Category Archives: The Korea Blog

Dispatches on the literature, cinema, current events, and daily life of Korea from the LARB’s man in Seoul Colin Marshall and others.

KB - Isabella Bird Bishop 9

Isabella Bird Bishop: Pioneering Female Traveler and Prototypical Westerner in Korea

By Colin Marshall 

Korea scholar Matt VanVolkenburg writes one of my favorite blogs on Korean society and culture, Gusts of Popular Feeling. It takes its unusual name from a quote from the 19th-century writer Isabella Bird Bishop, who in her book Korea and Her Neighbors (which you can download free, in a variety of formats, at the Internet Archive) observed that “gusts of popular feeling which pass for public opinion in a land where no such thing exists are known only in Seoul.”  What can she have meant by that memorable if cryptic phrase?

“She was referring specifically to newspapers, what we consider modern public opinion as created through newspapers, through media,” VanVolkenburg told me when I interviewed him on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. “But ‘gusts of popular feeling’ — Koreans will sometimes ask me, ‘What does that mean?’ I’ll be like, ‘naembi munhwa,’” a phrase often used to describe the national temperament. “A naembi is a pot that heats up very quickly and cools down equally quickly” — munhwa means culture — “and I just thought that was a very poetic way of describing it.”

The coiner of that poetic phrase turns out to have led a colorful life indeed. The daughter of a reverend educated at home due to poor childhood health, Bishop published her first written work, a pamphlet on the arguments for free trade versus protectionism, at the age of sixteen. She first went abroad to the United States six years later, sending home letters that would become the material for her first book, the 1856 travelogue An Englishwoman in America. Over the next four decades, volumes on Scotland, Hawaii, Australia, the Rocky Mountains, Japan, the Middle East, and Tibet followed, and in 1898, in her late sixties and a few years widowed, she would publish Korea and Her Neighbors, a thorough examination of a then-barely known land.

“Over three years, she made several visits,” said VanVolkenburg. “At first she didn’t really like it, but then on a return visit, she noted that Seoul had cleaned up quite a bit. She got to meet quite a few Korean people, and it definitely grew on her.” She made those visits between 1894 and 1897, “a very small window of time” during which Korea, having recently submitted to Japanese colonial rule, went through a big transformation. By 1904, the year of Bishop’s death, the capital “had streetcars, limited electricity, telephone, telegraph, waterworks were being installed — there were changes like that happening reasonably quickly.”

But the Korea on which she first set foot, a country more than half a century away from division into North and South and only just emerging from a long period in China’s shadow (which left Korea “but a feeble reflection of her powerful neighbor”), didn’t start from a high developmental baseline. “I thought it the foulest city on earth till I saw Peking,” she writes of her first impression of Seoul, “and its smells the most odious, till I encountered those of Shao-shing.” She considers its “palaces and its slums, its unspeakable meanness and faded splendors, its purposeless crowds, its mediaeval processions, which for barbaric splendor cannot be matched on earth, the filth of its crowded alleys, and its pitiful attempt to retain its manners, customs, and identity as the capital of an ancient monarchy in face of the host of disintegrating influences.”

KB - Isabella Bird Bishop 1

Though she brands the city as “the Korean Mecca,” she remarks that “the monotony of Seoul is something remarkable. Brown mountains ‘picked out’ in black, brown mud walls, brown roofs, brown roadways, whether mud or dust, while humanity is in black and white.” And though “to the Korean it is the place in which alone life is worth living” — a view quite possibly as widely held now as then — most any part of it bears a dispiritingly close resemblance to any other settlement in the country: “Take a mean alley in it with its mud-walled hovels, deep-eaved brown roofs, and malodorous ditches with their foulness and green slime, and it may serve as an example of the street of every village and provincial town.”

Yet she reserves even more revolting descriptions for the conditions in those villages and provincial towns where her treks around Korea require her to spend days, even weeks, staying in and traveling between by land and water. Of lodgings she finds in one such place north of Seoul, she writes that “the family room which I occupied, only 8 feet 6 inches by 6 feet, was heated up to 85 degrees, was poisoned with the smell of cakes of rotting beans, and was so alive with vermin of every description that I was obliged to suspend a curtain over my bed to prevent them from falling upon it.” She finds better classes of quarters elsewhere, but even they “would not at home be considered fit for the housing of a better-class cow.”

“As I sat amidst the dirt, squalor, rubbish, and odd and end-ism of the inn yard,” she writes, recalling a low moment, “surrounded by an apathetic, dirty, vacant-looking, open-mouthed crowd steeped in poverty, I felt Korea to be hopeless, helpless, pitiable, piteous, a mere shuttlecock of certain great powers, and that there is no hope for her population of twelve or fourteen millions, unless it is taken in hand by Russia, under whose rule, giving security for the gains of industry as well as light taxation, I had seen Koreans in hundreds transformed into energetic, thriving, peasant farmers in Eastern Siberia,” a time which, along with a stretch in Manchuria, makes up one of this long book’s interludes among the “neighbors.”

On her third visit to Korea, in 1897, Bishop finds much of Seoul, “literally not recognizable. Streets, with a minimum width of 55 feet, with deep stone-lined channels on both sides, bridged by stone slabs, had replaced the foul alleys, which were breeding-grounds of cholera. Narrow lanes had been widened, slimy runlets had been paved, roadways were no longer ‘free coups’ for refuse, bicyclists ‘scorched’ along broad, level streets, ‘express wagons’ were looming in the near future, preparations were being made for the building of a French hotel in a fine situation, shops with glass fronts had been erected in numbers, an order forbidding the throwing of refuse into the streets was enforced.” Seoul, she marveled, “from having been the foulest is now on its way to being the cleanest city of the Far East!”

Even then, Bishop describes a Korea in most ways not recognizable to the Westerners who arrive in Seoul today, marveling as they do at its outwardly greater development than that of the countries they came from. (They tend especially to like downtown’s restored Cheonggyecheon Stream, which Bishop describes, in its un-restored condition, as “a wide, walled, open conduit, along which a dark-colored festering stream slowly drags its malodorous length, among manure and refuse heaps which cover up most of what was once its shingly bed.”) But the ones who stick around tone down their marveling sooner or later, and the complaints they start to make have a way of echoing Bishop’s first displeased reactions to what had struck her as “the most uninteresting country I ever traveled in.”

KB - Isabella Bird Bishop 6

But Bishop, far from being a mere complainer — or in the parlance of her homeland, always more nuanced on the subject of negativity, a moaner — lived as one of the most accomplished members of one of the most accomplished generations of English travel writers, who remain, in the words of Christopher Tayler reviewing Colin Thubron’s last book, “one of the last types of writer on earth with a license to trade openly in the strange and beautiful.” At 459 pages plus index, appendices, and photographs (Bishop went nowhere in Korea without camera and tripod), Korea and Her Neighbors contains plenty of the strange and beautiful. It also spares few details of any other kind, assured that even the most adventurous of its 19th-century readership (who nevertheless require no further description of kimchi than as “an elaborate sort of  ‘sour kraut’”) needed all the help they could to imagine this remote country, would likely never see another image of it, and almost certainly wouldn’t even consider taking the trouble to go there themselves.

If the heyday of English travel writing mandated the duty of describing places vividly through a sheer volume of information, it also mandated the duty of evaluating them, of making as fair as possible an assessment as a representative of the world’s most proudly “civilized” nation. Bishop’s frankness in this undertaking, and indeed the perspective from which she performs it, render a book like this terribly unfashionable today: she writes up front of her “plan of study of the leading characteristics of the Mongolian races,” later of “the Oriental vices of suspicion, cunning, and untruthfulness,” and later still of the superstition that “holds the uneducated masses and the women of all classes in complete bondage.”

Yet having invested an amount of time, effort, and endurance in Korea that any modern travel writer would consider well beyond their job description (let alone their pay scale), Bishop also places herself well to see the good in the country. Her position as a path-breaking female traveler, and one not only in a land with few foreigners but that did its utmost to keep even its own women behind closed doors, let her perceive clearly the relative safety that remains a real point of appeal today: “It says something for the security of Korea that a foreign lady could safely live in a dwelling up a lonely alley in the heart of a big city, with no attendant but a Korean soldier knowing not a word of English, who, had he been so minded, might have cut my throat and decamped with my money, of which he knew the whereabouts, neither my door nor the compound having any fastening!”

She also grasps Korea’s potential at a time when few others did. “With a splendid climate, an abundant, but not superabundant, rainfall, a fertile soil, a measure of freedom from civil war and robber bands,” she figures, “the Koreans ought to be a happy and fairly prosperous people.” She puts their deficiency of happiness and prosperity down to capricious law enforcement and taxation, as well as the economic “squeezing” of nearly the entire population by the country’s powerful classes of corrupt officials and ostensible scholar-aristocrats. She anticipates a time when, “with improved roads, railroads, and enlightenment, together with security for the earnings of labor from official and patrician exactions, the Korean will have no further occasion for protecting himself by an appearance of squalid poverty, and when he will become on a largely increased scale a consumer as well as a producer, and will surround himself with comforts and luxuries of foreign manufacture,” essentially the situation of the Korean middle class Korean today.

Alas, the heyday of English travel writing came during the longer heyday of British imperialism, and Bishop’s sympathies with that project — though in many ways a woman ahead of her time, she was unavoidably of her time in others — will bother more than a few 21st-century readers. She credits what improvements she saw Korea make to Japan, an imperial power with resemblances to Britain: “The Japanese claimed that their purpose was to reform the administration of Korea as we had done that of Egypt,” she writes, “and I believe they would have done it had they been allowed a free hand.” But they did not, and she ultimately finds that Japan “was too inexperienced in the role which she undertook (and I believe honestly) to play, to produce a harmonious working scheme of reform.”

KB - Isabella Bird Bishop 10

“Failure in tact was,” as she sees it, “was one great fault of the Japanese.” In Korea, Japan “irritated the people by meddlesomeness in small matters and suggested interferences with national habits, giving the impression, which I found prevailing everywhere, that her object is to denationalize the Koreans for purposes of her own.” That, more or less, has become the official view in South Korea today, though it ascribes much graver faults to the Japanese than those of tact. Bishop’s lack of direct condemnation for the occupation itself puts her on the wrong side of the history books here, as does her revelation of the squalor and misery of the chaotic final days of an era much romanticized by historical films and television dramas.

She does convey the senselessness and brutality of the murder by Japanese agents of Empress Myeongseong, whom she knew personally (if not quite liked) as Queen Min, which occurred one night between her stays in Korea. I happened to read the chapter of Korea and Her Neighbors covering that grisly event in the cafeteria of the IKEA opened in a couple years ago just outside Seoul, perhaps the most incongruously modern and peaceful setting imaginable, one in which you can’t help but reflect on how much the country had changed. It made me wonder what Bishop, who didn’t live to see the Great War, let alone the Korean one, and who in a moment of optimism guessed that the whole peninsula “could support double its present population,” would think of the almost unfathomable developmental progress of the land she referred to as “southern Korea,” its population alone exceeding 50 million, has made over the past 120 years.

There are now plenty of newspapers, and though those gusts of popular feeling have gained force mainly on the internet, they still do blow through Seoul. While Bishop would recognize almost nothing about the city itself — its historic buildings tend to be 20th- or even 21st-century recreations — she would certainly recognize the attitudes of Westerners here. Korea and Her Neighbors documents how, as gradually as it may have done so, the country finally captured her imagination. Though many new arrivals these days go through a pre-complaint period of blind rapture over the amenities, the nightlife, and the the pop culture (none of which, apart from the ubiquitous underfloor heating, existed in the 1890s), it still holds true that “Korea takes a similarly strong grip on all who reside in it sufficiently long to overcome the feeling of distaste which at first it undoubtedly inspires.”

In this sense, even more so than the American astronomer Percival Lowell, whose own book-length travelogue Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm came out in 1885, Isabella Bird Bishop stands as the prototypical long-term Westerner in Korea, for whom antipathy turns to fascination, and fascination turns to attachment, and attachment renders bittersweet the seemingly inevitable departure. “The distaste I felt for the country at first passed into an interest which is almost affection,” she writes near the book’s end, “and on no previous journey have I made dearer and kinder friends, or those from whom I parted more regretfully.” And somehow, at least to this long-term Westerner in Korea, its potential feels at once more fully realized and more untapped than ever.

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

KB - Korean Authors and Seoul 1

Bright Lies, Big City: Korean Authors and Seoul

By Charles Montgomery

The Korean relationship with big cities, particularly Seoul, mixes love with a strong undercurrent of hate. The love of Seoul is often clear: when I first got a job in Korea, which was in Daejeon, I called my best friend, who is Korean. Happy to hear that I got a job, he told the news to his wife, also Korean. “Where is the job?” he then asked. Woosong University in Daejeon, I replied, which he also dutifully relayed to his wife. In the background I could hear a small commotion, which was shortly interrupted by my best friend’s wife grabbing the phone from his hands and loudly yelling into it, “Why didn’t you get a job in Seoul? You won’t understand Korea unless you live in Seoul!”

Having come from Gwangju (another major city that, for historical reasons, I will talk about in my next piece), she regards Seoul with suspicion, if not contempt, but apparently still regards the capital the heart of Korea. Consider that, if you count the suburbs, Seoul contains nearly half of all South Korean citizens. Most high school students dream that they will someday attend one of the prestigious “SKY” universities: Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University, all in Seoul. Of the top ten universities in Korea, seven are in Seoul; of the top five, four are.

