Seoul Jazz Festival 2017

Over a glorious weekend of bright sun and clear skies, a corner of Seoul’s Olympic Park played host to the Seoul Jazz Festival. Spread across three indoor venues and one outdoor main stage, the festival was extraordinarily well run: good sound, shows that started and ended on time, few serious lines, minimal hassles. Because Koreans are mostly pretty honest and not prone to public violence, security could be handled by college kids doing cursory bag and wristband checks at the entrances to venues, while the main pavilion was technically outside of any restricted area and open to the public, and you could go a little further to the local convenience store if you wanted to. Across two long days, I saw no drunkenness, no violence, no real incidents of any kind. Well done, Korea!

There was no way to see all the performances, of course, because of all the overlapping shows. But here’s what I did see.

Day 1

Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble: Good Latin jazz of a thinky variety. Arturo is a helluva piano player, and he’s got a trombonist who can make Korean girls scream.

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Echae Kang: A singer and violinist who does alternative rock that’s reminiscent of Jaurim. She’s definitely got something going on. Tremendously charistmatic, and her band is also very good. Definitely worth checking out.

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두번재달/2nd Moon: So the schtick is that the singer is a young, handsome guy who does pretty traditional pansori — a traditional style of story singing — while the backing band plays a mishmash of folky Americana. The hall was packed and the Koreans seemed to go for it, but it left me cold. The pansori singing was good but probably wouldn’t have seemed extraordinary in a traditional setting, while the backing music was undistinguished, and the combination never melded into more than the sum of its parts.

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Lianne La Havas: The highlight of the day and the most delightful surprise of the festival, Lianne La Havas is a British soul singer of Jamaican and Greek parentage. She played solo, just her voice and some very, very hip guitar playing. She sang mostly her own songs but also covered “Say a Little Prayer,” and it takes some guts to tackle a song everyone knows from the Aretha version. Her sense of rhythm is unerring, her lyrics are smart, and the songs are excellent. She reminded me at turns of Sade, Ani Di Franco, and Bill Withers.

Part of the charm of her set was her evident surprise and delight at finding a passionate fanbase in Korea. Crowds of Korean girls were singing along, hanging on her every word, calling out for favorites or just shouting that they loved her. I noticed this with a lot of the musicians, actually: they seemed very, very happy. Apparently the Seoul Jazz Festival treats its performers right, and it’s probably a relief, when your booking agent has told you that you’ll be playing at a park in the afternoon in South Korea, to discover an entirely professional setup with great sound and support.

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지코/Zico: Korean hip hop. Unmemorable stuff for kids.

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Avishai Cohen Quartet: Thorny, confrontational Israeli jazz with none of the decorum and studiousness that can make a lot of American and Scandinavian jazz these days so toothless. This is not easy music. Cohen takes traditional jazz and fragments it into shards, but his musicians have the rigor to hold the pieces together, and Cohen’s plaintive tone on the trumpet is what Miles Davis might have sounded like if he’d grown up hearing the shofar.

Day 2

오프온오프/OFFONOFF: Off off off.

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Squirrel Nut Zippers: I saw the Squirrel Nuts way back in the 1990s, during the swing revival back then. Like me, they’re a lot older now. They still put on a great show with lots of energy and loopy antics, and they still suffer from the same fundamental flaw they’ve always had, which is that they’re just not such great musicians. They play swing with the skill of a ska band, and it’s not quite enough if you’ve grown up on the Count and the Duke and know what swing sounded like in the hands of people like Ben Webster and Lionel Hampton and Sweets Edison, et. al. The Squirrel Nut Zippers are the cotton candy of swing: colorful and fun, but they leave you hungry and slightly queasy.

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Cecile McClorin Salvant: Salvant is a serious and skilled jazz musician of a particular sort. She grew up on classical and came to jazz late, and her approach — fishing up obscure old songs, often focused on the travails of underprivileged women of color — can feel like a graduate seminar on intersectional feminism. There’s something pedantic about it, and the music and musicality can seem secondary, even if the level of skill is hard to argue with. It never caught fire for me.

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Tower of Power: Ho. Ly. Fuck.

Go see Tower of Power. Do it now.

Tower of Power, the Soul-Funk institution from Oakland, is in its 49th year and still has three of its original members. This won’t go on forever. On records they can sound a little wan, a little too smooth. Live, they’re something else. How these old dudes have this much energy, this much funk, this much soul, I don’t know. But they do. The horns are legendary and deservedly so. The bass player — still an original member — is slinky and groovy like funk base oughtta be.

