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

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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(photo: Stephane Mot)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One of Korea’s Most Popular Cartoons Is About a Bus

By Colin Marshall 

Tayo the Little Bus is a steaming pile of garbage,” a friend of mine recently posted to Facebook. If you don’t like that show in America, I told him, try not to move to Korea, the land where Tayo comes from. I only understood his reference because I did move to Korea — and moreover to Seoul, where Tayo imagery abounds — but my friend, the father of a two-year-old, has had the phenomenon inflicted much more directly upon him. Like any production geared toward toddlers, I imagine its inherent repetitiveness, combined with the average little kid’s immunity to watching the exact same thing over and over again, soon pushes any grown-up of sound mind halfway to the asylum.

On its face, the concept of a computer-animated cartoon about a bus and his friends, mostly also buses, makes sense, especially one aimed at very young boys going through their phase (or, as the case may be, lifetime) of obsession with all things mechanical and in motion; the Thomas the Tank Engine and Cars franchises have certainly done well for themselves by tapping into that same vein. But my friend’s central objection turned out to have less to do with the show’s concept that with its English-language dubbing, specifically the teeth-achingly enthusiastic performance of the lady who plays Tayo himself.

Frankly, it surprises me that Tayo the Little Bus (꼬마버스 타요) exists in English at all. Cars tend to dominate American landscapes as well as lives, and trains, however deeply passenger rail sinks into the realm of low-budget antiquarianism, have held their place in the American imagination. But the very mention of buses, for most of my countrymen, seems only to conjure up images of uncleanliness, inconvenience, and poverty. Speed, the pinnacle of Los Angeles action cinema, struggled to get made due to its script “about a bus.” The situation has improved in recent years thanks to the revival of downtowns across the country (Los Angeles’ own being the most dramatic), but only by degrees.

Two-year-olds, though, have yet to internalize the anti-bus prejudice entrenched in America and other parts of the West (much less to perpetuate the feedback loop of low expectations that cause inadequate bus service in the first place, which then lowers expectations further, leading to even worse service), and so Tayo and friends have built up a fan following here and there all over the world. But the show remains essentially a Korean product, and one conceived, with the help of previous Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon’s office, as a way of familiarizing the children of South Korea with this tried-and-true form of public transportation.

Gwanghwamun Sketch 2014.04.06. Gwanghwamun, Seoul Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service Korea.net(www.korea.net) JEON HAN ----------------------------------------------- 광화문 스케치 광화문 차 없는 날 2014-04-06 광화문 문화체육관광부 해외문화홍보원 코리아넷 전한

(source: Korea.net)

But Tayo (whose name means, literally, “ride”) has, since he debuted in 2010 on EBS (they of Multicultural Love), has gained the most traction, as it were, in his home country. All his adventures take place on backdrops of generic Korean urban streetscapes punctuated by such highly recognizable Seoul landmarks as the Han River, Seoul Tower, and City Hall. It reminds me of the structure of Grand Theft Auto V‘s Los Santos, described by Sam Sweet as “an extremely realistic version of a Los Angeles that doesn’t actually exist,” a virtual city whose map “is familiar but its contents are condensed. The landmarks are exact but the placement is screwy.”

In 2014, the city even rolled out actual buses decorated to resemble Tayo and his compatriots (not so difficult a task, given that the designers of Tayo and his pals modeled them closely on Seoul buses in the first place). 40,000 people turned up from all over the country to take part in the event that introduced them, a day including activities meant to teach youngsters how to board a bus, pay their fare with a transit card, and press the stop-request button. Best of all, in the memorable words of Korea.net, “the children were able to get on the bus and sit in its seats, curious to see the inside of their favorite cartoon characters.”

Nikola Medimorec, at his Korean urban-development blog Kojects, foresees that, thanks to this sort of thing, “children will grow up with the impression that buses are fun. Moreover, I believe that it also has an effect on the parents. It’s probably small but I hope that if they take their child on a bus, they will see that it isn’t that bad to use public transport WITH their child,” instead of using parenthood as an excuse to start driving, standard operating procedure among even my most die-hard urbanist acquaintances in Los Angeles.

Still, I can’t imagine anyone spending even just a few days in Seoul and coming away with the impression that its population suffers from an insufficient awareness of or willingness to use public transportation. Seoul has far and away the finest subway I’ve ever used, but even then one of the city’s countless bus routes can get me to my specific destination often more comfortably and sometimes more quickly than a train. If any urban transit system can sell itself without the benefit of smiling anthropomorphism, Seoul’s can. Very few of the bus-riders here — normal people, not looking homeless or deranged or violent or any more downtrodden than the average Seoulite — started using them because a cartoon character made it seem like a good idea.

And what of the City of Angels? “I thought about the bus in Los Angeles,” says Richard, the non-driving narrator of Richard Rayner’s novel Los Angeles Without a Map. “It was the way to travel. Once I had waited for over two hours at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights Boulevard when a driver with a cowboy hat and and a drawling voice like Harrison Ford decided he was sick of his job. His solution to the problem was to stop the bus and make everyone get off.” Richard goes on to tell us of enraged aisle-prowlers, robberies by prepubescent thugs, and passing motorists shouting “Lo-sers, asshole losers!” His blonde über-Angeleno girlfriend asks if he really likes riding the bus. “It’s democratic,” he replies. She snorts, asking whether democracy arrives on time. “’Never had to wait more than five minutes,’ I lied.”

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(source: Kojects)

But that book, though as perceptive and hilarious a read as ever, came out in the late 1980s, a time when Los Angeles had no rapid transit infrastructure to speak of. “It was weird not to drive, it really was,” recalled Rayner, still unburdened by a driver’s license, when I interviewed him for a LARB podcast, “because a lot of the city was still quite empty. I was friendly with this family, and the father was a lawyer in Warren Christopher’s firm downtown. I was taking to one of the daughters, and she said, ‘Well, how do you get around?’ I said, ‘I take the bus.’ And she looked at me and said, not in any sense of irony, ‘Where do they go?’”

I sometimes wonder if Los Angeles, now that it boasts a quite usable and still-growing rail network and the status, in many ways,  of America’s transit city to watch, has achieved much more transit awareness than it had back then. When I tell people here where I moved from, they often ask if Los Angeles has a subway (one of them, a New Yorker, also asked if it has skyscrapers), and some Angelenos themselves, especially those who’ve lived there a long time, regard the existence of trains and buses in the city, let alone their viability, as more rumor than reality. Perhaps Los Angeles needs Tayo more than anywhere — or better yet, a Tayo set in a familiar environment, something like Los Santos without the rampages.

During my day-to-day life in Seoul, I still spot the faces of Tayo, Rogi, Lani, and Gani now and again, and I have only to look out my window to see a stream of similarly blue, yellow, green, and red buses flowing all day long through their dedicated lanes, running in the opposite direction to the rest of the traffic. A few months before moving here, I went to an event with New York transportation guru Janette Sadik-Khan and Los Angeles Department of Transportation general manager Seleta Reynolds. Having taken the “Rapid” 720 bus there (the ones that goes down Wilshire), I asked during the Q&A when Los Angeles, too, will finally get actual rapid buses, rather than buses for which traffic lights kind of stay green and which sometimes have their own lane during certain hours of the day unless cars also really need to go in them.

