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.

You can follow Colin Marshall at, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook @ColinMarshallEssayist.

Living the Vertical Life in Seoul

By Colin Marshall 

My friend Darcy Paquet, who preceded me to Korea by almost twenty years and in that time became a famous film critic here, once wrote a piece in the Hankook Ilbo (한국일보) about having to readjust his sense of space from that of the rural Massachusetts in which he grew up to that of Seoul. “It’s not just the crowded streets and buses that I had to get used to, but also the sense of always having people around me,” he wrote. “Living in a large apartment complex, with so many other families going about their lives behind my walls and under the floor, took some getting used to.”

He quotes friends back in America: “I can’t understand why anyone would want to live in one of those apartment complexes, like bees in a hive.” In my experience as well, more than a few Americans express their feelings about the density of a city like Seoul with beehive imagery, assuming they don’t jump straight to the word “dystopia.” I’ve given a lot of thought to how movies create urban dystopias, and Western ones tend to signal hellishness with height, Blade Runner‘s treatment of the Los Angeles of the future being the most influential example, but however expressed, the notion that bad things happen in tall buildings, or that tall buildings cause bad things to happen, enjoys a special prevalence in the Anglo-American mind.

Blade Runner, recall, had an American setting but, in Ridley Scott, an English director. We’ll have another vivid entry in this canon later this year with the release of the new film adaptation of High-Rise, J.G. Ballard’s novel of a luxury London tower block’s near-immediate devolution into an ultraviolent bacchanal. Sometimes I ask friends who insist on calling dense high-rises dystopian whether piloting a metal box down a strip of asphalt in a metal box at seventy miles an hour strikes them as any less so, but Ballard, who made the ravages of the automobile the object of grim fascination in the David Cronenberg-adapted Crash, beat me to the point.

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Why do so many of us Westerners fear and loathe the vertical life? I don’t, so I can hardly find my way to the answer through introspection, but if I did, I suppose I wouldn’t have moved to Seoul in the first place. Seemingly every few weeks I meet someone who has the exact same memory about when they first arrived in the city: “My first apartment building had more people in it than my entire hometown.” You can still find a place to live in a structure under ten stories, but sometimes I wonder how long that will last, given the number of cranes every day visible hard at work on the skyline.

They’re building what I think of as, for better or for worse, Seoul’s architectural signature: forests of ten, twenty, thirty identical (or almost identical) 600-foot-ish towers, differentiated mainly by the three-digit numbers stamped on their outer walls. Often these complexes lack aesthetic distinction, to put it mildly, and come with names that look strange to English-speakers — Brownvill, We’ve, Xii (“eXtra intelligent”), The # — selected, according to the joke that exposes middle-aged Koreans as not quite so piously Confucian as the stereotypes would lead us to believe, to prevent aged, demanding, and confused grandparents from finding their way there.

One sometimes hears this type of housing condemned (rhetorically, not legally, though the first few generations that rose after the Korean war certainly weren’t built to last) as a force that cuts down older, lower-rise neighborhoods — neighborhoods with the ambiguous quality of “character”  — like a scythe through wheat, replacing them with nothing better than architecturally cookie-cutter monotony, and a monotony often unaffordable to the demolished areas’ former residents at that. But the greatest architectural loss, in some eyes has come at the expense of the hanok (한옥), a form of traditional single-story Korean house whose numbers decreased dramatically in the 20th century.

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As for what, exactly, caused so many hanok to disappear, different people blame different other people: ruthless corporate builders, Koreans blinkered by their desire for modernity, the Japanese. A preservation movement has cohered around the hanok, but even that has its divisions: some hanok-lovers see what old specimens still stand as, for cultural, historical, and other reasons, worth protecting as they are; others want to keep the form in use, but to do so by producing new-built hanok with such comforts as modern plumbing and heating. (The architect Hwang Doojin mentions, in a TED Talk, always having to address the same question about his new-built hanok from clients: “But isn’t it cold?”)

At first glance, this debate’s battle lines look drawn between Koreans and Westerners, the former willing to sacrifice tradition and “authenticity” (another uselessly vague term) in the name of amenity, and the latter, longing for the bygone days when the “Land of the Morning Calm” merited that nickname, who fight for a cultural legacy of whose importance the country itself may have lost sight. It brings to mind the controversy over last year’s demolition of the Olympics-era Hotel Okura in Tokyo, at which many Western admirers raised a fuss, but at which the Japanese themselves seemed only to shrug, a vivid illustration, to my mind, of the Western conflation of, and the Eastern separation between, a culture and the artifacts of that culture.

But on closer inspection, the picture in Korea starts to look more complicated. Some of the better-known hanok advocates do indeed come from the West, but that reflects the Western preference for low-rise historical buildings as much as it reflects the need, real or imagined, for things Korean to gain the imprimatur of foreign approval before they can be successfully sold back to the Koreans themselves. Witness the much-promoted “Korean Wave” of popular culture, which values Korean music, movies, and television shows to the exact extent that they raise enthusiasm elsewhere.

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Yet I do still see my fellow Westerners, especially Anglo-Americans — even more especially Americans — as, in the main, a psychologically rural people. Unlike many Koreans, the countryside represents to them not a place from which to escape to the city, but an escape from the city. Most Americans, of course, don’t live in the rural countryside, nor do most Americans live in the few pockets of their nation where robust urban life has arisen; most Americans live in one kind of suburban or exurban compromise or another, and no matter how intellectually sophisticated, usually bring their rural desires — for space, isolation, autonomy, land ownership, and a freedom from societal encumbrance — with them.

This mismatch between these deep-seated attitudes of Americans (a people who tend to make sarcastic mooing noises when more than a few dozen of them get told to move in one direction at once) and the settings in which they actually live results, I would submit, in many of the ills of American life today, from the much-dramatized malaise of the suburbs all the way up to the whole gun thing. Seoul has suburbs, too, and suburbs often moved out to for similarly marriage- and family-oriented reasons. Some of the newer ones look like slightly askew imitations of the American cul-de-sac-and-picket-fence model, but the majority of them take the form of even thicker clusters of even taller towers than the ones in the city proper, usually accessible without great difficulty by train from the city proper. (The notion that transit is for poor people, like the notion that tower blocks are for poor people, hasn’t taken hold here.)

The heads of the Westerners who regard that as anathema must fill with visions of Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, Cabrini-Green in Chicago, Aylesbury Estate and Robin Hood Gardens in London — just a few of the infamously failed high-rise housing projects of the West. All built ostensibly with the best of intentions (though some consider them built-to-fail warehouses for poor minorities), they all quickly became victims of neglect, crime, demolition, and, ultimately, status as playing cards in service of the argument that associates the vertical life with poverty, ugliness, squalor, and moral decay, the oppressiveness of whose very architecture propels even their most good-hearted residents to rebellion.  “The week it opened,” recalled architect Peter Smithson, co-designer of Robin Hood Gardens with his wife Allison, “people would shit in the lifts.”

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I don’t hear of many Seoulites doing that sort of thing, but one might object to the comparison, arguing that the capitals of Asia never suffered the postwar exodus to the suburbs that bled American and English cities dry of their residential population, turning them for decades into bywords for filthy, decrepit centers of desperate lawlessness. But I mean to highlight that very difference: a city like Seoul, a city taken seriously, has only grown more desirable with time, resulting in its metropolitan area now hosting half the population of the entire country (the equivalent, in America, of rolling New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, DC into one and giving it a population of 150 million).

To meet this desire, Seoul has grown and continues to grow outward, but much more so upward. The Smithsons and other midcentury architects, now thought utopian dreamers, spoke of creating “streets in the sky,” and I use the very same language to describe the appeal of the vertical life in Asia: just as you pass all manner of shops, cafés, bars, and services as you walk down the street, you do the same as you ascend from one floor to the next in a building. Japanese cities, which allow near-complete freedom in the zoning of floors — a restaurant on the ground, an office above that, a club above that, a bookstore above that, with residences scattered here and there — have realized that concept to perfection.

But the towers of Seoul still do a more exciting job of it than American ones, subject to rigid zoning laws dictating what can go where, hindering the essential aspect of urbanism I call “dimensionality”: a three-dimensional city provides variety on one dimension as you move horizontally through it, on another dimension as you move vertically through it, and — perhaps the specialty of a city that changes as fast as Seoul does — on another dimension as you move through time. The more fully three-dimensional the city, the more conducive to, and the more it requires, life lived vertically.

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At least in aesthetic sense, though, I do like hanok, much as I appreciate the midcentury modernist houses of Los Angeles. But to purchase and occupy your very own building strikes me not just as an act of increasingly Croesan ostentation, but as a terrible inconvenience besides. I’ve so far found, just within my own modest fifteen-story building, a market, a bakery, a hair salon, a cleaners, dentists, and a language-study café. The population density created by the even taller towers around it ensures that I can find everything I might need in life within ten minutes’ walk, a condition hard to imagine in America even amid the country’s celebrated urban renaissance now underway.

I dream that, when next I live in Los Angeles, the city’s vertical life will have come into its own. But much work remains to be done, not just in terms of putting up buildings and infrastructure but of shedding inhibitions over going about life above, below, and beside other people in closer proximity. Despite its vast potential, Los Angeles, a city where every project over a certain size gets denounced in some quarter as a “monstrosity,” continues to labor under the common notion that, while those beehives might be all well and good for the youngsters and the hipsters, we live our real lives in detached houses, away from business and industry, and not even among many other residences — in other words, in one dimension.

