Korea: Life in Pictures II

17 Jun

Gwanghwamun (광화문) by night.  It is interesting to compare this current, historically-accurate reconstruction in its soft-lit, regal splendor, and the older, ivy-covered, concrete version dominated by the old Japanese colonial government building.  As you can see from the picture in the link, sometimes psychological power of inanimate objects is more important than historical accuracy in determining which part of the past we wish to remember.

Gyeong Wol (경월) is a brand of soju quite popular in the southeast of Korea, though difficult to find in other areas of the country.  I found this very old bottle in a remote valley, beside a stream.  It’s a huge bottle: 1.8 liters.  Now I understand why the farmers’ trucks are always veering back and forth on country roads.

There is huge difference between what more and more people in other countries see of Korea and the reality of much of Koreans’ existence.  The Koreans I know have no huge, luxurious houses, nor Audis, nor are they tall, white-skinned, well-dressed, and flawless dancers.  I know shopkeepers, chefs, potters, construction foremen, schoolteachers.  They live in places like this, in small, cramped, jury-rigged conditions that most Westerners would find abhorrent.  Yes, of course it is true that the lives of ordinary people anywhere do not match the popularized notions of life in a given land.  But with Korea, it is different.  Boosterism rules this country.  Exported Korean culture highlights the country’s successes, not pathologies, as in America.  Yet this obscures the true nature of life here — demanding, rough-edged, dirty.

I have found that in Korea, what is not said is as, if not more, important as what is said.  Volumes are spoken in silence and in faces.  In the composure of eyes and lips, one can see beauty born of duty, burden, and sadness.

This man was not Korean, but he wrote something I think very akin to the truest sentiments of this country and its people:

“Unless you know where you belong in the divisions of order, you lack the conventions of intercourse.  It is function maintained by manners which gives freedom.  Wherever you are, you know who you are.  Whenever you act, you act instinctively out of this knowledge.”

– Andrew Nelson Lytle


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