Thesis

I have, at long last, posted my master’s thesis online. Called Swiss Gods Don’t Like Rice Cake, it tells the story of how Korean shamanism has begun to incorporate non-Koreans as shamans. You can find it here.

New and old

Design Korea has posted some pictures of a Korean house with a cutaway roof, designed by the Korean architecture firm IROJE KHM.

The house looks exquisite, if perhaps a bit awkward to furnish. But what I find fascinating about it, beyond the intrinsic cleverness and whimsy, is how well it manages to be at once contemporary and rooted in local tradition — in this case, that of the Korean hanok,

I find this fascinating not just for its intrinsic cleverness, but because it is a very rare example of an architecture that feels at once contemporary and rooted in a local tradition — in this case, the Korean hanok, with its dark-gray sloped roof and its interior courtyard.

It’s a synthesis that’s hard to pull off. Too often, especially in Asia, the attempt to integrate local traditions into modern architecture results in modernism with retro decorative flourishes. But it’s not surprising to me that Korean architects would be feeling their way toward a deeper fusion. Korea has made a concerted effort over the past decade to find ways to bring its traditional culture into its modern culture.

Korea has an interesting history when it comes to working with its own traditions. China went through the Cultural Revolution, during which traditional culture was vilified and destroyed in an orgy of violence. Japan, on the other hand, after the rapid modernization of the Meiji Restoration, suffered the defeat of its modern nation while retaining its emperor, leading to a reactionary cultural conservatism that’s much less prominent in Korea. Korea (and here I mean South Korea) has used its traditional culture for various purposes in the modern era, first as a rallying point for national autonomy against Japanese colonialism, and later both to legitimate the conservative military government and to rebel against it. The result is perhaps more flexibility than one finds in either China or Japan when it comes to working with traditional culture in a modern context.

When I first came to Korea, in 2001, traditional culture was still somewhat fenced off, seen as maybe a bit of an embarrassment by a country keen on taking its place among the developed nations. But as Korea has grown more confident, there has been more willingness not just to preserve traditions, but to extend them, to grow them, to let them live and breathe. This unusual house is just one example of many, and a rare architectural example. I hope to see more such architectural innovation coming out of Korea.

[things i’d like to write about but haven’t]

  • My trip to Budapest and Vienna.
  • My trip to Ann Arbor. And Ypsilanti.
  • All the churches in Brooklyn Heights: visit each, learn about it, attend a service, blog it.
  • My life as a Korean dancer.
  • My theory of Tom Tom Club vs. David Byrne.
  • My trip to Ghana.
  • Being sick abroad.
  • Toilets of the world (this one’s more of a photo essay).
  • My trip to Mexico. (Noting a theme?)
  • My trip to Paris.
  • An open letter to the mayor demanding seasonal weather changes. (This will be funnier when actually written, I hope.)

[how to fail like an olympian]

When you watch the Olympics, it can be easy to forget just how ridiculously good these people are at whatever bizarre thing it is they’re doing. Take, for example, figure skating. Early in the evening of the ladies’ long program, long before Kim Yu-Na and the other medal contenders took the ice, there was Tuğba Karademir, a Turkish skater who ultimately came in 24th.

Now, I have never been the 24th-best person in the world at any particular skill, as far as I know. It’s an extraordinary achievement. And yet, watching her skate, it was absolutely clear why she was in a different class from the top five or six skaters in the world. So when you’re watching the coverage of a medal contender in the slalom who misses a gate, or of a bobsled team that plays it conservatively and can’t shave off that hundredth of a second they need to take the lead, you go, “Yeah, that was a mistake,” and you forget how insanely difficult it is to do whatever it is the athletes are doing in the first place.

And after a couple of weeks of that sort of thing, today I went to my Korean dance class, and I imagined what it would mean to be the best in the world at it, or one of the top ten or twenty. For one thing, it would mean practicing more often than once a week for 90 minutes. My dance teacher is an extraordinary dancer, and part of how you get to be that way is to do it a lot. And then there’s the level of detail: spending a week or a month or six months concentrating on just the right way to get your torso to expand and contract, or how to extend your fingers to draw out a line.

Beyond that, as I fumbled my way through my little bit of choreography, I started thinking about how much concentration is a part of athletic success. Sometimes, as I dance, some move I’ve just done half a dozen times will suddenly desert me, and I’ll be shrugging my shoulders when I’m supposed to be twirling already, or my arms will be flopping at my sides because I’ve forgotten where they’re supposed to be. Again, this is incredibly far removed from the kind of mental effort that serious athletes make, but I felt like it was an inkling, at the very least, of how it is that someone who’s done a routine a thousand times in warm-ups can suddenly flub it in competition.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming.

[so what’s this korean dance you’re learning?]

