Archive | August, 2011

Paris on the Peninsula

31 Aug

The girl at the end of the table was smoking mojito-flavored cigarettes. “Bohem Cigar Mojito” was the name. The dual fans on the porch were blowing in her direction, whisking the smoke away and off into the Gangnam night, so I never got a chance to see what the smell was like.

There were four of them, girls, university friends who rarely cross paths these days. After the wedding of one of their close friends, we’d come here, to this cafe. Each one of them was interesting. The girl at the far end, smoking the mojito cigs, was a part-time model, with an intelligent and mysterious air about her. She looked exactly like one of my old professors. I considered telling her this, but then thought better of it when I remembered the professor was Japanese. Comparisons such as that are a minefield in this country.

The girl at the other end of the table, to my left, was a tattooist. She kicked her shoes off toward the end of the evening and revealed the wings she had tattooed on her feet. I could only think of the Greek god from the FTD florist signs back in the States (Hermes, perhaps). The girl in the middle, on the far side of the table, talked energetically, asked probing questions, and burned through nearly a whole pack of cigarettes. Perhaps it was all the coffee. Her claim to fame was that she once slept with a Japanese film star. They were all artists by training and temperament. They looked and acted the part.

The talk amongst the three girls and my girlfriend was difficult to follow at best. My brain was fried from the heat and the acidic caffeine of too many americanos that day. From this rooftop patio, I could see across across much of Gangnam. The red glow of the giant Kumkang sign reflected off of every shiny surface around. Looking to the right, northward, you could look over Sinsa. The HanSkin building had nearly every light on, making it look like a cheese grater with a lightbulb inside. Beyond it was the blinking red light of the radio tower array that stands just southeast of N Seoul Tower on Namsan.

For some reason, I imagined anti-aircraft fire puncturing the warm, glowing night over this part of town. That seems slightly ridiculous, but not because there’s no threat to the city. Rather, it’s ridiculous because the North Korean air force would never establish air superiority over the South. No, the likely explosions would not be from tracers arcing into the dark, but rather from rockets or shells falling to earth.

My mind looked to war because Seoul itself has often reminded me of a different place: Paris. Not the eternal Paris, though, the Paris of love, lights, pleasure, and ease, but pre-Great War Paris. A poor comparison, you might say, but consider a few general points. First, Seoul is a flourishing metropolis. There is great wealth spread among the elites, the benefits of which trickle down to the lower rungs, especially in infrastructure. There is a great awareness of and interest in the international scene; Korea senses that there is an important role to play, though it may not have clear and realistic vision of what that is. Korean culture is an export in and of itself, seen as sophisticated around Asia. These things do indeed resemble Belle Époque France. Still, one may argue that such traits could also have applied to other European cities at the time as well.

But the Paris comparison is just when considering that which looms over the horizon. Fin de siècle Paris had a great, foreboding sense of the end of its flourishing. The 19th century seemed to be bringing material prosperity and high culture to an apotheosis, yet the Parisians felt only malaise at this prospect. Korea does not feel that now, but there are signs that this Miracle on the Han River is failing in its greatest moment. There is a growing gap between the rich and poor, with many who teeter in the middle slipping to the lower rungs, while elites see their income rise sharply. The economy is heavily dependent on exports and will suffer in a second, deeper worldwide recession. With that, the already tight Korean job market will be even more severely pinched. The promise of affluence and a better future will be delayed further, especially for younger Koreans.

But the greatest salience is in the threat that lies over the DMZ. North Korea is the Imperial Germany to Seoul’s Paris. Both were threats faced once before, with unsatisfactory results and a permanent imprint on the national psyche. South Korea must inevitably reckon with this violent neighbor again, hopefully without bloodshed. Yet the structure of the world order seems to preclude any sort of boldly proactive approach. Orders are important: Europe saw relative peace when the Congress of Vienna consensus discouraged permanent alliances and attempted to localize conflicts. Similarly, our world sees security as intimately connected to markets — the benefits of trade discourage violent cataclysms that disturb the order. Yet this order works on the assumption that the actors are rational. I think we can all agree that North Korea is not rational. Imperial Germany was not either. Its culture saw war as a romantic way to transcend soul-stifling bourgeois values.

An order which less and less resembles reality will lead to misconceptions, confusion, and, given the chance, cataclysm. Something must be done to prevent a war, nay, a catastrophe, on this peninsula, but there is a fear of doing anything, for an equally great fear of the consequences. There is a lurking sense that the current age of constant growth and ever-increasing plenty cannot be sustained, but we cannot imagine how to replace the system that we already have or tame its destructive potential. So nothing is done. And the order entropies more quickly, leaving us in even more of a predicament, fearing even more the consequences of failure.

I left the girls to their conversation about cute guys and stood at the railing. I looked at the rooftop gardens, the countless cafes restaurants packed with couples, the slick skyscrapers, and the older buildings grimy with pollution. When Seoul fights its own Battle of the Marne, I wondered, will I be here? Will I look down to the street and see the soldiers on leave kissing their mini-skirted, high-heeled girlfriends goodbye, then piling into Hi Seoul taxis that speed them to the front somewhere near Pocheon? Will this neon city of ceaseless diversion see its lights going out, not to be relit again in my lifetime?

