Tag Archives: Korean Culture

The Couches

There are two of them in my apartment, and several months ago they were both bought together for around $350 from a friend who claimed to have gotten them from the American Embassy in Seoul, on top of that claiming that they were made in America, which is supposedly famous for producing good couches. I don’t know anything about those assertions, but I do know that the couches are comfortable. I know this because for many years I lived in a house with couches of such staggeringly powerful embraces that after five minutes they would put to sleep guests who were unused to their charms. So after three years of sitting on hard Korean floors and in hard Korean chairs without any neck support, and after aching and groaning and leaning forward on hard tables to rest like a convict, my neck throbbing with pain even in the tackiest cafes, these two new couches came as a revelation. From now on people could come to this apartment and be comfortable. I could lie back and watch my son play with his toys and let my mind wander.

Westerners took advantage of these good couches. But many Koreans refused to do so. Most of the homes I have encountered in this country are not furnished beyond a single small kitchen table and a couple of very hard chairs, which are occasionally made of metal and plastic. Now and then a blanket may be spread on the floor before a flatscreen television. Other rarer wealthier families do possess leather couches of great size and hardness, and these line the walls of their living rooms and seem to function—entirely—as the supporters of stray papers, textbooks, and backpacks. Sit on one of them and you feel yourself racked with pain; at the house of a very wealthy patron the couch is so soft that you cannot sit on it without sliding off onto the floor.

And that is exactly what these Korean visitors do the moment my back is turned. They come in and they make a show of sitting on the corrupt decadent western couches, allowing only an inch or two of their rumps to make contact with the cushions, still supporting the lion’s share of their weight with their legs, which are stretched out like rigid hypotenuses, straight to the floor. Then, the moment I leave the room, they fall to the floor like synchronized dancers, and the couches go unused until long after they’ve left.

I’ve asked my wife about this. She has been Americanized by me, and lies down and stretches herself out and relaxes on these cushions with the glee of the lankiest laborer, and she claims that her fellow Koreans think it rude to relax in the company of, well, anyone—anyone, at least, beyond the immediate family. One thinks at once of the occasional benches that can be found outside which do not have any backs and are rarely if ever used, though one can see old men sitting on them if one searches for awhile, their legs stretched out, arms on their knees, backs completely straight, like the yangban nobility one sees in pictures of the destitute, backward, and oppressive Joseon Dynasty. I was once reprimanded by my wife’s family for lying down in their company—as I stretched out and sighed with fatigue I knew at once from the shock and glare of those around me that I had committed a faux pas—thence told by her father that I was not acting yangban-like.

A yangban at work.

A yangban at work.

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Korean Faiths

I was in a cafe, where a Buddhist monk came to bang on his hollow wooden moktak for exactly three seconds before the barrista, a chubby man who had been chomping and slurping at his noodles like a ravening horse not five minutes before—shaking the windowpanes with the barbarous thunderous smacking of his tongue and his lips—ordered him to get the hell out, almost before he even started chanting, like this:

Monk: [to wooden knocking] Ha-may-ha-may-ha
Barrista: Fuck off!

It is possible that a Christian also came in to ring few little bells, but I only heard them, and didn’t see the ringer. A few blocks away from the cafe there is a temple (or at least a temple gate painted with a swirling red-and-blue taijitu) dedicated to Chondogyo, a Korean syncretic faith from the 19th century; and a few blocks away from that one may pay witches, wizards, and shamans from the ancient religion called Mu to cast about and find one’s fate. Their homes are marked by red swastikas, and there is a forest not five minutes away where a small shrine has been dedicated to the founder of the city’s royal clan, who hatched from a golden chicken egg that descended from on high.

On the bike ride over to this cafe I passed a man out on a streetcorner who was blasting a recording of himself justifying his claim to be god. He had taped laminated papers to the sidewalk which read, in Korean: Nanun shineeda; I am god. It was quite cold, and he was still there when I finished and went back home. There were no crosses in his display, though he was just about as crazy as the man I saw back in the western part of Busan who would ride the subway just so he could walk around and, loudly, bless all the passengers in the name of Mr. Jesus (Yesooneem). As I saw him many times I conceived of a fantasy which involved following him around and blessing everyone in the name of Mr. Devil (angmaneem) immediately after he had babbled out his joyous shtick, thereby canceling out his blessings. I still wonder what he would have done in response, and may even travel back to Busan and wait around on those stale fluorescent subways just so I can find out. Once a couple of ajummas cackled and said he was a crazy, stupid bastard as soon as he left their car.

There is a sizable but silent atheist bloc as well as Muslims and Hindus marked out only by their darker complexions; I am the only Jew in Korea I know of.

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Korea’s First World Star

About a year ago I asked a young Korean woman who the most famous Korean was in America. “Rain?” she guessed, and I shook my head. “Kim Yeona?” No. “JY Park?” No. “The Wondergirls?” No. “Kang Ho-dong?” No, god no. Who, I continued, was the only Korean every single American knew of? “MC Mong?” No. “2PM?” No. “BoA?” No. Who was the only Korean who happened to be a household name? “John Cho?” No. “Margaret Cho?” No. “No Hong Chul?” No. All of them are near complete unknowns in America, and could safely walk the most crowded streets without attracting half as much attention as my mixed race son does here in Korea.

The answer, of course, was Kim Jong-il, rest his potbellied soul.

While the Korean media often refers to the top celebrities here as world stars, as if to underscore the fact that they are not world famous, I do think there is some truth to a statement made by one of my friends in America, that Korea is the cultural capital of Asia. These people I mentioned may be unknown in the West, but their faces were plastered all over Thailand and Laos when my wife and I went there, and on several occasions random non-Koreans came up to her and talked about who their favorite Korean celebrities were. Even the comedians, who strike most Westerners as being either boring or childish, were in favor; while in America most people seemed to think that my wife was either Chinese or Japanese, partly because no Korean-born celebrity has ever become a celebrity in America.