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Tower of Power has always been a backing band, the JB’s without a James Brown, and their singers over the years have been better and worse. Their latest singer is phenomenal. Marcus Scott is a Memphis soul singer in the Otis Redding vein, a showman with tremendous range and a master soul man’s consummate skill in whipping the crowd into a frenzy. His dance moves, his passionate patter, his descents from the stage and into the crowd had the Koreans going nuts, and I think it would’ve worked on anyone anywhere. With the giant force of Tower of Power behind him, Scott put on a glorious show that had everybody jumping. It’s this — soul, funk, sweatin’ it out — that makes me proud to be an American. This is our gift to the world. (The Koreans knew it, too, and I was impressed that a few guys behind me knew the words to every song.)

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Zion T: The Korean pop and soul singer didn’t exactly follow Tower of Power — he was in another venue — but because Jamiraquoi dropped out for health reasons, much of the Tower of Power crowd went to see Zion T right after. A smart and savvy singer who writes good songs, he managed to hold his own. We stuck around long enough to hear a couple of his biggest hits, “This Song” and “Seethrough,” before heading out and calling it a night.

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Imaginary Lines

Much of what we think of as the real world is actually collective dreaming. Money, laws, social mores, nation states don’t exist in any absolute sense; they’re not real the way rocks and trees and gravity are real. They’re shared agreements that could evaporate in an instant, and sometimes do.

Confronted by a national border, we are suddenly reminded how arbitrary our shared agreements are: the money in my pocket can be exchanged for goods on this side of the imaginary line, but not that side; I can relax here in the shade of this tree, but if I try to rest in the shade of that tree over there, armed men will stop me unless I go through a particular ritual involving specially prepared documents.

The DMZ — the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea — is an especially arbitrary border, the result of hasty decisions at the close of World War II and a military stalemate in 1953. It’s also the site of a bitter struggle between competing collective dreams, where each side has been preparing for 64 years for the other side to wake up and adopt the worldview of its opponent.

Dorasan Station

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A full-day tour of the DMZ begins at Dorasan Station, the northernmost point on the South Korean railway system and a monument to a South Korean dream of unification. The fully functional station has been used exactly once, for a test run into North Korea during a thaw in relations. It sits waiting for the moment when rail service to points north becomes possible. You have to buy a ticket to go to the platform. On the way in, I noticed a South Korean tap his paper ticket to the top of the turnstile, the way you do with your digital transit card in an operational South Korean train station. Nothing happened. Nothing ever happens here.

The Third Tunnel

For all that borders and nation states are imaginary, certain things are all too real: the landmines that make the DMZ impassable, and the tunnels the North Koreans dug at various points in attempts to infiltrate into South Korea. We visited the Third Tunnel because it’s the closest to Panmunjom. Surreally, you enter the tunnel in a little open train that feels like a kiddie ride at an amusement park.

Like everything else along the DMZ, the tunnels are the subject of a propaganda war. The North Koreans first claimed they had nothing to do with the tunnel — discovered by the South Koreans in 1978 because of underground explosions — then later claimed it was a coal mining operation, though the walls are obviously granite and the odds of finding coal in such a location are exactly zero.

Outside the tunnel, big letters spelling out DMZ are a kitschy place to take a photo, while a statue of young people pushing a divided world back together unfortunately made me think of Humpty Dumpty.

In a small garden at the edge of the compound, you could hear music drifting in on the breeze: South Korean propaganda being blasted at the North. This audio war, in which the North and South played music and taunting messages at ever increasing volume, had fallen into an armistice during the period of the Sunshine Policy, but the South started it up again a couple of years ago in response to some North Korean provocation or other, and now any North or South Koreans close enough to the border are subject to the whimsical musical choices of whatever South Korean colonel is in charge. On this particular day, I caught a bit of an old pop tune from 1994. (Thank you, Shazam.)

Looking down

From the tunnel, you continue on to Dorasan Observatory, where you can finally peer down on North Korea itself and see its enormous flagpole — once the highest in the world — which was built to overtop a South Korean flagpole. There’s a village down there that US officials say is empty and always has been: a Potemkin village that would be more laughable if we hadn’t just visited South Korea’s Potemkin train station. And you can see out to Kaesong, the industrial complex that was once the site of South Korean businesses operating in North Korea but is now shuttered.

