(Note: I didn’t plan it, but this ended up kind of preposterously long. But I think it’s probably the last of my big learn-all-about-Korea posts, so just bear with me and next time I’ll write more adventure stories or something.)
Let’s talk about Korea’s nationalism. Oh come on. This will be fun.
When I first came here there were some differences that were easy to notice right away: say, the way you don’t wear shoes inside a school, or the way that blowing your nose in public is taboo and thought disgusting while, oppositely, it’s completely normal to loudly hock up loogies and plant them on the pavement as you walk. But there are other things that I caught on to a bit slower. Korean nationalism is one of these. It doesn’t always smack you in the face with obviousness—though sometimes it does—but when you realize it’s there, you see it everywhere.
There’s probably no better single story to use to talk about Korea’s nationalism than the Dokdo issue. Dokdo is a disputed island between Korea and Japan, with a certain amount of Korean population, which I would like you to try to guess. Japan prefers to call the island Takeshima. I know the name Takeshima from some brief summary of the issue that I read online at some point. But I know the name Dokdo because of the cushions at the samgyeopsal restaurant across the river in town. At most restaurants in town you sit on the floor with a little square cushion for padding, and the ones at the samgyeopsal restaurant had a picture of Dokdo on them, with words around the border saying (for some reason in English), “Dokdo is Korean Land.” I also know a few other names for Dokdo, because I happen to have a copy of the second grade language arts textbook from my school, which I used a little bit to practice my Korean. One of the pieces in it is all about the names of Dokdo through history, going back to “오래 옛날” (orae yennal, way back when): during the Shilla dynasty (57 BC – AD 935) it was called Usan-do because a nearby Korean territory called Usan-guk claimed it; later it was called Sambong-do (Three-Rise Island) because of its shape; and later it came to be called Doldo (Rock Island), which turned into Dokdo because of the local accent. (The name Takeshima was not mentioned.) The cover of this textbook has a picture of Dokdo in the background, with a gigantic Korean flag rising from the middle, highest rise. A couple weeks ago, I noticed that one of my students was wearing a shirt that said, “I love Dokdo.” I also recall that when I went to one of the old royal palaces in Seoul, out in the city in an unrelated place was a random billboard saying, “Dokdo is Korean Land.” My students have all done at least one project on the importance of Dokdo.
Have you guessed the population yet? Here it is. Two people live on Dokdo. They’re a married couple who fish for octopuses. You can probably circumnavigate the islands on a boat in about twenty minutes.
That population isn’t exactly correct. Besides the octopus fishers, there’s also a rotating retinue of forty-some military personnel to defend Korea’s claim to the territory. Presumably these military people are also in charge of operating the official Korean post office that has been built, at great expense, on the island; they also probably run the lighthouse that was put up there. And someone has to make sure the daily tour boats run smoothly. And someone also helped during the construction of the state-of-the-art desalinization plant that was installed there and is capable of purifying 28 tons of salt water daily.
It all starts to make a little more sense—not enough by a long shot, but a little more—when you realize that Dokdo is a symbol. Just before World War II, Korea had been taken over by Japan, and Japan did some things that were in fact awful. They destroyed Korean culture as thoroughly as they could—they changed the monuments, they changed the people’s names, they outlawed the Korean language and made everyone learn Japanese. (To this day, if you’re not Korean, you can hear Japanese when you talk to old Koreans. They don’t know a word of English, but they also know that they have to switch languages somehow, because you probably don’t know any Korean. So they switch to the only other language they know, Japanese. The now-retired principal from my school described some kind of food to me as “oishii” (Japanese for “delicious”), and an ancient man I met in the park tried to clarify the meaning of “na” (Korean for “I, me”) by translating it to “watashi” (same thing in Japanese).) There were even prisons where they tortured the prisoners, apparently, and the Koreans miss no opportunity to point this out, as Sean found out (link goes to his blog) when he went with his school on a field trip to one of these prisons and found an exhibit detailing the methods of torture that were used.
So Korea has what I suppose are some legitimate reasons to dislike Japan. On the other hand,1 England and France and, well, most of Europe have some legitimate reasons to hate Germany, but for the most part, as I understand it, they don’t. Not anymore: they’ve gotten over it. And the people who committed those atrocities in Germany are mostly dead. Hitler’s ashes have been completely disintegrated and are nowhere to be found. There are Nazis still around, but it’s no longer an acceptable thing to be in Germany (or anywhere really), and Germans these days are far more concerned with making lots of money and keeping the Euro afloat than they are with killing Jews. But Korea, by and large, still hates Japan as though the occupation had ended a few years ago. The old people hate Japan because they will not let go of the grudge. The young people hate Japan because they’ve been convinced by the old people that that’s the proper way to think. There are storybooks about Dokdo in the classrooms where I teach kindergarten.
Actually, though, like many things in Korea, this is changing. The young haven’t completely bought all the propaganda. Kids here watch Doraemon and Shin Chan, and they trade Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. They eat Oishii chips (which are like Funyuns but mostly air), and some of them even like Hello Kitty, which is about as Japanese a thing as you can possibly find. So while there is the occasional wide-scale anti-Japan school project where they draw pictures of Korea vividly defeating Japan in various ways, Wikipedia also assures us that “A survey found that 60% middle school students and 51% of high school students in South Korea view the descriptions about Japan and China in the current Korean history textbooks as biased.”