How to chip away at this prejudice? Maybe we can start with the brief but memorable viewing experience of City, a short film by Korean animators Kim Ye-young and Kim Young-geun that Darcy included in his column. Its elegantly striking concept envisions the routines of city life — elevator rides, morning commutes, the tasks of work — with the manmade environment, from concrete to clothes, wholly stripped away. “It’s the last image in the film that I remember in particular,” Darcy writes. “At the end of the day, hundreds of people are sleeping in an apartment complex. Because we can’t see the floors or objects in the apartment, it looks like they are floating. There’s something unexpectedly intimate about the image. They resemble not bees in a hive, but birds flying through the air.”

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. Catch up on the Korea Blog’s archives here.

Paju Book City, the Korean Town All About Reading (and Publishing, Printing, Browsing, Buying…)

By Colin Marshall

Twenty to one — you often hear that ratio brought up in discussions of Paju Book City, in which, so the legend has it, twenty books reside for every human being. That exact number has to have origins in the art of guesstimation, but still, it gets the point across. As its name might suggest, Paju Book City is dedicated to one set of purposes above all else: the printing, publishing, distribution, sale, purchase, and consumption of the printed word. But its builders have also pitched it as “a City to Recover Lost Humanity,” presumably the humanity so many state-of-Korea-bemoaners see as having been mercilessly wrung out of the country by its rapid and deep industrialization of the second half of the twentieth century, disfiguring the country with the uncouth, disorderly urban landscapes left in its wake.

Paju Book City’s English-language brochure gives you an idea of the emotions behind the project: “Cities filled with disorganized urban planning, chaotic road networks and buildings and a welter of signboards directly reflect our distorted life. Such distorted urban scenes give negative impact on our already arduous life, creating a vicious circle, which exacerbates us ceaselessly. Why was such an urban shambles created? When did such disordered architecture and urban planning come to us? It is because we lost the sense of common ground and value.”

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Though the text adds that this happens in “any cities of Korea,” it takes no great feat of mind-reading to understand which distorted, signboard-weltered, ceaselessly exacerbating urban scene, exactly, the writer had in mind. And so Seoulites seeking a restorative dose of humanity can simply catch a bus, ride for between 40 and 80 minutes, traffic depending, and step out into this city purpose-built to provide it.

First proposed in the 1980s, planned and constructed in the 1990s, and opened in stages in the 2000s, Paju Book City occupies a bit of the copious amounts of land available in Paju, a former military area just south of the North Korean border. Its recent development and the wide-open space available for that development allowed for a kind of planning unthinkable in the capital: the kind of planning that can divide the city up into “publishing districts,” “printing districts,” and “support districts,” that can lay down stiff architectural guidelines, and that can try to replicate the qualities Wales’ tiny “book town” of Hay-on-Wye.

On some levels, Paju Book City would seem to make a ripe target of ridicule, especially in the contrast between the grandness of its self-description and the modestness of its real existence as a single-industry suburb, and a remote one at that. But I still find it an intriguing place to visit, as do many Korean tourists. Come on a weekend and it may at first seem completely uninhabited, its many publishing company offices (the firms having received strong encouragement to relocate there, or at least open a branch) and scattering of art galleries shuttered, but the closer you get to the the central Asia Publication Culture & Information Center complex, the more signs of life you see.

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The beating heart of Paju Book City takes the form of its Forest of Wisdom, a 24-hour library stocked to the ceiling with hundreds of thousands of books donated for anyone to read and staffed by ladder-climbing volunteer “book recommenders” (권독사). Weekends see the dozens and dozens of tables in its cafe packed by readers, many of them families with young children. In its capacity as something of a theme park of letters, Paju Book City also offers a attractions geared directly toward youngsters, such as a Pinocchio Museum containing, for whatever reason, a Paddington Bear-themed gift shop.

Adults in a more soul-searching mood can opt for a visit to Café Hesse, one of quite a few coffee shops in Paju Book City, but the only one inspired by the author of Siddhartha, Demian (an oddly popular novel here in Korea), and Steppenwolf. Other book cafés have different themes and specialties — not that their drink menus vary much — but all of them make use of the space afforded them in this accommodating location to surround their customers with as many volumes as possible. In a sense, the coffee comes free; you just pay to drink it in a space filled with books.

Korean book culture has an aesthetic dimension that I haven’t noticed to quite the same extent in American book culture, whose products, on the whole, feel more generically assembled. Plenty of specialty presses exist in the West which take great care with their design, their paper, their binding, and so on — that take books seriously as objects, in other words — but that sensibility seems to extend farther across the smaller publishing landscape of Korea. At some point, of course, this can get ridiculous: “Why do I need to know the quality of the ink on my chick lit?”  a Korean friend once rhetorically asked after I praised the bookmaking practices of her homeland.

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Without wanting to overstate the point, I get the sense that books have retained a certain talismanic power in Korea, this most internet-connected of all modern societies. Koreans may not regard themselves, in the main, as intellectuals (I often think of the story of a foreigner who came to study Korean thought, only to have the people he met look quizzically at him and respond, “But we don’t have any thought”), but the idea that you might get an intellectual charge merely from the presence of books still has some currency here. The same notion no doubt got all those midcentury American households buying the complete set of Mortimer Adler’s Great Books of the Western World.

Many of those color-coded copies of Homer, Thucydides, Shakespeare, Gibbon, and Ibsen went unread, but they certainly contributed something to the décor. Paju Book City’s visitors really do seem to enjoy reading the books they have pulled off the shelves in the Forest of Wisdom, and they buy books from the nearby dealers with even greater fervor. Even those who don’t care about reading at all, or foreigners with no knowledge of the Korean language, can spend a fun day in this highly explorable, conceptually unusual, and — what with all the specially commissioned sculpture and architecture — visually fascinating place. I enjoy Korean books myself, but when when my own time comes to return to Seoul, I have to admit I feel ready to be exacerbated.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. Catch up on the Korea Blog’s archives here.

Why Is Korean So Hard?

By Colin Marshall

The summer after my freshman year of high school, I took a short computer programming class. Getting up to speed in C, the programming language of the day, looked like a daunting task, but the instructor reassured us: “Look, guys, I don’t expect you to learn C in two weeks any more than I’d expect you to learn Korean in two weeks.” I took his point, but the specific comparison baffled me: sure, great, but who on Earth would choose to learn Korean?

Now, living in Korea myself more than fifteen years later, I realize that I’d have done much better to take a class in Korean than that class in C, which even when it interested me I could never get much of a handle on. But at the time, Korean struck me as a hilariously obscure language to bring up: why not Japanese, at which I’d tried my hand a couple years before out of my love of Japanese video games without seriously imagining ever being able to comprehend it, or Chinese, which some Americans surely wonder, deep down inside, whether the Chinese themselves can understand?

I didn’t give a another thought to that programming teacher’s remark until the year after college, as I hung around and plowed through all the Korean movies available at the university media library, eventually starting to suspect I could teach myself a thing or two about their language if I put my mind to it. Some time earlier, I’d learned the one thing about Korean that everyone who knows only one thing about Korean knows: its written language, known as hangul (한글), is just an alphabet with letters arranged into blocks, not a logographic language like Chinese (or the adapted-from-Chinese characters used in Japanese) which requires a massive amount of memorization even to approach functionality.

And so, during idle moments at work, I began studying Korean, a language expressed in what one often hears described as “the most scientific writing system in the world,” as if the linguists of all nations had with one voice declared it so. Those words, as far back as I can trace them, came from Edwin O. Reischauer, U.S. Ambassador to Japan and co-creator of the old McCune-Reischauer Korean romanization system. If any language has no need for romanization systems, it’s Korean: they tend to get mixed together in practice, none reflect the actual pronunciation very well, and you can get each and every one of the real letters down with only a modest layout of time and effort.

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“A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over,” declared King Sejong the Great, who commissioned the creation of hangul in the 15th century. “A stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.” A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but the height of Korea’s literacy rates more or less bear it out. For many Korean-learners, the speed and intuitiveness with which they learn hangul gives them a sense that the rest of the language will come easy — a false sense, as it turns out. Even after the first four or five years I spent studying, and even when I knew all the relevant vocabulary and grammar, I still couldn’t understand anything actual Koreans said to me.

Now, with at least eight years of studying under my belt, many Korean classes taken, hundreds of hours logged with Korean podcasts, Korean videos, and Korean speaking partners, and a fair few Korean books read (some, even, without pictures!), I can get a bit of conversational traction. I still have a long way to go, but when I look back at all those years filled with waves of frustration during which any reasonable person would have put the language away and never picked it up again, I do finally feel confident that my obsessiveness will see me through.

Living in Korea speeds the learning process, no doubt, but it’s far from a guaranteed road to proficiency. “One of the things that distinguishes the expatriate community here from the expatriate community in Japan and China, even now, is that the percentage of foreigners who learn the Korean language is much lower,” said the Busan-based American North Korea analyst Brian Reynolds Myers when I interviewed him last year. “If you go to Beijing, I think I’m correct in saying that the average long-term expatriate speaks pretty good Chinese — certainly good by my standards. In Japan as well, I’ve heard a lot of expatriates speaking Japanese to a higher degree of fluency even than the foreigners here in South Korea who are so famous for their Korean skills that they’re on TV every week.”

