The Year of the Rat began a new cycle of 12 zodiac symbols. The year was a foundation for dramatic explosions of expectations that gave hope to some and enraged others. It was one of the busiest times of my life, marking 25 years after I was involved in the NGO Forum and the UN Fourth World Conference on Women. Other anniversaries kept popping up on my calendar: the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council resolution #1325, 100th year celebration of American suffrage, and tenth birthday for UN Women. These anniversaries were more than memories of the past: they inspired change for the future. On my birthday, I begin a Feminist and Women’s Movement Action Plan with Krishanti Dhamaraj. That project has kept me treading fast on the UN track ever since.
I celebrated my birthday with dear friends: Pramila Patten (UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Sexual Violence During Conflict) and Catharine Stimpson (Dean Emeritus of the New York University Graduate School). Lopa Banerjee, Director of the Civil Society Division of UN Women, joined us as we drank Michigan white wine sangria and toasted to long life and happiness for all our families and friends. I can still feel the joy.
The WEDO Board asked me to represent WEDO for UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), where I met women mayors who are making a difference. As Chair of the WEDO Board, I also attended the annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties meetings. If women in cities don’t make climate change a priority, we cannot save our planet in time. WEDO is right on target.
A group of bright University of Michigan students coached me for my first TEDx talk on global citizenship. It was a happy return to my alma mater. Two of my former students showed up to congratulate me. I got that strange feeling that teachers get when they are told they made a difference in someone’s life.
I spoke at my first New York City Times Square rally as Chair of the NGO Committee on the Status of Women/New York (NGO CSW/NY) for part of our Beijing Plus 20 celebrations. I have always said “As an volunteer at an NGO, I do a happiness check every year. I plan to quit if I stop smiling.” How do we organize more than 4000 NGO representatives every year around the UN Commission on the Status of Women? It is a miracle — and that makes me smile.
I was elected the First Vice-President of the Conference of NGOs in Consultative Status with the UN (CoNGO) and became Chair of the Non-Governmental Organization Committee on the Status of Women in New York (NGO CSW/NY). I told our members, “We are all volunteers, so our work should bring us joy.” I do a happiness check every year. If I’m still smiling, I continue this work. How does the NGO CSW/NY organize 2000-plus women every year during the UN Commission on the Status of Women meeting? At first glance, I’d say, “It is a miracle,”, and that makes me smile.
Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, led the way to pass a resolution calling for equal representation of women in treaty negotiations. At a strategy meeting, I sat behind the government delegate from Bangladesh who supported the idea. How does a feminist advocate for women’s freedoms behave in a country that says women must cover up their legs in public? Christiana Figureres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, put on a light scarf at the opening ceremonies to abide by local traditions. The next day, I changed from shorts to long pants. Sometimes my anthropological instincts kick in, and I conform to local customs.
As a consultant for the World Health Organization Tobacco Free Initiative, I headed a team of scientists working on gender, women and tobacco. Dr. Jonathan Samet, Director of the Institute for Global Health at USC, and I edited the WHO report, Gender, Women and the Tobacco Epidemic. We launched the WHO conference on women and tobacco in Kobe, Japan by wearing Japanese jackets and hammering sake barrels. Dr. Gro Brundtland, then Director-General of WHO gave the barrels their hardest blow.
Pranay Gupte, Editor of The Earth Times, asked me to replace Bella Abzug as a columnist on social development issues. I started to wear hats in case there was some Bella magic in them. Through EarthTimes, I covered global conferences: Rio Plus Five (Brazil), Habitat II (Istanbul), the World Economic Forum (Davos) and World Bank meetings. At the Rio Plus Five meeting, I spoke at my first international press conference along with Maurice Strong, UN Secretary-General of the first Earth Summit (1992), and an impressive tribal chief representing the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. They were both very supportive of the feminist agenda.
Irene Santiago, Director for the NGO Forum on Women, asked me to be the UN Liaison for the Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing. My job was to coordinate regional networks and work on an NGO Beijing Platform for Action document. Fifty thousand delegates gathered at the largest UN world conference ever. If we had all stomped on the earth together at the same time, we would have knocked the earth out of orbit. On opening day, two angry Americans accused me of being part of a Chinese conspiracy to sabotage the conference.
Our daughter is born. She turned out to be a beauty — inside and out. She still is.
I accepted a job as a social scientist for the World Health Organization Southeast Asia Regional Office in New Delhi, India. The office covered eleven countries, including North Korea. I got a hands-on crash course in a wide range of public health topics, including HIV/AIDS, immunization, sanitation, maternal health, and tropical diseases. I have a large collection of photos from this phase of my life that I call my “statue phase”: I’m usually the only woman in a group of serious-looking men standing in orderly rows. When I wore a sari, locals thought I was from Nepal, the Indian hill tribes, or Tibet.
