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.

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

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Charles Montgomery

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

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

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KB - Robert Fouser book cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 KB - Robert Fouser interview 4

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

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

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

What’s so good about hanok?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is Korean an interesting language?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Charles Montgomery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Korea’s English Fever, or English Cancer?

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Conan Came to Korea

By Colin Marshall 

I first moved to Los Angeles not long after Conan O’Brien did, or more precisely, after he and his team resigned from the stewardship of The Tonight Show which had relocated them from New York just the year before. But it didn’t take him long to get back on television, and news of his exploits in Los Angeles swept through my Koreatown circles when his new venture, a cable show simply called Conan, aired a bit where he and Korean-American actor Steven Yeun hang out nakedly — and, for O’Brien’s part, with characteristically comedic anxiety and discomfort — in a neighborhood Korean spa. (Well, not exactly a Koreatown spa, but Wi Spa, big complex over in Westlake popular with non-Koreans. Close enough.)

And so, now that I’ve moved from Los Angeles to Korea, it only makes sense that O’Brien would follow to shoot a whole series of special segments on life in the Land of the Morning Calm. (Which does have its precedents: Conan has made a thing of location shows in places like Cuba and Armenia, and Anthony Bourdain brought his show here last year.) “A while back, I got a letter from a fan who lives in South Korea,” he says by way of introduction, showing her letter (written an exam form) and the boxful of Korean snack foods she also sent along. He decided to take this young lady up on her invitation to her homeland, “and that’s when I found out that even though my show does not air in Korea, thanks to the internet, I have some fans there,” hundreds of whom, instigator “Sunny” Lee included, turned up to greet him upon his arrival at Incheon International Airport.

The Noryangjin (in O’Brien’s no doubt deliberately clunky pronunciation, “no-ree-on-gone”) fish market, a PC game cafe, the set of a television drama, a tae kwon do demonstration, a traditional restaurant, the Bonkwangsa (“bo-gwong-sow”) Buddhist temple, the Joint Security Area at the Demilitarized Zone on the North Korea border, a K-pop video: the journey passes through many of the spots even a casual Korea-watcher might expect, Conan makes some more Korean fans, Korea gains some more of that ever-desired positive exposure in the West (and for that reason the shows’s producers must have found the country reasonably cooperative), and we all get entertained along the way.

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Even though many longer-term Western residents of Korea (as opposed to those deliriously thrilled Korean fans, whom I can’t imagine taking exception to anything here) have their complaints about the aspects of the culture to which O’Brien’s travels pay either insufficient or excessive attention, it seems like everybody benefits. The only part that strikes me as a missed opportunity strikes me as a missed opportunity in nearly all narratives of Western, and especially American, humorists abroad: the too often unresisted temptation to play the part of the bumbling metropolitan provincial, drawing buckets and buckets of material from the wells of ignorance, incomprehension, and ineptitude.

Actually, O’Brien does better on that count than many. No sooner does he arrive than he sits down for a Korean language lesson — which he quickly steers into an exploration of his Irish Catholic guilt and stern-schoolmistress fetish, but still, it’s more than Dave Barry did when he went to Japan. Dave Barry Does Japan, the book that trip produced in 1992, remains in my mind as the locus classicus of a certain kind of fish-out-of-water dissimulation practiced by the high-profile Americans who visit east Asia — most often Japan, though China has also long provided a venue for this as Korea has just begun to — and, in the name of big laffs, affect enough IQ loss to throw themselves into a state of perpetual disorientation.

For Barry in Japan, at peak performance of his middle-aged-dope-from-Florida act, this manifests most punishingly in a running gag about his supposed inability to pronounce or even remember the words “domo arigato.” The problem, for me, has less to do with the weakness of the joke than with its implausibility; you don’t get a career like Barry’s without considerable observational and verbal horsepower, even if, like him, you harness it to write about boogers. By the same token, I don’t quite buy the air of hapless distractibility put on by O’Brien, surely one of the most focused and competent men ever to sit behind a late-night talk show desk.

