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I Finally Wrote About Gangnam Style

14 Nov

Not really.

For as much as hack writers want to make Gangnam Style out to be some brilliant piece of Korean cultural marketing, or a cliche about the rise of a international-looking, tech-savvy Korean youth, it is still just a song:

The song choice is not really the interesting part of the video.  Popular Korean singers have frequently done laidback acoustic covers of manufactured pop hits over the past few years.  It is the girls in the video that are interesting, especially as the video captures a certain difficult, yet wholly special time in their lives, one which they perhaps enjoy, but do not understand the magnitude of the enjoyment until later, when it has long passed.

High school in Korea is unbelievably stressful.  There is immense pressure to study and to perform, not just from one’s parents, but from every aspect of society.  For your average Korean city kid, there is not a moment of the day that is not structured in some capacity.  So to take the time to hang out on a street corner in your school uniform, playing music because you like it, is an unbelievably free act, though simple.  Everything conspires to keep the young Korean miserable, and yet a level of innocence is still there, in spite of it, flowering in the enjoyment of the moment, while a society thinking only of the future flows past on the street around them.

Their fate as Korean girls, though, is perhaps the more melancholy aspect.  They are, right now, being pushed to get into university, to study something practical, to find a good career.  Dress nice, look pretty, to get a good husband.   Maybe their parents are understanding; maybe they will encourage their daughters to study music or the arts.  But that music and art must lead to success — it must conform to norms in order to provide respectability and wealth — they must do their art for a big company.

And thus it is not art at all.  There is no truth, overt, implicit, or revealed, in that kind of practice.

Those girls may want to busk into their adult years, but it will become more difficult.  Even if they do not pursue it as a vocation, seeking to master its art, they will almost certainly have no encouragement for it as a pastime.  They must study, pursue guys, get married, have kids, go to the coffee klatsch to complain about husbands and coupons, take the kids to hagwon, encourage them to succeed.  Those are not abhorrent things, but leave no time, nor spontaneity for something like busking.

The moment in the video, then, is a moment of beauty even more stunning because of its such short life and looming end.  We regard and honor artists who have long lifetimes of work, like Faulkner or Dickens, revering the long and disciplined consistency of art. But we are haunted by the short, intense flame of creation cut short before its time to mature and settle.  For it is not craft that drives the youngest creators, but simply an uncorking of a spirit within, letting it flow out.

True, the song is only Gangnam Style.  But it meant enough to them to try to do it this way, against all those pressures I mentioned.  The missed lyrics, the interspersed laughing, the uncomposed nature of the girls’ performance show that the song, whatever it is, is the vehicle for something greater, that uncorked spirit.  The girls are too, and will be for only a short time.  The spirit may find another vessel, or it may not.

That is why we may be haunted, for truth can only live by our own living, by our own choices.

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Leaving Home for Home

1 Mar

I’m leaving, again.  The writing is on the wall, and I’ve got to go.  When I came back to Korea, I thought I’d be here for a while, continuing on as long as I wanted.  But I didn’t expect to reach a limit like this.  I now know I can push and push against that wall, but will, discipline, and perseverance can only move it so much.

What limits?  Korea limits.  Every place does.  Everyone learns to cope with them, wherever they are.  But coping with limits is very different from thriving within them.  When I first came here, I thrived.  I could go in the direction I wanted, for the limits allowed that.  Not any more.  Where I’m trying to get in life is not possible within the confines of this place.  If I was willing to change that existential destination, then I could make this physical destination I’m in work.

But I can’t.  Can’t change that part about myself.  Some value their environment, station in life, aesthetic surroundings the most.  I have always appreciated those things; in fact, it’s what made me come back to Korea.  But there was always a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I’d have to leave it eventually.  To stay doesn’t fit with me, who I am.  I want it to, to some degree.  I talk big about the importance of place, tradition, family — if you’ve read this blog, you know.  All those things should by right tie me do somewhere.  And they do, in spirit and values.  But I have difficulty matching that up seamlessly with the choices I have to make to live.  I am a contemplator and a doer.  I think about things and then act on them.  If I can’t act, can’t do what I find to be valuable, important, then my thoughts stagnate.  I start to lose my bearings.  I lose appreciation for the things around me, for they become just background instead of living part of this reality I’m looking at and acting in.

Ironic, isn’t it?  Appreciating a place is to know that you must be able to act in it, yet maybe move beyond it.  It’s not just being there.

