Montreal·First Person

Quebec and Korea have more in common than you might think

Like Quebec, Korea is grappling with heavy urban centralization, growing disparities between rich and poor, rising housing costs and, what is particularly poignant, poverty among the elderly. And like Quebec, Korea is trying to maintain its identity amid a heavy American influence.

As I prepare to take the Canadian oath of citizenship, I see parallels in our histories

Elisabeth is seen at her first 100 days party in a suburb of Boston, in the fall of 1990. (Submitted by Elisabeth Gill)

This First Person article is the experience of Elisabeth Gill, a Korean-American in Montreal who is about to take her oath of Canadian citizenship. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

After 13 years in Montreal, I was invited to take my Canadian citizenship test three weeks ago. In studying for it, I found the moments that reminded me most of Korea, the country my mother is from, were parts of Quebec's history. Korea is another nation that catapulted itself into modern life, coming from an agrarian, religious past and a legacy of colonization that are still sources of controversy today.

And I see parallels with the settlement of Canada and the Japanese occupation of Korea.

Like Quebec, Korea is grappling with heavy urban centralization, growing disparities between rich and poor, rising housing costs and, what is particularly poignant, poverty among the elderly. And like Quebec, Korea is trying to maintain its identity amid a heavy American influence.

Both societies endured dark periods as well. The Gwangju uprising of 1980 — when people in the Korean city of Gwangju came to the defence of students who were brutally fired upon by government troops — is one particularly brutal example, where details are still coming to light.

For a few days, the city barricaded itself from the military and organized a provisional government in opposition to General Chun Doo Hwan's slow coup. It ended with the military breaking down the barricades, as a helicopter flew overhead. The South Korean military, trained and supplied by the United States, massacred hundreds of people. Some believed the helicopter had come to their aid. Instead, there are reports that it opened fire.

Parasite director Bong Joon Ho's dissident class politics are informed by the events in Gwangju. Quebec director Denis Villeneuve, whose films tell stories of political struggle and social fragmentation informed by the Quiet Revolution, can be seen as a peer of Bong's.

Colonial legacy

Korea has a difficult, ongoing conversation with Japan about human rights abuses and war crimes during the occupation from 1910 to 1945. Current U.S. military bases are built on the infrastructure of Japanese colonial outposts, which often included "comfort stations" — sites of brutal sexual enslavement of Koreans, Southeast Asian and Chinese women and some Australian and Dutch women.

The Japanese occupation had its supporters in Korea, especially among yangban, the aristocracy. The cultural program of the occupation included forcing Koreans to take Japanese names, destroying crops, stealing national treasures, desecrating heritage sites, banning Korean national symbols and language and presenting Korea to the world as a weak and backwards nation that preferred Japan's benevolent rule.

I see parallels to this in the settlement of Canada, the residential school system, the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and the Oka Crisis, as well as in the struggle for francophone linguistic identity. Colonization leaves a complex legacy.

A photo from the wedding of Elisabeth's grandparents in Korea. Her grandmother fled the country after the Korean War. (Submitted by Elisabeth Gill)

I have learned about Quebec's dark and difficult episodes in private, like the expulsion of Les patriotes, La grande noirceur, Les orphelins de Duplessis and the Magdalene Laundries. The Quebecers who explained this history to me made it clear that there are differences of opinion around these events, as well as shame, anger and contrition.

Their feelings about history remind me of my Korean family's reluctance to talk about events that have affected us for generations. As the story goes, my great-grandfather was murdered during the Korean War, in front of my grandfather, whom I never met. His wife, my grandmother, had to flee Seoul with only what she could carry. She can still speak Japanese, but she never does. She speaks English with me, since I cannot speak Korean. (I was born in Boston, and the other half of my family are white Bostonians).

I try not to make assumptions about any Quebecers' relationship to their family's history. I understand the desire not to be looked down on because of what your society has endured, or to have that history simplified and used against you.

These mixed feelings remind me of the taste of beondegi, marinated silkworm pupae, which Koreans had to eat during the Korean War to avoid starvation. The only time I've been to Korea, my great-grandmother gave me one to try, in front of all her friends. When I said I liked it, she let out a huge, gruff laugh.

To her, I was a little American girl, and she was making me eat her history.

Elisabeth's family in the 1970s in California. (Submitted by Elisabeth Gill)

Korea is struggling with how its national narrative will address this history, especially as much of it is only coming to light now. In Quebec, I see the same desire for a national narrative to address the injustices of history.

Being Korean means that je me souviens; Koreans joke that we hold long grudges and exact glorious vengeance.

As I now question my safety in the neighbourhood where I've lived for a decade — because of the recent increase in hate crimes and attacks — I see irony in framing the integration of immigrants as "Have they become enough like us?"

I passed my exam. As I prepare to take the Canadian oath of citizenship, I'm left thinking perhaps the question that should be asked is, "Are we already like them?"


CBC Quebec welcomes your pitches for First Person essays. Please email povquebec@cbc.ca for details.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elisabeth Gill lives in Montreal's Plateau neighbourhood and works in communications. She also writes and performs.

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