Reynolds, to her credit, acknowledged the problems, then said getting respectable rapid bus service there would require “a lot of storytelling.” I found the response frustratingly mystifying at the time — what, now we have to spin tales in exchange for basic infrastructure? — but maybe Tayo the Little Bus represents the kind of storytelling she meant. If so, Los Angeles had better start doing it soon; I when I checked back in with my friend, he reported that his young son was, already, “thankfully off his Tayo kick.”

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. If you’re in town, come to the free, bilingual Seoul Book and Culture Club event he’ll host on Saturday, April 2nd, a conversation with award-winning young Korean writers Kim Ae-ran, Chan Kangmyoung, and Kim Min-jung.

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Getting Up to Speed on the Cultural Revolution — A First Set of Suggestions

By Jeff Wasserstrom

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start and the 40th anniversary of the end of a period often known as China’s “Cultural Revolution Decade” or the “Ten Years of Chaos” (Shinian dongluan). Everything about the Cultural Revolution is up for debate, including its name (should it be called “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”?) and chronology (to some scholars, its opening moves began in 1964, for others, it concluded in 1969, and so on). Still, it makes sense to treat 2016 as a major anniversary year as far as the latter part of the Mao era (1949-1976) is concerned. The Red Guards were formed in 1966. Ten years after that, Zhou Enlai and then Mao Zedong himself died. Soon after that the “Gang of Four,” which included the Chairman’s wife Jiang Qing, fell from power. We have already begun marking the anniversaries here by running a two-part Q&A weeks ago with specialists, and we will be following this up here at the China Blog with occasional posts that flag new and old books and films of interest to those who want to get a fuller sense of the confusing events of 1966, 1976, and the years in between.

To begin this occasional series, I suggest four places where non-specialists seeking to know more about the Cultural Revolution might usefully turn. For those without a great deal of time, I flag the value of an excellent short narrative history; a lavishly illustrated book devoted to posters (a crucial artistic and propagandistic medium of the time); a poignant memoir (by a former Red Guard who now teaches in the United States); and a website with a wide array of things to read, watch, and listen to, which was created to accompany and supplement a powerful documentary film. None of the things I am flagging here are new, but perhaps posts still to come will focus on things that are coming out during this anniversary year.

The narrative history

The Cultural Revolution: A Very Short Introduction is the work of political scientist Richard Curt Kraus. Like all works in the popular Oxford University Press VSI series, this is small enough to slip into your back pocket. It is deeply informed, written in a clear and lively style, and covers an enormous amount of ground in a small number of words.

The book on art and propaganda

Picturing Power in the People’s Republic of China: The Posters of the Cultural Revolution comes with a generous set of color prints and additional black and white images taken from the University of Westminster’s important collection of Chinese visual materials. Co-edited by historian Harriet Evans, who contributes a chapter on representations of women, and cultural studies scholar Stephanie Donald, whose focus is on children in her chapter, the book includes essays by a prominent journalist (John Gittings), a leading art historian (Craig Clunas), an influential scholar of literature and drama (Chen Xiaomei), and a respected political scientist (Robert Benewick).

The autobiography

What makes Rae Yang’s Spider Eaters: A Memoir stand out to me is its candor, her discussion of issues relating to gender, and her willingness to go beyond describing the violence she witnessed or suffered to wrestle with her own complicity in disturbing actions. (First published in 1998, it was reissued with a new preface by the author in a 2013 fifteenth anniversary edition — a move reflecting its enduring popularity as a classroom text.)

The website

This site was created to accompany “Morning Sun,” a documentary directed and produced by Carma Hinton, Geremie Barmé, and Richard Gordon. A creation of The Long Bow Group — the same organization responsible for “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” a prizewinning documentary about the Tiananmen protests and June 4th Massacre of 1989 (full disclaimer: I was a central consultant to that film and an adviser on “Morning Sun” as well) — this online resource needs to be seen, or rather dipped into and played with, to be appreciated. It is special, including such things as a radio dial that can be turned to play different songs from the era, as well as materials that emphasize in direct and indirect ways that passionate fealty to Mao took on religious and indeed millenarian dimensions.

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“Moss”: a Star Korean Comic Artist’s Suspenseful Tale Brought into English by Literary Translators and Serialized Free Online

By Colin Marshall 

A young man from the city drives out to the countryside, ostensibly to set in order the affairs of his recently deceased father. But not long after he arrives in the remote village where Dad spent his final years, he decides to stay. On some level, this looks like an example of the kinds of acts of filial piety you’d see in any number of Korean stories, but the circumstances of our protagonist, a certain Ryu Haeguk, quickly get complicated. And in fact, they’d already got complicated before the story begins, what with his having somehow lost his wife, daughter, and career at his relatively early age, thus leaving him free to pursue the suspicions that arise shortly after he meets the cast of shifty-looking creeps who populate the hamlet he now calls home.

The brief prologue of Yoon Tae-ho’s comic series Moss (이끼) describes Haeguk as “fussy and compulsive, so that small misunderstandings build into major events” — such as the aforementioned total disintegration of his life in Seoul. But his attention to detail, combined with a borderline-foolish fearlessness we see demonstrated early and often in the story, puts him firmly in the tradition of the ideal mystery protagonist, unable to resist probing into the not-quite-explained until, and indeed well beyond, it gets him into trouble. Here, the process begins with one driving question: why has the village head written off his father’s sudden death, at age 67, as a case of “old age,” not bothering with and perhaps even refusing to order a routine medical examination?

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Haeguk’s increasingly dangerous investigation of his estranged father’s life, the place where it ended, and the people around whom it ended originally ran in Korean between 2008 and 2009, not as a traditional print comic but as one particularly successful example of the made-for-the-web form of comics Koreans call “webtoons.” It gained such a fan base, in fact, that it became an award-winning feature film in 2010 and did much to make Yoon’s name as one of Korea’s most famous webtoon artists. He’s more recently demonstrated his wide range with the even more popular Misaeng (미생), a webtoon satirizing in the dead-end office jobs often held by Korea’s younger generation, which went on to become a hit television series.

Only now has Moss become available in English, translated by the formidable husband-and-wife team of Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton. (I recorded a podcast interview with Bruce here in Korea in the summer of 2014.) Enthusiasts of Korean literature will almost certainly know the names of the Fultons already, given their prolificacy and astute choice of material, most recently a retranslation of Hwang Sun-won’s Dickens-scale The Moving Castle (about which more in a future Korea Blog post). Here they try their hands at one of the most popular of all current Korean storytelling forms. Should you make the trip to Seoul, take a glance at the screens of the mobile phones at which almost everyone aboard the subway will be staring; chances are you’ll see more than a few webtoons scrolling by.

Moss takes advantage of the format: each of its episodes unrolls vertically, like an actual scroll, usually landing on some sort of cliffhanger or revelation: Haeguk, and thus we, discover the village head’s shady past as a police detective, the even shadier pasts of the other inhabitants, a secret tunnel built under his father’s house, a murderous intent among those who surround him — that sort of thing. The story has drawn comparisons to the classics of Southern Gothic literature, especially those that drop a citified protagonist into a small, isolated community, set in its ways, peopled with eccentrics, and exuding a sinister vibe that deepens with every page turned.

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“Just play dumb,” Haeguk tells himself, having settled into the community as best he can after selling most of his father’s land to the developer who’s been waiting for it. “Lay low and blend. Move slow and steady, grab on and stick like moss.” His investigation determines early that there’s, “strictly speaking, not a single family unit here,” and almost no women, apart from a young-ish widow from whom he rents a room and about his attraction to whom he engages in a bout of self-loathing. Later, he pieces together that the residents haven’t all come here by chance, and the retired detective — the one who didn’t want the death of Haeguk’s father looked into — may have used his power over years and years bring everyone there one at a time, with the utmost deliberateness. But why?

