Thursday, November 03, 2011

What's in a poppy?

At the Canadian embassy yesterday, I paid 500 Korean won and picked up a poppy. The first thing I noticed was that I'm still abysmal at putting one on and keeping it there, though the poppy I have seems to have made it almost twenty-four hours now without incident. Wearing a poppy is the sort of serious cultural tradition, a convention or orthodoxy in the sense of being what everyone else does, that made me slightly uncomfortable as a child, no matter what the situation was.

In elementary school, there was an assembly every November 11 for Remembrance Day and teachers handed out the red poppies for us to wear. There was a time, I felt, when schools had veterans attend ceremonies, though that seemed to have stopped by the time I got to high school for reasons I don't understand. Wearing a poppy on Remembrance Day was the one day a year in elementary school, and even to an extent in middle school, that I felt I was in someone else's house.

It might be Canada's greatest asset that somebody who has lived there for even a few years can feel as though they belong, not necessarily because there's nothing to which to belong, but that Canadians make others feel welcome and accepted, almost to a fault. With 300,000 people moving to Canada every year (the equivalent of 3 milion new Americans each year), it might be a reflex that's necessary for helping society function.

The Korean experience, if due to nothing but appearance, is very different. That said, it took the presence of thousands and millions before me to make my presence seem ordinary. Korea may well get to that point one day, but it's certainly not there yet. I'm not sure what the Korean equivalent of the poppy would be, but it might be that an immigrant to Korea could sing the national anthem and feel as though it meant something, though I don't know how anyone, Korean or otherwise, feels about the national anthem.

What gave the poppy almost an exclusionary air to me, hardly a negative one, was that it was a reminder of Canada's British heritage. I could have seen myself as Canadian, but bringing in a history that I didn't really share (my great-grandfather did serve in World War I) made things different from the usual fare in the classroom. That British heritage is something I think we should be proud of, but it is also not entirely ours. My grandparents and great-grandparents never wore jeans, but I do. Similarly, the current retrograde movement by the federal government towards a monarchist stance is baffling: why express pride in your country by obsessing over the queen of another country?

On and around Remembrance Day, there is no shortage of people serving up tributes to soldiers, some of them thoughtful and deserved, others verging on melodramatic and the product of emotional insecurities. The lesson today from the deaths of 67,000 Canadians in World War I, representing almost one out of every 100 Canadians, ought not just to be the usual lines about remembering their sacrifices, but also that of a country punching well above its weight.

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