Tag Archives: Hangul

Fight The Power

Why have I stopped blogging? Because blogging doesn’t pay. Writing books doesn’t really pay either, but it does pay something, and I decided over the last two months to devote all my creative powers toward using writing to make that something into a bigger and more substantial something that would be sufficient to extricate both myself and my family from Korea. Not surprisingly, we’re all still here.

But I was inspired to return briefly to my defunct website to describe an encounter I just had at a restaurant with my two-year-old son as well as a family of Koreans, who sat down across from us and commenced to parrot everything I said in English while simultaneously commenting, in Korean, on what my son and I were doing. I told my son to have some rice in English, and the boy across from us told his father the same thing in the same language, explaining that it meant 밥 먹어라 in Korean. His father went on to say “habbuh some lie-ssuh” about thirty times to the rest of his family, who were all very much amused by his antics. My son then lifted up a fork to eat the rest of his rice. This is strange in Korea, where people only use steel spoons and chopsticks to eat Korean food, forks and knives being reserved for unhealthy and barbarous western cuisine. When I heard the boy across from us say “pokkuh” with surprise and amusement, I looked up at him and his family—for the first time—and discovered that they were all staring at us and smiling.

I couldn’t resist. I berated them, in Korean, for treating us like zoo animals. I know I conjugated my verbs politely, but the emotion inside of me was so strong that I can barely remember what I said. I can remember seeing those amazing smiles of theirs—those “The Foreigner Is Going To Amuse Us” smiles—fade into extremely awkward and stilted “We Don’t Know What To Do” smiles as I said something like, “Is this funny? Is this funny? If you went to America, and spoke Korean, and heard people speaking Korean around you, you would feel bad. For us, we feel bad. It’s not funny.”

Simplistic it is, and I may not have even gotten that much across. Who knows. But it did shut them up. I addressed all of them, as well, looking mother and father and older brother and younger brother straight in the eyes, and they were so surprised they said nothing back. When I finally glanced down to my son, who was still eating white rice with his fork as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening at all, they were still smiling at me like mannequins. It was spectacular. I told my son to finish up, and actually started laughing with him. We paid, thanked the restaurant’s owner as politely as we could, and walked out.

Maybe I would have let it go if they had done the same thing to me before yesterday, when I suspect one of my college students pretended to ddong-chim me for the amusement his friends. I only saw him do so out of the corner of my eye, and I’m not even really sure that’s what he was doing to begin with, but I didn’t yell at him for it—I let it go, actually, when I should have flung him out of the classroom, and because I let it go, the anger seethed inside me, twisting in my gut like a knife for the rest of the day, through the night, and all the way into this afternoon. I regretted my restraint, and I will probably wind up yelling at him in the next class we have together.

But as a result of this restraint and subsequent regret I decided to unleash the fury of my silver Korean tongue, my second soul, at the exact moment I encountered a fresh instance of barbarism that was not only directed toward me, but toward my son. Some readers may think I was less than diplomatic, but seriously, they were talking about us as if we were zoo animals—they were insulting us, right in front of us, as if we didn’t care. I mean, who does that? Who goes to a restaurant—which was otherwise empty, by the way—and starts talking about the people sitting right next to them as if they’re an exhibit in a museum? Who does that, and then smiles pleasantly, as if the people on display don’t care—as if those people enjoy being dehumanized? I shouldn’t have said anything, honestly. What I should have done was pull a Klaus Kinski. I should have picked up my bowl of hot soup and flung it at the boy’s father and said HAVE SOME RICE!

On a related note, last night, a boy came up to me while I was trying without much success to remember the passcode required to get inside a massive apartment building, where one of my students was waiting for me. I was several minutes late and feeling extremely frustrated. He walked up to me, and said, in English, “where are you from?” Without looking at him and also without thinking I said “your mom”. He said, “your home?” And I said, “no, your mom.” He stopped talking to me after that. I then remembered the passcode and got inside.

One more slightly related story. Another blogger has recently related a complaint about Korea’s four-thousand-year history. An older Korean in-law came up to him and said, “did you know Korea has a four-thousand-year history?” or something like that, and it made this blogger feel bad. I found this encounter interesting for numerous reasons, one of those being that a friend from Hampshire engaged in a rather epic battle with a Korean nationalist to remove that exact same [ridiculous] claim from wikipedia’s History of Korea page.

