Tag Archives: Namdaemun

Returning, Remembering

5 Jun

Monday, I was walking through Namdaemun Market.  It can feel touristy at times when packs of foreigners come wandering through, eyes wide in confused terror when an ajumma starts trying to lure them into their store in guttural Korean.  Even though, as person who wields a Alien Registration Card, I prefer not to think of myself as one of them, I have come to accept that I am indeed not much higher on the list in the locals’ eyes.  Their ancestors have civilized this place for about 4000 years, which makes my time here about the equivalent of a geologic second.

But there was one pair that stood out beyond others.  They were not expats.  That was obvious enough from the camera bag and general amazement with which they gazed upon the chaos.  They were father and son, I realized, and they were here for one purpose.  They had not been lured to Korea’s shores as newcomers by the glossy and sensuous photographs of the government’s tourist campaign.  The father was too old to be traveling.  The skin sagged beneath his eyes and chin. He moved very slowly and stiffly, reactions delayed, his head and eyes searching languidly about.  Only one reason could have gotten a man of his age and condition to come to Korea.  It was because it was not his first time here.  Last time he must have held an M1 Garand in his hands.

It was Memorial Day in America and here he was, seeing the place where he had served, 60 years on.  The last time he had been here, things were simpler, both at home and in Korea.  He had been in his youth, too, better able to take on the difficulties and challenges of the world.  But now he was older and everything had changed.  Perhaps he recognized the faces and some of the smells, but the sights surely baffled him.  Who where these plasticized pop stars adorning posters in the shop front?  What about the racks and racks of acid wash jeans, hoodies with ink-splatter designs, and knock-off soccer jerseys?  He had seen changes in his own country but those had been more gradual.  Perhaps he had rued them but accepted them grudgingly.  But how could he come back to this land and expect to know it?  The contrast between the two was too great.   He was paralyzed not by the immense excitement of choice but by the perishing of any sense of familiarity.

Was this what he had fought for?  That is a question that echoes in many veteran’s minds, even about their own country. But had he given part of his youth and the lives of his friends for all this?  A consumer paradise of slick sameness, appearance glossing over substance, where if you stopped a passerby and asked about the North, they might shrug and call them brothers?  Was it good for him to see this place and understand what it had become, a busy land of square pegs in square holes, consuming, growing, and getting rich without a thought to the cost?  Or would he rather have remembered Korea as a poor, torn country that had nowhere else to look for salvation except to his country in the prime of its might?

His son guided him about, walking next to the old man, pointing down some arcades:  “Dad, let’s go there.”  His son could not have known the things his father saw.  But he knew he had to marshal his father carefully through this jungle, one beyond the understanding of the old breed.  I turned away for a minute and then lost sight of them in the masses, who did not know their story and passed them by without a glance.


(Ol)factory Recall

24 Jun

What will stay with me the most from this place, I already know, long after sights and events have faded into soft focus, are the smells.  To a Westerner, they are completely and utterly unfamiliar and overpowering.  I’m used to the smell of woods, wet grass, the earthy aroma of decomposing leaves.  Or if I’m in town, the reek of car fumes and asphalt on a hot day.  But here in Korea, just walking down the street you come across odors that can make the unprepared almost gasp for air.  What the hell is that smell?

I really can’t put my finger on it.  Sometimes it’s definitely a pork or red pepper smell, if you’re passing a restaurant.  But sometimes on random streets you’ll get a whiff of something sour.  Maybe like ginger or soy or some other kind of potent herb mixed with something rotten, maybe kimchi.  That would explain the fermented and vinegar stench.  Kimchi tastes great, but when it’s been saturating the pores of the man on the metro next to you for the last fifty years, mixed with sweat and trapped inside his polyester suit, it’s like a punch straight up the sinuses into your cerebellum.

I got to experience this for quite a few hours yesterday as I traveled from Bundang into Seoul and back.  I took the subway the entire way in, learning on the fly how to transit lines.  Thankfully, the stops are listed in English.  My brain synapses haven’t quite figured out how to pick up on the sight and sound of the Korean language yet.

For some reason, I expected Seoul to be like a lot of other famous cities, replete with lots of historic districts stretching back centuries.  But I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when, once emerging into the daylight from the metro station, that it was so new and sleek, a capitalist boom town if there ever was one.  After all, the city was leveled during the Korean War by the U.S. Army and Marines trying to break through and cut off North Korean soldiers further south on the peninsula.