One part of the problem, according to Myers, is that “the Koreans do not demand Korean language skills. I’ve often had Koreans apologize to me for not being able to speak English, and I always have to say, I’m the one in Korea, I’m the one who should be apologizing.” Another is that “people do not come here with the intention of living here for a long time. Korea is not a country that foreigners fall in love with to the extent that they fall in love with China or Japan. You get foreigners who come here thinking they’re going to stay for one year, and that becomes two, three, and after a while they’ve been here six or seven years, and they’ve just got this survival Korean.”

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All this creates an environment not especially conducive to mastering the language. Still, I seize every practice opportunity that comes my way, and that often, when speaking with a stranger, results in the same question: “Why are you interested in Korea?” The acknowledged catalysts for an interest in Korea include pop music, television dramas, movies, food, money (especially the making thereof as an English teacher), and professional computer gaming, but the most truthful answer I can give — the one that most fully accounts for why I’ve come to live here — is the language itself, which few Koreans ever seem to accept.

Some of that disbelief may owe to the difficulty of the Korean language, or rather the difficulty Koreans imagine it visits upon the non-native speaker. But even though Koreans know their language is hard, they don’t usually know why. For some reason, almost all of them cite the example of how many different words it has to express colors, especially the color yellow. (Taxi drivers who want to regale you with the magnificence of the Korean language will say the same.) But this cultural meme, no matter how widespread, has little to do with the very real walls a Korean-learner keeps running into, no matter how long they’ve studied.

“The problem for me is the lack of a really developed grammar that I can rely on,” said Myers. “The first foreign language I learned was German, and one of the things I love about German is that it gives you a bunch of rules you need a year to memorize, and you follow the instructions pretty much without exception. But in Korea, you’re constantly coming up against things that are a question of feeling. My Korean teacher and I, we just come close to strangling each other every week because she cannot explain to me why something sounds funny — it just does. I get the impression you really need to have heard every single sentence, at some stage, in order to generate a similar sentence in the future.”

Another of the reasons so few Koreans buy my story about the language attracting me here may come from one of its qualities that most fascinates me, and one that stands out to any native speaker of English, which can afford to make no assumptions about speaker or listener. Korean, to a degree unique among any of the languages of my acquaintance, is inherently geared toward not just one nation but one ethnicity, embedding the assumption that both speaker and listener are Korean into its very vocabulary. The words hangugeo (한국어) and hangugmal (한국말) refer to the language itself, but more commonly, you hear uri mal (우리 말) — “our language.”

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If I referred to English as “our language,” nobody, including me, would know whom I meant as the we. (I’ve tried doing so to Koreans as a joke, but they never get it.) Anyone who hears and understands the word uri, however, knows exactly the we in question. Sometimes it gets romanized as woori — Korean romanization, again, not being known for its iron consistency — which you might recognize from the names of such Los Angeles Korean businesses as Woori Market and Woori Bank. Listen for the word in Korea and you hear it all the time, especially in the media, where, as often as you hear the actual name of Korea, you hear uri nara (우리 나라) — “our country.”

This sort of thing goes as deep as you want to look for it, but other fairly obvious examples (not that I stopped to consider them until a friend with more experience in the language pointed them out) include words like hanbok (한복) which refers to traditional dress of 1392 to 1897’s Joseon dynasty but literally means just “Korean clothes”; the aforementioned hangul, which literally means just “Korean writing”; and hanu (한우), which refers to the species of cattle bred here but literally means just “Korean cattle.” That the language adheres so closely to the land hardly comes as a surprise, since no country outside the Korean peninsula speaks it, but that aspect sometimes makes it seem a category apart from such less insular languages as English, Spanish, or French (or even, in some respects, the pretty damned insular Japanese).

Does the resultant feeling of non-inclusiveness put off foreigners who would have otherwise thrown themselves into the study of Korean? (As one longtime Korea-resident Westerner once put it to me, his speaking just a few words of Korean often draws a “How do you know our secret code?”-type reaction from the locals.) Or does more of it come down to the fact that, in time, a foreigner can too easily convince himself — working in English among only the highly educated, socializing in expat bars, letting his Korean wife take care of business — that he doesn’t need the Korean language in Korea?

Before moving here, I most feared the prospect of turning into exactly that kind of foreigner. Maybe that very fear motivated me to study Korean for eight years before arriving. I’ve hardly learned all the Korean I need to know yet, and certainly not all the Korean I want to know, but the more I learn — and I make a point of learning on a daily basis — the fuller a life I lead. The language has only become more fascinating with time and knowledge, and so I wonder whether Korea, a country always looking for pieces of itself to market to the outside world, might one day start putting as much energy into promoting uri mal as it puts into marketing bibimbap, Hyundai and Kia cars, or Girls’ Generation. And given the country’s zeal for English-language slogans, how about this? The Korean Language: Don’t Stay Here Without It.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. Catch up on the Korea Blog’s archives here.

Looking for Mexican Food in Seoul (or, the Strange Case of Hoover Taco)

By Colin Marshall

I, like anyone else who has lived in Los Angeles, hesitated to leave the city for one reason above all others: where would I get decent Mexican food? This might sound like a trivial concern, and one already addressed by Our Globalized Century, but an Angeleno needs not go far out of town any direction but south to realize just how good he has it. Seeing the world teaches us lessons we couldn’t learn any other way, and each new country I experience teaches me one in particular, more powerfully every time: Mexican food doesn’t travel.

The fact that while living in Los Angeles I forgot about the very existence of hard-shell tacos (a southern Californian invention, ironically) says all you need to know about the glories of eating Mexican there. Or rather, I’d forgotten until I went to Copenhagen and ordered, at typically great expense, one of their interpretations of that signature south-of-the-border street food. Out came a hard shell, of course — for what other kind of taco shell could there be? — made to shatter into a dozen pieces at the first bite, filled with watery ground beef smothered in mounds of sour cream topped with stiff orange shredded cheese: a culinary vision straight out of my elementary school days, but reincarnated in such comically huge proportions that it actually required the use of the knife and fork provided.

And so I made my peace with a lack of proper Mexican food in Korea even before I first came to visit. Still, that didn’t stop me from joining in on a trip to a local place called Dos Tacos right away, where, having learned my lesson back in Denmark, I ordered not dos tacos (or even un taco), but opted instead for — and I still don’t know if I made the selection in the spirit of curiosity, self-flagellation, or both — something called a 나초피에스타, or “nacho fiesta,” about which the less said the better, suffice it to say that its warmed Cheez Whiz sent me right back down the terrible Proustian path to the fourth grade.

But who in their right mind comes to a place like Korea, with its own robustly developed (and, to my palate, almost unfailingly delicious) culinary traditions, looking for Mexican food? For a long time nobody did, until Westerners started coming in force (meaning coming to constitute the small non-Chinese part of South Korea’s two-percent foreign population) and bringing their longings with them. This holds especially true for my fellow Americans: the military-affiliated ones have long satisfied their various cravings on or near the base, but the growing number of young English teachers have increasingly arrived expecting to find the same things they enjoyed at home just as available here.

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For most of them, though, “home” isn’t Los Angeles; it’s Seattle or Denver or Milwaukee or Boston, or more likely their suburbs, places where the Taco Bell-Taco Time axis of evil or the sort of restaurants to which you go for Chimichanga Plate #2 and a giant margarita set a sad standard. And so Korea has, for the most part, adopted that bland tradition, and sometimes gone all in for it. Not only do they have Taco Bell and clones of Taco Bell here, they have “Mexican week” at their Outback Steakhouses, a cultural-commercial intersection that sends the mind reeling.

Korea — or let’s say Seoul, which gets everything first anyway — began with no Mexican food, graduated to unappealing Mexican food, and has now reached the stage where, though you still can’t and probably never will be able to reliably enjoy a meal standing at a randomly selected lonchería, boasts a fair few spots offering reasonably good meals that do indeed bear some resemblance to Mexican food. But I wonder: why hasn’t Mexican caught on more in Korea than other genres of foreign food? Given its easy street edibility, its tendency toward spiciness, and its utter dependency on meat and other animal products, you’d think it would be right up the Koreans’ alley.

But it turns out that a lot of them hate cilantro. I realized this the third or fourth time a waiter or cashier taking my order at a Korean Mexican place asked me whether I wanted it included in my food, a question that at first I no more expected to hear than the question of whether I wanted cumin. But clearly they’ve had complaints before. Ask around, and you find that a surprising number of Koreans share a revulsion for this herb so essential to Mexican food’s appeal, usually described in the same terms: “It tastes like soap.”

While part of me believes that Mexican food without cilantro doesn’t count as Mexican food at all, another part believes that few worse fates can befall a cuisine than to receive the protection of the authenticity police. (How often, nowadays, do you go out for a memorable French meal?) And so the space for not a watered-down but a genuinely Koreanized Mexican cuisine still looks promising to me; Angelenos familiar with Roy Choi’s Kogi trucks (as if any other kind of Angeleno exists) know just how well it can work from the other direction.