When I sat down again, I didn’t share my thoughts. The girls would not understand this, not because they are girls, but because they are Korean. They are always optimistic, in spite of the challenges their young lives face. They don’t think of failure or unraveling orders or anything of the sort. They think of life and how they are living it. I realized my Paris reference was right, but of the wrong era. If one day distant artillery fire does silhouette Kyobo Tower, they will repose here and watch the show, like Rick, Ilsa, and Sam of a different Paris, with each cigarette and americano echoing Sam: “This ought to take the sting out of bein’ occupied.”

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Unfortunate and Sublime

29 Aug

In my time here, I’ve seen quite a few humorous typos, failed attempts at puns or plays on words, or just plain absurdity when it comes to Korean efforts in English.  Here are a few pictures of the best I’ve captured on my phone camera so far.

I can see how they were trying to be clever. “Rap” and “percussion,” fused to together to describe their musical style, yet making a play on words at the same time.  But that one missing “p” does it in. Ah, for want of a nail . . .

I found this endearing more than anything, but was equally impressed that it was grammatically correct.

If you look past the raised finger, you will see the lyrics to Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair,” sprayed on a bridge pylon. Proof that cultural detritus penetrates farther and faster than cultural masterpieces.

Desperate for a hip, foreign name, the proprietor of this restaurant must have gone to the library looking for inspiration from architecture-themed book titles.  He chose poorly.

Horrific images come to mind every time I see that juxtaposition.

Salty Affogato should be the name of a Chicago South Side bareknuckle boxer and not something that you would consider putting in your mouth.

I miss a priceless picture from time to time, usually because I don’t have my phone or I’m passing in a bus or taxi.  The one I regret the most was the sign for a women’s plastic surgery clinic.  The tiny door read: “She’s Bits.”  Never a truer name.

Old School

17 Aug

Down south in Jeollanam-do, there is an old Confucian school, a seodang, that has been rebuilt on the site of its predecessor. The proprietor, an elderly gentlemen who tends to repeat himself and measures time only in ‘later’ or ‘today,’ has a few rooms to let to travelers. I was fortunate enough to be able to stay there.

Seodangs were schools primarily for boys, going all the way back through Joseon to Goryeo. Chinese characters were used to write the Korean language and thus memorization of their complex forms was necessary. This did not promote literacy to extent one would expect, however, as the creation of hangeul demonstrates; a simpler system was needed for the average peasant. The reading of the characters as well as classical works was an important foundation for anyone who hoped to take the civil service exam and thus rise up to the level of at least semi-nobility.

Worn out from a day of hiking, we spread a blanket on the planks and played hwatu (화투) as the sun went down behind the mountains.

The surrounding country has lush greens and big blue skies. Green is common in Korea: in the summer, weed, vines, grasses, and trees seem to grow in tangled silence, like an unruly haircut. Blue skies with a trace of pollution, though, are rare in the capital area where I reside.

We were the only ones staying here, it turned out. Even the old proprietor went home and left us be. We swung the giant wooden gates shut and barred the doors: in for the night, free to explore the school at will.

This seodang is still used during the summer for its traditional activities. Witness the banner on the rear wall: “예절” means manners or etiquette.  In addition to such customs, student learn 한자 or Chinese characters. Calligraphy is the method for integrating them, for great patience and self-mastery is required to make the correct strokes. The calligraphy brushes sat in a rack next to mats on the floor. Back issues of “The Confucian News” hung from a peg near the door.

I had awakened every morning to the sound of the teacher scolding her students harshly, be it for lack of attention or haste in crafting the complex characters with but a brush on thin paper. I doubt that it would have been much different a hundred-odd years or more ago. Here, more than anywhere else I have been in Korea, the past ways are not only remembered but intrinsically a part of life. The correlation between cultural and physical distance, between the remote Confucian countryside and the globalized urban jungles, is no coincidence.

To open up a student practice book is to realize why it was only the rich who could afford education in the old days. A great deal of time is needed in order to read, let alone write, the basic thousand Chinese characters, and time is something that a working man does not have. Yet one can also see the roots of the Korean attitude toward education: time and dedication are essential to mastery and sacrifices must be made by the present generation for the sake of the next.

The students at this summer seodang were from the city. They came to absorb the deepest and most traditional aspects of their culture, their parents spending much money and time observing. My girlfriend said that this is no isolated incident; it happens in other places besides Jeolla.

Korea is indeed hurtling down a path of globalization, hellbent on achieving the system we have already created and found lacking. But whatever their immediate material desires, something in their instinct remains firmly rooted in what has come before. It is an identification with the past and its ways which has virtually no parallel in contemporary America. I find it hard to imagine families from New York, Chicago, or L.A. sending their kids to Kentucky for a month in order to read Jefferson, till land, and learn riflery. Such would be the equivalent for us. Yet we do not believe in the necessity of virtue, let alone the virtue of those who came before and lived harder lives than we. Koreans, though, intuit that such virtues, whatever one’s personal feeling about them is, are a part of themselves. They have inherited them, whether they like it or not, and it is their responsibility to know them well.

The night had a crescent moon, which a local taxi driver told us meant that ghosts were out and about. As I walked about the courtyard in the warm air, I wondered if I would see the apparitions of Confucians past, treading the grounds with me. Perhaps, despite my white skin, they would not haunt but welcome me as one who, though not born of their ways, nonetheless understands and defends them all the same.

And defend them I do. Their tradition is not mine and I disagree with it on many points. But we are men all the same, men seeking to live as Men, not as ‘progressive apes.’ Our ways are manifold and our disagreements inevitable; yet we find common cause in seeking the course of good through the human heart. Behind these shuttered doors, in this renewed part of the past, in this small town, that cause lives on against the irrational powers of this world.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.

– J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia