Archive | History RSS feed for this section

The Akha, Part Two

12 Jul

(For the first in this two-part series, click here.)

On the last morning, we left the Akha village and headed down the motorcycle road to the closest Lao village around. Even early in the morning, we ran into Akha women returning up the road to the village, toting long pieces of bamboo or hearts of palm trees on their shoulders, still fully clothed in their traditional garb, despite their labors. As we wound our way up and down the ridges, the Akha presence disappeared soon, and for a good stretch we didn’t run into anyone. Then, gradually, we started running into Lao people, who came up the road and disappeared out into the forest to forage or tend to their plants.

I came around a corner on the road and to my surprise, there was a black mid-size pickup truck parked on the side of the road. I looked at the manufacturer badge; it wasn’t one that I recognized. The license plate was blue and white, with an unfamiliar character on the left side —- I realized this was a Chinese-plated vehicle. As I walked past, peering in, I was startled to see a man sitting inside in a Chinese short-sleeved military uniform, replete with PLA patch on the left shoulder. He did not look Lao or Akha, for sure. He stared at me and I at him, and “What the hell is he doing here?” was surely on both our minds.

Zelow, our guide, noted my surprise and said that the Chinese were inspecting the tall, bent-over grains growing on the hillside in preparation for harvest. I knew of the colonial influence the Chinese were exerting in the development of Laos — the dam and power line construction I’d seen on my way upland were their doing — but I hadn’t realized that their presence stretched so far and into fields as simple as hillside agriculture.  That the world’s second greatest power was farming here, not far from the seemingly remote Akha, was unnerving to say the least.

It was impossible to know what the chief and those in his village thought of the situation. But our guide, Zelow, was more than willing to share his opinion, albeit one perhaps different from what the rest of his people thought.

Zelow originated in Luang Namtha, in the northwest of Laos. He was the first Akha to ever learn English (or so he claimed).  He couldn’t speak it well, but he made up for it in energy. Zelow had studied Lao and trained to be a teacher, but hated the classroom so much that he gave it up and joined a trekking tour company. He loved trekking. And he loved his people. He was a bit of a figure, it seemed, among the various Akha tribes scattered over the mountains of several nations. Zelow told me of visits to Vietnam, Burma, and China to meet with Akha tribes there, ones both planned and already undertaken —- perhaps a liaison between them or some sort of inter-tribal governance, it seemed.

He had big ideas, for sure. Zelow wanted to start a trekking company which would bring more tourists to Akha villages and thus more village fees. But one could sense that it was not all noble-mindedness. A germ of the outside world’s ways had taken root in his head, for he had the language capacity to travel and understand something of foreign ways. Zelow had great things to say about the Chinese and their success in business. “Oh, China, so good. Business, you know? So good! Great money. Very good, China. China help Lao, help Akha, you know? I want trekking business, like China, you know? Good, ha ha!”

Every day Zelow talked about his ideas and aspirations, especially for the Akha. He reiterated how hard their life was.  “Here, poverty everywhere!  Oh, Lao Akha soooo bad.  So poor!”

“What about in China?  How are the Akha there?” I asked.

“Oh, so great!  Very big houses, cars — very good!  You know?  Very good!  Lao Akha, oh, so bad!”

He saw things from one side of the equation: get stuff! bigger houses! cars! cash and more cash!  He was not interested in what the Akha had, but what they didn’t have in comparison to their brothers in other countries.  This was why he viewed the Chinese as a boon to his people.

Did he realize the cost?  Almost certainly not.  He wanted his people to be strong.  But strong in material terms.  He was operating under the assumption that most people have that culture, and its effects on us as humans, is merely a willed thing.  Desire to keep it and you will, no matter your actions.  So to Zelow the Akha would still be Akha even if they drove Hilux trucks, had air-conditioning, and lived in town.  But this is far, far from what actually happens.

For our culture, as I said, affects us.  Culture is not merely art or music or political ideology or any of the trite meanings we associate it with.  Culture is what we do, everything we do to survive in the natural world.  Change the way you act to survive and your culture changes as well.  We change our actions toward our conditions, and conditions in return change us beyond return.

For the Akha to give up their existence would be for them to give up who they are.  They would still be Akha, but a new kind of Akha.  They would be defined not by their old ways, but by how that old culture caused them to adapt to being modern.  They would be merely a different flavor of the same basic modern person.

So what to do if you want to stay Akha?  Well, in short, don’t change.  Keep doing what you’ve always known, and go back to what you’ve given up.

Most of us cannot agree with this.  For we think that such an old culture has no corollary to our own ways, the dominant direction of the world today.  “Give it up,” we want to say.  “You have to change sometime, you know.”

Yet take the words of Andrew Lytle:

“Do what we did after the war and the Reconstruction: return to our looms, our handcrafts, our reproducing stock.  Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall.  Forsake the movies for the play-parties and the square dances.  And turn away from the liberal capons who fill the pulpit as preachers.”

At some moments, time and space mean nothing.  Lytle here is urging a return to primitive ways, to traditional habits.  He is essentially saying, “If we want ourselves back, go back to the way we actually did things.”  Yet this man was no hill tribe man whose photo would make a nice desktop background.  He came from a line of Tennessee farmers, people we moderns would sneer at as bumpkins and troglodytes.  He is as Western as you and I, but he offers dissent and reproach.

The instruments, festivals, and priests are different, but the situations of Lytle’s people and Zelow’s are the same.  The Akha here are like much of rural America, and especially the American South, through the nineteenth century: subsistence in their farming, self-sufficient in their oikonomia, poor but independent, short-lived but possessing a rich spiritual life.

And what was Zelow looking to?  He was idolizing the same forces that destroyed the traditional life of rural Americans, and would destroy his people.  The same forces.  A rationalist ethic ruthlessly applied, through technology and skill, to exploit, to centralize, to connect and make dependent, inexorably, those who did not wish for such a world, but lacked means to resist.

The Chinese and their Lao puppets build dams, cut roads across hilltops to distant villages, peddle consumables to those ill able to afford it —- their methods are the same as the Progressive ethic of Gilded Age America.  Infrastructure is built, people are dragged into markets beyond their control or understanding; the people adapt to survive, perhaps even believe that these new ways are better.  But their cultural and spiritual poverty is now assured, and their material poverty is not even up to them, not even excusable on grounds of fickle Mother Nature —- their welfare depends on the actions of those far more powerful.  Thus Hu Jintao and Roscoe Conkling, Sinohydro and Standard Oil are no different from each other.  Nothing has changed.

Not one thing.  For all the ostensible advancement and progress of our world, we still operate in the same paradigm as over 150 years ago.  It was in its nascency then, and it has ripened to full maturity now.  And we Westerners, but Americans especially, pioneered it.

That’s the fact that we must face up to, if we care a whit about being honest.  What we do now unto others, we did unto ourselves first.  We destroyed our traditional selves and the world we lived in.  And we, while not the same, were once similar, once closer in our humanity to them.  If similar, then surely we should act in accordance with what we profess to value, that simplicity we feel a gut connection with, which has a corollary in our own past, if we care to look for it.


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.

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.

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.”

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

A Thin, Quiet Line

12 May

I had the chance to go to the DMZ, something that I’d been meaning to do for a while.  I have a (perhaps perverse) fascination with conflict, despite never having served in the military myself, and I’d always heard the DMZ called “the world’s most heavily fortified border.”  Since it’s legal and the chances of fatal wounding these days are pretty low, I wanted to see it for myself.  Nothing can replace your own eyes on target.

Instead of Panmunjeom, the negotiation village with its border-straggling conference rooms, we went to the opposite end of the DMZ, in Yanggu.  It’s out in the wilds of Gangwon-do.  The province has a reputation for sturdy farmers and beautiful forests and mountains.  It is indeed beautiful, really and truly.  The land is not perfectly wild or pristine, as the valley bottoms are still covered by tiny family farms. But it is extremely quiet and ancient feeling.  Could this have been such a fierce battlefield sixty years ago?