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Yet here and there O’Brien lets slip that he understands much more about what’s going on around him in Korea than it seems, even as he bungles, dozens of times in a row, his Korean-language lines while shooting a soap-opera cameo. It makes for an amusing reversal when in from Los Angeles flies Steven Yeun, ostensibly in his motherland to serve as O’Brien’s Virgil but immediately proven unequal to the task by their first meal together. “I mean, I’ve seen it,” he sputters in the face of the host’s mounting frustration at the inability of his “cultural ambassador” to identify the dishes in front of them. “So, it looks like… rice,” he trails off, speaking more directly to the Korean-American experience than has many an acclaimed novel on the subject.

There, O’Brien tries to eat his soup with a spoon by holding that spoon with his chopsticks — and succeeds, updating for the sushi-schooled 21st-century West a situation that, thirty years ago, would have had him throwing up his hands and struggling to spear bits of unknown and unwanted food on their tips. In away, it almost feels like a waste for such a tall, rangy, pale character, topped by what one of his writers described to me as his signature “coxcomb of hair” (in an episode of my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture, which I later took on a Korea trip of its own), to do all this today, so far past the expiration date of the Westerner in Asia’s old bull-in-a-china-shop routine to which his physique so suits him. But his comic persona of straight-faced (and even strait-laced) yet knowing freakishness, forged in the flames of 1980s irreverence and 90s irony, could only rise to such prominence in our time.

As much progress as South Korea has made toward its longed-for if vaguely defined “global” status, visible foreigners — especially those as visible as O’Brien — still stand out on the streets of Seoul. In the eyes of the locals, all of us enjoy some degree of honorary weirdo status here, which, in many cases, lets us escape whatever weirdo status we suffered back in our birthplaces. I wonder how many in O’Brien’s internet-watching Korean fan base realize that he comes off as not quite of this Earth even back in America, and I wonder how much that fan base can grow given the society’s distaste for irony, as I wrote about in a previous post on Alain de Botton, another Westerner with surprising name recognition over here. But O’Brien did go to Harvard, and as I also touched on in that post, that counts for something in Korea. Maybe everything.

(photo source: Team Coco)

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

Capturing Seoul’s Street Style: Michael Hurt’s Fashion Photography

By Colin Marshall 

Last month we featured the work of Seoul-based Korean-black American street photographer Michael Hurt here on the Korea Blog. But while those shots all capture something essential about the life of the city, most of them depict the Seoul of at least a decade ago — the equivalent, surely, of something like 25 years of change in Los Angeles. Since then, Hurt himself has also changed, going from pure street shots to a kind of hybrid of street and fashion photography, all part of a discipline of “visual sociology” that he continues to develop through his academic work. Since these two chapters of his career have produced such different images of Korea, I thought it best to give each its own post. When he posted the brand new series of shots of the subject above, I knew the time had come to put in work on this one.

“This is a young lady I met on the last night of Seoul Fashion Week,” Hurt says. “To me, this kind of picture is the quintessence of Korean life and what one could call street fashion. One reason I connect very strongly with the real lies in the fact that, when it comes to representations of Korean reality outside of Korea, there is this strong Korean desire to dress up that reality to the point that it becomes nothing more than a superficial tourism commercial. People ask me whether these images are good or bad for people outside of Korea to see or whether I’m trying to advocate something such as smoking or sexiness or some other ridiculous thing.”

And what does he say in response? “The image I am recording, especially ones such as this one of the young lady smoking, are the most truly and socially real documentary photos that one could take. And in this post-1950s, reality television-reared, ‘I Want My MTV’ generation and its Photoshop- and YouTube-enhanced media environment, nobody wants carefully censored, government-curated, 1984 -esque tourism-bureau representations of reality. If those old fogies in suits could make Korea look cool with pictures of Korean traditional dress, dance, and flowers and other shit, Korea would’ve looked cool decades ago. And that’s why I love this fucking photo.”

