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3 Jun 2010

Participating in the political process – Things are getting a little busy around these parts as we near the end of the semester. Yesterday was a national holiday, but there was no rest for the wicked (the wicked in this case being me). I ended up teaching one class in the afternoon because the students couldn’t find a suitable time to reschedule, and I spent the morning down in Yongin.

“I didn’t want to have to deal with what I thought would be the inevitable hassle.”

The reason yesterday was a national holiday, as well as the reason that I spent the morning down in Yongin, is that today is Election Day. Local elections, to be specific. Unlike the general elections, I can vote in local elections here (voting in general elections is one of the few things I can’t do in Korea—another big one is serving in the military, but you’ll have no complaints from me there), and that is what I did yesterday morning.

I wasn’t originally planning to vote. For one, it would require a trip down to my legal residence, where Hyunjin’s parents live (we’ve been living here in the foreign professors’ apartments on campus at HUFS, but I’ve never considered this a permanent arrangement, so we haven’t bothered changing our legal residence). The other reason is a bit more complicated, but to put it simply I didn’t want to have to deal with what I thought would be the inevitable hassle.

Hyunjin took care of her voting by absentee ballot last week. It turns out that some students on campus had set up a station where you could register for an absentee ballot, and she took advantage of the opportunity. When she got home, she said that I should go register as well, but I was hesitant. I was sure that the students would tell me I couldn’t vote because I was a foreigner. That may sound a little paranoid, but if it is, it’s based on experience. When I first started working here at HUFS, I went to the bank to open an account and was told by the woman there that I could not have a bank account because I was a foreigner. This is, of course, untrue—you don’t even need to have permanent residency in Korea to open a bank account. The woman didn’t know what she was doing, but rather than attempt to overcome her ignorance, she simply went with the civil servant’s solution: when in doubt, just say no.

I did eventually open up a bank account, but it ended up being a hassle. Opening up a bank account is one thing, though. Voting in local elections, well, that’s another story entirely. I can’t even vote in elections for school officials here at HUFS—how could I possibly be allowed to vote in government elections? So I followed the path of least resistance and decided that I just wouldn’t vote.

This past weekend, though, when we went down to Yongin to visit Hyunjin’s parents, I found that two envelopes had been delivered for me, one containing voting instructions and the other containing information pamphlets for each of the candidates (there were a lot). Then we went to church and the pastor talked about how our church had such a high voting rate (98%, I believe he said). I began to feel a bit guilty. Well, no, I don’t know if “guilty” is the right word for it. I guess you could say I began to feel like I wasn’t being fair to myself if I didn’t vote simply because it would be a hassle.

After living in a foreign country for nearly fifteen years, you develop certain survival mechanisms. Different people adopt different strategies. Some people revel in their outsider status, using their position outside the system to their advantage. Others attempt to change the system so that it is more inclusive, thus reducing the number of outsiders. And then there are those who try not to make waves—they play along with the system and avoid confrontation when possible. I belong to this last group. It’s not something I am proud of, but it is also not something I am ashamed of. It is just the strategy I have adopted to survive here, based in part on my personality and in part on my environment and experiences. It does make my life easier in some ways, but the downside is that I am not as likely to stand up and speak out when necessary.

This is why I wasn’t going to vote. But after hearing our pastor speak, and after seeing all of my voting materials, I thought that voting would be the right thing to do—not for Korea, or for foreigners in Korea, but for me. I don’t know if that is going to make sense to anyone else, but it makes sense to me.

So yesterday morning we drove down to Hyunjin’s parents’ house first to pick up the document with my voter registration number, and then we drove to the polling place, which was a nearby elementary school. As I waited in line, I was a little apprehensive. Some people in line were giving me strange looks, and I wondered how the people in charge of the polling place would react. But when I reached the front of the line, a woman there just asked me if I had my number. I showed it to her and she flipped through the voter registry. I was at the very end, the only foreigner listed in that area. I signed my name and then went on to the next table, where I picked up four slips of paper. Then I went into a booth where they had a rather nifty stamp that didn’t require an ink pad—you just pressed it on the paper and the ink came out.

There were actually eight positions open in our area, but I guess they were broken up into two stages to avoid overwhelming voters, and possibly to make organizing and counting the ballots easier later on. So after I stamped the first four pieces of paper, I put them in the ballot box and went on to the next table, where I repeated the process. Then it was over, and I left the small classroom.

It was a strange feeling, actually going to a polling place to vote. All the U.S. elections I have voted in while living in Korea have been done through absentee ballot (obviously)—the only time I had ever been to a physical polling place previously was the first time I voted, in 1992. I must admit that it also felt a bit strange to be voting in a Korean election, but other than the odd looks I got while waiting in line, it went off without a hitch. Not everything always goes this smoothly, but it was very encouraging that, at least this once, everything went the way it was supposed to go. I am glad that I did it, both in terms of having a say in the governing of the country I now call home and in terms of overcoming some of my own issues. And who knows? Maybe this is a sign of better days to come.

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