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 blog.colinmarshall.org, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook @ColinMarshallEssayist.

The Adventures of Percival Lowell, Famed Astronomer and Early Writer on Korea

By Colin Marshall 

Just before moving to Korea, I took a road trip across America, from southern California to North Carolina. An early overnight stop came in Flagstaff, Arizona, a city overlooked by the Lowell Observatory, a scientific institution (and now tourist attraction) founded in 1894 by Percival Lowell, the American astronomer whose research led to the discovery of Pluto. The observatory grounds feature an exhibit about the man himself, and having a look at it I noticed the photo above, in which Lowell sits among a group of 19th-century Koreans, and below it a first edition of his book Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm: A Sketch of Korea.

It came out in 1885, just a couple of years after Lowell first went to Korea as a foreign secretary to the diplomatic Korean Special Mission. Having got the inspiration to travel to Asia from a lecture on Japan he attended in 1882, he remained there for quite some time, going on to write other such non-astronomical volumes as The Soul of the Far East in 1888, Noto: An Unexplored Corner of Japan in 1891, and Occult Japan, or the Way of the Gods in 1894. You can follow the links to download all of them for free from the Internet Archive. Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm, the first of them, also counts as the first full-length English-language personal narrative of Korea.

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It also still counts as one of the richer full-length English-language personal narratives of Korea yet published, and quite possibly as the most thorough: Lowell divides this 400-page book into chapters on everything from the country’s geography to its climate to its government to its architecture to its principles to the many hats (literally) worn by its people. All fascinating stuff, and all suitable material for a man of such wide-ranging curiosity, but some modern readers may come up against difficulties right away with the structure and style. Lowell wrote like the scientist he was, not in the English-as-a-third-language way some scientists do — I find much to admire in his prose, the occasional Victorian excess aside — in the way of someone who regards detail and precision, especially pertaining to the natural world, as ends in themselves.

Any first-hand account of Korea, and especially one written in the temperature control-challenged 19th-century, has to say something about the weather. But Lowell almost begins his book with it, having said little about the Korean people but, apparently working his way up to the social after laying as thoroughly as possible a foundation of the natural. He dives deep into the effects of the deflection of the mean annual isothermal line. Elsewhere in the book, he adds his personal experience of the weather, such as his struggles with the cold weather and with the heating systems of the day, a seemingly uncontrollable early version of the now widely used underfloor ondol (온돌) heating, too slow to heat and too hot thereafter, operated by overzealous if somewhat inattentive servants. “I was the victim of the too complete fulfillment of my own previous desires,” he writes, “for I myself had unwisely urged them to feed bountifully the flame. Then I yielded to misery. I reflected upon the exceeding vanity of human wishes.”

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Lowell tells of other old-time Korean discomforts with amusing vividness, such as the only means of long-distance travel available in a country without the wheel (“the thing remains uninvented,” he wrote): “Of the essential properties that commend any method of conveyance, speed and bodily comfort, neither, to our notions, is a conspicuous feature of the Korean palanquin.” In this and other respects, he here and there argues, Korean civilization of the 1880s hardly benefits from comparison to that of China or Japan. The same sort of observations come up in subsequent Korean travelogues by other writers in English: of the harshness of life there, the crudity (or indeed nonexistence) of the infrastructure, the colorless aesthetic of common society, the rigid hierarchies, the women shut out utterly from public life, the deep-seated superstition and indolence. “The servants were as incompetent,” he declares at one point, “as the appliances were wanting.”

But Lowell finds about as much to appreciate as he finds to gripe about, and so Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm also sets a precedent for the sympathetic Korean travelogues to follow, in which the author’s countless irritations with the place give way — or at least lose the upper hand — to a kind of admiration: sometimes grudging and often amused at points of seeming inferiority, but admiration nonetheless. And on the whole, his attitude provides an example even today’s Western observers of Asia would do well to follow: “There is among us a prevailing impression that the far East — China, Korea, and Japan — is delightfully but hopelessly odd, and that the interest attaching to these lands lies solely in this irrational oddity,” and, simply accepting this perception, “partly from want of opportunity, partly from neglect, we open the eyes, shut the brain, and think we see.” (It also helps that, unlike many writers on Korea even now, he displays an understanding of the language.)

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Lowell keeps his brain open, and as a result sees Korea with such clear eyes (in his prose as well as his photographs, a selection of which appear here) that his account holds up today in its revelation of both how much and how little has changed here in the past 130 years, a period at the beginning of which “Korea stepped as a debutante into the society of the world.” First, to the differences. Not only has Korea found out about the wheel, they’ve put up a high speed train that can deliver a modern-day Lowell from Busan, his port of entry to Japan, to Seoul in under three hours, rather than the days and days over sea and land the trip required in the 19th century. And when he got there, he certainly couldn’t make the observation, as Lowell did, that “there is not a single religious building in the whole of Seoul” — not only but most obviously because of all the Christian churches and their blazing red neon crosses that have sprung up since his day.

Only a rare Korea resident reading the book in the 21st century — or even in the second half of the 20th — could stifle their laughter as Lowell offhandedly explains that “nothing in Korea is ever done in a hurry.” Few discussions of Korean society today can avoid coming around to the so-called bballi bballi (빨리 빨리) way of doing things, which elevates hurry to the highest virtue. That sudden shift in the speed of life here, which happened alongside the sudden shift in economic growth, gets the blame for all sorts of things laid at its feet, not least the shattering of the imagined peace and quiet implied by the nickname Lowell popularized with the second part of the book’s title.

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The first part of the book’s title, though romanized in a now-outdated fashion, served to remind us that, when Lowell went to Korea, he went during the tail end of the Joseon Dynasty (조선 시대), which lasted five centuries from 1392 to 1897 and now provides the setting for the vast majority of historical films, television dramas, and novels that come out. (They pay rather less attention to the Japanese colonial period whose gears started turning thereafter.) But those modern Joseon stories tend to involve women, whereas Lowell’s Joseon experience, apart from his attendance at parties with hired geisha-like professionals and a desperate attempt to photograph a a woman who ran away, scandalized, before he could even set up his camera, leads in to declare that “in Korea woman practically does not exist.”