Most chaebol, the Korean version of the multinational, have headquarters in Seoul, and when the Korean government tried to move itself to Daejeon, the resulting foot-dragging and lamentation were so powerful that, in the end, only twelve of its offices made the move. Koreans even have a dismissive term for the land that is not in the city, sigol. The first literal meaning of this word is the countryside, but it more or less evokes the “sticks” or “backwoods.” The cities — and again, Seoul in particular — are also strongly associated with modernity, economic progress, and sophistication. Yet Korean modern literature has almost unanimously portrayed cities as uncaring dens of corruption, socially and/or economically destructive, and dangerous in every incarnation.

Yi Kwangsu, whom it is fair call one of the fathers of Korean modern literature, not only wrote extremely modern fiction for his time, but also wrote two extremely influential essays that defined the boundaries of modern literature. He was a proponent of modernization, education, and free love (as in, the ability to choose one’s own romantic partner). Yet in his fiction Seoul is nearly eviscerated, despite its apparent position as urban argument for all that he himself argued. Soil, his most entertaining novel, fully expresses his arguments and themes, strongly affirming the need for social and political change, but unexpectedly emphasizing the importance of the countryside in creating the modern world for Korea. Seoul, conversely, is portrayed as evil. In a close relationship to nature truth and beauty are found, and Seoul represents a turn toward a far worse, more Western world.

Its protagonist Heo Sung returns to his village and falls in love with a local girl whose down-to-earth virtues the story frequently contrasts with the corruption of the city girl whom he finally marries. He may admire the life of the villagers, but still has to return to return periodically to Seoul. The meaning of this is expressed in a concluding passage in the book: “When he got out at Seoul Station, he felt as if he had awakened from a dream. The swarms of fussy taxis, buses like frenzied women, toy-like rickshaws, the crowds of cold people who seemed to spread an iciness around them.” While Yi is a proponent of modernization, he astonishingly locates it in the rustic life of the countryside instead of the bballi-bbali hustle and bustle of Seoul, which only stands for the ruination of the Korean people.

Japanese colonialism and World War II turned Korea’s focus toward bigger and more immediate problems, and the overwhelmingly tragic reality of the Korean War and its bifurcated aftermath determined the course of literature in the 1950s and 60s. But with cessation of hostilities and the beginning of the regularization and modernization of the nation, the issue of the city returned — and the city was almost uniformly cast as the villain.

KB - Korean Authors and Seoul 3

Not all literature, of course, portrayed Seoul or other cities as malign. Sometimes it could be neutral, or even charming, as in Park Taewon’s A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist, a slice of Kubo’s life in downtown Seoul. In a very modern stream of consciousness, occasionally interspersed with forays back into memory, Kubo takes us on a tour of the city, traveling to Gwanghwamun (the area around the main gate of Geyongbokgung pakace), bars, teahouses, a train station, and even past a row of prostitutes.

Little black and white drawings by the well-known author (and Park’s friend) Yi Sang capture aspects of the vignettes Kubo relates, which make up of a story that lasts part of the day and late into the night. Kubo is looking for “joy” and companionship, though he sometimes shies away from it when it comes, and it doesn’t necessarily calm his sometimes agitated mind. As Kubo wanders, mostly as an observer, with poet friends or bargirls, he contemplates his own history, which leads the setting of his final, bargirl-surrounded semi-epiphany in which declares his rededication to writing and the happiness of others.

A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist presents Seoul as a kind of charming backdrop, but in general, the bleak view of the big city dominates. In Sung-ok Kim’s 1965 story “Seoul: 1964, Winter,” three men meet just as atoms might collide, and just as when atoms do collide, they create a short heat before careening apart. These characters are Kim, a 25-year-old-clerk; Ahn, a 25-year-old student; and an unfortunate 30-year-old salesman who has just received payment for selling the corpse of his just-dead wife to a hospital.

Seoul is a randomizer; it can bring people physically together, but it cannot have them bond. The three men never get past idle chitchat, even though the oldest is obviously traumatized and funding their time together. Whereas in the village long-standing relationships would have established the bonds, in Seoul there are no relationships, and therefore no bonds. At the end of the evening, the salesman does all but beg the two younger men to share lodgings with him, but they both opt for private rooms, a substantial breach of protocol on several levels that eventually leads to tragedy. Even though the three men have been brought together by circumstance, they do not have the tools connect.

Cho Se-hui’s The Dwarf (1978) continues along these lines. The work centers on the government-mandated redevelopment of Seoul’s Hangbuk-dong neighborhood during the 1970s. “Those who dwell in heaven have no occasion to concern themselves with hell,” notes a character in the book’s very first paragraph. “But since the five of us lived in hell, we dreamed of heaven… Each and every day was an ordeal. Our life was like a war. Everyday we lost a battle.” The eponymous dwarf is physically handicapped, only 117 centimeters tall and 32 kilograms in weight, and his family — father, mother, siblings Yeong-su, Yeong-ho, and Yeong-hui — stand for the entire Korea working class of the 1970s: oppressed, marginalized, and if need be discarded by the new economic structures of production, consumption, and distribution that the Korean state is avidly building.

The family’s house, built in an unauthorized area, is due to be razed. The government offers a “recompense” for the loss insufficient for the dwarf’s family (or any of the other families displaced) to rent new housing. His family sundered, the dwarf becomes ill and dies in a factory smokestack, most likely in an act of suicide. His children are forced to go to work in soul- as well as body-crushing factories, and the daughter eventually prostitutes herself in order to get the deed to the families’ property back. Every character is in some way reduced, and one gets literally whittled down. (It is worth noting that the kind of forced redevelopment portrayed in The Dwarf continues, albeit on a reduced scale, to this day.)

The Dwarf is an example of yeonjak soseol, a kind of novel form of intentionally connected series of short stories gathered together, as is Yang Kwija’s stunning, well-translated A Distant and Beautiful Place. Its stories were originally published in Korean literary journals between 1985 and 1987 under a rather less interesting title that translates to People of Wonmi-dong.

Situated in Bucheon, south of Seoul, Wonmi-dong sits in the shadow of Wonmi Mountain, and there those who have failed in Seoul and consequently been ejected from it struggle, mostly without notable success, to build lives for themselves and their families. Beginning with a rather obvious symbolic chipping of a prized piece of furniture, one story focuses on the small “chipping” price that such forced departure from Seoul extracts from family members,. It ends ambiguously, and also ominously, with the family safely in place in their new home but watched by an unknown observer who brings an air of creepiness to the conclusion.

No survey of Korean city literature in English would be complete without a consideration of Kyung-sook Shin’s worldwide success Please Look After Mom (2008), translated by Chi-young Kim. Telling the story of a family coming to the realization of what their mother has sacrificed and what she meant to them, this book is so anti-Seoul that NPR titled its review of the book “A Guilt Trip To The Big City.”

“Mom liked it when all of her children and grandchildren gathered and bustled about the house,” one character notes during a sometimes overly nostalgic and romantic reverie of what life was before Seoul intervened and split the family geographically (that old trope of Korean literature). “A few days before everyone came down, she would make fresh kimchi, go to the market to buy beef, and stock up on extra toothpaste and toothbrushes. She pressed sesame oil and roasted and ground sesame and perilla seeds, so she could present her children with a jar of each as they left. As she waited for the family to arrive, your mom would be visibly animated, her words and her gestures revealing her pride when she talked to neighbors or acquaintances.”

Seoul is presented as a threat to this family unity: “At some point, the children’s trips to Chongup became less frequent, and Mom and Father started to come to Seoul more often. And then you began to celebrate each of their birthdays by going out for dinner. That was easier. Then Mom even suggested, ‘Let’s celebrate my birthday on your father’s.’” And “eventually, quietly, Mom’s actual birthday was bypassed.” The family’s sundering occurs at Seoul Station: “Mom and Father rushed toward the subway that had just arrived. Father got on, and when he looked behind him, Mom wasn’t there… Mom was pulled away from Father in the crowd, and the subway left as she tried to get her bearings.”

When the daughter returns to find her mother, she is similarly buffeted: “So many people go by, brushing your shoulders, as you make your way to the spot where Mom was last seen. You look down at your watch. Three o’clock. The same time Mom was left behind. People shove past you as you stand on the platform where Mom was wrenched from Father’s grasp. Not a single person apologizes to you. People would have pushed by like that as your mom stood there, not knowing what to do.” In breaking all traditional social relationships, Seoul has broken the family as well, both  physically and psychologically.

Hwang Jung-Eun’s Kong’s Garden (2013), translated by Jeon Seung-hee, offers a glimpse of the experience of the postmodern city for the worker. In this future, the single unnamed female narrator never becomes anything more than that. Though education has historically meant everything in Korea, she comes to realize that this is not true. The recognition of this fact does not surprise her at all: when the narrator does realize that she has been nothing but a worker all her life, in a world of similarly little people working and dying, she displays no particular reaction beyond acceptance.

KB - Korean Authors and Seoul 4

This equanimity is particularly dystopian in that this narrator also physically loses her mother during the events of the book. She metaphorically moves from a land of light, a bookstore gloriously lit with 200 light bulbs, to a dingy sub-basement that might be shrinking due to mold, but which also seems to have a mysterious tunnel leading to an even deeper, darker, room. That sub-basement, it is strongly suggested, is tied by another tunnel to an even deeper world, one from which a stench-laden breeze occasionally wafts out. Beneath the darkness of the city lies an even darker underworld.

A larger story draws the narrator in when she refuses to sell cigarettes to Jinju, a young woman in the company of two intimidating men. The young woman immediately goes missing, and it is only this tragedy that makes the narrator important at all, even as it minimizes her. As the police question her about her final interaction with the vanished girl, the narrator realizes that “the more important the questions were, the more often I told them I didn’t know.”

With life little more than a long, boring economic calculation, the narrator’s father plans to die when he feels himself an economic burden. She herself, when not idly searching the internet for evidence of the corpse of the missing Jinju, finds herself — with her romantic options, economic opportunities, and number of relatives dwindling away — agreeing with George Orwell’s suggestion that, in such circumstances, you should “just die poor and with anyone,” an ending to which the book seems to be drawing her.

Another dystopian view, this one of what would happen in Seoul if the continuing trends of family decay and income separation were taken to their full extremes, appears in Cheon Myeong-kwan’s Homecoming (2014), translated by Jeon Miseli. The book opens with everyone north of the Han River living as pathetic wards of the state, with a strong market in human organ trafficking a partial result. These so-called “blankets” wait in line to submissively accept abuse and vouchers, which they need for food and other necessities. On the other side of the river live the ten percent of the population who are employed, clasped to the bosoms of conglomerates.

One blanket, the father of a young boy whose mother left home years ago, is indirectly approached about his half-Korean child. Adopted children have become myeongpum, or valuable goods, with a child who appears in good health at a premium. The father attempts to buy drugs for his asthmatic son, but the prices have gone up because “some of the rich are up to tricks,” buying up steroids because of their usefulness against diseases of aging. Driven to despair, the father decides he must sell his son. As a goodbye, he dressed up, puts on a “badge” (proof of being an office worker, which he has luckily found) and goes out for one last grand dinner with his son so they can share at least one last happy memory.

When the bill comes and the father cannot pay, it is suddenly taken care of for by an old man at sitting the bar. The ending, either a surprise or a deus ex machina depending on the reader’s outlook, allows Cheon’s final point: this is the Korean tendency to insist on long work hours taken to its ultimately absurd extreme. “I haven’t been able to come home because I haven’t finished my work yet,” says one character who hasn’t been home in many years. In this vision of Seoul, even the “successful” are not winning.

Korean modern literature has, in some ways, always been reactive, focusing directly on real issues of its era, and so serious literati might naturally choose to take on Seoul, attacking the very concept of the big city. For while Seoul, on one hand, symbolizes the tremendous prosperity Korea has attained, also symbolizes the destruction of the previous social systems that had seen Korean society through times of extreme hardship.

Thus, in the works discussed here, the authors to some extent assume the successes of the city, proceeding from that point on to comment on the failures that have resulted. This means that Korean literature asks particularly strong questions about modernization, economic progress, commodification, and even the creation and status of the financially unstable “precariat” class — which means these books should hold great interest to readers everywhere as the same economic and social trends that have swept over Seoul in last century sweep over us, and will continue to sweep away for the foreseeable future.

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.

KB - Red Book Room 2

Korea, Where Book Podcasts Draw Standing-Room-Only Crowds

By Colin Marshall 

If you want a seat, you’ve got to get there early — really early. Even then, plenty of others will have long since set themselves up in the prime spots, close to the action with food, drink, and reading material close at hand. I myself usually only manage to find a single chair in the back of the room when I arrive, about two hours ahead of showtime as always. I’m glad to get it, though, since I’ll stay there for the next six hours. Is this a concert by a big-name band? Some sort of political rally? Will they be giving away money? No, not quite — it’s a book podcast.

Since 2012, each weekly episode of Lee Dong-jin’s Red Book Room (이동진의 빨간책방) has offered  from an hour and a half to over three hours of segments including an in-depth discussion of a particular book between the show’s regular panelists, conversations with the authors themselves, readings of prose as well as poetry, and an opening monologue by the host followed by a short chat about the books he’s recently bought. That host, the titular Lee Dong-jin, first made his name as a film critic and remains well known as one, though over the years, and with increasing fame, he’s assumed the role of a prolific and high-profile all-around cultural critic, the likes of which America hasn’t had for a while now.