This situation may finally be changing with Psy, who in the last few weeks has achieved a level of success in America never attained by any Korean. There was a recent attempt by Girls’ Generation to break into the American Scene on Letterman that predictably fizzled, while Rain’s amusing Colbert dance-off went nowhere, along with a couple of worthless action movies, one of which was about ninjas, rather than Korea’s own seonbi or Hwarang Flower Warriors, presumably because Rain’s producer’s desperation to make it in the West far outweighed their own patriotic hatred of Japan. We’ll give these Americans something they already know, the producers may have reasoned, rather than something new.

There was nothing new or Korean about these actors or pop stars anyway—in that video on the Colbert Report, Rain might as well just be Michael Jackson if Michael Jackson had decided to be Asian rather than white. Speaking of which, most of these singers have rhinoplastied the living daylights out of their faces in the name of looking as white as possible (ahem, the Girls’ Generation nonuplets), dancing around in Western-style studios with Western-style outfits and Western-style dance moves that are all done better by the people they are striving to imitate. Cheaper imitation cars and electronics may sell in America, but cheaper imitation celebrities don’t. Why, after all, should Americans like watching Koreans doing things that Americans do better? Why do we need Lee Hyo-ree when we already have Britney Spears?

There were numerous other attempts by numerous other Korean artists to become famous in America, and all have failed except for Psy. Koreans and observers of Korean Pop Culture are all probably wondering why, some saying he’s a star because he criticizes Korea’s conspicuous consumption, a subject few Americans know anything about. The simple fact is that his music video is actually entertaining, while most of the celebrities I’ve mentioned are not, and at best are always, Samsung-like, one or two steps behind their American counterparts. The man is also Korean, without a hint of any plastic surgery, and he’s dancing around in Korea, which is interesting—those crazy apartment buildings and swan boats haven’t been seen in any music videos until today, I’m sure. As with The Host, Koreans succeed when their films focus on the weirdness of this place, and stop genuflecting before the West. The guy’s moves are original. It’s not just about the social commentary. It’s about the man’s simple talent, and his Korean-ness.

Right this second the heads of JYP Entertainment are working on thousands of different ways to rip this video off, watching it and thinking: But this isn’t the Korea we want everyone to see! This Korea is too…Korean!

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Salad Bar Confucianism

When a lot of foreigners first step off the boat here in Korea, they probably think two things—

1) What’s that smell?, and
2) What’s up with these people? They’re so nice / strange / rude / different!

Many will stay for a few days, a few months, possibly even a year, and may never get around to answering either of these questions. The answer to the first probably has to do with an overloaded sewage system trying and failing to deal with fifty million people eating fifty million pounds of fermented cabbage and soybeans every day; the answer to the second (relating to the reason why so many people eat so much fermented food) is still too elusive for me, and I’ve lived here for three years.

Although this country is prosperous, and it’s impossible to walk anywhere without encountering huge sleek silvery Hyundais out on the prowl, and hundred-story towers of glass seem to be sprouting up out of the Earth wherever you look, as though they’ve been seeded there by a divine architect—although this current generation of Korean people seems tall, strong, well-fed, and even happy—everything still comes from a completely different social, historical, geographical, even meteorological, context, from the homes of the foreigners who sojourn here. All the glass and steel looks very similar to what I’m used to at home, but the people who make and use these things come from a place that could not be more different from my family’s nest.

Many of these contexts have been done to death in other places, so today I’ll just focus on Confucianism, which is the favored whipping boy of many of those who have pretensions to understanding this bizarre culture, myself included. Several days ago I penned a blog post, since deleted, comparing Confucius with Plato. This piece essentially claimed that Confucius is the source of Korean culture, while Plato is the source of Western culture; the former discourages questions, the latter encourages questions; and this difference is at the root of every cultural misunderstanding or miscommunication that occurs in Korea vis-a-vis the West, or even between younger Westernized Koreans and older Koreans who are still really into this guy who is the source of numerous amusing racist jokes back in America (Confucius say man who drop watch in toilet have shitty time!).

But before I even came to Korea I admired Master Kong, which is what we might call him today if Matteo Ricci hadn’t gotten to him first. I’ve always meant to get to The Analects eventually, and as I’ve been reading about Confucius in Karl Jaspers I’ve come to realize that Korean culture has, perhaps, been influenced by Confucianism, but Confucianism is not the root of all the weird issues Westerners like me typically complain about.

Confucius tells us to respect our elders (arbitrary ajoshis), and to sacrifice to them after they die (Jaesa). He says we should probably refrain from questioning them (many Koreans would sooner die than ask a question in a classroom), while at the same time we should focus on learning about the world (hagwons), although we can never hope to possess a complete knowledge of this world (Korean modesty: I’ve met many Koreans who speak English fluently, but not a single one of them has ever claimed as much; they always shake their heads and say they have a long way to go). Furthermore, “to be human means to be in communication”—Koreans rarely if ever do anything alone, while as Confucians they must also constantly do the right thing, defined as what everyone else is doing (i.e., making the peace sign while photographing themselves in front of famous landmarks).

This stuff is definitely in Confucius, and it’s definitely in Korea, but I don’t know if the same ideas were present here before Confucianism became a big deal—it’s possible that some of Confucius’s ideas merely reinforced and justified practices that were part of the region’s history since prehistoric times. Cultures typically seem to take what they like from other cultures, while leaving out what they’re not so into. Iran (or the Iranian government, anyway) can’t stand the decadent West, but they’re totally down with copying western nuclear weapons and purchasing advanced western military technology—this hypocrisy courtesy of a much-maligned V.S Naipaul. Latin American syncretic faiths have combined Catholicism with ancient paganism, just as medieval Europeans changed the names of pagan gods and holidays to fit them in more closely with nascent, rising Christianity; and while most Americans are not completely crazy about Jesus Christ, everybody except me seems to really enjoy the materialistic feeding frenzy of Christmas. To throw in one more example, Protestants like Barack Obama are nuts for capitalism and bombing the living shit out of other countries, all while ignoring those rather important words from Mr. Jeebus—about the eye of the needle and loving our neighbors and turning the other cheek. Certain Catholic priests have also misinterpreted this latter phrase.