“Materially, physically, she is a fact,” he explains, “but mentally, morally, socially, she is a cipher.” That was not, of course true, and the segregation is over. The public spaces of Seoul, to an outsider free to roam them during the day, now feels as much like a world of women as it felt like a world of men to Lowell. The men of Korea are shut away in their offices, a sign that gender equality is still far off. In a sense, women have led the way in the cosmopolitanization of the capital as well as other cities, patronizing each new wave of cafés, restaurants, and other gathering places while the men, according to the stereotype, remain in more traditional spaces, grilling meat and draining bottle after green bottle of soju.

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Not that the women of Korea, now free to eat what and where they please, readily turn down an evening at the barbecue themselves. Lowell names as “one of the most salient of the national characteristics” an “insatiable appetite,” in thrall to which “the average Korean does not eat that he may live, but live that he may eat,” with the result that “to the average Korean, it is always meal-time.” The culture of eating remains strong still, as does the culture of smoking, a practice that Lowell found “as common in Korea as in Japan; that is, everybody smokes — all the time,” and those who don’t often have to make elaborate excuses not to partake while everyone else around them does. But Korea, more so than Japan, looks lately to have begun turning its back on cigarettes, and in that the women have also taken the lead, and by a wide margin.

The similarities, though, stick out even more than the differences. “The greater part of the steamers that ply there are not what they might be,” Lowell writes of the waters off Korea’s west coast, adding that accidents “happen at intervals.”. Disasters at sea and elsewhere, most recently in April 2014, and any other elements of Korean life people find objectionable, are often blamed on the lingering ill influence of Confucianism. Lowell describes Confucianism as something that has been “artificially, because arbitrarily, prolonged, and has long since outlived its usefulness,” especially in the form of filial piety, which he describes as “the one great moral principle of the far East. All others exist, as it were, in abeyance. Truth is unknown, honesty largely out of practice, and chastity a luxury wherever it is a fact.”

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Yet despite these complaints, Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm doesn’t read like a work written out of frustration. He hates uncomfortable palanquins and what he sees as the shiftless, constantly hungry “coolies” hired to carry them, but usually Lowell withholds judgment, and sees better. His was an undivided Korea of 12 million people, with few roads and no tall buildings; and withholding judgment yields even more insights in the high-tech, hypertrophied 25-million-strong capital of South Korea of today.

“It is a curious case of partially arrested development,” writes Lowell, assessing the state of the Korea he found, marveled at, and ultimately warmed to. “The evolution of the fundamental principles was checked, while the superficial details of civilization went on growing.” Whether those fundamental principles have changed in the past 130 years it falls to modern Koreanists to determine, but boy, did the civilization ever keep on growing. Has that subsequent development been all to the good? Has it been anywhere? Does Korea remain, if not a land of morning calm then, as Lowell put it, “a thrice happy land, indeed, where a man does not make love to his friend’s umbrella”? If you want to know what that means, well, you’ll have to read the book. Rest assured that he explains it all there, to the best of his ability — and in detail.

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

Finding Korea in Osaka

By Colin Marshall 

My friend Nick Currie, the musician, artist, and writer best known as Momus, has enjoyed a variety of roles in his career, most recently that of the Japan Times‘s Unreliable Food Critic. While he’s long engaged his own fascination with Japan in the service of his music, he only moved to the country relatively recently, about five years ago. (You can listen to a radio interview I did with him on the subject of going there at the bottom of my collection of podcasts related to Japan.) I met up with him yesterday in Osaka, his home as well as one of my favorite cities in the world — in a league with the likes of Seoul and Los Angeles — for what he calls his “prostitution and destitution” tour, an afternoon stroll through a few neighborhoods that happen to sustain those two conditions.

For all their fascination value, neither of these areas have much in the way of high eating. (Though the signs hanging outside the countless tiny, immaculately presented, and open-fronted brothels of Tobita Shinchi do present the businesses as “restaurants,” and, word on the street has it, will actually order in food from elsewhere should a thoroughly oblivious foreigner wander in hungry.) But that makes them no less fertile ground for the Unreliable Food Critic, a title the food-indifferent Nick crafted for himself that comes with a mission, stated in his debut column, to “explore back alleys where gimlet-eyed men in baggy carpenter pants glance up from enormous bowls, surprised to see a foreigner,” to “shop at garish supermarket chain Tamade,” and to “head to Osaka’s Korean district and rhapsodise about the cheap eats in the market.”

He did just that last in his second column, which found him “in the dark arcades below Osaka’s Tsuruhashi Station” chomping on an ojingeo jeon (오징어 전), “a rubbery crepe filled with spring onions and flattened seafood, and I’m able to bite the pancake from the packet as I wander around this warren of rundown arcades. You couldn’t eat okonomiyaki this way, but here, the center of Japan’s biggest Korean community — almost 120,000 people at the last count — it’s not a problem.” And so, after having passed through the prostitution and destitution, I kept walking, making my own way to Tsuruhashi for a local taste, in as many senses of the word as I could find it, of the country I came from.

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But I hadn’t come straight to Osaka from Seoul; I first spent a weekend in Tokyo, a city so vast and varied that, if you dislike it, you’re probably just doing it wrong. (The same principle holds, maybe even more so, for Los Angeles.) But as soon as I stepped off the bullet train and set foot in Osaka, I knew the second-largest city in Japan would successfully defend its title as my favorite city in Japan. While still very much a Japanese city, it has a slightly ramshackle and famously boisterous nature — powered by what Nick once called a current of “vulgar commercial energy” — and an abundance of still-present artifacts in its aesthetic environment of an earlier Japan, the Japan of the Shōwa period, and especially the Japan of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

You can find that sort of thing in Tokyo, but I sense that you have to work a little harder to do it; in Osaka, it surrounds you. One vivid illustration takes the form of two projects by Kisho Kurokawa, a famous architect who designed many of Japan’s iconic buildings of those late Shōwa decades. I first went to see the Nakagin Capsule Tower, an apartment building made of theoretically modular cubical “capsules” owners could “unplug” and replace whole, which has stood in Tokyo since 1972. Alas, this visionary structure has fallen on hard times indeed: a netting now covers it to hold in the parts that periodically fall off, some of the capsules (none ever replaced) brim with junk, others sit long since abandoned, and none of them get hot water. (You can, however, rent one on Airbnb, but not sleep in it.)