Lee’s self-confessed workaholism (a term that has settled, transliterated, into the Korean language) makes for certain times when you can’t go long without seeing him on television, hearing him on the radio, or reading him in print. As a member the highly culturally influential Korean generation born in the 1960s — Korea’s Baby Boomers, in a sense — he came of age in the era of mass media and seems to have transitioned without a hitch to the era of niche media, in part by keeping one foot in the old while setting the other in the new, bringing his fans along with him.

KB - Red Book Room 4

Or at least it seems like they all show up on the nights that Red Book Room does its live tapings, even thought the announcement on the show’s Facebook page happens only a few days beforehand. They show up not to Lee’s basement, nor to the kind of theater where you’d go to watch a taping of, say, A Prairie Home Companion. They come to the Red Book Café (빨간책다방), a hiply designed three-story coffee shop in Seoul’s also-currently-hip neighborhood of Hapjeong (I walk back home through some truly lively streets afterward when the show happens on Friday nights) filled with books available to browse or buy, the selection curated by Lee himself.

In America, this might seem like a pretty unconventional operation, but in Korea, each of its aspects has a precedent. The concept of the “book café,” whether that means a coffee shop lined with shelves of books for sale or just to read with your americano, has so proliferated that even Maxim, Korea’s biggest manufacturer of traditional pre-sweetened instant coffee (also known as 다방커피, or “café coffee”), has opened a book café of their own, the Maxim Mocha Library. And opening a branded coffee shop has, in Korea, looked like a potentially viable extension of the podcasting business model for years now. Even Talk to Me in Korean, the educational podcast that helped me learn Korean, has opened a café that hosts game nights, language exchanges and other such activities.

But the Red Book Café goes a step further by having built into its third floor a full-fledged, wood-paneled recording studio. Through its window (or through the monitor mounted beside it, though it never shows anything but a feed of the host’s visage) the audience — at their tables, in their chairs, and often many, by necessity, standing — eagerly watches the book talk between whichever guest author might show up that night (Kim Young-ha, about whose own book podcast I’ve written here, has made an appearance), regular interlocutors like novelist Kim Jung-hyuk and film journalist Lee Da-hye, and of course, Lee Dong-jin himself, always wearing his trademark red glasses, who enters through a door labeled — get it? — “DJDJ BOOTH.”

빨간책방_팟캐스트_아이콘

The exact opposite of the stereotypical basement podcast enterprise, both the Red Book Café and Red Book Room itself are productions of the publisher Wisdom House, though the former, with its diversely stocked shelves, hardly feels like a company store. The podcast, apart from a segment with the publisher’s editors, by no means focuses on Wisdom House books alone: Lee and company mix it up with not only books from a variety of publishers, but in a variety of genres both fictional and nonfictional, on a variety of subjects, and originally from a variety of countries.

Some of the Western books discussed on the show include big bestsellers like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point; Andy Weir’s The Martian, basis of the recent Ridley Scott movie; the print counterpart of the The Beatles Anthology; John Williams’ 1965 campus novel Stoner, which even in the West didn’t receive wide acclaim until the 2000s; and books even more popular in Korean than they were in English, like Bill Bryson’s Neither Here nor There, or much more so Hermann Hesse’s Demian, which nearly every Korean alive seems to have read.

Why spend your entire late afternoon and early evening in a book café when you could just listen to the episode on your iPod in a few days? Some of the appeal has to do with actually seeing who the podcast’s other fans are, though Red Book Room‘s nearly all-female crowd, ranging from their early twenties through middle age, aligns with what you hear about the demographics of book sales everywhere. But there’s interaction as well: at the end of each session, after Lee has recited the closing poem, one of his producers unlocks the mailbox (red, of course) mounted to the wall, pulls out the pile of notes listeners have written throughout the show, and delivers them to Lee to read aloud and respond to in an informal and often laughter-filled Q&A (some of whose jokes I get, and some I don’t).

KB - Red Book Room 3

When that wraps up around 9 or 10 p.m, Lee emerges from the DJDJ booth with a stack of various books, all up for grabs to members of the audience, first dibs to those whose notes he’d read that night. One lucky attendee, their note chosen by Lee at random out of a shuffle, will get to take home any volume they like from the Red Book Café’s shelves. I’ve often browsed those shelves while awaiting my cappuccino, wondering which book I would pick, though in all the months I’ve been coming to Red Book Room‘s live tapings — and they’ve become a semi-regular event in my life to which I always look forward — I’ve never dropped a single message into the mailbox, let alone had one win me a book of my choice.

I’ll do it, I really will, but for now I don’t want to draw any more attention to myself than I do by my very presence, not just as one of the few men in the room, but always as the sole visible Westerner. One night, Lee read out a question a fan had e-mailed in, asking if the show had any foreign listeners, “like Chinese people or Japanese people.” Half the heads in the audience turned toward me, but I just shrugged. Before the taping I last attended, as the studio got ready to light up its “ON AIR” sign, one of the café’s aproned employees approached me. “Excuse me,” she said in halting English as more people came up the stairs to watch and those everyone already around us scooted their chairs closer to the studio window, “this floor closes at six.” When I responded, in Korean, that I thought there was a podcast going on, she backed away apologetically, but clearly still I’ve got a long way to go before I become a regular.

(exterior image source: G.G. Focus)

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Hell Joseon map 600

“Hell Joseon” and Korean Literature

By Charles Montgomery

On the surface, all is well with Korea: It is among the top economies in the world. Seoul is the epitome of “bright lights, big city.” K-pop and Korean movies seem ever-poised to take over the world. But under this shiny patina lies an emerging reality — or perception — of the country as “Hell Joseon.”

That term, coined by young Koreans primarily in their 20s and 30s to express the mounting impotence they feel in a country they describe as increasingly divided between a small percentage of Koreans living extravagantly and the vast majority of Koreans struggling in the precariat. “Joseon” references the Joseon era, an extremely Confucian and hidebound Korean dynasty which lasted from 1392 to 1897. Korean youth, at least, see modern Korea as a parallel to that time when circumstances of birth, sex, and education entirely determined the fate of every citizen.

How serious is the problem? In a survey on Naver, the most important social website and search engine in Korea, 88% of 21,000 “young people” reported that they disliked South Korea and wished that they could leave, a feeling expressed visually when the map above, with its satirical depiction of some of the society’s perceived issues appeared and begun to shoot around Korean social media.

According to this map, you enter the gates of Hell at birth, and unless you land in one of the “good” areas (“Government,” “Golden Spoons,” etc.), you continue through to less happy destinations like Tapgol Park, a famous hangout for unemployed elders, or the “Forest of Emigration,” which more than a few young Koreans dream of entering. In an extremely Korean touch, the basis of the map is the Hellfire Peninsula from the World of Warcraft, the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), which dates back over a decade and was once quite popular in Korea. (In fact, one of the “unknown” reasons Korea is so awesomely wired is that PC bang, literally “computer rooms” with machines rentable by the hour, had to have instantaneously responsive internet connections for such games to be played competitively.)

Hell Joseon map

But the idea of “Hell Joseon” is no game, and Korean authors have been exploring its modern manifestation for three decades. In literature, there has been a shift away from the problems that come to Korea from the outside world to those inherent in the modern Korean system, a system once seen as the answer to those traumas from without. Korean literature has always focused on various types of Hell, but in the past, Hell was externally imposed. During the colonial period Hell was simply the Japanese; after colonialism, Hell became the state of division, seen as a consequence of the Cold War between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.

A host of short stories provide evidence of this: Yi Sang’s seminal “The Wings,” as well as two stories from A Ready-Made Life: Early Masters of Modern Korean Fiction, Hyeon Chin-gon’s “A Society that Drives You to Drink” and the title story “A Ready-Made Life

“The Wings,” Yi’s emblematic story, is an allegorical complaint against colonial oppression as well as a description of colonization’s emasculation of the Korean man. It also represents an existential/Dadaist/surrealist withdrawal from the insanity of the colonial existence. At the time, writing a direct attack on Japanese colonialism was nearly impossible, so part of the joy of this story is unpacking the layers to find the theme at the core. “Ah! There were the marks of my imaginary wings,” says the narrator, describing his position. “Those are the wings that I had lost. I took a fleeting look into my mind to the pages of my dictionary and then, I realized that the ambition and hope had been erased.”

“A Society that Drives You to Drink” and “A Ready-Made Life” also explore the bleak landscape of the colonial era through the hopelessness of educated Korean men. Interestingly, similar to the modern situation, this bleak landscape is illuminated by the glow of false hope. Young Koreans visited Japan during the colonial period, most often to attain a degree. There they were introduced to the idea of modernism, yet with no hope of achieving it, not even any position available for a young scholar, upon their return home.

Education is counterproductive in “A Ready-Made Life,” leading only to dreams that cannot be fulfilled. Unable to find a job, the narrator chooses not to educate his son, a profoundly un-Korean decision. “A Society that Drives You to Drink” adds to this dilemma the institutional inequality between men and women: the frustrate male character, in this case driven to drink as well, has been educated beyond the understanding of his wife, resulting in their emotional estrangement. “The fellow who has his wits about him throws up blood and dies,” he declares. Hell is clearly in Korea, but it came “imported” from Japan.

After the war, the external Hell became the separation, and responsibility for that separation was often externalized or attributed to external philosophies. Three very different representations of this are “The Land of Excrement” by Nam Jun-hyung, “Human Decency” by Gong Ji-Young, and “The Guest” by Hwang Sun-won. “The Land of Excrement” is the story of Hong Mansu, an important name because it combines of a reference to the Korean hero Hong Gildong (to whom Hong Mansu claims a direct relation) and the Korean word for “longevity,” something Hong, hiding on Mount Hyangmi (roughly meaning “looking towards the U.S.”) and about to be pulverized by the artillery and bombs of the United States Army, does not seem to have.

Hong brought on this fate when he attacked the wife of a U.S. serviceman because her husband had misused Hong’s sister as a concubine. Hong is justifiably angry not just about that, but also because in the post-war celebration a GI sexually assaulted Hong’s mother, who subsequently went mad, abusing Hong along the way before finally dying. And so, as the book opens, Hong awaits his own destruction for his extremely limited attempt at revenge. The book also touches on poverty, social striation, and the alienation of the poor, but generally with the view these states had been hegemonically imposed.

“Human Decency” by Gong Ji Young pits a facilely “international” character who has had the nerve to look outside of Korea against a “true Korean hero” who has relentlessly stayed inside the grinder of Korean politics. The narrator, a reporter tortured by her abandonment of political purity, brings that angst to her work. In a Manichean construction of the good Korea versus the bad foreigner, she meets the “noble” rebel Gwon Ogyu as well as Yi Minja, who has lived an international life. The narrator both loathes and loves (but mainly loathes) Yi, and in this struggle seems to argue that to accept anything modern is to spurn Korean history and society, and in the end unreservedly embraces Gwon.

Both of these books directly identify the source of Korea trauma as external, but “The Guest” is a more subtle and thus controversial work. “Show me one soul that wasn’t to blame!”: with the slam of a hand and that short sentence, Hwang sums up one of the bloodiest chapters in modern Korean history, a series of atrocities in northern Korea that, while originally blamed on U.S. troops, was actually internecine fighting of the worst sort when people once friends, separated by Christianity and Marxism (each one a “guest,” in the title’s term), butchered each other.

Although both of these forces are in some ways as alien to Korea as the United States Army itself, Hwang’s book caused a firestorm of criticism from both North and South Korea, both of whom preferred to claim that all evil in these events was done by outsiders. While “The Guest” is the rare book that identifies the Hell of the Korean War as partly internally generated, the violent reaction against it demonstrates that the idea was not well received at home.

Today’s “Hell Joseon,” however, is almost uniformly seen to be a native Korean phenomenon. No longer are the boilers of Hell from England, its coal from Pennsylvania, its fireworks from China, its patent leather cloven loafers from Japan, its red satin capes from India. This Hell, a triumph of economic development, could be slapped with a “100 percent Made in Korea” sticker and placed in the gigantic shopping marts, in even bigger malls, in the bustling heart of Seoul. And this stance is almost entirely new to Korean modern literature. The works available in translation seem to be written largely by women, who suffer the normal indignities of society as well as the additional burden of sexism.

Bae Su-ah’s “Highway With Green Apples” is a melancholic tale with a narrator essentially unmoved by love, sex, or anything having to do with the future, except perhaps — and it is a “perhaps” — the idea of stepping entirely outside the rat race she lives in. Almost completely jaded, she explains herself as follows: “I am one week away from my 25th birthday. I hate being that age. That age is neither as fresh and full of life as 15 years nor as jaded as the afternoon of 35 years.”

She has just broken up with a boyfriend after a trip on which they bought green apples from a woman selling them on the roadside. Her mind, both consciously as well as through actions and seemingly unrelated thoughts, compares the simplicity of that roadside vending life to the complication and confusion, both essentially meaningless, of that of the “888,800 generation,” the number referring to the amount of Korean won earned full-time on minimum wage.

Bae’s narrator is a dropout, estranged from her family, and apparently without any strong personal relationships, and her story is about limitations, clearly symbolized by Bae’s repeated emphasis on the small living spaces of many of the characters and how their jobs and lives end up completely trapping them. The condition is a bit reminiscent of of stories like “Apartments” by the venerated Park Wan-suh,Christmas Specials” by Kim Ae-ran, or Eun Heekyung’s “My Wife’s Boxes” in Unspoken Voices.

