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[Kim Seong-kon] ‘If I were born in the 1930s’

By Korea Herald

Published : Feb. 14, 2024 - 05:28

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There is a trend in Korean social media lately, called “If I were born in the 1930s,” which has tremendous popularity among young people. Artificial intelligence draws your portrait in elegant 1930s-style suits or dresses with stylish hairdos and hats, which obviously appeals to Korean young men and women who are fond of fashionable trends.

Ostensibly, nothing seems to be wrong with it. Yet, Koreans in their eighties and nineties may frown because of what the 1930s means in our history: it was the period of the Japanese colonial occupation. Moreover, the modern hairstyle and stylish clothing of the 1930s came from Japan which had originally imported them from either Hollywood or Europe. In the eyes of the older generation, therefore, Korean young people seriously lack a sense of history.

Another problem that has cropped up alongside this new trend is that young people, often at the instigation of ideology-oriented politicians, have criticized older people who lived during the Japanese occupation for wearing the clothing and hairdo of those times, as “pro-Japan people.” Paradoxically, these young critics now enjoy wearing, albeit in virtual reality, the same clothing and hairstyles they have been criticizing as the Japanese style. Besides, Korean young people also tremendously enjoy Japanese video games and cartoons these days. If so, they, too, are the same pro-Japan people whom they have been criticizing.

The point is that you cannot be judgmental about other people. Walt Whitman said, “Be curious, not judgmental.” Neither can you be ignorant of history. George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Korean young people should not be judgmental about history but should learn about it instead. Unfortunately, due to the bad influence of extreme leftwing politicians, our young people think of the past only in terms of vendettas, revenge and purges, instead of trying to learn from historical reality.

As for this trend, “If I were born in the 1930s”: Korean young people should do more than thoughtlessly enjoy the stylish fashion of those days. They should also be curious and try to understand the predicaments and ordeals of their grandparents’ generation that had to live in a colonial situation. They should not be so judgmental about the older generation that had to deal with atrocities and political turmoil that the younger generation cannot possibly comprehend. They should also realize how lucky they are to live in a free, sovereign country.

Perhaps our young people should read Yi Sang’s monumental short story, “Wings” published in 1936. In the story, Yi Sang brilliantly depicts the helplessness and agony of a man who lives in a colonial situation. As a colonized man, the protagonist is deprived of economic capability, autonomy, and independence. His misery wears him down, and in his extreme fatigue, he cannot help but sleep day and night. At the end of the story, however, the protagonist intensely wants to have wings, so he can fly away from his suffocating colonial situation.

Under the title, “If I were born in the 1930s,” our young people also should put themselves in Yi Sang’s protagonist’s shoes and see things through his eyes. In Harper Lee’s celebrated novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which portrays the American 1930s when racial issues were still at stake, Atticus tells his young daughter, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Of course, people are forgetful or ignorant of history, especially when they are young. At the end of “The Hunger Games,” Katniss, who has survived the “Hunger Games,” watches her children playing outside and mutters, “Our children don’t know they play on a grave.” Indeed, how could the children know about the life and death game that the older generation had to go through to bequeath a better society for their children?

Today’s American young people might not know much about the Great Depression in the 1930s. If the trend was “If I were born in the 1930s,” however, they would not simply enjoy the Hollywood fashion of the 1930s without a thought. Instead, they would at least ponder or discuss the difficult times suffered during the Great Depression.

We do not need to hold grudges about the past because “letting go,” not “clinging to,” makes us strong and wise. Yet, that does not mean we may completely forget the past. Albert Einstein once said, “Learn from yesterday, live for today and hope for tomorrow.” Chiara Gizzi also said, “Let go of the past, but keep the lessons it taught you.” Indeed, we cannot anesthetize our painful history by simply enjoying the fashionable trends of the past only.

The younger generation does not need to dwell in the past. Nevertheless, they should not be oblivious to what happened in history. Moreover, they have to learn from the past, so they do not repeat the past miseries.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.