Plato, similarly, did not invent the idea of questioning everything constantly, but was himself born and raised in a climate of great intellectual fervency. Certain ancient Greeks, for whatever reason, really liked to ask questions, and pursue them, while most other people just didn’t (and still don’t) care. Plato is not, in fact, the root of science or empiricism; Bertrand Russell claims that his endless moral speculations actually put an end to the Greek scientists who were developing theories about atoms and whether the sun went around the Earth or the other way around while at the same time building the Antikythera mechanism and steam engines that would have made all the widespread slavery in the ancient world almost completely unnecessary.

Plato wasn’t the root of all this, but a part of it; the same is probably true of Confucius. Although Korea may be the most Confucian nation on Earth, after reading a bit about this character I think that the culture views Confucian philosophy as a salad bar—picking what it likes and leaving the rest. Confucius says, for example, that while we should reverence our elders, these elders need to act in a way that deserves respect, something a lot of these arbitrary ajoshis seem to have forgotten. And while he tells us to focus on education, he also says that “If a man can recite all three hundred pieces in the Book of Odes by heart and, entrusted with the government, is unable to perform (his duties) or if, sent abroad as an ambassador, he is incapable of replying on his own, where is the good of all his learning?”—much to the chagrin of many a memorizing hagwon-goer. “Do to no one what you would not wish others to do to you.”—which does away with all arbitrariness! “Truth and reality,” writes Jaspers, “can never be embodied once and for all in any unchanging state or dogmatic statements. Confucius ‘had no opinions, no bias, no obstinacy.'”—in contrast to a people which has made up its mind about Dokdo. And in a land where everyone does everything together, “The superior man goes searching in himself; the inferior man goes searching in others.” It’s useful for a human being to spend time alone thinking about himself or herself or the world—not so useful trying, as I am, to please a crowd.

So the next time you go knocking Jesus when Barack Obama sends a drone after another surely guilty militant—despite the fact that no one except Barack Obama appears to believe that he is a Christian—and the next time you attack Confucius for the ajoshi who’s glaring at you on the subway, remember that both Jesus and Confucius would probably be on your side. What Would Jesus Do? What Would Confucius Do? Both of them would probably tell these assholes to fuck off.

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Near Bo-gyeong Temple (or 보경사, Bogyeongsa).

Yesterday just before a bunch of us Koreans—I felt included in the group—were going to start hiking up a gorgeous mountain, I ran into a bathroom to take a piss. Urinals always make me nervous even though I use them several times a day, and when I do I always take the urinal that’s up against the wall, distant from the sink, and then twist myself around and lean forward so as to conceal my nethers from prying eyes, even though I think I’ve only ever encountered one random bathroom-goer, in all my long years, who appeared to be curious about the shape, form, and general appearance of my Sejong Daewang.

So I pissed my bladder dry and walked out, but as I was returning to the group a random young Korean man who was on his way to the bathroom accosted me. “Oh, hello!” he cried out, his eyes widening, as if mine was the first white face he had ever seen with his own eyes—I answered him with the barest politeness although I should have completely ignored him—“Whel al yoo flom?”—“America,” I gruffly automatically replied, without looking at him and while also quickening my pace—“Oh lee-yo-lee? Why al yoo een Ko-lee-ah?”—“Uh huh”—and he asked something else—“Uh huh”—and by that time I was twenty feet distant, and he and his stupid friend were laughing snidely over the encounter.

For the next hour I burned, I seethed, from that laughter, and even though I shouldn’t have let it get to me, and even though my Korean wife, A., said they were just laughing to save face after getting blown off, I obsessed over of all the horrible things I could have said to him—in Korean, no less, as I had just tried to translate an English poem to some Korean friends on the drive over, and my linguistic abilities are not quite so pathetic as the typical white American. “Whel al yoo flom?” “I just got back from your mother’s —-, and boy was it delicious!” “Why al yoo een Ko-lee-ah?” “To seduce, corrupt, and impregnate your mothers, sisters, daughters, girlfriends, and wives, of course!”

What else can one do about the small population of snide young men who enjoy reminding foreigners, through their idiotic greetings, that they really are not welcome here? Last weekend I was walking back from getting some work done at the university, and unfortunately there was some kind of high school group playing games on the track, which meant that a group of idle high school boys was walking around while begging, pleading, with their eyes for someone to beat the the living daylights out of them. I tensed my body, steeled myself for the encounter—if I’ve got a couple of seconds I’ll even try to think up something mean I can say to them in Korean, if they do indeed accost me—and they did. “Hey man!” one of them shouted as they passed me, holding up his hand in a greeting, his eyes wide with condescending friendliness. I glared at them but didn’t answer.

A couple of his friends laughed in that same snide way—look at how stupid these foreigners are—and that’s when I finally decided, after enduring three years of this shit, that I had had enough. I turned around as they walked away, extended my upper jaw out over my chin, and shouted out—“Aeego chay-meet-da!”, Oh god it’s funny!, mocking their laughter.

The waterfall at 보경사 with Hanja, always a sign of class.

Them’s fighting words, as one of my less likeable high school teachers used to say. A few of them laughed nervously, and that was the end of it—but although violence is wrong, I would have loved to attack all of them, right then and there. They would have totally fucked me up (about eight seventeen year-old males versus one pasty twentysomething), and they might even have killed me (some high schoolers recently did away with a college student up in Seoul after some kind of argument over a video game), but oh man, I would have loved every second of it, because anything is better than just taking their abuse and walking away. It really does require a saint to deal with this kind of shit—Gandhi deserves that epithet, Mahatma, no question about it, because it is so much harder to just let it go.

But it felt good to lash out at them; I was trembling with a ridiculous sense of triumph the whole way home.