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Hurt explains more about his priorities in the essay “On the Inestimably Great Importance of Shooting Seoul ‘Street Fashion’ Slow and Proper”: “I came into this game as a photographer and academic doing street photography as social documentary, and then moved in the direction of documenting what women were wearing as a way of looking at changing gender role norms, the performance of gender in the Butlerian sense, and then at items of clothing specifically. So when I do what are essentially ‘environmental portraits’ that happen to take up sartorial concerns, I worry first about the background and then how that background is having a conversation with the subject. I worry about context first, the subject’s personality second, and the clothing last. And in the big picture, I am trying to capture something about Korean society beyond just the rags hanging on the subject’s body.”

In the shot above, we see “sartorial culture and trends and mediums bouncing across the decades and across the Pacific, not to mention between the high-fashion runway and the street. This is suku-jan, a Korean pronunciation of the Japanese word for Yokosuka, Japan” — a city bombed in retaliation for Pearl Harbor — “and jumper. It’s the hot ticket right now across the world’s collective street, and now that Korea is connected to the rest of the world and no longer dependent on local broadcast media to filter everything, it’s a good sign of just how far Korea has come with being connected in a global conversation, one in which Korean high-fashion runway designers are participating.”

Here we have “the very picture of fast-changing gender norms in Korea, and a more open public culture of personal identity expression. What this picture is is a living, breathing, and vibrant repudiation of the old societal line that women are women and men are men, in terms of gender roles, and never shall the boundary be blurred.” The shot hints at a “multiplicity of friendship modes, sexual identities, gender performance and identities. It’s also a great and natural middle finger in the face of the oppressive heteronormativity of South Korean culture, and in that way is extremely refreshing. It’s one reason the folks at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza during Seoul Fashion Week, cool in terms of both the sartorial and social senses, are a pleasure to be around and help me cope with life in this culture.”

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Hurt may find the heteronormativity of Korean society oppressive despite being heterosexual himself, but he also finds that, when it comes to capturing images of the boldest women’s style like the one just above, “my heterosexual male gaze enable me more than it cripples me. I’m not that concerned about the ‘fashion’ here, but the brashness of her outfit.” And that outfit “works in a very Korean way. It is veritably screaming SEX, SEX, SEX, but without doing it in the way an American sartorial message might, which would be to simply blare it out in a very literal way; the Korean way of dealing with sex is by stating its presence while also denying that’s what is being done. It maintains plausible social deniability.”

That means that “there’s not going to be any one, particular thing that gets a relatively mainstream, publicly reserved young lady like this in any pinpointable trouble,” especially one who understands that everything in her outfit “goes together in a Korean-edgy way, that it’s all cute and innocuous, even though it has a Hollywood-hooker aesthetic. No one is gonna say, ‘your socks are a bit Lolita‘ or ‘those heels are too high’ or ‘that bag makes you look cheap,’ because people aren’t working with these cultural messages that would actually get you in trouble in the FAR MORE SARTORIALLY CONSERVATIVE UNITED STATES. So I instinctively posed her in such a way that all the elements could come together and make the viewer GET what she’s doing without needing it spelled out too much.”

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And as for the image projected by this Seoulite out and about, Hurt describes it as “simply cool, and it has that confident attitude so much more typical of young Koreans these days. She is also doing what many young women do: picking and choosing freely from available style options, which is why you see such a mix of seemingly dissonant elements, such and and girly, frilly pink dresses (which this young lady was wearing) and dark, emo-esque makeup, mixed in together UNIRONICALLY” — irony being, as I’ve written before, a resource in sometimes blessedly short supply around here — and in this frame in particular, “hipster glasses with a hip-hop-influenced, swagged-out, fuzzy pink hat.”

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Hurt appreciated two things about the sensibility on display in this photo: “her youthful, beaming innocence and her jacket, which was on-trend and went with another huge fashion item, the white tennis skirt. Two birds, one stone.” And if those items strike you as oddly Western to have become so popular in Korea, I can assure you that you’re not alone. While walking the streets of Seoul, I every so often stop and think to myself, “Almost all of these thousands of people around me” — women, men, adults, children, the elderly — “are dressed just like Westerners.”

