Archive | June, 2009

(Ol)factory Recall

24 Jun

What will stay with me the most from this place, I already know, long after sights and events have faded into soft focus, are the smells.  To a Westerner, they are completely and utterly unfamiliar and overpowering.  I’m used to the smell of woods, wet grass, the earthy aroma of decomposing leaves.  Or if I’m in town, the reek of car fumes and asphalt on a hot day.  But here in Korea, just walking down the street you come across odors that can make the unprepared almost gasp for air.  What the hell is that smell?

I really can’t put my finger on it.  Sometimes it’s definitely a pork or red pepper smell, if you’re passing a restaurant.  But sometimes on random streets you’ll get a whiff of something sour.  Maybe like ginger or soy or some other kind of potent herb mixed with something rotten, maybe kimchi.  That would explain the fermented and vinegar stench.  Kimchi tastes great, but when it’s been saturating the pores of the man on the metro next to you for the last fifty years, mixed with sweat and trapped inside his polyester suit, it’s like a punch straight up the sinuses into your cerebellum.

I got to experience this for quite a few hours yesterday as I traveled from Bundang into Seoul and back.  I took the subway the entire way in, learning on the fly how to transit lines.  Thankfully, the stops are listed in English.  My brain synapses haven’t quite figured out how to pick up on the sight and sound of the Korean language yet.

For some reason, I expected Seoul to be like a lot of other famous cities, replete with lots of historic districts stretching back centuries.  But I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when, once emerging into the daylight from the metro station, that it was so new and sleek, a capitalist boom town if there ever was one.  After all, the city was leveled during the Korean War by the U.S. Army and Marines trying to break through and cut off North Korean soldiers further south on the peninsula.

But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything interesting to see.  Namdaemun Market certainly fulfilled that for me.

Namdaemun market
Namdaemun market

What would you like to buy?  A knock-off Coach handbag?  Ginseng root preserved in a jar?  Fresh eels?  Floor tiles?  Baby clothes?  T-shirts with inane English sayings?  A Barack Obama mask?  Talk about consumer choice.  You can find just about anything there short of a rocket launcher.  It’s absolutely jammed with people shoulder-to-shoulder.  A man with no legs crawls along the ground begging for money.  Vendors with heavy carts full of vegetables somehow worm their way through narrow spaces.  Some vendors hawk their wares, others chat with the fellow in the stand next door, many are content just to sit in the shade and wait for you to take an interest in whatever they sell, be it fresh octopus or cut-rate camera equipment.  And such people seemed perfectly content doing what they did, even if their tiny little stand was existing on the smallest of profit margins.  In modern America, most would look down on such a job with disdain, feeling that spending one’s entire existence working hard selling petty wares was an unworthy use of one’s life.  We would think that it indicated a lack of ambition or skill or desire to advance one’s station in the world.  But not here.  For the rest of the day, I began to think about such matters.

From there I journeyed to Deoksugung Palace.

Deoksugung Palace
Deoksugung Palace

This is the actual palace, where official court was held.  There are many other buildings in the complex, such as sleeping and workers’ quarters.  Lots of people wandered about, seeming to enjoy the pastoral peacefulness of the shady trees more than the historical value of the buildings.

While I sat on a bench replacing something in my backpack, a pair of Korean girls approached me and one, in halting English, asked if she could take my picture.  She said it was for “homework.”  Finding this situation delightfully hilarious, I naturally agreed.  She had me pose a couple of different ways, once looking off in the distance for a profile picture, the others involving me pretending to walk with my backpack on.  She was very appreciative.

But why me?  There were plenty of other people about with whom it would have been easier to communicate.  Did she want to practice her English a little?  Maybe, although we didn’t talk much.  Am I some sort of freak show to them, with my pale skin and scruffy beard?

On my hour and thirty minute subway ride home, I tried to find some order in my observations of that day.  What I came to realize was that it was certainly impossible for me to truly understand why the Koreans acted one way or another, why they valued certain things, and why everything was the way it was here.  Like how a man in the subway will not rise to offer a woman his seat.  But he will offer to hold her bag in his lap for her.

I think at the root of this matter is that Korea is an ancient society and a Confucian one.  Their whole concept of self and its relationship to the whole is fundamentally different, for it is about harmony, about one’s place in the world, within the established order, and not deviating from it.  Short of being inside a Korean’s head, I really don’t think that Westerners can fully grasp the significance of this.  We in the West have a fundamentally different understanding of ideas, of objects and their relation to us and to others.  We are Greek, whether we like it or not, believers in logic, ideals, in the primacy of the way an individual conceives of and approaches Truth.  We argue and debate, trying to extract what we can define as Right and Correct from that clash.  Here in Korea, they do not think like that.  How do they think? . . . well, I have even less of a clue now.

This makes they world I see daily more and more byzantine.  Because Korea has learned to mimic the externals of the West without adopting the internals.  Sure, they have cars, high-rises, computers, all the trappings that define a modern, Western existence.  They vote in elections and read newspapers.  They even go to church.  But when someone says that Korea is a Westernized country, I think that only looks at a superficial reality, what can be easily counted and simply repeated.  I personally think that they have mastered the motions without necessarily possessing the capacity or method of thought that brought those motions to fruition in the West.

And I wonder in particular how much language plays a role in this matter, particularly, because English is a dynamic, amorphous beast, always changing and adding.  I look at the churches near my flat and at the evangelical preachers on TV and wonder how their conception of the Gospels is structured and directed by any inherent limitations to the Korean language.  We in West already have enough trouble as it is trying to come to scriptural conclusions because of the difficulty of going from Greek to English, and we already incorporate Greek into our language and way of thought.  How does someone understand the New Testament when it has gone from Greek to English to Korean?  What changes along away?

For now, I have no answers.  The lid has been popped off of this little world and I’m beginning to get a look down inside.

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