Koreans have also complained to me about roving bands of high school boys, and other young men, but I think most foreigners just ignore them and try to put up with their bullshit. After all, their lives are completely miserable in every imaginable way, and they really have nothing to look forward to except endless misery. Imagine this life: an impossible test which will determine the entirety of your future at the end of high school, followed by two years of getting screamed at in the military, followed by working like a slave in a soulless conglomerate (if you’re lucky), followed by getting married to a woman you don’t even really like as a result of endless social pressure, followed by having children you never have the time to see, followed by retiring and not knowing what to do with yourself because you were never given the chance to develop any kind of an interest in the world, followed by never even wanting to see your children because they hate you and blame you for all of their problems. These kids have a lot of reasons to be angry, and I’m actually surprised that they don’t explode more often. Foreigners provide an outlet, because (but for one notable exception) they don’t fight back—even though I think they should. If us waygs freaked out more often, maybe fewer of these assholes would bother us.

Once in Deokcheon, which ranks up there as one of the least-desirable neighborhoods in the country, I was walking around with some foreign friends, one of whom was a rotund black woman. All of a sudden a Korean high school boy ran up to us and pointed and laughed at her while his friends looked on with approval—I can still see him cackling with glee, crouching down halfway like a gremlin—and though my friends just ignored him I was enraged, because that was seriously not cool.

My wife A. has informed me that Koreans have an equivalent to “You should be ashamed of yourself” or “You shame your family, your ancestors, etc.”—“Stop painting your parent’s faces with shit.” (부모님 얼굴에 똥칠 하지마라) I’ll be using this line in the future; there’s also an equivalent to “Mind your own business” or “Fuck off”, which is useful when random old people start ordering you around as if they own you, something which has happened, I’m sure, to every single outsider who has stayed in Korea for more than a few days. One of the monks at my university has been trying to get a foreign professor to edit yet another stupid paper on how the world will be saved if everyone just becomes a monk—he’s been pestering her constantly, asking her when she’s free, calling her—and she’s refused repeatedly, but he might not get the message unless she tells him to get a life. It doesn’t help that he’s kind of a bigwig. A cleaning ajumma also yelled at me while I was taking a piss in the bathroom, although I’m not exactly sure why, and actually as a result of that encounter I learned this useful Korean sentence—fuck off, 너나 찰하세요.—mind your own business, literally “Or only you do well?”, (even though this is conjugated politely, A. tells me it’s fairly mean).

(this post becomes too long at this point—the rest is only for those readers who are interested in the extended cut!)

The Cave Of Several Skulls!

So, anyway, back to yesterday’s hike. That hello put me in a bad mood for the better part of an hour. I didn’t want to hang out with the Koreans anymore and I didn’t want to live in this country anymore, either. We just sank a ton of money into flying back to America this summer, and my parents suggested that we look for jobs during our visit, and in the midst of my anger I thought it wasn’t a bad idea at all, because sometimes I really seriously am totally sick of being a racial minority. I’ve been gravitating toward African American literature lately because although their situation is and was far worse than mine, there are still some parallels, and I’m interested in seeing how these people (Malcolm X, Booker T. Washington, Ralph Ellison, specifically) deal with this shit—in addition to laughing at the unending antics of Tea Partiers who are surrounded by white people all day, every day, for their entire lives, while simultaneously complaining about increasing racism and discrimination. They don’t know, they can’t possibly know, anything about it; and I think it’s impossible to understand it unless you have felt it directed at you for such a long time that you begin to want to lash out at people you encounter on a daily basis. I’ve just gotten a tiny little taste of being objectified, of being a white person rather than a human being, and believe me, it totally fucking sucks, every single fucking time.

The constant little things, too, get to me. I had been looking forward to this outing because my wife’s friends are nice and the entire journey was an opportunity for me to practice my Korean and for them to practice their English. Everybody wins. But my conversational attempts fell on flat ears. I wanted to impress them, so I randomly tried translating a poem (kind of a faux pas, to suddenly burst out in a few lines of Longfellow), and talked about a few other weird subjects that were not exactly related to what Koreans apparently usually talk about (family, friends, and Kang Ho-dong), and all I got in return was a few nods and then silence. It reminded me of my high school days, when my own oddness was still fairly untempered, and many of the people I spoke with would look at me as if I didn’t belong on this planet.

Once the hike got going they spoke to each other but they didn’t speak with me. And, admittedly, I still have quite a long way to go with Korean, so speaking with me can be kind of a challenge. I can usually get the general idea of what my wife is saying while the words of others require a great deal more effort. I lack confidence, in conversing with them; my wife is also fairly used to the strange rookie forms I use, and so she can understand my Korean when other Koreans can’t. All of us usually use her to translate when she’s around—but when she’s not around, it seems as though they get what I’m saying (or that they do an incredible job of pretending to get what I say).

But as my wife said, Koreans look at me as a white person, and because of that they don’t know what to say to me, because white people are so obviously different. I don’t fit into the paradigm. I even got hit with a “this food is spicy” and “you are so good with chopsticks” despite living here for three years—this was a well-intentioned reminder that I am no different from someone passing through the airport in Incheon. Part of me wants to be treated as a fellow Korean, but I likewise recoil from entering that system of medieval hierarchies, where I am supposed to automatically agree to every idiotic thing old people say—a Buddhist nun told me, two or three weeks back, that if I drink too much cold water I’ll get sick; this was on a very hot day while I was wearing a suit; she seemed somewhat surprised when I told her, no, I think I’ll be okay, thanks for your advice, and then downed the cold water in question, gleefully, right in front of her, while a Korean would have accepted her advice and waited until she left to continue drinking—and where I have to waste my life in the military for two years and then drain whatever remains of my soul into the bowels of a vast, indestructible chaebol; I would also have to treat my wife like a servant, rather than an equal. I can’t just pick and choose what I like (as I find many liberal religious people do, in ignoring the Dalai Lama when he says that contraception is evil, or the passages in the Bible dealing with slavery); I have to either take the entire culture, if I want Koreans to treat me as one of their own, or leave it, and suffer through who knows how many more snide random hellos. But it’s also impossible to take the entire culture, to be accepted, because I don’t look like them, and that’s really all that matters.

