Tag Archives: West vs. East

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.


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.


(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.