I haven’t even touched on another major player, a district attorney in his own countryside exile, sent down after a tangle with Haeguk in the past. I’d tell you more about their relationship and the probable result of their inevitable man-to-man encounter in this alien setting hostile to the both of them, but I don’t yet know much about it myself. Moss‘ serialization in English, which began in January on the Huffington Post, has only reached episode 42 of 82, with a new one going up every Monday. Haeguk has cheated death a couple times already, and plenty of cliffhangers and revelations surely remain in store.

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You can read more about the process of translating a work like this in Asia Pacific Memo’s interview with the Fultons. “We saw in the story an allegory of abuse of power during the period of military dictatorship in the Republic of Korea,” they say, emphasizing that Yoon has created something much more complex than the standard everyman-in-a-eerie-small-town thriller: “Like much good fiction, and especially with works that involve political and social problems, there’s a great deal of hidden meaning.” (Sometimes these meanings proved especially hidden, so they ran their questions by Korean friends, though “they too had difficulty understanding certain areas of the story.”)

As to how Moss arrived at the Huffington Post, the Fultons talk about how the internationally-minded Korean webtoon company Rolling Story took it and about two dozen other series in translation and pitched them together as a serialization package. The site accepted six of them, including, of course, the Fultons’ translation of Moss. I’ll admit that, unfailingly aggravated by its glitchy and distraction-intensive design (not to mention their pay practices), I’ve long instinctively avoided the Huffington Post. Even with webtoons it can’t get the interface quite right, a particularly bothersome example being how the navigator to click to the next episode sometimes appears and sometimes doesn’t. A far cry indeed from the advanced webtoon infrastructure of the Korean web, but I’ll deal with it; now, just like Haeguk himself, I’ve simply got to know what killed his father and why, no matter the obstacles that lie in my path.

Get started reading Moss, translated into English by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton, from the first episode here at the Huffington Post.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. If you’re in town, come to the free, bilingual Seoul Book and Culture Club event he’ll host on Saturday, April 2nd, a conversation with award-winning young Korean writers Kim Ae-ran, Chan Kangmyoung, and Kim Min-jung.

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Finding Home in an Arabic Class in Israel

By Joanna Chen

I’m sitting in my studio at The Virginia Center for The Creative Arts in Amherst, writing about Jaffa, Israel, where I recently took a course in Arabic. It’s part of a memoir set mostly in Israel, where I now live. A text message pops up on my cell phone from my daughter, Jasmine. I’m OK, don’t worry, the message says. I’m immediately worried.  I check the wires and discover there have been three attacks in Israel today. One was in Jaffa, I learn.

With horror I watch a video on my laptop of a man running down a familiar street just off Jaffa, close to the promenade.  He’s stabbed a number of people, including an American tourist who later dies of his wounds. Someone, probably a bystander, is screaming in Hebrew: “Give it to him, give it to him.” I imagine the face attached to this voice, and I shudder. Pools of blood gather on the sidewalk, and the perpetrator, a Palestinian in his 20s, is bludgeoned and then shot dead near a fish restaurant on the beach front where I have eaten many times with my family on calmer days.

Back in January, when I told friends I was starting an Arabic course, eyebrows were raised. There had been a spate of violence around Israel and a renewed atmosphere of mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians had flared up. I began the course.

Perhaps this was the reason why there was plenty of parking the day I arrived in Jaffa for the first class. The flea market, where the course took place, was eerily empty for a Friday morning. Storekeepers were setting out their wares: Formica-topped tables from the 70s, incomplete sets of silverware, rocking chairs with flowery cushions and painted armrests. The corner coffee shop was empty. A barista stood at the counter, watching the street.

A feeling of dread filled the air as I walked toward the studio, nestled in a side-street of the market.  Our teacher, a jolly woman named Sahar, laughed nervously. “The easy parking is the upside of what has been a horrible week,” she says in Hebrew, her eyes twinkling, panning her new students. That particular week really was horrible, with a spate of knifings carried out by Palestinians in their teens. They were shot on the spot by Israeli security personnel. An innocent Eritrean man was lynched by a seething mob in the central bus station of Beersheba after a shooting attack.

I sat down on a stiff-backed chair with the other participants. There was labaneh and pitta bread and little cookies set out on the table beside us, an offering of goodwill from Elbahar, the NGO that offers this course as a way of both reaching out to Israeli Jews and raising money for small businesses run by the women of Jaffa. The door to the studio was open, and Sahar asked if we’d feel safer if the door was locked. Without waiting for an answer, she crossed over the room and locked it.

Jaffa is one of the few areas in Israel where Arabs and Jews live together. Parts of it, like the flea market, feel like fragile oases of peace in a country where peace hovers but never seems to land. Yet this fact is deceptive. In 1948, many of the Arab population fled in boats to Gaza, never to see their homes again.

Today, much of Jaffa is undergoing gentrification and the remaining Arab residents are making way for yuppie Jewish families. So, if you can afford the rocketing price of realty there, it might be hip to live in Jaffa, it might be cool to retain the softly arching windows and the original floor mosaics as you renovate the crumbling structure of a house that overlooks the Mediterranean, but let’s at least acknowledge the underlying social and political map of this area.

Arabic is spoken by almost 25 percent of the Israeli population; Hebrew reigns supreme.  Some months ago, a member of the Israeli parliament tried to pass a bill degrading the status of Arabic to a “special” language. That was when I decided it was about time I sit down and learn Arabic systematically.

While working as a foreign journalist, I picked up a sprinkling of Arabic, enough to show willing, to say please and thank you, but little more than that. I also learnt the word for journalist, sahafiyeh, a word I used at check points when entering and exiting the West Bank. When Sahar begins by asking us what our professions are, I raise my hand confidently and say: Ana sahafiyeh. The truth is, I’m not really a journalist anymore, but I didn’t know the word for writer or translator. I knew to say marhabah when entering a Palestinian house and could hold a very simple conversation. Beyond that, I was lost without an interpreter by my side. Now, in Jaffa, was my chance to learn those words.

We laughed a lot in that first class. There was a film producer, three lawyers, a retired scientist, a young woman who works for Oxfam and another who works in high-tech. There was also a woman rabbi, but Sahar explained there is no word for that in Arabic. It simply doesn’t exist.

One of the first questions Sahar taught us was Wen inte saken? Where do you live? A question that has always been difficult for me to answer. I was born in England but have lived in the Middle East for more than thirty years. I moved to Israel as a teenager, a move orchestrated by my parents that I have struggled with for years. It’s also a question that resonates for many here in Israel, a country that was founded by immigrants fleeing their motherlands but today largely resents new immigrants.

Almost all Arabic names (and Hebrew ones too) have a meaning. Sahar, for example, means dawn.  Our teacher explained that there are three different  words in Arabic for dawn: sahar, meaning a few minutes before dawn; fajer, meaning a few minutes before lights breaks on the horizon, and duha, a little after the sun rises in the sky.  I turn these subtle interpretations over in my mind and think of Nasser Rabah, a poet in Gaza who I met on Facebook a year and a half ago, as Israel was bombing his city. I have translated some of his poems with the help of a friend from DC. Rabbah’s words are important and brave. I want to understand them, I want to hear his voice.