But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything interesting to see.  Namdaemun Market certainly fulfilled that for me.

Namdaemun market
Namdaemun market

What would you like to buy?  A knock-off Coach handbag?  Ginseng root preserved in a jar?  Fresh eels?  Floor tiles?  Baby clothes?  T-shirts with inane English sayings?  A Barack Obama mask?  Talk about consumer choice.  You can find just about anything there short of a rocket launcher.  It’s absolutely jammed with people shoulder-to-shoulder.  A man with no legs crawls along the ground begging for money.  Vendors with heavy carts full of vegetables somehow worm their way through narrow spaces.  Some vendors hawk their wares, others chat with the fellow in the stand next door, many are content just to sit in the shade and wait for you to take an interest in whatever they sell, be it fresh octopus or cut-rate camera equipment.  And such people seemed perfectly content doing what they did, even if their tiny little stand was existing on the smallest of profit margins.  In modern America, most would look down on such a job with disdain, feeling that spending one’s entire existence working hard selling petty wares was an unworthy use of one’s life.  We would think that it indicated a lack of ambition or skill or desire to advance one’s station in the world.  But not here.  For the rest of the day, I began to think about such matters.

From there I journeyed to Deoksugung Palace.

Deoksugung Palace
Deoksugung Palace

This is the actual palace, where official court was held.  There are many other buildings in the complex, such as sleeping and workers’ quarters.  Lots of people wandered about, seeming to enjoy the pastoral peacefulness of the shady trees more than the historical value of the buildings.

While I sat on a bench replacing something in my backpack, a pair of Korean girls approached me and one, in halting English, asked if she could take my picture.  She said it was for “homework.”  Finding this situation delightfully hilarious, I naturally agreed.  She had me pose a couple of different ways, once looking off in the distance for a profile picture, the others involving me pretending to walk with my backpack on.  She was very appreciative.

But why me?  There were plenty of other people about with whom it would have been easier to communicate.  Did she want to practice her English a little?  Maybe, although we didn’t talk much.  Am I some sort of freak show to them, with my pale skin and scruffy beard?

On my hour and thirty minute subway ride home, I tried to find some order in my observations of that day.  What I came to realize was that it was certainly impossible for me to truly understand why the Koreans acted one way or another, why they valued certain things, and why everything was the way it was here.  Like how a man in the subway will not rise to offer a woman his seat.  But he will offer to hold her bag in his lap for her.

I think at the root of this matter is that Korea is an ancient society and a Confucian one.  Their whole concept of self and its relationship to the whole is fundamentally different, for it is about harmony, about one’s place in the world, within the established order, and not deviating from it.  Short of being inside a Korean’s head, I really don’t think that Westerners can fully grasp the significance of this.  We in the West have a fundamentally different understanding of ideas, of objects and their relation to us and to others.  We are Greek, whether we like it or not, believers in logic, ideals, in the primacy of the way an individual conceives of and approaches Truth.  We argue and debate, trying to extract what we can define as Right and Correct from that clash.  Here in Korea, they do not think like that.  How do they think? . . . well, I have even less of a clue now.

This makes they world I see daily more and more byzantine.  Because Korea has learned to mimic the externals of the West without adopting the internals.  Sure, they have cars, high-rises, computers, all the trappings that define a modern, Western existence.  They vote in elections and read newspapers.  They even go to church.  But when someone says that Korea is a Westernized country, I think that only looks at a superficial reality, what can be easily counted and simply repeated.  I personally think that they have mastered the motions without necessarily possessing the capacity or method of thought that brought those motions to fruition in the West.

And I wonder in particular how much language plays a role in this matter, particularly, because English is a dynamic, amorphous beast, always changing and adding.  I look at the churches near my flat and at the evangelical preachers on TV and wonder how their conception of the Gospels is structured and directed by any inherent limitations to the Korean language.  We in West already have enough trouble as it is trying to come to scriptural conclusions because of the difficulty of going from Greek to English, and we already incorporate Greek into our language and way of thought.  How does someone understand the New Testament when it has gone from Greek to English to Korean?  What changes along away?

For now, I have no answers.  The lid has been popped off of this little world and I’m beginning to get a look down inside.