The thought sends my mind reeling, then casting around for an explanation, or at least some imagined image of what a modern Seoul in something other than Western dress would look like. But to Hurt’s mind, the very concept of “’Western’ style has no real meaning anymore, to the extent that even the Korean word for that, yangbok (양복), has come to simply mean a formal suit, as opposed to one half of a binary choice between Western versus Korean formal attire, hanbok (한복).” Interestingly, one does notice an increasing presence of hanbok-clad young women on the streets of Seoul today, though the sneakers they almost invariably wear beneath undercuts the effect somewhat.

“Certain aspects of Western fashion have become such universals that they’ve also lost meaning in an West-East binary. Take a pair of ten-centimeter stiletto heels, not uncommon on the streets of Seoul. Is that ‘Western?’ And especially since so many women wear six- to eight-centimeter heels all the time, even with hanbok, the distinction has become pointless. In the same way, I think few people in Korea see the automobile as ‘Western’ either, although it is indeed a Western invention — like the TV, the radio, or the telephone.”

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In his recent essay and photo series “Spring Sogaeting with Cherry Blossoms”, Hurt probes further the question what street fashion photography can tell us about Korean culture. “And to take this line of thinking even further, what is even particularly Korean about Korean street fashion, if it’s not all particularly Korean material, patterns, or even brands?” When world-famous street style photographer Scott Schuman, better known as The Sartorialist, came to Korea, he captured not Korean style but “an increasingly global, non-culturally specific culture of dressing well, one that is enabled by global media outlets, the ubiquity of the Internet, and the homogenization of taste. What Schuman’s much fetéd visit to Korea actually meant to many Koreans concerned with his visit was how it marked a certain kind of recognition from the White West, that Korea — the Korean fashion field, actually — had achieved the much-coveted status of the truly Global that has been both a societal and state goal.”

Touching on such historical topics as Chinese suzerainty, the retaliation of and for Pearl Harbor, shifts in the dominant language of power, the divide between black and white U.S. servicemen, “neo-colonial Kool-Aid,” anti-communism, the 1988 Olympics, and the emergence of a “global fetish,” Hurt’s piece makes an attempt at explaining why “identifying the KOREA in Korean street fashion photography is increasingly problematic.” Where, he asks, “is the local in an entity whose popularity mostly comes from its globality? Where is the specific, the Koreanness, within an aesthetic system whose very logic and language is expressed in universal terms?” All this culminates in a series of photos, taken under the cherry blossoms now coming into view all across the country, of the kind of female self-presentation he describes, in its deliberate “social innocuousness, demureness, and sheer, unabashed femininity,” as “oh, so Korean.”

Still, some of the most fascinating aesthetic developments happening now go on not deep within cultural traditions, but along cultural borderlands. Before seeing that idea expressed in Hurt’s street style photography, I hadn’t thought to look for it in women’s clothes. I do follow a fair few publications to do with men’s style, an area in which Korea has only just begun to build up momentum. Many young Korean men still look dressed, directly or indirectly, by their girlfriends, and most of those who’ve attained a respectable age go in for drab, utilitarian looks — though strangely often with the accent of brightly colored athletic shoes. (I’ll probably have to keep going Japan for my menswear magazines for the foreseeable future.)

As ever in modern Korea, in stylistic as well as other respects, the women lead the way. (Quite a leap forward for a sex who, as recently as the turn of the 20th century, could barely leave the house.) If you want to see the future of this country, look to them, and not just to what they’ve put on today. “It’s not just about the clothing and who’s wearing it,” Hurt writes. “Because fashion isn’t just about clothing; fashion is part of a larger conversation, it is a cultural text, it is about social norms and value, social structures, all in the big picture, defined as what we call culture. If you can’t see all that in a street fashion picture taken in Korea, something major is missing.” For more, have a look at his pages on Instagram and Flickr, as well as his site Deconstructing Korea, which also has a section on his students’ work in fashion sociology.