As we left out of Yanggu, it became clear it could be again. There were army camps in almost every small village we passed through heading north through Yanggu county. The 21st Infantry Division (“Baekdusan” is their moniker) was the unit in residence. Most  of the camps were artillery fire bases, obviously long-established because of the number of decent-sized trees growing amongst the concrete casemates. In a few cases, you could see the barrels of guns pointing into the sky.  The bases looked a little on the rough and sparse side, with rusty roofs, outdoor racks for drying clothes, and crumbling cement in a few places. I wouldn’t envy the poor luck of your average conscriptee being stationed in such a remote valley.  Most grow up in the city, with every distraction and comfort they could wish, and then they’re dumped in a place with almost no one under the age of 50.  My girlfriend related a common barracks joke: “In the Army, even grandma is a woman.”

I was lucky enough to hike in Dutayeon, a beautiful little valley that is well within the Civilian Restricted Zone.  You definitely have to get a permit ahead of time and go through a manned checkpoint to go.

Despite the signs warning against leftover ordnance, it was a beautiful and peaceful place to walk. There was a very strong smell of wildflowers in the air.  Standing on a swinging bridge over the rushing river, I felt perfectly at peace and understood better the Korean (and perhaps East Asian) aesthetic sense better. It is not purple mountains majesty, nor golden, fertile land, nor soaring forests; it is instead tranquility, peace, a feeling of eternity.

After leaving Dutayeon, we headed east.  There were more firebases and checkpoints along the way, but not nearly on the scale that I had expected. Undoubtedly there were more than what I could see from the road, but the military presence didn’t seem very menacing. We entered into the Punchbowl, the site of a fierce Korean war battle.

The Punchbowl

In the middle of the Punchbowl is Haean.  It was a very quiet hamlet, with almost no people out, though it is planting time for the rice.  I saw no one under the age of 50. Haean, because of its proximity to the border, used to be a very tightly controlled place. Women were not allowed to leave the town unless they married with a man from another village or the city. Even though the name of the town is Haean, the term ‘Punchbowl’  (written as 펀치볼) has become a local reference to the whole area, even featuring as the name of the local gas station.   As Haean is north of the 38th parallel, it, along with other areas in the northeastern part of South Korea, was actually under North Korean control for the five years after the end of the Japanese occupation and for a period during the Korean War.  The current border reflects where the ceasefire in 1953 occurred, not the original line drawn by the Allies in 1945.  Thus the South gained a little more land in the east, while losing land in the west.

Outside Haean, we drove up a very sharp ridge. Halfway up we hit the checkpoint, where another armed guard came on the bus and made a head count. Once we continued on, it was more winding curves, not seemingly like much at all.  Then I looked out the window and saw the fence. The perimeter fence, that is: heavy-gauge chain link, topped with concertina.  The fence ran basically along the top of the ridge, roughly east-west in direction.,with a concrete or dirt path right on the inside of it. It was a shock to have heard so much about the DMZ and  suddenly, there it was, just a fence.

We got to Eulji Observatory and from that point on, there was no picture taking allowed. The South Koreans held the top of the ridge from which the above picture of the Punchbowl is taken (facing south).  The 21st Division had OPs at different points along the ridge.  The perimeter fence and OPs are the limit of military advance and indicates where the DMZ actually physically begins.  Head down the slope  in front of the South Korean lines and there is a stream at the bottom of the valley. Go up a one or two hundred meters on the other side and there is what looks like a red dirt road running east west along the – this snake-like clearing is the actual meeting of the two borders. A kilometer on the other side is the beginning of the North Korean lines. Each army used to be further apart, with the South two kilometers south from the actual meeting of borders and the North Koreans two kilometers north. In the 1970s, the North moved a kilometer south in provocation and in response, the South moved a kilometer north. So currently only two thousand meters separate the two armies. One SK OP juts out fairly far into the valley and is actually only about 780m from the North Korean side. The soldiers there supposedly have to wear body armor and helmets at all times, though when I saw them they were in shirtsleeves digging out a pit at the base of their observation tower.

