Story by: Anthony Levero, Photos by: Ami Shin
Influence Gusts of Popular Feeling blogger
Gusts of Popular Feeling has never been a blog to shy away from controversial issues that affect expat life in Korea. The blog’s scope has covered almost all aspects of Korea, from culture and politics to history, and its writer, Matt VanVolkenburg, is a constant fixture in discussions about mandatory drug and HIV testing for foreigners. His collaborative work on the topic formed the basis of Groove Korea’s memorable April 2013 cover story “Dear Korea: I still don’t have AIDS.”
In fact, it was with a mind to covering political developments on the peninsula that the Ontario, Canada native began the blog in 2005. “The blog has often been an outlet for whatever I was interested in reading or learning about Korea at the time, from European explorers’ accounts of Korea in the 18th and 19th centuries to accounts of the Russo-Japanese War to political events like the 1960 student revolution to rock music in the 1960s and 1970s,” he says.
VanVolkenburg has been critical at times of some anti-foreign sentiment, but he prefers to focus his attention on the positives of his adopted home of the past 13 years: “I would hope that anyone reading the blog doesn’t get the idea that Korea is this overly xenophobic place because of those posts, or that it’s my main interest,” he says. “I’ve written about Korean history, music and redevelopment, but it’s the English teacher-related posts that tend to get all the attention.”
While he may not consider himself an activist by nature, one of the blog’s major accomplishments was raising awareness in the mid-2000s of the notorious Anti-English Spectrum group, a now-defunct xenophobic group that had a larger impact on the lives of English teachers than many would have realized at the time. “It was rewarding to know my work might have some positive effect. I suppose our work helped make it known to readers just how effective Citizens for (Up)right English Education (formerly Anti-English Spectrum; both groups are now defunct) were and how they were responsible for E-2 HIV tests,” he says.
The controversy peaked in 2007, when VanVolkenburg noticed redundancies, overlaps and entirely incorrect facts about foreign teachers circulating online and was prompted to compile the reports he had found into a single post. That might have been it for that topic had Benjamin Wagner, then a Kyunghee University law professor, not been interested in his research, contacting him in 2009. “Since (Wagner) was able to call up the Korea Immigration Service or the offices of National Assembly representatives and get answers from them,” he recalls, “returning to the topic proved to be fruitful, and we spent about three years researching the origins of negative perceptions of foreign teachers in the media, tying it to historical perceptions of U.S. soldiers, and using this research in petitions to the Constitutional Court of Korea and the Committee on the Eradication of Racial Discrimination.” The outcome of that case is still pending.
The blog takes its name from a line in a book written in 1898 by Isabella Bird Bishop, which VanVolkenburg still finds applicable today: “Gusts of popular feeling which pass for public feeling in a land where no such thing exists can be found only in Seoul.”
While VanVolkenburg plans to continue his education in North America this year, he has no plans to stop updating Gusts. He has seen Korea change a lot, but believes that it will continue to maintain the essential aspects of what he loves about the place: “The thing about Koreans … when they decide to do something, they go all the way.”
More info www.populargusts.blogspot.kr