Once a week for 12 weeks, we learned how to string simple sentences together, hesitantly at first, then more confidently as the weeks went by.  During the break at noon, the call to prayer from nearby mosques would ring out through the market at the same time as the Jewish population prepared for the Sabbath, buying challah and other items at one of the nearby grocery stores.

At each class, Sahar wrote conjugations on a blackboard propped up on a plastic chair, then erased the words and wrote more. She wrote in Hebrew script, using the “nikudut’ system of diacritical signs to represent vowels.  I found myself taking notes in English, writing the words with English letters and then, in a weird twist, copying the Hebrew dots and dashes underneath the English letters.

We learned the lilting songs of Fairuz from Lebanon, expressing the yearning for a home that has been taken away, and there were numerous love songs, mostly sung by men. Some of the songs sounded like Zionist pioneer songs, with rousing choruses; others reminded me of Red Army Choir music, with heavily orchestrated sections. We listened to Egyptian singer Dalida’s Helwa Ya Baladi, in which she sings of “memories of the past, remember my beautiful homeland?” and I think back today on my own homeland, which will always be England.

In one of the final classes, someone brought a song by a Jewish singer whose family came from Morocco. Although sung in Arabic, it had a note of familiarity, a Hebrew flavour I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps it was the Hebrew intonation. After class, I listened again while waiting for the bus back to my daughter’s apartment in North Tel Aviv. Then I listened to a song in Arabic and Hebrew, Layla Layla, sung by a Bedouin singer, produced by an Israeli with Arabic roots, and I liked that too.

I sat on the bus as it weaved through the seedy neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv. I looked at the Arabs and Jews, my fellow travellers, clutching shopping bags, staring out of the windows. On journeys like these, I occasionally catch words of Arabic I learnt back in that class, mundane words that take on new meaning as I turn them over in my mind. Amal, hope, dayman, always. Bet, home. My home, bayti. It’s almost the same for Hebrew as it is for Arabic. Surely that means something.

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The Unbearable Preposterousness of Westernization: Park Kwang-su’s “Chil-su and Man-su” (1988)

By Colin Marshall 

This is one in a series of essays on important pieces of Korean cinema freely available on the Korean Film Archive’s Youtube channel. You can watch this month’s movie here. Last month’s movie was Kim Soo-yong’s Night Journey (1975).

Chil-su and Man-su (칠수와 만수) opens with an air raid drill, a regular occurrence in the life of postwar Seoul even after the country turned from military dictatorship to ostensible democracy in 1987. The movie came out the following year, when modern South Korea made its debut on the world stage by hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics. Korea-inexperienced Westerners who came to watch the games, especially Americans primed by episodes of M*A*S*H, found, by most accounts, a more developed, more orderly, and — why mince words — more Westernized country than they’d expected. But even those who left having bought the narrative of the phoenix risen from the ashes could glimpse another story playing out on the margins of the scene, that of those barely touched, let alone elevated, by the economic Miracle on the Han River.

Park Kwang-su took two of the players in that other story and made them the title characters of his directorial debut. Chil-su, a 22-year-old dreamer employed as a theater movie-poster painter (very much a developing-world industry, though one still just barely alive in the late 1980s), quits his job in a fit of righteous rage against his stingy, hostile boss, declaring that he shouldn’t have to take his abuse in a democratic nation. Even more strapped for cash than usual and eager to woo a girl for whom he’s fallen after spotting her working at Burger King, he talks his way into a partnership with Man-su, an older sign-painter who at first treats him dismissively but to whom he nevertheless looks up.

And so, on one level, we have a comedy of two working-class guys trying to make it in the big city, but with an undercurrent of darkness that deepens as the story plays out. The jovial Chil-su lies compulsively: he tells everyone who will listen of his wholly fabricated plan to emigrate to Miami Beach and join his nonexistent brother and lets the object of his affection, whom he sketches at work while nursing a single Coca-Cola, believe that he attends art school. He does have a sister, but she vanished after their father threw her out of the house for consorting with American soldiers. The father himself remains in the family hometown, remarried after the death of Chil-su’s mother and slowly, bitterly pickling himself in soju.

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Man-su, too, has gone in for a similar regimen of self-medication, drinking away days and nights without work. His own father has spent 27 years and counting in jail, a communist sympathizer incarcerated by a state driven nearly to insanity by its own anti-communist paranoia. Though without any communist leanings himself, Man-su had his application for a passport denied, and thus his own ambitions to go abroad thwarted, due to the perceived sins of the father. And so, despite his education, he must eke out a living painting advertisements for the new goods he can’t afford to buy and the high-rises he can’t afford to live in, retreating at night to the local roadside tent pub for some cheap liquor and maybe a drunken brawl or two.

This all might seem punishingly grim if not for the sharpness of the film’s satire. Some of these satirical moments target the inequality the film presents as having deepened with Korea’s development. But the funniest moments of satire lampoon the country’s concurrent Westernization, and to certain generations of South Koreans, only one Western country matters: the United States of America. Hence not just Man-su’s groundless boasting about his imminent departure for Miami, but his attire: he first appears clad entirely in denim, and later — lest that outfit look only ambiguously American — in a shirt made out of the Stars and Stripes.

Some of this act Chil-su puts on purely to impress the cashier he loves, employed as she is in an American fast-food business transplanted into Korean soil, and possessed of a name, Jin-ah, that sounds as Western as it does Korean. When he finally lands a coffee date with her, she has to cut it short to make it to her class at an English-language academy, at which point seemingly random Koreanized English words begin to litter their dialogue. The next day Chil-su rings Jin-ah up to ask for from a construction-site phone booth, reading his English lines phonetically off a notecard: “How are you, hm? This is Chil-su Jang! I’m telephone you in the campus. You know? Here. And I wanna see you tomorrow again, okay?”

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Their second date takes them to the movies — not, of course, to see a Korean film, but an American one, and not just any American film, but the ultrapatriotic Rocky IV. Watching Chil-su try to get his arm around Jin-ah during James Brown’s extravagant ringside performance of “Living in America”, I began to understand why North Korea refers to this part of the peninsula not as the South Korean side of the border but the American side. That’s not to say that, in Chil-su and Man-su‘s Korea, other countries — that is, other rich Western countries — don’t also merit imitation. In order to shore up his supposed identity as an art-school student, Chil-su arranges to take Jin-ah to an art gallery and “bump into” Mansu, posing with a pipe and beret as one of his former upperclassmen, just back from years in Paris becoming a famous painter.

That night, Chil-su, Man-su, Jin-ah, and one of her school friends end up at a club whose sound system pumps out, naturally, nothing but English-language pop music (including but not limited to Rick Astley’s immortal “Never Gonna Give You Up”). Man-su, deep in the cups and miserable in his pseudo-Parisian getup, stays seated when Chil-su and the girls hit the dance floor, and upon their return demands a bottle of soju. Embarrassed by this rustic choice of beverage, Chil-su tries to explain it away as the effect of not having had soju while abroad, but then Jin-ah’s friend suggests, instead, some “euiseuki on deo rak” — whisky on the rocks. This infuriates Man-su, who, dragged out of the club by Chil-su, delivers the saddest line of the movie: a plea to go out for soju and sea snails when they get outside.

Chil-su and Man-su‘s famous final scene plays out high atop a building in Gangnam, Seoul’s wealthy southern half that suddenly went vertical in the 1970s, where our boys have just finished painting an enormous rooftop ad for, yes, whisky — and a whisky promoted with the image of a bikini’d blonde at that, emblazoned with the English words “Drinking less? Then drink better.” (The point, the executive commissioning the job says, is to be sexy, shoehorning in not just the English word for sexy but point as well.) Fed up with their lot in life, Chil-su and Man-su launch into a final catharsis by standing atop the sign and shouting denunciations of Korea’s wealthy, educated, and privileged at the countless freshly built tower blocks of Gangnam below.

