Screenwriter Ben Hecht once wrote "Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock." With a little time and perspective, even shocking headlines fade into memory.
After only 12 months, most of 2008 is a blur, punctuated by the Namdaemun Gate arson in the winter, the spring`s beef riots, Korea`s Olympic gold frenzy in the summer and a tragic string of high-profile suicides in the fall and winter.
At the year`s end, it`s good to step back and ask which stories touched expats` lives in 2009 and which ones we will still remember in another year. Some of this year`s events may have long-lasting effects: the Basic Act on the Treatment of Foreigners in Korea was published in English, describing Korean policies to protect the rights of foreigners in Korea. The National Human Rights Commission of Korea was busy with expat complaints and the Korean constitution was challenged on in-country HIV/AIDS testing.
Meanwhile, outside what is sometimes an English-teacher-centered bias in English commentary on Korean society, more has happened. English teachers complained about anti-teacher bias in a number of media sources and then struck back, taking on Anti-English Spectrum and the journalists whose reporting stirred up trouble for teachers and between groups of teachers. Meanwhile other expats struggled with all kinds of other challenges.
Here are 10 stories that impacted expats this year.
1. Bonojit Hussain stands up for himself
When he and his female colleague were verbally and physically assaulted on a city bus in July, Indian university professor Benojit Hussain pressed charges against the man and won a settlement for criminal slander in November. He also started a discussion about racism in Korea that reached the international media.
2. Stop Crackdown cracked down
Minod Moktan, leader in the migrant worker`s community, founder of the band "Stop Crackdown," and founder of Migrant Workers Television, was deported to Nepal from Korea after vocally advocating for migrant workers and undocumented workers` human rights.
3. Suicide epidemic and Roh Moo-hyun
Celebrity suicides this year include model Daul Kim, actors Woo Seung-yeon, Kim Suk-gyun and Jang Ja-yeon, but the biggest name was ex-President Roh Moo-hyun, who ended his life in May amidst a corruption investigation. President Roh established the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, an important venue for expats to defend their rights in Korea.
4. Swine flu infections takes off
Starting in May, H1N1 flu cases began to be reported in Korea. Signs of flu fears included an increase in face-masks, soap in public bathrooms and hand-sanitizer, while school and festival cancellations followed. Though a group of English teachers was quarantined in May, initial concerns that foreigners were being stigmatized as swine flu vectors soon dissipated.
5. ATEK and Incheon teacher`s union
Two intriguing stories for English teachers were the formation of the Association for Teachers of English in Korea in February and its first council elections in July. While ATEK is not a union, in December the teachers at a hagwon in Incheon received official approval to unionize in response to a boss` consistently unfair actions.
6. Economy roller coaster and the won
Emotions about the economy ran the full gamut this year from panic in January to euphoria in late-summer to fear of a second decline later in the fall and everything in between. The economy`s ups and downs affected every sector of society this year, Koreans and expats, large and small businesses, workers and students.
7. Multiculturalism and lip service
As Korea re-imagines itself as a multicultural society after years of "pure blood" ideology, there is an ongoing discussion about what that means. In April, the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries reported that as many as 50 percent of rural children might be biracial by 2020, but stories like that of Nlan - a Vietnamese woman who in February was denied custody of her own children after her Korean husband gave their two children to his ex-wife and then divorced her - make talk of multiculturalism sound like nothing but lip service.
8. Rest in peace, Kim Dae-jung
A longtime advocate for democracy and human rights, Kim Dae-jung died in August. Best known internationally for winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000, Kim Dae-jung also made efforts to address the issue of overseas adoption, including making a formal apology to the 150,000 Korean children sent to Western countries for adoption.
9. Brand Korea and Koreans abroad
The Korean tourism organization has worked to improve Korea`s brand: dropping the Korea, Sparkling slogan in July, declaring "Visit Korea Year 2010-2012" in October and changing the spelling of ddeokbokki to topoki (March). Expats and Koreans alike cheered as Kim Yu-na collected more trophies and while the Korean Wave continues in Asia, other Korean stars made inroads into America: the Wonder Girls toured with the Jonas Brothers in June, Rain starred in "Ninja Assassin" in November, Lee Byung-hun kicked butt in G.I. Joe in August and Jeon Ji-hyun starred in the forgettable "Blood: The Last Vampire."
10. Korean tech wrestles with globalized norms
Expats have always been on the bleeding edge of Korea`s online interactions with the outside world. In April, in defense of internet privacy, YouTube Korea rejected Korea`s real name policy; internet sites worldwide started phasing out support for internet Explorer 6, far and away Korea`s No. 1 browser. In December, the iPhone, on the market in other countries since 2007, finally made it into Korea: examples of an incredibly wired country being out of step with global norms. The iPhone has sold nearly 200,000 units in one month, despite most Korean predictions that it would not be successful.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent those of The Korea Herald. For more of Rob Ouwehand`s writings, go to http://roboseyo.blogspot.com -Ed.
By Rob Ouwehand