But even when you leave a place, it can still stay with you.  It’s in your blood.  Korea got in mine.  I felt enormous frustrations and impatience for the past two months, knowing that this moment was coming.  But I also knew that I would miss this land greatly.

That’s what makes any place a home.  Maybe not one’s original home, but a home all the same.  It takes people to make a home, though.  Family and friends both.  I’ve had both this year, all of the native variety, not outlander transients like myself.  The knowledge that they are here and I will leave makes the departure more complicated.  Because even though I’m going back to where I know I’m from, the place I know in my head is me, there’s still a deep feeling that I’m leaving where I’m supposed to be.

Leaving home for home.  That’s the only way I can think about it.

So I wander, once again, from one home to another.  The road does not always end where we expect it to.  All we can do is hope to find virtue in it if there are but a few more miles to go before we sleep.

The Trees

20 Feb

Whenever my thoughts needs clarity and perspective, some solitude amidst old things always helps straighten things out.  Curiously, I’ve never been to the oldest thing near me in over a year here, almost in my backyard — Suwon Hwaseong Haenggung (화성행궁).  I’ve been all around the Hwaseong fortress wall itself on my bike and explored the labyrinthine neighboors contained within, but never inside the palace, the Haenggung.

In the summertime, when my aircon was broken and I didn’t feel like sitting in a room that was surely growing mold, I’d bike over to the Haenggung at night.  It was always closed, but I’d just sit down and enjoy the lights shining on the front gate, the taegeuk on the front door glowing beautifully.

What I enjoyed the most, though, were the zelkova trees (느티나무) in the front.  They’re claimed to be over 350 years old, which would have put them there well before the palace was even built in 1793.

I like trees in any place because they are the finest living link we have to the past.  They outlast us humans, with our frail bodies and flawed memories.  And yet they are not the dead planks, stones, and mortar of the buildings and artifices which we first associate with our history.  They live, as we live.  In the case of the Haenggung, these trees even outlasted the palace’s original buildings.  The Japanese tore down the palace, but who thinks to tear down a tree?  A tree is no symbol of culture to be eradicated; leave it be; it will enhance the greatness we will build now.  But the tree knows the truth.  It grew and lived before the palace, and would keep on doing so.  It outlasted the Japanese and their visions of empire, silently, patiently growing, living in the face of what went on around it.

On those nights I came here to the spot in the picture above, I found it far easier to imagine than at other historic places in Korea.  I really do think that’s thanks to the trees.  A noble, a porter, a messenger, a coterie of servants and handmaidens, a farmer — any one, or perhaps all of them, could have sat in the shade of the trees in the summer heat.  Perhaps they carried out their business or casual conversations.  Their world, their frame of reference was wholly different — yet they lived under these tall living things that spread their branches.  The tree has witnessed more human lives, more hope and tragedy, more varieties of existence than any of us could ever hope to.  And the tree keeps on living.

The old and veteran of us humans can tell stories of what happened and the ways things were.  But trees cannot speak; they cannot tell us what King Jeongjo sounded like, or what the local people said about him after he had gone away somewhere else.  Yet they enable us to imagine these things.  We think of the trees and how they were, way back then.  They survived and they live.  And with that, even our slightest notions of what is beyond our reality begin gain space to breathe and run free.

All Is Not Lost

12 Feb

It fades, generation by generation, epoch by epoch.  Our peculiar march as men, tramping down straighter and faster paths toward not being men, watches the deep, the integral, the unrecognized but crucial parts of ourselves cast aside like overcoats by the road on a hot day — we needed them before, but right now, on the brightly lit road that we can see for the moment, we don’t.  So we shed our baggage, our encumbrances, to forge on lighter and faster.

Those who scream and rant about the disintegration of things, reminding others of how much better things were in their childhood and how everything is on the wrong paths, have the wrong perspective.  It is not their nostalgia that is wrong.  Rather, it is their frame of view.  True, things have disintegrated since their childhood.  Yet the golden days of their youth were forged from the disintegration of yet a previous era, the pleasures of the present bought by sacrificing the world of the old and already-passed.  And in the generations before that, the foundation for their family’s gradual mobility was bought by mortgaging, whether by choice or not, their old ways, in which time was not an arbitrary division into past, present, and future, but a living, breathing continuation of what was.