Their harangue draws a traffic-stopping crowd. Unable to make out their words, onlookers assume the two are either putting on some sort of labor-related protest or about to leap to their deaths. Someone mistakes their after-work bottle of soju for a molotov cocktail, and before long the police, fire department, news crews, and even army have shown up. A bullhorn-wielding negotiator asks why they’ve given up on life, why they’ve disrupted society, and what their employers have done to cause this behavior, but Chilsu and Mansu, as ever, can’t make themselves heard.

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The Korea-based American film critic Darcy Paquet calls Chil-su and Man-su “the first film that really did step in after the relaxation of censorship and make a political point. It’s somewhat indirectly stated. Westerners watching the film will not be shocked by its radicalism, but within the context of its time, it was a film that stood out.” He teaches this final sequence to his students of Korean cinema history, pointing out how it captures the ironies of the immediate post-dictatorship years, when “the working class tries to express itself, but there’s such a huge gap between them and the rest of society that misunderstandings are inevitable and conflict results.”

And though “certain aspects of Korea have changed quite a bit, other aspects have not. In many ways, the film industry has abandoned this type of filmmaking, but outside, there’s still a lot in today’s Korea that resonates quite strongly with what you see in that film.” Sometimes, despite the dramatic changes since then, I do feel as if I’m living in Chil-su and Man-su‘s Korea. Some of it has to do with the movie’s indictment of internal class issues; as I make my way past the circles of middle-aged drunks gathered on the concrete outside Seoul Station, some noisily airing their grievances and others simply passed out, I do wonder how many were the real Chil-sus and Man-sus of thirty years ago.

But most of it has to do with the movie’s indictment of a society so bent on development itself that it can’t spare a moment to think about know which way to develop, and so has often fallen back on embarrassingly direct replication of whichever countries it sees as more advanced. This manifests most humorously in Chil-su’s American flag shirt, Man-su’s pipe and beret, and Jina’s Burger King visor, but all the jeans, hooded sweatshirts, and Western business suits worn in the other scenes make just the same point, bringing to mind the questions I always have about the assumed “English” names with which Koreans introduce themselves to me with dispiriting frequency (and which they often have trouble pronouncing themselves): what on Earth does this have to do with you you are? What does it have to do with where you come from? Or does it only matter where it looks like you’re going? 

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. If you’re in town, come to the free, bilingual Seoul Book and Culture Club event he’ll host on Saturday, April 2nd, a conversation with award-winning young Korean writers Kim Ae-ran, Chan Kangmyoung, and Kim Min-jung.

Yulin Rd, Yangpu

“Wallpaper: The Shanghai Collection” — A Q&A with James Bollen

By Anne Witchard

The title of James H. Bollen’s new book — Wallpaper: The Shanghai Collection — makes an ironic gesture towards the materialism and consumerism that drives the ongoing destruction of Shanghai’s domestic heritage. This collection of wallpapers is available only as torn remnants clinging to half-demolished walls. The conceptual framework of this project could not be more apt. The images are grouped according to quotations from the essays of William Morris, genius both of wallpaper design and of a bygone socialist optimism. The peeling layers of bulldozed homes reveal the declining fortunes of successive generations of Shanghai’s shikumen tenants. Where once papers from Morris & Co. might indeed have graced these walls, the touching reminders of more recent adornment — Western Christmas decorations, movie posters, girlie calendars or children’s scribbles — seen through Bollen’s lens, are an arresting comment on history, architecture, and aesthetics in the context of contemporary Chinese aspiration.

ANNE WITCHARD: Can you tell us how you first made the connection between what you were seeing in Shanghai and what William Morris was thinking about in the 1890s?

JAMES BOLLEN: As I’ve written in the foreword to the book, seeing the V&A’s Aestheticism: The Cult of Beauty 1860-1900 exhibition in 2011 set me off thinking about the connections between the abandoned decorations of derelict Shanghai housing and the subjects William Morris discussed in his lectures published in Hopes and Fears for Art (1882).

You take a total of ten quotations from Morris’s Hopes and Fears for Art — can you tell us how you chose to group the images according to the quotes?

The photographs are like a visual echo of the main subjects Morris talked extensively about in his lectures, namely aesthetics, architecture, history, and art. My book begins with his ideas about aesthetics and one of his most famous sayings: “Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Following that are Morris’s views on architecture and history. Many of the interiors of the homes I photographed were in Shanghai’s less wealthy areas. Others, particularly the ones with wallpaper, were in the city’s more prosperous ones downtown. I feel that Morris would recognize their destruction in some cases as being the result of what he called “profit mongering.” The final group is tied to the previous subjects and Morris’s ideas about and views on art. In his biography, E.P. Thompson wrote that Morris stated the “death of all art” was preferable to its survival among an elite.

Could you say a few words about these three images that are grouped under “Modern civilisation is on the road to trample out all the beauty of life”?

Xuejia St, Huangpu

Xuejia St, Huangpu

Xuejia Road, Huangpu District 2011 (p. 42)

Lufeng Rd, Zhabei

Lufeng Rd, Zhabei

Lufeng Road, Zhabei District 2010 (p. 43)

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Gongping Road, Hongkou 2010 (p. 45)

The timber of the housing on page 42 would have been stripped away, and so the nude woman on page 43 is a play on that. I found quite a few Christmas decorations, though given that Shanghai is mainland China’s most international city this isn’t really surprising. This one of a pair of Bambi lookalikes pulling Santa on his sleigh is by far the most imaginative.

The book’s central section is of eleven consecutive images under this quotation from “Art Under Plutocracy”: “So long as the system of competition in the production and exchange of the means of life goes on, the degradation of the arts will go on; and if that system is to last forever, then art is doomed, and will surely die; that is to say civilisation will die.” Can you say something about this selection?

In this section the photos sequence the process of demolition in Shanghai. The newspaper (p. 58) is a stand-in for the eviction notices pasted outside people’s homes when they are slated for demolition. The red painted character for “to be demolished” (p. 59) is also painted outside them.

Kunming Road, Yangpu

Kunming Road, Yangpu

Kunming Road, Yangpu District 2011 (p. 58)

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Huimin Road, Yangpu District 2011 (p. 59)

The following photos (pps. 60-63, 65) refer to the various tactics used to drive people from their homes. One is to smash in their roofs and windows (which I discuss in the book’s introduction) resulting in water damage, eventually condemning the buildings as uninhabitable.

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Qufu Road, Zhabei District 2014 (p. 60)

Hejian Rd, Yangpu

Hejian Rd, Yangpu

Hejian Road, Yangpu District 2011 (p. 61)

image8

Fuxing Middle Road, Huangpu District 2013 (p. 62)

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Shunchang Road, Huangpu District 2011 (p.63)

Moganshan Rd, Puxi

Moganshan Rd, Puxi

Moganshan Road, Putuo District 2010 (p. 65)

Also mentioned in the introduction is that these homes have everything of any value stripped from them — in the case of page 67, the copper from the electric wiring and plastic from the socket.

Yulin Rd, Yangpu

Yulin Rd, Yangpu

Yulin Road, Yangpu District 2011 (p. 67)

The disturbing looking drawings of faces on page 68 to me symbolize those people who resist having their homes demolished.