I travel to conduct two case studies on women’s gardens in Senegal and women’s dams in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). Right after I left Upper Volta, there was a coup d’état. This contributed to a rumor at Newsweek that I was causing worldwide political upheavals.
I continued my research in women’s studies, women in development, and shamanism and health. My article, “A Legacy Without Heirs: Korean Indigenous Medicine and Primary Health Care”, was published in Social Science and Medicine the next year. I claimed that “… the ancestral shadow of Korean indigenous medicine is alive and kicking.” This is still true many years later.
Rick and I moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, because I wouldn’t live in Manhattan. I told him, “We have dictators in Asia, but our streets are safe. The same can’t be said of New York City.” I learned to rollerblade, but never mastered the art of stopping. Elizabeth Reid from Australia, adviser to the UN women’s conference, asked me to join the UN Secretariat for the UN World Conference on Women in Copenhagen, where we introduced the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to women ministers from around the world. After the conference, I returned to my research on women’s studies as a visiting researcher at Sarah Lawrence.
Nine Thai monks married me and Rick Smith at the Marble Temple in Bangkok, Thailand. I described my husband as my biological and cultural opposite–not a bad formula for an interesting, life-long love affair. The former editor of the international edition of Newsweek, Rick worked in New York. For two years, we had the world’s most expensive commuter marriage.
I joined the UNICEF Regional Office in Bangkok, Thailand as a social development officer. I had the amazing chance to put my anthropological theory into practice and learn first-hand about women and children’s issues. My work took me to villages and development projects throughout Southeast Asia and Pakistan, where I met women leaders working in many walks of life: working to develop their villages and urban slums, feminist activist demonstrating in the streets, labor union leaders organizing peddlers, government officials fighting corruption, and UN defenders of women and children’s human rights. They gave me enough inspiration to last a lifetime.
Dr. OgKill Kim, President of Ewha Womans University, invited me to teach in Seoul in the sociology department as a Fulbright Scholar. My Korean was poor, so most Koreans thought that I was a Japanese tourist. While doing anthropology research on shamanism and traditional medicine, I met OkSun Mun, a famous Jeju Island shaman. She was one of the most intelligent women I have ever met.
I left my job as an Instructor in the anthropology department at Michigan State University. My heart’s desire was to join the United Nations. Marshall Sahlins, the chairman of my dissertation committee, told me that it would “ruin my career” to join the UN and suggested that I apply for a job at Stanford University. I declined.
After leading a group of exchange students in Japan, I returned to Korea to visit my aunt, DoShyn Song, in Seoul. A friend from Ewha Womans University invited me to the school’s retreat in the eastern Sorak Mountains. The students stayed out of the sunshine as much as possible so they wouldn’t tan. I occasionally coaxed them outside the black roofed tent to play on the beach.
While at the University of Michigan, I earned an AB in French Literature, and a MA and PhD in Anthropology. My dissertation covered the history of French winegrowers’ cooperatives. After living for two years in Rognes, a remote French village, my English got worse. My Provençal French improved. Old men in the village thought that a Vietnamese woman had come to write a novel about them, so they divulged many good tales. It’s not the only time I’ve been involved in a case of mistaken identity.
I graduated from Ann Arbor High School. My future career tests said that I would go into social sciences. My friends wished me luck in becoming a famous artist. My only theatre performance in my life was when I played a princess in The King and I. My picture is still up in the school’s “Hall of Fame”–but not for acting.
I won a local talent contest playing Strauss’ Black Hawk Waltz on the piano. A limo picked me up to take me to Detroit, where I played piano on a television show. Mischa Kotler, music director for the television network, gave me piano lessons when I visited with my mother. His parrot was very funny.
My siblings and I were reunited with our parents in Seoul. My aunt’s many connections with army generals and government officials arranged our passage on a US Navy ship from Busan to San Francisco. American immigration officers didn’t believe our visas were real and threw us into jail. My aunt, PokShyn Song Line, and her husband, Winfield H. Line, rescued us and took us to our new Michigan home. At night, we were afraid of the outside world and cried if windows were left open.
My family had to leave our homes that had been filled with joy and music. The Russian army turned our house into its headquarters. My father fled to avoid conscription and was thrown into prison when he arrived in Seoul. My mother left to find him. Later, during cold winter nights, I was carried on a stranger’s back while my older siblings walked hundreds of miles from Pyongyang to Seoul. Farmers fed us the most wonderful noodles we have ever tasted.
As they say in the Buddhist tradition, I was “reborn” a girl in war-torn Pyongyang, North Korea. My grandfather, SangChum Song, named me “Soon-Young.” It means “peace forever.” My mother, KyungShyn Song Yoon, couldn’t remember if I was born in the Year of the Monkey or the Year of the Chicken. That has puzzled fortune tellers ever since.