There’s a line of mounted binoculars at Dorasan Observatory, and for 500 won you can take a closer look at the mysterious country beyond. I managed to catch sight of some fieldworkers — most clad in white, a few on the edges in gray, maybe supervisors or guards or who knows what. There was a frisson to seeing actual North Koreans, like spotting a rare animal on safari, and also a kind of sickening feeling about such voyeurism. It’s true that I’ve taken photos of poor peasant farmers in Laos and Myanmar without feeling particularly weird about it, but at least those folks could engage with me if they had wanted to. I was looking down on North Koreans who had no way of looking back.

Human beings

A DMZ tour isn’t really about North Koreans as human beings. At no point did any of our tour guides, South Korean or American, mention North Korea’s awful human rights record or the recurring famines that continue to torment the North Korean people. One way the DMZ works as an imaginary space is by turning North Koreans from individuals into representatives of their state: Bob the soldier, or tiny little dots in the distance seen from Dorasan, or anonymous tunnel diggers. But I know about all these things. I have friends who grew up on the other side of that border, and I know some of the hardships they endured, some of the traumas they still carry with them.

Perhaps that’s why the most affecting moment of the tour, for me, was a brief stopover after lunch, at a kitschy little tourist trap in Paju, close to the border. There we saw the Bridge of No Return, where prisoners of war were exchanged and had the option of choosing one or the other Korea to stay in. To consider the bridge was to think about the individuals crossing it, the reasons they had for choosing one side or the other and the sacrifices this must have entailed. We also learned about a shrine where people with North Korean roots come to do ancestor worship on the major Korean festivals, when all the other Koreans are heading to their hometowns. The thought of those people cut off from their roots was ineffably sad, and it made me think of the Book of Lamentations and the suffering of Jews in exile who could no longer reach their beloved Jerusalem.

Panmunjom

The highlight of the tour was our visit to the Panmunjom Truce Village. South Koreans aren’t allowed to join this part of the tour, and it’s frankly weird that anyone else can go there. We switched from our tour bus to a different bus, leaving our bags behind, and now we were under the care of a young American infantryman with a pistol prominently at his side.

The truce village itself isn’t much to look at, just some military buildings and some sheds in the middle, but everything is formal and tense. First we were given an introductory slideshow, narrated by our American soldier. We learned about the incident in which North Koreans hacked to death with axes two Americans who were trying to cut down a tree that blocked their view. We learned of a firefight that broke out in the 1980s when a Soviet journalist bolted for the South Korean side. We learned that the North Koreans never give the South Koreans or the US any information about what they plan to do, but that the South Koreans announce the day’s schedule and activities through a bullhorn each day to try to minimize the chances of any incidents.

Then, as we marched out into the open, we were told not to stop for anything, not even to tie our shoes, and not to try to signal to the North Koreans in any way. We stood outside for a bit, gazing across at a lone North Korean soldier standing in front of their rather formal building. The Americans call him Bob because he likes to bob in and out of the columns when the tourists come. South Korean soldiers stood around here and there, facing both north and south, motionless and intense in their taekwondo stances. (Their shifts are three-and-a-half hours.)

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Finally we had our turn to go inside the conference room. The American cheerfully said, “You’re in North Korea! You’re in North Korea!” as people began crossing the dividing line at the center of the room. Also in North Korea were two more of those motionless North Korean guards, there to prevent anyone from doing anything interesting. We stayed there for a few minutes, then filed out again.

Self-defense

Once we’d departed the truce village, I asked the American soldier about his life in Korea. He’s never been able to go down to Seoul, but sometimes he goes drinking in the nearest South Korean village. (Villagers near the border get free land and exemptions from taxes and military service, but you have to have North Korean roots to get the deal, and you also have to be back in your village before dark each night.)

He also said that being a tour guide made him the laughingstock of the infantry. “I got buddies who’re going to Syria, to Iraq, to Afghanistan,” he said. “At least they can defend themselves.” Then he paused. “I probably shouldn’t say anything.”

I wondered what he meant by that. Are American troops at the DMZ supposed to retreat or surrender if fighting breaks out? Maybe. I think the US would rather lose a few soldiers as prisoners and have time to negotiate or calculate a response rather than have an escalating military engagement in which North Korean soldiers are killed or wounded. This is probably not much fun for the US troops involved to contemplate, but it makes sense.

Back to our reality

And then, with one final visit to a gift shop, our tour came to an end. You can buy I Heart DMZ merchandize, which has a certain absurdist charm. I bought an armband like the ones the South Korean soldiers wear.

Then we rode the bus back down to Seoul, and my friends and I headed for Hongdae and its Saturday Night crowds. We ate barbecue and bingsu, watched buskers, bought some swanky new clothes at Aland. Some rampant capitalist indulgence felt good after a day spent contemplating one of the least compelling alternatives ever devised. But it also felt a little less real, a little more imaginary than usual. 

