Tragedy exposes cracks in Korean-expat relations
May 28, 2008
The media furor surrounding the suspicious death of her son has forced Stephannie White, an American English teacher in Gyeongsan, near Daegu, to deal with her grief in the public eye. When I spoke with her yesterday morning, she sounded drained and short of temper. She apologized, saying she hadn’t had her coffee yet. “But my mood’s not likely to change,” she said.
White’s son Michael was found facedown in a shallow pool at a Gyeongsan jjimjilbang on May 10. A front page article ran in this paper on Monday, and other articles have appeared in both the English- and Korean-language media. The foreign blog community has been following the case closely. A lot of attention has been given to the circumstances surrounding the response to Michael’s death.
White says he received inadequate and delayed emergency care; the Gyeongsan Fire Department, which responded to the incident, said it did everything it could. But White said the controversy is now for the doctors and lawyers to figure out. What she wants to know is how Michael ended up in that situation in the first place, something she feels the Korean authorities are not paying enough attention to.
“I want them to get to the bottom of why he ended up facedown in the water,” she said. “If it was the result of horseplay, you know, teenage boys getting out of control and the fathers covering up for them, or if it is something more nefarious, I want to look [the person responsible] in the eye.” White does not believe the death of her son was an accident. “I think there was some kind of horseplay or physical contact of a minor sort that ended up with my son’s head underwater. And instead of rectifying the situation, they just ran and hid.”
The North Gyeongsang Provincial Police Agency, which is dealing with the case, said they do not believe there was foul play involved. But White said the investigation is not going as deep as it should. “There are CCTV cameras in the sauna in the lobby area and on the street corner for people running red lights. Those are clear bits of evidence that would show who came and went. Let’s ask them very politely, ‘Did you notice the 1.8-meter [5-foot-9] foreigner? What was he doing?’ Stuff that we would think is very obvious.”
The tragic incident has brought to light some of the failings in relations between expatriates and Koreans. “I’m a foreigner, I have no rights,” said White. “I’m not a citizen. I’m just the pronunciation monkey brought in to teach English.” She said many people in the foreign community have been very supportive, but not all.
“Some have accused me of trying to divide the Koreans against the foreigners,” she said. “My response to that is that it’s a 900-year-old tradition in Korea. They perpetuate the division in their society. Foreigners come here, we start to learn to bow, to eat with chopsticks, to speak Korean a little. I’m not saying that this goes for everybody, as there are bad apples in every bunch, but many try to fit in and try to get along. … If divisions exist, it’s because they don’t let us in.” White has been continuing to work since the incident, because she’s afraid if she doesn’t she’ll be sent back home. “There is a tendency to want me to shut up and accept my loss and accept a payout, because that’s the Korean way,” she said. “The worst thing that could happen would be to send me out of the country, because then I’d have access to the English media,” said White, adding that she would rather just have the case dealt with here.
Once the chaos dies down, she’s not sure what she’s going to do. “I’ve never thought about life without my son,” she said. White is seeking witnesses and support. To respond, go to http://mightiemike.com.