Then, when I came to Osaka, I checked into at the Kurokawa-designed Capsule Inn, the progenitor of a type of hotel the world now thinks of as quintessentially Japanese. Though only seven years newer than the Nakagin Capsule Tower, the Capsule Inn Osaka has kept in vastly better shape, surely looking on the whole not much different than it did on opening day. Granted, it’s since developed many a rough edge and absorbed decades of cigarette smoke, but it’s comfortable and very much its own kind of place that operates smoothly in its own way — all things you could say about Osaka itself.

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I did, however, sweat it a bit when I first approached the reception desk. Every foreign language-learner will know what I mean when I say that I followed along well enough when the girl working the counter began explaining to me the rules of the hotel, but then my understanding started to lose traction. Still, I kept “hai, hai, hai”-ing through it, grasping less and less as I went, though I did make out that she’d asked me for my address. I told her I live in Korea, and she gasped with surprise — it turned out she was Korean herself, as I learned after we switched, she overwhelmed with excitement and me overwhelmed with relief, to her native language. A graduate of Ewha Womans University (to which I live practically next door), she’d come to Osaka for, in her words, “just an experience.”

Back out on the streets, I heard the voices of a great many more Koreans out having experiences, each one turning my head toward the bracing splash of understanding, a presence that does its part to make Osaka my Japanese city of choice. It certainly did its part to make Los Angeles my American city of choice, something I wrote about not long ago for Boom in a piece about finding the Korea in California and the California in Korea. But I’ve found some Korea in Japan as well, my enjoyment of which I tried to convey to the lady from Busan (long Korea’s port of entry for things Japanese, for better or for worse) from whose close-quartered Tsuruhashi restaurant I ordered some bibimbap. I wanted to explain how I realized that Osaka brings, for me, some enriching measure of the spirit of improvisationally and directness I so appreciate in Korea to Japan, a country that has elevated procedure and indirectness to cultural art forms.

Instead, I just said that I like Osaka because it has a Korean feeling — a 한국 느낌. “The weather is cold,” as Nick wrote as the Unreliable Food Critic, “but not as brutally icy as it is currently on the Korean peninsula. The arcades are cleaner here, but I miss seeing colorfully dressed ajumma women (the universal Korean “aunt” figure with her tightly permed black hair and brashly clashing garment patterns) sitting on newspapers on the ground chopping vegetables, and I miss Korea’s younger population, with its louder vitality. Like the Korean cuisine here, the Zainichi (ethnic Korean residents of Japan) in Osaka seems a touch cleaned up and toned down. But they still spice up Japan.” And they keep me appreciating both countries, whichever one I find myself in.

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

Ways of Seeing Korean Plastic Surgery

By Colin Marshall 

The first morning of my first visit to Seoul, I went out looking for coffee and came back with a stereotype seemingly confirmed beyond all expectations. After I found the nearest main road and started walking down it, I soon came upon a coffee shop (as I knew even then, Korea has quite a density of them), but couldn’t bear to enter it. The second one I found had the same problem, and I walked on further still, past a third and a fourth that I avoided on similar grounds. They were all open for business, none with too big a crowd, and I certainly had enough Korean to order a coffee. So what spooked me so badly? It was their location: that is, they were all located inside plastic surgery clinics, institutions I had already learned to fear and loathe from the disapproving attitudes of countless trend pieces on Korea.

It hasn’t taken long for them to lean hard on a narrow set of tropes: the tense relationship with the North, the ultra-competitive academic culture, the robust pop music and television drama industries, and, yes, the creepy popularity of cosmetic surgery. No matter the medium, these reports usually make their way to quotes from a few Kim Jihyes on the street who blithely state their intentions to get new eyelids, a new chin, a new nose, or some combination of the three (maybe even bought as a gift by her parents, should she do well enough on her college entrance exam) in order to one day land the right job, the right man, or both. This sort of thing causes a good deal of us in the West, and especially America, to stroke our imperfect chins and lament what we see as some sort of conformist, surface-obsessed dystopia of the image.

The subject comes so laden with baggage and cliché that, on one level, I haven’t really wanted to write about it; but on another level, some of the questions I consider most interesting never really get asked. At the top of the list: what about Korean plastic surgery, exactly, bothers Westerners so much? Different Westerners have different theories. Some think it has to do with a perceived hypocrisy, in that the longer a non-Korean lives here, the more of the glories of the Korean race that non-Korean will have heard implicitly or explicitly trumpeted. So why, they sarcastically wonder, does this world-beatingly superior people so badly need the assistance of cosmetic surgeons?

Others find it bothersome to see such flagrant engagement in an activity so many in the West see as cheating; at least when Americans go in for plastic surgery, they have the decency to lie about it afterwards. Others regard the face as such an integral component of one’s identity that to casually change it seems as inhuman a choice as to casually change one’s name. (Then again, Koreans also do a surprising amount of name-changing, often casting off their “old-fashioned” given name in favor of whatever name happens to be most popular at the time; imagine the equivalent in America, where a few thousand grown Johns, Roberts, and Davids each year apply to change their name to, say, Jaden.)

Others still put forth a more controversial opinion: that Koreans use plastic surgery to make themselves look more Western, but refuse to admit it. To what extent we can consider Westernization an aesthetic goal of Korean plastic surgery has, so I’ve discovered, become something of a third rail in conversations about all this. I’ve scrolled past many a knock-down, drag-out online argument about whether Koreans have been spending all this money on lighter skin, wider-open eyes, and tapered jawlines in order to meet Western standards of beauty, or whether they do it to meet “classical Chinese” standards of beauty — a trivial distinction, to my mind, if the outcome is the same either way, but clearly not to the combatants in these elaborate debates.

