Archive | January, 2012

Existential Geese

26 Jan

“Why is it that so many foreigners want to learn Korean?”

My girlfriend’s question struck me as a tad silly.  I mean, it’s her damn country, shouldn’t we be learning her language?

“Well, many of them are interested in living here,” I said.  “Not just for a short period or for study, but actually residing here for a long time.”

“Why?”  She was incredulous.

Indeed, why?

Ironically, the answer was right in front of me, between the pages of the magazines that lay on the coffee shop table.  You see, go into just about any chain coffee shop in Korea and you’ll find well thumbed stacks of magazines showcasing the best that money can buy.  For pure material indulgence, there’s Luxury and Muine, for your international hipster fashions there’s Cracker, but those are only worthwhile for showcasing Koreans’ avarice for anything foreign, without regard for taste, worth, or restraint.  The real evidence for my argument lay in magazines like M25 and, most of all, The Bling.

Thumb through the pages of the latter magazine in particular and you’ll see loads of pictures from the hottest clubs and the latest DJs spinning in Seoul and perhaps a couple of other places around the peninsula, as well as a spotlight on some other Asian venue.  Many of those in the photos could have been modeling for the other magazines: Muine if you’re an upmarket-oriented 된장녀 looking to hook the whisky-swilling sugar daddy at the corner booth or Cracker if you’re a bobbing and weaving student in over-priced vintage clothes and tattoos of ligament-wrapped skeletons.  But there are a lot of young, especially Western, foreigners in those pictures.  A lot.  All are partying it up and clearly loving the attention the photographers are lavishing upon them.

Now perhaps the photographers, because of their focus on capturing foreigners on film, distort the actual number of foreigners present relative to their numbers in the general population of Korea.  But, in a certain sense, the numbers themselves, or the perception of the numbers, is irrelevant.  Regardless of actually how many foreigners like myself there are clubbing it every weekend in Hongdae, Gangnam, or Sinchon, their very centralness to the reporting on the club scene is indicative of how they perceive themselves, which is inextricably linked to what Koreans expect of a good club.

Koreans value greatly the blue-chip credibility of foreign endorsement; I don’t think I need to write any long exposition on that subject.  Thus it makes sense that Korean media would want to emphasize the presence of foreigners at an event, for it makes a strong appeal to the 20s and 30s Korean globally-conscious set.  Yet that also makes foreigners think that this is their scene, that they are an integral part of it, that it exists in part for them.  I don’t know how many expats here actually read The Bling or similar publications, so it’s hard to gauge how much the magazines themselves influence foreigner perceptions.  But the act of the photographers seeking out foreigners themselves in the clubs, to take their picture in sexy poses or wielding a bottle of Jaegermeister like a stick grenade, makes it clear that they are valued.  Adjacent Koreans jump in and throw up a two-fingered peace sign or perhaps copy their foreign photo buddy and give the camera The Shocker.  It doesn’t even matter if the photo makes copy in the magazine — the very act of capturing the subject creates a (false) sense of worth.

That feeling of being up on a pedestal combines with the effects of absorbing aspects of Korean culture, whether one intends to or not.  Even most intransigent foreign transients who are not interested in assimilating end up appreciating some parts of Korea — bulgogi barbecue, K-pop, whatever.  I hear foreigners all the time spice up their own language with Korean — it’s not because they are really multilingual and can’t divide the two tongues in their brain, but rather because they think it’s cute or endearing, like it makes them a part of a club without having the pay the dues.  But they do pay dues, whether they realize it or not.  Many of them succumb to the Korean notion that there is only the top or the bottom, that there is no acceptable middle ground.  I noticed this when my girlfriend either spoke constantly of being ‘rich’ or ‘poor.’  There was no idea of being satisified with a middle-class stature.  That’s just a stopping point on your way up or down.  Many foreigners end up adopting, even if only slightly, this Korean habit of viewing everything as a win-lose, zero-sum game through osmosis totally unaware.  They start thinking, “I’ve got to be on top.  I’ve got to be at the best clubs, on the best days of the month.  I’ve got to look the best, have the best time, and hook up with the best people at the end of the night.”  They feel the need to establish themselves in the hierarchy of foreigners here, as the ones who have figured out this strange land, mastered it, made it their own.

Oh, is this what you mean by 'experiencing a rich culture'?