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I recently tried a bit of that at a one-man shop called Habanero (하바네로), from whose one man I ordered a squid burrito. He asked the usual question about whether I wanted cilantro, and when I said I did, he put plenty in. He asked the other usual question about whether I wanted it spicy — the usual question for foreigners, anyway, though still an odd thing to have to ask given his eatery’s very name — and when I said I wanted it very spicy, he made it so, not quite in the Mexican manner, nor quite in the Korean one, but somewhere interestingly in-between.

Still, nobody, to my knowledge, has yet offered explicitly Koreanized Mexican food here, I suspect because not every sort of Korean business here yet sees its Koreanness as an advantage. It reminds me of what happened when the Eiffel Tower-logo’d Paris Baguette, a Korean-owned bakery-cafe chain omnipresent on the streets of Seoul, made their move into Paris itself. A public relations firm suggested that the store set itself apart with promotion as the only Korean bakery in all of the City of Light, an idea which Paris Baguette’s higher-ups regarded as anathema. They’d have done anything but come off as Korean, and so they de-Koreanized their flagship Paris branch further still, disappointing the Paris-resident Koreans and formerly Korea-resident Parisians who’d come for Paris Baguette’s signature hypersucrotic pastries and sausage-stuffed cheese rolls.

In the case of Korea’s best-known purveyors Mexican food, most of it seems as much an adaptation of American Mexican as Mexican Mexican. That, alas, has happened to many foreign cuisines here, since the United States has loomed so large in Korea’s view of the world outside Asia for so many years. So far, most of the enjoyable Mexican meals I’ve eaten in Seoul have clearly come inspired not by something you’d eat, say, outside the Cuauhtémoc station in Mexico City, but by something you’d eat in California or Texas. One spot not far from Habanero that I haven’t yet worked up the will to enter advertises, in English, “WEST COAST ‘TACO’” — scare quotes theirs.

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Life in Los Angeles did give me the sense, though, that not every Korean who goes to America returns with all the wrong ideas about Mexican food reinforced. (One Korean friend, now a five-year resident of Los Angeles, cringes with embarrassment at the memory of a “Mexican” dinner she once had with her high school pals back in Seoul, all thinking themselves the height of sophistication as they dropped ridiculous amounts of money on sodden enchiladas and tortilla chips.) Most of the Koreans I met there seemed to if not frequent then at least have some experience eating at El Taurino, the big all-night taco joint a few miles up Hoover Street from USC. This struck me as coincidental enough, but they also all called it by the same name: not El Taurino, but 후버타코, or hoobeo tako — “Hoover Taco.” Don’t ask me what the deal is with the nickname; El Taurino renders much more easily in the Korean language (엘 타우리노) than most foreign words.

This Korean blog post about the writer’s trip to El Taurino first deals with what he describes as the perennial complaint of its Korean customers: that the orders seem to come out of a random window at a random time, or more suspiciously, that the workers and the Spanish-speaking customers talk in whispers to one another, no doubt to conspiring to ensure that their own people’s food gets prepared  first. The author of the post ascribes this seeming favoritism to nothing more than the freewheeling nature of the Mexican culture: “They don’t have any workers as fast and precise as Koreans. Asking a Mexican to work the same way would be fascistic.”

And so, on Garosu-gil, one of the most fashionable streets in Seoul, appeared a familiarly named restaurant perhaps meant give the El Taurino concept, loosely interpreted, a dose of good old Korean food-service fascism. Its name: Hoover Taco. Branded as both “Mexican style” and a “Mexican casual grill” (and a place to go “If You Like Mexican Food…”), this slick, candle-on-every-table sort of place without a Virgin of Guadalupe in sight arguably failed to grasp the appeal of its sort-of namesake when it opened back in 2012.

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But the following year, along to Garosu-gil came Vatos (바토스), the Kickstarter-funded creation of three Korean-Americans, two from southern California and one from Texas. They’ve apparently premised their restaurants on the notion that, if you must do American Mexican, you might as well do the best American Mexican you can. (With no fascism required: according to the sign just above, “food made by happy people is different!”) Their efforts actually gave my girlfriend and I the unexpected chance, just after moving to Seoul, to try a standard Tex-Mex dish about which the Austin scenes of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood had filled us with curiosity but that we never had a chance to order in the States: the melted concoction of chili peppers and blended cheeses (real and otherwise) that Texans just call “queso.”

Beyond that, Vatos also offers a bit of Kogi-style fusion (kimchi carnitas fries have proven popular) as well as a suite of what they call “urban tacos” (reminiscent of the days when Diablo in Silver Lake earned the scorn of the world by branding itself an “Urban Taco Fabricator”) containing your choice of meat, like carne asada, carnitas, barbacoa pork, and spicy chicken, or — presumably to establish their California credentials — vegetarian and vegan fillings. But I can already sense which of my own desires will have to go unsatisfied for a longer term: where’s the buche? The lengua? The cabeza? The cachete? The sesos — what of the sesos?

And so, Mexican chefs, let me assure you that the opportunity to do what you do best remains wide open in Korea — for tacos, sure, but I can only imagine what impact a solid mole would have over here. I complained, in Los Angeles, of so many Mexican eateries’ widespread reliance on pre-made rather than fresh tortillas, but here they don’t even seem to know that you can make them out of corn yet. The law here will make you find a Korean business partner, but as soon as you do, get ready to blow some minds, not so mention some tastebuds. Just maybe go easy on the cilantro for a while.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

An English Ceramicist in Korea: a BBC Radio Journey of Bumbling and Discovery

By Colin Marshall

When I think of my favorite travelers to read, I think mostly of Brits: Jan Morris, from Wales; Colin Thubron, from London; Pico Iyer, born in Oxford to an Indian family and raised part-time in California. But none of them, however much I wish they would, have written at length on South Korea.  In the peripatetic late chapters of her life after more or less quitting England, Isabella Bird Bishop alighted in Korea and produced a book still read by Korea enthusiasts today, though she did it back in the 1890s. The very well-known Simon Winchester and the less well-known Clive Leatherdale did get out here more recently — but by “more recently,” I mean the 1980s.

So it made for a relatively important new chapter in the history of British visitors to Korea when Roger Law arrived this year to put together Art and Seoul, a five-part series for BBC Radio 4. Law, whose name may not ring a bell to non-British readers, began his career as a caricaturist in the 1960s, going on in the 1980s to co-create the popular satirical puppet show (yes, really) Splitting Image. The show’s end in 1996, and thus the end of the arduous work of public figure-lampooning puppetcraft it demanded, gave Law a chance to pursue a new artistic dream: studying ceramics in China.

At some point in this East-oriented period of his life, Law took a glance over at the work of his neighbors on the peninsula and found himself captivated by the moon jar, in his words “a misshapen round pot, and it looks so simple — but it’s not. To me, it’s the very essence of the Korean soul.” He sets what he sees as this “quintessentially Korean” object against the “pretty flashy” pottery of China where “everything has to be perfect — perfect” and the “artsy-fartsy” pottery of Japan. “Korean pottery has a simplicity, an earthiness about it,” he observes, “that seems to me to be very Korean.”

This realization gave Law that most useful possession of the Westerner in Korea, a straight answer to the question of what got them interested in the country. He can just say the pottery, while others can say the music, the movies, the television dramas, the food; I usually give the slightly more complicated answer of the language, inextricably tied up as it is with so much else. But those of us who decamp for Asia can usually point to one element above all that fascinated us enough to motivate us to do so. And when we get here, we face a big question: does the piece of the culture for which we originally fell represent the culture as a whole? In Law’s case, will all of South Korea possess the same captivating simplicity and earthiness as the moon jar?

Yes and, inevitably, no. The series’ first episode does find Law beholding the very human and often faintly strange beauty of Korean artist-craftsmanship, manifest in pottery and otherwise (he also visits artists working with such different materials as the mulberry-paper pages of old-fashioned school textbooks), but also grappling with one of the machines the subway to get it to dispense a T-Money card (“their version of an Oyster card”). It startled me to suddenly hear their recorded commands, a sonic fixture of my daily life here, broadcast from an island on the other side of the continent, but where they hit me with a shot of unexpected familiarity, they hit poor Law with a shot of bewilderment. “The machines only really deal in Korean,” Law speaks into his recorder, “and, uh… I have no Korean.”

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He goes on to seek help, in vain, from one of the subway’s volunteer “old-age pensioners, even more old and confused with technology than I am,” with whom “you can spend hours jabbering away, they in Korean, you in English, getting more and more confused.” In this and other respects, he places himself in the role of the bumbler (albeit an intelligent bumbler) abroad, one that, with his self-deprecating jokester personality and the sense of adventure just underlying his grumbling, he plays wholeheartedly, making bits out of such minor struggles as his inability to pronounce so much as a Korean name. Only Brits can really pull this off; an American trying it just looks like more of a yokel than usual. (And it doesn’t suit every Brit. When Thubron goes to China, for instance, he sits down and learns Mandarin, a task I suspect many a British traveler of his and Law’s generation would consider an indignity.)

