An Unfinished Conversation

Everyone has his or her share of problems, prejudices, sorrows. But even so, I don’t believe in unadulterated hatred. And I know what it is to be angry and upset. I know what it feels like to be disadvantaged because of history, discrimination, and imperialism. I know what it means when I can’t fight off the ignorance of a million people. It means that I have only to clear away my own ignorance and to observe the ways my own behavior can impact the lives of others. So even when I don’t think that I can forgive or forget the way people have treated and will treat people like me – people who look like me – I know that hatred toward them will only destroy me.

I wanted to say the same things to him but I didn’t know enough Korean, and he didn’t know enough English. So after he told me how much he hated them, and I said, “I know,” we just sat on the benches of Hangyeore contemplating the hills in the distance and putting our conversation behind us. But I am sad that we never finished it.


I had heard about him from two of the other interns. Another intern wrote about him previously as well. I think it is because he is famous: the [Legendary] Master Key. The first time I saw him, he was playing goalie in a game of soccer before the end of the first week. I knew I would like the kid because he climbed the goalpost and sat down picking at the grass when the ball was more than ten meters away from the goalpost. The first time I met him, he was wearing eyeliner and lipstick to dinner. After dinner, he offered coffee to the two of us interns who stayed behind at Hangyeore for the weekend.

After the conversation we shared over coffee that evening, every now and then we’d catch Master Key sitting on the benches that faced the entrance to Hangyeore. A few of us would join him and some of the other mentors for a chat or just for some company. I remember that I had apologized to him for not being able to speak much Korean. He said it was all right and that we could get by with the few words we could share. He told me that he wanted the volunteers who came to Hangyeore to share stories about their countries and cultures in addition to tutoring English. I wanted to share more of my story as well since Korea had become a large part of my personal journey.

The day we interns were to leave Hangyeore, we were given some time to spend with the Hangyeore students. I had a moment in which I was sitting with Master Key and all the other people around us were occupied in some way or another, so I asked Master Key if he had any questions for me before we left. He had said that he had many questions but remained silent. So I took his silence as an invitation to talk freely about my experiences. I decided to tell him about how my experiences and bond with the Zainichi Koreans in Japan, for whom unification remains an important issue, led me to grow more involved with Korea, North Korea refugees, and the effort for unification of the peninsula.

I had mentioned to Master Key that I had spent a year and a half in Japan before, so I started my story, “I had told you that I had studied in Japan. During that time, I had grown close to the ethnic Korean minority.”

However, Master Key had interrupted me to say, “I hate Japan and Japanese people.”

I know the history between Japan and Korea. Moreover, I know about Japan’s insufficient education in regards to Japan’s actions during the Pacific War. I do know where Master Key’s hatred stems from, but I did not think that his hatred would cause him to close his mind to our conversation. I tried to pick up with where I had left off in my story, but Master Key proceeded to talk about the Japanese as killers and to make the sound of machine guns with his mouth. At that point other interns and students noticed us and also started to make sounds like machine guns with their mouths, but they had no idea of the context.

I don’t say that it is wrong to feel angry or wronged. I know. I know from personal experience and I also know because I have listened to the stories of others who have crossed my path over the past few years. I don’t believe in comparing peoples’ pain, but I do assert the importance of recognizing the pain that others have suffered – my grandmother friends in Japan never learned to read Korean because their Korean fathers only sent their sons to learn – those same women never learned to read Japanese because the Japanese government and society disadvantaged and discriminated against them – my classmate’s neighbors were murdered with machetes during the Rwandan genocide because they were Tutsi people – my friend faced isolation and racism in Russia because the social unrest caused by the change to capitalism called for a scapegoat for the loss of jobs and guarantees.

There is suffering everywhere. So there is danger in closing one’s mind to the experiences of others because it reminds you of your own anger. Listen first and then decide…at least that’s what I believe is best to avoid misunderstandings and to find peace.

But now when I reflect over our conversation again, I begin to think that even if I had told him all that my heart wanted him to hear, he still might not have been able to listen. Though he might have experienced hardships that I have never known and that most people will never know, he is still only twenty. Perhaps he still needs time before he can take ignorance and history at its face value. I still have no idea what kind of education about the world Master Key received before joining Hangyeore after all.

I think that Master Key is an amazing individual, but it saddens me when I see him shut down because of his anger and hatred. I may be only three years older than him, but I know that it will only hurt him. Master Key, with his ambition, courage, and ingenuity, is a role model to many of his peers. I hope that as he learns more about the world, all of its people, and history, he will be able to look beyond his hatred and recognize the role that ignorance plays in inflicting pain on others.

Maybe Master Key will be able to ask all of the questions he didn’t ask me that day and make the changes he wants to for other refugees. Maybe as Korea plays a larger role in Japan, Japan will be more willing to finish the conversation with Korea – acknowledge its role in the Pacific War. Then at that point Master Key and I can finish our conversation and pave the way for the unification of the peninsula with the support of South Korea’s neighbors.

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