Six Months, 10 Years, 42.5 Trips Around the Sun

Today is March 8, exactly half a year from my birthday, and exactly six months from when I arrived in Korea to stay. I arrived the night before with a work visa, which meant my 42nd birthday was my first full day living in Korea, not just traveling.

I’m still finding my way, at work and in my personal life. I still feel helpless a lot of the time, cut off by a language I feel like I should know better by now. I have friends here, some of them close, but I still feel new and disconnected. I’m an alien, so I suppose it’s not so strange that I feel alienated. It’s also exhilarating sometimes, and much of the time it’s just ordinary. I live here, go to work in an office, come home, sit on the couch, have a snack. Sometimes the very normality still weirds me out. I feel like I still have no idea how to make this work, even though I’m making it work.

3653 days at a time

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Sad Josh, circa 2008.

Today is also my sober anniversary. Ten years. No, I’m not celebrating with a drink.

Ten years ago, my life was a mess. My marriage was coming apart, I was quitting a decades-old pot habit, I was deep in debt to the IRS. I lost most of my friends in the divorce, changed jobs, and moved out to Bay Ridge, where I went to an AA meeting and was told, “Hi, I’m Michael, and this is Ant-knee. You’re gonna meet a lotta Michaels and Ant-knees down here.” The recurring memory I have of that time is walking home from the subway carrying two plastic bags, a tub of Ben & Jerry’s in one and a Subway sandwich in the other, listening to Radiohead sing about “15 steps, then a sheer drop” on my iPod and crying.

Remember iPods?

It was not a good time.

Ten years gone

Ten years later (three of them leap), it’s astonishing how much has changed, mostly for the better. I’m grateful to the help I got along the way from new and old friends, good therapists, loving family, mediocre bosses, twelve-step programs, Landmark Education. I suppose the biggest thing I learned in that time in my life was how to ask for help — how to be humble enough to admit that I don’t know how to do everything already.

Another important lesson was that everyone will leave you eventually no matter what, and you just have to deal with that. That sounds harsh, but it’s how the universe is organized. Even if we stay friends to the end of our days, we’ll part when we die. In accepting change and loss, I found an opening to living in the moment, enjoying the time we have instead of trying to preserve the present for the future.

I also learned to invite everyone to everything, and I still do that, more or less. Just ask a bunch of people what they’re up to this weekend and see who makes time for you. Because those people are your friends. They might not be the people you picked out at first as the most exciting or attractive or whatever, but they care enough about you to show up, which is way more important.

The next ten years

You might have noticed by now that I’m a bit obsessed with the passage of time. What percentage of my life have I spent abroad? How many days has it been since I started at Samsung? I keep track of this sort of thing in spreadsheets.

But all that tracking of the past hasn’t made the future any easier to imagine. I don’t know what the next decade will be like. Will I still be here in Korea? What will my life be like? The only thing the tracking really does is make it clear that ten years is a very long time and remind me that I’m still at the beginning of whatever this is I’m doing with my life now.

 

Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #3: Mullae Station

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I had been to Mullae once before, on the coldest night of the year, to go to the Mullae Arts Center and see what turned out to be an outstanding performance by drummer Kim So Ra. But I decided not to count that hustle through the darkened neighborhood as a full visit, and on a dusty Sunday I headed back.

_DSC0870Inside the subway station, there’s a spinning wheel — a mulle (물레), a cute little visual pun on the name of the neighborhood.

The most interesting section of Mullae is taken up with row upon row of grungy old machine shops, a kind of Dongdaemun Market for welders. As happens with these kinds of industrial zones, artists have begun to move in, finding cheap space where no one will mind if you’re hammering away at midnight or producing clouds of toxic fumes, because so are your neighbors, except they’re putting together storage racks while you’re making a space dinosaur. The area is still pretty run down and gritty, but punctuated now with hip little cafes and the occasional gallery, not to mention plenty of murals and street sculptures. Sunday afternoon is probably not the best time to go — a lot of places were closed — but we were still able to get sense of the area.