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Miezhu Road, Huangpu District 2011 (p. 68)

 

The missing face of the baby twin on page 69 refers to their forced removal.

Ruihong Rd, Hongkou

Ruihong Rd, Hongkou

Ruihong Road, Hongkou District 2010 (p. 69)

The image on page 71 is the final destruction of the housing itself.

Xujiazhai Rd, Zhabei

Xujiazhai Rd, Zhabei

Xujiazhai Road, Zhabei District 2010 (p. 71)

It’s now more than 100 years since William Morris argued capitalism will end up destroying civilization, which brings me to the final quotation in the book: “The past is not dead, but is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make” (William Morris’s Preface to Mediaevel Lore (1905) by Robert Steele). We should pay attention to Morris’s assertion that the past, and with it his views and ideas, is not dead. After all so much of what he said and wrote is still relevant and rings true today, and the main reason why I have put his words together with the book’s photographs.

Finally — how might you explain the undoubted aesthetic appeal of urban demolition and decay?

I think it’s a combination of how surreal derelict structures look, particularly when surrounded by new developments, and their history. It’s emotional to think of “all the generations… that have passed through” buildings in a state of demolition and decay. And they are symbols of mortality — we like them will one day disappear. While quite gloomy to contemplate it’s interesting that these buildings share the same cycle of birth, life, and death as the people who lived in them.

James H. Bollen is a British photographer and author based in Shanghai.

Anne Witchard is Senior Lecturer in English, Linguistics and Cultural Studies at the University of Westminster, London

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Reading Calvin and Hobbes in Korea

By Colin Marshall 

The Sunday funny pages may now seem, even by current print standards, like the blandest, most marginal cultural forum imaginable, but they’ll always feature prominently in my own life story as the place I learned to read. Each week, I’d go from the basic, often slapsticky, sometimes entirely nonlinguistic humor of Garfield to the more artistically, emotionally, and verbally advanced likes of Peanuts to — if I could put in the time — the forbidding heights of Doonesbury and Zippy, with their detailed images and wordy mixtures of irony and earnestness, or the often mystifying, rarely attempted “serious” comics like Mary Worth and Apartment 3-G. Each week, I grasped a little more of their stories, their messages, their jokes.

In adulthood, I’ve come around to rediscover the delight of learning to read English in learning foreign languages. It has something to do with the immediate and perceptible (or at least theoretically immediate and perceptible) return on effort: learn a little more of a language, and you can then and there have that much more of a conversation, watch that much more of a movie, read that much more of a book, navigate that much more of a new environment. Since we learn our native languages in some sense unconsciously, without much in the way of deliberate effort, I didn’t get any particular charge — not that I remember, anyway — from learning to speak English. But later, when I opened up the comics each and every Sunday while learning to read English, a deliberate project indeed, I could feel both the rich satisfaction of making progress and the equally rich frustration of sometimes making less progress than I’d expected to.

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And so it’s gone with the work of mastering Korean, though since I live in Korea, the evaluation comes not once a week but every day, unavoidably, over and over again. Still, it occurred to me somewhere along the way that I could again use comics as a learning tool much as I used them over a quarter-century ago. On my first visit to Seoul, having come across a bursting-at-the-seams basement secondhand bookstore not only still open at almost midnight but manned by an eccentric owner who served us instant coffee (all of which, by itself, probably sold me on Korea as a place to live), I had good reason to snap up the book of Calvin and Hobbes strips translated into Korean I found wedged into the middle of one of the countless floor-to-ceiling piles.

Calvin and Hobbes, unquestionably my favorite strip in the newspaper, always stood way out from the rest of the page. But I doubt I need to sell anyone, especially any American of my own generation, on the merits of Bill Watterson’s game-raising vision of an imaginative six-year-old boy and his tiger, which ran from 1985 to 1995; I understand there even exists a documentary consisting, in large part, of my fellow Millennials talking about how much the strip meant to them. As time goes by, I’ve found ever more to appreciate in this possibly last great newspaper strip, though back before I’d even reached its protagonist’s age, I sensed that I also had much to learn from it, linguistically and otherwise.

Before long, my reading skills reached the point where I could spend hours with the Calvin and Hobbes collections I put on every birthday and Christmas list, pausing only occasionally to look up Calvin’s more incongruously advanced words or cultural references. “Calvin’s vocabulary puzzles some readers,” his creator once wrote, “but Calvin has never been a literal six-year-old.” (“Besides,” he added, “I like Calvin’s ability to precisely articulate stupid ideas.”) I eventually got the idea that, if I followed Calvin’s example in that respect, I could gin up the illusion of intelligence in the company of other kids and grown-ups alike. I don’t recommend that strategy; having successfully faked my way into the role of Smart Kid, I spent the rest of childhood and adolescence avoiding any task, intellectual or otherwise, difficult enough to potentially strip me of the title.

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Figuring my patchy Korean vocabulary could use a touch of the incongruously advanced, I opened this Calvin and Hobbes Comic Reader (캘빈과 홉스 만화 일기), a collection of strips translated into Korean and published in 1994 as part of a series geared toward young students. Though it came out late in the life of Calvin and Hobbes itself, the book includes mostly early episodes from the first few years of its run, few of them based on preposterously elaborate rhetoric, many based on simple mischief: Calvin playing the cymbals in bed; Calvin left alone for the evening and immediately ordering forbidden pizza and watching forbidden horror movies; Calvin trying to shorten his bath time by sitting inside the toilet bowl, flushing, and spinning round and round.

In one strip, Calvin, always keen to earn a nickel, asks his mom for an advance in his allowance, whether any outstanding war bonds might bear his name, and so on. Coming up dry on every count, he finally asks whether he could have some soap, to which his mom replies that he can have as much as he wants. In the last panel, we see him sitting outside, at a folding table beside the family car, on whose windshield he has written — in soap — “4 SALE CHEEP!” Or that’s what we see in the original American strip, anyway; the Korean one inexplicably changes the words to “SOAP FOR SALE.”

To the Korean-learning Calvin and Hobbes fan — especially to one like me, who spent a sizable chunk of his formative years reading and re-reading, and thus inadvertently committing to memory, the original strips — these alterations of content at once disappoint and fascinate. Sometimes they come from the translator’s apparent misunderstanding of the source of humor in the original, as in the Korean version of a particular favorite of mine, the one where we first see Calvin happily hammering nails into the coffee table; then Calvin’s screaming mom, rushing over to ask what he’s doing; then Calvin, after a moment of blank reflection at his handiwork, asking, “Is this some sort of a trick question or what?” In Korean, he just says, “Guess, mom” (“엄마가 알아맞혀 보세요”).

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Stranger still, on the facing page from each strip in the Calvin and Hobbes Comic Reader appear a few explanatory paragraphs, not just retelling the story of the strip across from it but making up framing events before and after it as well, all purely speculative and well outside Calvin and Hobbes canon. The text for the coffee-table episode even describes Calvin as diligently hammering the nails in the shape of the Big Dipper. Several of the strips about Calvin’s never-ending campaign to gross out Susie, his classmate as well as the girl next door, become, in their accompanying texts, chapters in the saga of Calvin’s heart-pounding crush on her. (One of them has Calvin coming home full of shame, confessing to Hobbes his remorse over having lied to Susie at lunchtime, telling her his sandwich was full of squid eyeballs.)

