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Korea’s English Fever, or English Cancer?

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bringing Empress Wu Back to Life (on the Page)—A Q&A with Weina Dai Randel

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

Last year, Weina Dai Randel was virtually unknown. Now she’s causing a stir in literary scenes from the U.S. to China, thanks to the strong reviews venues such as Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal have given to her pair of books about Empress Wu: The Moon in the Palace (published in March) and The Empress of Bright Moon (just out this month). There are two unusual things about her series on China’s most famous and infamous pre-modern female ruler.  First, it’s not a traditional trilogy, but rather a duology. And, second, the two works in it were released just a month—rather than a year or two—apart.  There are already deals to translate both into four languages.  Weina, who I met through a writer’s group and sharing a publisher, was born and raised in Wenzhou, a coastal city in Zhejiang province. After working as a journalist and online magazine editor in Shanghai, she moved to Texas at the age of twenty-four. That was fifteen years ago. Now, married and a mother of two, Weina lives with her family in suburban Dallas, where I caught up with her via email to respond to the following series of questions.

SUSAN BLUMBERG-KASON: Can you tell us the philosophy behind writing two books in a series instead of three or more as well as releasing your books just one month apart?

WEINA DAI RANDEL: As far as I know, there is no philosophy behind this! The truth is rather plain: My agent initially negotiated with the editor at Sourcebooks for a trilogy of Empress Wu, but the editor was not sure how American readers would respond to a bulk of novels about a Chinese Empress who was relatively unknown in the U.S. But the editor was also fascinated with the rich life in the second book, so she decided to have two books instead. And she also decided to release them a month apart so readers wouldn’t have to wait too long for the sequel. That’s why there was a duology and why The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon were published a month apart.

You’ve stated in interviews that you wrote your books in response to novels set in China or those that feature Chinese characters in which women are portrayed in depressing terms. You specifically mention Maxine Hong Kingston, an author you were reading in graduate school in Texas. Besides the Empress Wu, which other Chinese women came to mind when you thought of strong females throughout Chinese history?

I can think of the famous Xi Shi, one of the Four Beauties in ancient China, who might also be the first female spy; the infamous Lu Hou of the Han Dynasty; and also the gifted poet Li Qingzhao, whose poetry I really like. But I can tell you, few of the strong women in the Chinese history were described in a positive light and even fewer had a happy ending.

In The Moon in the Palace, you mention that it took ten years to write this novel. Along the way, you’ve had a couple of children. Do you have any tips for juggling research, writing, and parenthood?

When I was taking care of my little ones, I found it very helpful to have a routine and set a structure for the day. For example, dinnertime was always at 5:30pm, then bath time at 6:30pm, then bedtime at 7:30pm. I usually wrote when my kids were taking a nap or sleeping, so I was very firm about putting them down at the precise hour for nap and bedtime. Once they awoke, I did my housework, took them to grocery shopping, parks, and play dates.

I also think it’s important to simplify your life and find serenity in your mind. Being a mother means you’ll have a busy schedule, but having a busy head filled with clogged schedules and activities can be detrimental for a writer. I narrowed my daily priorities to a few things, and I also eliminated social events as they conflicted with my writing hours. I think, like writing, parenting needs consistency and persistence – if you stick to a certain routine everyday, you’ll fall into the rhythm, and the people around you will fall into the rhythm with you.

You didn’t move to the US until you were twenty-four. It’s quite amazing that just fifteen years later you have published two novels in a language that’s not your mother tongue. I know you get asked this question a lot, but how did you decide to write your novels in English and not in Chinese?

The real reason that I decided to write in English is I couldn’t get published in China. I finished my first novel in Chinese when I was twenty-one and pitched it to an editor in Shanghai. He invited me over to the office, talked to me about how competitive it was to publish a novel, and rejected my manuscript. Later, some short stories I wrote were also rejected. Discouraged, I decided there was no future for me in writing Chinese. So I devoted to learning English, which I was also fascinated with.

When I came to the U.S., I spent every morning studying English, making notes, and always had an English-Chinese dictionary in my hands. My education at graduate school really helped me command the language.

After being away from China for a decade, you finally returned at the end of last year, husband and two children in tow. In the acknowledgements in The Moon in the Palace, you write that you can finally go home now that your books are published. Was there a reason you couldn’t go back before then?

