Human and Humanity

Yun Dong-ju was a Korean poet in the years 1930–1940s. This was the time period in which Korea had been occupied by Japan. Known for his lyrical and resistance poetry, he is an important figure in Korean literature. Many of his poems have recurring themes: self-reflection, hope for independence, and inner struggles with doubt and temptation.

One of his poems, An Impressionist Painting of My Younger Brother, made an impression on me this week.

Disclaimer: Unofficial Translation

In the poem, the narrator laments on the bleakness of the foreseeable future, and reflects his sadness onto the face of his younger brother.

The two exchange a short conversation.

“What do you want to be?”

“Human, of course.”

The narrator ruminates over the strange simplicity of the answer, and agrees that we should all strive to be human. Humanity, the poem seems to reflect, is difficult enough of a goal.

This poem uses a child as one of the key figures in order to illustrate the innocence of the youth. The poem is permeated by sadness because the narrator understands that his younger brother will soon come to lose his innocence when he grows old enough to register the cruelty of the world he is living in.

In the historical point of view, this poem is most likely a commentary on what Yun Dong-ju felt during the Japanese occupation. The lack of humanity seen in the occupying forces, the harsh treatment of Korean people, the so-called “comfort women” sex slaves, the looting and the fighting and the unjust recruitment of young men forced to fight for a war not their own…

The lack of humanity was everywhere — the traitorous profit seekers saving their own luxurious lifestyles at the expense of others, the people slowly losing hope for liberation, new generations of young children born in a world where having their own sovereign country was a foreign experience…

No doubt it is a poem with important historical and literary meaning, but the poem’s emphasis on the innocence of the child started me thinking from an egalitarian point of view.

Children are often portrayed as innocent, trusting, and naive. Adults and elders are more widely accepted as wise and experienced. But in this poem, the child’s innocence cuts through the cynicism of the narrator, and tells a fundamental truth.

“What do you want to be?”

“Human, of course.”

As a child, I was raised in a predominantly “White” neighborhood. That is to say, my family was the only POC family in the neighborhood. I also went to a Christian private school, and had many American friends. In fact, I was the only non-American person in the school.

Basically, I had a happy childhood in Montgomery, Alabama.

I want to stress the word happy in this sentence. I was happy. I never felt discriminated against, no one “saw color” at all, and I grew and learned in an environment where I felt welcomed.

I returned to Korea and started middle school, and it is Korea in which I stayed, up until this very day.

The only difference is that I have grown older, but when I see my old friends on social media, their lives are alien to me. The first thing I notice is color.

It’s strange how something that I’d been blind to as a child came to the forefront of my consciousness, and it started me thinking on what people striving for equality were actually hoping to achieve. What was my purpose in becoming a vocal activist for equality and human rights? What was I hoping to change?

Currently, there is a misconception that older equals wiser. Yun Dong-ju’s poem, as well as my own experiences, made me consider that this was perhaps not true. Perhaps the simple minded child, fresh from any stereotypes or prejudice, is the wisest of us all. Perhaps the simple minded child with clear opinions on what is right and wrong, regardless of personal gains to be had, is the one who sees the world most clearly. As a child, a person was a person, and I was human.

And that’s what activists strive to achieve — to return everyone to those days when everyone saw everyone as human.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Jeung Eun Kim’s story.