Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Chogokbo

 Chogokbo is a traditional Korean art form. It is the creation of a piece of clothing or decoration by sewing together scraps of discarded material. Though it is similar to what we might think of as a patchwork quilt, there is a very different design principle. In patchwork, the clashing of the quilt is exalted. Though a pattern is formed, the quilt in no way tries to hide the fact that it is created from a wide variety of fabrics. But when a chogokbo is made, the idea is to really and truly gather the pieces into one, to create a continuous design. One seeks to remove the historical borders between various pieces of fabric. It is also said that a chogokbo is not merely a piece of cloth, but is also the life history of the woman who made it. Traditionally, working class women made the chogokbo by collecting scraps of fabric left over from their employers. Often times, it would take them many years to collect enough pieces to make a garment. By this time, their collection would show their own history, where they had been, who they had worked for, and what they had done, all indicated by the kinds of scraps collected. It is also extremely easy to date a chogokbo based on the fashion of the period. This chogokbo comes to represent an individual woman, as well as the historical context that made her. This story is considered to be the most beautiful part of the chogokbo.

Chogokbo is also the name of an organization that I work for here in Korea. They are a women’s group that began by providing material resources for refugees from North Korea. Here in South Korea, people from North Korea are able to gain citizenship and a number of government resources simply by coming into the country. This process, however, is much more complicated than it seems. These citizens are not legally allowed to leave North Korea. Many of them escape to China on a work visa and remain there illegally for many years until they can afford to safely travel to South Korea. This move also means coming to terms with the isolation. Once they have left the North, there will likely be no more contact with the people they leave behind.

Chogokbo started as a way to provide job training and financial support for such women. Slowly but surely, in addition to providing these resources, the headquarters began to resemble a clubhouse. This is when the director realized the need not just for financial resources, but for a place where people could get together and be themselves, cooking, eating, drinking, singing, joking, sharing life’s troubles, and their own personal stories and histories. Hence the organization took on life as chogokbo. The idea was no longer to simply provide material support, or scraps of fabric, but to create a complete picture of each woman, a chogokbo. Further, the organization has become a place for the Korean diasporas to join together in a chogokbo of their own.

The organization consists of women from North Korea, South Korea, and Korean Chinese, as well as Koreans living permanently overseas. Yet, the sense I get overwhelmingly from talking to these women is that no matter how different their upbringings were, they feel that their history is shared. They all want to know more about one another and about themselves.

An average meeting at chogokbo goes something like this. First of all, we eat. And boy do we eat. And it is loud, and funny. Everyone pitches in and brings something. Everyone does dishes but refuses to let anyone do their own dishes. Every Wednesday is like a big Thanksgiving family dinner. People laughing and telling stories. Gossiping. Lots of gossip. Finally things settle down a bit. And the dinner is put away and replaced with “snacks”, or in my view, second dinner to be eaten at more or less non stop for the next couple of hours. Then the talk begins. It starts generally with a short lecture. Or someone telling their own personal story. After this, there is a question period and a time for anyone else to share their own stories. These can be anything. I know at first I expected it to be week after week of sad serious stories and nothing else. And while the history that is pieced together here is true, and there are many sad parts to it, the women move from lightest jest to most serious discussion with ease. A debates on cultural differences was ended this week when a woman from the North told about men there not helping out women with heavy work and generally not being chivalrous. She told about how shocked she was when she got to the South and men pulled out chairs for her and carried their girlfriend’s bags. But she concluded, after a few weeks in Korea she realized how rare it was and decided that men everywhere were the same. An older woman piped up to say the only difference was South Korean men had taken up chivalry as a way to get women to bed. There was a great deal of laughter. Then the beer was passed around. And the conversation fell to Korean industrial workers in China and finally ended with the most important Korean discussion of who was getting married. These meetings find their finality when it gets a little late and the group gets jolly enough to start making music. One woman is particularly skilled at Korean folk music and is pestered to sing for us. She pretends to hate it. After the singalong, people hug and slowly make their ways home.

At first these meetings confused me. I loved them. I thought they were very important for the women and for the community. But one thing confused me. Chogokbo called themselves a peace organization. And while even after 6 months of doing “peace work”, what it means is still very vague to me, I never imagined it as a meeting of the chogokbo social club. So I asked the women, why they thought it was a peace organization. Their answer was simple and profound. They said that so much of the policy and reunification work that the government undertakes, specifically the South Korea side, is based on the idea that they know the North Koreans. But for years there has been so little contact and so much prejudice and propaganda. The idea of what North Korea is like and more importantly, how the people think is a much more complicated and beautiful story. So in policy meetings, misunderstandings abound, they say the government tends to forget that they have developed a separate culture over the last 60 years. They believe that in the policy suggested, it is clear that the government is assuming everyone is thinking the same way. They believe the best way to fix this problem, to develop peaceful policy has a simple root, getting to know one another. And the informal and loving environment that chogokbo offers is how you get to know someone. Hard debates and silly jokes, Northern and Southern, Young and Old, food, and music and stories, these are the scraps that are sown together to form a more complete whole. These women with the honest vulnerability of friends are seeking to make a great and peaceful chogokbo.