How Crowded is Your Bus?

When I say that life in Korea keeps getting better, I mean things like Seoul’s newly announced bus congestion monitoring.

There are electronic signboards at most bust stops that currently show which buses are coming and in how many minutes. This is already a phenomenal system, and the GPS it relies on is also available to local mapping apps, which can tell you how long you have to wait for the next bus going to where you want to go. The current system is an astonishing upgrade from the mapless chaos that prevailed back in 2001, when the buses were so confusing and unpleasant that I wrote an essay about it.

And now you’ll be able to see which buses are packed or empty before they arrive — especially useful at stations like the one I use every day in Yangjae, where any of a dozen buses will take me up Gangnamdaero and home. Instead of shoving myself into a packed 407 because it’s there, I could check the signboard and see that there’s a 440 coming in two minutes that has seats.

These kinds of improvements are individually not that big a deal. But there have been so many of them! When I first came to Korea, Saturday was still a workday for a significant number of people outside the retail sector. The rivers were in worse shape. The hiking trails weren’t nearly as well maintained. Coffee was uniformly terrible. And on and on.

Since I arrived last summer, already I’ve seen more of these kinds of incremental improvements: a plan to add more trash cans in Seoul, a plan to get end the practice of putting used toilet paper in smelly wastebaskets and use dissolving toilet paper instead, a president elected on pledges to reduce overwork and extend aid to the elderly, the opening of a Highline-style park. Bit by bit, things get better. It’s impressive and inspiring.

Minister Kang

When I was a speechwriter for the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations, from 2004 to 2008, Kang Kyung-hwa — Moon Jae-in’s appointee for Foreign Minister — impressed me before I was even hired.

I was interviewed for the job by a panel of five diplomats. At first I was asked the usual stuff: my background, how I heard about the job. Then the questions turned political, which probably shouldn’t have surprised me but did. “What do you think,” one of the men asked me, “about the United States response to 9/11 and the War on Terror?”

I gave what I thought was a diplomatic answer, saying that I appreciated South Korea’s participation in the Coalition of the Willing, and also that I had differences with the Bush administration, but that I didn’t want to criticize my government too strongly.

That’s when Kang Kyung-hwa spoke up. “But isn’t that the beauty of America?” she asked, smiling. “That you can criticize your government?”

The question cut through my bullshit. Somehow she invited criticism of the United States by praising it, and she made it clear that my evasions weren’t good enough. I responded, after maybe a bit more hedging, with something much closer to the truth.

I came to admire Kang for her strength, intelligence, and ability to cut through people’s preset defenses to get to what matters. During my years at the Mission, she had a significant role in the rapid passage of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, transformative global legislation that Koreans should be proud to have played a part in. Since then, she’s done human rights work at the United Nations.

Human Rights, in diplomacy terms, is considered a soft issue, along with social and cultural affairs. When I was at the Korean Mission, it was always women who had the soft-issue portfolios, while the men handled the so-called hard issues: defense,  security. Foreign ministers usually come from the hard-issue side. In choosing Kang, Moon Jae-in is doing more than just selecting a woman. First, he’s selecting an extraordinary woman; second, he’s signalling that issues of human rights and culture will play a central role in his administration’s domestic and foreign affairs.

When I worked with her, Kang Kyung-hwa’s title was Minister. I hope that she’s confirmed quickly, taking on that title again in a much higher-ranking role.

The Korea Situation

Here on the Korean Peninsula, something big is happening and everyone knows it. What was once a stable regime now has an uncertain future. You see signs of the political changes everywhere.

Literal signs.

I’m talking, of course, about the South Korean election, which is the most significant thing happening here, at least from the perspective of most South Koreans. There are election signs everywhere!

Why, what you you thinking?

Nothing has changed

I’m aware that for better or worse (mostly worse), I’m the Korea expert for a lot of people I know. My credentials extend as far as a couple semesters of politics courses focused on the region plus a few years in a minor role in the South Korean government a decade ago, plus I read things and I live here. So read on with that in mind.

So yeah, the North Korea nuclear thing.

North Korea has nukes and has had them for a while. North Korea has missiles and has had them for a while. North Korea is developing longer-range missiles and has been developing them for a while. There’s nothing happening this week that’s substantively different from what was happening six weeks ago when no one was talking about North Korea. North Korea has had the ability to nuke Tokyo for maybe a decade, and we’ve lived with it, just as we live with Pakistan having both nuclear weapons and a very serious Islamist insurgent problem.

