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A forest of signboards


A forest of signboards

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September 17, 2009
-Joel Kroeker, with Heather Peters

SEOUL, South Korea — “I'm often curious what Western people think of Korean culture, especially signboards [advertisements and signage for businesses],” says Ki-Dong, an artist and student in my discussion class. “Sometimes when I get off the subway I feel as though I'm walking through a forest of signboards.”

Arriving in the advertisement-heavy environment of Seoul was indeed a shock for Heather and I, but it is now a part of our normal life. While in Canada there were many interesting sights at ground level, here we had to crane our necks to take in the “foliage” of signs above us.

After almost two years of living in this city of over 12 million people, tuning things out has become easier—crowds, traffic, noise, and ads. Everything melts together into a wall of white noise and blurred images. This can be a helpful ability, but it can also cause problems.

Once, when Heather needed new passport pictures, we checked the same building front numerous times in search of the photo studio. We even enlisted the help of a passer-by before finally spotting the appropriate sign about one-third of the way up the building. We couldn't see the tree for the forest.

Like the signboards covering the exterior of each commercial building, data infiltrates every available space of life. South Korea is a highly connected society; most people maintain a mini-homepage at a social networking site and own cell phones. Cell phones are called “hand phones” here in Korea, and it's no wonder: the hand is a very common place to see them, in ever-vigilant standby mode.

With all this connectivity and information bombarding us, it can be difficult to focus. Usually the loudest and most mainstream voices are the ones that are heard, just as the biggest signs are the easiest to see. As Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers teaching through Connexus, a small English institute in this forest of information, we try to shine a spotlight on issues we feel are important, issues that grow from our faith.

Every two months, we select a topic for “Special Issue Day” – such as Israel/Palestine, Fair Trade, Responsible Travel, North Korean Human Rights – and take one class of that month to discuss it. We've often been surprised by the opinions of students, who seem to be open to radical ideas of reconciliation, forgiveness, and social justice despite their upper middle-class backgrounds, where there is a tendency to focus on more tangible ideas of progress and success –like making money and moving up the social ladder.

Students usually express deep concern over these issues, while at the same time struggling with how to connect this concern with their everyday lives. This uneasy tension seems to follow Christians around the world. Whether we're navigating the busy streets of a congested and cluttered city or calmly meditating on God's love for all of creation, there exists a tension between what is and what could be. We must constantly struggle with this tension while at the same time embrace it as an integral and dynamic part of our faith.

Joel Kroeker and Heather Peters returned to Canada in late July, 2009, after serving two years as Mennonite Church Canada Witness associates and teaching with the Connexus Language Institute in Seoul, South Korea.