Law’s quest to gaze upon the true nature of Korean ceramics soon leads him down several standard paths for the observer of 21st-century Korea: the “nightmare” education culture; the robust plastic surgery industry (“I can’t tell the difference between the before and after,” he rightly observes); the temple stay (“there’s an awful lot of shoes-off, shoes on with this Buddhist business”); the taste of “the national dish, kimchi” (the popping sounds of whose fermentation, which I myself had never heard before, he gets on tape); and the vanishing culture of the haenyeo (해녀), the strong-willed and inexorably aging lady divers of Jeju island.

But in his time on Jeju, Law also visits such nonstandard institutions as the local teddy bear museum (“I hate to admit it, but I’m actually enjoying this”), and in his exploration of the unignorable Korean film industry, he chats with critic Tony Rayns (long a beater of the drum for the better Korean cinema) in Chungmuro, the former “Hollywood of Korea.” The directors, screenwriters, and producers have long since vacated it, but it remains one of Seoul’s mostly unacknowledged fascinating neighborhoods. And at least he doesn’t make the obligatory trip north to the Demilitarized Zone, to return the grim stares of the North Korean border guards and ponder aloud the inscrutable menace of the Hermit Kingdom.

Having enjoyed Art and Seoul — and wishing I could hear more broadcasts like it, about Korea or anywhere else — I come out of it still wondering to what extent the moon jars Law loves so much reflect the entirety of Korean culture. On one level — the most visible level here in Seoul — Korea looks like doing its level best to de-simplify and sophisticate the earthiness out of itself. But lamenting this sort of thing can border on poverty fetishism; to hear some Westerners tell it, Korea hasn’t been itself since its first skyscraper topped out, a line of thinking that rolls you down the slippery slope toward denouncing indoor plumbing. But the distinctive “rustic flair” of Korea, as I once heard it described, does exist, and it does bring something important to the table that those drawn to the country and its culture don’t feel in China or Japan.

I personally find Korea’s enduring mixture of modernity and everything else the exciting thing, and Law’s radio journey provides an entertaining overview of just that: the high-tech subway and its low-tech volunteers; the new cultural institutions springing up left and right, all of them with their occasional rough edges and bits of eccentric content; the much-promoted vacation spot dotted with phallic garden gnomes; the trendy cuisine that still uses blocks of Spam. “It’s not looked down upon here,” Law says of that infamous canned meat, inadvertently highlighting the wide streak of earnestness giving all this its appeal: “You don’t have any Korean pythons singing about it.”

You can listen to all the episodes of Art and Seoul at the BBC’s web site.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Reach for the SKY

By Colin Marshall

As I first got acquainted with Korean culture, I started to wonder why Koreans talk about Harvard so much. I couldn’t help but notice that, when the subject of college came up in any Korean context, it was only a matter of time before someone mentioned Harvard (or rather, as Korean pronunciation renders it, 하버드 — habeodeu). Browsing the tables in Korean bookstores, I noticed that authors with even the most tenuous connection to Harvard got it loudly emblazoned on their books’ covers. I knew, of course, that Harvard has a long history in America, respectable ivy-covered brick buildings, and a great deal of East Coast cachet, but I couldn’t come close to explaining the evident depth of this Korean Harvard obsession.

I learned the reason behind it from my Korean language-exchange partner back in Los Angeles, after I laughingly brought up the well-known television drama Love Story in Harvard (러브스토리 인 하버드) in order to explain its misuse of the preposition. “They think Harvard is the American Seoul National,” she explained, describing for me the way her countrymen conceive of their schools in a purely vertical hierarchy, with Seoul National University (her own alma mater, incidentally) sitting undisputedly at the top. These Harvard-obsessed Koreans, it seems, simply turned around and applied that same thinking to America (the “number one” country to many of them, going by a purely economic hierarchy), assuming that the first American university they’d heard of must occupy the top spot.

When I meet new Korean people, I rarely sense any unbridgeable cultural gaps — unless, that is, the topic of conversation turns to higher education, which among Koreans (even those long out of college without school-age children themselves) it often does. Sometimes they look surprised when they realize that I don’t give the proverbial two shits about where they went to school, or when I tell them that not every American student who could get into Harvard applies to it (or even considers it), or when I express admiration for those who didn’t go to college at all.

We’ve certainly got our Ivy-League-or-bust types, I try to tell them, but the savviest American students think more in terms of finding the one college out of the possible many that best suits their personality and desires on a variety of axes: academic focus, but also sports, location, social life, architecture, food, exercise facilities, selection of arcade games, and so on. But that, in the main, doesn’t figure into a college-applying Korean high school student’s calculus: they study the hardest they can, get the highest test scores they can, and, no matter their set of interests, go the “best” college they can — grappling with no ambiguity about which one that is.

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If they can’t get into Seoul National, they’ll try for Yonsei University. If they can’t get into Yonsei, they’ll try for Korea University. These three schools together form the acronym SKY, the goal of the hard-cramming students featured in Reach for the SKY (공부의 나라), a documentary by Steven Dhoedt and Choi Wooyoung now making the festival circuit. Its Korean title translates literally to “The Country of Studying,” and that means studying for one particular exam: the College Scholastic Ability Test (대학수학능력시험), better known as the Suneung, the Korean equivalent of America’s SAT.

The Suneung, though, happens on just one day each year: if you get sick, you have to tough it out or wait a year and retake it; if you get an unsatisfactory score, you have to wait a year and retake it; if you sleep in, you call the cops and they’ll bring you to your test center on the back of a motorbike, lights, siren, and all. The exam books come the morning of, delivered by armored cars under heavy security. Not only do all the other students delay their classes that day, the stock market delays its opening. Airplanes stay grounded during the listening portion of the English section. All day long, radio and television news keeps the nation posted on the test’s progress. After the Suneung’s conclusion, evening programs closely examine that year’s questions and answers, to the intense interest of all tuning in.

Korea, it would seem, is not like America. But foreigners of many nationalities will no doubt do a lot of tsk-tsking as they watch Reach for the SKY, so vividly does it illustrate the national sacrifice of adolescence in the name of admission to a name-brand university —  “brand” being the operative word. Seoul National surely offers a world-class education, but who can deny that it sells, above all, the perception of itself as the best school in Korea? For decades, the country’s education system has presented its young students with a deal they can’t refuse: study morning, noon, and night, and you’ll be set if you get into one of the right colleges, with their implicit promises to hand their graduates a ticket to a comfortable future without making any major demands on them, especially by comparison to the agonies of high school.

Alas, that social contract, like so many others in Korea (and elsewhere in the developed world), has begun to break down. The increasing pressures for academic performance combined with the falling returns on that performance have made Korea a champion in one division above all: suicides between the ages of 15 and 25. A spate of articles have appeared over the past year on the phenomenon of “Hell Joseon” (헬조선), a label a growing number of young Koreans have seen fit to stick on their country that combines the name of Korea’s 14th- through 19th-century feudal dynasty with, well, Hell, describing a stultifying, unforgiving society lorded over by a small, insular elite and a vast, remote officialdom, shot through with injustice, nepotism, futility, and absurdity.

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It infuriates those who see themselves as living in Hell Joseon that the older generations, who came of age and worked through most or all of their careers during an era of huge economic growth, have nothing to offer but a parental dole and the nagging advice that they have only to work harder to kick their stalled lives into gear. Back in the second half of the twentieth century, when Korea was developing in a straightforward manner under the commands of a strong state and a handful of conglomerates, hard work by itself could generate real returns, but today the correlation looks rather murkier. The resultant frustration has driven a fair few Koreans to escape Hell Joseon any way they can, if not through suicide then at least through emigration, but sometimes the condition follows them outside Korea, continuing to provoke troubling behaviors.

Take, for instance, the bizarre story of Sara Kim, a Korean student at Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (which, among Koreans, enjoys an obsession comparable to the one over Harvard), who attained celebrity status as a “Genius Girl” back in her homeland for her unprecedented admission to both Harvard and Stanford (the object of a similar if less intense mania). But Sara’s story soon unraveled, and Korea soon found out that she’d made it all up, going so far as to fabricate acceptance letters from both schools, then impersonate a professor in order to silence the early rumors that she’d done so. I heard a Korean radio interview with her, aired shortly before the house of cards came down, wherein she told of receiving a wholly fabricated congratulatory phone call from none other than Mark Zuckerberg (a Harvard man, albeit a dropout, so America forgives him for it) in what now sound like the chillingly placid tones of the truly disturbed.

We witness some of the kind of pressure that can cause psychological breakdown and worse in Reach for the SKY, especially in scenes captured in one of the boot camp-like academies (known, colloquially, as “Sparta schools”) meant for students who want to repeat the Suneung for a higher score. Sleep an extra hour, their instructors insist, and you’ll be a failure. Nod off during a lecture and you’ll be a failure. Spend time chatting with your friends and you’ll be a failure. Catch too long a glimpse of a student of the opposite sex (Sparta schools keep them strictly separated) and you’ll be a failure.

These academic rigors might sound appealing to the kind of parents, and indeed students, who think American education has gone a bit soft. The problem is that none of these students, from the laser-focused study machines who coast into a SKY school on a perfect Suneung score the first time to the third-year repeaters bound to wind up at one of the “BMW” schools (the triumvirate of Baejae, Mokwon, Woosong, holding down the other end of the scale), learn anything useful, or even particularly meaningful. Their flood of blood, sweat, and tears pour into one goal and one goal only: penciling in circles, just quickly and correctly enough, on a multiple-choice exam.