The nationalism here isn’t just hate against Japan, though. That’s just the most unsettling facet of it. The more general theme that you see here is a constant glorification of the many virtues of Korea. There is boundless praise for anything that’s uniquely Korean. (By the way, in most of this post I’m not leaving out the “South” in “South Korea” for the usual reason—that it’s easy—but because South Korea still considers itself one country with North Korea. Whenever you see a map or an outline of Korea around here, it’s the two Koreas put together, usually without even a hint of a line at the border. On one of the country’s two main internet map providers, Naver, you can zoom in to Sachangni and then keep on dragging the map north, and the only intimation that you’ve dragged past the DMZ is that all the roads suddenly stop.) The same second-grade textbook I mentioned earlier, for example, has a story about the big earthenware jars, called hang’ari, that they use here to ferment kimchi and other vegetables. These things are about as exciting as they sound. But nonetheless the second-graders get to read an absolutely enthralling tale about a kid who goes with his mother to the hang’ari store. He asks her some questions about hang’ari and she responds by telling him why hang’ari are so great: basically, because they let a little bit of wind in and somehow that helps flavor the food. If they have stories like that just about the jars to ferment kimchi, it should come as no surprise that kimchi itself has been subjected to countless nutritional analyses by Korean scientists that all come to the same conclusion, namely, that kimchi is pretty much the best food in the world, and prevents the flu, and makes your skin lustrous, and more stuff that I haven’t had the patience to pay attention to. Sure, the stuff is probably good for you, since it’s a vegetable and it’s probiotic and there’s usually fish (anchovy sauce) in it. But it’s not the cure for cancer. Besides kimchi, pretty much every Korean food is played up as being healthy and “몸에 좋은” (mome jo’eun, good for the body), including of course mountain ginseng (the best mountain ginseng comes from Korea, remember, and the Chinese and Japanese stuff is crap), but also anything you get at any restaurant except perhaps the Western-style ones; it even goes as far as the guy I met a few weeks ago while he was fishing in the Han River that goes right through the middle of the megalopolis of Seoul, who told me with a totally straight face that the water in the Han is not only safe but also makes for fish that are healthy and good for the body. He was planning to eat some himself and sell the rest.
The Korean alphabet, han’geul, is touted here as the most scientific alphabet in the world. (As a linguist I can tell you that although han’geul is well thought out, the International Phonetic Alphabet blows it out of the water, and if we’re talking about actual languages’ orthographies, Finnish and many others probably beat Korean.) Korean electronics (Samsung, LG) are universally considered to be the best in the world, as are Korean cars (Hyundai, Kia). So are Korean celebrities, and any Korean celebrity who becomes famous internationally becomes a household name and practically an object of obsession in the country. It’s possible that you’ve hard of Park Ji-Sung. He’s a soccer player for Manchester United, and of course he’s Korean. As a result, Manchester United is the only non-Korean soccer team that’s ever supported in Korea; quite a few of my students have Manchester United jerseys, and the teacher who used to come over to do language exchange with me said that one day he’d like to visit England to see a Manchester United game.
More alarming is the promotion of K-pop and K-dramas. Koreans are under the impression that these are famous worldwide. They can be forgiven for that, since it actually is famous in other countries, most of them Asian countries. But since you’re not from any of those countries, a short introduction. K-pop is Korean pop music and the most popular stuff is created entirely by media corporations. Imagine an entire band composed of Korean Hannah Montanas or Jonas Brothers, except with seven or more people (one of the groups, Big Bang, is now up to around thirteen), and the only thing most of them actually do is synchronized dancing. K-dramas are Korean soap operas, usually set in the times of the old dynasties when all the men had long Fu Manchu beards and everyone wore elaborate costumes. I’ve only caught brief glimpses of these in shops where the TV is on, because I put my own TV in storage, but what I can say is that the acting is every bit as bad as in American soaps; you can tell even without understanding it. Because these things have caught on in other countries—many of which, like Cambodia and Laos, probably consume them because they’re too small and poor to create their own pop culture—Koreans are happy to talk about the Korean Wave, and may be shocked or at least a bit put off to find that you have no idea who the main heartthrob in Big Bang is.
Anyhow, it’s about time I got to some kind of point, so I’m going to make it this: Why is Korea like this? Why is everything Korean so constantly praised? The answer, I believe, is that Korea is still an immature country. It’s only been since World War II that it became a first-world country (and with absurd speed), so it’s one of the youngest economies in that club, and it’s still figuring out who it is now that it’s a totally new country. It seems to me that immature people and immature countries make an unusually good analogy. Like a middle-school kid, Korea is insecure and constantly worried about what the other countries think about it. So it puffs up its own image, oils its hair, puts on some gold jewelry or something. It ends up looking totally unconvincing to anyone looking at it from outside, but it’s convinced itself that it’s the coolest kid in school.
It’s anyone’s guess how long Korea will take to finally get comfortable enough with its position in the world to just be itself. When it does, people might finally start taking Korea seriously and giving it the international recognition it so desperately craves right now, though by then it’ll realize that’s not really what it needed after all. But for all that, it’s been interesting to see this country during its awkward, zit-popping phase. And everything happens so fast around here. (Just in the last few weeks, a new building has been appearing near the main grocery store. One day there was a concrete foundation, and a couple days later I went down and saw—surprise!—a three-story frame of thick girders.) So I have no doubt I’ll be able to watch it grow up. It’s going to be interesting.
I got a lot of the ideas in that paragraph and in a few others from a conversation I had with some other English teachers from Hwacheon, the next town over, when we all went out on Friday night and talked a whole lot about nationalism… and other things, since we’re not completely boring people, just some of the time. ↩