The emphasis on appearances here is staggering. On Kakaotalk Story, a Korean equivalent of facebook, twitter, and free instant messaging, all wrapped in a single package for your cellphone, Koreans are constantly taking and posting and commenting on pictures of themselves, and nothing else. Contrast that with facebook, or at least my facebook wall, where everyone is doing their best to look as intelligent and artistic as possible—posting interesting news stories, pretty photographs, or polemics on why Israel or Palestine is evil. Then look at the difference in homes from these two cultures. Every single Korean home I have visited, without exception, is covered with airbrushed studio pictures of the family. A Buddhist family might have some Buddhist artwork up and about; a Christian family might have a Bible lying around—my wife’s family is a severe exception, to use Mitt Romney’s terminology, as they have a number of exquisite paintings of dragons, bearded monks, and Chinese characters, which would fetch a few thousand dollars if they were to be auctioned off in America. A typical American home is different. An American family will make some attempt to show off its style. There will definitely be pictures of the family on the fridge, but their faces won’t dominate every single open space, as they do in Korea. Paintings, fancy photographs, cool posters, intelligent-looking books and DVDs and CDs—all of this stuff is vital in a household belonging to people who have been to college. They want to show off their brains, and not their faces; hundreds of people on that hike I mentioned were taking photographs of themselves and their groups in front of the scenery, but they rarely if ever seemed to notice the scenery by itself.

Several times I’ve run into this strange expression Korean parents use if they think a child is cute. They’ll say he or she looks like a doll (인형, in-hyung). There’s a similar expression in English, something like, oh aren’t you a doll, but I feel like it’s so ridiculous you could only use it sarcastically, since dolls are actually kind of terrifying, in their robotic, inhuman perfection. Several people have complimented me by saying that I look like a mannequin, and others frequently post messages on my wife’s Kakaotalk “wall”, or whatever the hell they call it, saying that photographs of me look like they come from a shopping catalogue. They appear to believe that I look good, even if many of them also appear to believe that I don’t belong here—after all, few Koreans would ever tell a grown Korean man that his chopstick use is excellent. Just a couple of days ago a crazy ajumma, a complete stranger, called me a pretty boy, a handsome guy, after staring at me with loving awe for ten or fifteen seconds. I appreciate the thought, but I find all of these expressions bizarre, and did not encounter them, not once, in America, while they sometimes come up every day in Korea, because here your appearance is absolutely all that matters. The same shit happened for two years when I found myself pretending to teach English in a Korean public school, while the students pretended to learn, and the administration pretended to approve. So long as we all acted out these shallow roles, which were completely absent of any depth, content, or value, everyone was happy. At least on the outside.

All of this relates back to The North, where all the insanity in the South is amped up about as far as it will go, because there seems to be far less foreign influence there to dilute it. The people appear to have no self-awareness of any kind; maybe because no one is able to contradict a superior, or tell him, like, hey, fatass, howabout you go easy on the pastrami? The tours to the country focusing on grand socialist promenades are notorious, and were commented on with amusement by foreign reporters visiting to check out the rocket launch because everything was so obviously fake. There was one news story I can’t find about a tour bus full of reporters that took a wrong turn and suddenly wound up in one of the thousand wretched hovels that litter the North Korean landscape, and while the driver and the keepers were embarrassed about allowing this slight glimpse of the truth, this breaking of the image, this loss of face, the reporter who described this event said that although the town was a dump it wasn’t really anything special in the annals of poverty and human degradation. Nonetheless, heads might roll from that mistake, because for once there was absolutely no way for the North Koreans involved to market their nation as a worker’s paradise—to airbrush the family photographs.

Image is all that matters, and the dichotomy is bizarre—you look good, Ian, but you can never be one of us—but for whatever reason the Korean taste in images differs markedly from the taste of the West, in that Westerners, for once, appear to be slightly more clever and discerning than their Korean counterparts. The ridiculous ads on Korean websites for facial (and now tit-tial) surgery might help dupe Korean women into turning themselves into silicon mannequins, but I think they would horrify and disgust most Western women, who prefer to depress and objectify themselves by watching commercials and looking at magazines with impossibly beautiful models and celebrities.

Related to this is the accepted truth and fact that for whatever reason, Koreans North and South really don’t know how to advertise themselves—which is one reason why absolutely no one in the West knows a god damn thing about this country, and why I also think it’s been viewed as a sort of path of exchange between far more interesting cultures in China and Japan for decades in the Western academic world. Local advertisers know how to make women feel miserable, and men inferior, but as for interesting foreigners in this place—look at our kimchi! look at our huge cities! look at all the stuff you can find in China or Japan! isn’t it clean! isn’t it sparkling! The promenades and parades in North Korea are no different. Perhaps it’s naive of me, but I really do believe they put those parades on because they want Westerners to think that North Korea is paradise. The shows are not just for the benefit of the local enslaved populace; why else would they be broadcast to the outside world?

Before I came here I was totally unaware that companies like Samsung, Daewoo, LG, Hyundai, Kia, and god knows what else, were even Korean, and while I have lately been vexed as to why those friends I mentioned on my facebook wall who seem to lose their shit on a daily basis over antics in the Middle East or Tibet don’t seem to give a flying fuck about the twenty million people who are imprisoned in the world’s largest concentration camp, North Korea, I think the Koreans themselves are to blame: Tibetans, Palestinians, and supporters of Israel’s nastier side are much better at getting the message to the outside world, and each group is made up of all kinds of different people, while I’ve never even heard of a foreign organization established to free North Korea, though I suppose such organizations must exist. The fact that I haven’t heard of them (while Free Tibet, the Anti-Defamation League and even Students For Justice in Palestine are household or almost household names) and the fact that the American media never refers to North Korea as what it is—a concentration camp state, the answer to the question of what would happen if the Nazis somehow transformed themselves into Asians and then took over a small part of Northeastern Asia for six decades?—just goes to show that they are being as fecklessly run as the agency in charge of putting out tourism ads as well as the office in charge of public education—run by people who believe that although I look good, I don’t belong here.

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Let’s Not Have Shaman Rituals In The Forest!