“Identical Apartments” Pak Wan-suh, featured in Wayfarer: New Fiction By Korean Women, is one of the first stories of the “Hell Joseon” family, one told through the eyes of a married daughter of an extended family living in one large apartment. When they do move into their own apartment, the wife befriends the woman across the way and copies her style and cooking. As time goes by, the wife comes to understand that even then she has no individuality, that she is not much different from an insect in its colony, trapped in conformist amber and profoundly unhappy.

“Christmas Specials” begins with a lyrical scene of a man in a snowstorm, but quickly turns to themes of fecundity and space (represented by sperm and inns). The man still lives with his sister, but this evening is Christmas Eve, and with a packet of ramen under his arm he contemplates going back home and being able to enjoy the room alone. It will be the first time he has really had a space to himself since he had a rooftop room (a type of shabby little rooms tacked onto the flat top of residential buildings, brutally subject to the heat of summer and cold of winter, and often seen in Korea).

The next scene shows his sister and her boyfriend trying to find a “room of their own” on Christmas Eve for some romantic time together. They have set this night aside as one on which to just go out and have fun, carve out their own space, and do what they want to do, not what economics demand. The story alternates between the brother with his modern toys of separation (the computer, boring pornography) and the couple’s search for a romantic private setting. Nothing works out as it should, and events progress not as a tragedy but a gray, plodding, process of grinding down, a bleak depiction of the plight of young minimum-wage workers in modern Korea.

“My Wife’s Boxes,” in Unspoken Voices, is Eun Heekyung’s take on the country’s hellish sexual politics. This chilling story is slightly reminiscent of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in its representation of woman being smothered by an ostensibly well-meaning husband and a room that becomes a “tomb.” Compared to Gilman’s work, however, it has an uncertain narrative center in its husband whose wife has been institutionalized. As the story goes on, the underlying trauma of the marriage is revealed and works towards a tragic but in some ways logical conclusion based upon the premise that there is no real love in a modern relationship.

These stories do not find it necessary to allude to anything outside of Korean society to explain the tortured existences of their characters. Love is a lie, all relationships are commodified, and the world is divided into two groups: the largely unseen rich, and the much lower class to which these characters belong. Admittedly, Korean literature goes far beyond the terrain described here, but this terrain, originally mapped in the late twentieth century, is very different from that which preceded it, all its influences and consequences entirely Korean. As the late twentieth and early twenty-first century unspooled, Korean literature described a kind of Hell, the “Hell Joseon” yet to be named by the young Koreans of the last few years.

It is worth noting that the allure of an overseas life and the “failure” of Korean life seems tempered in those who have lived outside Korea. In my experience with my students, those who had lived overseas seemed more cognizant of the flaws of other countries. Korean media has created several interview segments showing the very measured view internationally experienced Korean youth have of the advantages and disadvantages of living outside their homeland. They seem to have adopted a “Hell World” outlook, which does help them understand Korea a bit more fully.

However, until the current Korean sense of economic hopelessness goes away, until the glass ceiling for women goes away, and until the fact changes that that the rich become richer while ordinary people remain relegated to the precariat, it is unlikely that the situation in society or literature will change. I am not qualified to judge what it means for those who live in it, but it makes for some interesting reading.

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University.

KB - Korean Los Angeles guide

A Korean Travel Writer Reveals the Los Angeles Even Angelenos Don’t Know

By Colin Marshall 

I moved from Los Angeles to Seoul in part because I prefer living as a foreigner to living as a native. But I continue to appreciate Los Angeles, and still plan to spend a significant chunk of my future in it, for that same reason: not because I feel like a native there, but because I and everyone else there feel, in one way or another, like foreigners. The city’s role first as a magnet for the rest of America, then as a magnet for the rest of the world, has long since obliterated any assumptions one Angeleno might hold about another. We’re all “foreigners” there, all to some degree outsiders, whether Los Angeles-born-and-raised or immigrants from elsewhere in the country or another country entirely: Mexico, England, Armenia, China, Ethiopia, Korea …

Anna Kim (안나킴, in her Westernized Korean spelling) came to Los Angeles from Korea, not as an immigrant, nor even as a particularly long-term resident. But her older sister who preceded her to Los Angeles did emigrate, establishing a life there first and thus providing Kim with someone to visit and a place to crash. And so, putting a few months of Los Angeles time in here and there, doing different things each time, Kim performed the surely inadvertent as well as deliberate body of research that went into her book LA 도시 산책, which literally means “L.A. City Walk,” but whose cover also bears the English title Los Angeles, Portrait of a City — followed by the Korean subtitle 사람은 도시를 만들고, 도시는 사람을 만들다, which translates to the Churchillian observation that “people make the city, and the city makes people.”

I picked up Portrait of a City on my very first visit to Korea, eagerly following the wise dictum that, when studying a foreign language, you should study materials in that language on subjects that interest you most. Few subjects interest me as much as Los Angeles, and so finding an in-depth volume on the city written in Korean felt to me like happening on a sacred object, especially given the Korean publishing industry’s respectable design standards for travel essay books. Given the lower level of my Korean skills at the time — and Kim’s distinctive writing style, which a Korean friend described to me, with a slight sneer on her face, as an odd mixture of the too-elevated and the too-casual — actually understanding the thing proved a bit of a struggle from page one, but sheer fascination carried me through the years of off-and-on reading it took to get through.

Before Portrait of a City, Kim wrote a book on that other American metropolis called 뉴요커도 모르는 뉴욕, or The New York Even New Yorkers Don’t Know. Given the potential to market as a series, it actually surprises me that she didn’t call her Los Angeles book The Los Angeles Even Angelenos Don’t Know. It certainly reflects the content, since the author’s regular but temporary presence in the city galvanizes her to explore farther and wider and participate in a range of cultural activities than even some who live in Los Angeles for decades do.

The book organizes its essays into geographic sections, each fronted by a nifty isometric map of the area in question with a red line delineating the maximally interesting walking route through it. This comes without the posturing I too often see in writings about Los Angeles that focus on the city as experienced on foot: “They say ‘nobody walks in L.A.,’ but they’re wrong. I walk in L.A., and I’m here to tell you that you can do it too,” that sort of thing. (Maybe it has to do with the fact that Missing Persons never blew up here.) Kim not only assumes from the outset that her readers will walk in the city, she specifically selects places to write about for their accessibility by bus and train.

Not for her, then, the comforts of the exurbs, or even that quintessentially Los Angeles territory: the technically-urban neighborhood within the city limits that nonetheless feels like an exurb. She does begin with a nod to greater Los Angeles’ internationally brand-namiest places with sections on Beverly Hills (the book’s first essay titled “Beverly Hills Is Not Really Los Angeles”), Hollywood, and — reflecting South Korea’s intense interest in higher education and the best-known institutions thereof — USC and UCLA. But the journey gets deeper thereafter with sections on Bunker Hill, Downtown’s historic core, Koreatown, the Pueblo, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Santa Monica, and Venice Beach.

Korean travel writers often focus on observing, say, the deliciousness of lattes sipped in the boulevard cafés of various world capitals, but Kim, apparently a bred-in-the-bone history buff, displays a more rigorous interest in the city. This manifests especially in an architectural consciousness stimulated almost everywhere she goes: she pays attention, of course, to the likes of Capitol Records Building, the Bradbury Building, Disney Concert Hall, and Union Station, but also to the whimsically exaggerated (and only faintly sinister) cottages of Beverly Hills, the Herald-Examiner Building (which leads her to consider architect Julia Morgan’s entire career as a precedent of the late Zaha Hadid’s), the football-themed gargoyles perched around the USC campus, and the Department of Water and Power headquarters, at which she marvels as the Civic Center’s Taj Mahal. (Weirdly, the symbolic and eminently tour-able Watts Towers gets the short shrift, just a few sentences alongside a small photo.)

Kim also devotes a substantial essay to the downtown campus of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, well known to many Angelenos and architecture buffs everywhere simply as SCI-Arc. Her nose for buildings also takes her to the Bonaventure Hotel, for my money one of the most fascinating structures in Los Angeles, an occasion to tell the story of how her sister — the one who settled in the city — received her marriage proposal in its top-floor revolving lounge, but had to wait two hours alone for her now-husband, who’d descended to the parking garage to collect the ring and bouquet from the car, to find his way back up through the hotel’s notoriously bewildering interior.

It comes as no surprise, then, that when Kim inevitably gets around to writing about the Church of Scientology, she writes about their penchant for buying, preserving, occupying, and iconifying old buildings. But in introducing that controversial and high-profile religious organization, she describes it as a profit-driven cult whose members “believe that the human soul is a reincarnation of an alien,” words whose starkness might shock a Korean-speaking Westerner used to reading those of an American media that, fearing Scientology’s legal and economic wrath, hew to such comparatively diplomatic terms as “controversial and high-profile religious organization.”

Kim grapples with LA’s diversity throughout the book. She calls to schedule personal training sessions at a Koreatown gym and soon after meets her trainer: “a brawny black man standing like a mountain range with his arms folded.” Flustered, she breaks into a sweat and he face turns red. “Don’t be scared of me,” he says to her in Korean, turning out to be the son of an American G.I. and a Korean woman who spent the first 20 years of his life in his mother’s homeland. Elsewhere in Koreatown, she passes the Gaylord Apartments on Wilshire Boulevard and, interpreting its grand sign as literally meaning “Lord of the Gays,” shruggingly imagines it as a luxury residential complex for upper-class homosexuals.

Kim no doubt wouldn’t imagine such a place in Korea, a country with a long way to go in terms of officially accepting, or even acknowledging, the full range of human sexuality. But as with most everything else she writes about in Portrait of a City, she neither judges the concept, nor, as would accord with the dismissively observational tradition first established by visitors from the east coast, does she write it off as just one more act in the circus that is Los Angeles. She regards the city as a challenge to be navigated, understood, and with sufficient persistence mastered, even during such trying times as when she discovers the searchable online geographical database of California sex offenders and falls into a paranoia about how many of them could live just doors away.

She reserves more of her instinctive judgment for people from her own side of the world, as when a Japanese tour guide through little Tokyo starts tearing up while talking about World War II. Kim at first has little sympathy, finding this behavior typical of “a war-criminal country that tries to cry away its sins.” But then they reach the Go for Broke Monument, where she learns, and finds herself moved by, the story of whom it memorializes: the Japanese Americans, including a relative of the tour guides’s, who turned against Japan in order to protect their families.

On another tour, this one through Union Station, she learns of the ruins of the old Chinatown, hastily vacated in the late 1930s to make way for the grand new railway terminal, through their artistic incorporation into the building itself:

Suddenly the tour guide spoke in the tone of an Indiana Jones-esque archaeologist. “But take a look here. So far I’ve figured out the meaning of every symbol in this station, but with this strange one, I just don’t know. Maybe someone here does?”

At a glance, it looked like a round form of the Chinese character 車. What, this, some kind of mysterious ancient Egyptian hieroglyph? “It’s a Chinese character that means ‘coach’ or ‘car,’” I answered, chuckling. The elderly whites in the group all stared at me, wide-eyed.

Sheesh. He’s led this tour for the Los Angeles Conservancy for something like ten years, with at least a few dozen participants each week. How regrettable that all this time, there hasn’t been one Asian who could read that character. Isn’t this Los Angeles, the American city so well-known for its large Asian population? I mean, 車 is a simple, common character that any Chinese, Korean, or Japanese could read.

The first generation of immigrants were busy making a living, and the second-generation kids don’t have any special interest in this kind of thing. The first generation has a strong tendency to keep to themselves, so one doesn’t see them in mostly-white meetings like this. Second-generation Asians are so fully assimilated into American culture that they’re lucky to understand the language of their parents’ country, let alone its writing.

Actually, the young Chinese lady who’d led my tour through Chinatown was like that. She said her mother immigrated with her when she was a toddler. She was a rare model student in having such a strong interest in her roots that she led English-language tours of Chinatown, but when I asked her what a character on a sign meant, she flinched. “I can’t read Chinese,” she answered timidly. For heaven’s sake, a Chinese Chinatown tour guide who can’t read Chinese — to someone like me, born and raised in a Chinese character-based culture, that’s preposterous.

A book like this underscores, for a student of Korean such as myself, the extent to which anything written in the Korean language begins with the understandable assumption of a Korean readership. Would a Korean reader better understand why Kim, when she decides to finally give one of Cole’s famous French dip sandwiches a try, freaks out at the cut and color of the meat and eats only the crust of the bun dipped in au jus? In any case, they’ll certainly appreciate the fact that she writes up pieces of Korean Los Angeles wherever she can find them, such as the home of independence activist Dosan Ahn Chang Ho transplanted whole to the USC campus, his actor son Philip’s tucked-away star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the Korean saint featured on a tapestry at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Kim also finds, here and there, points where Los Angeles could do well to Koreanize further. Spending an evening at the Chapman Market, the ornate drive-through grocery store restored by Korean owners into a popular bar and restaurant complex, she envisions a day when its central parking lot will become a setting for more outdoor cooking, eating, and drinking, the kind of public social life visible in almost every neighborhood here in Seoul. That day still hasn’t quite come in Los Angeles, a city slow to realize the potential of its public and quasi-public spaces, but these kinds of observations make me wish Portrait of a City would come out in an English translation accessible to more of the people making the city (and getting made by it) today.