The Mullae Arts Village, which is still very much also the Mullae industrial zone, is actually a pretty small area, hemmed in by a school and a nice new park and a river to the south. Leaving Exit 7 and heading south along the main road, across the street from the park, you know you’re there when you see the Mullae Arts Village sign, the metal horse, and the giant welding mask.

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The scale of the workshops, industrial and artistic, is also small. These are one-story DIY outfits, very different from the soaring and spacious commercial warehouses that artists took over in New York’s SoHo and DUMBO. There are places like this in New York — those strange mashed-up-car zones in Queens are probably the closest approximation — but so far artists haven’t moved into them.  The result, in Mullae, is an area that lacks the visual grandeur of those New York artists’ districts, but that feels surprisingly intimate and handmade, with odd old boarded-up doorways and random openings.

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Because the existing buildings are small and hinky, they’re not likely to get turned into fancy lofts. If the neighborhood goes residential, it’ll do it by tearing everything down and putting up beige apartment blocks. But I hope that doesn’t happen. Seoul should hang on to at least some of its grit and funk.

We lingered long enough for curries at Gyeongseong Curry (decent, sign only in Korean) and coffee at The Warrior Coffee Roasting Lab (tasty).

From there, we crossed the main street and wandered further south, passing one of the more interesting, and larger, buildings in the area, which is covered with murals and has the very appealing-looking Old Mullae brewpub inside.

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From there, we headed back toward the station and a visit to Homeplus.

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Girl with the thumbtack earring.

Home Minus

_DSC0901If you live in Korea, at some point you find yourself at Emart or Homeplus, much as anyone in America eventually winds up at Target or WalMart. The grocery sections of these big-box stores are still thriving, but the housewares are beginning to look a little threadbare. For small conveniences, people go to Daiso now — a branch of the Japanese chain is always nearby — while delivery websites like Coupang have cut into the business for big-ticket and bulky items.

I suppose that Emart and Homeplus have always been exhausting — my ex-wife used to get Emart headaches back in my earlier Korean life in 2001-2o02 — but they seem somehow worse than they once were. On the plus side, though, the girls who hawk candy and canned goods are no longer forced to dance in ridiculous outfits. In any case, my attempt to buy more stylish dishes than the ones Samsung gave me was thwarted by Homeplus’s near total lack of dishes. So I ordered some dishes from Coupang instead.

And thus ended Adventure #3. But for your viewing pleasure, I hereby offer you this stunning masterpiece of ajossi fashion from the subway ride home. Who says Korea’s got no style?

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Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #2: Hakdong Station

Brotherood Kitchen.

For my second Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure, I stayed closer to home — so close, in fact, that I never actually rode the subway. On a holiday Wednesday, my Korean friend and I set out from Gangnam, which is home, and walked over to Brotherhood Kitchen for what they call “American Home Food” and I call soul food.

Now, I’m no expert on either soul food or Southern food, but what they cook up at Brotherhood is at least tasty. We had the fried chicken and waffles, which is salty and sweet and decadent, with a weird gooey cheese sauce on top. But I think I liked the roast chicken with chili and yellow rice better.

Chicken and waffles.
Roast chicken with chili and yellow rice.

Little houses on a hill

We headed up the hill that starts behind Gangnamdae-ro, an area you’d think I’d know pretty well, but I don’t yet. It’s upscale, with stylish cafes, little shops, and here and there actual detached houses that look like they’ve been around for a while.

One of the most interesting of these houses, just past Eonju Station, is the Nonhyeon flagship store of Gentle Monster, whose sunglasses are amazing, and whose stores are more amazing than the sunglasses. The store in Nonhyeon has an actual ship attached to it, and the interior contains an astonishing array of strange art machines. And some sunglasses, including a line in partnership with Tilda Swinton and some glasses they did with Hood By Air, which is pretty impressively hip company to be keeping. I tried on many a pair, but I still haven’t found the Gentle Monster pair that calls to me. Someday, though, I will get a pair. Surprisingly, while they’re not cheap, they don’t cost any more than a pair of Ray Bans or Oakleys.

A little house.
Get it? Flagship? Gentle Monster in Nonhyeon.
Yes, that’s a pencil.

Saddles and chairs

Hakdong Station.