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

Why Korea Needs Alain de Botton (And Why Alain de Botton Needs Korea)

By Colin Marshall 

Cast your mind back, if you can, to the internet of the late 2000s, through which blew a fierce blizzard of Stuff White People Like copycats after copywriter Christian Lander’s satirical blog about “the Unique Taste of Millions” blew up and produced not one but two “real” books. None attained anything like Stuff White People Like’s explosive burst-of-the-blog-book-bubble success, but some of them at least cracked a few good ones in the attempt. Even the English-speaking Korean national behind Stuff Koreans Like, a short-lived blog even by these standards, made a few astute observations on his countrymen and their enthusiasm for pictures of food, the Nobel Prize, travel essay books, slapstick, “taking white people too seriously,” Harvard, and the writer Alain de Botton.

“Swiss-born English-language essayist Alain de Botton is the sum of what every Korean essay writer consciously or subconsciously aspires to be,” reads the relevant entry. “Calm and subtle prose, lightly worn erudition, even attended Harvard at one point. Alain de Botton may very well be the Perfect Modern Korean Essayist.” You can see the evidence of de Botton’s large and ever-growing appeal in this country at every major bookstore, from whose shelves dozens of images of his face look sagaciously out from little paper banners wrapped around translated editions of his many books, like Essays in Love (왜 나는 너를 사랑하는가, or “Why I Love You”), The Consolations of Philosophy (젊은 베르테르의 기쁨, or “Young Werther’s Happiness”), and Status Anxiety (불안, or simply “Anxiety”).

Just last weekend, the man himself stopped by Seoul to deliver a lecture at Korea University’s grandest hall, whose attendees snapped photos of themselves beside posters bearing his image for hours beforehand. (Though most bought their tickets early, I found some available at the door — for those who wanted to pay nearly $140 a pair.) Some had registered to attend through Korea University itself, and some through The School of Life Seoul (인생학교 서울), the local branch of the international educational organization co-founded by and closely associated with de Botton (and here run by writer-entrepreneur Mina Sohn), which offers classes on how to be creative, manage stress, relate to your family, travel like a philosopher, and face death.

These topics have, by design, great relevance to most every human being, but it seems they strike an especially resonant chord with Koreans, who by their own admission often feel as if they lead stress-filled lives amid demoralizing buildings (of the kind de Botton diagnosed in The Architecture of Happiness), racked by anxiety about status and much else besides, their relationships complicated by the remains of Confucianism and their minds clouded by the fear that it might all come to nothing in the end. Though as a foreigner I don’t feel quite so afflicted and, perhaps as a result, haven’t attended a School of Life class myself, I do appreciate de Botton’s overall project, which I’ve come to know mostly through his writing and his television documentaries.

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(source: The School of Life Seoul)

I even had the chance to express a bit of that to him directly when I interviewed him on The Marketplace of Ideas, a public radio show I did in Santa Barbara few years ago, about his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. (You can download an MP3 of it here.) Though I’d already started studying the Korean language back then, I had no idea yet of his disproportionate readership in this country, and so it surprised me when, talking to a Korean friend in Los Angeles a few years later, I heard her name The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work as one of her favorite books. Doing some follow-up research afterward, I found she wasn’t an outlier.

Still, I realize that not everyone counts themselves as fans of Alain de Botton, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Lisa Levy’s criticism of his work, The School of Life included, in the LARB‘s own pages. It astonishes me that the first School of Life opened in London, the epicenter of a culture seemingly built upon “taking the piss out of” the kind of earnest and undisguised efforts to raise oneself up that it ostensibly encourages in its clientele. When I interviewed Daniel Tudor, author of Korea: The Impossible Country, here in Seoul, he clearly articulated what he likes better about this country, however impossible it may be, than his native England: “We’ve always been a little bit cynical. We make everything into a joke. It’s socially a crime, almost, to be seen being very ambitious, or trying to be different, trying to do something new. In England, somebody will always laugh at you: ‘Why ya doin’ that? C’mon, mate.’”

