The Truth About Korea

The Dullness of Namsanjeong, Busan

Sometimes we only really discover the true nature of a place when we spend a long time apart from it, and such was the case with Korea. After a comfortable separation of eighteen days I think I’ve finally put my finger on the whole matter. I can summarize this country. I’ve figured it out. I was talking with my beautiful Korean girlfriend and slobbering over an array of delicious Korean food, complaining, in between bites and slurps, about Korea, when I suddenly discovered this truth, about why I love (really love) the intense experience of gorging myself with Korean food but am pitched into a foul mood the moment I glimpse the usual canyons of high-rises and find myself face-to-face with yet another ugly old man whose shameless, glaring eyes regard me as nothing except a horrible savage. The truth is this:

The food is really different, and really Korean. It is truly spectacular. At first its flavors may be so rich that they make a foreign initiate cry out in terror, but soon enough he is packing as much rice and fish into a roll of salty rubbery seaweed as possible, smacking his lips and plucking wads of red, dripping kimchi up from the little banchan plate, and in general stuffing himself at every meal as if he has just been rescued from a desert island. Almost unbearably spicy and almost unbearably briny, Korean food at its best likewise reflects Korean culture at its best and, seemingly, at its most pure.

As for the rest of the country, Korea is an ugly imitation of the West and is quickly losing the few cultural idiosyncrasies it still possesses. The food is the greatest of those idiosyncrasies, and though it is in danger of being watered down for western palettes it is still quite strong enough to make grown men cry. I simply wish the place were more like its cuisine. That is the truth I discovered. I wish the buildings were Korean. The bridges, trains, clothes, streets, cars, everything. Today I can walk from my apartment to my workplace without seeing a single object that is native to Korea—and how depressing is that! The homogenization must end! Korea’s food is lovely! Why can’t the country be lovely, too?!

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3 thoughts on “The Truth About Korea

  1. Jennifer says:

    The Korean vegetarian food is quite good, but any cuisine that considers eating a live octopus to be a delicacy cannot be described as “lovely” to me. This is also the country that thinks you’ll get better flavor or health or something if you beat a dog to death. So coming from my different perspective on things, the food is not one of Korea’s selling points to me.

    I don’t know if there’s much I like about the spirit of this country, actually. I like individual people well enough, some of them very well. I like some things like health care and public transportation and mountain hikes. I like Buddhist temples.

    I’m trying to go beyond liking or disliking Korea, though, to seeing the truth at the heart of everything which is that every “country” is merely a group delusion. There are no “countries” except in human minds. It’s all just land and water with people on it. I don’t know why, but starting to deconstruct the idea of country helps me to appreciate individual people and individual moments of life much more.

    This is probably all incomprehensible in writing. It would be better as a discussion.

  2. Tatiana Luna says:

    China is on it’s way there too, Ian. I don’t know if Koreans have done this too, but China’s idea of modernization is to borrow something from the West and do it badly. They’ve got their eye on some future prize some un-described and un-envisioned utopia, and they’re trying to build their way to it so quickly and thoughtlessly that they make many aspects of daily life pretty shitty for themselves. Literally shitty sometimes–the lovely smell of sewage wafts from polluted canals and poorly fuctioning sewage systems, while high-rise apartment buildings are going up like the pyramids. You’ve talked about the filth of Busan, but it can really be as dirty and toxic as the average industrializing city in China? I guess it probably can be.

    Oh, and Chinese food is also one of the best things about living in China for me 🙂

  3. hiddenconnections says:

    Jennifer, right now I’m reading a little old book by V.S. Naipaul called India: A Wounded Civilization, and I’ve come to realize that while the guy is an over-rated writer (he won the Nobel Prize!!) and an obvious neo-colonialist, some of the anecdotes he relates are particularly interesting, regardless of the truth to them. One is about the re-dedication of a temple statue in the annihilated and subsequently re-built city of Vijaynagar: in order to give the statue life and make it more than a statue (I think) he said five thousand people volunteered to chant a Hindu mantra five million times. After this task is complete the statue is (said to be) inhabited by the god simply because so many people believe in it. I think the same can be said of a nation. Koreans are in general some of the most pompous people I’ve ever met and I think it’s mostly due to how proud they are of their country—all of them definitely believe in Korea. Combine that with a healthy ignorance of the beauty of the outside world and you have little trouble keeping them here to work like slaves when their lives might be much better elsewhere if they didn’t care about improving the condition of their little Ohio-sized ant colony.

    As for the food, I agree with you regarding the octopus and the dogs but it’s still a moral judgment we’re making as one (supposedly mature) society facing another which itself claims that it’s five thousand years old—even if its true history began with the Japanese conquest a little over a century ago.

    Tania, so good to hear from you! You’ve described Korea better than you know. I need to get to China or you and your family need to come here (doesn’t a vacation in Busan sound so enticing…?!?!) so we can really compare. The new Chinese teacher at my school said Busan seemed like a very clean city to her, which made me explode with laughter (to her surprise I think) and realize quite quickly that China must be little more than a giant pile of shit and garbage. Still, it’s China, and a Korean-American back home just told me I should go there to learn the language as a way of opening doors for my professional development (these aristocrats you write about on your blog are definitely going to take over the world, since as far as I know they aren’t troubled by any tea partiers of their own—and who knows, maybe they’re the people we neophytes should be working with to help make the Earth better than how we first found it).

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