Even in the original Korean, non-Korean-speakers with an interest in Los Angeles will find things to enjoy in this guidebook to the city superior to pretty much any published in English in the past couple of decades: they can still follow Kim’s suggested walks, for instance, and seek out the places she photographs, some of which they may not know no matter how thoroughly they’ve explored.

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

KB - female writers 1

The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea

By Charles Montgomery

In my years in Korea, I never met an author humbler or nicer than Han Kang: she was always willing to answer emails, give an interview, or do a public appearance. Which is why it is pleasant to note that last week, in a “stop the presses” (or perhaps “restart the presses”) moment for Korean literature, she won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for her harrowing and brilliant The Vegetarian.

Mention should also be made of Kang’s excellent translator Deborah Smith, whose prose is both literary and readable, and who shared in the prize. Kang’s achievement immediately became the biggest “win” in Korean translated literature, surpassing that of Kyung-Sook Shin’s 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize winner Please Look After Mom. It comes at the same time in Korea that four of the last six winners of the prestigious Hyundai Munhak Award for Literature (2010-15) and four of the last six Yi Sang Awards (2010-15) were given to female writers.

These victories are the tangible residue of a surprising change in the world of hanguk munhak, or Korean literature, in which female authors have become dominant in Korea, and doubly so outside Korea in translation. This might seem an unlikely outcome from a country that, just 50 years ago, still referred to female writers as yeoryu jakka, or woman authors, while the men were simply referred to as jakkanim — authors, honorifically.

To understand the magnitude of this change, we need to take a quick ride in the Wayback Machine. Historically, Korean women were essentially barred from being authors. First, there was the problem of language: classical Korean literature was written in Chinese, a language women were not taught. Second, there was the problem of the social order. To become a writer one almost necessarily had to be a yangban (a word that implies scholarly aristocracy as well as administrative and military service), an option not open to women as it was either passed down hereditarily along the male line or awarded by test score to successful, and always male, applicants.

During this period, virtually the only literary work by women was produced by gisaeng (something like geisha) and they tended to produce formulaic laments about not being able to be with the yangban they loved. This began to change, ever so slightly, during the Joseon Dynasty when, officially in 1443 (though it actually took a few years), King Sejong decided to create a native Korean alphabet called hangul, which slowly became the language of literature. (Very slowly, in fact: even today, some Chinese characters, or hanja, remain in use in South Korea.)

Unhappy with the effective illiteracy of Koreans uneducated in the Chinese language, King Sejong pushed to make it easier for “normal” Koreans to read and write, by imagining a new set of letters: natively Korean, easy to learn, based on the position of the speech organs used to pronounce them, and formed by two- and three-letter syllables. “Being of foreign origin, Chinese characters are incapable of capturing uniquely Korean meanings,” declared the ruler himself. “Therefore, many common people have no way to express their thoughts and feelings. Out of my sympathy for their difficulties, I have created a set of 28 letters. The letters are very easy to learn, and it is my fervent hope that they improve the quality of life of all people.”

Because hangul could be quickly learned and was suited to the Korean language, it could be taught to all: even to the poor, and particularly to women. In fact, Hangul was sometimes known as the “language of the inner rooms” (a dismissive description used partly by yangban in an effort to marginalize the alphabet), or the language of the domain of women. Hangul entered use humbly enough, primarily in diaries. Many Confucian scholars and some kings were not proponents of hangul, considering hanja the proper language of literature, and its official usage and acceptance varied over the centuries. It did, however, give a textual voice to all those who could never before write their thoughts down.

As the Joseon Dynasty waned in the late-19th century, Korean literature went through a brief period of so-called “enlightenment” before falling to colonial Japan. At the start of this era, there was a window for female authors, due in part to a “modern” emphasis on “free love” (not “free love” as we’ve known it since the 60s, but the right to choose your spouse) and education for women. After Japan’s defeat in World War II closed the colonial era, literature reverted almost wholly to an all-male endeavor. Then, of course, came the defining issue for the remainder of the century: the Korean War, which dominated the country’s discourse in most fields, literature being no exception.

In the second half of the 20th century, women remained on the periphery of Korean literature by nature of the subject matter considered appropriate. The division of the country, both physically and psychologically, became the primary issue, which meant that most fiction centered on political struggle, ideological separation, and national bifurcation. But as the Korean economy and society changed, often incredibly quickly, so did the national estimate of Korean “problems.” The war receded, Korea modernized, industrialized, and internationalized, and this brought women to the front and center of Korean society, with many of them finding themselves at writing desks.

Park Wansuh began by writing on themes that roughly fit into “division literature”: mothers and daughters left abandoned by husbands, fathers killed or disappeared during the ear. In Who Ate Up All the Shinga, perhaps her most representative work on these themes, she tells the semi-autobiographical story of deciding to become a writer. Later in her career, Park began to pivot to a new theme, one that would shortly become central to many female writers who arrive on the scene shortly after her: the alienation and spiritual dispossession of women in the newly industrialized and modernized Korea.

KB - female writers 2

This kind of fiction can be found in Park’s Identical Apartments (included in the recent collection The Future of Silence: Fiction By Korean Women) and Dalkey Archive’s book of her short works, Lonesome You. Once Park became popular — and she was one of Korea’s most beloved writers — the walls began to crumble, and a new woman’s fiction emerged from the pens of such writers as Eun Hee-kyung (Poor Man’s Wife), Ch’oe Yun (There a Petal Silently Falls), Shin Kyung-Sook, Bae Suah (Nowhere to Be Found), and others.

As this process occurred in Korea, important changes were taking place in the greater spheres of publishing and reading. A recent study, for instance, reveals that translated fiction sales have doubled in the United Kingdom since the turn of the century while general fiction sales have dropped. The numbers have been particularly impressive in Korean literature, which went from selling 88 copies in 2001 to 10,191 in 2015. Alongside this increase, and to some extent pushed by it, the nature of what was translated has changed from a tightly gate-kept “representational” literature to a wider range of stories which are much more accessible to non-Korean readers.

To put it rather bluntly, the older more traditional critics who used to control Korean literature have been to some extent pushed aside, and publishing, thankfully, has been moved to overseas locations. The Literary Translation Institute of Korea (LTI Korea) has been at the forefront of this effort, but it has also been spurred on by the efforts such individual translators working both alone and in concert with the LTI  as Deborah Smith, Sora Kim-Russell, and Kim Chi-Young — mostly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, women.

At least six elements converged to bring women to the forefront of Korean literature translated into English (or indeed French, Polish, Spanish, etc.). First, the creation of hangul made writing possible for women. Second, Korea’s modernization brought at least the idea of equality to the table. Third, industrialization created a new class of autonomous “economic woman” who theoretically has access to the same avenues of expression that men always had. This began during the colonial period but primarily took place during and after the economic boom under the military rule of president Park Chung-Hee. Fourth, internationalization raised awareness of new models from the overseas lands in which women were perceived to enjoy all forms of expression.

Fifth, as economic and social changes occurred across Korea in the late 20th century, women lost their traditional positions. Women felt a new and distinctive form of alienation, having lost the diminished but understood traditional role of eomma, or mother. Shin Kyung-Sook’s Please Look After Mom is one of the works that directly addresses this loss and the nostalgia it creates for the “good old days” while others focused on the anomie that resulted.

Finally, changes in the publishing market resulted in better books being chosen for translation, smoother language in the translations themselves, and an increased interest in Korean literature overseas at the same time female writers were coming to dominate the Korean domestic market. Taken all together, these historical trends have resulted in a riches of Korean fiction by women eager to dig into meaty, contemporary issues related to sexism, commodification, and the role (or non-role) of the individual in Korean society and the world at large.

Increasingly, these writers are focusing on individual, character-driven fiction that resonates with Western readers. This represents a strong break with mainstream Korean fiction, so often driven by vast historical and social forces beyond the control of its characters. These forces remain quite evident in the fiction mentioned here, but its focus has shifted to the psychological and practical responses of particular individuals in the face of these overwhelming influences.

Fortunately, much of this fiction seems to be finding a home in English. The happy result of this for readers looks like a new “Korean wave” of literature driven by women. It would be unfair to say male writers are not doing some of the work, but at this point in time it seems that the bulk of this work is being done by women.

And where to dip in to these newly open waters? Interested readers could profitably begin with any of the novelists named above, or collections like the aforementioned  The Future of Silence or Questioning Minds: Short Stories by Modern Korean Women Writers. These works, all quite literary and based on solid, comprehensible plots, even as they often veer into the surreal, may eventually lead you down a wormhole, but you’ll surely enjoy the ride.

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. He currently lives in Oregon. He can be found online at ktlit.com.

*Lede (photo source: LTI Korea Han Kang interview).

KB - Robert Fouser interview 5

Writing About Korea, in Korean, for Koreans — as an American: an Interview with Robert J. Fouser

By Colin Marshall 

Robert J. Fouser first lived in Korea in the mid-1980s, going on to become a professor at Seoul National University and a high-profile commentator on Korean society, culture, and urban issues, especially the preservation of traditional the Korean houses known as hanok, one of which he purchased and restored himself. Later he lived in Japan, teaching the Korean language to Japanese university students.

Now based again in his American hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Fouser has returned to Korea for a few months to promote two newly published books he wrote in Korean: Conditions for Citizenship in the Future: A Manual of Democracy for Koreans (미래 시민의 조건) and Seochon-holic (서촌홀릭). I previously wrote about him on the Korea Blog when he led the Royal Asiatic Society on a deep Seoul walk. We sat town to talk about Korea today at Cafemoon, my coffee spot of choice by Seoul Station.

How do you describe these two books to someone unfamiliar with Korea?

Conditions for Citizenship in the Future is basically, “What is democracy? What is citizenship? How does that relate to what’s going on in Korea today?” The younger generation in Korea has lots of complaints about society. They think society is stagnant, not changing in the way they want. What the book argues they should do is participate in the democratic process, to stand up as citizens. It’s a call for younger people in Korea to take a more proactive stance in their politics. Seochon-holic is a collection of essays on things I’ve felt in Korea, my perspective on Korea. About half of it is related to urban issues, mainly preservation versus development, because I was involved in hanok preservation.

How much do you credit the younger generation’s idea of Korea as “Hell Joseon?” Is it a legitimate complaint?

From an objective perspective, it might not be, because no society can guarantee people a job, happiness, or anything like that. If you look at how younger Koreans perceive the world — that they have to be perfect, that they have to have all these accomplishments, they have to look a certain way, this pressure to promote yourself, to package yourself, to market yourself — it’s very real. That’s what’s driving the complaint: they’re expected to have all these things, but some of them take money, and there’s a feeling of not being able to get ahead.

But the Korean War left the country in a state of total material want. How did it go from that to such high material expectations?

In the ’50s, right after the war, there was stagnation, but in the ’60s, [South Korean president from 1961-1979] Park Chung-hee created the concept of “the Korean dream”: focus on industrialization and turn Korea modern, in a way into a semi-Japan. Park was familiar with the Japanese mass-scale development model because he had been a military officer in Manchuria. So he created this idea that “we all work hard, the country grows, and you get a piece of the growing pie.” For most Koreans, that turned out to be true. It actually worked. The standard of living rose dramatically as the economy developed.

You had this 30-year boom — the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, all the way to the ’90s — when the Korean dream was working for the mass of Koreans. When I first taught in 1986 in a military school, I met people my age who would tell me they didn’t have electricity at home until they were thirteen — or plumbing, heating, all these material things. So there was a hope life would improve, which started to fade after the “IMF crisis.” The country recovered after that, but the world economy didn’t really recover after 9/11, and Japan was already in the dumps. The problem now is that the older generation still has an expectation of continuous improvement, but that’s not happening. They have to come to terms with that.

KB - Robert Fouser book cover

We’ve also seen news story after news story about the end of the American dream. You’re from Michigan, one of the states often written about as particularly hard-hit. Do you see a similarity in the situations there and here?

The difference, of course, is that the US is still a much bigger country. The cost of housing is cheaper — outside the coasts. But yes, in essence, it’s a similar problem. To go to college you now have to take out a loan, so there’s this same perception in the U.S. that it’s hard to get ahead — not just to get ahead, but even to establish yourself. That’s driving Bernie Sanders. The young people support him. A Korean Bernie Sanders would be very possible, but who that would be, I don’t know. He came from “left field,” so to speak.

You first came to a pre-democratic Korea in the ’80s. What was it like?

It was booming at the time because of the preparation for Seoul’s 1988 Olympics. I had been to Korea for a week in 1982, but then I came for a year in 1983 and 1984, and that was when it really started to boom. Subway line number two opened while I was here, and then three and four opened. The mood of the country was “build, build, build” — but they had a dictatorship. The idea of a “good country” was not just wealth or economics, but also democracy. What is an advanced country? To a lot of Koreans in the eighties, that was a wealthy democratic society. They were on track to become wealthy, but they were dissatisfied with a lack of democracy, and that drove the democracy movement in the eighties.

South Korea has a tradition of looking for and then imitating what they consider “good countries.” It sounds a little like the South Pacific island “cargo cults” who supposedly built their own wooden imitations of runways and air traffic control towers in the hopes of bringing back the American airplanes that delivered supplies during World War II. But to an extent, it worked?