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Surely we can all agree on one thing: that Korea and the United States have very different standards of appearance indeed. I first noticed signs of the chasm between the societies when I began to understand enough Korean to get a sense of what Koreans talk about when they talk about how people look: for instance, I’ve heard evaluations of the quality of skin in great detail, skin always having been something that, to my mind, you either had or you didn’t. I’ve heard much about the concept of face size — the smaller the better, according to their schema — which I’ve stopped even pretending to understand.

But the importance placed on appearance applies as much to clothing as it does to bodily characteristics. Many a Korean-American who pays a visit to the ancestral homeland returns filled with bitterness about the ceaseless nagging drawn by their style of dress, or lack thereof. I met one such lady who still seethes about how, when first she went to Korea back in the 1990s, her relatives all gave the stink eye, and worse, to her baggy jeans and Doc Martens — though she never once paused to consider whether her baggy jeans and Doc Martens may have been ugly.

When it comes to dress, I would submit that the Korean dystopia of the image doesn’t have it all wrong. Often when I think about what drove me from America, I think of the fact that, granted the freedom to dress just about any which way we like, we schlub around in hoodies and cargo shorts, a choice we make out of pure laziness but, if pressed, couch in incoherent terms of egalitarianism (or worse, self-expression, a concept which, to my delight, hasn’t yet caught on here as an absolute good), as if our slovenliness somehow put us all on an equal plane. In fact, even under those sartorially miserable conditions, the strata remain visible: witness how, in a city like Los Angeles, poor people dress in cheap sweatpants and flip-flops, whereas rich people dress in expensive sweatpants and flip-flops.

At least in Korea you see people putting in the hours, so to speak, by which I don’t mean that everyone here has somehow become a style virtuoso; far from it, especially among the older generations, whose women raise socks with sandals to the status of native garb, and whose men sport some of the most hilariously incongruous toupées I’ve seen everywhere. Words fail me to explain the preference for socked sandals, but in the case of the hairpiece-wearers, I don’t think they’re trying to fool anyone as much as they’re trying to feel as if they’ve made the effort, and be seen to have made the effort, in the manner of Americans who conspicuously work out five days a week at the gym.

Physical fitness counts as one of the qualities of self into which Americans feel little shame about plowing time and money. Another, one much more uncomfortably similar to the plastic surgery so tut-tutted about in Korea, is orthodontia. When I was growing up and even before, many if not most American kids could expect to have to go through what amounts to a years-long cosmetic surgery procedure, albeit undergone in something like a dentist’s chair. Orthodontists can justify this eloquently and fearsomely with talk of how little Jaden’s crooked teeth will surely, if left unchecked, grow into his brain by his junior year, but the fact remains that American parents will gladly shell out for it because they don’t want their kid looking like a poor.

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On a higher level, we might draw a comparison between cosmetic surgery in Korea and psychotherapy in America, in that both have at least the ostensible motive of self-improvement, and both give you something to talk about and signal your relative wealth, especially to friends of roughly equal wealth. And then they have the Sisyphean element in common: you’re never really done with either one. Just as you meet Americans who profess, not without a hint of pride, to having spend decades on the couch, you see Koreans on the street (especially in Apgujeong, the neighborhood where I searched in vain for coffee that first morning) wearing telltale bandages whose non-bandaged parts also attest to previous rounds under the knife.

We tend to think of serial plastic surgery recipients in America as falling into several looked-down-upon categories: the delusional would-be celebrity, the washed-up real celebrity, the aging society wife. Here, cosmetic procedures get advertised to everyday (if reasonably well-off everyday) people as addressing a more practical suite of concerns. The simple fact that job applicants must always attach their photograph to their resume, effectively granting preferential hiring to the most attractive from the get-go (as opposed to in an enlightened society like America, where companies have to consider everyone before they can proceed to hire the most attractive anyway), along with what some Korea observers see as a lasting influence of superstitious face-reading, constitutes reason enough to consider it.

Those eminently utilitarian considerations, of course, doesn’t make me or other Americans any less weirded out by it. The overall effect, given the prevalence of the same set of procedures all meant to produce a basically similar same set of supposedly ideal features, can look like a chilling conformity. (I still can’t get over how, when Koreans rank the beauty of the celebrities, they agree.) Still, I resist the notion of Koreans as a nation of mindless trend-following drones. The force behind all this looks to me less like conformity than resignation, a sense of, “Screw it, if changing my eyelids will get me a raise, I’ll change my eyelids” — or, for that matter, “Screw it, if working at Samsung will get me a more comfortable life, I’ll work at Samsung,” or “Screw it, if moving to Gangnam will get my kids into a slightly better school, I’ll move to Gangnam.”

But I, personally, have no more honest or cogent objection to cosmetic surgery as practiced and consumed in Korea than that I don’t particularly like the look it produces. Take this as the one man’s opinion that it is, but you need only watch older Korean movies, from the 1960s, 70s, or even 80s, to realize that people looked better, or at least more distinctive, before. Whatever people have gained with the advances in plastic surgery — and you could put a positive spin on it by calling it it the democratization of beauty, assuming you find its results beautiful — they’ve also lost something.

This pressure about looks has begun to weigh on Korean men almost as much it has on Korean women. (The hot trend piece of late: In Korea, Men Buy Cosmetics Too!) But to the extent that the men have entered the plastic surgery market later than the women, they’ve taken on that much less of a freakishly bland similarity of appearance. Korean friends, after a couple of drinks, often ask me what I think of Korean women. I always say the same thing: the regular, real-life ones present themselves with a skill few others in the world can equal, but the celebrities — well, frankly, I can’t tell them apart. Then they agree with me and we all have a good laugh, but part of me worries that Korean plastic surgery won’t have accomplished its mission until I can’t tell anybody apart at all.

