Thursday, October 29, 2015

An Easy Trip to South Korea

In the 1960’s, ‘70’s, and even 80’s, in the United States,we didn’t hear much news about South Korea or for that matter, many other foreign countries outside of Western Europe. We heard about other countries when something cataclysmic happened – the Gdansk workers in Poland striking or the fall of Soviet style Communism. News reached us when it directly affected Americans – Russia and the Cold War, Vietnam and Americans being sent to fight and die there. Therefore, I am still somewhat surprised and very intrigued whenever I have the opportunity to learn about and meet people from other countries around the world. 

I recently finished reading a third book by Kyung-Sook Shin, one of the most popular writers in South Korea today. Even translated into English, her books, exquisitely written, resonate with an audience far beyond South Korea. One thing I’ve enjoyed about her books has been the glimpse they provide into modern South Korean history and culture.

Ms. Kyung describes the third book that I read The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness, as part fiction and part non-fiction. In it, she shares her struggles in the late 1970’s in South Korea working at a factory with sweatshop conditions and attending high school at night. She accomplished this while living in one cramped room with a cousin and two brothers. The backdrop is a South Korea governed by autocratic regimes where labor unions are suppressed and workers have no rights.

I’ll Be Right There is the story of university students in South Korea attending college during several autocratic regimes and students protesting and getting disappeared. She focuses on three college students who become friends and support each other through very difficult times. 

The book I found the most compelling was Please Look After Mom. In this partial fantasy, a mother of several adult children goes missing as she and her family ride the subway in Seoul. As all of them desperately search for her, they share their memories of the role that Mom played in their lives.

As a volunteer, I’m tutoring a Korean woman in English and we’re re-reading Please Look After Mom together. She has a copy of it in English and another copy in Korean to refer to when the English overwhelms her. She tells me the book is about traditional Korean values that Americans don’t share. I ask her to explain. Not knowing the word in English, she gets out her smart phone with its app that translates Korean to English instantly. (Most immigrants seem to have smartphones with this app on it translating their native languages to English and vice versa.) “Sacrifice” she writes. The mother sacrificed for her children much more than American parents –even helicopter parents- would do. Sacrifice – sacrificed. Add a ‘d’ or ‘ed’ as the case may be and verbs become past tense. She’s learned a lesson in English and I’ve learned something about South Korea. The world shrinks again and I hope that someday soon we’ll all learn to live in it together.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Back to My Roots in Ukrainian Village, Chicago

We were excited to visit some of the buildings open to the public during the fifth annual Open House Chicago It’s organized and run by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. This event opens many historic and cutting edge buildings all over Chicago during the third weekend in October.

Since we were nearby in the Logan Square neighborhood, we decided to visit the Ukrainian Village neighborhood. This neighborhood is distinctive because many in the Chicago Ukrainian community still live there and/or maintain ties to the area returning to attend church, run their businesses, or visit friends and family. It seems to be a very cohesive community. At the same time, it has also become somewhat trendy. In recent years, some modern buildings have been built there. Enough historic ones remain, however, for it to be visually interesting to see.
modern apartment building in Ukrainian Village

typical housing in the area

My maternal grandmother came to America from the Ukraine with her family in 1905 when she was about eight years old. They were fleeing pogroms there during an outbreak of anti-Semitism. This family history has not motivated me to visit the Ukraine, but the idea of visiting Ukrainian Village was intriguing.

I enjoyed hearing people speaking Ukrainian to each other. Several Ukrainians at each site were on hand to answer questions. They told us that Ukrainian is very similar to Russian. They are both Slavic languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet. Their word endings and many word usages are different, however.

Several buildings in Ukraine Village were open and we visited a few including the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral designed by Louis Sullivan in 1903 and the St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral designed by Worthmann and Steinbach in 1913.
Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral

interior of Cathedral


interior of St. Volodymir Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral
The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art had an exhibit of works by Nataliya Tyaglo, a young artist in her 30’s whose exhibit, The Ukrainian Soul, evoked the feelings if not the  style of Ukrainian artists of the past.
painting by Nataliya Tyaglo

Our last stop was the Ukrainian National Museum. This history and folklore museum is certainly worth a visit. We talked to several Ukrainians and learned about their families’ immigrant experiences. The Ukrainians, had four main waves of immigration to Chicago- the late 1800’s, the early 1930’s following a famine, in the 1940’s immediately following World War II, and right after
museum volunteer in traditional Ukrainian costume
the fall of Communism in the early 1990’s. Their families, unlike mine, had arrived in America more recently. We’ll have to return to view the history exhibit more thoroughly. Time didn’t permit on this visit.