Still, the definition of a “good country” is a wealthy democratic society, that’s clear, but wealthy democratic societies also have problems. Europe has its share: the aging society thing is common there and Japan and even in the US. How do these countries deal with that? How do you make a social welfare system for an aging population? Korea is having trouble finding its own solution to these issues, whereas before the route to becoming a “good country” was very clear: instead of an appointed president, for instance, you have an election. Now they have to maintain that status and deal with other issues, which Japan is having trouble doing because of its long economic slump.

Why would Koreans want to hear a foreigner such as yourself talk about their politics and economics?

I don’t know. My editor proposed the book, and I never really asked why. From 2008 to 2014 I was a professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University. I was very unhappy there, but I didn’t tell people until recently, but that’s a long story. During those six years, I was active in hanok preservation, talking about city issues. My basic point was that “preservation versus development” is really an issue where you need a consensus about public good and private purpose: preserving something like a historic site or neighborhood for future generations versus “I own the land and want to make money off it.”

Both should be respected, and there needs to be a compromise, but I felt during my work in preservation that things were skewed toward private purpose, not so much public good. It classified me a bit as a lefty, which wasn’t necessarily my intention. That led to writing the book about politics, because people thought my perspective not as a foreigner, but from having been involved in hanok preservation, might be interesting.

 KB - Robert Fouser interview 4

Seochon, the area of Seoul referenced in the title of Seochon-holic (courtesy Robert Fouser)

You’d think Koreans would be the ones preserving their old houses, and Westerners would be the ones coming in saying, “No, no, this is all backward. We’ve got to modernize this place.” But why is the reverse true, to an extent?

There are lots of Koreans who have renovated hanok; very few foreigners have renovated a house. But Koreans may feel uncomfortable speaking out. A lot of hanok are in what are called “redevelopment districts,” which are always sensitive to speak out about. Younger Koreans especially are interested in preservation, but they might not be comfortable talking about it. My activism started around 2009, and before that, very few Koreans were interested in hanok preservation, but after that it started to change.

What’s so good about hanok?

They’re impractical from an urban-planning point of view because they’re only one floor. It’s harder to have a city with layers of tile-roofed, one-floor houses. From that point of view, they’re inefficient. But most of the hanok have been destroyed already, so I’m talking about the few that are left. They need to be preserved because they are part of the historic fabric of Seoul. There are only around 3,500 left, and that’s a very small number of houses out of the total population, so I think those houses can be preserved without affecting the density or efficient use of urban land. Some hanok are in fairly good condition and some are in terrible condition. If you have one in fairly good condition you can just renovate it, but if you have one in bad condition — really bad condition — it’s best to knock it down and rebuild another hanok in its place.

I discovered I liked hanok while I lived in one from 1988 to 1989. I liked the scale: it’s kind of small and there are lots of rooms, so you can use one room as a bedroom, one as a study, one as a junk room. Each can be adapted to a purpose. I’m back in Ann Arbor now and I have this big living room; it just terrifies me. How do I fill this monstrous space? I put up a bookcase to divide the living room into two smaller spaces. It isn’t really that big a house, but it feels huge. And of course, hanok have the hot floors, which I like.

Hanok aside, how does Seoul interest you as a city, as opposed to a Tokyo or a Kyoto or a New York or an Ann Arbor?

It’s the hodgepodge, which creates a sense of urban discovery. You have this confusion, but inside the confusion you have urban discovery. Tokyo has a bit of that too — all cities do — but in Seoul that confusion makes the sense of urban discovery a little bit more exciting. Anybody into cities will like that, if they are into cities in that mindset. If they’re into cities as organized spaces, then I can recommend other cities: Washington D.C., Paris.

I was out last Saturday, and I decided I wanted to buy some film, because I take pictures. I went to the film place I would usually go to and they were closed because it was a holiday weekend, so I went to another camera supply shop. They had film, Agfa film: black and white, it’s hard to find, I’m like, wow! This sudden urban discovery made me very happy. In Seoul, you can be in a neighborhood that looks kind of run-down, you want to take a rest, you find a coffee shop, and they have a fabulous cappuccino.

With New York, you go the Met, you go to the MOMA, you go to these high monuments of culture that you consume. At the Met, there’s a room of Rembrandts, ten on the wall. It’s a different phenomenon than Seoul. The museums here for Korean art are very good, but if you want world culture, Seoul is not your city.

You came to Korea before many Westerners did. My only reservation about moving to Korea myself was that, because so many more do it now, many of them come without much investment or interest in the country of the kind that Westerners might have in Japan. You’ve lived in Japan; is it really that different?

It is, but it’s sort of a generational thing. I when I first came, foreigners were limited in what we could do here. You couldn’t buy a house. Park Chung-hee made it illegal for foreigners to own land, and that wasn’t lifted until 1998. The only way would have been to put it in your Korean spouse’s name. There were no foreign tenured professors. If you moved to Korea in the ’80s, you had very few role models of foreigners who spent their lives here, whereas Japan had this long history of Westerners discovering it: the whole zen Buddhist thing; after the war, the Beat people who went to Kyoto; even in the Meiji era they had foreign experts. Sapporo was laid out by an American civil engineer. The foreigner in Japan is part of Japanese history. It always felt easier to establish yourself there.

Nowadays foreigners can buy land here. There’s permanent residency. If somebody’s 29 years old and they compare the two countries, those issues are not there anymore, but when I was 29 years old, Korea really was uri nara [the Korean term often used to refer to Korea, meaning “our country”]. You were here provisionally. But Koreans have done a great job overcoming that. Give credit where credit is due. Now I would say Korea is more open than Japan.

But I still sense that, to a great many Koreans’ frustration, Westerners still like Japan better. Why?

Korea doesn’t feel as exotic. When I talk about national branding, I say to Koreans: architecture, art, music, and food. The four things are very Korean. The music isn’t like Japanese music. The architecture has things in common with other countries, but the floors are unique. There’s old Korean culture that could be appealing to a Westerners, but when you drop in from the airport, you don’t see it.

As you’ve spent more time in Korea, what aspect of the country has come to seem most distinctly non-Western?

The spontaneity of things. People are very spontaneous in Korea, whether meeting friends or anything else. Westerners don’t do that. Japanese don’t do that. You don’t, when you’re a working adult, call your friend and say, “Let’s meet for a beer right now.” I wouldn’t do it in Ann Arbor. It’s related to how people interact with each other; that is where you get Koreanness, a sense of difference.
KB - Robert Fouser interview 5
Seoul in 1983 (courtesy Robert Fouser)

You wrote these books in Korean. How does your writing change when you write in that language?

Because Korean’s a foreign language, it’s a bit like a fog. I focus on, “Is my message clear?” It’s actually something to focus on when writing in your native language too. In your native language, sometimes you want to play with a sentence, make it more colorful. You start to think about style issues, and there’s the idea of being judged. “Do I have a good hook? Is it exciting? Does it hold together? Is there momentum? Do I have enough quotes?” With Korean, it’s “Does this make sense?” I focus on getting my message across, clearly, which is really what writers should focus on anyway. I lose track of that in English.

Why is Korean an interesting language?

I first studied Japanese, so when I studied Korean, I had that comparison. Later, the other interesting things were, from a linguistic point of view, speech levels, different ways of saying things, that kind of thing. The real difficulty for non-native speakers is knowing how to manage the speech levels, and within the speech levels knowing how to manage the verbal endings.

I’ve noticed people falling into a rut, using verbal endings without understanding their meanings. I had a Japanese student who thought the Korean ending -했는데요 meant the Japanese ending -ですが — which it does, but it doesn’t. She once left a note to me when she wanted to meet but I was a little late for the appointment and wrote “기다렸는데요” [literally, “I waited, but…”], a very antagonistic message to a professor which a Korean student would never write. But she thought it was polite.

The rules of grammar only do so much for you. That’s where you get the sociolinguistic issues. In linguistics, there’s thing thing called “markedness,” meaning using a non-neutral form, but every sentence in Korean is, in a sense, marked. There are no neutral sentences. In even in the most basic sentence — “This is a cup,” for example — I’m making decisions about who you are and who I am. That’s where a lot of non-native speakers end up in trouble.

Having acted as a linguistic intermediary between Korean and Japan while teaching the Korean language to Japanese university students, what’s something you learned about both cultures?

That was a great experience; I always got a buzz after class, which I didn’t get when I was teaching English. One group of students heard Korean was easy and just wanted to get the credits. Another group was the sort of “Korean wave” culture group, and another was interested in something else about Korea — it could’ve been anything. All the issues between Korea and Japan weren’t a big problem. Nobody was mad about Dokdo. They don’t hate each other. I found the Japanese students I taught very open and receptive.

What did you think as that “Korean wave” of pop music and television drama started to wash across Asia, considering your long history with the country?

I was pleasantly surprised. In a way, I thought it might happen. From 1996 to 2002 I wrote a weekly column for the Korea Herald where I would present different topics about Korea, especially the efforts Korea was making to recover from the I.M.F. Information technology was one positive, interesting story, and the other was this pop culture stuff. A lot of K-pop was very visual, and also free; that’s where the technology comes in. Americans or Japanese would have trouble with the idea of giving something out for free. It’s not a factor here so much. Korea almost foreshadowed the rise of the sharing economy.

What would you say to a foreigner looking for a way to live in Korea and experience it to its fullest? How to engage with Korea today, in a real way?

Always remember that the pace of change in Korea is so fast. Understand that the older generation has a very different experience than the younger generation. I went back to the house where I was born in Ann Arbor, and it’s not much different from the house I live in now: the fan heating system is the same, the thermometer is the same, the layout of the kitchen is the same. The paradigm of my life is physically the same as when I grew up. It’s not the same here.

Separate the institution you are working with from Korea itself. I found that out when I was at Seoul National University and not so happy there; some of the unhappiness was Seoul National, not Korea. Your workplace is your workplace, not Korea. Koreans hate institutions too. Try not to make that jump, which is where a lot of foreigners get into trouble. And learn the language.

In many ways, Korea is what you would expect from the geography: a place between China and Japan. How is it most different from those neighbors?

Korea is Latin — it has a Latin character, a Latin feeling, whereas China does not. That’s related to the spontaneity, and maybe to the popularity of the K-pop and dramas, where emotions are high. Japanese women watched [the 2002 hit Korean drama] Winter Sonata (겨울연가) because it reminded them of Japan years ago, when people were more emotional, had more of a sense of community, that sort of thing.

What message do you want to make sure Korea hears from you?

Democratization is a long process. It reached a crescendo in 1987, and after that concentrated on establishing local autonomy. The push extended to greater openness, more acceptance of people. That has nothing to do with foreigners; that was a Korean desire. Do not view that in the past tense. Your accomplishment should be viewed in the present tense. This is related now to openness not just to foreigners but to other kinds of Koreans, and later to reunification, if that happens. How will this society accept the former North Koreans? The push toward democracy is still going on.

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

koreablog_short stories

Looking Back at Modern Short Stories from Korea, the Very First Collection of Korean Fiction in English

By Charles Montgomery

Literature has always occupied a position of high cultural importance in Korea. The country’s history is thoroughly represented in its literature, and its literature is often centered on representations of that history. According to Understanding Korean Literature author Kim Hunggyu, “more than 6,000 collections of writings by individual writers from the 13th to the 19th century are extant,” and Korea is number one per capita internationally in poetry publications per person. This massive literary production occurs despite the fact that Korean literary history emerged as an object of formal literary study and concern relatively recently, beginning in earnest in the post-World War II era.

Fiction writing, especially short stories, has long been regarded in Korea as a mark of sophistication. Korean classical fiction was once written only by the yangban class (something like scholarly royalty), and, for most of the 5th-century Joseon Dynasty, entirely in Chinese. In order to be an author, therefore, one had to be highly educated, and possess the leisure time to write. This meant that Korea’s classical period tended to produce abstract, philosophical, and didactic works. The modern era follows the classical’s lead: writers must still undergo a formal vetting process before being awarded the title of “author.”

Korean literature entered the modern era as Japan colonized the country, responding either by turning pastoral, or toward the question of “what should be done?” Modern Korean literature was arguably created by a handful of Koreans such as Yi Kwang-su, who in the 1910s wrote two essays precisely defining what it should be — focused on modernity and modernization of the country — as well as writing the heavy-handed, didactic, cardboard character-populated novels Heartless (Mujong) and The Soil. Throughout the colonial period, from approximately 1910 to 1945, Korean fiction often could be characterized as either escapist or direly political and prescriptionist.

All of which makes Modern Short Stories from Korea, though originally published in 1958, still a breath of fresh air now. The book comprises 20 short stories (one an excerpt of a longer work) translated by In-Sŏb Zŏng, Dean of the Graduate School of Chungang University, the President of the Committee of College and University Counselor for Study Abroad, a one-time lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and a President of the Korean Center of the International PEN Club.

It is probably because of that last title that he translated this work. At the outset of literary translation from Korean into English, Korea’s PEN was, for good or ill, the primary player. In his introduction, Zŏng touches lightly on the much-discussed Korean emotional concept of han (without naming it, instead calling Korean writing full of “gloominess, indefatigability, and humor”) and calls Korean modern literature “the Literature of Resistance against Imperialism and Communism.”