But all is not lost.  For one can venture beyond the screaming artifice of neon and PC rooms and Olleh WiFi and Prugio luxury apartments, and find this:

The grandmother and her granddaughter sit at her house, folding the towels by hand.  Modernity is here, visible or not.  Synthetic cloth; running shoes; machine-woven towels made white with chemical bleach; perhaps even the logs under the house were run through a pneumatic splitter instead of being chopped by an axe.  But the old house is still kept well, as it always has been.  The stones are neatly set, the fibrous paper backing the door free of holes, the courtyard made of crushed stone, not poured concrete.  The two women fold by hand.  No machine nor specialty delivery service does it for them.  They themselves must take up the task and do it completely, do it well.  No technology has stripped away their toil by adapting to them instead of they to it.  The basic physical movements inherent to humanity’s long experience with daily living are still there, protected, at least for now.  Genome revitalizing drugs, robotic enhancements, brain-wave reading digital paper, the Singularity: all these things and their terror are coming.  But they are not here yet.  And so all is not lost, not yet.

All is not lost.  All that is ourselves, our true selves, has faded and many parts disappeared entirely, beyond our recall or care.  But some remains, within us in fact or within our reach, should we choose to stretch out our hand to it.

All is not lost.  That is not hope in and of itself.  Hope is not fuzzy feeling, nor wishful thinking, nor contentment to apprise and merely remark.  There is only hope in acting.  We see hope in the phrase “all is not lost” only because there must be some thing that is not lost and that it is recoverable.  Yet one must look for that thing, find it, take it up again as if nothing had happened, not for the demands of the moment, but for its own original purpose.  We must look to our past, and the intersection of our selves with it, not to satisfy our political dissatisfactions, our societal critiques, our cultural grumblings, our paranoia over the stability of the whirring world.  Rather, we must immerse ourselves in that past as if there was no severance with it, no disruption.  For to use the past merely as criticism is to concede the victory to the world that has occurred.  Nothing is written; things could have gone differently.  Take up what they before us saw as our purpose, take their vision as our own with the full knowledge that it is ours by inheritance, fully, completely, with no justification needed.

All is not lost.  And nowhere is that more true than in a small Korean village, by a river, the smell of wood smoke strong in the winter air.

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.

FTA Power Struggle

11 Dec

The KORUS Free Trade Agreement (known on these shores in shorthand as the 한미FTA) has been ratified, but that hasn’t stopped the opposition against it.  In fact, the protests calling for its rescinding are as heated, if not more so, as those held before the National Assembly passed the law.  As I’ve noted before, the central areas of Seoul can fill up with heated street confrontations at a moment’s notice.  The video below is of the 한미FTA protests that took place last night in the capital:

Most of the protest’s momentum took it from the Cheonggyecheon area into Myeongdong toward Namsan.  It also ended up in Jongro, right on the main drag.

The fascinating thing about Seoul is that there can be an event like this going on and you can be but a few blocks away and have no idea that anything significant is happening.  I was in the city all afternoon, up toward Bukchon with my girlfriend, negotiating the crowds of fat Japanese girls shopping and Chinese tourists photographing overpriced shoe stores, and drinking overpriced coffee in tiny cups.  There were police about, mostly young conscripts doing their national service.  I’d seen them on other occasions in recent months, for the President’s house, Cheongwadae, is nearby.  For some reason, they were spread out in tiny groups throughout the area.  Turn down a street and, peekaboo! standing in entrance of a little alleyway are a cluster of neon-jacket cops, two with riot shields, another with a glowing red-orange traffic wand.  They just stand there, in the cold, looking fairly useless if any really concerned mob like that in the video came through.  My assumption was that it was all a precaution or a change in tactics just for the hell of it; I had no idea what was going down a kilometer away.

Down along the eastern wall of Gyeongbokgung, it was clear that they didn’t need manpower, ’cause they had firepower instead.  There was a truck that resembled a hook-and-ladder type operation, but marked police on the side.  Its boom was folded for the moment.  I realized that this was the exact same equipment the police used against labor union protests at the Hanjin Heavy Industries pier down in Busan (check out the photo in the first link, the truck I saw was exactly the same).  There was a water cannon mounted on the end of the boom, but what made it more nefarious was the mixing of tear gas compounds in with the water they were spraying.  Was the tanker truck behind it, also in police livery, filled with CS-laced water?  No idea, but I’ve never seen preparations on that scale for a protest anywhere in Seoul before.

But while I noticed the equipment and the police standing around, there was still no inkling of what was happening down in Myeongdong.  Ironically, we missed our turn to drive south down the plaza in front of Gwanghwamun and ended up stuck in traffic, heading west before looping back east by the river.  If we hadn’t been cut off and gotten into the lane we intended, we’d have driven right smack into the middle of the fracas.  And, still, no idea until I drove all the way home and just happened to see the news pop up as I switched on my computer.

