Wednesday, June 16, 2010

SK Solidarity Trip Day 1: History and Monuments

After spending one day in Seoul I was surprised at how many statues there were. In no way did I see the whole breadth of the city, just some streets within a mile or two of my hotel and whatever I saw on my trip from the airport. But I saw an incredible array of statues. Most of these monuments I couldn’t glean the significance of because I couldn’t read Korean, but still, I was very surprised to find so many.

Last week in my World History class at UOG, I had a discussion with my students about monuments and memorializing, but in the context of Guam and Ferdinand Magellan. I find it both amusing and tragic that the first modern monument which Chamorros ever raised was in 1926, down in the village of Umatac, meant to commemorate the visit of Magellan to the island in March of 1521. This stop literally put Guam on the map of the world and world history. It ensured that no matter how small and tiny Guam is, it would be something small children around the world, learning about world history would have to in some way hear about, or sometimes even memorize in the course of learning what is important about a literally infinite number of local events that were all competing to become global signifiers.

The questions I asked my students were about why these Chamorros might have done this in 1926, why they would have felt motivated to make this their monument, and not for instance try to celebrate or commemorate anything which was actually about Chamorros and their history? I also gave them some readings which showed how things have changed, and whereas those Chamorros in 1926 might have thought of Magellan as a brave, matatnga hero, today we see him through less rosy colored lenses. As Benigno Palomo wrote in a famous Pacific Daily News editorial about 20 years ago, although Magellan named Guam the “Island of Thieves” it was truly him who was the historical thief.

This discussion was in my mind when I asked my guide and interpreter Sung-Hee if she had any explanation for why there were so many statues in South Korea. She guessed that it was a form of nationalistic overcompensation, or South Korea’s way of dealing with being colonized and marginalized for so long. The Japanese took a lot from Koreans during their age of colonialism, and the peninsula itself was shattered during the Korean War in the 1950’s, and so Koreans build statues to prove that their culture is worth something and even though they have suffered so much, they should still remember what is important.

I responded to her that things on Guam were different. Chamorros had been treated in a similar way, yet when Chamorros are given the chance to celebrate or commemorate, they tend to enthusiastically give that honor to others, such as Magellan or the United States. Such as the case with those Chamorros in 1926. They too had been told for centuries that they had nothing to offer this world, no history, no culture worth saving or remembering, and at that point in the life of Chamorros, they had come to believe and accept that colonizing principle. They had come to accept it so deeply, that they used their own money and volunteered their own time in order to memorialize the man who, they knew full well, is remembered as the progenitor of their colonization.

That is colonization at its most profound. Part of the rhetoric of colonization is that you are being brought into some grand story of progress and advancement. That you are being absorbed into this tale which is so much larger than you in your isolated village, island or primitive habitat. That you will be given the tools you need in order to understand that story, to reproduce it and to become part of it. But what happens is that depending on what your experience of colonialism is, once you have been brought into that story, where do place yourself? Do you see yourself as always tainted by your enterance into it, always stigmatized by the rhetoric that required you be civilized or colonized, or do you seek your own path and asser your own destiny? For the longest time, Chamorros saw themselves as footnotes to that journey and that is why when a group of Chamorro teachers first built that monument, it was because they considered the Chamorro and Guam, as per colonial common sense, as something which had nothing to offer the world. Therefore, their offering to the world, had to be a signifier of that rhetoric, that story of how they came to be colonized.

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