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

‘Bitter, Sweet, Seoul’: a Vivid Crowdsourced Portrait of an Unromanticized City

By Colin Marshall 

Even the least well-traveled Americans have a mental image — no matter how fantastical, outdated, or simply inaccurate — of cities like London, Paris, or Tokyo. But bring up Seoul, and apart from a few of the more garish sights seen in the “Gangnam Style” video, most of my countrymen draw a complete blank. I actually lamented this just today to a lady who works for Seoul’s city government, an organization that knows all too well the Korean capital’s lack of international recognizability.

That, given the steady flow of mostly Seoul-produced Korean cultural exports, will change in time, but therein lies the multi-million-dollar question: what will form that the ready-to-hand international image we all one day have of Seoul? Or perhaps, given the money Seoul has put into self-promotion in recent years, we should call it the multi-billion-won question. Some of that money funded “Seoul, Our Movie,” a campaign that called for video clips of everyday urban life there and ultimately brought in over 11,000 of them, shot on everything from film-industry-professional cameras to cellphones by people from all around the world.

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The filmmaking brothers Park Chan-kyong and Park Chan-wook (known together as PARKing CHANce) edited and soundscaped about 150 of them into an admirably coherent hour-long movie. (You may know the latter Park brother for having directed pictures like Joint Security Area, the first Korean movie I personally every knowingly watched, the grotesque thriller turned unexpected flagship of Korean cinema Oldboy, and the more recent international collaboration Stoker.) If you’ve never been to Seoul and want at least some foundation on which to base your own mental image of the city, you could do much worse than give that hour-long movie, which appeared with the title Bitter, Sweet, Seoul (고진감래, a saying meaning “sweet after bitter” or “pleasure after pain”), a watch, which you can do free on Youtube.

The viewing experience will provide you with glimpses of a host of elements of the Seoul experience, including but not limited to mechanized parking garages, bowing robots, forests of concrete apartment towers, people compulsively taking and viewing pictures of things, journeys on various conveyances across (and down) the Han River, the aftermath of infrastructural disaster, commutes on the buses and trains, elderly street vendors, even more elderly women tasked with manual labor, deliverymen scooting to and fro, all-seeing CCTV surveillance cameras, swarming police troops, neon-illuminated crosses, traces of shamanism, amplified public proselytization, Chinese shoppers, various performers in animal costume, a girl opening her very own coffee shop, and children dancing before video screens.

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I shouldn’t imply that Seoul has no image at all in anyone’s mind; there does exist a faint, received view of the it as a gray, crowded, harshly pragmatic sort of place, a kind of Asian capitalist boomtown version of a drab Soviet capital, a city that has known only the forces of destruction and construction, an unforgiving urban grind whose people work themselves nearly to death (between bouts of misery-palliating drunkenness) that they may emigrate from it. When you talk to Koreans who did emigrate, especially if they did so between the 1960s and the 1980s, they probably remember a Seoul not terribly unlike that; as for the Korean War veterans who didn’t care if they never even heard the place’s name again, they probably remember an ever worse one — one we see in bits of grainy wartime footage included for comparison and contrast to the modern megalopolis in Bitter, Sweet, Seoul.

As the film reveals, Seoul has changed. But as it also reveals, Seoul hasn’t made a complete 180 from hardscrabble backwater to Fun City, ROK. It may never become as tourist-renowned as Paris or even Tokyo, but I consider that wholly to its credit. I’d rather not live in a city where every tenth person on the street has a Lonely Planet guidebook in hand (although you can already spot a fair few of their Chinese equivalents), or one that practically comes ready-made with landmarks in front of which to photograph oneself. Not that constant, widespread, and habitual selfie-, or selka- (셀카) taking doesn’t happen here in Seoul; there just aren’t so many canonized locations in which to do it.

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This aligns with my personal taste for unromanticized cities. Others in my favored group include Toronto, whose reputation for bland stolidity masks untold urban riches; Osaka, powered by an avowedly uncouth commercial energy that sets it vigorously apart from the rest of Japan; and indeed Los Angeles, subject though it is to more mythologizing than most cities, but whose departures from traditional city forms and sensibilities invariably color that mythology with disdain, or the perception thereof. Seoul may not boast much inherent romance, but it has the much more appealing quality — at least to me — of not needing to.

Then again, just after my conversation with that representative from City Hall, I did go right out the front of City Hall to Seoul Plaza (that popular protest site) to join my girlfriend for an afternoon of ice-skating in the rink the city sets up every year, just about as happy an urban experience as one can imagine. Some of the footage used in Bitter, Sweet, Seoul consists of interviews with men and women on the street about their feelings for the city, though few of the interviewees can put those feelings, if they admit to having any into the first place, into concrete terms. The most telling response, to my mind, comes from a young soldier who, when asked what Seoul means to him, responds, “A place where 24 hours in a day is not enough.” Putting the finishing touches on the post well after midnight at the end of a full day indeed, I think I know just what he means. 

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

Multicultural Love and Its Discontents

By Colin Marshall 

I watch television here in Seoul, but I watched even more Korean television back when I lived in Los Angeles. My girlfriend and I got satellite TV installed especially for the small bundle of Korean channels available in the States, which required the technician to bolt another satellite dish onto our balcony next to the standard one, which we never used since we never watched any channels but the Korean ones. If I did, I’d lose out on a valuable opportunity for listening practice (listening being the formidable wall so many students of the Korean language never completely scale). But soon, the entertainment value of Korean television for me matched its educational value, and I assembled a roster of favorite programs to which to tune in.

All those programs air on EBS, which stands for Educational Broadcasting System — so whatever the entertainment value I personally derived, educational value at least remained the mandate. I usually describe EBS as the Korean equivalent of PBS, an analogy that works in some respects but not others. Whereas my childhood memories of PBS after my Sesame Street years consist mostly of licensed British programming and frequent pleas for donations, EBS features a huge amount of original content (with, in my viewing experience, nary a pledge drive to interrupt it). I first got hooked on its travel shows, like the domestic Travelogue Korea (한국 기행) and the international Thematic World Tour (세계 테마 여행), which, like many EBS productions, you can watch free on their Youtube channel.

