A series of collected notes on Korea, in which the author attempts to express himself and routinely fails

Notes on Food in Korea:

The exotic foods are not what you'd think. For instance, they don't have hot dog buns, so they call corn dogs hot dogs. They have double corn dogs, which are corn dogs dipped again in batter. There are variants which go further and embed french fries in the second coat of batter. It is common to cover this in sugar before eating.

Notes on Historical Authenticity:

They have a very strange notion of historical or traditional authenticity. Imperial Japan forcibly destroyed most of the traditional Korean culture and what little remained was crushed under the weight of the war and it's economic devastation. Many Koreans are unhappy that the agency to discard their own culture was taken from them, so they express a firm commitment to all types of traditional Korean practices. However, they are genuinely destroyed, so most of the traditionalism is they way they imagined it would have been. I think modern Hebrew is an appropriate equivalent. But even this imagined traditionalism isn't very popular, even with those people who mourn the past.

At the same time, the country is dramatically different than it was even 25 years ago, when it was an undeveloped nation under a military dictatorship. Interestingly, many Koreans born before this transition loathe it, even many of the dissidents who opposed the dictatorship. It is a quite complex popular perspective, one that can see the destruction of bad things as not, in themselves, good things.

The ruling classes are the remnants of the Japanese Governor class. They are hated to the same degree that they are intractably installed in power.

Notes on the peculiar form of Korean Collectivism, Illustrated with Food:

Everything here is social volume. There will be dozens of restaurants lined up and down a street serving essentially the same dishes and neighborhood after neighborhood set up like this, but they survive because every human being will eat the same thing on a Thursday night.

Along similar lines, a study of the diet of Korean men found that it consisted mainly of Korean-barbecued pork, the lettuce this pork is wrapped in, and the bottles of soju drunk while eating barbecued pork.

Notes on Soccer:

I've written about my attempt to take soccer seriously earlier, but I've spent the last few weeks actually watching the games and putting my theory to the test, so I have a few modifications. First of all, the major difficulty facing an American isn't disengagement from the game, but disengagement from our team. It's very easy, almost expected, for Americans to surf between teams and to make up allegiances according to very nearly the abstractions I tried to make clear in my article. As the American team fell behind in their most recent game with Slovenia, I instinctively began to think about the other, better teams that I might have reason to support, the Dutch, for instance, or the Germans. It was difficult to see, prior to actually watching the games, what the differences between my simple allegiances and those of my British, Korean, etc., friends, but the ability to die with their team, or it's inverse, the inability to care about teams other than their own. I think more important than having a community of people who cheer for the same team is a community that you can't escape when things are terrible, or even when that community itself is terrible. I met a guy in a bar wearing a Chris Carter jersey in a bar here, and I talked to him, and he was gross and obnoxious, but my conversation seemed necessary in a strange way, like we were bound to this thing which we both cared about and even though he was terrible. Instead of the traditional arguments for why soccer isn't very popular in America, I'd propose this; it is very difficult for a genuinely national sports identity to form in America. We have too many conflicting notions of Americanism, even to the point where they invade which type of sports are American or not. Even the cases of national identification with a team or player are of two sorts. The first, the type seen in the 1980 Olympic Hockey team, for instance, or Bobby Fischer, are antagonistic. If the Soviet Union had been Canada or West Germany, these would have been much smaller events. The second is personified by people like Lance Armstrong or Michael Phelps, athletes whose national celebrity only occurs after they become indisputably the best in their field for some extended period of time, and only in those events considered premier. In the case of England, on the other hand, to return to my basic point, it's around six decades of miserable failure and squandered talent that they rally, or on the other hand, the Netherlands can see their national soccer team as personifying a national characteristic like analytic flexibility and intuitive rationality. Instead of thinking that grand victories in soccer will bring in American fans, it would instead be grand expectations which reduce the ability to hedge against the team or some larger story about US - Brazilian antagonism for us to submit ourselves to a losing team and engage in a non-superficial interest.

Notes on Lady Gaga and the Cell Phone Economy:

There seems to be no way to communicate what a "Lady Gaga" is. They listen to her songs, but they don't know why or particularly like them.

While cell phones are far more ubiquitous than in the United States, more interesting is the number of cell phone stores. Cell phone stores, corner markets and bars make up more than 50% of all businesses. Many of the cell phone stores play Lady Gaga's "Telephone" on repeat.

