care was so inadequate, so I missed the chance to be a sailor at a Navy Ball — something I will never get back /digressing). This was only available because we found a wonderful Korean tailor in Osan who made if for me and offered us a good price for paying in Won, being polite, and because my partner spoke Korean to her. Dress codes for civilian attire ridiculous.
This isn’t even to say anything about the fact that the Army did a poor job of disseminating information. If they knew ahead of time that people needed to be dressed a certain way then they should have put more than “families are welcome” or whatever in their Facebook blurb. And don’t even get me started on how awful it is to depend on Facebook to disseminate information. ACCESSIBILITY FAIL!
The important thing, however, is that we did visit and enjoy the museum, as did Secretaries Clinton and Gates, which I think are important and touching gestures. To acknowledge all that was lost in order to gain what was held on to. Later, when we stood in the halls with all of the names engraved of the people who gave their lives to hold onto the bottom of the Peninsula, I held my breath for a moment, and I wondered in my mind if my Grandfather’s feet may have passed under mine or my daughter’s. I paused, and thought of the troops we have elsewhere, and thought of them, and of the ones who will be names on walls. I thought of the Korean War Veterans of all the nations who fought here, who know that their legacy is to be of The Forgotten War. At least for a few minutes I became overwhelmed with it all.
Part of coming to Korea, while separating us from our family, has put a connection between me and some of my family; this ghost of a war still smoldering on the edge of two nations pulls me into a place where I feel this ache of loss for them. This connection. And yet, I know I can never really know.
© All material Copyright Brandann R. Hill-Mann/Ouyang Dan 2010