But not in Korea, a country that, for one reason or another, doesn’t trade in what we in the West would call irony. According to the author of Stuff Koreans Like,  “Irony is the #1 Stuff Koreans Don’t Like,” since “Koreans tend to be bad at understanding irony and all subsets of irony (sarcasm, hypocrisy in politicians and church ministers, etc.),” hence the enduring success of Friends over here and the sinkage of Seinfeld. “This is also why Korean culture is so successful in the global arena: Korean pop music and telenovelas, neither of which are particularly rich in irony, can be easily translated and globally exported.”

I hesitate to say that Korea has nothing resembling irony, and I hesitate even more to say that Korea doesn’t have irony “yet,” as if irony must ultimately arrive everywhere as just another stage of development into modernity as inevitable as skyscrapers or convenience stores. I also understand the richness a certain degree of irony can bring to a culture’s humor — not for nothing does British comedy still count as a species apart from, and often above, the American variety — and what its forms of expression lose without it, as evidenced by all those bland Korean hit songs and interminable melodramas packaged for export. But when in the West, I find it hard to ignore the feeling that irony — the malignant kind, as a friend once put it, whose opposite isn’t gullibility but sincerity — has made real, possibly irreversible progress in eating us alive.

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(source: The School of Life Seoul)

Just as I enjoy Korea for its relative lack of irony compared to other developed countries, I enjoy Alain de Botton for his relative lack of irony compared to other living writers. (Not to say that it results in books stripped of humor; his writing in English tends to possess the kind of dry, descriptive wit that gets occasional out-loud laughs from me at surprising moments, though whether it translates effectively into Korean I can’t say.) And a reduced level of irony allows for a higher level of aspiration, a concept criminalized, inadvertently or deliberately, by ironists everywhere; de Botton’s harshest critics tend specifically to condemn this aspect of his project, which not just allows but encourages him to get people taking classes on how to make up their minds, to use works art and philosophy as tools of therapy, and to write books with titles like How Proust Can Change Your Life.

Mark Greif, looking back in the Chronicle of Higher Education at the lost America of the 1930s through the 50s in which the Partisan Review thrived, writes of that time, place, and publication’s “aspirational estimation of ‘the public.’ Aspiration in this sense isn’t altogether virtuous or noble. Nor is it grasping and commercial, as we use ‘aspirational’ now, mostly about the branding of luxury goods. It’s something like a neutral idea or expectation that you could, or should, be better than you are — and that naturally you want to be better than you are, and will spend some effort to become capable of growing — and that every worthy person does.”

When American friends ask why I wanted to move to Korea, I often give some variation on the answer that people here still regard the future as a good thing. Longtime Korea observers, well aware of the country’s economic slowdown, bitter generational conflict, low birthrate, and increasingly fearful, heavy-handed government might scoff at that notion, but I still sense on the streets of Seoul that idea, or that expectation, that everyone can, or should, be better than they are. This can manifest, of course, in a variety of unappealing ways, from the nouveau-riche Gangnam garishness so popularly lampooned by Psy to the elective cosmetic surgery industry, from cruder forms of Westernization to the tendency to regard everything (especially school and especially Harvard) as just another brand name with which to label oneself.

But maybe when I say people here still regard the future as a good thing, I just mean many still seem to operate on the notion that they themselves could be better in that future, and understand that doing so requires a certain rethinking of the way they live. “Korea is a wonderful country, but in many areas it’s a country in pain,” says de Botton in a School of Life promotional video, expanding on that in a Time Out Seoul Q&A, calling this “a society that has many of the problems (and pleasures) of the modern world where people are extremely busy, life is crowded and expensive, there is never enough time and there is a tension between tradition and the hyper modern, between loyalty to family and to oneself.” Nobody here has yet figured out a perfectly effective solution to the resulting discomforts, but at least they know it isn’t irony.