Further Notes on the peculiar form of Korean Collectivism:

It's unclear to what extent Koreans are genuinely collective. There are strong social codes that remain, certainly, which reinforce awareness of those around you. For instance, you are not supposed to pour your own drinks, and if someone's glass is empty, it is your responsibility and perhaps honor to refill it. You should always wait for the oldest person to stand up before you leave a dining table. There is a strong notion of the differences between Fashion and Style, the former being collective, the latter individual, with emphasis on Fashion as the appropriate way of appearing. Each of these, however, seems to be a remnant which makes it easier to obscure the individualistic ways of being which are rapidly becoming the standard. I wonder often if even the identification of Koreans as "collective" is itself a covering up of their failure to be it, if Koreans before Western Colonization went around declaring themselves a "collective", or if it's merely a way of enforcing on themselves a western fantasy of our own individualism.

Notes on Skin and Beauty:

Skin is a large part of Korean female identity. Millions of won go toward skin treatments, both whitening and "general care" varieties. The sun is avoided. Parasols are everywhere on sunny days. Awnings and Canopies have specially tinted glass, so even on sunny days, a person can be afforded protection from the sun. Freckles are considered quite disgusting, second perhaps only to acne.

Beauty is commonly tied to height. I was introduced to a new teacher in my school to the titters of the old teachers, making jokes about me leaving my girlfriend for this new beauty. It turned out she was about six feet talk and strangely, almost perversely given her introduction, not very attractive at all. The physical traits common to pop stars aren't breasts or striking facial features but height. Height here is attributed to pre-natal vitamins and quality nutrition, so in some ways I imagine it like a parody of vulgar evolutionary notions of beauty, that breast size is somehow correlated to quality lactation, or hip-width is related to an ease of childbirth, which despite not being factually true, display in a very real way the contemporary cultural notions. On the other hand, there is a dramatic way in which Koreans are engineering and selecting for a certain attractiveness and simultaneously a certain definition of health, based on an exoticism which is rapidly becoming a norm.

Notes on Music in Korea:

High-speed trains play a perverted soothing version of 'Let it Be' while you sit and wait.

Notes on the Inevitable Separation:

There is a myth that I largely bought into before I left, that somehow the internet diminishes the distance between family and friends. It's hard for me to see why this would have seemed plausible now, but I think it had something to do with thinking about how I spent time with you all as conversations, as shared jokes and experiences, ties through music or art or other, perhaps more general, tastes, through sports or politics or philosophy, whatever it is that made up the content of our conversations. It's easier, now, to see how meaningless the content was, and how it was always your presence, the places where we were present, the food and beer and coffee and cigarettes and otherwise we had there, that produced those conversations. I miss you all terribly. Summer isn't the same without you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Collectivism in Korea is no more than being the same individual. Fashion is uniform, but it goes deeper than that. It is considered strange not to drink soju with sam gip sal, bizarre to put a sauce on your rice and plain wrong to put said rice anywhere else but the large left-hand bowl. What might happen if you do, I cannot say. Not collectivism so much as copying, and it seems to allow Koreans to negate all collectivism’s positive aspects. Principals shit on head-teachers who then take that shit in their left hands and distribute it politely to those below them.

Where collectivism really lets them down is in education, and presumably all large industries. Criticisms of a textbook’s English is met with an ‘oh really?’ and nothing more. You cannot be the lone voice of change in the manicured wilderness of school. The obsession with vocabulary is privately criticized, leading as it does to this kind of thing: ‘I incredible joyous when Korea equal Nigeria’, and the classic: ‘Korea capricious in soccer’

Every energy is reserved for their work and their family. This is fine, and because of it the nation is a money-making machine with seemingly harmonious families that would be the envy of every dysfunctional western unit. Beneath the surface bubbles trouble. Not the heady binge-drinking, crack-smoking trouble of the west, but pent-up feelings, arranged marriages of convenience, a terrible fear of leaving the family home and, later, a robust interest in prostitutes. Typically older men drink hard and often while women progress through three stages, each of which engulfs entirely: wanting a man, getting a man, hating that man. They kind of know this is not healthy, and that there could be other options, but familial disagreements are silenced by iron ajummas.

Perhaps they walk so fucking slowly out of respect for these women, whose hunched backs must collect scraps of cardboard all day, for the hi-tech economy has passed them by. Respectful bows replace affinity.

Perhaps they really believe that taking some rice, adding some vegetables and a flavorsome sauce is a uniquely Korean dish, and not something every single person ever has invented for themselves.

Perhaps they really believe that having four seasons, even ignoring the fact that they hate two of them, is not simply luck of the draw, but something wonderful about them and of course, their forefathers.

It is this obsessive pride in all things Korean, taken as fact always, that really grates. It is separated from normal life, where burgers, western movies and music and most typically the English language are preferred to their Korean alternatives by all the cool kids. The idea that bibimbap may not be that special, and that kimchi gets boring after a while, does not compute. Poor Korea, where depression roams so much freer than thought. But don’t worry, you can always go and fucking kill yourself.