Saturday, August 11, 2007
terra nullius, in which land claimed by no one can be claimed by a country. The Korean side then has to show that the Chosŏn Empire or Kingdom [Joseon] did consider those islets 92 kilometers off the coast of Ullŭngdo [Ulleung-do] as Korean.
And this makes it harder to prove the right side of the case in a court that may not understand these aspects of Korean and Northeast Asian history.
A scarring incident from my childhood makes me sympathize even more with the Korean side. When I was a very small child, my mother took me to the swap meet, a wild place full of tall people walking around, unhealthy snack food of every conceivable type, and shoppers yelling and haggling. It was a very confusing time, and I somehow ended up separated from my mother, when one of us was in pursuit of a fried Twinkie.
Among all those giant strangers, I was scared and I began to cry. But my cries for help didn't bring my mother; instead they brought a fat, sweaty woman, pink from the sun, who picked me up and said, "Oh, you poor dear, are you lost?" With a firm grip of her purchases in one arm and me in the other, she brought me to the security guard post, where I was again asked if I was lost.
Now that I was nowhere near where I had last seen my mother, I really was lost. "Yes," I said sheepishly.
They asked me my mother's name, and I said, "Mommy." These tired and wrinkly men who smelled of onions (and whose meal I was interrupting) shook their head and said, "No, no. Is there another name she's called?"
"Mom?" I offered up.
Their impatience was growing thin as fast as their chili dogs were growing cold. "What does your daddy call your mommy?" one of them angrily asked.
I knew my dad didn't call my mother "Mommy," so my young mind went through a list of things I often heard him say to her, and I told these men the one I most commonly heard: "What the hell is wrong with you?" ("You rotten bitch" was my next guess.)
They laughed a knowing laugh. Since I had unwittingly provided a little dinner entertainment, the tone of the lead interrogator became a bit more congenial. "Okay, what do your mommy's friends call her?"
It was something that began with "Al." "Aaaall..." I said in a drawn out manner. "Aaaall..."
The men tried to finish the for me. "Allison?" "Alicia?" "Elizabeth?" "Alice?" "Alyssa?" "Eloise?" I was so confused, I didn't know if any of those were right. I just said "yeah" and they assumed I was answering affirmatively to whatever name they had just said.
"Okay, little boy. Now finish this sentence for us: Mrs. ... what? Mrs. what?"
While they were apparently trying to discern our family name, I thought they were trying to figure out the name of the person around me most commonly called Mrs. something.
"Mrs. Miller," I said, telling them the name of my preschool teacher, whose name I heard dozens of times each day. They smiled, satisfied they had succeeded in finding out that my mother's name was Eloise Miller.
The congenial man who smelled of onions leaned down and said, "Okay, now what do people call you?"
Years later, I would realize that this was a classic example of a poorly worded question, one where the listener could easily mistake the intent of the speaker, thus yielding an inaccurate or an undesired answer. The kind of question that gets thrown out on the SAT for being biased against kids whose families don't own a yacht.
I answered what people called me, which was my nickname. My nickname had been chosen not by me, but by my older brother, who famously announced that instead of a new sibling, he wanted a dog: he called me "Spot." The adults in my life thought it was hilarious, and they egged him on, even taking up the mantle when he stopped using it. Oh, did I mention I also had a very large dark brown birthmark on my arm?
"I'm Spot," I said.
Though they hadn't gone to college, they were smart enough to know that probably wasn't my actual name. They apparently figured that a lisp or my still-forming brain was trying to say something that sounded a lot like Spot. Tom, Bob, or maybe a foreign name.
They also figured that the scratchy P.A. system would render "Spot" close enough to what that real name was that it would all balance out in the end.
So they got to the microphone and made the announcement. "We have an announcement for Eloise Miller... Eloise Miller. We have a crying boy here [he glanced down at me for a moment]... well, he's not crying anymore. We have a little boy here named Spot who is looking for you. Again, Eloise Miller, we have your boy Spot."
Then we waited. And waited.
But my mother wasn't coming. Her tardy response could have been for many reasons. Among them, her name was not Eloise Miller, my name was not Spot, her child had been far removed from where he had gotten lost, and the security guard station was actually nowhere near the Information booth where my mother had gone and where she was not told there was a security guard station located beneath part of the facilities at the other end of the swap meet.
We waited some more. The fat and sweaty pinkish woman who had taken me to this place had come back to inquire about my status, and she brought paper and crayons to help me pass the time. "Why don't you draw your mommy?" she suggested. I took out the crayons and took to re-creating my mother's appearance. I drew the whole family.
Eventually, my mother finally found the location where I was. She was frantic and it was clear she had been crying. "Oh, my God, there you are!" she screamed in relief as she ran toward me.
One of the security guards (not the congenial one) got in her way before she could reach me. "Just a minute," he said. "Do you have some ID?"
She pulled out her driver license and the security guard said, "Your name's not Eloise Miller. Spot said his mother's name is Eloise Miller."
My mother tried to get her wits about her and think through what she was being told. "Um, Mrs. Miller is his preschool teacher, but that's not my last name. That's not his last name."
"What's your last name, boy?" the security guard barked.
"I don't know," I said. I was frightened. Besides, what three-year-old knows this kind of thing? I did know my birthday, though.
"And his name's not Spot," my mother said, "It's Nate."
"Is your name Nate?" the same security guard growled? "Why did you tell us it was 'Spot'?"
"It's Nate," I said, still with a frightened look.
Another security guard piped in: "He's just saying that because this lady told him to say it. I don't think that's really this child's mother."
"Yeah," said another. "In this picture he drew, his mother's got green hair, but this lady's hair is black. And there are three other kids in the drawing."
"Yeah, lady," said the barking guard, "Where are your other kids?"
It all went downhill from there. My mother was escorted away, told by the security guards that they would hand me over to the proper authorities and that if she really was my mother, she should expect to be taken up on abandonment charges. What they didn't tell her was that they were taking me to the proper government authorities where the security firm's management office was located, three counties over. The poor woman never knew where to find me.
Bear in mind that this was a time before DNA testing, and a blood test would have revealed only that we could be related, not that we definitely were related. I was taken away to a foster care facility, where a caring grandmother figure wrote "Spot Miller" on the inside of all my articles of clothing. A year later, the fat, sweaty woman came in and adopted me. She made me work in the family Jell-O factory.
Even though my mother knew I was her child, and I knew she was my mother, our attempts to prove a connection failed: I blame myself for mixing up the names and drawing what I now realize was a crude rendition of my mother's actual appearance. It was my fault, and I hope my mother knows that I'm sorry. Maybe she's still looking for me. Maybe she has since committed a crime and her DNA will end up in some sort of government database, and we'll find a match and be reunited. Every Sunday, I walk the rows of the swap meet where we last saw each other, hoping she is doing the same.
And that's why Korea shouldn't go to the ICJ.