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But then I found another category of favorite show, one even more compelling because it reflected my imminent future: reality shows about foreigners living in Korea. Korean audiences seem positively unable to get enough of watching non-Koreans try to make a go of it in their society, and EBS serves that demand with at least two different programs: 한국에 산다, which means something as straightforward as They Live in Korea, and 다문화 사랑, or Multicultural Love. While they differ a little in sensibility, they share the same central question: Vietnamese wives, Canadian husbands, Indonesian civil servants, French buskers, Japanese hostel workers — how can these people possibly handle Korean life?

The shows strike a delicate balance between spreading a message of cultural understanding and acceptance and making use of what I call the “freak show” aspect still inherent to the condition of the visible foreigner in Korea. The spectacle intensifies when the subjects have married and even reproduced with Koreans, creating what gets labeled the “new Korean family,” and providing material for such episodes as “I Married a Muslim Woman” (나는 무슬림 여자와 결혼했다), “My American Son-in-Law Lives on the Upper Floor of the House” (우리 집 위층에 미국 사위가 산다), “My Wife is an Indian Princess” (내 아내는 인도 공주님), and “Canadian Dad!” (캐나다 아빠!), some of which spend a good deal of time probing the scowling disapproval (and, for the lucky ones, eventual half-pleased resignation) of the aged and conservative parents- and grandparents-in-law.

I still like watching these shows on the lives of foreigners in Korea, now that I lead the life of a foreigner in Korea myself. But that enjoyment, I admit, has taken on a spirit of competitiveness; now I listen more closely than ever to the Korean spoken on each episode, especially by its non-Korean star, in order to gauge the level of their language against my own. Do they speak worse than me? Do they speak better than me? If better, why? And if worse, what can I learn from their mistakes, which get corrected in Korean reality television’s ever-present Korean-language subtitles? (Now that I think about it, the fact that Korean subtitles regularly appear to help Korean audiences understand even other native Korean speakers tells you all you need to know about the difficulty of the language.)

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This obsessive judgment has let me to formulate a theory: in general, those who come to Korea from the developing world speak better Korean than those who come from the developed world, and women speak better Korean than men. A lady from Ghana married to a Korean man (whom the show goes out of its way to depict as an unappreciative lout) particularly impressed me, as did a Pakistani merchant at a traditional market (who has to deal with customers who haggle by intimating that they’ll report his “illegal” stall to the police). But watch enough episodes and sooner or later the very worst Korean speakers always come lumbering into the frame: white dudes. By “worst,” I don’t mean to put down these white dudes for speaking broken Korean, which I do myself; I mean to put them down for barely trying to speak Korean at all.

Some rattle off their excuses for the camera, and some end their episodes finally, at the behest of a nagging wife or a bewildered extended family, submitting to language instruction, but they all stand to me as cautionary examples. They also stand as examples of a certain kind of low-level resentment, the resentment of the comfortably marooned, that you can sense among certain long-term Westerners here: they’ve long since settled down with a Korean wife and Korean kids, but damn it, they barely meant to come here, let alone stay here. Their willful incompetence sometimes comes with strange and pitiful desires, exemplified by the words of an incidental white dude in “I Married a Beer-Crazed Man” (나는 맥주에 미친 남자와 결혼했다), a customer in bar the titular Canadian runs in Busan: “It’s so fun to find something in Korea that is very similar to San Diego” — perhaps the saddest sentence I’ve ever heard.

So if white dudes have colonized the low end of the Korean language ability spectrum, who do you find at the high end? Why, white dudes. An episode of Multicultural Love focused on one such impressive fellow, the American business consultant, columnist, and tailor shop owner Todd Sample, but other astonishingly fluent white dudes, such as Tyler Rasch, the American star of the hugely popular foreigner chat program Non-Summit (비정상 회담) invariably described by my Korean friends as speaking “better Korean than Koreans do,” have gone on to become one-man miniature media industries.

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These shows provoke all kinds of strong emotions, apart from my own psychodramatically oscillating disdain and worship of my fellow man. They also try to capture them, often in the form of explosive arguments, or at least long-simmering conflicts, between the foreigners and their Korean spouses. Violently rocky roads very much suit the Korean concept of “love,” but what about the concept of “multiculture”? The fact that whole programs exist to showcase the existence of non-Koreans in Korea both demonstrates that the country’s multicultural day will come, but also how long it still has to go before arrival.

To those who remember when Korea’s population was 99 percent rather than 98 percent ethnically Korean, the streets of Seoul now look wildly diverse. But any experienced traveler can tell you that it remains essentially homogenous, no more a multicultural land than it is an English-speaking one: that is, not trivially so, but only a little more than trivially so, and still resistant to widespread changes in the outward direction. I can’t claim to know whether to consider multicultural Korea an unambiguously positive prospect, but it does seem to me that many of the complaints non-Koreans have about life here stem not from the prejudices and dysfunctions of an insular society — though those exist — but from their own inability to communicate. Even so, they still get their fifteen minutes of fame. Korea, what a country!

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

Coffee Life in Korea

By Colin Marshall 

When last I lived in Los Angeles, I met a Korean friend for coffee every week. After a few months of doing so, I noticed that she always, without exception, ordered an Americano, so I asked why. She explained that, if she simply ordered a coffee — or keopi (커피) back in Korea, she might well wind up with something made from a powder. And so, now that I live in Korea myself, I follow the very same rule. As it happens, I already had plenty of  experience adhering to it in Mexico, another piece of that globe-spanning territory I like to call “Nescafé country.”

Older generations of the Korean population remain quite influential within their country, most notably in their unflagging support of something called dabang keopi (다방 커피), a foul mixture of instant coffee, copious amounts of sugar, and often artificial creamer named for the old-style coffee houses that first served them. But apart from the few establishments that, over the decades, have become attractions again through sheer persistence combined with an unwillingness to change their décor, most dabang have given way to what we would now call second- and third-wave coffee shops, seemingly none of which permit a spoonful of Nescafé — or such home-grown brands as Maxim or French Café — on the premises.