Tensions are high, but the US is going to great lengths to signal that we’re not going to war. The secretary of state and vice president assured South Korea that the US wouldn’t launch an attack without Seoul’s approval, which is not likely to be forthcoming. There’s zero panic in South Korea, and no real reported panic in North Korea either.

We’ve been here before. We’ll probably be here again. As it goes on, ignore right-wing cranks who insist that this is the red-line moment and that the situation demands action now. Ignore left-wing cranks who insist that this is all American provocation and North Korea is just misunderstood. None of that is true. North Korea’s regime is brutal and murderous, with a horrific human rights record. They just killed a guy in a Malaysian airport. They’re not nice. They’re also not nuking anyone next week. And the best solution to the situation is not outright war, just as you don’t resolve a hostage situation by blowing up the whole neighborhood (well, maybe Russia does).

So take a deep breath. If you’re American, calm down and keep protesting the president for the actual awful things he’s doing. If you’re South Korean, make sure to vote in the upcoming election. And if you’re president of a nearby country, please see if you can avoid starting a war.

 

Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #5: Ujangsan

Suburbs

Before I first came to Korea to teach English in 2001, I was told that I’d be living in the suburbs of Seoul, and I imagined something like Marin County or Long Island: detached houses, shopping malls, people with cars. Then I ended up living in an area more densely populated than most of Brooklyn.

So what makes a suburb? In Korea, even though these outlying areas have more or less the same apartment towers, the same main roads with the same office buildings and coffee shops, the same back streets with little restaurants and bars, there’s nevertheless a different feeling from the more central distrits in Seoul. It’s hard to pin it down exactly what’s different, but my two companions — a Colombian and an American, neither of whom has spent much time in these kinds of neighborhoods — were strangely exhilarated by our walk through a typical stand of Korean apartment towers, as we passed the usual convenience stores, laundries, an English school and a kindergarten or two.

Soon we cut between two buildings and headed up into the hills of Ujangsan Park, thick with forest. It’s not a high mountain, and in a few minutes we were at the top, where we found what you usually find at the top: a gym.

Everything old is new again

After a steep scrabble down a not-quite-legit trail, we were out on the main road again, heading north until we passed Yangcheon Hyanggyo Station and entered into a bit of a historical district, though historical in a distinctly Korean way.

First we came to the looming Hongwonsa Temple. Part of Korea’s main Jogye order, it’s nevertheless built in an unusual style, and I learned from a monk that the abbot was inspired by his experiences with Southeast Asian Buddhism.

Just beyond the temple is the ancient Confucian school that gives the nearby subway station its mouthful of a name. According to a sign inside the school, Yangcheon Hyanggyo was founded in 1411, in the early decades of the Joseon Dynasty, but you’d be hard pressed to find anything physical that actually dates back to the 15th century. I did find a foundation stone dated 1980 for the main building.

Like most traditional buildings in Seoul, these have obviously been rebuilt numerous times, most recently during the restoration boom of the late 20th century, when South Korea’s economic strength caught up with its national pride and it became possible to recreate the heritage that had been lost during the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. (Don’t underestimate how many historically important buildings were destroyed by the former rather than the latter.)

Also in the neighborhood is the Gyeomjae Jeongseon Art Museum, which is full of replicas of the paintings of a particular artist who once lived in the area, along with a diorama of what the little village once looked like.

This artificiality can be disappointing if you’re attached to a Western romantic idea of authenticity, of the aura of the thing in itself. But there’s something poignant about it too: a Confucian school that has survived for centuries and remains active — there was a group of school girls there when we arrived, getting lessons in etiquette from a woman in a hanbok — persisting not through its physicality but on the strength of its ideals and the traditions upholding them. And, to be fair, I’m a proud graduate of Columbia University, which was founded in 1754 as King’s College, and good luck finding any physical remnant of that event on today’s campus in Morningside Heights.

Building the future

If the area around Yangcheon Hyanggyo is a bit run down, that’s probably because of the massive LG Science Park that’s under construction on the western edge of the district. For now, landowners are probably holding out and holding off, waiting to sell or upgrade until the opening of the enormous new R&D campus. It’s an interesting move for LG, shifting from the tech corridor in Seocho and south of Gangnam to the western districts, out by the airports, that have for some time been trying to build themselves up as Seoul’s future, but so far haven’t really taken off.

We made an attempt to get to the Han River, but we dead-ended in an apartment complex and decided to call it a day. We hopped a local bus back to the subway station, stopped for a rest at a little cafe that sold Guarneri-brand Korean microbrew, and then headed home.