This is a reasonable question that a number of people have asked me, including my mom. A quick search for Korean dance on YouTube turns up mostly pop, and if you throw in the word “traditional,” you get mostly women. And I had to admit that even I wasn’t very clear on what the dance style I’m learning is supposed to look like when a man does it. (When it comes to men’s dancing, I’m much more familiar with the twirly hat stuff and the 사물노리 (samulnori) farmers’ dance.)

So I went searching, and I’ve turned up a few examples, which I will present for you here without further ado (better to link through where you can see the YouTube videos in a bigger size):
The first one is, I believe, roughly what my teacher has in mind for me. The odds of my dancing that well are not high. My parents told me about a budding jazz singer they knew who started weeping when they played a Sarah Vaughan record for her, and I kind of feel like that watching this video.
All of these dancers are impressive, and having taking a few classes, I have a much clearer idea of just how challenging it is to move gracefully through these poses. It’s a beautiful form of dance, and extraordinarily foreign to me. I remember how startling it was when a crowd of people started up with a folk version of this sort of thing during the halftime of Korea’s quarterfinal game in the 2002 World Cup, dancing in a circle and banging drums and cymbals there in the dirt field of the local middle school.
Bonus: For those who don’t know, Korea has perhaps the world’s most badass b-boy culture. Please to enjoy. 멋있다!

[more dancing with the ajummas]

As my grandfather tells it, he always thought of himself as rather weak and small. He’s short, and as a child he seems to have been somewhat bookish (though his idea of bookishness was to run five miles to the library, get a book, and run five miles back), and as an adult he became a corporate lawyer, not a role that necessarily calls for strapping men.

Then, in his forties, he took up mime. Now, this was before mimes became a horrible punchline, before that awful time in the eighties when mimes, like the homeless, became a constant urban menace. The way her learned mime, it was a serious, strenuous art form. He lost weight, gained strength, and developed a sense of physical presence and spatial awareness that was still serving him well into his eighties, as he would dance about the kitchen, closing cabinet doors behind him with his foot.
I take after my grandfather in a lot of ways, and certainly physically. As a kid, I was small for my age, and I was never much good at sports. Compulsory Israeli folkdance at summer camp was always a horror of ineptitude and humiliation. And you might have noticed that I have certain bookish tendencies.
But in the last couple of years, I’ve started to dance. I was not the quickest student in my swing classes, but I wasn’t consistently the slowest, either. And at this point in my life, I’m willing to learn slowly and awkwardly. It’s really OK. I make a grownup living and can spell and all that, so it’s not really a big deal if my Charleston is a little sloppier than some other people’s.
And now I’ve managed to find my way into Korean dance. Karen, the resident American who’s been studying this stuff for 15 years, insists that I’m learning faster than most students, that I’ve got great lines, that I’m a natural. I kind of think this might be similar to the way Koreans have been telling me my language skills are amazing ever since I learned to say hello, but she might also be being honest. For once, it seems, my odd little duck walk may be paying dividends. I tend to walk back on my heels, with splayed feet, and I’ve been told this is the walk of a yangban, or traditional Korean gentry. And my years of swing dance practice have taught me to keep my knees bent. So maybe I am better at following dance instructions than I used to be. Maybe my physical prowess is greater than it was when I was 12 and practicing layups.

[cookin’ with nanta]

The Korean show Cookin’, also known as Nanta, has arrived in New York City for an open-ended run. We saw this in Seoul and had a blast. Here’s the writeup from AOL CityGuide New York:

If the Food Network’s ‘Iron Chef’ show married Broadway’s ‘Stomp’, this would be their wacky offspring. Direct from Seoul, South Korea to the Minetta Lane Theatre comes an hour of gustatory excitement called ‘Cookin’.’ Four chefs are given a simple mission by a frenzied maitre d’: Prepare an entire feast (and a wedding banquet, no less) in only one hour, all while accompanied by strains of jazz, rock and Korean music. That’s a 60-minute non-stop music-and-food extravaganza as these kitchen masters use up nearly every single utensil in search of the perfect rhythm and combine cooking and traditional Korean Samulnori drumming. At the end of the show, they will have managed to prepare a meal of dumplings, soup and stir-fry, but it’s the process that makes this worth watching. Knives pound on the chopping block, broomsticks metamorphose into fighting tools, plates soar and fruit turn into madcap projectiles and juggling props. Best of all, some fortunate audience members will have the opportunity to taste the results; a lucky pair will even be in on the act, starring as the bride and groom, Ms. Lee and Mr. Kim.

As the white guy in the audience, I got picked to be Mr. Kim, and I married a sweet young Korean woman whose name I never got. But I still have a picture of myself in the silly hat the Cookin’ people strapped to my head.