The sign reads:
산림내 무속행위를 하지 맙시다
(무속행위는 100만원이하 과태료 처분)

Shaman Rituals Prohibited
Let’s Not Have Shaman Rituals In The Forest
(Fine For Shaman Rituals Less Than $1000)

It’s a sad and a wonderful thing, at the same time, for a modern nation to have this kind of problem—of people dancing around too much in the forest. Google images tells me that a Moo-soke-haeng-wee, or Shaman Ritual, looks like this—

But may result in this—

I photographed that sign just across the river from my apartment, which also happens to be the sight of am-gak-hwa, or petroglyphs. Some experts from Dongguk University believe these carvings date from the Bronze Age, although to me they look far older. Don’t forget that I’m an expert as well. I saw Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

That’s one of the poor pictures I took of the prehistoric carvings, but far better images can be found here. The sketch is helpful, as it’s actually fairly difficult to make out the carvings on this cliff, which hangs over the river in a spectacular fashion, and they were only discovered at all about twenty years ago. Recently construction has begun on some kind of traditional wooden pavilion just twenty feet above this cliff, and since you can’t kick a stone in Gyeongju without unearthing some kind of spectacular treasure from the past, the construction workers discovered this incredible relief, from the Unified Silla period, between the 7th and 10th centuries. The site has evidently been in use for religious purposes for thousands of years, but apparently because some people have made a mess while dancing around and invoking Korean river spirits, any further dionysian events will have to be clandestine.

One of my friends mentioned that these petroglyphs resemble dominos, and while that is certainly true, deciphering them would appear to be impossible. Still, they reminded me of these expensive Korean talismans that Korean Buddhist families use to ward off evil. One of my students has these slips of paper, which are painted by shamans, taped up over his bedroom door—

They consist of Chinese characters mixed in with Buddhist motifs—note the swastika in the lower right corner, as well as symbols for fire (火) and king (王)—and they usually go for hundreds of dollars, although since my wife’s grandmother is a shaman, we got a couple for free.

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Punch (Wan-deuk-i)

This movie was fun, and you should get your hands on it and see it, if you can, particularly if you like Koreans acting like Koreans, because in this movie the people were so Korean my hair turned black, my eyes turned brown, and I decided to go out for soju and samgyeupsal the moment the movie ended, so I could talk about how handsome Wandeuki was with my pretty wife, going over the highness of his nose bridge and the good proportions of his naturally double-lidded eyes, while getting drunk enough (in the traditional fashion) to vomit all over the nearest telephone pole.

This Korean movie is fairly notable in that it features multiple non-Korean characters speaking Korean. One happens to be a loveable, teddy bear-like South Asian man named Hassan, and another is the main character, Wandeuki’s—the guy on the bottom of the poster’s—mom, a rather remarkable Philippine woman who in our so-called real life happens to be running for political office, Arnold Schwarzenegger-like, up in Seoul at this very moment. Her name is Jasmine Lee, and I found her role in the film to be far more frustrating, as she plays an extraordinarily submissive, slave-like foreign bride, and spends far too much time servilely bowing and scraping to everyone for a fellow with American sensibilities to really enjoy her performance.

She gave up her son and left her family for seventeen or eighteen years, and only randomly reappears in her son’s life when the helpful and active communist teacher (the guy in the top of the photo) finds her and sends her to Wandeuki’s house. She doesn’t really explain why she was gone for so long, and the film forgives her instantly because she begins making really good Korean food for her son, as any ideal Korean mother would, although by the way she looks at him she seems to be terrified of being beaten to a pulp by her halfcaste boy.

One of the problems with this film is that the actor who plays Wandeuki is a full-blooded Korean, and beyond refraining from dousing him with the usual cadaverous albino makeup that all Korean actors receive before going in front of the camera, so that he looks slightly more like a real Korean—one with actual color—he does not look a shred like his mother, all the more remarkable considering that the homogeneity of the faces in Korea is so omnipresent that when you see people of mixed descent, you notice immediately that they are not fully Korean.

As for Jasmine Lee, I still can’t get over her weakness in this film. Imagine an American movie about a boy with a black mother and a white father. The mother leaves the boy when he is a baby and comes back eighteen years later with barely the strength to look anyone in the eye, doing exactly as she is told whenever she comes onscreen. How dull and disappointing that would be. Let’s see the woman rage against the problems in our society, instead. Let’s see her freak the fuck out, and castigate the shit out of the all the judgmental viewers who have ever checked their belongings in their pockets or locked their car doors in the company of random black people. And let that be just the beginning!

In Wandeuki, the criticism of Korean society is naturally left up to Koreans, because the culture here is obviously too arcane for any foreigner to comprehend. Not once does Jasmine Lee complain that although she was highly educated in the Philippines, she is stuck waiting tables at some kind of meat restaurant, and has apparently been there for decades. Instead we have the fortunate son, the inculcating teacher, Dongju (again, in the top of the picture), giving his class a basic lesson on Marx (surely to be followed up by a demand that everyone observe a moment of silence for the death of Kim Jong Il), and attacking his own soullessly evil industrialist father for exploiting foreign workers.

But where are those workers? The butt of all the jokes in Korean society, the 3D workers perennially busy taking everyone’s jobs, they appear in the background, on occasion, only—unlike in Bandhobi, when one of them takes the center. There were two Rocky Sports Montages in this movie, but I would have liked to see a different montage, one of the women married to murderous, psychotic, abusive husbands, unable to return to their homes, barely even able to call their families, forced to speak a foreign language, forced to cook and eat strange foreign food all the time, and forced to watch their own children grow up shunned by the society that they themselves are supposed to embrace; the men who were maimed in factories and deported without any kind of compensation or recourse to legal aid; the twenty year-olds who have to endure stares, glares, and leers, everywhere they go, every day—I would have liked to see each of them standing in front of the camera, staring right into it, right back at all the Koreans who have ever stared at them.