Through telescopes attached to CCTV cameras, we were shown pictures of NK emplacements on the opposite ridges. We could even see a few NK soldiers. One guy was clearly watching us from a bunker, but at another post, the soldiers looked relaxed. The lieutenant giving us the briefing said that they often see the NK troops taking naps on a regular basis. His manner of speaking was as if he was scolding a lazy student. In addition to normal OPs and living quarters, a field where North Korean troops grew food (plowing with oxen) was visible.  Atop one of the opposing peaks there sat a tower used to block South Korean radio and TV transmissions.  One of the more interesting parts was a waterfall clearly visible even with the naked eye.  The North Koreans used to send their female soldiers to bathe naked in the waters of “Angel Falls” in order to entice lonely South Korean soldiers observing the borders to defect.

The weather was rainy and foggy, but broke enough to see farther into the distance. Barely visible was on of the peaks of Geumgangsan,  arguably Korea’s most famous mountain. Looking that great distance into the North, I was chilled. I have made observations throughout my time in Korea, always saying “Korea is like this,” and “Koreans do this,” and “Korean culture is like this.” Yet I now saw that there was a whole other half to the country of which I knew nothing and never would.

What was also scary was that this thin, quiet line of fence and spread-out sentries was all that protected the border. I’d always thought of the DMZ as resembling Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, with artillery, machine guns, tank traps, and clear signs of military force everywhere. Obviously, given the number of fire bases further south along the valleys, the South Korean plan is a defense in depth, a sounder military strategy. Yet the thinness of the line bothered me, as well as the proximity of the two sides. The threat was not at a distance, just barely on this side of the horizon. It was clear, present, observable with a good pair of eyes.

What made the situation simultaneously absurd and creepy was that the DMZ seemed so arbitrary. Of all the valleys, mountains, and natural formations, this was the border because this was where the fighting stopped, as if it could just pick back up tomorrow. To the eye it was clear that this was no Rhine, no Rio Grande, no English Channel, no Alps, no landmark to easily divide people and nations. This was all the same land.  For centuries it had seen the same people. On the South Korean side, literally a few hundred meters below the ridgeline and the perimeter fence, local farmers were planting crops on the slopes. They and their forebears had done that forever.  In comparison,the DMZ seemed like a transient, minor nuisance.

To me, that thin, quiet line reinforced the tragedy of Korea. It is indeed a house divided. Yet it is not split based on allegiance to leaders or clans or power factions, as the country had been in the past. It is divided because of each side’s allegiance to two ideologies that are fundamentally not Korean in the first place. Some have angrily said that the division of Korea is America’s fault. No, it is not – it is modernity’s fault. It is because of the way we have changed our living and our thought in past hundred and fifty years as a world. We have sought an unnatural order for things and our struggle to control or justify that order has dichotomized our relationships with our neighbors, our countrymen, and other peoples. Modernity insists on rigidity and homogeneity in thought and action; it holds no room for the true diversity of human character and existence. And old-souled, inward-looking Korea suffered as a result. Never had it attempted to force itself on others.  Korea had only ever sought to live as it wished, not bothered by others. Yet it became an unfortunate, tragic pawn in the struggle of different orders. Korea, at least in the South, suffers today not in an physical, wanting sense. But the whole country suffers in a spiritual sense, for it is indeed without its other half.

I left Gangwon-do and headed back to the city, to all the distractions and the money-making, to the scramble to be recognized in the world.  But all I could think about was the land I’d been in all day.  That land has taken on a certain meaning because of the people scattered amongst its valleys and had impressed a certain character upon them in return.  Perhaps, one day, they could continue on in that way, unbothered by the fence.