So funny you asked that! Yes, there was a reason, and you might think I’m very stubborn! Twelve years ago when I had the idea of writing about Empress Wu, I told my friends in China about my ambition, and they were so surprised. “In English?” they asked me over the phone, and even though they were seven thousand miles away, I could tell the disbelief in their voices. My parents were not so subtle. My mom, a traditional Chinese woman, told me flatly to forget about writing and start having kids (I had not had kids yet).

You see, I was a person of pride, and it was hard to digest those discouraging comments and especially hard to hear that I was no good at anything other than producing babies. And the pressure continued to mount each time I talked to them. First, they would ask me, “When are you coming back to China?” After that, question would follow, “So are you still writing?” They meant well, I knew that, but I also knew they did not believe that I, a Chinese who was born and raised in China, could write a novel in English. So I silently made it a bet: I would return to China when my books were published; otherwise, I would not go back.

For twelve years, I resisted the urge to visit them and declined my kids’ requests to meet my family. When my novels were finally set to publish, I returned to visit my friends and family.

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

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When Conan Came to Korea

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(photo source: Team Coco)

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

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Fonzie

By Bernadette Murphy

The desk of Alex, a salesman at Harley-Davidson of Glendale, features a picture of Fonzie sitting on a Triumph motorcycle with a girl wearing a skirt sitting on the back, holding on to him fetchingly. The photo surfaced from the auction catalog when the actual motorcycle was found in someone’s garage after years of neglect.

“I always wanted to be Fonzie,” Alex says of the TV character whose last official appearance dates back nearly thirty years. We’re hanging out and chatting while my motorcycle is being serviced. Alex is almost ten years younger than me and must have gotten in on the tail end of the Happy Days era.

“I always wanted to date Fonzie,” I reply, plunking myself into the proper gender-specific role. As a girl who grew up in the ’70s, I can’t rightly wish for more than that. Yet I can’t explain to Alex that my yearning was deeper, more visceral. I wanted to consume Fonzie—just like the Holy Communion I took each week at Mass—and by ingesting him, to engender in myself the qualities I so admired.

I haven’t thought about my Fonzie obsession in decades. As a teenager, the names Fonzie, the Fonz, Arthur Fonzarelli, and Henry Winkler could all rocket me to a fourth dimension. I was a tomboy, a girl who competed and was ranked nationally in skateboarding, a young lady more comfortable in a pair of Van’s slip-ons and corduroy OP shorts than kitten heels and skirts, someone who liked to hang with the guys at empty, abandoned swimming pools to skateboard rather than go to the mall with girlfriends to shop.

I bought fan magazines featuring Henry Winkler, went to every movie he made, read his biographies, toyed with acting because that would put me in the same mental territory as this man/character/dream figure. Though Fonzie was my favorite, Winkler didn’t have to be Arthur Fonzarelli to make me swoon; any contact with him would do it. If we were to sit down and talk, I believed, we’d pick up a conversation that had already been in progress.

Perhaps I was searching for male approval. My father was preoccupied caring for my severely mentally ill mother, watching out for my youngest brother who was fast becoming a juvenile delinquent, and trying to tend the five basically motherless kids in our family, while striving to keep food in the kitchen cabinets and making sure we went to Mass on Sundays. I’m sure, in some way, my father would have given me that approval if I’d known how to ask. But I didn’t.

When couldn’t get the approval I was looking for at home, I sought it with my skateboard and the grudging respect I earned from the boys — male approval was male approval, after all. But soon even that power faded and I looked where young girls turn next for that anointing: my own sexual power. Only, in adolescence, I didn’t know really that’s what it was I was reaching for.

My conversation with Alex moves on to other motorcycle-related subjects, but something is amiss. I’ve just lied to him and, more important, to myself.

“Actually, I take that back,” I clarify, knowing the truth doesn’t matter to Alex but it does to me. “I wanted to be Fonzie, too.”

After that, I decide to look deeper into my Fonzie obsession. Certainly, the Fonz was an important role model, demonstrating what it meant to be immune from peer pressure and true to one’s self. That made perfect sense at an age when my identity was forming. But now I am in midlife with established demographic markers—professor, author, homeowner, mother of three—when coolness seems radically beside the point. Yet the more I think about my long-forgotten Fonzie fascination, the more I find the qualities he embodied as important as ever. I am grappling once again with issues of identity.