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Famed Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold helpfully breaks down the “waves” as follows: “The first wave of American coffee culture was probably the 19th-century surge that put Folgers on every table, and the second was the proliferation, starting in the 1960s at Peet’s and moving smartly through the Starbucks grande decaf latte, of espresso drinks and regionally labeled coffee. We are now in the third wave of coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure.” And as with most things that make it across the Pacific, Korean coffee culture has followed the same path, only much faster.

Korea’s very first Starbucks coffee shop appeared in front of Seoul’s Ewha Womans University in 1999. Since then, Seoul has risen to the rank of the most Starbucks-filled city in the world. The jokes we told each other in the States back in the 90s about crossing the street from one Starbucks into another have here become the plain reality, and then some. When I found a Korean teacher to meet for weekly lessons, he made it clear that I should find him not at the first Starbucks outside the subway station, but the next Starbucks, half a block down.

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Many writers would use this space to lament such thorough penetration of an American chain like Starbucks into a foreign country like Korea, wringing their hands over this harbinger of a fast-arriving global commercial monoculture. But in my experience, if you really want to spot the differences between one country and another — the solid differences, those not vulnerable to fad and fashion — you have only to spend an hour or two in a local Starbucks. By holding every possible element of the customer experience steady from location to location, no matter the country, Starbucks casts those things which nobody can hold steady into stark relief. But to my mind, the most important cultural difference manifests in what you see not inside the Starbucks coffee shops of Korea, but around them: more coffee shops.

How many coffee shops? “It’s beyond imagination,” said my Americano-ordering friend in Los Angeles. And indeed, the first-time visitor to Seoul looking for a cup will find themselves surrounded, not just in any neighborhood but on most every block, with a bewildering variety of options, from international chains like Starbucks and The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf to Korean chains like Tom N Toms, Hollys, A Twosome Place, Angel-in-us, Coffine Gurunaru, Café Nescafé (which may actually give you instant if you ask for it), Beansbins, Pascucci, Ediya, and Caffè Bene, that last known, due to its massive, Starbucks-outnumbering omnipresence, as “Bakwi Bene,” a nickname that puns on bakwi beolle (바퀴벌레) the Korean word for cockroach.

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And what of the “cool” places, the independent coffee shops not replicated — indeed, not replicable — across the land, the sine qua non of urban bohemia? In America, we tend to believe, about all categories of business, that you can have one or the other, that you’ve got to choose Mom and Pop or multinational corporation, the coffee house with the old couches and the open-mic nights or the green mermaid, but in Korea they all coexist cheek-by-jowl. Alongside the chains stand a seemingly infinite number of indies, each with their own slight variations in aesthetic and specialty — some with cats, some with specialized music libraries, one with a VW van parked inside — most of the ones I’ve tried genuinely appealing spots in their own right. They’ve inspired a mini-industry of not just photo-intensive blogs but glossy guidebooks, available on the travel shelves of most Korean bookstores.

While the quantity of coffee in Korea has greatly increased over the past fifteen years, so, as any Westerner who’s lived here since the 90s will eagerly tell you, has the quality. Coffee culture, and even more so coffee-shop culture, has risen to prominence in Korean life, as evidenced by the number of magazines published here wholly dedicated to drinking and brewing the stuff as well as to the environments in which one does those activities. Many Korean coffee shops also sell beer (and some, like the beverage-portmanteau-named Coffine Gurunaru, sell wine), and a fair few, even outside Paju Book City, sell reading material, or at least sell themselves as a comfortable reading environment — or as an environment for a whole range of other activities as well.

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“The coffeehouse helps manage lives,” writes Merry White in Coffee Life in Japan, a volume indispensable to someone of my particular interests. “It supports the various schedules of city dwellers, provides respite and social safety in its space, and offers refreshment and the demonstration of taste, in several senses. In its history and in its persistence, the space has shown such uses as the Japanese city welcomes or demands, and has introduced some of its own. The coffeehouse, by its very name, is about coffee, but that is the only universally defining quality — cafés are as diverse as neighborhoods, clienteles, and social changes have made them.”

As coffee has integrated itself into the fabric of Japanese cities, so it has integrated itself into the fabric of Korean ones (albeit with slightly less obsessive focus on craft and much more trendy explosiveness). Getting to know Seoul better in these first few months of living here, I’ve found myself naturally mapping it in the same way I almost automatically assemble a mental model of any city I stay in for more than a couple of weeks: by locating everything in it in relation to my favorite coffee shops.

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In Los Angeles, this meant that I thought of everything in its geographic relation to such points of reference as Paradocs in Little Ethiopia, Cafecito Organico in Silver Lake, Bricks and Scones in Larchmont, Coffee Connection in Mar Vista, Kaldi in Atwater Village, Awesome Coffee in Koreatown, or the two branches of Demitasse in Little Tokyo and Santa Monica (I moved before the third opened on mid-Wilshire). I’ve sought out equivalent centers of coffee life in Seoul not just as anchors in urban space, nor just as meeting points, nor just as sources of Americanos, but above all as places to get work done — as nodes, to get William Gibsonian about it, of my globally distributed virtual office.

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, author of “Writing in Cafés: A Personal History” here in the LARB (and, incidentally, Merry White’s son), knows what I mean: “Cafés took me through high school, college, the itinerant odd-jobs-and-graduate-school wanderings of my 20s, through the opening moves of my career as a historian,” up through today, “to write, to read, to see friends or to get away from friends, to have strong feelings and to escape strong feelings, to pursue a crush or because of loneliness, because of inertia, because of dependency. I’ve gone because I liked people, or because I was trying very hard to like people. And of course, I’ve gone for coffee itself, but it is interesting how quickly that can drop out of the reckoning.”

Though we both do writers’ work in cafés, we also approach them as “third places,” defined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg as locations that “host the regular, voluntary, informal and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work,” the sort of “places on the corner” that offer “real-life alternatives to television, easy escapes from the cabin fever of marriage and family life that do not necessitate getting into an automobile.”

