Friday, December 3, 2010

The Ship Has Sailed

Well we've hit Friday and I'm still alive (apparently). No reign of fire has smote me yet. A hedonistic last Saturday (all excited but don't know why Prince? maybe its cuz we're all going to die) notwithstanding, everything feels pretty par for the course right now. Koreans are angry at the military for not responding harshly enough (today's Korea Herald has a front page splash showing a satellite image of how badly South Korean shells missed their targets)* but it's a tired sort of frustration. Everyone knows the score. Everyone knows how limited the military options are and no one wants war.

No one, that is, except for my 13 year old students. Still swaddled in their warm psychological blanket of invulnerability, they see the reign of fire as the ultimate snow day. But the joint-military exercises ended Wednesday without much fanfare. Not to knock the Talking Heads, but Life During Wartime here is not exactly as advertised.

But just I'm getting used to it, more gut checks! More inflammatory reports! North Korea has promised to attack before the end of the year? Lusia (her spelling) claims that it will all go to pieces on December 15th? South Korea has committed to a full-scale aerial assault in response to any further North Korean violence? And...and...

And I begin to gain a deeper understanding of what it's like to be a South Korean. News media anywhere in the world make their money by appealing to our attention and what is more attention-grabbing than fear? The difference between South Korea and America is that there is, conceptually, a lot to be scared about over here. In America, soccer moms cluck over bad news abroad and lament the decline of their civilization however it may be presenting itself in that day's headlines. In South Korea (at least in Seoul), everyone is constantly exposed to the very real threat of imminent destruction.

But humans are a basically happy species. (We all want to be happy at any rate, as evidenced by the great lengths, healthy and otherwise, we go to avoid negative human emotions.) A human simply cannot be scared 24/7. Fear can be a nice diversion when it breaks us out of our mundane routines (the ultimate snow day feeling still has its hooks deep within our hearts) but it's not sustainable in the long-term.

When I was here in 2006, I was shocked at how calmly the layman took the news of a North Korean nuclear test. While the media played to my worst fears, my coworkers and friends just met my questions with smiles. At the time, I thought they were just pretending to be tough. It was the first time North Korea tested a nuke!

But now I understand that the threshold for fear, anger, and the host of other negative emotions that attend bad news was too high for the nuclear test. Your body adapts to your environment in an attempt to reach a normal human experience. Unless North Korea does something that physically impacts South Koreans, my friends and coworkers are not going to get too bent out of shape. And here I am, slowly understanding this coping mechanism on more than a purely cerebral level. Nice.

*It seems that the accompanying imagery has since been removed. I've tracked it to and then to the Digital Globe which I'm hoping will be viewable through this link in PDF form. The imagery in question is on page 12. 

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