The rubber duck in Calvin’s bath turns to wood (though he still uses it to test for the presence of sharks, a practice that puts the Korean Hobbes on the verge of tears), and his red wagon, vehicle of so many careening philosophical discussions, becomes a “toy car” (장난감 자동차). A variety of unexpected pop-culture references also make their way in through the supplementary prose, from MacGyver to Jurassic Park. (Watterson himself deliberately stopped including dinosaurs in the strip for a time after the theatrical release of Steven Spielberg’s CGI-dinosaur extravaganza, not wanting to subject the images of Calvin’s imagination to the comparison.)

The question of why the Korean version of an American comic would work in even more mentions of things American could consume a whole other post, but at least they work in the sense that neither the translation of the dialogue nor all this newly written material relocate Calvin and Hobbes to Korea. They do, however, make the occasional connection to Korean culture, as when Hobbes tells Calvin, who’s just received a pack of cigarettes from his mom (who intends Calvin’s inevitable nauseous coughing fit as a lesson), that tigers used so smoke in old-time Korea — or at least he’s seen his probable Korean cousin Hodori, the 1988 Summer Olympics’ friendly tiger mascot, doing it.

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Some things, of course, never would have translated smoothly. When I first read the strip where Calvin wakes up in the middle of the night, climbs out his bedroom window and calls his dad on the payphone across the street to ask, “It’s 3:00 a.m. Do you know where I am?”, I found it funny enough, but it turned hilarious when I saw the long-running public service announcements Calvin was quoting. (The Korean text across from it turns his joke into a solemn test of fatherly compassion; Dad fails, leaving a devastated Calvin tearing up under the moonlight.) Yet try as I might to get the humor across to one Korean friend as I excitedly showed her this book, she could never quite identify what she was supposed to be laughing at. The subsequent hour during which I struggled to explain the “trees sneezing” strip, perhaps Calvin and Hobbes‘ finest hour (though it doesn’t appear in the Reader), met with more or less the same result. But the more beloved an work of art, the more you can benefit from examining it through another cultural lens — even a lens that kind of screws it up.

This particular interpretation of Calvin and Hobbes plays fast and loose enough to fumble much of what makes the strip compelling in the first place, such as Hobbes’ deliberately ambiguous existential state, suspended eternally between stuffed doll, imaginary friend, and conscious being; the introduction to the Reader flatly describes him as a toy that comes to life whenever only Calvin is around. But larger points remain intact: in Calvin and Hobbes, as the book’s afterword emphasizes to its Korean readers, “despite the different language and customs of this faraway country’s children’s story, you see yourself reflected.” And somewhere in there I see my much younger self, often not quite grasping the language, but nevertheless keeping at it, enjoying the process enough now not to worry too much about a payoff later.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. If you’re in town, come to the free, bilingual Seoul Book and Culture Club event he’ll host on Saturday, April 2nd, a conversation with award-winning young Korean writers Kim Ae-ran, Chan Kangmyoung, and Kim Min-jung.

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Walking Deep Into Seoul With an Expert on the Korean Built Environment

By Colin Marshall 

“Things in Seoul don’t have anything to do with each other.” We members of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch (왕립아세아학회한국지부) heard this important principle for understanding the Korean capital early in the day from our guide, Robert Fouser. A noted American scholar of linguistics and architecture, he’d come to town to promote a couple new books he has out. He wrote them in Korean, a language that, during the years he spend living in Japan, he also taught — in Japanese. Just as none can doubt his experience with east Asian languages, none can doubt his experience with east Asian architecture, or at least his experience with traditional Korean houses, known as hanok (한옥), one of which he spent serious time and effort restoring to not just sound but fully authentic condition.

The word “authentic” came up more than a few times on the walk, which took us deep into Seoul, beginning at the Jongmyo Shrine. Between its construction in the late 14th century and its arrival on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1995, the place has seen some hard times, up to and including destruction during the Japanese invasions of 1592 and 1598. Rebuilt in 1601, the Jongmyo Shrine counts as one of the oldest building complexes in Seoul, a city where most historical structures have been torn down and put back up again much more recently, in the 19th, 20th, or even 21st centuries. But which can make the claim to greater authenticity: those rebuilt longer ago, or those rebuilt more recently with closer adherence to their original architectural plans?

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People disagree about that question in Korea, but only recently has the debate risen to a high profile. For a long time after the Korean War, anything old suffered from shameful associations with poverty, backwardness, and underdevelopment; even in the 1980s, when Fouser first arrived in Korea as a student, tourists could roam sites like the Jongmyo Shrine more or less freely. But on our walk, we found sign after sign telling us where we couldn’t go, and watchful supervisors ready to let us have it the moment we set foot on any now-forbidden stone. The Joseon Dynasty (조선 시대), the kingdom of the united Korea that lasted from the late 14th until the late 19th century has, it seems, become fashionable.

The Jongmyo Shrine even had construction going on right outside its gate, a project, from what I heard, meant to make the approach look more appropriately historical — to 21st-century eyes, at least. After passing the men at work, we immediately entered the domain of men not at work: Jongmyo Park, where hundreds of elderly pensioners, whose wives have passed on or who never married in the first place, gather every day to chat, drink, play a game of go, or — so it’s been reported — buy a few minutes’ good time with a Bacchus lady. (Not that it happens too far out of the public eye; this year saw the festival debut of E J-yong’s controversy-guaranteed feature on the subject, titled The Bacchus Lady in English and 죽여주는 여자, literally Killer Woman, in Korean.)

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Just past those whose Korea’s economic miracle has passed over, we found a set of buildings the country’s development has left behind: the Seun Sangga (세운상가) Shopping Center, Korea’s first mixed-use residential and commercial complex. Ordered up in 1966 by construction-minded Seoul mayor Kim Hyon-ok (who earned the nickname “the Bulldozer” during his short four years in office) and designed by Kim Swoo-geun, one of Korea’s few well-known modern architects, it became popular in the 1980s as an electronics mecca, a training ground for internationally famous video artist Nam June Paik’s technicians as well as a place for Koreans to buy their first personal computers, cheaply pre-loaded with pirated software. (Not that “pirated” meant much in this country back then, a time and place without enforcement of international copyright law.)

It also became well-known for its plentitude of adult materials for sale, a market that Korea’s rapid adoption of information technology has certainly done its part to decimate. More recently, the left-wing newspaper Hankyoreh described Seun Sangga as “a symbol of the indiscriminate redevelopment that occurred during the dictatorship years,” a time of “development that lacked a sense of history” when “Seoul rapidly became a metropolis with no character.” The complex’s worsening reputation brought about discussions of redevelopment, that all-purpose solution to Seoul’s every perceived urban problem, and when higher-ups in Korea talk about redevelopment, they usually mean demolition and total replacement.

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But somewhere amid the years and years of discussion the nuclear option fell off the table, and now talk has circled around going with the strategy, tested in other world cities, of converting this large complex (which a friend compared to a mega-skyscraper laid on its side) into an “art center.” Some of the chances in that direction have already happened: we walked past a series of old turntables, amplifiers, and radios, the kind of things you’d have come to buy forty years ago, into garden sculptures, and the shutters of most of the upper-floor shops were covered with fresh-painted whimsy. A new wave of businesses, including a bookstore, had just begun to move in, but almost everything else surrounding us came from a more industrial past: small repair specialists, parts dealers, machine shops — Pietà country.