We made our way to Hakdong Station, and from there we followed Hakdong-no to Nonhyeon Station. The whole stretch is full of furniture stores on both sides — not the typical Korean places, but the sorts of places where you can get, say, hideous French-inspired kitsch for $10,000, or a coffee table by Jean-Paul Gaultier. There’s some good stuff in there too, and not all of it at insane prices, but it’s certainly high-end. Still, it’s considerably more stylish and diverse than the sort of stuff you find in the big department stores here.

If I had a lot of money to spend making a very large apartment look like a hip urban hotel, I would come here. Realistically, though, if I’m gonna spend a lot on furniture in Korea, it will probably be on very Korean furniture, like an antique chest of drawers or something. To me, that’s exciting and different. My Korean companion, though, was fascinated by a display that looked like something my Grandma Hannah or my Aunt Belle would’ve gone for, all flower prints and swoopy Victorian curlicues. She grew up in a house full of old Korean furniture, which doesn’t much interest her. What’s exotic, to her, is the sort of Western stuff she wasn’t around very much because no one under 90 decorates that way. She responds to American granny gear the way I respond to weird old statues and tombs here.

Furniture!

Maybe the oddest shop along this stretch is Balio, which is where you go if you want fancy horse-riding gear. Why is it here, in Gangnam? I have no idea, except that people must come here to buy stuff. I wonder if the Choi Soon-sil scandal’s equestrian connection has been bad for business?

Gear for the horsey set.

Fire and rain

With that, we headed back to my neighborhood. By evening, it had started to rain, so we decided to sit by some blazing coals in a neighborhood restaurant that offers unlimited beef barbecue (no more than two hours and a 5000-won charge for leftover meat). The initial course was something like six thin steaks and a big pile of chopped up rib meat, so we never even got around to asking for more. It was smoky and delicious and a fine way to end the day.

Coals for barbecue.
A rainy night in Gangnam.

…Aaaaand, we’re back!

Sorry for the little hiatus there. I was transitioning from WordPress.com to WordPress.org, and it took a little time.

I want to give a shout-out to WPBeginner, who did the entire transfer for me for free. Seriously. They’ll get a small commission from my hosting with Bluehost, and they handled the whole transition, except for the part where I had to transfer my domain from my own hosting service. I had to fix one or two little things, but they handled the process beautifully, and you can’t argue with the price!

Anyway, joshphilipross.com is back and better than ever.

Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #1: Hongje Station to Muakjae Station

In feng shui (pungsu in Korean) the ideal location has a mountain to the north and water to the south, providing protection from Siberian winter winds and an open avenue for summer monsoon rains. That’s why both Gyeongbokgung Palace and the presidential Blue House sit at the southern foot of Inwangsan Mountain, facing Cheonggyechon Stream.

On the ass end of Inwangsan, out beyond the perimeter of the old city walls, is the opposite sort of place. Gaemi Maeul (개미마울) — The Ant Village — gets its name from the tenacity and hard work of its 400 or so residents, who’ve been crawling up and down the steep slope to their shantytown since the end of the Korean War. It’s also, perhaps, a statement about their relative importance in Seoul’s grander schemes.

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The Ant Village from above.

Between a rock and a fast place

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Starting out at Hongje Station.

I came to The Ant Village on my first Seoul Subway Randomizer adventure, which began at Hongje Station on Line 7. My goal was to go look around in parts of Seoul I wouldn’t otherwise be likely to see, and Hongje was an excellent place to start.

Sandwiched between Inwangsan to the south and a highway to the north, Hongje has either fended off or been overlooked by the developers who’ve converted much of the surrounding area into especially soul-crushing variants of Korea’s ubiquitous vast apartment blocks. Its narrow, winding streets are still lined with the small brick apartment houses that Koreans call villas, and it looks as if no one has updated much of anything in the past forty years. Buildings and signs have old spellings — 자전차 (jajeoncha), an old word for bicycle, or a sad old apartment building called 만숀 (manshyon) instead of the more modern 만션 (manshyeon), the Konglish term so absurd it’s almost an insult.

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Faded bits of the past, with an old term for bicycle.
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Old apartments. The sign says Unjeon Mansion, or it used to anyway.
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An ancient restaurant.