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Along with all that blood, sweat, and tears flows a veritable Han River of money. Reach for the SKY gets access to Kim Ki-hoon, who, as the most famous teacher at Korea’s biggest supplementary education company, pulls down the equivalent about $4 million a year. He does it teaching English, yet can’t speak the language confidently himself, and neither can the great majority of all these thousands upon thousands of high-schoolers ostensibly cramming it into their minds. I’ve met many Koreans who exude shame at their lack of a command of English after having studied it so hard since grade school, but they haven’t really been studying how to speak English; they’ve been studying how to complete a section of the Suneung.

Thus all that anxious work, spending, and superstition (Reach for the SKY shows one parent and daughter consulting with a fortune-teller, surely just the tip of the iceberg) of a Korean’s first seventeen years goes toward nothing more than their being fed into a sorting algorithm, with nothing to show for it at the end of it but a qualifying score for a top college or a lack thereof. All that human energy — energy its possessors could have spent writing novels, coding apps, playing in bands, cooking new dishes, building robots, learning to actually speak other languages — gets squandered on jockeying for position against other Koreans. One common defense of the Suneung discounts its pointlessness in light of its sheer fairness (overlooking the advantage of the wealthy in paying for private institutes and tutors), but it reminds me of the same defense used for all of history’s indefensible societal arrangements: “At least you knew where you stood.”

Then again, American higher education, with its grotesquely inflating price and its hazy constellation of goals and benefits nobody agrees on, has also devolved into a racket. Just think of all the students and parents scrutinizing the tea leaves of U.S. News and World Report. “Here is this third-rate news weekly, aimed at businessmen who don’t like to read,” wrote Tom Wolfe in I Am Charlotte Simmons, “trying desperately to move up in the race but forever swallowing the dust of Time and Newsweek, and some character dreams up a circulation gimmick: Let’s rank the colleges. Let’s stir up a fuss. Pretty soon all of American higher education is jumping through hoops to meet the standards of the marketing department of a miserable, lowbrow magazine out of Washington, D.C.!” It looks as preposterous, from this distance, as anything in Reach for the SKY.

Whenever I hear an American high-school student talking about college applications, I ask them why they want to go to college. Usually I get nothing but a deer-in-the-headlights stare in response, but the kids who can come up with an answer tend to say something not especially coherent about how they want to stay in the middle class, which entered its death throes at least twenty years ago. I don’t style myself as any kind of giver of advice, and by the time the receivers have reached high school it’s probably too late, but I stress to them my own regret at not having taken time between high school and college to do something other than school: to do, in their own cases, the writing, coding, playing, cooking, building, speaking, whatever pursuit actually aligns with their interests and abilities — anything, needless to say, except test-taking. But as Reach for the SKY underscores, if anyone could really use a gap year, it’s the Koreans.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Christmastime in Seoul

By Colin Marshall

Korean winters start out pleasant enough, waiting until the new year to bite. This I’ve heard from longtime Korea residents who’ve experienced many more Christmases here than I have — which is to say, any Christmases here at all. So despite the growing cold and occasional snow flurries, I won’t expect a white Christmas in Seoul, but since Los Angeles long ago trained me not to even conceive of that as a possibility, I can’t count it as a disappointment. Even in non-weather respects, I’ve looked forward to experiencing just what form Christmas takes in Korea, and the run-up hasn’t disappointed.

Some Western visitors to Seoul come away thinking of Korean society as crassly commercial and consumeristic, a damningly alliterative impression that I can’t easily argue away. America, of course, gets similarly criticized, but there we try to deflect it by pretending to yearn for some sort of vaguely imagined, possibly even unwanted non-commercial holiday ideal. But Korea isn’t fronting; people here directly acknowledge the role of commerce in their lives all year round, and in so doing, I would submit, acknowledge how much potential it really has to add interest to their lives.

Take Christmas decorations, with which Seoul really does it up — or, rather, with which the businesses of Seoul, from humble Chinese-made merchandise stands to pubs with their liquor bottles repurposed into tree ornaments to grand department stores, really do it up. It might comes as a surprise to an American that Seoul still has grand department stores, with concierge desks and escalators taking you from high-end foods to cosmetics to apparel to housewares to restaurants and seasonal enthusiasm and everything, the likes of which we think of enclosed suburban malls and big-box stores as having long since crushed in the United States.

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In this and other respects, for better and for worse, Korea brings to mind midcentury America, or at least a certain impression I have of midcentury America. I’ve heard a few different middle-aged American friends living here, people with actual living memories of midcentury America, observe that Korea “hasn’t reached the 1960s yet,” although when they say the 1960s, they of course mean the era that began around 1966 or 1967, burned out in the early to mid-70s, and either did or did not change everything. They mean the time after A Charlie Brown Christmas, the beloved television special that celebrated the 50th anniversary of its first broadcast this year.

I listen to A Charlie Brown Christmas‘ immortal soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi Trio every year, but only re-watched the show itself for the first time since childhood just the other day. I did it partly in anticipation of the new computer-generated Peanuts movie (here just called Snoopy, or rather, 스누피), but partly because christmastime in Seoul put me in the mind of the America in which it debuted. Even then, as we all know, the crudely animated Charlie Brown bemoaned, in an unusually articulate but genuine child’s voice, the increasing commercialization of Christmas. The story embodies this disapproved-of phenomenon in the form of the aluminum Christmas tree, an item popular in the late 1950s and early 60s, and one for which a market might well remain in Korea, given the way everyone seems to go in for the artificial tannenbaum here.

A Charlie Brown Christmas‘s proffered antidote — which still startles and even haunts, no matter how many times you’ve watched it — comes spoken by the security blanket-toting Linus, who takes the stage, orders the lights dimmed, and recites by heart Bible verses on the birth of Jesus. That, too, seems somehow suitable in Korea, a country whose Christianity doesn’t let you ignore it. A friend of mine here, despite having “grown up in church” in America’s south, still remembers the impression made on him when he first arrived in Seoul by night, all the better to see the city’s many bright red neon rooftop crosses illuminated against the skyline.

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Just how Christian is Korea? Both surprisingly so and surprisingly not so. I find that Americans who’ve never been here often have the impression that Korea’s religiosity goes so wide and deep as to border on making the place some sort of theocracy, an extrapolation they’ve made from the highly Christian Korean community in America — or, in any case, the highly visible Christian Korean community in America, what with its churches dispersed all over the country that provide helpful starting points for the new immigrant, devout or otherwise.

In South Korea itself, Christians make up between 25 and 30 percent of the population, not a terribly huge number outside the context of northeast Asia. But compared to China and Japan, Korea really is quite Christian indeed, and the only one of the three to recognize Christmas as a national holiday. Still, many people in the one-percent-Christian Japan, not a conventionally religious society but one that has shown great avidity for foreign icons and practices, look forward to Christmas. They look forward not least to the big Christmas fried chicken meal they eat with what has become a near-religious regularity since a savvy Japanese Kentucky Fried Chicken marketing executive first sold it to his countrymen as an “American tradition” in 1974.

Japan, we might say, sees Christmas as a primarily American holiday, and thus an opportunity to celebrate things they consider quintessentially American — things such as the Colonel’s secret recipe. But so, in its way, does Korea: this most fried chicken-loving of all societies hardly needs another occasion on which to go to KFC, but the American associations of Christmas take other forms here. Some Korea-watchers have, convincingly, framed the country’s adoption of Christianity in line with its adoption of capitalism and, in the fullness of time, democracy: the trifecta, in other words, that would lift into prosperity. After all, didn’t it work for America?

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The perception of faith as a means to satisfaction on Earth has a good deal of traction here in Korea, as it does in America, but I wouldn’t call it a settled issue. The controversy over it appears with some regularity as a theme in books and films, none of which have handled it more deftly, to my mind, than Lee Chang-dong’s picture Secret Sunshine (밀양), the story of a widow whom moves to the small town of the title, endures another sudden tragedy, and finds herself both drawn in and repulsed by the local Christian church. In scoring the rare victory of discomfiting both adherents and critics alike, it merits a spot, despite not being a “Christmas movie,” in the holiday viewing canon.

It certainly makes for a change of mood from many of the other high-profile trappings of the season in Korea, which tend to push Christmas as a kind of romantic couple’s holiday in the style of Valentine’s Day. Given the name, it won’t surprise you to learn that A Twosome Place, one of the country’s most popular chain coffee shops, goes especially full-bore with its Christmasization, bringing out all possible thematically appropriate decorations, desserts, special beverages, slogans (this year, “Twosome Twinkling Night”) and promotions, one of which includes a free Christmas gift if you collect enough stamps on your loyalty card during the holidays. My girlfriend has taken it as a mission to earn this gift, and so we’ve spent a lot of time lately at our local Twosome Place, drinking our way (as a couple!) toward the planner or the tumbler or whatever our reward turns out to be.