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




Three Young-ish Korean Novelists on the Plight of the Young-Ish in Korea

By Colin Marshall 

Back in December, I wrote up a Seoul Book and Culture Club event featuring four Korean writers as a spectator. This past weekend, I experienced another as a participant, and specifically as the interviewer who talked with another group of Korean writers about their stories, all recently put out by ASIA Publishers in compact dual-language editions. I highly recommend these books (and all their predecessors in ASIA’s “K-Fiction” series) as learning tools to anyone studying the Korea language at an intermediate or advanced level. I also highly recommend, should the opportunity arise after reading the books, getting up on stage and talking to their authors about them.

This time we had three writers: Chang Kangmyoung, author of Fired (알바생 자르기); Kim Min-jung, author of The World’s Most Expensive Novel (세상에서 가장 비싼 소설); and Kim Ae-ran, author of Where Would You Like to Go? (어디로 가고 싶으신가요). All three stories, so it seemed to me after reading them and considering them together, have to do with the condition of “young-ish” Koreans, those in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties who, while hardly kids, have for a variety of economic, societal, or personal reasons not quite made it to what the generation before them would have considered a full-fledged adult life. This sort of thing as provided fodder even in America for trend piece after hand-wringing trend piece, but the society of South Korea, a country that more recently came to the end of a much more dramatic period of growth, has felt it with special acuteness.

Chang Kangmyoung deals with this this most directly in Fired, which comes with its own nonfictional appendix explaining how the South Korean economy has changed with each generation. Hye-mi, a part-time front-desk worker at a mid-sized Korean company who turns up late, takes long lunches, spends hours on the internet clicking around travel and music sites, and never makes it to after-work company dinners. But rather than telling it from Hye-mi’s point of view, Chang makes a protagonist of Hye-mi’s supervisor, who at first feels sorry for her young-ish underling but then, when the aggravations built up, decides to get rid of her, running into a host of unexpected difficulties in the process.

I brought up, as the obvious comparison, Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”, another story of a young-ish character employed in an office but not performing the duties, responding to his boss’ every request with a now-household phrase: “I wound prefer not to.” But Hye-mi’s situation, Chang wasted no time pointing out, differs considerably from Bartleby’s: whereas the latter now stands as the literary personification of unwillingness, the former lives under a burden of inability, unable to commute to work quickly because she takes an old and breakdown-prone subway line from a distant satellite city, unable to get back from lunch in time because she has to use the hour to get treatment for an injured leg, unable to bring visitors refreshments because the office hasn’t provided anything with which to serve them properly.

KB - April Book Club 2

(photo: Stephane Mot)

The novelist narrator of Kim Min-jung’s The Most Expensive Novel in the World lives in outwardly dissimilar but similarly stunted circumstances, still with her parents at the age of 34, $60,000 in debt from a literature PhD, and bringing in a yearly income of nothing at all. She can appease her mother, who watches closely over her always ready with a praiseful remark about her successful investor brother, only with the sound of the printer. (This, to me, represents the mindset of many Koreans who came up during the industry-and-development-obsessed 1960s and 70s, who probably can’t rest unless they hear some sort machine working away.) But despite not having yet published a full-length novel, she can at least call herself a novelist, not so much because of her daily writing habits — which she keeps up, more or less — but because she won a prize with a previous piece of fiction, the only way Korean society will grant a novelist the title.

Prefacing the question by remarking on how many hugely popular novelists in the West have never won a prize of any kind, I asked Kim why you have to jump that hurdle in Korea before anyone will acknowledge you as a novelist at all. She explained it in terms of the different conceptions of the role of the writer in the West and Korea (or indeed Asia): whereas a writer in the West may only have to write books and maybe — probably — teach students, people also look to writers in Korea for comment, both indirect and direct, on society itself. They must, in other words, fulfill the role of qualified “public intellectual” that America has, by now, specialized almost out of existence. And people want their public intellectuals, whether in the East or West, to have attained at least a certain age.