And god damn. I’m a white guy living in Korea. Korea is practically a white person’s paradise. But when my wife and I left the mini-theater yesterday, we got stared at by a pack of Korean men, and it angered me so much I thought then and there of getting the hell out of Korea forever. And I’m white. I know it’s a lot easier for me here than people who weren’t lucky enough to be born with the right kind of skin pigmentation. But still—getting stared at, even a little, in that way, really, really, sucks. The land itself seems to be telling you that you have overstepped your bounds and that you are not wanted here. You can teach the kids English, but you better keep your hands off the women.

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The Frogs

Amazingly, not everyone on Earth is reading Curious George or Eric Carle to their kids—Koreans have their own set of classic children’s books, about which I naturally know nothing at all. But yesterday after two hours of tutoring my wife, A., came back home with a couple of hard slim volumes for our son, who alternately loves and despises works of fiction, much like his father—he devours them and slaps them as hard as he can, while I devour them and also devour myself, convinced I can never hope to reach such levels of mastery.

Most of the books for my son were at or above my level of Korean—a volume on different kinds of cars featured mispronounced English (dumpuh tuhluck) mixed in with mispronounced Chinese (주유차). Another was all about this frog who didn’t have a belly button. The frog wanders around looking for friends, to different animals, and even people, asking them where his belly button is, and each person or animal has a belly button, and so the frog gets pretty distraught, until eventually he finds a bunch of other frogs without belly buttons and they all become friends.

Now let’s put on our armchair anthropologist hat and use this book to extrapolate all the information we need to make sweeping generalizations about Korean society. Speaking as an American, which means that I believe American culture is neutral, even though it isn’t, I have encountered several Koreans over the course of my time here who claimed it was impossible for two people to be friends unless they happened to be the same age. Otherwise the relationship is skewed, and the older person sounds absurd if he speaks intimately to the younger, and the younger sounds disrespectful if he speaks intimately to the older. Language and culture prevent them from attaining intimacy.

At the same time the society here strikes the American as being fairly cliquish. Although there is some crossover, ajoshis and ajummas (old men and women, i.e., past the age of thirty) stick together if they stick with anyone at all, as do the suits, the drunks, the high school students, the college students, the grandparents (past sixty), even married couples. Only the strangest Korean race traitors hang out with foreigners, and then just white foreigners, not Southeast Asians; regardless of this fact, anyone who steps out of line and forsakes Korean waygookinphobia can expect to be glared at everywhere as a result; like the homeless, they become social outcasts. Koreans appear to believe that they can only make friends with people who are their own type.

Most Americans are pretty much the same, I think, but there is marginally more fluidity, and the ideal at least is to embrace differences—a children’s book in America written along the same premises as the frog book would have each animal complaining about some sort of flaw, and then they would all get together to help each other out and live happily ever after, or something (think the Wizard of Oz, one of many odd movies that never could have been made here, a country that appears to possess very little in the way of fantasy or science fiction (compare Korea with Japan!—my theory is that a culture won’t have science fiction without colonial guilt)).

Still, I don’t think there’s any harm in reading this book to my son, because he’s never going to fit in in this country anyway (one reason we, or at least I, plan to get the hell out, someday), and I suspect he’ll draw his own conclusions about how to deal with being a fairly new and fairly rare sort of person, and that most of his friends will either be open-minded or the product of two starkly different parents.

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Korean Breakfast

The idea of eating spicy briny kimchi, pickled mushrooms, nets of cold wet yellow sprouts, damp spinach, sticky white rice, hot sauce, pickled kimchi radishes, still-boiling still-bubbling blood-red kimchi stew, cold cooked onions and potato slices, either mixed up or spread about on little plastic saucers, complete with steel shot glasses for the water you have to gulp down to make up for all the salt, probably does not sound too appealing to the Western breakfast palate, used as it is to sweet grains slushed about in milk, with muffins and fruit and endless rivers of coffee pouring, roaring down whirlpool-like gullets, along with gallons of orange juice and absolutely whatever else you can get your meathooks on.

But then yesterday, after months of muesli mixed with bananas and coffee, I was ready to take the plunge. The realization was gastrointestinal more than intellectual.

Actually it had always been horrifying to me to think that Korean breakfast was more or less the same as Korean lunch and dinner. I would often ask my young students what they had for breakfast, and they would often tell me that they hadn’t eaten anything at all, or that they had drained a bowl of kimchi soup mixed with rice. A few stragglers would report on successful conquests of cereal, and for this I would cheer them on, breakfast imperialist that I am—I’ve been eating cereal since I could eat solid food, and some of my earliest memories involve making enormous bowls of cereal for myself before spilling the clattering contents all over the floor. Various visiting relatives would tell me that they could trace my path through the house by following the Hansel-And-Gretel trail of syrup-soaked cheerios I’d left in my wake. But for these little Koreans there would be no such pleasure. Just kimchi soup and rice. Tortillas and beans, señor.

My wife, A., has drawn the opposite conclusion. Because she is a Korean who has had to spend most of her life hauling herself out of bed very early in the morning for endless shifts of work or school, she is also not really a breakfast person; the Western breakfast is predicated on the hour or two in the morning Westerners sometimes have to just hang around and eat—Koreans never seem to possess this luxury, sleep being more important than food. But because she’s lived with me for a year A. has adopted the breakfast of my father: banana with coffee, declaring on several occasions that it is one of the more brilliant things she’s ever discovered. But yesterday she’d had enough. “Boonshik,” she said, around eleven. “It’s like cheap college food.”

At once a platter of pickled mushrooms rose into my stomach’s imagination, even though I had just eaten breakfast an hour before.


After a walk down a tar alley past mountains of garbage and cigarettes, which A. photographed because she herself is becoming less Korean while I myself am becoming less American—typically my impression was that foreigners hate the decorative garbage here while Koreans think it’s not so bad—and after I told her that if she didn’t like Korea she could leave—we came to a little cement-and-linoleum hole in the wall, with two friendly flowersuit-clad ajummas baring curry-toothed grins at us as we walked in, flipping skillets of vegetables over bonfires that were leaping up out of a pair of old black ovens. We ordered. A. and I talked. We decided to read a Korean newspaper; even though I still need her help it’s still not nearly as impossibly difficult as it was six months ago to work through a few sentences; an hour’s intensive labor has been reduced to fifteen pleasant minutes of learning about the hard iron door and the drawn curtains that separate Kim Jong Nam from all the reporters swarming after him in Macao.