I have just separated from my husband of 25 years and am living on my own for the first time. I now make my home in a one-room apartment perched above a garage, just like Fonzie. When riding my motorcycle, I wear motorcycle boots and a black leather jacket, just like Fonzie — though to be fair, I wear spring dresses and lace blouses when not on the bike. I’m learning to make my way through life as a solo person, no longer tied by traditional family bonds, a loner, just like Fonzie. Only I am the parent of three nearly grown children, 49, and female. Still, I feel myself channeling some of the energy, the chutzpah, the boldness, the generosity of spirit I found in the character. In short, I find myself needing to emulate Fonzie in order to survive.

My phone rings one evening while cooking dinner.

“Hello,” a gentle male voice speaks. “This is Henry Winkler.”

I almost drop the phone. “You just made my night,” I say.

Weeks ago, I’d told a writing colleague that I’d love to chat with him. Winkler now coauthors with my colleague the Hank Zipzer series of children’s books that tell the everyday adventures of a bright young boy with learning challenges. I never thought he’d actually call. He graciously agrees to schedule a phone interview. I try not to gush.

I competed on skateboards until age 16 when I attracted my first boyfriend, a “bad boy” in his own way. Over time, I gave up my skateboard and 501 Levi’s for high-heeled Candies sandals, Calvin Klein must-lie-prone-on-the-bed-to-zip-them jeans, makeup, and giggles. I learned to toss my hair and came to understand that boys didn’t want girls to hang with them at empty swimming pools if they could make out with them in cars. I discovered the socially acceptable role for girls like me: to become pretty like the rest.

My foray into that world wasn’t a comfortable fit. That first boyfriend pressured me into having sex when I was just as happy to cuddle. Fear of abandonment was enough to earn my acquiescence. That coupling at age 16 resulted in a teen pregnancy and a child relinquished for adoption. Returning to my high school after a stint in the Teen Mother Program brought with it whispered cruelties, ugly notes on my locker, a sense of being ostracized, and a cloud of shame surrounding my sexuality that would shadow me for the next thirty years.

“All I know is what the Fonz was to me, and what I added on, over the years, to the fabric of the Fonz,” says Winkler when we talk. “When I first started him, even in the audition, he was — the first word that comes to my mind but it’s not the best word — cooler than I am, he was more definite than I am, he was more sure about the air he moved when he walked through the world than I am — or even was. He was my alter ego. He was fun to play because he was who I wanted to be, also.”

As a result of my high school experiences, I learned my lesson fast and hard. Girls were meant to be not only pretty but also tame, and to follow the socially conscribed rules. Take one step outside of that realm and you will be slammed.

I finished my education, commuting from my father’s house to the local state college, and was married upon graduation to the most Richie Cunningham-type man I could find — no more bad boys for me! In short order I became a mother of three and settled in, adopting Winnie-the-Pooh jumpers paired with sensible mom shoes. Long gone were both extremes: the tomboy in torn Levi’s scrambling over a chain-link fence to gain access to a skateboarding venue, as well as the girl surprised by her budding sexuality, outfitted in too-tight jeans, unsure of what the sensual realm entailed other than trouble.

“He was who he was,” Winkler reflects. “And that was the strength that pushed everybody back, that made them want to follow him, and backed people down when they wanted to fight. He never actually threw a punch,” Winkler pauses. “It was the intimidation of authenticity — and that is more powerful than anything. He was so confident that he was able to be vulnerable.”

My life choices were exactly what my father would have wanted. Traditional Irish Catholic to the core, he prized the virtue of motherhood and was most pleased when I fulfilled that role. At the same time, he disapproved of my writing. When my first book was published, he was so angered by what I’d written about my mother’s mental illness that he didn’t speak to me for two years. I tried through my writing to get him to see the “real” me, asking him to acknowledge if not approve of who I was. He preferred the construct he’d created: the good wife and mother to his grandchildren, the docile and obedient woman. That was the only woman he could condone. The same was basically true with my husband. He loved the homemaker image of me, the Play Dough-making mother, and didn’t seem to care to meet the full person I was.

