(Linguistic note: For me it’s hard to remember, or sometimes even pronounce, words in another language if they’re long and I don’t know what each part of them means. So: “Hanguk” means Korea; “saram” means “person”, and “deul” makes it plural, although plurals are optional in Korean and mainly used only with people.)
By now I’ve had a few months to get used to the Korean Way, so I ought to be able to explain, at least a little, what it’s like being around Koreans all the time. Although I should also disclaim that I’m not actually around Koreans all the time—only when I go out, really, because at home I really only hang out with the other Westerners in this apartment house. Still, dealing with them in school, in the cities, at the market, and everywhere else, I think I can say at least something.
When you’re a young college graduate in some English-speaking country and there’s not a whole lot looking immediately attractive to you in your home country, and you start thinking about coming to Korea, you naturally want to know a little about it. If you’re considering this, you’re probably also the kind of person who wants to travel abroad and experience other cultures, so naturally you want to read about what the Korean culture is like. What you find are message boards and blog posts, written by Westerners, that tell you that, basically, there’s no such thing as Korean culture. For the most part, they express this thought almost entirely by relying on a few words, like “shallow” and “superficial”. The message for you is cryptic at best, so if you decide to come to Korea, you end up coming with a vague sense of dread about what awaits you in your dealings with Koreans.
Now that I’ve been here, I can say that it turns out all the blogs and such are right, more or less: Korean culture is pretty shallow—at least these days. And I can see why it was so easy for them to rely on the same few words as crutches. Korean society is shallow and superficial in many different ways, and it’s simple, but not terribly helpful, to encompass them all in one word. For starters, this is a place where you can see ads for plastic surgeons in the subway and on walls everywhere, offering to take the character out of your face for a certain fee. It’s a place where you can find a YouTube ad for “169cm Heroes”—a dating service where you can talk to men who are at least 169cm tall. [Note: on further examination, I think this is actually a clothing website where you men who are 169cm tall can buy clothing exactly suited to them, which is alarming too but in a different way.—March 2012] On the trains, the overwhelming majority of people who are carrying bags have gotten them from expensive clothing stores. It’s not just the women, either, like it would be in America—men have to be in high fashion here too. I see them wearing skinny jeans and designer jackets and things that would normally lead me to believe I’d stumbled into the gay district, except that I already knew that homosexuality is all but invisible in Korea. At Everland, I saw one guy wearing a pristine punk outfit—black pants, black jacket with lots of metal things, shining dog collar, lots of pointless bling—looking as if he’d just bought it earlier that day at prices that could feed a North Korean family for a year, and had it pressed at a dry cleaner’s shortly afterwards. Way to rebel. From what I gather, the way to get into a relationship in this country is to be extremely beautiful. If all you’ve got is an amazing personality, there’s a lot of loneliness in your future.
Once you’ve become a beautiful person, if you have no beautiful counterpart, you must find one by clubbing, also at great expense. Once you have become a beautiful couple, you must spend all of your time in public appearing beautiful, by hugging each other constantly, moving at a languorous and ostensibly love-drunk pace, and gazing into each other’s eyes when stationary. You see couples all over the place doing these things. When I was at Seoul N-Tower, the place with all the padlocks representing relationships, the railing overlooking the city was totally choked with couples staring out over the romantic sight of Seoul at night, motionless, standing there admiring each other’s beauty and their beauty as a couple. You may recall from the picture that even the padlocks themselves are extremely beautiful: none of these practical Master jobs; you want something pink and heart-shaped. The economy is built around this concern for beauty. The bars are fed by it, the clothing shops are booming harder than any economist could predict without losing his tenure, and there must be companies that specifically manufacture pink, heart-shaped padlocks. I may be overstating the case a little bit, because I haven’t actually talked with a Korean couple about their romance, so I can’t fairly represent their side of the story. But in my classes, the word “beautiful” seems to be a strong favorite, and I must say, the girls’ hair always looks perfectly styled.
In a different vein, it’s also a country where even one’s leisure time often appears to be dedicated solely to looking like one is having a good time in the proper fashion for having a good time. When my friends and I climb mountains here, we see the same sight each time: small gaggles of Koreans, often wearing single-color track suits (even when the weather is perfect for T-shirts and shorts), and carrying name-brand hiking sticks, which Sean called “the most unnecessary invention”. (On more than one occasion, some of us have been nearly tripped over by a stray hiking stick.) Once recreating, a very important task is getting a picture of yourself recreating. I think the only pictures I’ve seen Koreans taking outdoors are pictures that included their friends, almost as if they needed to prove to someone that they spent the requisite time outdoors. I don’t remember seeing Koreans actually stop, stare at some kind of transcendent sight, and enjoy it for a while. Transcendent sights make wonderful photographs. Sean went to Seoul with his school on a field trip once, and they went to a lot of museums and palaces. At each place, they made all the kids line up, took a picture of them, and shuffled them on to the next sight. At no point did they actually look at the priceless cultural treasures on display in a museum, or anything unproductive like that. They had their picture, so they could now say the kids had been to the Great Eastern Gate or the Royal Palace, with the help of the school, which had now educated them in culture.