This project has entailed many hours of exposure to the music piping out their speakers, which underscores the popular Korean conception of Christmas as a — or maybe the — time for lovers as well as the bias here toward the recent and the poppy. Thus eschewing the “Silent Night”s and the “Little Drummer Boy”s of the world, it opts instead for Wham’s “Last Christmas” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” — near-exclusively, over and over, down a seemingly bottomless succession of cover versions in both languages. And so, as in much of the rest of the world, Christmastime in Seoul becomes, in certain respects, something of an endurance test. If you need me, I’ll be listening to Vince Guaraldi until Christmas.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Watching Korean Literature Go International at the Seoul Book and Culture Club

By Colin Marshall

I intend, in the fullness of time, to give Korean literature at least its fair share of coverage here on the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ Korea Blog. But where best to begin? Readerly types newly arrived in Seoul might well ask the same question about how to take a first step into the realm of letters here, and in response I would direct them to the Seoul Book and Culture Club, keep-uppable with online through either Facebook or Meetup.

Hosted by Scottish expatriate cultural impresario Barry Welsh (whom I interviewed last year on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture), the Book and Culture Club has put on live events with such literary luminaries as poet (and prime Korean Nobel Prize candidate) Ko Un, Please Look After Mom author Shin Kyung-sook, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself author Kim Young-ha (whom I profiled here in the LARB), The Vegetarian author Han Kang, Native Speaker author Lee Chang-rae, and Drifting House author (as well as another interviewee of mine) Krys Lee, all of which they conduct bilingually, in both Korean and English.

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Just last weekend I attended a Book and Culture Club event which gathered onstage four young Korean writers (“young” meaning, given the high barrier to entry of Korea’s literary scene, younger than fifty) for a discussion of the direction of Korean fiction today, all of whom now have a novella out in a dual-language edition from ASIA Publishers. Lee Jangwook, a poet, critic, and Russian literature specialist in addition to his work as a novelist, wrote Old Man River (올드 맨 리버); Lee Kiho, who specializes in telling stories of societally marginal characters in unusual forms, wrote Kwon Sun-chan and Nice People (권순찬과 착한 사람들); the Korean-Chinese Geum Hee, whose work focuses on the lives of North Korean refugees, wrote Ok-hwa (옥화); and Baik Sou-linne, who grew up in Paris from junior high on, wrote Time Difference (시차).

It might seem an odd choice to introduce writers to the Anglosphere with novellas (and short novellas at that), a form that English and American readers never seem quite sure what to do with. But if you want to understand Korean literature, you have to understand the place of the short form. Lee Kiho, the most famous author of the bunch, explained that short novels have the importance they do here not despite the fact that they don’t sell well, but “because they don’t sell well,” creating the perception that, unlike longer novels, “they’re not under the influence of capitalism.” (Plus, he added, “they’re more convenient for the writers” — no small matter.)

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In the interviewer’s chair sat Charles Montgomery, teacher in the English Interpretation and Translation division of Seoul’s Dongguk University, editor of, and just about the most enthusiastic American (or otherwise) advocate for Korean literature in translation I know. (I also happen to have interviewed him myself on Notebook on Cities and Culture.) He lead the writers into a conversation that ranged widely, especially in the geographic sense, given that most of them had written stories set in or involving (or came with the personal experience of living in) lands outside Korea. An underlying question: has Korean literature truly begun to internationalize?

Lee Jangwook suggested that it might simply have begun to reflect the age of global capitalism in which we find ourselves. Baik Sou-Linne pointed to the current rise of “traveling novels” in Korean literature, mentioning the increasing proportions of Koreans who, like her, lived abroad at an early age. It all made me think of Douglas Coupland’s definition of the relatively new genre of “Translit,” composed of novels that “cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present.”

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Yes, I would very much like to read Korean Translit, especially of a kind this latest generation of writers could well master. But would Koreans themselves like to read it? Montgomery brought up the OECD-collected statistic that, despite Korea’s impressively high literacy rate, it ranks poorly indeed in terms of how much reading its citizens do for pleasure. In this as in other areas of culture, more attention from the wider world — increasingly drawn, I would think, by a more history-spanning, geography-spanning outlook on the part of the writers — might stoke more attention back home. Korea’s promoters have long shown an obsession with the country’s international rankings (especially its sometimes unflattering OECD rankings), and perhaps that will bring those lagging pleasure-reading numbers up.

Or maybe we just need a better definition of reading. Lee Jangwook described the established notion of “good reading” as, quite possibly, nothing more than a stereotype. Maybe, he argued, it can involve something other than alone time with a paper book; maybe it can happen online too, and maybe the amount of active discussion, criticism, and knowledge that results from it counts as much as the volume of reading done in the first place. The very role of literature, added Geum Hee, has changed: it doesn’t tell you what to think anymore, but gets you to reflect on your life. Nobody argued against the idea that the time of the writer as societally anointed “grand master,” seemingly prolonged in Korea, has ended. In the straightforward words of Lee Jangwook, “It’s about time we burst that bubble.”

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Korean Punk and Indie Rock in a K-Pop World

By Colin Marshall

After years of solo study, I first started taking Korean language classes at Los Angeles’ Korean Cultural Center. While sampling the levels on offer to find one that matched my ability, I noticed a trend. The classes started out huge at the beginner level, thinned out at the intermediate level, and got quite small indeed at the advanced level. That, you’d expect, but the type of people enrolled also changed on the way up: the ranks of the beginner class heaved with students brought there by their love of Korean pop music, or “K-pop” (perhaps you’ve heard of it), while, by the advanced class, they’d almost all fallen away, leaving, for the most part, me and a bunch of Korean-Americans finally interested in communicating with their grandparents.

Global interest in K-pop rose alongside my own interest in Korea — a pure coincidence, I can assure you, unless you buy this business about the pan-pop-cultural “Korean wave” supposedly crashing against shore after shore over the past decade or two. But there’s no arguing with all those Big Bang, Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, and 2NE1 enthusiasts packing the Beginner A classrooms: more so than the movies or the television dramas, the country’s disproportionately huge number of subtly different idol singers, girl groups, and boy bands have, for better or for worse, defined for the world what the world has begun to call “Korean cool.”

“Japanese cool is quirky, the sum of the nation’s eccentricities,” writes Jeff Yang at CNN. “Hong Kong cool is frenetic, representative of the society’s freewheeling striving spirit. American cool is casual: It’s cool that’s anchored in doing without trying, it’s about being quintessentially effortless. By contrast, Korean cool could not be more effort-ful,” with its “candy-colored, otherworldly aesthetic,” its performers “invariably dancing in perfect sync,” having been “recruited as adolescents and trained for years in groups that are required to live, take classes, eat, sleep and rehearse together until they’ve achieved a transcendent level of harmony.”

Growing up in America, I had plenty of time to grow weary of American cool, with its unceasing pressure to go your own iconoclastic way — as long as you do so as visibly as possible, and in such a way as to make it seem as if you not only don’t notice the eyes on you, but that you didn’t want to turn them toward you in the first place. The defining memory of the cultural landscape of my adolescence: “alternative rock” wasn’t just a commercial radio format, it was the most popular commercial radio format. There, as in many areas of mainstream culture, the substance didn’t quite match the image.

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My last memorable disappointment with this sort of thing came the first time I heard the actual music of Lady Gaga. Had the compositions of her songs sounded half as bold as the her outfits looked, we’d have had a revolution in pop, but as it stands, her outlandish appearance only casts into relief the blandest elements of her only faintly-adventurous-by-mainstream-standards hits. By the same token, if the compositional wing of the K-pop industry spent half as much energy pushing their music into new territories (rather than tweaking and refining whatever the last big group did) as the video and stage-show producers do with those candy colors and perfect synchronicity, I’d have started studying Korean out of a love of K-pop myself.

“K-pop looks good,” says Bernie Cho, the Korean-American president of Korean music distribution and marketing agency DFSB Kollective. “Some would say it sounds good,” he adds, making the biggest laugh line of Us and Them: Korean Indie Rock in a K-Pop World, a new documentary by academics Stephen Epstein and Tim Tangherlini. It follows up on Our Nation: A Korean Punk Documentary, which they put out in 2002. I caught a screening last week of both films, back to back, at Seoul’s Club Ruailrock (롸일락), followed by live sets from a few of the bands featured therein — some closer to punk, some closer to rockabilly, some other brands of rock entirely, all of them united in the cause of not being K-pop.

Taken together, the documentaries constitute a fascinating portrait of not just the evolution of Korean punk and indie rock, which has had to develop on the thin margins of Korean life, but of Korean life itself. One friend remarked that the screaming girls at the foot of the stage in the early 2000s seen in Our Nation looked, even just by comparison to the screaming girls at the foot of the stage in the early 2010s seen in Us and Them, almost North Korean — that is to say, they looked less affected by the sort of cosmetic surgery-crafted standard look that, in the years between the two movies, has influenced the image of everyday South Koreans and positively defined the image of the South Korean pop star.

That counts as only one of the many things a young Korean rocker might have to rebel against. As I grew up and watched some of my friends get into punk, I have to admit I wondered what they saw in it, or rather heard in it; as a score, it might well have suited the crumbling New York or London of the 1970s, but the suburbs of Seattle in the 1990s? (Not that the theatrical booze- and pill-fueled angst of that era’s “alternative” rock struck me as relatable either.) But now I wonder how any Korean high-school student, subject to the all-consuming morning-noon-and-night pressure of Korean social and academic expectations, could do without the catharsis punk provides.

