From Dokdo – Dokdo is a Line

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Growing up in California you don’t really gain an appreciation for sunrises – waking up early is always a lesser notion to romantic strolls as a deep citrus glow dances on the surface of the Pacific under a swirling mix of orange and purple. But in Korea, sunrises are hard not to appreciate as the morning wakes you up with it’s ambient energy gliding over the rolling mountains that pave the landscape. In Korea, they say the morning begins in Dokdo. And even though I never was able to see the sun rise on Dokdo, it didn’t lessen the impact of what being there meant. And when I stepped onto the Dokdo Wharf, after a bumpy ferry in the middle of the East Sea, and seeing this small rock, vibrant with life on a cold and overcast day – it was evident. It was then I knew that Dokdo belonged to Korea.

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Well, maybe not then. Maybe it wasn’t exactly then. But it was on Ulleungdo two days before. After a brisk hike up a hill, a cable car takes you up to the high Eastern peak of Ulleungdo, where you look upon as the overcast skies were peppered with holes by the ocean wind, letting columns of light through as they slip over the dramatic ridge of Songin peak in the center of Ulleungdo. I then wait a moment and stand in awe as I thoughtfully compose my shot, twin lens reflex in hand. I give myself a moment’s pause then snap a picture of the peak for posterity. And then a few more rattle off – this time just for my own. I turn around and look toward the overcast skies hanging above the ocean as rays of light pebble the waves. I imagine Dokdo, what would be seen in front of me if it were not so cloudy, and think of how to the west you could see the mainland on a bright day from the Western shores of Ulleungdo. It was at this moment that I knew Dokdo belonged to Korea.

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Or, wait. Possibly it was a different time, long before this. Yes, it was California, five years earlier. That’s when it was. When I knew so little of Korea and knew nothing of Dokdo. Back then I led activities for an English summer camp in California. Schools groups flew in from across the world to participate in this camp. The work was hard but it was gratifying. Then towards the end of one particular camp session, as everything wound down and students were saying tearful goodbyes to friends they just met two weeks before, one Korean student made rounds to all the teachers, and thanked them and gave gifts. When it was finally my turn, she came up to me and handed me a bookmark. I look down and see a shimmering gold bookmark, with a metallic blue circle framing an image of Dokdo framed overhead with an arched proclamation exclaiming “Dokdo belong to Korea!” And it was finally then, at this moment, I knew that Dokdo belonged to Korea.

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

But I didn’t. It was just a bookmark, it was just a well-composed photo, it was just 30 minutes on a dock. Because reality doesn’t work that way. There’s not this eureka moment where after some spiritual journey peaks a switch flips on in my head. The reality is that I am not personally vested in this island, I didn’t grow up learning about the history that has led up to this. I don’t have any connection here that makes me care on any personal level. This isn’t my fight. Dokdo isn’t about me and it has nothing to do with me.

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

But that’s the more impressive thing – the propaganda of Dokdo. It’s the student who prior to going on a trip to learn English in America, would buy someone who’s never been to Korea a bookmark explaining what Dokdo was. It’s the beautiful island that’s been built up as a tourist’s hub that brings so many visitors to see and spend money on this island. It’s the island of Dokdo itself, that has ferries constantly moving back and forth just to experience the entirety of the island from just the dock and be ferried back 30 minutes later. It’s the messaging that Korea has built up and refined for an audience that has no stake in it. I don’t live in Seoul, I’m not in anywhere that’s vested in international political fights where I’d see political demonstrations and posters about Dokdo. I’m not even in New York where American citizens outside the UN could happens cross posters of Dokdo in English, yet the messaging of Dokdo still found me. There isn’t a humanitarian or environmental crisis here, nothing that aligns with my personal urgent morals that demands my attention here. There’s no reason for foreigners to care about this necessarily. Yet I found myself brought to this island being educated about it. And now here I am writing about it. What compelled my body to be on that island was much less my desire and more about the impressiveness of the campaign that brought me here that’s been undertaken by the Korean nation.

 And as much as I have no personal stake or passionate feelings about it, I somewhat care enough to write this. Just on the impressiveness of the messaging if anything else. The entire campaign to educate the Western World on what the island is. The creation of education centers and the money put into funding trips like the one I went on. And I see the reasoning behind it.

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

Dokdo

While sunrises are a new area of appreciation for me, I do understand sunsets. Americans usually do. It’s in our myths. In the creation of the American West in the American consciousness. A staple trope of almost every Western tale is the lone rider, who after saving the townsfolk “terrorized” by local gangs or native populations, sets off into the sunset to never be heard from again, presumably to do the same elsewhere when his work is done here. It sounds romantic when you stop there – but the imagery isn’t so much derived from the aesthetic beauty of a frontier bathed in golden light and the hero who ventures forth into wild untamed land as much as it’s about drilling a narrative into the audience of American expansion, and how romantic it is to go westward, where the sun sets, where the lone rider heads. It’s always been about cementing the ideas that before cowboys, the West was unclaimed – a myth of wild, untamed lands for Americans to claim. They go west at the end of every cowboy story not because of the cinematic beauty of riding into the sunset but more because of what that represents: literally westward expansion. The myth of the American Wild West is dense with subtext of Manifest Destiny and of fantasies of an ideal American spirit. About rewarding people who strike out on their own to settle lands that “didn’t have people.” Historically, this is what happened in the settling of the American West – a rinse and repeat of Americans settling, the government coming in at the slightest problem to clear out Native Americans and other impediments, and then settling further until we finally reached the West Coast.

Dokdo is in a lot of ways an inversion of that myth. Instead of a lone rider setting off to settle new lands, Dokdo is in a lot of ways a stubborn rebuke at the history of Japanese imperialism. The island’s narrative lies in contrast to the myth of the lone rider – a settler, in the American myth a descendant of colonizers both in reality and spirit – setting off west on what is assumed to be more exciting adventures, piercing the veil between the settled and unsettled. While always told in romantic hues, is probably not viewed in the same light to the people who lived here prior to American expansion and have survived through the history of America. This sentiment I don’t have to imagine with their retrospectives on history through their colonial period. In Korea the rebuke of imperialism can be seen in the phrase ‘The Korean morning begins in Dokdo,’ said as a passionate rallying cry, somewhere in the reminiscent spirit of cries like ‘remember the Alamo’ more than the slow dim of a story that ends with a rider peacefully heading off into a sunset.

“Go West, young man.” is the call for adventure that epitomized the hopeful possibilities of westward expansion. In that quote it frames westward settlement as an endless journey – west isn’t a destination, it’s a direction. It’s the aspirational messaging of settling occupied lands. It’s the aspirational framing of expansion across the continent that pretties the stain of imperialism. Korea cannot share the same romantic feelings meant in Greely-attributed quote. In this quote I understand what Dokdo is. Dokdo is not a bookmark, or a ferry ride, or an island as much as it is a line. It’s a line against the inverted mirror of the aspirational narrative of expansion. Dokdo is an argument. Dokdo is a line.

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