Pride in Samsung

Sejong was a very great king whose benevolence and personal sacrifice for the good of the people were unparalleled. Koreans work very long hours. The famous bell in Gyeongju is the greatest bell in the world, and Koreans invented astronomy. Bowing is important. We expats are agents of change who must learn to conform and adapt. Learn the language. Go out to dinners with the team. Be nice. Be likeable. Be direct and transparent, but be careful not to say anything to anyone about anything in a meeting. Korean is a high-context language. Find allies. Samsung is the best and also hard for everyone.

Above all, be patient.

These were among the things I learned, often repeatedly, during five long and intense days of global newcomer training at Samsung’s residential facility in Yongin, just outside Seoul.

I was skeptical going in — after six months, how much of a newcomer am I really? — but having completed the course, I’m glad I went. If I had to summarize the course content, I would divide it into three main areas:

  1. Samsung is amazing!
  2. How to handle Korean culture/all the things you’re doing wrong
  3. Typical corporate training stuff

Samsung is amazing!

Every morning we watched hokey corporate-boosterish videos with iffy English about Samsung’s mighty history and many divisions. But the thing is, even if you want to be kind of cynical about it, Samsung really is amazing.

The company made some audacious bets and smart moves through the years that transformed Korea: building color TVs before there was any color broadcasting in Korea and exporting them to Panama, then pouncing on the domestic market once color was finally introduced; going into semiconductors with zero infrastructure and clawing its way to first place; deciding to swing from back-of-the-store junk TV maker to design innovator to leap into first place globally. A bunch of my classmates were from Samsung Biologics, which is doing to pharmaceutical manufacture what Samsung did to TVs and semiconductors and smart phones: taking over, basically. And did you know that Samsung built the Burj Khalifa in Dubai? Or that it’s floated the biggest ship hull in the world? I didn’t. (There were also, at times during the course, acknowledgements of failures, as well as of the ways that government and other sources provided support along the way.)

As a survivor of the dot-com boom and seven years at Google, I don’t swallow corporate narratives of glory uncritically. But Samsung, as a leader and driver of Korea, Inc., has really, genuinely done some amazing, audacious stuff.

To see some other sides of Samsung, we spent one afternoon mostly outdoors. First we went to Samsung Guide Dog School, a social responsibility program Samsung introduced into Korea when nothing like it existed. The school breeds labrador retrievers and places the puppies with volunteer families, who socialize them for a year. Then the pups come in for six to eight months of training. Seventy percent wash out and become pets, mostly with their volunteer families. Thirty percent are matched with a vision-impaired person for about ten years of work and companionship. When they retire, they go again to a volunteer family — often the same one as before — and get care for the remainder of their lives. The people who work for the program are dedicated to helping the disabled live full lives, and also to transforming Korea’s relationship with and image around dogs.

From there we headed to the lovely Ho-Am Museum and Hee Won Garden, set up in 1982 by Samsung’s chairman to house his collection of Korean art and reintroduce Korean Confucian garden landscaping to the public at time when little of Korean tradition was publicly celebrated.

How to handle Korean culture/all the things you’re doing wrong

 

I’ve been in professional life long enough to know my strengths and weaknesses pretty well. If colleagues in New York sometimes found me abrasive and aggressive, and if the gentle young Singaporean woman in our training has been called out for being too direct and confrontational, then I must be Bill O’Reilly to the Koreans I work with. It’s not fun to see where you’ve screwed up the social relations that are so important anywhere, but especially in Korea. I realize that I have work to do when I get back to the office on Monday.

But it was also reassuring, in a way, to hear the same experience from everyone — from others in the course, from a panel of expats who’ve re-signed at least once, from an expat success story who’s starting his own spin-off company, from a Korean-American vice president. The Samsung expat narrative is this: I came on too strong, I suffered for it, I learned to be patient and hold back and pick my battles, and I survived.

Beyond that, we had sessions on bowing and etiquette (don’t stick your spoon in your rice bowl!), videos on Korean history, a chance to try on hanbok. A lot of this, for me, was old hat, but I could see that it meant a lot to my colleagues who are new to Korean culture, and I’m sure it will be helpful to them in getting along here.

Typical corporate training stuff

On top of the Korean culture stuff and the Samsung stuff, we also had some typical corporate stuff: a creative brainstorming workshop, a session devoted to setting out our vision for the next year. I think this sort of training is especially valuable for the younger employees, but I was surprised by just how many of the experienced professionals had never done anything like it. It made me realize how lucky I was to get all the training Google gave me: courses on personal branding and managing my energy and accomplishing my dreams, four days of leadership training in the Santa Cruz Mountains where I learned what color I am (orange), workshops on unconscious bias, a regular process of setting and measuring goals.