Aren’t these the lessons the larger culture instills in us, simply reinforced in my case by my family members?

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when the tomboy in me began to rustle, calling, bursting through the constraints I’d placed on her. I started backpacking, then climbing mountains, open-water kayaking, getting tattooed, running marathons, coming out as who I really was and had abandoned decades earlier. People who’d known me for years looked askance. Midlife crisis, they concluded.

But that wasn’t it. I was a reclaiming the person I’d always been, the girl who’d shaped herself into a mold that didn’t fit out of fear of yet another cultural and familial banishment.

It all started when, at age 48, I learned to ride a motorcycle. The minute I got the machine to skim smoothly over the blacktop, I was hooked. As I began to master the motorcycle, a complete version of myself coalesced. Weaving through orange cones on the training range, I sensed the two parts of me work in tandem for perhaps the first time. I felt as weightless and graceful as a dancer, executing moves of precision and elegance, as feminine as possible, while also aware of the brawn and boldness required to get that macho machine to do what I wanted it to. The male and female energies in me complimented rather than competed with each other.

There are few narratives in our culture that support this kind of tomboy, motorcycle riding, adventure-seeking life I was creating. I think back to Thelma & Louise, now approaching its 25th anniversary, the only road adventure film I can name in which women are the primary characters. In the film world, I struggle to name any female road story that does not end badly for the woman. Rape and death are the most common outcomes.  There have been a few books featuring female adventurers — the tales of Dervla Murphy come to mind — but these are the exceptions to the rule.  Where am I to find role models?

I ask Winkler about his experience with the motorcycle. I’d heard he was terrified of it.

“Not terrified,” he explains. “I almost never rode the motorcycle. I think I rode it for, like, 12 feet. But I was intimidated. I did not think that I could ride it with the internal confidence of not spilling it. I did not think I could figure out the hand, and the hand, and foot, and the hand, and the gear, and the speed, and the brake.”

I am ashamed of the hint of smugness I feel, hearing this. No wonder getting my motorcycle endorsement at the DMV felt so great. I had mastered a skill Winkler had shied away from.

So what was the draw of the motorcycle for Fonzie? The outlaw persona, the macho element, the beauty of the mechanics?

Winkler laughs. “All of it! He rode a motorcycle, loved it, loved just sitting on it.”

I knew the feeling. Not overnight, but fast enough to draw strange looks in my suburban world, leather boots and a jacket appeared, followed by a matte-black Harley that would make Bat Girl proud. The approval I’d craved from my father, my husband, and men in general was now bubbling up from within me. For the first time in my life, I didn’t simply want to be The Fonz. I had, on some psychic level, become him.

It’s a process Winkler knew well. As he puts it, he had long wanted to stop being “such a bowl a jelly at my core.” When his kids were growing up, he says, they were like muffins you’re baking. “You stick the toothpick in and you know they’re not done yet. Well, I wasn’t done until my late 40s, my early 50s. I think I mourned the sadness of how long it took me, all that time wasted, all the power you give away to other people.”

“Hearing that makes me feel so much better,” I tell him.

“You know why?” he pauses for dramatic effect. “’Cause we’re all the same. To varying degrees, we are all the same.”

I ask Winkler if playing Fonzie helped him get “done” any sooner? I’m hoping that my motorcycling experience is helping me get done, too. That maybe I’m on the verge.

“Fonz did not help me to authenticate. He showed me what was possible to be. I’m not talking about motorcycles, snapping fingers, that stuff, just walking your avenue through the world.” Playing the Fonzie character while still knowing he wasn’t as authentic to his core as he’d like to be was a frustrating experience he says. “Because I was still living with the worry while I was playing with the confidence.”

“But isn’t that how we learn to do anything in life?”

He agrees. “Then I’m luckier than anything in that I was able to play the character. People look for the metaphor of the character in order to get there. I was given it.”

For me, perhaps the motorcycle is the metaphor. It isn’t an act and the clothes aren’t a costume, but simply protective gear, not unlike the padded shorts I wore as a skateboarder. And because I know that truth to the depth of my being, and have never again since high school actively sought to appear sexual in my manner of dress, I can wear my black riding gear with no self-consciousness.