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Nothing in a well-connected metropolis like Seoul would ever necessitate getting into an automobile in the first place — I often say that even if you took away everything but the subway and the coffee shops, I’d still want to live here — but something about the way Seoulites live creates an environment especially conducive to an abundance of third places. Some of it must have to do with the “beehives” in which we choose to live: not only does Seoul, like most of the major cities of Asia, lack an American-style house culture, it lacks an American-style home culture. As a result, people tend to use their apartments as little more than places to hang their hats; the city itself, in every meaningful sense, is where they live, and a healthy fraction of that living happens over cups of coffee.

Still, by no means has Korea perfected its coffee life quite yet: some chain cafés stay open 24 hours, but most of the independents don’t open until strangely late in the morning, and when you can go in, you often sit down to a soundtrack of pure K-pop, almost always played about twice as loud as you’d want to hear it even if you liked it. But I can tune that out if I concentrate hard enough on the work at hand, and I’ve more or less accommodated my schedule to theirs. I’ve even — heaven help me — started to enjoy the instant coffee that comes out of the machines installed on subway platforms. Connoisseurship varies with context, I suppose, and Seoul provides all the contexts for the enjoyment of coffee you could possibly need.

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

My Favorite Kind of Korean Podcast: The Book-Reading Show

By Colin Marshall 

Just before moving to Korea, my girlfriend and I bid farewell to the United States with two road trips, one north from Los Angeles up past the border to Vancouver and back, and another east all the way to North Carolina. As every aficionado of the Great American Road Trip Knows, not only does the journey matter more than the destination, the soundtrack matters almost as much as the journey. Historically, this has meant which radio stations you tune into as you go from one broadcast territory to another; more recently it has meant which cassettes, then CDs, and then MP3s you stack up into a personalized playlist.

Now, though, we have a convergence of the ways of listening to all these media: the podcast, which essentially lets us assemble whole personalized radio stations of our own. Podcasting has had something of a slow burn in America, taking at least a decade to make an impact on common listening habits, but in Korea it has blown up. And so our final road trips of this stint of our U.S. life found us binge-listening, as we drove past the grievance-punctuated agricultural lands of California, the Krazy Kat backdrops of Arizona and New Mexico, the vast windmill fields of the Texas panhandle, and the thick treescapes of Arkansas, to entirely Korean-language programming, the fruits of that podcasting explosion, motivated partially by a desire to prepare for our next cultural shift, and partially by my desperation to increase my vocabulary before I would really need it.

Not only did we listen to only Korean podcasts, we listened to only one kind of Korean podcasts: the book-reading show. I’ve made up that name myself, not knowing quite what to call them, but they’ve definitely made an impact on the world of Korean podcasting. The best-known example, which we marathoned all the way up and down the West Coast, is Kim Young-ha’s Time to Read a Book (김영하의 책 읽는 시간). Almost every episode in its sizable archive takes the same form: Kim, himself one of Korea’s internationally best-known writers (whom I profiled here in the LARB back in 2013), picks out a short story or part of a novel, reads it aloud, then talks anywhere from just a little to quite a bit about the chosen work and its place in his reading life.

Over the years, Kim has podcast the writings of a wide variety of his colleagues Eastern and Western, living and dead, including Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, Albert Camus, José Saramago, Mario Vargas Llosa, Paul Auster, J.M. Coetzee, Raymond Carver, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bill Bryson, Roald Dahl, Bertrand Russell, Patricia Highsmith, Yukio Mishima, Ryu Murakami, and such fellow Korean writers as Kim So-yeon, Kim Ki-taek, and Lee Ki-ho (previously seen here in my post on the Seoul Book and Culture Club). He also, on theory that the best reader of an author’s work is the author himself, occasionally reads bits and pieces of his own writing.

You can hear more of Kim Young-ha’s prose read aloud on another podcast, whose dual-language pun of a title I can only translate with difficulty, more literally as Reading Aloud or with more license as something like Read, Dream (읽어 드림). Its host Kim In-young launched it in 2013, partially in homage to Time to Read a Book, beginning with back-to-back episodes showcasing stories by Kim Young-ha. The rest of its author roster includes George Orwell, Herman Melville, Oscar Wilde, O. Henry, Alain de Botton (an even more popular figure in Korea, it turns out, than in England or America), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Haruki Murakami, whose body of work provides reading matter for many an episode.

Kim In-young’s tendency toward multi-part series concentrating on a certain writer or even a certain piece of writing counts as one of his show’s characteristics that sets it apart from its inspiration, all of which we got to know well as we listened own the length of Interstate 40. (We got to know the shampoo commercial that precedes the content of each and every episode especially well.) But last year he decided to cap off the episode count at 50, opening some space for a new book-reader to enter the Korean podcasting field.

Projects like these hybridize the podcast with another highly road trip-compatible form of modern listening: the audiobook. A Korean friend here who studies both English and Japanese makes use of regular audiobooks for language-learning purposes, listening to a novel (usually something, in either language, by that supremely translatable Haruki Murakami) in his earbuds as he goes about his day, over and over “until I almost memorize the whole thing.” That learning potential, in part, motivated me to listen to nothing but these two podcasts, which take the audio book concept and break it down into bite-size chunks with light commentary, in the run-up to my move here.

The English-language podcasting world also has shows whose authors read fiction aloud, though usually with a focus on original material or on one particular genre. The emergence of the general-interest Korean book-reading podcast reflects the rising popularity of book culture itself in Korea, a place where literature has of course always existed, but where it has only in recent decades enjoyed an increasing abundance of avenues into everyday life. Plenty of other book-oriented Korean podcasts exist (I personally like the conversation-driven Red Book Cafe (빨간 책방)), but only shows like Kim Young-ha and Kim In-young’s take me back to the pleasures of school read-aloud time — probably because they remind me of how many words I still have to learn.

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

Living the Vertical Life in Seoul

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Colin Marshall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Is Korean So Hard?

By Colin Marshall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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