***

The arguments for and against free trade or protectionism often boil down to one side shouting at other about principles or the lack of them.  Free trade is sancrosanct, one side shouts, as self-evident as any natural right.  Can’t you see?  You don’t see?  Well, then, you have no understanding of economics.  The other side jabs its finger back, screaming that it’s often a select few who benefit, especially those connected to political power.  It’s all a scheme by the rich against the people!  We’ll all be serfs, don’t you see!  You clearly have no understanding of economics!

The unfortunate part is that (and this is painfully obvious in the boring, dualistic responses to Occupy Wall Street) we have come to regard economics as a source of morality (or ethics, if you prefer), instead of responding to and a servant of an external source of morality.  It’s the same way that we live without any sense of our own history.  Modern life distances and insulates man from his past, the realities of those struggles, and the principles and lessons inherent to them.  We run around making economics a shrill sermon of fundamentalist rigor because we live in a world with no past, one created in material and culture by the economics of industrialization — what else should we expect?

Unaware of our history, we fail to see that economic systems are tools by which nations, or parts of nations, attempt to secure power, prosperity, or security for themselves.  American corporations may enjoy free trade today and wax on about the moral uprightness of it, but a hundred plus years ago the industrialists would have rather died than see the tariff gone.  For the fact was that, from the beginning of the Republic, American industry couldn’t compete with England.  The tariff held the cheaper English goods at bay, but placed enormous burdens on the sections of the country exporting goods to England.

True, this built up America to a world power by the end of the 19th century.  And you could make the same argument about the nation-strengthening policies of Park Chung-Hee back in the ’60s and ’70s.  But that doesn’t make it moral.  One section of America suffered because of the tariff, so much so that it was one reason to secede from nation as a whole.  And the other section used their newfound industrial strength to crush the other.  So when people are out protesting in the streets like above, I don’t think about whether free trade or protectionism are themselves right or wrong.  I think, Who is getting the shaft here?  Beyond the sham of fungible rhetoric, who wins and who loses?

The losers will not be most of the people in that video.  In fact, they might even prosper.  They and their children will fill the ranks of the rising middle class that is fueling all the speculative growth in the capital area.  They’ll move into one of the massive apartment complexes being thrown up in places that a generation ago were no-name villages, now covered with the scars of asphalt and concrete, with ridiculous names like “Gwanggyo Techno Valley” the label capitalizing on people’s hopes.  They’ll make money, forget that they ever said anything bad about the 한미FTA or globalization, and proceed to transform Korea into a land of PC rooms, coffee shop chains, designer clothes outlets, smartphone stores, and soaring towers of concrete soul-destruction, everyone crammed into tiny boxes, creating their worlds online because there’s no space outside.  Their culture will become the only Korea, the old ways dying not with a bang but with a whimper.

Yes, whimpering away, that is how the losers will go.  For they are too old and too few to make any noise.  The remains of the rural peasantry will be gone.  Korean rice is protected under the FTA, but other farm products will be hit by U.S. imports, without many opportunities to make up for losses in vulnerable U.S. sectors.  And no one will replace the rice farmers when they’re gone, for four acres and harvester doesn’t have any appeal for the younger generation, who are convinced that maybe if they study just a little bit harder, take one more interview, get a nose job, then they’ll finally land a spot in a corporation, safe for life.  Yes, maybe this time, just one more try.

And that will be it.  Korea as Korea will be done, gone forever.  The last thing really tying it to its past and its identity, an agricultural people and its traditions, will be gone.  After that, Korean culture as the urban masses believe it, as the world is shown — the Chuseok celebrations, the hanbok, the winter kimchi making — is a mere facade, a mimesis without understanding.

This struggle between an agrarian and an industrial civilization, then, was the irrepressible conflict, the house divided against itself, which must become according to the doctrine of the industrial section all the one or all the other. 

It was the doctrine of intolerance, crusading, standardizing alike in industry and in life.

– Frank Lawrence Owsley

Korea, the Korea as it was, had to be crushed out; it was in the way; it impeded the progress of the machine.  So Juggernaut drove his Hyundai across the peninsula.

Digital Whisky

13 Oct

It is impossible at some levels for cultures as different as East and West to comprehend the real, true essence of each other.  We can approach a general understanding or gain a sense of it, but never can we actually understand what it is at heart.

