I am forever changed by my visit to Korea and much of that it owing to the people I met and the conversations we had. The first time this notion really hit me was when we arrived at the Twin Cities airport on our way home. We had maneuvered through customs and immigration in Japan and South Korea and were never made to feel as unwelcome foreigners. But from the moment Mac and I walked off the jetway and into the customs line, the difference was palpable. We both observed it instantly.
We are the big, ugly Americans, singling out foreign travelers and questioning them ceaselessly about where they've been, what they're carrying with them and the purpose of their trip. It was profiling at its worst. If that were my experience in Asia, I would not feel compelled to return. Customs agents operating like rent-a-cops were a complete embarrassment to our country. We were forced to pick up our bags, walk them less than 100 feet through declarations and then check them again for the flight home, something we were not asked to do in Tokyo.
I was on my cell phone when we got in line, calling home for the first time in seven days, when a customs agent (no doubt with short man's disease) comes up to me and says, "Ma'am, you can't be on the cell phone in here." What???
American airports are bastions of paranoia. No photos can be taken, no talking on the cell phone. After all, this is critical infrastructure. The Asian airports are far more sophisticated and modern in their technology and design than anything we have (not to mention a whole lot cleaner). Watching this crass TSA woman shouting to an elderly Asian man in a wheelchair, "Sir, you're going to have to walk through the security monitor" made me bristle. The screening area resembled a retrofitted fortress and was an utterly depressing welcome. There's an illustration of what you cannot bring into the states including a drawing of a bomb that resembles something Wile E. Coyote would be handed by the Road Runner.
All I could think was that we Americans, though victims of a horrific terrorist attack, really have no idea--still--what it means to live with threats day to day. The threats our colleagues in Asian countries face may seem small in numbers, but the impact is seismic.
And so it was with great interest that I read this column by David Shaw in yesterday's L.A. Times.
I was compelled to write to Shaw about the struggles I heard from our Asian colleagues. Throughout the afternoon on Nov. 18, we heard reports on the status of journalism and freedom of the press from all the participating countries. I was struck by the stories of our colleagues in Malaysia, Indonesia,
Bangladesh and the Philippines.
In fact, the Filipino delegation could not attend at the last moment because of the latest killings of journalists. But while these journalists decried the fates of their fellow colleagues, they remain ever-vigilant in their efforts to speak truth to power. It's interesting to note that in most cases, no one has been arrested, let alone charged, for these crimes.
Here's a brief rundown of some of the threats:
In Cambodia 11 journalists have been arrested or detained since 2002. Two
were under death threats and a third was tortured. A radio broadcaster who
criticized Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People's Party was
gunned down in front of his office.
15 Filipino journalists have been killed in the past two years. Only Iraq, a
nation at war, had more journalists killed this year. And the Philippines
is supposed to be a democracy.
Anwar Hossian Appollo, asst. editor of the Daily Asian Express, was shot
twice in the head on Oct. 24 inside his newsroom by an attacker who stormed
Dipankar Chakrabarty, executive editor of Durjoy Bangla newspaper, was
murdered while walking home on Oct. 2.
Kamal Hossain, a correspondent for Ajker Kagoj, was killed Aug. 22 after he
had been receiving death threats.
Humayun Kabir Balu, editor of a regional daily, was killed in a bomb attack
on June 27.
Nabile Ahmmed, a freelance journalist, was killed on March 7 after he helped
police to ID some gang members.
Manik Shaha, of the daily New Age and a BBC correspondent, was killed when a
bomb was thrown at his head on Jan. 15.
During May and June, 108 Bengali journalists were tortured or harassed in 80
incidents of press bashing.
Shaw responded by calling it "a sad and tragic state of affairs." But the story doesn't end there.
In a flurry of e-mails exchanged since our return, I've wished my Asian colleagues Godspeed in their pursuit for a free press. Certainly we have serious problems here in the U.S., but as my colleague, Peter Lewis, of the Australian Broadcasting Corp. wrote: "I've returned home inspired by what we have in common and humbled by our courageous colleagues in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Malaysia for whom press freedom is all too often a matter of life and death."
And from Neil Ralston, a fellow SPJer and professor at Northwestern State University in Louisiana: "My main impression now is that the visit to another country has taught me as much about myself and the American culture as it has about the people in Korea. We Americans have much to learn if we want to stay ahead economically and otherwise."
Indeed. There was something utterly depressing about coming home to headlines of a NBA brawl in Detroit and our President acting like a cowboy, rescuing his Secret Service agent in Buenos Aires. Major stories in Korean papers focused on the the Korean won's appreciation (and the weakening of the U.S. dollar in foreign markets, a story you'll find in today's business section on page 3)and its impact on exports; the national university entrance exam, which is a huge deal for students and their families; and a front-page analysis piece on the impact of Condoleeza Rice as secretary of state on Seoul.
I'm not saying that this news is more important, only that it demonstrates what is perceived as important to the region. How important is an NBA game? What's more important about the the Asia-Pacific summit--that Bush mistakenly thought he was John Wayne or that he squeezed the South Koreans out of the next round of talks with North Korea?
It seems I and my American colleagues are not the only ones who are changed. I received this response from my dear Mr. Park. "Are you changed? So am I. I have been too shy to make me known or "heard by singing" to people around me, particulary foreigners. Your open heart has contributed to the change in my attitudes. I'll never forget the happiest moments spent with you and your friends.
"I would like to show you a Korea felt inside when you make a second visit to Korea, the land of morning calm. Korea has undergone so many hardships ranging invasions from Chinese and Japanese to financial crisis. We survived, nurturing the ability to see hope in the face of adversity. You could find in the fragmented piece of a roof tile - one of the souveniors you have taken to America - the smile of perseverance and hope."
And that's what impressed me most: In the face of such horrific adversity there was unquestioning perseverance and boundless hope for a better future.