It’s more of a challenge to get this sort of enrichment at Samsung, at least in Korea, because so much of it is done in Korean. Even if the material was, for me, a bit of a repetition, it was good to see that Samsung is at least making an attempt to bring professional development to its foreign employees.

Samsung is people

The best part of the course, by far, was the people. I met some amazing people from a bunch of parts of the company I never knew existed — Biologics, Bioepis, Fire and Marine Insurance, Global Strategy Group. I met people from India who live in my building, and people from the US, Vietnam, China, Singapore, Japan, Sweden, Colombia, Iran, Puerto Rico. We ranged from fresh out of college to senior managers with a lot more experience than me. It’s good to have made these new friends. As expats, we can help each other to adjust, stay sane, and understand what’s going on around us.

On Monday I’ll go back to my job and dive right back in, I suppose, but this time with a broader sense of where it fits into the bigger Samsung picture and of what I can do to play my part successfully.

Happy Korea

The challenge for Koreans is to establish the vision of the happiness of the individual and shake off the old values and habits that stand in the way. That would seal their miracles.

-Michael Breen, The New Koreans

During my week of Samsung training for global newcomers, we were asked to think about big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAGs, as they’re known). Mine dawned on me on the bus ride home: I want to make Korea happy.

Not happy campers

According to the World Happiness Report, South Korea ranks 56th in national happiness. That’s not so bad out of 155 countries, but you’d think a prosperous democracy with low unemployment would do better than to sit sandwiched between Romania and Moldova. South Korea is also in second place for suicide rate. Young people here call the country Hell Joseon (the name of the last dynasty). Work hours are too long, school hours are too long, no one can afford to get married or take the time to raise kids, conformity is stifling, pressure to succeed and look good is overwhelming. The older generation is dour and haunted by deprivation; the younger generation is frazzled and overworked.

Nor does Korea have much history of individualism, much less hedonism. A close friend once informed me, “Love is sacrifice.” At our Samsung training, we were told how our chairman gave up alcohol and took up fitness because personal transformation was necessary for corporate transformation. We learned that Hyundai’s chairman lived on-site during his company’s construction of the Seoul-to-Busan highway, sleeping in a jeep. We watched a video about King Sejong, who gave up any personal life to rule the nation and slept in a thatched hut for two years because he felt personally responsible for a drought. This is the Korean idea of virtue.

Choosing a new impossibility

On the face of it, South Korea looks like a poor prospect for happiest nation on earth. But if I’d told you in 1960, when GDP per capita was $156, that South Korea would be an economic powerhouse in 30 years, you might have said the same thing. Or if I’d told you in 1980 that South Korea would be a democracy by the end of the decade. Or in 2000 that its food, fashion, TV, movies, and music would be globally popular in less than twenty years. Or that it would lead the world in semiconductors, televisions, smart phones. South Korea has a habit of doing what seems impossible. It would be foolish to underestimate this country.

What counts, I think, is commitment. When Koreans decide, they go, fast and hard.

So the question is, Do South Koreans want to be happy?

My BHAG

I think Koreans do want to be happy. They’re beautifying their cities, talking more about work-life balance and self-actualization. But it’s hard still for them to articulate the idea of personal happiness.

And that’s where maybe I can help. I’ve had a lot of training in happiness. As an American, I’m pretty comfortable with the concept. And maybe the reason I’m here in Korea is to share that understanding — that whole way of thinking — with Koreans.

For now, that will come in small ways: trying to bring that spirit to my work life, sharing it with my friends, working on learning the language and the culture so I can engage more deeply. Further down the road, I want to look at how I can make this bigger. Much bigger.

For that, I’ll need help. If you like what I’m saying — if you believe in your heart that Koreans can be happy, should be happy, will be happy — then let’s talk.

Preferably somewhere fun.

Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #4: Sinseol-dong and Seoul Folk Flea Market

Old Seoul

Dongdaemun is best known for its fast-fashion discount malls and the futuristic Zaha Hadid-designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza, but its markets sprawl in every direction. Head south and west, and you get to Seoul’s Central Asian district, with signs in Cyrillic and restaurants that serve horse meat. Head east, and the new gives way to the old.