At least, that’s what I thought.

I was dressed in my leathers one day at the Harley dealership, looking at helmets and chatting with the guys working there. Quentin, the head of bike sales, introduced me to one of his burly, tattooed biker friend.

“You ride?” the friend asked, a bit surprised, probably wondering if I just sat on the back of some guy’s bike.

I nodded.

“She also runs marathons,” Quentin added, as if that explained the motorcycle thing.

The friend did what no one had done to me in decades — the slow up-and-down with his eyes, nodding approvingly. I could feel every inch of my thighs encased in leather as if lit up in neon.

“I can tell,” he said. “With legs like that, you could cut diamonds.”

I wanted to crawl under the nearest rock. I was so embarrassed I fumbled my words and then dropped my helmet — a huge no-no. I scrambled to leave as quickly as possible. Riding my bike home, I bawled under that helmet, so shamed by that moment of male ogling attention after years of actively avoiding it with mom-type jumpers and loose-fitting clothing.

I was able to identify the source of the shame and within a day or two to let it go. The sexual vibe given by the leathers, I decided, was a vibe others were adding, an identity I did not have to be categorized by. The safety equipment I wear is not meant to be your sexual fantasy, though out pop culture has framed it that way. If there was a female Fonzie, I reflected, she would totally blow off this guy’s hyper-sexualized read of my manner of dress.

And so I did, and in doing so, reclaimed a sense of my own sexuality and attractiveness. A few weeks later I allowed my 17-year-old daughter to pick out jeans for me a full size smaller than I usually wore. Soon, I was able to embody a bit of the teen girl I’d left behind all those years ago, the one who was a hybrid between the tomboy and the sex-kitten, but who could own both parts of herself.

When my son, away at college, called to ask me about the separation between his father and me, his question surprised me. “Mom,” he said, “did the motorcycle have anything to do with it?”

“No, of course not,” I replied, which was the truth. But not the whole truth. By embracing the part of me that had lain dormant all those years via the motorcycle, I had found myself again — a self my father did not want to meet, a self that hadn’t fit with my husband for at least a decade. My husband and I had grown so far apart, especially after I’d reclaimed my inner tomboy, that there was nothing left to connect us. And all the activities I’d undertaken — marathons, mountain climbing, etc.?

Henry Winkler puts his finger right on it. “Can I ask you a question?” he says. “Did all that activity fuel the separation?”

“Absolutely. It taught me what I needed to know: that if I could rally enough strength, enough courage, to do these things, I might have the courage to do what I desperately wanted and needed to do: to leave.”

In talking with Winkler about Fonzie’s authenticity, his voice becomes excited. “You know what it does?” he asks of claiming one’s self. “It frees you up and give you back so much of your life.  When you talk yourself down, and cut the negative off your bone with a bowie knife, that’s powerful. And then if you replace with a positive you walk taller, straighter, farther.”

So playing Fonzie helped Winkler get “done” by his late 40s, early 50s? That gives me hope.

“No, no, no!,” he practically shouts. “To be on the road to being done. I still have a molten chocolate center that is still gooey!”

Winkler sounds exhausted as our conversation winds down. “Wow!” he says. “I swear to you that I’ve had these thoughts in isolated boxes in the attic. I’ve never put them all together. Now I realize I don’t have the fucking slightest clue if I’m on the track but it seems right to me. What I’m saying seems right.”

After we hang up I realize that what I’m doing — I also don’t have the fucking slightest clue — but it seems right to me. I am working to embrace authenticity and all that comes with it, including the aura of loneliness that surrounded Fonzie. He may have been able to snap his fingers and have girls flock to him, he may have been friends with all the guys in town, but he was still a loner and an air of existential aloneness clung to him. Which, perhaps, is the price one pays for authenticity.

I’m grateful to Winkler for taking the time to talk with me and help me sort out my obsession. I can’t help wishing we could chat like that on a regular basis. Still, one sentence he used describing Fonzie stays with me long after. “Everyone seemed to believe that, if I knew him, he would have been my friend; he would have taken care of me.”

I guess that’s how I think of Winkler, and perhaps in a just-getting-started way, how I now think about myself. At the very least, I am learning to befriend myself, to approve of myself, to care for myself while continuing to care for those I love. I think, in maybe a tiny way, I am learning to be strong enough to risk being real.