That effort is nothing short of pathetic.  It mimics the Korean trait of exalting the place at the top of the pyramid, but in a different fashion.  Koreans climb the pyramid to finding prestige and security within their own hierarchical society, for those are advantages easily passed on to one’s family or social hangers-on, thereby further increasing one’s worth and especially material well-being in old age.  But foreigners exist outside that hierarchy.  Despite the constant grumblings and rantings by long-term expats, Korea is not going to become an open-to-all, multicultural society, where everyone from anywhere can lounge about in a paradise of Western values.  Nor should it.  So foreigners, cut out of following the normal avenues, must gauge themselves by a totally different standard.

That standard is a combination of both the expat society, existing in large part parallel to Korean society, as well as the society which each expat left in their home country.  Air travel and digital communications has transformed not only the ability for people to go anywhere or experience anything from a distance, but also enabled them to do so without actually giving up anything about where they came from.  You can live in Korea and, through Facebook, Skype, your RSS blogfeed, etc, continue to participate in your own culture almost as if nothing had happened.  So, for a foreigner here, if you can’t join Korean society, you’ll just judge yourself in comparison to a) other foreigners here and b) your own culture and relations in your homeland.

Thus you go out to the clubs, pushing yourself to get a more ‘authentic’ ‘Korean’ club experience than those other foreign schmucks you work with.  And you imagine you are at the top when some skinny Korean dude with a V-neck undershirt, a Mets cap, and gauged earrings, brandishing a Nikon for the club’s PR department, seeks you out and snaps pictures of you grinding on some random Australian chick in red pleather go-go boots.

But the picture is only complete (and, in circuitous fashion, I return to my initial point) when you make these habits a qualitative judgement upon the culture across the ocean that you never really left.  You say, “Oh, I’m so glad I didn’t get stuck in Atlanta/Auckland/Hamburg/Lyon/Manchester/Melbourne.  Seoul is just so happening . . . like, even more than Tokyo.  It’s a great lifestyle.”

Lifestyle.  That’s all that it comes down to.  Not a better life, mind you — we’re not talking about Sierra Leone refugees finding some haven where people won’t chop off their hands; Korea actually admits very, very few people into political asylum — but a lifestyle.  Tens of thousands of people moving across the globe not in search of liberty, freedom of conscience, or religious practice, but for their own personal indulgence.  There is no deprivation for these foreigners who come from developed countries.  They could find a club in Atlanta or Melbourne, but choose not to.  The club, party, dining scene is ‘better’ here and they have travelled far to get it.  They ensconce themselves in it, think they have found authenticity in what is virtually the same as what they left, and, through their perceived mastery of a new life, establish themselves as superior to all their friends back at home who must toil on, ‘stuck’ in their hometown and all its terrible deprivation.

Thus the foreigner across from us cuts his hair like a Korean, dresses like a Korean, and studies the Korean language, because he thinks that all this is his, that he can enter into it.  For, coming from a Western country, he operates under the illusion of equality, that all things are open to him because, well, they should be.  He thinks that skin color, facial structure, blood, culture, history, language are all malleable constructs, that he can transcend them.  He thinks that this land can be his, that he has a right to be here because he chooses to be here, as though the choice was his all along, a pure act of will on his part.

He and his kind are not colonialist, though many of their attitudes are unconsciously the White Man’s Burden mashed several times through a progressivist strainer.  Rather, they are merely existential geese.  They flit about, migrating from one little spot to another, honking to each other about which pond is bigger or better, never remaining but always thinking that wherever they touch down is theirs, claimed by nothing more than frantically paddling feet and nasally squawks.

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Three Nights in a Jjimjilbang

25 Jan

I recently did some venturing about Korea, not for any terribly specific reason other than I wanted to ride around on trains a lot.  I decided to check out Andong, for I’ve heard it’s an intransigently Korean place and I like intransigent stick-in-the-muds.  Being short on cash, I decided to sleep in a jjimjilbang, like many Koreans do when they travel.

Normally I’m rather averse to marinating myself in the various bodily fluids, bacteria, sloughed skin, and expectorate of total strangers, but I decided to give it a try.  For I’d recently gotten a blood test and my Hepatitis B antibodies turned out to be naturally almost four times higher than an ordinary vaccinated person.  I felt lucky.

Andong Oncheon

Once I got in and started looked around Andong Oncheon, the jjimjilbang pictured above, I was kicking myself for not having come to one of these places sooner.  I mean, a shower, water from a hot spring (the meaning of 온천), sauna, baking yourself inside a kiln, roasting your back on lava rocks, freezing yourself in a room lined with ice-encrusted pipes, plus a restaurant, PC room, DVDs, a space on the floor to crash — all for 7 bucks — 7 bucks — how is anything wrong with this picture?  I was to discover later, though, that there was.