On top of that, the limited number of validating prizes for which Korean writers can compete means that it takes longer than elsewhere to make one’s debut (especially by comparison to America, the land of “30 under 30” lists). And so the circle of “young” novelists in Korea has seemingly widened to encompass anyone under the age of fifty. This makes the likes of Chang Kangmyoung, Kim Min-jung, and Kim Ae-ran fresh-faced youngsters indeed, though with with an average age somewhere in the mid-thirties (and all looking even more youthful than that, I should note), they make for ideal representatives of Korea’s “young-ish” generation, falling between the parents who enjoyed the secure gains of a growing economy and the kids in a slowing one who work odd jobs while dreaming of emigration. (One of Chang’s earlier novels bears the title 한국이 싫어서, or Because I Disliked Korea.)

Myeongji, the protagonist of Kim Ae-ran’s Where Would You Like to Go? has attained some of the trappings of a Korean middle-class existence, such as a full-time office job, a husband, the intent to have a baby, and the beginnings of an ability to make kimchi. But alas, in the middle of her first attempt at preparing the culture’s signature fermented cabbage, she suddenly gets a call informing her that her husband, a teacher, has drowned attempting to save the life of one of his students, an event which detaches her from the life she has established and eventually sends her into a self-imposed exile in Edinburgh. And even though Kim makes no mention of a boat, a class trip, or even any deaths apart the teacher’s and the student’s, the reader’s thoughts could hardly go anywhere but straight to the sinking of the Sewol in 2014, an incident widely seen as not just the failure of the older generations’ responsibility toward the younger, but also a terrible indictment of South Korea’s claim to membership in the first world.

KB - April Book Club 1

Artifacts of Korea’s struggle to attain that status surface even in the story of Fired: when Eun-yeong, Hye-mi’s supervisor, eventually gives up trying to help and starts trying to fire what she sees as this intransigent albasaeng (알바생, a portmanteau of the words for “part-time job” and “student” that has come to signify a whole unstable quasi-caste), she comes up against a variety of labor laws — of which the seemingly unthinking Hye-mi can actually quote chapter and verse — that came into effect well after the country’s industrialization and without the knowledge of many of its employers. Hye-mi, at least for a time, proves unfireable, and she and Eun-yeong the prolonged but subtle grudge match only ends when the older woman pays off the younger one to defuse her intimated threats of a lawsuit.

Hye-mi can sue because her employers, in attempt to save money, never enrolled her in the company insurance programs — illegally, it turns out. Eun-yeong and those above her in the office, a local branch of a large German firm, know that they they must, at any cost, prevent their foreign overlords from finding out what has happened: “The Germans are really sensitive about this type of stuff. Basically, they don’t trust the Korean employees. They think that we secretly break the law and embezzle funds. And since working conditions are really important to them, they have separate supervisors for this type of stuff. That’s why to them, this is huge.”

I asked Chang about this curious co-existence between Korea’s national obsession with joining the ranks of highly developed countries and its entrenched resistance to following certain common practices of those countries. He put Germany on the long list of places he’s seen his homeland look toward and try to imitate as long as he can remember: first it was Japan, then America, then France, then Germany, and now the Scandinavian countries have come into fashion. He described Korea as less a developed country than one “being developed,” and — after clarifying repeatedly that he knew understood the controversial nature of this opinion — argued that Western-style capitalism and democracy represents the way forward not just for this country, but, adding in English after the interpreter finished translating his answer, “for all mankind.”

That may be, but as I couldn’t help adding, many visitors — even those from the countries long acknowledged as members of the first world — arrive in Seoul marveling at a level of development apparently so much higher than the one they came from. Especially to someone like me, coming from an America in a period of economic malaise and large-scale infrastructural decline, South Korea looks like the future, or at least the extreme present. On some level, I think the writers know it: Chang Kangmyoung has roots in Korea’s science-fiction community, Kim Ae-ran writes the most meaningful conversations of Where Would Like To Go? between her bereaved narrator and Siri on her iPhone, and Kim Min-jung’s The World’s Most Expensive Novel offers a vision of literature dependent on wealthy patrons and embedded advertisements. She takes it to a funny and grim extreme, but whatever shape the literature of Korea’s future takes, I trust this “young-ish” generation to write it intelligently.

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