The tales in Modern Short Stories from Korea are interesting partly because they show a side of Korean literature that was seldom translated after 1958. These stories originally appeared largely in collections done by PEN with its preference at that time for “representative” fiction. In this context, “representative” had two meanings: first, that the works chosen were all highly serious or pastoral, which was intended to demonstrate the solemn nature of Korean literature. (This led to multiple translations of stories like Lee Hyo-seok’s The Buckwheat Season, even though the nature of these stories’ content barely survives in English.)

The second problematic meaning of “representative” Korean fiction focuses on themes that are of intense interest within the culture but little interest outside it. As a result, many works seem vetted to show only the side of Korean literature that reflected on then-contemporary political problems. The genre of pundan munhak (division literature) meets both of these representative criteria, and, after 1958, crowded out the kind of entertaining stories with character depth showcased in Modern Short Stories from Korea. The literature of division probably makes up half of the short stories published during the 20th century in English, even though a quick trip to Amazon reveals that it simply does not sell.

Translator An Sonjae (also known as Brother Anthony of Taizé) recounts a remarkable example of this representational gatekeeping. An’s Eerie Tales from Old Korea compiles stories collected by missionaries Homer B. Hulbert and James S. Gale, both of them fond of ghost stories, which at the start of the 20th century were quite popular in English. They spent years fruitlessly chasing down Korean ghost stories, even as Korean scholars insisted that such stories simply did not exist, presumably because they were associated with folk beliefs and therefore not “serious” enough to consider. (These intellectuals were some of the first “gatekeepers” of Korean culture, deciding what was “representative” and “proper” to disseminate.)

Which brings us back to Modern Short Stories from Korea, which, according to An, is the first collection of Korean modern fiction translated into English. Ten of its 20 stories focus on “love and marriage,” and the rest are characterized as “social stories.” Most demonstrate a kind of depth and lack of didacticism that would soon almost vanish from translated Korean fiction. For that reason alone, this book is an interesting one for fans of Korean literature, since the truly character-driven and non-hortatory remain rare in translated Korean literature even today.

Three of the romance stories are character sketches, with Hyŏn Sin-Gŏn’s “The Dormitory Inspector and the Love-Letter,”The Bridle” by Yŏm Sang-Sŏb (far better known in Korea for his epic, and tedious, Three Generations) and “Penance” by Gim Mal-Bong providing short but amusing depictions of characters for whom things have gone quite pear-shaped. Several of the others delve into related social issues: “The Green Chrysanthemum” by An Su-Gil is the tragic tale of a girl forced into a marriage far too young, and it might remind knowledgeable readers of Lee Hyo-Seok’s better-known “Bunnyeo.” “The Wedding Night that Might Have Been” by Bang In-Gŏn, “Thirty Years” by Zang Dŏg-Zo, and “Repentance” by Bag Yŏng-Zun all tell complicated love stories that unspool across time.

Each of these stories also contains a telling representation of a social issue of the post-Joseon and colonial eras, but these issues are subsumed to the need for telling a good story with characters of depth. “When the Moon Rises” by Gim Song is similar, although marred by a rather shallow representation of the virtuous-and-therefore-chaste woman. The most overtly message-oriented stories of romance are “The Soil” by Yi Gwang-Su and “A Bad Night” by Gim Gwang-Zu. The former is an excerpt from the longer novel of the same name, and as much a love story between a man and the Korean land as between a man and a woman.

The excerpt is not nearly as fun as the novel itself, which, though quite hortatory, is also a predecessor to the Korean dramas of today, with their innocents in danger, mind-stretching coincidences, and villains who all but twirl their mustaches and tie damsels to train tracks. “A Bad Night” examines the plight of women who “dated” foreign soldiers after the war. It performs that examination in the context of a complete, satisfying, often grimly amusing story whose characters have clear, understandable motivations.

The social stories run a wide gamut, from the end of the imperial era to the life of lowly stock in captivity. Bag Zong Hwa’s “The Death of Yun Sssi, Mrs. Sin” is a short meditation on the steely determination of a married woman, her somewhat weaker husband, and the political machinations of a dying empire. “Sonata Appassionata” by Gim Dong-In is an entirely modern meditation on the nature of genius, which features a nearly post-modern narrative structure with an omniscient narrator sitting above two “lesser” narrators, as well as an additional epistolary narrative interjection.

Three stories focus on traditional social structures and how they affect the individuals within them. “A Mother and Her Sons” by Gim Dŏng-ni tells the sad story of a woman cursed with sons who do not respect their elders, and how in her declining year she is ushered between them. “The Pack Horse” by Gye Yong-Mug, whose narrator is a horse driver with a stammer and an unfortunately trusting nature, also explores a traditional relationship, that of homeowner to servant. “The Memorial Service on the Mountain” by Choe Zŏng-Hûi, thematically similar to “The Green Chrysanthemum,” features the horrific central proposition that imprisonment is preferable to arranged marriage, and its opening image of a rape will likely stay with readers for an uncomfortably long time.

Four of the other five stories inch toward the didactic tendencies that characterize the bulk of 20th-century translation, but only one crosses the line. Zôn Yông-Têg’s “Cattle,” among the best of these, has the lightest touch. By tracing the arc of a family, its cows, and the other cows of the village, Zôn deftly uses these animals as a symbol of stability, community, and planning. Although the ending is depressing and clearly meant to issue a moral warning, it doesn’t come unearned. Along similar lines,A Puppet” by Czoe Sang-Dông uses ducks to represent the dangers of collaboration and ends with a happy moment reminiscent of the key symbolic moment in Hwang Sun-won’s “Cranes.” “The Former Sports-Master” by Ham Dê-Hun, the most ham-fisted of this group, uses a transparently ironic motif and a plot that grinds obviously to its conclusion. Ham tries to warn against factionalism and moral decay, but his heavy-handedness undermines him.

Yi Mun-Yông’s “The Mind of an Ox” is an often amusing outlier in this collection, and in translated Korean fiction in general. This tale, of a self-aware ox and his traveling life, comments on mans’ inhumanity to animals as well as to man. The ox moves from owner to owner, family to family, interpreting his and their lots in life with a bemused, philosophical nature that is shocked to its very core at a sudden, horrible revelation. This is a nearly singular work, the only other example of its kind of which I am aware being Yi Ki-Kyeong’s “Tale of Rats,” a slightly more political story well worth tracking down.

The collection ends with Yu Zin-O’s overtly and intentionally nostalgic “The Story of Czangnang.” The narrator longs for his own past, but that past itself includes characters who themselves are nostalgic for an even earlier past that can never return. This clever doubly nostalgic structure ends with a vision of the terrifying roar of a black airplane flying into an unknown world “in the time it takes to draw a breath,” an entirely suitable conclusion to a book that has taken pains to consider Korean social history and where it has led the country, leaving open the question of what its future will hold.

In line with Korean literary history prior to the late 20th century, only three female authors appear in this book, helpfully (or condescendingly?) identified as “(woman writer)” in the table of contents. On the other hand, some of the works here feature rational depictions of international influences and almost cosmopolitan attitudes, all of which would shortly be erased by Korea’s civil war and its aftermath.

“Korean writers are expected to be cognizant of the modern tragedy of Korean history,” says noted translator Bruce Fulton. “Until recently, if you wrote out of imagination, with a sense of humor or playfulness, you were considered a lightweight, not to be taken seriously.” This has often made Korean fiction difficult for foreign readers to appreciate. The beauty of Modern Short Stories from Korea is that, while it is aware of modern Korean history, it also manages to be uniformly imaginative and often inflected with humor and playfulness even when addressing the direst topics.

This book is no longer in print, so it can only be found online. Readers interested in purchasing a copy should be aware that its price fluctuates wildly. I purchased my own for $20.00, but a search yesterday revealed an asking price of $250.00, which has unaccountably dropped to $125.00 today. This is one of those books worth owning (pick it up when the price drops).

¤

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. He currently lives in Oregon, where he appreciates all job offers. He can be found online at ktlit.com.

KB - English 4

Korea’s English Fever, or English Cancer?

By Colin Marshall 

A young Korean lady walks down the street, textbooks in her arms and earbuds in her ears. Suddenly, a plaid-shirted, down-vested white guy walks up to her: “Hi, excuse me, I need directions to Gangnam Station?” Sweat streams down the girl’s face. A Korean fellow in a suit picks up a newspaper and takes his seat on an airplane. Suddenly, the middle-America-looking lady seated next to him reaches over and points at the page he’s opened: “Hey, I was reading that article, and…” Sweat sprays in all directions from the top of his head. In a school library, in a cafe, other Koreans mind their own business on their computers, and still more Westerners suddenly approach: “Hello? Excuse me? You speak English, right?” “Hi, I’m so sorry to interrupt…” Further torrents of sweat pour forth.

I chuckled at this series of television commercials for an English-assistance smartphone app called Speakingmax the first time they came on, but it’s fair to say they’d grown less funny by the twentieth. The repetition of these ads (and their strange jingle-adaptation of Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell”, of all songs) bothers me less than their underlying assumptions, more clearly visible with each viewing. Why on Earth do all these Westerners assume they can approach a stranger in a foreign country — a country with its own language — and simply begin yammering in English? And why do these Koreans feel so obligated to respond in English, and so unable to respond in English, as to induce such a violent endocrine reaction?

Each of these Speakingmax commercials carefully sets up a they-asked-for-it scenario, going to far as to spell out on the screen what flame they’d inadvertently held out to the foreign moth: he could see her English textbooks, she saw him reading an English-language newspaper, she saw him studying for some high-profile English exam like the TOEIC or TOEFL, he saw English-language news on her laptop screen. So sure, the Westerners all had some reason to believe that these particular Koreans could speak at least a little English, but not to at least try to open the conversation in Korean — much less to launch into it in full-speed English — strikes me as inexcusable. And given all the foreign actors’ bland accents, it also offers evidence that the “ugly American” stereotype (no matter how much more boorish other countries’ tourists have become) remains alive and well.

These spots also vividly dramatize the extent to which fear and even shame figure in to the culture of English in South Korea. Ads play on these emotions not just on the airwaves but also down in the subway: the text of poster below, just up and to the left of the terrorized-looking cartoon lady, offers English practice sessions for 1000 won each (a low enough price that it must involve outsourcing to a call center in the Philippines, the destination of choice for Koreans looking to study English abroad on a budget). I saw another one more recently that addressed itself to “you who studied English for ten years but cannot speak English for ten seconds,” tapping into the nation’s painfully wide gap between the huge amounts of time and money put into English education and the fluency so rarely achieved.

KB - English 2

Most young Korean adults really have had to study English for that long, and so it dismays them when they travel to an English-speaking country — or, in Speakingmax’s Korea, suffer a linguistic attack by a wayward American on their own soil — and find themselves understanding so little and able to say even less. But to me it makes perfect sense, as it would to any American who had to grind through French or Spanish requirements in high school: English is a foreign language, and you can’t actually learn a foreign language in a classroom, especially without any special inclination toward that language. I myself had to start Spanish classes from age nine and continue them until college, during which time I learned, and expected to learn, almost nothing of use in actual Spanish-language conversation. But when I discovered an interest in Spanish-speaking countries later, in my twenties, I taught (or re-taught) myself the basics I needed in hardly any time at all.

So why does every South Korean student have to spend so much of their time studying not just a foreign language, but specifically English, and why hasn’t it had the ostensibly desired results? “The whole time I’ve been here, Korea has continued to spend the most money on English education in the entire world,” says Michael Elliott, who runs the video and podcast enterprise English in Korean, which he started after years working as a translator. “The impetus for me to start venturing into education was when I was translating two articles: one was that Korea spends the most money on English education, and the next was that businesspeople who did business in Asia rated the ease of communication in all these different nations, and Korea was dead last. It was obvious that something wasn’t going well here.”

“I didn’t start studying Korean until I was an adult,” says Elliott. “I think expression, building a vocabulary in your own language, is much more important, and then you understand that there are these modes of expression, that this vocabulary exists, and then you use that. When you speak English with somebody who’s older in America, and they use a lot of idiomatic expressions, they use proverbs — it’s beautiful. First you have to know that that mode of expression exists, and then later you’ll have the desire to replicate that in a foreign language. But if you never even get that deep into your own language, everything is so rudimentary. A lot of Korean kids start learning English to the detriment of their Korean, and that’s topsy-turvy.”

The starting age of English classes in Korea, whether at public schools or private institutes, has fallen lower and lower with time. The currently fashion holds that if you don’t get your child studying English while still a toddler, they’ll never make it in this world. And not just studying English, but developing what passes for a native English speaker’s accent and manner. Speakingmax’s commercials may have made me laugh before they got me worrying, but those aired by English Egg, a producer of childhood English-study materials, chilled me from the first. “Mommy, look at me,” shouts a little girl, holding up her sketchbook, “I can paint a tree!” The mother smiles benevolently. Then daughter rises and scampers forth, arms waving: “I love bread and milk!” (The writers can hardly have chosen those characteristically Western foods by chance.) I turn in disbelief from this spectacle to Korean friends and ask, “This… this is weird, right?”

KB - English 1

But as students themselves, their own immediate goals had less to do with becoming bread-eating, milk-drinking, English-speaking quasi-Westerners than with scoring highly on the standardized English tests they perceived as deciding so much of their future. None looms quite so large as the English section of the College Scholastic Ability Test (대학수학능력시험), known as the Suneung, an exam that acts in most ways the Korean equivalent of the SAT, descended from old Confucian standardized-test culture, carries much more weight and thus does much more affect the shape of society. (To see that in grim action, watch the documentary Reach for the SKY.)