My Korean friend and I made our way to Inwang Shijang, a traditional market that despite its typical array of Korean products — seafood, mystery twigs — had a torpid squalor that felt more like out-of-the-way markets in Vietnam or Myanmar than like anything I’ve seen before in Seoul. As we sat down for tteokbokki and fish cakes at one of the market stalls, my friend told me the place reminded her of her childhood in Daegu in the 1970s.

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Inwang Market.
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Inside the market.
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Some tteokbokki and odeng.

Up the ant hill

As the road began to climb, we came to the first of the old houses, an uneven concrete slab with a roof of corrugated metal. It’s the sort of thing you see on the outskirts of cities in developing countries all over the world, or in their neglected pockets — down by the river in Hanoi, say — and I have a Vietnamese friend who grew up in something similar in Saigon in the 1980s. But it was jarring to find this sort of house still operating as a going concern in Seoul in 2017, especially after starting the day in the LED-lit hypermodernity of Gangnam.

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An old house, still occupied.

I suppose, though, that I was just coming face-to-face with a concrete (pun intended) manifestation of the poverty I see every day and mostly ignore: the old woman who sits on the steps in Gangnam Station every day, selling gum when she’s not drifting off to sleep; the old folks limping along as they push their filthy old carts past the Porches and Rolls Royces, collecting garbage to recycle. Next to my posh Gangnam apartment complex is a dingy brick apartment house above a parking garage, junk piled up in the narrow verandas you can see from the street.

In Seoul, it’s the elderly who seem to end up destitute most often. In an economy that has modernized as quickly as South Korea’s, it’s inevitable that a good part of the older generation would be left behind. In what is now one of the best-educated and most technologically advanced countries in the world, those who grew up during the Korean War and its aftermath may not ever have gotten past sixth grade or developed the kinds of skills a modern economy demands. What’s not inevitable is South Korea’s minimal social spending, which is among the lowest of any developed country. The scandal and disarray engulfing Korea’s conservative party might be an opening for a new direction; for now, the ants are still part of Seoul society, scurrying along the margins and subsisting on scraps.

The Ant Village

The Ant Village proper is a peculiar hybrid. Built by people with nowhere else to go after the Korean War, the worst houses are old and poor and dangerous, makeshift and constructed to no code, heated with the old yeontan charcoal bricks that produce carbon monoxide and occasionally kill people in their sleep, as happened to one of my Korean friend’s high school classmates. (Draftiness could, I suppose, be a lifesaver.)

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Yeontan, an old system of charcoal heating.

But the residents — some of them, anyway — haven’t wanted to leave, and they’ve kept developers at bay, all while updating some of the homes into fairly plausible structures. Around 2010, some art students from the area got the idea of painting murals on the walls, and the village is now something of a tourist attraction, though the flowers and puppies are fading. And the neighborhood has not just electricity and bus service, but solar-powered street lamps and a new pavilion and residents with smart phones, not to mention government-issued wayfaring signs for visitors. Down the hill, the newly built middle school is actually pretty grand.

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Decorations on the Ant Village.
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Flowers on one of the sturdier houses.
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More flowers.
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Puppies!

As an outsider, it’s hard to know what to make of all this. What little information I have is gleaned from blogs. Who lives here now, and why? How poor are they? Is the ownership in dispute? What does the future hold? I have no idea, and I didn’t feel comfortable asking questions of the few residents we saw around. When you find yourself having a cheap holiday in other people’s misery, sometimes it’s better not to pry.

Tea at the temple

At its top, The Ant Village opens out onto the trails crisscrossing Inwangsan Mountain. Had we been feeling ambitious, we might have made the long hike up and over to the Jongno side of the mountain, descending into trendy Hyoja-dong. The sun and relative warmth were enticing, but it was already afternoon, and we decided instead to stick with our chosen neighborhood, walking through the woods, past an open view of Train Rock — it’s a big rectangular rock, basically — and down a long staircase to Hwanhuisa Temple.

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Train Rock.
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A frozen stream.
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A temple in the mountains.

