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One-Liner Quotes


Foreigner Living in Korea’s Pick




Before coming to Korea for the first time about 5 years ago, I must admit I was not well-acquainted with Korean culture overall. I did see a couple of Korean movies and dramas, and I did become a fan of BTS’ music around the time Hallyu was shyly making its way into my country, Serbia. However, I have never read a single book by a Korean author prior to moving to Korea. The two books I would like to introduce today I thought to be uniquely marked with a deep sense of something specifically ‘Korean’, while at the same time, equally and as deeply reflecting the purest and deepest universal human values, and as such, I believe could evoke true empathy with readers anywhere around the globe. So far, the two books left the greatest, most profound impact on me throughout my years of living in Korea.





When I first typed the word ‘Gwangju’ in the search engine as I was hoping to familiarize myself with the city in the southwest of South Korea where I would be moving to, right below the ‘Gwangju’ main Wikipedia article, the ‘Gwangju Uprising’ Wikipedia article was highlighted. Hence, I was instantly introduced to one of the events that changed the course of the history of not only Gwangju, but of the whole of South Korea. Later on, on many occasions, while living in Gwangju and also continuously throughout my work as a coordinator at the World Human Rights Cities Forum Secretariat, I kept learning more and becoming familiar with the unique ‘Gwangju spirit’. Still, I do not believe anything has captivated my soul and brought me closer to the events of what is also referred to as the ‘Gwangju Democratization Struggle’, ‘the Gwangju Massacre’, ‘the May 18 Democratic Uprising’ or ‘the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement’, than Han Kang’s novel Human Acts (Changbi). Therefore, it is my humble opinion that when introducing Gwangju, the book should be at the top of the list and my first Korean book recommendation.
The award-winning book (Manhae Literary Award in Korea, Malaparte Prize in Italy) is a fictionalized account based on the actual events of the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement, and it comes with a trigger-warning. A warning that it would trigger every bit of humanity the reader possesses, regardless of the fact if they ever visited, or even had a slightest thought about either Gwangju or Korea. Nevertheless, myself being in Gwangju while reading the book, I kept wondering whether it was the fact that I had been sitting calmly in a coffee shop overlooking the square in the heart of Gwangju that is now known as the ‘May 18 Democracy Square’ where numbers of peoples’ screams for justice, freedom, and democracy were silenced, worrying my daily worries and sipping my morning coffee, oblivious until that moment to numerous stories the souls echoing through time had to say that had me fighting to hold back my tears despite being in a public place; or perhaps it was the author’s soul-piercing choice of words when describing the brutality, the atrocities, but also at the same time the deepest ponderings of the souls of those who had passed and those remaining with the scars of state-violence induced trauma and survivors’ guilt, that felt like a cold wave of reality washing over all the insignificant, petty worries in my day-to-day life.
This is not a history book - it is a book whose pages consist of voices, those silenced but not left speechless thanks to Han Kang, amplifying both the whispers and screams of those who had not been heard. Those were real people, and they were standing where I was standing. Some of them fell to the ground building the Gwangju as it is today, building the unique ‘Gwangju spirit’, a spirit of solidarity and sharing that I have come to learn has a distinctive and different tone in Gwangju, and that is in its originality captured in Human Acts. Some might worry that reading such a book in translation could take away the authenticity. However, as someone who, even with my fair knowledge of Korean, still read the book in English, I can guarantee the opposite. Going through the pages, I kept catching myself instantly having a specific Korean word pop into my mind owing to the unambiguous choice of words in translation of the brilliant Deborah Smith, who also wrote the ‘Introduction’ to the book, leading the reader less-informed of Korea and the historical circumstances of Gwangju gently into the setting.





The second book I would like to recommend is the polar opposite of Human Acts, not only in genre but also in the soothing effect it had on my being. The book was a present from a dear person and came into my life at the moment when I truly needed it. The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down (Suo Books), written by Haemin Sunim, one of the most influential Zen Buddhist teachers and writers in South Korea, is not simply a ‘self-help book’ as the genre suggests. It is a guide for the soul and mind of possibly almost every modern human being, whose ‘self’ had been taken so far into a swirl of confusion by the tornados of daily business and bustling created by the hyperconnected world we live in, that they forget to slow down, to understand, to truly reflect and feel. Interestingly, Haemin Sunim, as a human being living in the 21st century himself, did actually reach out to his readers at first exactly through these busy and hectic social media networks that keep us all constantly connected, and, more often than not, overwhelmed. However, his straightforward, but soulful words seemed to have managed to untangle the complex knot 21st century-humans’ minds have caught themselves into, so after receiving much positive feedback from readers online, the decision was made to bind his essays and short messages of advice on dealing with and overcoming the challenges of everyday life into a book.
When looking at the words ‘Zen’ and ‘Buddhism’, some readers might at first hesitate to try and delve into such a book presuming a certain level of spirituality and serious understanding of Buddhist practices is necessary to do so. The reality is, Haemin Sunim’s words of advice on mindfulness in all of the most important aspects of one’s (spiritual) well-being travel straight from heart to heart, so nothing else apart from the willingness to press ‘pause’ button on the cacophony of one’s thoughts racing with worries is needed. Furthermore, as the author himself was involved in the translating process together with the translator Chi-Young Kim, when it comes to The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down as well, those reading the book in English need not worry that the essential meaning of his words would be lost in translation.
As the author himself noted in the opening remarks, some readers prefer to read the book quickly and continuously, as they would read a novel, while he recommended reading slowly and taking time to ponder and reflect. My own experience, however, was that I did not (and still do not) read the book page by page in order a single time. Instead, whenever I would feel that my worries were racing over my thoughts, I would reach out to read an essay, a paragraph, a short message, or just glance over the artistic contributions of the artist Youngcheol Lee included in the book for my moment of calm and meditation. Also, as a person who tends to underline, highlight, and mark pages with phrases I find important and wish to remember in a book, I must admit I simply could not do that with The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down because every thought, every sentence is applicable to another life challenge, another situation. Ultimately, it seemed to me I would highlight every word and mark all the pages, so eventually, I just gave up.


Both books made me contemplate the meaning of ‘being human’, which, on the one hand, I am sure is not related specifically to the fact that I came across them while living in Korea. While, on the other hand, I do believe it was part of my personal journey and growth to be introduced to these books in my specific life circumstances of being a foreigner in Korea. Nevertheless, due to the fact that they both, although in very different ways, touch upon questions of mind and soul that cross languages and country borders, I would recommend the above books to anyone willing to scratch beneath the surface, glimpse into the depths of oneself, and think about what makes us human.



Written by Jana Milosavljevic (Coordinator, World Human Rights Cities Forum Secretariat)



Jana Milosavljevic (Coordinator, World Human Rights Cities Forum Secretariat)

#Human Acts#The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down#Haemin Sunim#Han Kang
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