The Persistence of the Hermit Kingdom

Welcome To Korea!---actually North Sentinel Island

I’ve been roped into it: despite the pressing need to focus on writing my two thousand-page novel or planning the impending trip across Russia I find myself dedicating the second half of day, the hallowed evening, to reading about the more-or-less uncontacted tribe living on North Sentinel Island. I was guided there by browsing a wikipedia article about difficult languages—interestingly enough, there’s no such thing as a difficult language, it’s all relative—and after the article mentioned that it would be extremely difficult for most people to learn the language that the North Sentinelese speak, I was hooked, since I had never heard of the place and thought that it must be an imaginary concoction. That a place in the world could escape the library of trivial useless facts I have packed into my brain from years of procrastinating by reading and re-reading encyclopedias is wonder enough; there should be a verb, wikipediing, that describes not only reading and writing wikipedia articles, but the process of discovery involved in doing so, the way a web of facts and curiosities weaves itself together for the pleasure of the authorial spider—this, despite Tom Wolfe’s declaration that “only a primitive” would believe a word of wikipedia—perhaps a primitive from North Sentinel Island.

Another truly great article I found is this one, written by Adam Goodheart, where he writes all about the tragedy of the end of the Age of Exploration, and says that the mythical First Contact, so amazingly depicted here by David Attenborough (himself the answer to the question of why the British ruled the world for centuries), will end when the North Sentinelese finally accept the thriving, electrical citadel that completely surrounds them. But it’s an arbitrary declaration to say that the Age of Exploration began with Columbus or someone else from the Renaissance—it began when the first human began, and will end when the last human ends, because it is obvious that people and cultures are still intermingling and interacting, sometimes as if they have never done so in their lives, and it’s obvious that through the entirety of history groups of people have come together to meet for the first time before melting back into the primeval forests they came from, as the affable New Guineans do in Attenborough’s video.

In a place like Korea the situation is a little different but it still bears some similarities. Everyone in Busan has seen westerners in billboards, advertisements, television, movies, and more than a few have run into one on the subway or seen one walking on the street, but only a tiny minority have actually spoken to one, and even less have had anything resembling a meaningful relationship with someone who is not Korean. This cultural peculiarity (and the persistence of the Hermit Kingdom itself) is reflected in the behavior of the children, who at the elementary level simply do not know how to behave around foreigners; the greatest achievement of cross-cultural interaction is a peaceful normal acceptance of one another, but Korean children are usually excited and over-excited in one way or another when they encounter me in the hallway, the classroom, or anywhere else in the school, even though I have been around them five days a week eight hours a day for almost a year. They are usually kind, pleasant, and amusing, but their occasional rudeness and their incredible level of disrespect shown toward an adult male—completely unthinkable at their age virtually anywhere else, as far as I can imagine—is a strain of this country’s intense and unusual xenophobia, perpetuated by centuries of isolation and a barbaric occupation by the Japanese, which, amusingly enough, only ever came to an end at all thanks to the unstoppable American war machine.

It is sophistry to say that children learn from their parents—not from what their parents say, but what their parents do. The parents have never interacted with a foreigner before, the children have never seen their parents interact with a foreigner before, so the children do not know what to do when they encounter one in the hallway. I have found this analogy increasingly appropriate: I feel like a barbarian, a Viking berserker clad in nothing but his own bravery (…). If you were to encounter such a person walking down the street or sitting in your classroom, how would you react? You’ve never seen someone like that in the flesh before, though you’ve seen plenty of pictures and movies—and while Asian media is regrettably full of little else except for middle-aged men in suits with blue ties and the latest commercial for plastic surgery in the form of a KPOP group, there are sometimes others put out on display, an archive of curious grotesques to entertain the bored and sleepless ajosshi as he commutes on the subway back and forth to whatever terrible job he is stuck with.

Now the rulers of Korea, the so-called chaebol, have no obvious need to import droves of young, drunk, woman-stealing English teachers. They can and do send their children abroad to learn my language, yet they are probably the ones who are ultimately behind the immense and, again, unusual demand for foreign teachers here—speaking of which, isn’t it absurd to expect someone who does not speak your language to teach you how to fluently speak his own? Would American elementary schools ever hire French people to teach French to their students if those French people literally could not speak a single word of English? So the question is, why do they do it? It costs thousands and thousands of dollars to ship me over here, and I seriously do little more in the classroom beyond the mind-numbingly tedious listen-and-repeat exercises mixed with an occasional compliment or insult. That’s just the morning. In the afternoon I write, read, nap, or practice learning the language in an office that is either always too hot or too cold.

The answer is this: most foreigners have no reason to come to Korea. Palaces? Statues? Historical relics? What the Japanese didn’t destroy the Koreans took care of in their own civil war. People generally do not think of smog, filth, pollution, and high-rises when they think about vacations, but this is the scenery that will greet them if they make the dire mistake of blowing thousands of dollars of their money to go to Korea rather than Italy or Hawaii. So there are no foreigners. The hermit kingdom persists. Yet if the country wants to modernize—today it is only superficially modern—its citizens must be able to interact with the outside world, which is where all the money is. Its people cannot do that if they have never seen a foreign face before. They cannot part us with our money if they think we’re all Viking berserkers. Therefore the foreign teachers serve a different purpose. We’re here simply to be here, to humanize the west for Korea, to take people of all colors off the billboards and put them on the street—to fight the persistence of the Hermit Kingdom, which was necessarily an impoverished one, and to increase the number of first contacts (hardly different from those occurring every now and then in the isolated parts of the world) happening on a daily basis between locals and those strangers who come from very, very far away.

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3 thoughts on “The Persistence of the Hermit Kingdom

  1. Stirling says:

    Insightful post. I spent some time in Taegu (or Daegu)several years ago but didn’t get to explore much beyond the boundaries of the military base where I was stationed. I always wanted the opportunity to explore the area and meet people, but such things are low on the military’s priority list.

    The geography, what I saw from the air that is, is beautiful yet often obscured by smog. Likewise the binju ditches are an interesting engineering solution for urban sewer management.

    Anyway, thanks for the impetus for an opportunity to reminisce. Great post.

  2. Tom Kinney says:

    Hate to tell you, but the picture at the top of your blog isn’t of the North Sentinelese. In fact, it’s from a tribe on the Peruvian/Brazilian border. Interesting blog post though.

  3. For visitors to your website, my name is Capt. Robert Fore. I found this page while researching North Sentinel website postings. I am the pilot that flew the air/sea rescue operation to save the crew of the Primrose in August of 1981. For any or your readers that may be interested, the rescue operation with accompanying photos of the rescue operation can be found at:

    We have been making efforts to bring even more information to light about the rescue of the Primrose crew, and any new information concerning the island and its inhabitants.

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