Even though I do not speak any language fluently enough to read without assistance, it is still definitely very different to catch a few lines of Homer in Greek, or Ovid in Latin, or Borges in Spanish, or ancient Chinese poets thrown at me in a conversation I remember from my first language student, who told me about waking up one winter morning to find the trees outside his window bursting with white cherry blossoms in the form of blankets of sudden quiet snow. He told me it happened thousands of years ago, and modern Chinese people don’t need translators to help them see it.

(if anyone knows this poem, please let me know, because I haven’t actually read it and I would really like to)

Homer is a minstrel strumming a lyre, Ovid has a very jaunty seventeenth-century sort of jumping rhyme scheme (which he uses, repeatedly, to describe rape, murder, bestiality), gold takes on a far more nostalgic gleam when it becomes oroto me, anyway—and Kim Jong Nam’s door is really fucking black and really fucking hard. No one’s getting through that thing if he doesn’t want them to. That’s what I gain from reading Korean with a Korean’s assistance.

Some acquaintances walked in, their staring child with them. Bows. Hellos. How ya doin’. I saw your picture! Then the eight dollar platter of food arrives—everything I described in the first paragraph, and more. We attack. Eating Korean food requires strategic thinking because there is so much to choose from; it’s as if you took everything out of your fridge and all your cabinets, sliced it up, cooked it or pickled it, and then threw it down on the table in front of you.

We eat, talk, order more. The ajummas yell at us to make do with what we have, babbling about wasting food and money. But they are all smiles as we walk out—assuaging our stomachs for at least two or three more hours.

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Empty House

I was sucked into this show for about an hour out of a desire to lazily-passively improve my Korean by watching TV and also out of sheer curiosity. Although unheard of in America, this show and the people in it are household names in Asia, and I just wanted to know why.

The reason appears to be that each person who stars in the show is really impossibly beautiful, and that about sums it up. The stories and locations they inhabit, the clothes they wear, the things they say and do, are all also equally impossible, and I was regularly shaking my head with disbelief as I watched. As with many other things Korean, this show is unbearably superficial, and is wholly lacking in depth; Full House is not a drama so much as a fantasy.

The show essentially operates on two principles—

1) That everyone involved is obscenely ignorant, and
2) Also somehow very good at tricking everyone else.

There is no need to summarize the story or the characters; the show is about rich beautiful people doing rich beautiful people things.

From the very first shot the creators of the show assume that I, the viewer, know nothing about anything. A mansion in the countryside. Impossible. A single extraordinarily beautiful Korean woman writing a story on her computer. Impossible. Her friends trick her into flying to China and then sell her mansion while she is gone. Impossible. Their justification for this is that they just got pregnant and “have a lot of debts.” I thought of doing the exact same thing when my wife and I got pregnant.

While in China, she meets a movie star, tricks him into giving her lots of money, and flies back to Korea. He follows her, tricks her into going to dinner with him to make his asshole friend jealous, and then that is where I stopped watching, because I felt as if the drama had stretched and broken my suspension of disbelief one too many times, leaving a very stale taste in my mouth.

While all of this happens the Koreans involved do a number of things that Koreans never do.

—While at dinner, one of them discusses an intellectual topic that has nothing at all to do with family, which is the only thing Koreans ever talk about, ever.

—They sit at a table where there is wine in their glasses. Korean dramas always seem to do this although to this day after two years in Korea I have yet to see a single Korean drink a single drop of wine.

—The single beautiful woman with an inexplicably enormous house appears to be an orphan, as she does not attempt to contact her parents when she loses everything she owns, and does not, in fact, mention their existence at all. I do not know how the scriptwriters got past this. It is no different from giving her wings and the ability to fly—how are we going to explain where she got the wings?!?!—just don’t even talk about it!!

—Everyone everywhere is white. Everything everywhere is white, too. And spotlessly clean. In reality, Korea is a dark place packed to the bursting point with filth and garbage, and the people come in every color under the rainbow, although you would never know it if you just watched television. Seriously, it was all just like one long soap commercial.

—China, also, is somehow clean; although I’ve never been there, everyone has told me that Korea is spotless in comparison. While in China, the single beautiful woman explores the country alone, but Koreans never do anything alone, and as I watched her walk around in a lame montage I was shaking my head and lifting my eyebrows with despair because if the main character had been rescued by space aliens swooping in out of the sky and spiriting her away back to Korea it would have been no less unbelievable.

—A Korean man speaks English that non-Koreans can understand. Within the magical show universe, at least, it is comprehensible, but to my ear it sounded as if he blabbed through a few memorized syllables as quickly as possible, to sound as if he had mastered the language, when, in fact, he had obviously been too busy posing in his mirror to bother with something as lame as that.

—The main character goes to the police. This would never happen because the police in Korea are notorious for never doing anything at all to help anyone, but rather than accuse them of their inherent incompetence the main character decides not to press the issue further because she sees a woman pleading with her baby and thinks, hey, I’ll let it go, my friends stole every red cent to my name but they’re innocent of all wrongdoing because they have a baby coming. Then her friends come back for more, kill her, and sell her organs, and the show ends happily because babies justify everything.

The one realistic thing in the entire show was the picture of the naked muscular man glowing prominently in the center of Rain’s bedroom wall, because, seriously, there is no way in hell that man is straight.

Also, Rain. It’s just not going to happen. When that beauty fades, your career is going to fade, too; yes I’m jealous, of course I’m jealous, but you’re a pop star, and you’re probably going to have to make three or four more failures like Ninja Assassin before people refuse to put you in movies anymore.

Just compare the moment he tries on a stupid hat and cuts a ridiculous pose in a mirror with an identical, but perfect, moment with Peter Falk, a real actor, in Wings of Desire.

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