Fouser took us to locations from other films as well, through a former (and still, in part, current) movie theater district used back in 1997 in The Contact (접속) and ending up at the tea shop which, a dozen years later, played the title role in the Japanese-Korean co-production Café Seoul (카페 서울/カフェ・ソウル). It stood in Ikseon-dong (익선동), a neighborhood built as an all-hanok development in the 1930s which itself once faced the threat of demolition. But now, with busy hands of the redevelopers stayed, the area has undergone some of a process that, in America, we might — or rather, we often — call gentrification: hip new eateries have appeared, as have hip new vintage stores, as have the hip new young people to be seen in them. But the discussions about gentrification don’t sound the same in Seoul as they do in Los Angeles. Here they seem wholly economic in content, whereas in America they inevitably swerve toward class or race issues.

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Korea, an ethnically non-diverse society whose class system essentially pushed the reset button after the war, hasn’t really produced the body of sociologists needed to study this sort of thing in the same way it gets studied in America. But nor has the country’s study of its own history gone without complications; different people have different answers to the question of what counts as properly historical, especially in the realm of architecture. Fouser, a self-described “hanok maniac,” pointed out some of Ikseon-dong’s especially bothersome abuses of the form, such as the insertion of picture windows into private homes or the cutting away of entire walls of cafés — the better, presumably, for the rest of the neighborhood to hear the pop songs it cranks up into the night.

At least they’ll bother you if you place a high value on authenticity, and want a time-tested street-scape to look and feel the way it’s always looked and felt. I imagine that can be an exhausting sensibility to possess in Seoul, a city still working out its relationship to its history with an almost metabolic tendency toward disintegration and reformation. As always with these RAS excursions, I enjoyed the conversation that happened afterward as much as the event itself, and there at the tea house we talked about not just why we like Seoul, but how even to describe the city to someone who’s never experienced it. Yes, it lacks the kind of cultural weight Tokyo has; yes, it has little in the way of architectural distinction; yes, it’s only come around to an appreciation of history after losing most of it and realizing that developed countries tend to have old things; and yes, it can feel like a jumble where nothing has anything to do with anything else. But in the jumble, so we could all agree, lies the fascination.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. If you’re in town, come to the free, bilingual Seoul Book and Culture Club event he’ll host on Saturday, April 2nd, a conversation with award-winning young Korean writers Kim Ae-ran, Chan Kangmyoung, and Kim Min-jung.

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‘The Empire of Light’: a French Director Brings a North Korean Spy Novel to the Stage

By Colin Marshall 

Ki-yong, the middle-aged protagonist of Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic Is Calling You, lives at the apparent height of South Korean normality, complete with a wife, a teenage daughter, a film importing business in Seoul, and a strong enthusiasm for soccer and beer. Then, one morning, comes an encrypted message with an unambiguous order: drop everything, dismantle your life, and get back to the North immediately. Ki-young, we soon find out, has lived for over twenty years in the South as a Northern sleeper agent, theoretically awaiting orders while accruing all the accoutrements of life in the peninsula’s more prosperous half. The novel follows what happens to him, his family, his colleagues, and his pursuers over the next 24 hours.

I first wrote about Your Republic Is Calling You in the LARB back in a 2013 profile of Kim’s novels in English translation, of which he has more and higher-profile than the average Korean novelist under fifty. (More recently, I’ve written about his literary podcast and Read, his latest book of essays, here on the Korea Blog.) In that piece, I quoted a reader-on-the-street description of the book as “a Korean version of Ulysses,” owing, no doubt, to its single-day time frame (a storytelling technique laid out in Aristotle’s Poetics, about which Kim writes in Read) as well as the way it moves through the city of Seoul as Ulysses moves through the city of Dublin.

These qualities make for compelling reading, but how to translate them to the stage? Taking on that very challenge, we have the French-Korean production The Empire of Light, a live adaptation of Kim’s novel from the National Theater Company of Korea, years in the making and now running in the heart of Seoul’s busiest shopping district at the Myeongdong Art Theater. That English directly translates 빛의 제국, Your Republic is Calling You‘s original (and, I might add, superior) Korean title, itself borrowed from René Magritte’s series of canvases L’Empire des lumières — the title under which the play will appear when it opens at the Center Dramatique National Orleans in May.

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The show comes at the beginning of a series of some 300 events constituting the 2015-2016 Korea-France year, a celebration of the 130th anniversary of diplomatic relations between those two similarly sized countries. Though The Empire of Light‘s Seoul-set story requires an all-Korean cast, the French side of the collaboration includes director Arthur Nauzyciel, playwright Valérie Mréjen, and the artists who handled costumes and design. They’ve put together a striking stage, with two oversized video screens, one landscape-shaped and one portrait-shaped, towering over a human environment of pure gray: a gray table, a gray couch, gray carpet, gray clothing.

A condensed cast of the novel’s characters roam that gray carpet, going between gray table and gray couch, including, in her gray dress, Ki-yong’s wife Ma-ri, a former political radical and current saleswoman at a car dealership with problems of her own. She’s played by Moon So-ri, who grew famous through her film roles (including several for Hong Sangsoo), and in The Empire of Light performs a kind of film role as well, in the footage projected on those screens behind her and the rest of the players. That simultaneous action, shot all over Seoul, allows for near-constant movement through the city without a single change of scenery onstage, also obviating the need for an intermission in this movie-length production.

But given the typical complaints about the look of the city from disappointed tourists, the sheer grayness of the set in front — a varied grayness, in several different shades — also strikes me as somehow Seoul-inspired. Mréjen, citing the atmosphere of surveillance that comes to pervade the novel, has also named the “recording room” as an aesthetic reference point: colorless, utilitarian, and neutral, but also versatile, a complementary space to the brightly lit streets, cafés, subway trains, and love hotel rooms in which the story’s cinematic dimension plays out.

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Nauzyciel, who as preparation made visits to all of the real-life locations of the novel, describes Seoul as “one of the characters in the story,” and even if Seoul doesn’t do all the work of a character here, it certainly counts as an inextricable element of the story. The director draws a contrast between the unromanticized South Korean capital with the much-romanticized, and almost as dominant, French one: “In Paris, we live in the past. I live in a building that was built in 1647 and that’s normal. Here in Seoul, I feel like the past has been swept away. There’s no way to know what it used to be before the city was demolished and rebuilt. It’s like living in the present. But sometimes, we don’t realize we are carrying the past with us.”

But few Korean stories, of course, whether on the stage, screen, or page, fail to acknowledge the un-pastness of the past, mostly in regard to the still historically fresh scar from the country’s division after the Second World War. I’ve long appreciated Kim Young-ha’s books for not focusing on the pain inherent in life in a divided Korea as fixedly as those of some of his colleagues, but a novel like this one, involving as directly as it does the theme of North-South relations — let alone featuring a North Korean protagonist, and one portrayed as a non-monster at that — can’t avoid dealing with separation, whether between states or between individuals.

And so the material of The Empire of Light becomes, in the words of French ambassador, something “between espionage and philosophy,” breaking from the thriller-like plot of Kim’s novel to engage in a polyphonic meditation on not just separation but conflict, allegiance, and memory themselves, perceived from across the ever-growing gulf between two societies. There the performance uses its recording-room set in the most literal way, bringing the actors up to standing microphones to deliver monologues composed of thoughts, memories, and emotions, both factual and fictional, stirred by North Korea. A very French theatrical tactic, you might say — but a very Korean one as well.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. If you’re in town, come to the free, bilingual Seoul Book and Culture Club event he’ll host on Saturday, April 2nd, a conversation with award-winning young Korean writers Kim Ae-ran, Chan Kangmyoung, and Kim Min-jung.