One extremely obvious case of this is Westerners becoming very ‘into’ Buddhism.  They think they understand what it is, they categorize and define its aspects and principles, and find its spiritual practices ‘really, like, you know, revealing and inspiring, man.’  But as much as they try, they will never (and indeed cannot) actually reach a full understanding of what such things mean to a person.  For they have not grown up internalizing such understanding in their every waking moment.  I’m not talking about mere tenets or ideals or individual experience; I’m talking about how the whole messy thing of a religion plays out on a human and cultural scale.  They don’t get it because they can’t get it.  They might understand the cyclical nature of Buddhist thought, but unless their own worldview, their thoughts’ unconscious prism, is cyclical in nature, they will never really get at what Buddhism is.

In the same way, though I write occasionally about Confucian aspects of Korean society, I really have no idea what I’m talking about.  I have an idea of Confucianism, its Korean variant, and I can see it in action every day around me.  I can have a view into how it affects people’s thought and behavior, as I find out my girlfriend’s reactions to everyday occurrences or relationships with people.  Yet I will never know what it actually means because I am constantly forcing myself out of my own frame of thought, attempting to adopt that of another.  I may almost touch it, like Adam nearly touching the hand of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but I will never actually, completely know it.  For I do not understand the unspoken meaning of words here, the ideas intrinsic and unuttered, understood intuitively.

Yet in the same way, one can run into Eastern assumptions about the West.  They assume that values they assign to something would be reciprocated by Westerners.

What made me think of this?  A bottle of Johnny Walker.

I grabbed it off the shelf and only looked at the box when I got home.  ‘Limited Edition’ it said, though the price was no less than a normal bottle.  Basically they’re luring you in with a fancy box.  I took a look at the fancy box and saw this design:

A damn digital Striding Man

Yes, that it the Striding Man silhouette, but done as a lit-up telecommunications network, glowing in all its technological glory.

Seriously?

The artist, though, was completely earnest.  “Ji Hoon Byun,” the box interior read, “has been seeking for the aesthetic value in digital media art.  He uses engineering technique like programming languages as his primary method to create his work.  His works that respond to the movement of the beholders and to the nature have been invited to many local overseas exhibitions.”

This artist clearly has no idea of the essence of this important Western artifact, whisky.  He’s doing up the Striding Man to represent how cool and cutting edge whisky is, how digital technology represents the same level of excellence, etc, ad nauseam.

Except that the point of whisky is that it’s not digital, dammit.  It’s not immediate, instantaneous, available on your smartphone.  You can’t make it better by making it faster or in larger quantities or with brushed aluminum paneling or by live tweeting.  It takes lots of time, nature, and tough men in cold, lonely places doing things in the exact damn way they have been for as long as anyone can remember.  Whisky is the enemy of innovation and the antichrist of efficiency.

But Ji Hoon Byun doesn’t understand that.  The Audi-driving Samsung Men who shell out bucks for this stuff don’t understand it.  They may understand part of the whisky culture, that sense of connoisseurship fostered by men with too much money and sense of self-worth.  But they confuse that with the reason why whisky is sought after, enjoyed: it is not easily made or readily available; it can only be made by a old and insular tradition; and its taste can only in a certain sense be appreciated when you understand the physical environment from which it comes.  Go north up the coast from the Clyde and set your feet in Oban and you can see how that town’s whisky has both the sea and the hills in its taste.

But they wouldn’t want it even if they tried.  Because those Korean whisky connoisseurs, like secular Westerners dabbling in Buddhism, don’t want to actually understand.  Because that might mean coming up against the possibility that one can’t fully understand.  No, they’re looking for their own perceptions to be confirmed, perceptions rooted in the identity they have but try to escape.  Koreans drink whisky because they think rich, successful Westerners drink whisky.  They drink not to appreciate, but to socially distinguish.  And to be distinguished in Korea is to be ensconced in their worship of technology — hence the digital Striding Man.  Similarly, Western dilettantes like Buddhism because it doesn’t judge them.  They’re not interested in wholeheartedly embracing a different worldview, a whole new set of eyes, a real religion that requires commitment.  No, they’re interested in a perceived refuge from the moral and existential demands of Judeo-Christian culture.  Embracing Buddhism, they will be different, yes, but not in any objective sense, only relative to what they were before.

No matter what they do the box, those well-intentioned but meddling Koreans can’t change what’s inside the bottle.  Pure gold, and it only got there one way, a way not even Samsung can reverse engineer.  That is the lesson for our very selves when we look in the mirror.