As we approached, a group of women of a certain age were gathered out front, along with a Buddhist nun, all talking and laughing. I said hello, and they all cooed at how well I spoke Korean, something that used to happen a lot when I lived in Anyang, outside Seoul, sixteen years ago, but rarely happens now until I’ve at least demonstrated something beyond annyeong haseyo. It was another throwback, and a reminder that foreigners probably don’t get out this way all that often.

My friend noted the feminine touches to the temple — Dalmatian figurines and the like — and decided it must be run by nuns. Soothing piano music played from outdoor speakers, mingling with sound of the Korean-style wind chimes. As we sat and rested on a small pavilion, a woman brought us a tray of tea and tteok with marmalade. Later, as we looked for somewhere to return the tray, we heard more women’s laughter coming from inside the main building. We set the tray down inside a doorway and continued on.

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Tea at the temple.

A little further on we passed another small temple, then emerged from the mountain into one of those vast, dispiriting apartment complexes that dominate so much of the Korean landscape. Director Bong Joon-ho’s first film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, from 2000, centered on stunted lives in an apartment complex much like this one. It was, in material terms, a step up from the drafty, poorly built villas we’d seen earlier, but I could see how people might choose the human-scale lumpiness of life in The Ant Village, or down among the old brick villas, over this different sort of ant farm. Koreans seem to have recognized the grimness of life in these sorts of massive apartment blocks, and newer complexes tend to be made up of clusters of slender towers, with only a few apartments per floor and spaces in between the buildings.

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One of Seoul’s soul-crushing apartment blocks.

At last we found our way back to the main street, after passing a small English school that made me feel sorry for whatever English teachers have ended up in this strange little corner of the city. We stopped in at a Paris Baguette for some coffee and a rest, watching the old woman squatting outside the window as she roasted sweet potatoes. Across the street was the district headquarters for the conservative party, emblazoned with a huge Korean flag that loomed above several fortune-telling shops marked by swastikas. A few blocks on, past more fortune tellers and glimpses of the old city wall at the top of Inwangsan, we came to Muakjae Station, where we boarded the train and headed back to Gangnam.

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Muakje, ending the trip.

The Seoul Subway Randomizer Game

How do you get to know a new place? I was in New York for many years before I finally started exploring the outer boroughs, and I’ve still never been to Canarsie.

Now that I’ve moved to Seoul, I want to jumpstart the process of discovering those out-of-the-way places that aren’t on the usual leisure circuit. What’s out there? The best way to find out is to go. At random. That’s why I’m creating The Seoul Subway Randomizer Game!

  1. Create a list of Seoul subway stations.
  2. Randomize the list.
  3. Go!

 Yes, I will almost certainly wind up with a few disappointing trips to apartment complexes and highway interchanges, but what else might I find?

I’ll let you know.

Rules I: The list

  1. The Seoul Metropolitan Subway System is the largest in the world by track length, if you include all the lines that extend beyond Seoul proper. For the sake of sanity and to avoid three-hour journeys to not-yet-built suburban housing developments, the list of stations will include only those that are actually in Seoul itself. That still leaves 284 stations.
  2. I’ll randomize the list several times, and I’ll select one of the randomizations based on how interesting I think the first five stations will be.
  3. Stations that I have already visited will be skipped.

Result: Here’s the list. Feel free to play along. (I gathered the list of Subway stations from Wikipedia and randomized them using sequences of numbers from Random.org.)

Rules II: The visits

  1. A visit to a given station only counts if I get off the train and go outside, obviously.
  2. The return trip should begin from a different station, or from a bus stop that’s similarly far from the station. That means getting out and walking from one station to another. However, the walking requirement can be called off if the station turns out to be somewhere really unwalkable, like a bunch of train tracks and a bus station or something.
  3. Arrival at a second station counts as a visit to that station as well; it will be removed from the list of future visits.
  4. Visits outside of the game don’t count as part of the game, but they do qualify for taking stations off the list.

Rules III: My game

  1. This is my game. Traveling companions will of course be welcome, but I’ll pick the stations, and a visit counts when I go. You’re welcome to start your own game.
  2. I can skip stations any time and for any reason, because this is for fun.