On our way to our car, we passed by Ann’s Bakery at 2158 Chicago Avenue. While this wasn’t part of Open House Chicago, it should have been. All the baked goods looked delicious. Besides, how can you go to an ethnic neighborhood or foreign country without sampling the food? We bought a loaf of bread, sweet and interlaced with poppy seeds. We had slices of it with dinner. It was scrumptious. I’m sure it won’t last long.

I’m looking forward to Chicago Open House next year. Who knows what ethnic group we’ll discover next time. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Journeying to the World of the 1%

According to the IRS, you are in the 1% of wealthiest people in the United States if your adjusted gross income is $343,927 per year and your net worth is at least $8.7 million.

There is another 1% that most of us don’t strive to be part of - the homeless. According to Census figures, at any given time, 1% of the United States population is homeless.

I don’t have any great travel pictures of this world and that feels fitting to me. Most homeless people are invisible as they move among us spending time in our public spaces. As the weather gets colder in our northern communities, they will move indoors to our stores and fast food places and our libraries. Many of the homeless can be identified when we see them walking with all their possessions but many others look just like you and me. Their condition is invisible.

This week I volunteered at the Interfaith Action of Evanston’s Hospitality Center. This is a great support in Evanston for homeless people. For a few hours each morning, homeless people can get a cup of hot coffee and a snack, some assistance from a job counselor, some help on the computer. I mind the entrance and remind people to sign out. If they want to stop to talk for a minute, we chat. I expect to feel their anger, but I don’t. Most people thank me for coming or tell me that I’m blessed. One young man thanks me for smiling at him. “It’s worth a million dollars,” he says. I wonder how long it’s been since he received a smile from anyone else to find my smiling at him so special.

Before we turn around, winter will be upon us. I can’t think of anything worse than being homeless in Chicago in January. Honestly, I can’t really imagine what it’s like to be homeless at all. Like most of us, I have been fortunate to have never experienced this horrid condition. Nevertheless, when I think about it, I feel the cold.

John H. Sibley, a Chicago artist, once found himself in the unenviable position of being homeless. In his book Being and Homelessness, Notes From An Underground Artist, he describes his experience visiting a museum. “Say, buddy,” a burly white security guard tapped me on the shoulder. “The museum will close in 30 minutes.”

“He didn’t see me. He only saw my old gym shoes. My wrinkled clothes. My battered fatigue jacket. He looked at my poverty as if I should be dragged from the museum and shot.”

Homelessness has to be a wretched experience. The causes of homelessness are complex and can’t be discussed thoroughly in a short column so I won’t begin to try. Nevertheless, I believe that our society is partially responsible for allowing this condition to continue. We all need to find a way together to end it.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Re-Visiting the Crime Scene Fifty Years Later

We’ve driven past the Crime Scene many times on our way to places on the North Side of Chicago. A few nights ago, we were reminded of it. My husband screamed in his sleep and jumped out of bed. “What I’ve dreamed about for the past fifty years has just happened,” he said and he held the bridge in his hand that had been his three front upper teeth since long before I’d met him.

Fifty years ago, Howard and three of his friends were walking home from a high school football game at Winnemac Park. They attended Sullivan High School, one of many North Side Chicago High Schools that shared a football field with Amundsen High School. Unfortunately for them, their team had won. Students from the opposing school, who had come a long way to watch the game, were incensed that their school’s team had lost. They attacked my husband and his friends as they walked to the bus stop. The attackers had brass knuckles and knocked out three of his teeth. Headlines in the local paper screamed “Honor Student Attacked!”

While this is a haunting memory, the good news is that my husband has been alive all these years to remember and retell this story. Had this occurred today, most likely he would have been killed given the easy availability and unchecked use of guns especially here in Chicago. In the 1960’s, guns weren’t half as prevalent. In Chicago,this past weekend alone 47 people were shot four of whom were killed.

Destruction can be wrought with brass knuckles, knives, and forks as well. Usually, however, the person wielding them can be subdued before he kills many people. We allow but regulate the use of potentially dangerous substances and objects such as alcohol, tobacco, and cars. Why do we keep letting ourselves be held hostage to the NRA and refuse to pass sensible gun legislation? Those of us who are heartsick at hearing about children shooting each other on an almost daily basis want to know how many Americans need to die from gun violence before we do something as a society to stop this devastation.

We revisit Winnemac Park to remind ourselves –as if we needed a reminder – of the need for gun control legislation. A lot has changed there. Where the football stadium was, a new one was built in its place in 2004. Outside of Amundsen High School, the Chicago Park District has planted prairie gardens complete with walking paths. It looks so peaceful. Who would have thought?

new Winnemac Park football stadium

plaque in memory of the coach  whose sons had the stadium restored and renovated
new prairie development area
the bus stop they were heading for