When Westerners imagine East Asian interpretations of Western music, they often imagine a sort of rigidly imitative formalism, the kind out of which Dave Barry got a few miles when he went to Tokyo and observed the street rockers and dancers of Harajuku, a scene that, he writes, “served as heartwarming proof that rock music is indeed the universal language of the young, and the Japanese young cannot speak it worth squat.” He perceives “a Hipness Gap, a gap between us so vast that their cutting-edge young rockin’ rebels look like silly posturing out-of-it weenies even to a middle-aged dweeb like myself. They buy our music, they listen to our music, they play our music, but they don’t get our music.”

But Dave Barry Does Japan came out in 1992, and this is the 21st century; we’ve long since transcended ideas of “getting it” and “not getting it,” right? Don’t we we now have a zeitgeist that renders Japanese reinterpretations of vintage Americana a worthier object of fascination than the genuine articles? And besides, this is Korea, a culture characterized less (in the view of its own people) by constant self-possession than spontaneous emotional outburst, and less by the disciplined replication of things foreign than by their indiscriminate mixture. This sensibility gave the first wave of Korean indie rock, reflected upon in Our Nation, its particular appeal.

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Epstein, in an article on both documentaries for The Asia-Pacific Journal, writes about 1989, his first year in Korea, a time when, “long before the term K-Pop was coined, Korean popular music was rife with anodyne but often overwrought concoctions and Western soft rock was ubiquitous,” a mixture he experienced as “a mild form of aural torture.” But when he returned in 1997, things had changed. “How did punk rock get to Korea when eight years ago I couldn’t even imagine that there would be anything like this?” he asked himself. And as for the new sounds themselves, “Imagine listening to pop music for your whole life, and then suddenly over the course of a year, somebody introduces you to Nirvana, the Sex Pistols, Green Day, Led Zeppelin, all at once. What kind of music are you going to make?”

That question lies at the heart of Our Nation and Us and Them‘s project, as it will presumably lie at the heart of whatever documentary on Korean punk and indie rock Epstein and Tangherlini make next. They chart a kind of internationalization of the music: first, Koreans adapted the threads of Western rock for their own expressive purposes (an early compilation carried the title Joseon Punk (조선펑크); a later band  branded themselves as playing “kimchibilly”); then, as the foreign population of Korea grew, the Westerners themselves joined in, forming mixed-nationality bands with the Koreans; now, Korean bands have begun to play in the West, and Western bands come to play in Korea — the sort of ongoing transoceanic musical exchange that must warm the heart of any cultural globalist.

But will there come a point, I wonder, when we stop calling it Korean music? For all their close scrutiny and impeccable assumption, even improvement, of the form of the postwar American greaser, those Harajuku kids Barry ridiculed, “all dressed identically in tight black T-shirts, tight black pants, black socks, and pointy black shoes,” each one with a “lovingly constructed, carefully maintained, major-league caliber 1950s-style duck’s-ass haircut,” come off no less Japanese — and, in a way, more Japanese — for it. He witnessed a mastery of varying surfaces, even foreign surfaces, but a mastery itself rooted in a deeper place. In the words of Pico Iyer, “Japan is ready to change its clothes so often in part because it changes its soul so rarely.”

How often does Korea change its soul? An ultimately unanswerable question, but one that any watcher of Korean popular culture can’t avoid. Our Nation and Us and Them reveal a subculture more porous, more subject to permanent influence, than any of my acquaintance in Japan, and perhaps, so far, a more fruitful one for it. I get the sense of K-pop, which by nature seeks an ever bigger market, moving toward a kind of linguistic dilution and geographical nowhere-ness that might one day, for all the soft-power value of the brand at the moment, let it cast off what Epstein calls its “Special K” and become a kind of (alas, even blander) global pop music. Will Korea’s punk and indie rockers, in their oppositional manner, show the way down a more interesting path of musical internationalization?

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

The Poetry of, or Rather in, the Seoul Subway

By Colin Marshall

When I want to learn about a city, whether researching it on the internet or stepping out into it in reality, I first look to its subway. It might surprise you how much you can infer about the overall personality of any given metropolis just from riding its trains, be that metropolis Los Angeles (incomplete and inconsistent, but still new and promising) or San Francisco (charming and infuriating in equal measure), New York (often old and dirty, but nevertheless an attraction for all walks of life) or London (highly serviceable, as long as you can enjoy grumbling about it), Mexico City (lively, brightly colored, enjoyably strange, and subject to sudden dysfunction) or Copenhagen (expensive).

I’ve ridden a good deal of urban transit in my time, none superior, thus far, to Seoul’s. Angelenos, who can count themselves as having a good day if their train shows up within fifteen minutes — assuming they need to go someplace a train actually goes, and assuming they know their city’s rail network exists in the first place — can only marvel at not just the system’s range, frequency, and cleanliness, but a host of features they’d never dared imagine: unbroken cell and wi-fi signals, displays that map the next few trains on the way in accurate real time, heated seats, and a variety of shops and cafés, or at least decently stocked stalls and vending machines (as well as non-horrifying bathrooms, the one true marker of civilization) in every station.

Once they adjust to all that, they might then notice, especially if they study the Korean language, how often they see poetry during their short waits for trains. And I don’t mean that metaphorically, as in the “poetry” of bustling, well-orchestrated urban life or what have you — I mean it literally, as in actual poems put up for everyone to read. The program that did it began in 2008, ostensibly to provide the harried citizens of Seoul with opportunities to pause and reflect amid all their underground to-ing and fro-ing. Today, theses poems have made their way up in nearly 5,000 locations in about 300 different stations.

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The selection committee assembled by this subway poetry program have tweaked it over the years, introducing such refinements as tailoring the selection of poems thematically, in each station, to the surrounding neighborhood: poems to do with to youth at the Children’s Grand Park station, China at the Daerim station (center of Seoul’s Chinese population), Japan at the Ichon station (center of its Japanese population), America, England, and Nigeria at the Itaewon station (next to the American army base, and thus a kind of English-speaking enclave), and France at the Express Bus Terminal Station (near the Seoul headquarters of various French companies and the city’s biggest French school, and thus a place where, surreally, you hear French daily spoken on the street).

In Hong Sangsoo‘s Hahaha (하하하), a floundering film director attempts to win over a girl by writing her a few lines of verse about the moment he first saw her. “Everyone writes poems,” she responds, unimpressed. “I do,” she adds, “and so does he” — the boyfriend she already has, a poet by profession. Hahaha came out at just about the same time as Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (시), the story of a small-town grandmother who decides to start writing poems in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, now one of the most acclaimed works of modern Korean cinema. People I ask for suggestions of Korean-language reading material often bring up books of poetry first.

So it seems that Koreans, in the main, don’t find poetry as marginal or even off-putting as the reputations of Americans suggest we do. In fact, I’ve heard many who know argue that the true heart of Korean literature lies less in novels, still a relatively new form here that in some ways hasn’t fully “taken,” than in short stories, and less in short stories than in poems. So it makes sense that, if Seoul wants to introduce literary moments into the long days of its commuters, it would use subway-station poetry as the tool with which to do it. (Although I could see Grenoble-style story vending machines potentially making inroads here too.)

All this nevertheless has its discontents. Some cultural critics have voiced the opinion that the poems selected, whether from poets living or dead, famous members of the canon or contest-winning everyday citizens, tend a bit too far toward the simplistic to represent the form at its best. That may be, though I have to admit that, while my command of the Korean language allows me to read them, the point where I can confidently evaluate them remains far in the future. (I can’t help but notice, however, a certain prevalence of blowing wind, blooming flowers, and things happening under moonlight.)

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Whatever their literary merits, these poems always appear on one kind of surface in the stations: their “screen doors,” glass walls between platform and track with portals that automatically open when the doors of an arriving train align with them. This at first looks like just one more technological feature that puts the safety and comfort of Seoul’s subway so far ahead of the others, but then you realize why the biggest city in South Korea, whose suicide rate floats around number one in the world (vying with the likes of Guyana and Lithuania), needed them: if they didn’t block the way, you’d see a lot more people jumping in front of the trains.

But none of this will sink too deeply in with a first-time visitor who doesn’t yet know much about Korea, whose experience will probably have more to do with absorbing the richly incomprehensible social, technological, linguistic, and graphical world around them. In that perceptual environment, the poetry and the dozens of ever-changing advertisements surrounding it — for coffee, for cellphone games, for a popular matchmaking service called Duo — merge into one intense and essentially undifferentiated visual substance. I get a little bit of that experience myself whenever I go to Japan, where my tendency to forget the Chinese characters they use there renders me a borderline illiterate.

Still, I haven’t grown so adept at Korean that I can ignore either the poetry or the advertisements around me as I wait for the train; if I don’t read them, I might lose out on the valuable opportunity to learn a new word or expression (even for something other than moonlight). When you read ad copy and poetry in the same way, you soon start to see the former as a species of the latter. This, for me, holds especially true with the latest round of industrial-sized illuminated posters for that matchmaking company, which, though I doubt I have any future as a translator of verse, have offered me plenty of chances to try my hand:

Someone who put work before love
Someone who wasn’t ready
Someone who believed they were fine alone
Someone who just liked their freedom
Get me married, Duo 

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.