National Music

Some years ago, a professor invited me to a chamber concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on a Saturday afternoon. Five minutes into the Haydn, he was snoring softly. He was hardly alone. In the half-empty auditorium, I couldn’t see anyone who looked to be under sixty, and much of the audience was nodding off. Even the orchestra seemed to be sleepwalking through their note-perfect renditions of pieces they’d all been playing since middle school.

Why did we all show up for this soporific farce? The audience wasn’t there for the music itself, that was clear. They were part of a generation that felt an obligation to better themselves and their community by patronizing the arts, which meant the classical arts: orchestras, ballet, opera. I was witnessing the dying embers of a kind of Jewish immigrant striving that had put Leonard Bernstein at the center of American middlebrow culture in the mid-twentieth century.

Gugak by Helmut Lang

Something similar (though not so sleepy) was at work during a recent performance — also on a Saturday afternoon — of The Banquet, by the National Dance Company of Korea at the National Theater of Korea, which put dozens of dancers into exquisite costumes and marched them through complex choreography reminiscent of both North Korean mass games and Disney musicals. It was a new piece with lots of modernist trappings, but at its heart it was the same old vocabulary of Korean traditional clothing, stock characters, and dances: the court attendants, the leaping farmers, the women drummers, the upper-class yangban dandies.

With its spare white staging, careful white lighting, and traditional costumes reworked in colors from recent issues of Vogue, a lot of it felt like Korean gugak (tratitional music) by Helmut Lang. Because there were so many dancers on the stage at any one time, it was inevitably more about pretty shapes and stage pictures than about any individual artistry. The precision sometimes lapsed — a wobbly ankle here, an out-of-place dancer there — and it occurred to me that Korea’s very best dancers probably don’t end up as part of this anonymous national corps churning out reheated tradition. The show was never quite boring, and at some moments — especially the farmer’s dance, when individual dancers finally had a chance to show off some acrobatic skill — it was lively. But it was never quite alive. In a Korean sense, you could say that it had no hoheup (breath).

The invention of tradition

As with the Upper West Siders who feel an obligation to sponsor precise renditions of eighteenth-century Hungarian and Austrian music, there are historical and cultural reasons why this particular vocabulary of styles and symbols represents Korean culture, why Koreans enjoy recycling and rewatching these particular cultural artifacts, and why performances with “National” in the title have this zombie quality to them.

The middle of the nineteenth century was a time of extraordinary upheaval, much of which took the form of a reckoning with onrushing modernity: the failed revolutions of 1848 in Europe, the forced opening of Japan in 1853, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865. Ideas of modernity and tradition, reform and reaction, swirled around these conflicts, rarely in straightforward ways. Perhaps no event encapsulates the contradictions of the era as well as the Taiping Rebellion, which took as many as 30 million lives in China between 1850 and 1864. The Taipings were Chinese nationalists who rebelled against the “foreign” Manchu Qing Dynasty, which had been humiliated by the British in the Opium Wars a few years earlier. The Taiping leadership was Hakka, an ethnic minority sub-group within the larger Han Chinese identity, and the head of the movement considered himself the brother of Jesus Christ.

From this maelstrom, independence movements emerged, and they faced the task of forging national identities, whether for relatively organic nations like Korea or Japan, or for colonially invented polities like Indonesia or Malaysia. In Korea, this process was delayed in some ways by the late date of its opening to the outside. The 1894 Donghak (Eastern Learning) Rebellion is an early symptom, but South Korean ideas of national identity really crystalized during the Japanese occupation period, between the World Wars. That’s why the vocabulary of Korean tradition is so specifically that of late-Joseon Dynasty culture, which had ended within living memory. What was being preserved was what the intelligentsia remembered from their youth.

This also has much to do with what made the cut and what didn’t. Palaces are preserved and reconstructed with tax dollars, and national theaters perform the music and dances of both high and low classes because folk was an important concept in the early twentieth century. But most educated people in late Joseon saw Buddhism as retrograde and shamanism as beyond the pale — superstition that needed to be purged if Korean society was to modernize — so there’s relatively little overt Buddhism in Korean traditional performances, while what survives of shamanism in the national vocabulary is usually stripped of ritual power or meaning, and shaman paintings and shrines are almost never given the kind of respect accorded to traditional houses or markets or city gates.