It being winter vacation, there were a lot of college students traveling and nearly all of them seemed to be using these establishments for their lodging.  With a small bookbag, most of them were just bouncing around on week-long cheap train passes, trying to see as much as possible.  I talked with several of them.  Two young guys, one with a glistening cubic zirconia earring, playing hwatu together on the mat next to me, had just finished their second year of university, which meant that it was the customary time to do their compulsory military service.  Except the Military Manpower Administration wasn’t sure whether they would send these two off in February or March or when.  Ear Ring Kim’s parents lived in Hong Kong and had insisted that he go to university in Daegu so his grandparents could keep an eye on him.  Well, he wasn’t having any of that right now.  He and his friend were just going to kick around the country doing whatever they felt like until the military let them know when it was time to report for training.  Nice guys, as most of the people there seemed — a real family establishment.  I felt fairly comfortable.  Actually, I almost always feel far less ill will for my skin color outside the main urban areas.  Usually country people look at me as a curiosity instead of with suspicion or loathing.  One big-nosed, leather-skinned rustic on the train even made the effort to catch my attention and give a wave and smile as he got off at a rural station.  It is indeed the people you meet that make or break any physical place you come across.

But the most, shall we say, memorable character at the jjimjilbang was the ajeossi in the hot pool.  He had surprisingly tan skin all over.  His hair was unusually curly on top and suffered from a orangish hue, making him look like a Korean Jerry Stiller.  He made his way to the corner reclining section of the big bubbling warm pool, which I too stood in, albeit on the opposite side.  He laid down and I lost track of him, zoning out for several minutes.

When I came back to the present, I happened to glance across the pool.  The orange-haired old guy lay in his corner, but was looking about with a wide-eyed, almost paranoid look.  I saw his arm moving back and forth and some movement down by his crotch.  Gross, I thought, that old dude’s cleaning himself in this pool.  It seemed odd, but, then again, there were naked grown men over in the shower room scrubbing each other’s backs with rough cloths.  It’s Korea, after all, and things are just different in a lot of ways.  So I brushed it off.

But I kept feeling the old guy’s stare flitting about the room like a schizophrenic lighthouse beam.  No one else seems to notice him, but he’s still glancing around nervously.  Looking back over, I see that the man’s former motion is continuing, only at a more frantic pace, and a certain part of his anatomy has, by this point . . . emerged . . . from the water.  It suddenly struck me that this weird looking ajeossi was gratifying himself in a public pool.  And I was sitting it the same water.

I stood up immediately and climbed out of that pool without a second look.  I went into the sauna, shut the door, and sat down.  No way I’m getting back in that pool, I thought.  The heater next to me banged and clanged and I sat, wondering if this was normal behavior in a jjimjilbang and if anyone else had seen it.  But no one makes conversations in the jjimjilbang.  You sit there and avoid eye contact as you sweat and scrub.  So I was left with the mystery all to myself.

Those who wander seek out authentic experiences, ones which illuminate either the universal or the particular.  We want a full spectrum of experiences, a broad, diverse array that will enable us to both make generalizations.  But on occasion you see something that just leaves you at a loss, that fails to fit into any preconceived categories you have or can be considered a rare outlier that conforms nonetheless in its own way.  Just because you spend three nights in a jjimjilbang doesn’t mean you’ll see the same thing that I did.  And that, my friends, is why you keep your eyes open, even if sometimes you wish you hadn’t.

Mystery Box

14 Jan

I saw many of these mysterious boxes passing through the northern parts of Gyeongsangbuk-do and the southern parts of Gangwon-do.  They were spread throughout sections of forest, sitting on cliff ledges, or, in the case of this picture, situated at a remote railroad siding.

Does anyone happen to know what these boxes are used for?  I speculated initially that they might be urns of some sort, or perhaps an urn is stored inside them.  They seem have some sort of common purpose, for various points of their construction are similar, particular the three bored holes at the base on the front side.  Are they for shamanistic uses or old Confucian rituals or just some old weird mountain tradition that not many know about?  I saw a lot of them in one place, perhaps forty or more scattered all about an old, run-down house.

If anyone knows, drop a comment or shoot me an email, I’d appreciate it!