Mike Nemchick directs a performance of “The Vagina Monologues,” the play that led him to research comfort women in South Korea.
The Language of Justice
As a freshman, Mike Nemchick '13 first heard about “comfort women” during a performance of “The Vagina Monologues.” The haunting testimonies of the women—who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II—live on in the words of playwright Eve Ensler, who expresses their anguish in a moving plea for justice before their “stories leave this world.”
The story stuck with Nemchick, who became a co-director of the production at Washington & Jefferson College the following year—a role he since has maintained to help bring awareness to violence against women.
“This is my way of keeping the story of the comfort women alive,” he said, adding that for the past 20 years, supporters and survivors regularly gather in protest outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea. “They go every Wednesday,” Nemchick said. “The women protest in hopes that the Japanese government will acknowledge these crimes and issue an apology.”
“This is my way of keeping the story of the comfort women alive."
Upon declaring a major in history his sophomore year—overruling his original plans to study chemistry—Nemchick was inspired to further explore the plight of the comfort women for an East Asian history course. “Writing that paper got me more interested in the topic,” said Nemchick, who also has a minor in gender andwomen’s studies. “I decided I could make a project out of it if I was able to go to Korea to research the political situation first-hand.”
Nemchick applied for a Magellan Project the spring semester of his junior year, right before leaving campus to study abroad in Shanghai. As soon as he received confirmation that his proposal had been accepted, he began planning for his next adventure to South Korea while adapting to life at a Chinese university. “It was hard to get things rolling,” he said, recalling the challenges of making contacts and arranging travel accommodations from another country.
Once in Seoul, the western Pennsylvania native tested his travel acumen while finding his way around the densely populated city. “There was a big language barrier,” he said. “I didn’t have time to study much Korean beforehand. I just knew a handful of words that I got by on.”
Relying on his prior research, Nemchick found the House of Sharing, where he was able to interact with some of the surviving comfort women. The women, who are cared for at an assisted living facility connected to the museum, opened up to Nemchick about their stories. “They talked about basic things like how they were doing that day,” he recalled. “There was one who was more energetic. She liked singing and acting and talking about movies. She sang us songs.”
While taking a tour of the museum, Nemchick observed the women’s memorials and testimonies, as well as the paintings they created to help cope with their experiences. “As can be imagined, comfort women faced inhumane conditions, fighting disease, physical exhaustion and violence,” Nemchick said. “Many women did not speak up about what happened until years after the war, and many still choose to remain silent. Now that the women are growing older, this is a vital time for people to visit this piece of living history.”
“Being able to come up with an idea to pursue and going out and finding ways to do it is rewarding.”
The experience helped transform the naturally reserved Nemchick, who has noticed a significant growth in his independence since returning to W&J. “I’ve become a lot more confident—working on my own, going out on my own,” he said. “Being able to come up with an idea to pursue and going out and finding ways to do it is rewarding.”
As a senior, Nemchick is turning his focus to graduate school with aspirations of pursuing a career in human rights. He is certain he wants to continue traveling, listing countries in Asia, Europe and Africa. “I’m interested in seeing Africa, because I don’t really know a lot about it,” said Nemchick, who credits his Magellan Project with uncovering these ambitions. “Magellan is a way to learn more about yourself and to test yourself to see what you can do. It’s about learning something new and seeing what the world has to offer.”
-Georgia Schumacher '10