When Darius asked his Greek subjects what he would have to pay them to eat the bodies of their fathers instead of burning them on funeral pyres, no sum could tempt them. He then sent for some Indians, who customarily ate the bodies of their deceased fathers, and asked what would induce them to burn those bodies. But not for any price would they tolerate such sacrilege. Everywhere, Herodotus said, custom is king.
—from The Discoverers.
A few months ago a random man approached me while I was waiting for the subway, reading a book, and trying to block out the pompous sound of the commercials played on the flatscreens hanging from the ceiling. He introduced himself by saying he was interested in American culture and then attempted to convert me to Christianity by handing me a pamphlet proving the scientific existence of God—and naturally, after I told him off, and after he sidled a few feet into the distance to lick his wounds, having lost his irresistible curiosity, I began wondering if there was even such a thing as American culture. I might have answered him by saying what American culture?, even if it’s obvious that there’s an American equivalent to every weird idiosyncrasy of Korean culture, and that I only notice one far more than the other thanks to the first twenty-one years of my life I spent in America, where I was like a fish in the sea, whereas here in Korea the fish is not just flopping in the air and gasping with his gills wide, but also getting his blood boiled in a black vacuum, or disintegrating in a parallel universe without any gravity.
The rapid changes that have come to this place must seem staggering to the elders who have lived here since birth, and the strangest and most obvious thing about the Korean cityscape, or my Korean apartment/room/garret, or the Korean elementary school, or any Korean restaurant, is that almost none of it is actually Korean. Some of the elders must believe, to their horror, that their home has been transformed into an imitation of the west. In the school, for example, virtually nothing is Korean except for the language, the long spoons, the steel chopsticks, the food, the polite nodding, the relentless and obsessive shoe-changing, and a few baubles kept in a glass case near the front door. Everything else is fairly familiar to a westerner, though it’s all skewed a little in a strange direction that’s difficult to describe except through metaphor—it’s as if the entire building is tilted slightly, almost imperceptibly, sideways, and no one notices except you.
There are innumerable reasons for this western infection, but one of them worth considering is the long isolation of this country, which, like China and Japan, attempted to cut itself off from the rest of the world for centuries. As a response to the European imperialism of the time, this wasn’t such a bad idea, but one of the modern results of this policy is a conspicuous lack of unique Korean technological achievements. As advanced as the country is today, Korea cut itself off from the developing global culture of the European Age of Discovery/Colonialism/What Have You and was unable to contribute anything of note. Can any of us name a single gadget or common everyday item that was invented here? This accounts for the influx of the west and the way hideous, practical, and modern western architecture dominates the cityscape of Busan: once this country opened its doors, Korea had to confront a world far in advance of its own achievements. The northern half of the country rejected and more-or-less isolated itself from that world, refusing to accept its inferiority and retreating to the status of a Hermit Kingdom, and the southern half more-or-less embraced it, with a few peculiar insecurities thrown into the bargain.
One of these is the professed superiority of the Korean Hangul alphabet over all other written languages. I was inspired to write this post yesterday when I read a brief article in a children’s English newspaper about the supposed scientific nature of Hangul. This was just a paragraph which encouraged kids to take pride in their alphabet and mentioned, without any source, that foreigners from all over the world were coming here to learn how to write it—news to me, since most people seem pretty satisfied with their own systems of writing and couldn’t care less about Hangul, which is useful enough for depicting Korean but totally and even comically ineffective in its renderings of English words. These often add extra syllables and usually end with a pointless “uh” which does not exist in the original, as in 그라놀라, “guhlanohla”, granola; the writing system also seems to make it more difficult to learn English, since so many Koreans, at least when they begin to learn, add extra syllables when they speak aloud and end almost every word with a fat, healthy “uh.” The alphabet was also so scientific that it fell out of use for hundreds of years and wasn’t actually revived until the end of the 19th century…
And while the alphabet is usually given this strange scientific epithet, it’s never specified exactly how or why this language is more scientific than others—I suppose it’s because a number of scholars working under the auspices of Sejong the Great designed this alphabet, but anyone who’s familiar with Cyrillic or even the history of the Latin alphabet knows that scholars all over the world have often had a heavy hand in shaping both written and spoken languages. Hangul is no more or less unique, scientific, beautiful, or effective, than any other written language; my suspicion is that its supposed perfection comes from the insecurities of a former Hermit Kingdom, which couldn’t contribute anything to the advancing knowledge of the rest of the world due to its isolation until it was too late to do so. It’s the principium individuationis on a national scale: the west has completely overrun this country, so some Koreans cling to whatever makes their country specifically Korean. This may explain why foreigners are irked by lionization of kimchi, Hangul, the four distinct seasons, Dokdo Island, KPOP, and anything else that may seem unique to this place. Any foreigner who comes here has traveled at least a little and knows, or may begin to know, the pettiness and myopia of such patriotism.
So to conclude this lengthy and possibly inflammatory dullness, the simple fact of patriotism is that it’s annoying wherever you encounter it; no nation is better than any other because nations are artificial constructs and any standard used to measure them is totally arbitrary. But this doesn’t diminish the fact that now, an hour or so after I first wrote this, with a belly full of so-called yummy Korean food, I feel far less negative. It’s best not to write on an empty stomach.