I told my (Korean) wife about this encounter, testing her to see if she would make the bogus claim that Korea is the oldest country on Earth, and she had the presence of mind to say “everyone has a four-thousand-year history”, or something to that effect. And for most of my readers, particularly those reading from beyond the half-peninsula’s shores, that is a truism, but inside Korea it really is possible to encounter people who believe that they could go four thousand years back in time and talk with their ancestors in modern Korean about the scientific wonders of Hangul and the spectacular beauty of 우리 나라 Dokdo over a bowl of spicy kimchi stew.

Now, in four years of dwelling in Korea, I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met who believe these things. One was a random retired schoolteacher. Another was kind of crazy, and introduced himself to me by declaring that an American soldier had killed his grandmother. A third was my mother-in-law, who said that Korean scenery is the most beautiful in the world (my wife corrected her and said that other places are much more beautiful, but why does there even have to be a contest? Parts of Korea are beautiful, parts of the rest of the world are beautiful, everything is wonderful). That’s it. For the rest of the hundreds or even thousands of people I’ve spoken to, these issues have not come up.

But, on the off-chance that someone does come up to you and decides to pick a fight by saying “my country is older than yours” or “my alphabet is prettier than yours”, I recommend fighting them back. I won’t speculate as to why these people act this way, but I do know that by simply nodding and smiling and saying wow, that’s interesting, they aren’t going to stop. That family I berated, for instance, will probably think twice about discussing other foreigners as if they are zoo animals in the future…although I wouldn’t be surprised if they did the exact same thing again in the exact same place and got yelled at in the exact same way, only to ask themselves, “why are these foreigners such assholes?”

First, the claim that Korea is four thousand or five thousand years old or whatever is based on a text called the Samguk Yusa which was written seven hundred years ago. This text does say that an ancient Korean dynasty was founded a long way back, but in the same breath as saying that its founder, Dangun, came out of the sky, talked to bears and tigers, and invented medicine. Thus!, telling people that Korea is older than [insert country here] because it was founded by Dangun is really no different from saying that Greece was founded by Zeus or that England was founded by a dragonslayer named Beowulf or that Iraq was founded by Gilgamesh. Ancient civilizations were present in all of these places, just as they were present throughout much of the rest of the world—some were hunting deer, others were building pyramids, why is one better than the other?—and there is some historical basis for these myths, but can we really trace a direct link between our world and theirs? Would anyone from that period of history feel comfortable or at home in ours? Would anyone from our period feel comfortable or at home in theirs? Why do we then claim them as our own? Why, also, do we sometimes associate ourselves with sports teams made up of muscular men who want nothing to do with us? And why do I see colors when I rub my eyes?

Second, the claim that Hangul, the Korean script, is scientific. It is not a myth. People do say this. I’ve asked them what they mean when they do, and they immediately say “I have no idea.” I’m not really sure what they mean by scientific—what hypothesis is the written language testing or proving?—but there is a direct link between certain letters of Hangul as well as certain letters of the Roman alphabet, so if Hangul is scientific, the Roman alphabet is scientific too (even if these letters descended from arbitrary Egyptian hieroglyphics). The letter ㅂ looks and sounds like a B; the letter ㅋ looks and sounds like a K; the letter ㄴ is sometimes pronounced as an L; the letter ㅣ is sometimes pronounced as an i; the letter ㅍ looks and sounds like the Greek equivalent π. Other letters resemble one another: ㅌ, ㄷ, and ㄹ are all fairly familiar-looking to Westerners who know nothing about Hangul. So if someone comes up to you and says Hangul is scientific, you can say, hey, great, my alphabet is scientific, too!

A final note. The first paragraph I wrote here implies that I am desperate to leave Korea. And, to tell you the truth, when I find myself walking around the trash-strewn streets of Gyeongju with my son, I can’t help but feel ashamed. I’m like, really, Ian? This is the best you can do? You’re going to raise your son in a place that smells like diarrhea? When your parents raised you around Park Slope and Acadia National Park? Don’t get me wrong. I like Korea. I speak Korean. I’ve married a Korean person. I have a great relationship with her parents. She has a great relationship with mine. My son is half-Korean. I thoroughly enjoy my job at a university in Korea. But when I think of my son walking around these mountains of garbage, bent over multiple-choice exams in a hagwon at twelve in the morning, listening to yet another group of idiots say hello to him in English, I can’t help but consider that a failure. I can’t help but feeling to the depth of my soul that I am capable of more. We’re getting out of here. He’s going to live in a place that treats him like a human being. America has its problems, but jesus christ, as least the kid can go outside. And my insane hope to break free from all of this insanity is to write a book that people actually read. Or to just get a decent job.

I will escape, one day, and you’ll read about it here, when I do. Then these ridiculous stories about zoo animals in restaurants will end forever.

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Proactive Anthropology

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.

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