Defining Safe: Queer international student finds a community in the U.S.

Alex Chun, Reporter

ALEX CHUN: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Alex Chun, and this is Defining Safe, a podcast about the experiences of marginalized communities on campus.

MARK PARK: The makeup that I did at the pride show, that took so much courage from me. That was so terrifying. I was doing my makeup and I messed up so many times and I eventually had to ask someone else to do it for me because my hands could not stop shaking. It was really scary to do anything like that in Korea, but here it’s like the first day I come here, my international Peer Adviser’s gay, my Peer Adviser’s gay, all my friends who I first met in the dorm are bi, and it’s so diverse here.

ALEX CHUN: Mark Park is a queer international freshman from South Korea studying theatre. Although he was “out” in Korea, it wasn’t until Mark came to Northwestern University that he started to truly feel comfortable expressing himself.

MARK PARK: Korea, as a country, is a lot more homophobic and it’s a lot more conservative. It wants to really preserve those traditional values. Korea is so afraid of change that they’re not really willing to… a lot of people are not really willing to open their minds up to something new. And so the queer identity in Korea is not something that you’d really be able to express openly. It’s not something that’s accepted widely.

It’s not easy to be open with yourself. I guess most people who are queer–there are so many queer people in Korea by the way–I have met so many, but most of them, if not all of them, are always afraid to show who they really are.

ALEX CHUN: In a recent survey, only 10.15 percent of South Koreans know an openly LGBT person. At Mark’s school, he happened to be that person for most of his peers.

MARK PARK: So I first came out to my friends, to my best friends when I was in ninth grade. According to one of the high schoolers that was there the longest time, I was the first person in history to ever actually openly come out like that. Perhaps there were some people who like privately came out to, like, a few people. But I was the first person who actually openly came out to my friends and then continued to openly come out to the rest of the school. Like when people would ask me about it, or when people talked about it, I wouldn’t hide it anymore.

ALEX CHUN: After coming out to his friends and seeing a mostly positive response, Mark finally worked up the courage to come out to his family. But when he did, he was surprised by how much it impacted his home life.

MARK PARK: For my parents, it felt like they were a lot more supportive of my decisions, but then after that, it was like everything I wanted to do, it was just, “no.” It also felt like they were trying to push the prospect of having a girlfriend, having a “normal” marriage — push that idea much more and they tried to enforce it onto me. They always talked about it. And their entire attitude towards me in general kind of changed. It was not pretty.

But my sisters were actually very understanding and very supportive. My older sister is two years older than me, so she went to college way before me. But at college, she would just randomly send pictures of cute boys and be, like, “This boy cute huh?” That’s what she’d do and we’d just hang out together, we’d just see a cute boy down the road, and then we both turned to each other, tilt our sunglasses down, raise our eyebrows two times and be like…

ALEX CHUN: Starting in 2000, South Korea began hosting the annual “Seoul Queer Culture Festival.” The Pride Festival in South Korea hosts various booths, events and performances. Over the years, this festival became an outlet for Mark to express his identity.

MARK PARK: Almost every year they do the same thing but with completely different lineups and more pizzazz. They have a lot of food and drink stands. So the booths start around 11 a.m. and extend until like 7 p.m. but at 2 p.m., they essentially start performances. And these performances will last about two hours on a huge stage. And then after that there will be a pride march or a pride parade for another hour or so. Then we have our closing performance, which lasts an hour.

ALEX CHUN: Mark had attended the festival every year since he was a freshman in high school. During his senior year, he performed both as a soloist and part of a group dance during the festival’s closing show.

MARK PARK: The weather was insanely hot. It was scorching. You could literally have marshmallows out and just cook them right on the spot. But so many more people showed up than the previous year, and I was a performer in my senior year. I did two performances: one with a rather famous drag queen in Korea and another one was a solo performance. It was a drag show on stage, but we would have dancers beside the drag queen and around the drag queen at almost all times. And we also performed to “This is Me” from the movie, “The Greatest Showman.” And for my solo, it was essentially just a very short dance performance, but the main thing was that you’d have to showcase your queer identity. So my makeup was done. My clothes were quite fancy. And that was my performance. Also, one thing about the Pride Festival that I forgot to mention is…so you would think that, based on what I told you, that there are a lot of people there, that maybe…there’s a lot of supportive people in Korea, there’s a lot of queer people in Korea. That’s probably true, but I think most of them actually don’t show up for this event. In fact, a lot of people I see come to the Pride Festival at Seoul are foreigners. It’s like a crazy amount of people are foreigners. So there aren’t a lot of actual Koreans who are coming to the event which is a little sad, but it is what it is.

And the opposition is crazy. So we have a circle of our own for the queer festival and then around the circle, you see a bigger, gigantic circle of opposing people. They have signs up saying, “This is a sin, convert to Christianity,” “Jesus is your Savior,” et cetera. And it’s really insane how devoted the opposition team is because they actually have like tiny little kids like seven-year-old kids who are also holding up the signs. And I bet you that they do not know what they are supporting, and they do not know what they’re trying to do. And they’re still the ones who are holding up signs. It’s not easy, but we do it every year, and it’s getting bigger.

ALEX CHUN: Since arriving at Northwestern, Mark has found support in the community around him.

MARK PARK: It’s so open I see everybody — just, like, literally everybody — being so open with themselves, being so expressive. And that kind of just made me realize, “Oh, I guess it’s not illegal to do that in this country.” And so here I just started to embrace that started to become myself, started to talk the way I want to, move the way I feel free to, you know, say the things that I want to and obviously with restrictions, but I have been able to be much more comfortable at Northwestern. It’s crazy how huge a difference it is compared to Korea.

The only reason I see myself going back to Korea, well the only reasons, would be the friends that I still have there. I’m not saying I hate Korea as a country — there are people there who’re really nice. The facilities are amazing. The country itself is actually really cool. And there are so many things you can do in Korea, oh my god, it’s so much fun, but I’m just not comfortable being myself there. And this won’t be the case for so many other people, but for myself, I just do not feel comfortable being there.

I have seen so many queer people in Korea who have, who are living happily. They have found people who all are very supportive of them. If I had the same support in Korea, I probably wouldn’t mind living there, either. But that’s unfortunately just not the case.

ALEX CHUN: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Alex Chun. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time for another episode of Defining Safe.

ALEX CHUN: This episode was reported and produced by me, Alex Chun. It was edited by Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava. The Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Northwestern is Troy Closson.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @apchun01

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