The picture that you begin to get from this is that in South Korea, appearances are everything. And you see it in buildings too. I’ve mentioned before how clean everything is kept inside, and how my co-teacher sometimes sweeps the classroom in between classes, and how the goal of building upkeep seems to be that if it doesn’t look better than when it was new, you’re failing as a housekeeper. I haven’t mentioned the decorating. In this school, the hallway leading up to the English classroom is covered with full-wall posters that show shots of probably-English-speaking cities. There are clocks showing several different time zones and even a lamppost indoors. The lamppost has never been lit that I’ve seen, and the clocks are out of battery so they no longer show any time zone at all, but if a very important person came, I’m sure they’d light the lamp and put new batteries in the clock so the important person could see the ideal learning environment in which the kids spend their days.
So, having read this, you might now conclude that South Korea is sort of an awful place. But I haven’t given the whole picture yet. There is such a thing as South Korean culture, it’s just that you kind of have to look for it. You won’t find it easily in Seoul, but out here in the country, it’s easier to see. You can especially find it when you look at older people, because when you think about it, they’ve lived through most of Korea’s immediately important history. Yes, Korea has existed as a nation (or sometimes as a patchwork of a few warring nations) for upwards of 2000 years. But lately, it’s been transformed enormously—basically it’s been bodily lifted out of those thousands of years of stability that made it seem almost frozen in time, and been plunked down straight into Western-style industrial civilization. Before the Korean War, this country was, I believe, the very poorest country in the world, or if not, it was pretty close to the bottom. Since then, it has, with unprecedented speed, become an absurdly wealthy nation for its size, which led it to go from being one of the world’s top recipients of foreign aid to one of its top donors. All of this has happened within the lifetimes of a huge demographic in this country made out of not only the wizened and shriveled but also just the modestly old, and even the middle-aged remember things from when South Korea was just starting to become a rocket. It’s as if all my grandparents, and all my friends’ grandparents, could remember the Revolutionary War, and my parents could remember the Industrial Revolution. So much of their history has happened so fast.
And you can see that out here in the country, they still haven’t really caught up. They’ve certainly tried to appear that they’re on the same timeline, by erecting a bunch of tasteless concrete buildings full of norae-bangs and bars and putting up some of the half-meaningless statues that pepper Seoul (we have a monument to tomatoes in this town, though to be fair, we also have a tomato festival, which I just missed by coming a little too late). But in among all these are gardens everywhere—cabbage and peppers and kkaennip in all the unlikeliest places, wherever there’s a few spare feet of dirt, like next to the bus station, evidence that out here, people still haven’t conceded that the spotlessness of your town is more important than your ability to grow your own food and do with it what you want. In the last few weeks I’ve seen old women cleaning huge tubs full of cabbage and other vegetables whose names I don’t know, right there next to the street. A little while back, I helped a couple women prepare radishes to make radish kimchi right on the back stoop of my apartment house (one of them lives on the first floor). I haven’t had talks with any of the old people in town about Korean history or anything like that, but—and I have to admit here that it’s possible I might just be projecting my preconceived notions onto the people I see, but I don’t think so—the way they carry themselves seems to reflect how much perspective they have on where Korea has come from and where it’s come. In Busan, my college classmate sang top-of-the-charts American music to the young people on the street, and they sang it all back, thrilled to get a taste of the original Western culture (and of course, pretty drunk as well). If I tried that with the old man who works at the little diner down the hill from me, I’d just get a blank look. It’s not just that old people aren’t conversant with pop culture, it’s that they’re conversant with a time when things were completely different. It’s as though they’re foreigners to the country of the future.
So what it seems like to me is that a lot of the elements of real Korean culture—the dignity, the sense of an immeasurably long history, the community—are largely lost on the younger generation. And because of this it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens if and when North Korea collapses and unifies with South Korea. Because the people in the North are still basically where they were when the war started, still right down there at the bottom of the wealth chart, the young and the old alike. When the South Korean youngbloods start trying to chat with their Northern counterparts, it’s going to be like traveling back in time for them. In order for North Korea to become culturally anything like the South, it’s going to take at least as long as it has for old South Korea to become new South Korea. And maybe longer, because before they can even be like the old South, they still have to let go of all the brainwashing that’s been crammed into their heads by Kim Jong-il. Here I can enter the realm of the purely speculative and say that around the same time, another big thing will be happening that everyone will need to adjust to, namely the peak in oil will have started in earnest to totally transform the economic structure of the world, and what I would be excited to see is whether the North Koreans, although they’ll obviously be getting plenty of help in some ways from the South, will actually end up unexpectedly helping South Koreans a lot in this situation, by reacquainting them with what life is like in the Korean Peninsula when it doesn’t revolve around glamor and glimmer but instead around making sure food and community and other such things that were formerly considered important stay intact. After so long making themselves look svelte and weak and downplaying the importance of the old ways, South Koreans may find themselves surrounded by harsh surprise when days come where a farming getup and some old-fashioned know-how are what you need to get by, and if the North still has those things after being so inhumanly oppressed for so long, I think that would be one of the most interesting ironies of all. For now, though, things churn on at the pace of South Korea’s broadband signal, at least on the beautiful-looking surface, while down below things are biding their time and continuing as they always have.
(I was going to write this as something to describe Korean people entirely, but I should’ve known better than to think I could describe an entire country’s culture at one go. It was plenty enough just to tackle the shallowness. I’ll wait until another post, or two, or however many, to talk about the other stuff about Koreans that I didn’t even get to.)