¤

Excerpt from Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life by Bernadette Murphy. Counterpoint Press, May 2016.

 Lead photo by johnlivezy.com.

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

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bronzeandsunflower

Getting Up to Speed on the Cultural Revolution, Part 2 — Some Works of Fiction

By Jeff Wasserstrom

In our last post, we pointed readers toward a memoir, a narrative history, a collection of essays on visual propaganda, and a website, which all addressed the “Cultural Revolution Decade” (1966-1976).

For this second installment on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the start of that decade, I will highlight the value of two collections of stories set mainly or exclusively during the Cultural Revolution Decade, as well as (perhaps more surprisingly) a children’s book and a foray into speculative fiction, each of which has some scenes set during the same tumultuous period.

The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

Chen Ruoxi, the author of this collection of short tales, was born in Taiwan and now lives there, but in these fictions she draws on the period that she spent living on the mainland during the 1960s and early 1970s. Ably translated by Nancy Ing and Howard Goldblatt, the English edition was first published in 1978 with an Introduction by Perry Link. Indiana University Press brought out a revised and updated edition in 2004, inspired to do so by the book’s enduring popularity as a classroom reading. I first encountered it as a student. Stories from the collection — especially “‘Chairman Mao is a Rotten Egg,’” which focuses on the way that even the chatter of small children could create political problems late in the Mao years — have stuck with me ever since.

Apologies Forthcoming: Stories Not about Mao

Xujun Eberlein, a past contributor to LARB, grew up in China but is now based in the US. This set of evocative and well turned sketches of ordinary life during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath was originally written in English. Her present project, which she describes in a recent interview with Chris Buckley of the New York Times, focuses on her experiences in Sichuan during the Cultural Revolution. This work of nonfiction deals in part with her sister’s tragic death by drowning after jumping into a river to commemorate the anniversary of Mao’s famous swim in the Yangzi.

The Three Body Problem

In this first part of an acclaimed and popular trilogy (a work written by Liu Cixin and skillfully translated into English by Ken Liu that won the Hugo Award), most of the action takes place after the Cultural Revolution, but crucial scenes take place during it. All I can say without spoiling the suspense is that a scientist’s disgust with what she sees going on around her in the time of the Red Guards leads her to react differently than she would have otherwise to a signal from a distant planet.

Bronze and Sunflower

Cao Wenxuan is a recent winner of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award for children’s fiction. Here is what Helen Wang, a past contributor to LARB who translated Bronze and Sunflower from Chinese into English, has to say about this celebrated children’s book, which has been translated into many languages:

The friendship between country-boy Bronze and city-girl Sunflower comes about when she moves with her artist-father to the cadre school across the river from Bronze’s village. The villagers and cadres visit each other, but the interaction is fairly superficial. The villagers don’t really know what a May 7th cadre school is, and don’t really care. They’re intrigued by things like fish-farming, and appreciate being able to borrow equipment, but can’t understand why the city people have left behind city comforts to come and work long hours in the fields and burn the midnight oil with political meetings. When Sunflower’s father dies, the cadre school can’t look after her, and Bronze’s family, the poorest in the village, takes her in. She stays with them long after the cadre school has closed and the cadres have returned to the city. Life in the countryside is hard and matter-of-fact. Natural disasters are catastrophic. When crops fail, there is simply no food. The relief boat (bringing grain) never arrives. Schooling and medical treatment are expensive. Hard work, integrity and love pull the family through. But, when a new mayor takes office in Sunflower’s old city and discovers that Sunflower was left behind in the village, he is determined to rectify the situation, honor her parents, bring her back to the city and personally see that she gets a good education and a decent future. However, the situation is blurred, there were no formal adoption papers, and Sunflower’s parents have to be persuaded to let her go.

 

 

KB - Alain de Botton 1

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

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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(source: The School of Life Seoul)

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

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

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

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

KB - Alain de Botton 3

(source: The School of Life Seoul)

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

KB - April 2016 Book Club 1

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

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

KB - April Book Club 2

(photo: Stephane Mot)

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

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

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

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

KB - April Book Club 1

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

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

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

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

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

KB - Tayo 1

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.