As the only subject that generates enough of a standard deviation in scores to sort students into the strict hierarchy of Korean universities, English has become the wall in front of a respectable Suneung result, and thus in front of a respectable university, and thus a respectable career, and ultimately a respectable life. Still, “if you learn English properly,” says Elliott, “the test comes naturally, but if you learn test English, you’re left with nothing.” Yet many Korean students gladly make that tradeoff, living as they do in a society where “English is perceived as tool, or a path, to making more money.”

“That’s why a lot of Koreans are perplexed when they see us studying Korean. I went to Thailand once: things were cheap, the people were friendly, the food there is really good. I came back here and wanted to try my hand at Thai. I asked Korean friends and they’d just say, ‘Oh, there’s not going to be any institutes that teach that.’ I asked why, and they said, ‘Well, because it’s a poor country.’” North Korea analyst Brian Reynolds Myers, who teaches in the department of international studies at Dongseo University, describes this phenomenon as “something that frustrates me,” since “we’re trying to make the students realize just how important China and India and Russia and Brazil are going to be to their own futures.”

“I’m constantly telling them to learn Indonesian, which I think is the ‘golden tip.’ Indonesian is a very easy language to learn: they don’t have a particularly developed past tense and they don’t make a big fuss about plurals and so on, which is right up the Koreans’ alley, you would think. And yet they all are learning English and Chinese in the hope that that’s going to distinguish them on the job market.” They do it because “they look at the outside world in terms of an economic hierarchy. If I have a student from the United States who gets up and talks about his hometown, they’re all ears. And yet when a Russian stands up and talks, or an Egyptian, or a Kyrgyz, I can tell that the attention level drops markedly, which is unfortunate and short-sighted.”

If I had my way, I’d remove English from the Suneung forever, replacing it with some other equally arbitrary and arduous task (memorizing the digits of pi, say) and leaving the study of foreign languages to the few students with genuine affinities for the cultures that produced them — whether Russia, Egypt, Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, Thailand, or indeed England or America — and thus the only ones who can really excel at it. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jasper Kim put it in his diagnosis of Korea’s “English fever,” perhaps the country “should focus on less (not more) English education for most of its students — continuing ‘extreme English’ only for those who will need it on a regular basis for their future global career trajectory. This would free up not just capital, but millions of South Korean young minds to learn the skill-sets that most interest and fit their individual talents.”

KB - English 3

On the whole and for a variety of reasons, I like Korea more than Japan. But whenever I cross the East Sea — or the Sea of Japan, or call it what you will — I feel a wave of relief upon entering a country where everyone speaks to you in the language of the country where you are. Japan has certainly enjoyed its flirtation with English: the country nearly converted to it wholesale as an official language at one point in its history, and longtime expats over there tell me that, 25 years ago, a Westerner couldn’t go out to a Tokyo bar without running into a tipsy salaryman aggressively eager for practice. But it appears that Japanese society has finally settled on just speaking Japanese, complemented by what David Sedaris, a frequent visitor to Japan and casual student of the Japanese language, tends to call “seventeen words of English.”

It’s not as if Japan expects foreigners to have perfect Japanese — far from it, and in fact the oft-satirized attitudes there suggest that many native speakers consider us, against all evidence, innately unable to learn it to a high level. But still, approach a Japanese person in Japan, and they’ll expect you, and I would say rightly expect you, to at least start off speaking in Japanese. Even if you do speak in English, they’ll like as not offer you Japanese in reply. Korea affords no such linguistic security: I still tense up, slightly, when I speak Korean even to just the barista at a coffee shop, not knowing whether to expect a response in Korean, in unbidden English (against which I’ll feign incomprehension and stonewall as long as it takes), or, worst of all, in a confusing mishmash of both, the Korean sentences mined with scattered, unrecognizable “English” terms.

Still, Korean English education as we know it has chugged along despite discomfiting side effects: for the Koreans, the impossibly widespread psychological burden of mastering a completely alien tongue, and for the Westerners, a community-discoloring preponderance of English teachers, many of whom arrive with scant interest or investment in Korea, much less in the Korean language — or, according to the not-entirely-false stereotype, in anything more than a few years of easy paychecks. (Half the time I introduce myself to a Korean, they ask not what I do, but whether I teach English.) One might argue that English’s standing as “the international language” justifies all this, but I don’t quite buy it, partly because of its inherent unsuitability to quick acquisition and unambiguous intercultural communication, but more so because I’d rather struggle with a foreign language myself than hear my native one get stripped of its nuance across the world.

That aside, the expectation that all Koreans should speak English, and that no non-Koreans speak Korean, does more than its part to discourage the study of an already difficult language. Ironically, foreigners might well have an easier time of it if Korea subjected us to a Japanese-style (or stiffer still, Chinese-style) expectation of, over time, at least a certain level of conversational proficiency. It would certainly better suit the kind of strong country South Korea has become, strong enough to attract outsiders willing to learn its language rather than fall all over itself to learn a language of the outsiders. In an article on Korea’s thus far unfilfilled aspiration for a Nobel Prize in Literature, the New Yorker‘s Mythli G. Rao quoted a Korean “literature enthusiast” as saying that “I think the Nobel committee needs to learn Korean first.” Some readers laughed at that, but I can’t say I totally disagree.

Japan’s English education industry has never really recovered from the 2007 collapse of Nova, the country’s largest private English education company, which fell under the weight of financial losses, lawsuits, strikes, and even deaths. Korea’s English education industry has recently shown its own signs of strain, from sketchy dealings in Seoul’s struggling “English villages” to the suicide of the CEO of the even more troubled Wall Street English, one of the country’s most visible chains of private English schools. Whether this will lead to a break in South Korea’s English fever remains to be seen, but for now I propose re-naming the malady so as to reflect its more malignant, invasive, and wasting nature — a deeper and more complicated disorder, in other words, that nobody can just sweat out.

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

KB - Factory Complex 1

“Factory Complex”: How (But Not Why) Working Women Have it So Bad in Korea

By Colin Marshall 

Last week I spent a few nights downtown at the venerable Seoul Cinema (established 1964, which more than qualifies it as one of the city’s grand old institutions) for special screenings from this year’s Wildflower Film Awards (들꽃영화상), an independent and low-budget production-oriented celebration organized by my friend Darcy Paquet, an American film critic based in Korea since the 1990s. The mix of six movies shown over three nights kept things varied, including comedy as well as drama, stories about younger as well as older generations, and a couple of documentaries in there with the fiction films, one of them especially striking in its visual adventurousness: Im Heung-soon’s Factory Complex (위로공단).

Darcy writes in a column about documentaries as a window into Korean culture that the film, which won the Silver Lion at the 56th Venice Biennale, “is two things at once, a history of women workers in Korea and the different issues they have faced throughout the decades, and also an abstract and beautifully realized work of art. [Im] has a background in painting and video installations, and his documentaries contain a unique blend of social insight and art.” The images he crafts to illustrate the hardships endured over the decades by female employees in electronics factories, garment-making sweatshops (shown here in Korea as well as, during an especially grim middle section, Cambodia), call centers, grocery stores, airplanes, and elsewhere will haunt even those viewers not normally inclined to watch documentaries about labor conditions in Asia.

The film’s interviews with past and present low-level members of such industries constitute a parade of indignities suffered by the rank and file of Korean working women: the electronics assemblers having their heads shaved during treatment for cancers contracted at the Samsung plant; the grocery-store cashier showing us the pieces of cardboard on which she and her co-workers had to eat their lunches after their store’s (unnamed but easily guessable) Christian-run parent company converts the break room into a prayer room; the stewardess, fearing the ever-present threat of a negative customer evaluation, smiling and nodding at the passenger seated across motioning for her to open her legs a little wider.

One pleasant-looking middle-aged lady employed at a call center, after describing the technical possibility of taking breaks but the practical impossibility of doing so given the pay structure’s strong incentive to take as many calls as possible, breaks into tears as she contemplates the contrast between how hard she works and how poor she remains: she can barely provide for her kids, and if she gets sick herself, she implies, she might just have no choice but to lay down and die. Why, she asks aloud, do I have do live like this? An excellent question, and one whose answer it would interest me to see explored.

KB - Factory Complex 2

Yet Factory Complex, for all its power in depicting the remarkably arduous labor that went into the quickly industrialized South Korea’s economic “Miracle on the Han River” and the even more remarkable endurance of the women who did and continue to do so much of  it, doesn’t seem share that interest. This strange causal incuriosity (strange to me, anyway, a foreigner yet to do an honest day’s work) manifests in other Korean documentaries as well, even in the other documentary included in the Wildflower screenings: Park Bae-il’s Miryang Arirang (밀양 아리랑), about the titular farming town’s struggle to stop the construction of electrical towers.

That film, which includes plenty of visceral footage of young policemen struggling to subdue the foulmouthed grandmothers of Miryang, barely grazes the question of why the towers builders are so hell bent on putting them up there in the first place, and why they persist if — as we hear argued by interviewees — they’ve been rendered unnecessary by other power transmission infrastructure and will cause health problems in the nearby population. A case of bureaucratic inertia? A mindless continuation of Korea’s build-at-all-costs development policies? Or do those in charge of electrical tower construction maybe — just maybe — have a legitimate reason to do battle with these elderly farmers? We see a great deal of pain, resentment, and regret, but we never really find out the ultimate cause of it all.

Some mainstream Korean feature films also work from the same worldview. Take, for example, Yoon Je-kyoon’s 2014 hit Ode to My Father (국제시장), often described as a Korean Forrest Gump for its retelling of the country’s modern history through the life of one representative protagonist. In his review, Korea observer Matt VanVolkenburg looks back to Yoon’s previous spectacle Tidal Wave (or Haeundae/해운대), whose central disaster “provided an excellent metaphor for the way in which Korean films of the 2000s have dealt with Korean history, portraying people as blamelessly going about their lives when suddenly history crashes into them and sweeps them off their feet. Some of these films have blamed outsiders, and have rarely attempted to explain why the events portrayed occurred.”

Deok-su, the Gump figure in Ode to My Father, begins the film as a child at the Hungnam evacuation of December 1950, when the U.S. Navy transported thousands of refugees from what would become North Korea to the safety of Busan, on the southeast tip of what would become South Korea. After he makes a promise to his father, who vanishes in the chaos, “to take care of his family (and makes sacrifices in the hope of meeting his father again), the moments in modern Korean history he takes part in occur when he follows others. He (obviously!) follows his parents when they attempt to flee Hungnam, while it’s his friend Dal-gu who suggests going to Germany and Vietnam,” where they labor as coal miners and contract soldiers. And “the ‘decision’ to have a child and get married was essentially thrust upon him by his soon-to-be wife, so much of his life is shaped by others’ decisions.”

KB - Factory Complex 3

This fits in with one prevalent narrative of Korean history, that of a “shrimp among whales” who, unable to influence events around it in any meaningful way, can only try its best to endure and survive. Why, the septuagenarian Deok-su cries to his never-returned father while reflecting on his life at the end of the movie, did it have to be so hard? Again, I’d actually like to hear a detailed answer to that question, or at least an attempt at one, but all the tissue-clenching Koreans around me in the packed theater seemed satisfied with the flood of emotions the film offered instead. The Wildflower screening of Factory Complex happened a little too early in the evening to attract much of a crowd, but I imagine Korean viewers have reacted similarly to Im’s ode to generations of mothers.

Me, I kept thinking of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 bestseller on the difficulties the fiftysomething author encountered when she tried to live on a series of minimum-wage jobs in various parts of the country. I read the book a few times back when it first came out, in part because of the Ehrenreich’s enjoyable style (I still laugh, now and again, at her observation of “an older white man in work clothes whose bumper sticker says, ‘Don’t steal, the government hates competition’ — as if the income tax were the only thing keeping him from living at the Embassy Suites”) and in part because I couldn’t quite come to terms with its argument, if indeed it had any argument more cogent than that we should all (a) be glad we’re not housecleaners and (b) stop voting for welfare reform.

I eventually came to see Nickel and Dimed‘s project less as diagnosing and pointing toward a solution to the problems of America’s working poor than of using tales of working-class discomfort and degradation to sneer at the villains floating around in Ehrenreich’s own political cosmology (one that’s served her well throughout her career of left-wing journalism). In a similar way, Korean movies like Factory Complex, Miryang Arirang, and Ode to My Father refrain from constructing coherent explanations, true or not, about what exactly brought about the conditions they lament, preferring to gesture toward vaguely assumed malevolence, or at least neglect, on the part of stronger entities, be they companies, governments, or social structures.

One explanation I’ve heard traces this tendency back to Korea’s tradition of “activist filmmaking,” practiced with a goal of social or economic change in mind to be effected by making the maximum emotional impact on audiences — simply one kind of power used against another. Actual protests in Korea, such as those agitating for better worker treatment we see in Factory Complex, employ much the same strategy. This still works well enough in Korea, but less so outside it; back when the country first made its serious appearances on the international stage, from politics to sports, this tradition of emotional display sometimes made its representatives look insane. But Factory Complex, while full of surreal images, and highly effective ones at that, comes off as eminently sane. I just seems to me that — call this the Westerner’s logical bias if you must — we can’t fix the problems of the women soldering the circuits, sewing the clothes, taking the calls, and bagging the groceries, in Korea or Cambodia or America or anywhere else, without a clear idea of what caused them in the first place.

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.