From Dongmyo Station to Sinseol-dong Station is a vast district of indoor and outdoor antique shops and secondhand markets selling everything imaginable: old stereos, electric guitars, furniture, statues, piles of discount clothes, real and fake designer handbags, practice butterfly knives with dull blades, LED batons for guiding traffic, a framed portrait of dictator Park Chung-hee, celadon pots, terrible ink-brush paintings, toy cars, Harley Davidson leather vests, shoes with springs for soles, Japanese candy, life-size bronze statues of scantily clad women playing instruments, Southwest-style steer skulls, toy guns, Bowie knives, old Korean post boxes and school desks, stuffed animals, socks, watches, AM radios and hi-fi systems of every vintage, industrial detritus, tents, VHS pornography and a CRT TV to watch it on, Air Supply on LP, bronze bells with dokkaebi faces. For a start.

The patrons, too, are vintage, with a median age hovering around sixty. (In that way — and only in that way — it’s like shopping in Scottsdale, Arizona.) Sinseol-dong isn’t quite Seoul as it once was — there’s an awkward simulation of that on the top floor of the two-story indoor Seoul Folk Flea Market (서울풍물사장), where we started out our day — but it’s more than just a market. Dongmyo is a place to come if you want to surround yourself with the things you remember from when you were young and the people who remember them too. The air of rough-and-tumble nostalgia is a respite from Seoul’s relentless new-and-shiny transformations and trendy upgrades. The going soundtrack is trot, Korea’s bouncy downmarket schmaltz-pop for the poorly educated elderly, and you can pull up a blue plastic stool at an outdoor food stall for some fish cake and a little makgeolli, or let yourself be entertained by the hawkers and hucksters shilling their wares on the street.

And it was packed. You hear that Korea has a demographic bulge of middle-aged people, but you don’t really feel it in Seoul’s more fashionable areas. Here, though, throngs of older Koreans filled the streets and alleyways. There were hardly any foreigners — not even from Asian countries — and only a scattering of young people in search of a vintage come-up. But there were older Koreans by the thousand.

Into the hills

_DSC0937After a few hours of crowds and musty things, we popped out onto Jongno, the main road, and spied a traditional pavilion up a steep hill to the north, in an area I’d never been to before. We started up into one of those precarious Seoul neighborhoods where the streets narrow down into uneven concrete staircases between the old houses. There are oddities tucked away in these areas: we passed a Buddhist temple, and also a hagwon for people who want to learn Hebrew, before emerging into the open space of Sungin Park (숭인공원).

One of the pleasures of Seoul is that you can see it from above, taking in its vast density from the rocky promontories that rise up out of it. It was a misty, dusty day, but we could see south to Namsan Tower, north to Bukhansan, and west to Inwangsan, picking out landmark skyscrapers in the basins far below us.

From the pavilion, the park extended northward and upward to several viewpoints, the highest of which was graced with an open library and a pretty extensive array of weights and gym machines, because that’s what Koreans like to put at the tops of mountains.

We decided to continue on to Daehangno, an art and culture district not too far away to the west. The path took us along a road that neatly divided new and old Seoul: on one side, elegant new apartment towers; on the other, brick buildings clinging to the mountainside, full of makeshift extensions, green plastic-lined roofs and mismatched brown earthenware onggi pots.

We passed Cheongnyongsa Temple (청룡사), then crossed into well-groomed Naksan Park (낙산공원), where a stretch of the old city wall soars over the city far below.

The cutest street in Seoul

We emerged from Naksan Park onto Naksan-gil, which has to be one of the cutest streets in all of Seoul. It’s a steep climb down, lined with galleries and boutiques, and I was delighted to stumble on U-noh Gallery. A few years ago I bought a couple of U-noh’s energetic flower paintings at the Hongdae Free Market for the paltry sum of 70,000 won. He now has a full gallery up above Daehangno, where he also does leather work and makes gorgeous painted handbags. It’s art you can probably afford and one-of-a-kind artisan leatherwork. Go check it out!

We rounded out the day with a tasty meal at Grill Thai Noodle & Steak, where you pick out your own veggies for your pad thai, and a little shopping at Hands Market, where I got bootleg Gentle Monster sunglasses for 14,000 won, plus a very profound hat.

 

What I want from Korea’s next president

  1. Cleaner air.
  2. An end to South Korea’s antiquated ActiveX security requirements, which keep this country stuck on IE even though Microsoft is no longer developing it.
  3. Public trash cans.

Also, like, an end to endemic corruption, a balanced policy of limited engagement with North Korea, a social safety net that protects the elderly even if they have kids with money (South Korean welfare is based not just on your own wealth, but that of your children) and distributes the burden fairly. But cleaner air, an end to ActiveX, and public trash cans would go a long way toward improving my quality of life.