January 11, 2006
David M. Lucas, Ph.D.
I adjust my backpack and head off on foot. Only a few days ago, several Korean farmers protested the WTO (World Trade Organization) during their meeting here in Hong Kong. Some say the Koreans became militant and violent, while others say the protest proceeded peacefully. In any case, several of the Korean farmers, detained by police during the protest, now stand charges in a Hong Kong court. I move down the busy street in order to interview one of the farmers. I have no appointment. I have followed the case in the English paper, the South China Morning Post. I have seen their street-side encampment near Star Ferry so I am headed there this morning to seek out an interpreter and interview a farmer. I want to record their voice.
At the Star Ferry, I realize the group has moved. Nothing left here but some balloons where the encampment existed yesterday. One lesson I teach my students: Be persistent! I will not forsake my mission. I want to record their voice…the Korean farmers’ perspective.
I head for the MTR (the subway train line connecting most of Hong Kong) and make my way toward the place known as Kwun Tong. This is law court room where the protesting Korean farmers will stand trial today. I am sure they are collected outside this building.
The train ride gives me time to reflect. How is it possible that a group of Korean farmers can come to Hong Kong and end up on the wrong side of the law simply because they want to protest the actions of an organization known as the WTO? I read the newspapers, the official documents and reports, and even speak with citizens of Hong Kong about the situation and the problem. Most of all, however, I want to hear what the farmer has to say. He knows his reality and the reality of the family. We’ve heard from the prosecutors, the police, the officials, and the WTO. What does the farmer say?
I exit the MTR and move down the street. People fill the sidewalks and trucks fill the streets. This is the industrial section of Hong Kong and business proceeds as usual. None of these people seem aware of the impending court room hearing for a group of Korean farmers. I inch my way along the busy walkway wondering about the role these giant corporations, organizations, and multi-national conglomerates play in all of our lives. I think of my students and wonder if they notice, know, or even care.
I stop on one side of the street, look below a number of flags near the court house and see a collection of people. Some wear red head bands, some carry guitars, some use expensive looking cameras, and, oh yes, there in the midst of the action work the TV news crews. Reporters, commentators, and camera people take up space between me and the Korean farmers. I launch myself into the fray!
The Koreans have a tent set up on the sidewalk because they are observing a fast and can’t really afford hotel space. They have observed a fast for over one week (drinking only water and taking some sea salt to keep their systems together). I see a man I recognize as a Korean farmer. He’s been on the news and in the newspaper. I ask, “Do you speak English?” He makes an expression of confusion and finally says, “No, No, sorry.” He moves on. I want to talk to him because his face is round and friendly; his eyes seem confident but kind. I move on, too. I need to find a cultural mediator. I need to find someone who speaks Korean and English.
After asking several and observing more, I happen on a young woman speaking to a TV reporter. When they finish, I ask “Do you speak English?” She nods. Now the important question, “Do you speak Korean?” She smiles and says that she does. I am almost there! “Could I get you to interpret a couple of questions for one of the Korean farmers here? I am from Ohio University and I want so much to hear a farmer’s view on the WTO and what is happening here today.” She looks at me, pauses, and studies my face. “How long will this take?” she asks. I think to myself, “I have no idea!” I answer, “Not long. I know you are busy and the farmers are exhausted. I just have a few questions for the sake of my students.” Now I notice that, while she stands in the tent of the protesting farmers she wears no shoes. She moves to put them on and I move out of the way. While putting on her shoes she asks, “Who do you want to interview?” I have already made my choice. The stocky, round face Korean that I met on the corner earlier has returned and I answer immediately, “I want to interview him.” She looks and agrees saying, “Oh yes, he’s a farmer.” I know this already because of his hands. My father was a farmer and I remember his hands.
The cultural mediator places herself carefully on one side and I take my position on the other. Now the cultural dance begins. I must ask my questions carefully and in a cadence for her translation. She takes out her notebook to record notes on his answers as I ask my first question. “What exactly is your complaint against the WTO?” I want some specifics.
“The WTO exerts excessive pressure on poor farmers like us on behalf of the large farming conglomerates. The policies are mere tools of the larger and more powerful countries like the United States, Great Britain, and France. These huge super powers mandate that our country must import materials that we already grow. Our markets are forced to open up to fierce, competitive multi-national organizations that sell cheaper and in larger quantities. We can’t compete.
Farming is no longer profitable. We are deep in debt with no way to pay our debts. Our families cannot survive because we can’t compete with these large farming corporations. We are forced out of our vocations for the cheaper imports. We have to give up farming and move into the large cities only to become part of the urban poor.”
“What exactly do you grow in your fields?” I ask. He turns to look me in the eyes. Now he is on his turf and speaking about what he knows best. Farmers are in touch with the soil and their crops. They understand the earth in ways many of us will never know. He smiles faintly, recalling his home, family, and fields and then says,
“I grow vegetables. I grow vegetables you can taste and enjoy. These are not the products of heavy fertilization or artificial colors, but vegetables one is proud to offer and happy to receive. These are not productions mass produced like in a factory but carefully grown under these hands and these eyes.”
He motions to himself and his eyes as he says these last few words. He stands before me, a proud and courageous man. He knows his position and delivers his message simply, quietly, and without anger or malice. It is his life of which he speaks.
“What agricultural productions cause the most concern for you and the other farmers here?” I ask. “Where do they come from?” He looks at me more comfortably now, realizing that I am asking to know, not to report him or cause him problems.
“We have problems with oranges. Too many oranges. They come from China and other parts of Asia. We have problems with rice. We can grow rice in Korea but because of the WTO agreements, we must import rice. Not just as ingredients in other productions but we import rice for people to eat. I can grow rice. My friends can grow rice. Why do we need to import it from other places? The United States sends us oranges. Why can’t the people in the United States eat their oranges? We will grow our own!”
He pauses his delivery and looks around. I see concern in his eyes because he will stand trial in just a few hours for the previous protest activities. He takes a breath and then continues,
“Do you know that we have to import more rice each year in Korea? Because of this WTO agreement? I didn’t vote on it. Did you vote on it? And look…by the year 2014, Korea must import 440, 000 tons of rice…in just that year. What will I grow in 2014? How will my family survive?
I nod as the cultural mediator translates his voice. I have no answers for him. I have only one more question. The question I really, ultimately came to ask this stocky, patient, good-hearted Korean farmer. “If you were standing in my classroom, speaking to my students, what would you tell them? What would be your message to the students?”
I wait on his answer.
“I would tell them to discover as much as they can about the agreements of the WTO. I would ask them to seek understanding. Don’t get me wrong here…please. I want to make this one thing perfectly clear. I have nothing against the people of the United States or nothing against the people of Hong Kong or China. I would tell the students to become aware. Become more aware about the world around them. Get more exposure. Learn about the people of the world that are oppressed; seek exposure to the fact of extreme hunger; find out about the system and how it afflicts those like me who struggle. The students must find out about those that toil, weep, and those whose hearts fill with sorrow because they no longer can live life with joy. This is what I would tell your students.”
I thank the stocky farmer, shake his hand and move away. Others want his picture. I thank the young lady for being so kind in translating the message. I walk off reflecting. No matter the law, this man has a deep sense of respect for life, land, and freedom. He wants the freedom to be a farmer like his father before him. He knows no other life or occupation. He just wants to grow his special vegetables and love his family. Today he goes to court for making that stand. I walk off thinking how the world becomes my teacher. Life becomes my lesson. This voice I hear from the thick, powerful message of the Korean farmer becomes the anthem. I hear the farmer’s voice. Can you hear him speaking?