I’m here because we’re here

In country after country, I’ve found similar arts and performances: recreations of Peking Opera in a palace in Beijing, folk ensembles in Luang Prabang, endless repetitions of Mozart in Vienna, dinner buffet dance shows in Siem Reap. (Communist countries tend to produce a socialist-realist version of traditional dance — at some point, ladies will sow seeds and carry water — while capitalist countries are more likely to keep the dance abstract. And Communist performances tend to have brighter and more primary colors in the costumes and lighting, with less deference to the latest Pantone trends.)

Why do people keep showing up to see these same performances, over and over? It has to do with a shared sense of identity and understanding. Koreans can come to a reheated Banquet at the National Theater and nod along, assessing how well or badly the dancers did all the things everyone has been seeing since childhood. It’s art as karaoke: you don’t listen because someone at the bar will sing “I Will Survive” better than Gloria Gaynor, but because you can, as a group, assess the performance against Gloria Gaynor.

And who can engage with Korea’s codified traditions this way? Koreans, of course. That’s where identity comes in. To go to a performance like The Banquet is to reassert both the existence of Korea as a unique cultural entity and your membership in it. That’s why these kinds of performances so rarely innovate or confront: they’re a trip to the folk village, not a trip to the contemporary art museum.

Safety in numbers

Korea does have a traditional music scene that feels alive. The musicians may be playing the old pieces, but they’re bringing personal passion and force to their playing. These performances, though, are usually smaller, without any “National” imprimatur — more downtown theater than Broadway musical. They have hoheup.

Why do they draw smaller audiences? In part, it’s a matter of marketing, budget, and positioning. National theaters have production values, and people show up for that.

But I think there’s something deeper at work too. I have, on several occasions, been moved to tears by Korean traditional music and dance. It happened with So Ra Kim. But being moved and touched can be uncomfortable. It’s raw and real. It’s the equivalent of skipping the folk village, going to an actual village, and reckoning with the ancient, toothless ladies who squat by the side of the road sorting vegetables.

The simulation is tidier, easier. And there’s safety in numbers.

The Moon over Korea

On a cold winter night in Seoul, my Korean scientist friend pointed to the full moon. “They say the moon over Korea is bigger than the moon over the US,” she said. “What do you think?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s the same moon on either side of the planet,” I said. “Our people have been there, and there’s only one.”

A while later, she brought it up again. “You know that on the Korean moon, there’s a rabbit making tteok [rice cake].”

“Yes,” I said, “I know that story.”

“So what do you have on the moon in America?”

“We see a face.”

“Aha!” she said. “So it’s not the same moon.”

Cows, chickens, and hay

Some time before, this same Korean scientist had drawn a picture for me on a Post-It note — a cow, a chicken, and some hay — and asked me to group two of the objects.

I could see what was being asked: Westerners like myself would be expected to put the cow and the chicken together, using categorical logic, while Asians would group the cow and the hay, giving primacy to the functional relationship. (A contrarian American friend put together the chicken and the hay: “I just think chickens would enjoy playing with hay.”)

Checking to see if there was any research behind this sketch test, I discovered The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…And Why, by Richard E. Nisbett. Nisbett starts with truisms about East and West: the East is Confucian, focused on interrelationships, and sees the world as fluid and complex; the West is Greek, focused on individual objects and abstract principles, and sees the world as governed by discernible laws. What sets his work apart is that he then tests these ideas with cognitive psychological research, discovering actual, measurable differences in the ways that East Asians and Westerners — mostly North Americans — see and understand the world.

Motivationally speaking

Recently, my team at Samsung electronics moved to a new department. In our first meeting with our new manager, he pronounced himself “worried” about the quality of our work and what would be needed to improve it. And that was about it. Meeting adjourned.

From a Western perspective, the meeting was frankly bizarre. It was helpful, then, to have read Nisbett’s account of a study of motivational effects that was conducted in the United States and Japan. Subjects were given a task to complete, then given feedback: positive, negative, or none for the control group. The study measured performance and persistence on a follow-up task. Among the Americans, those who received positive feedback were most successful on the second task, sticking with it the longest; negative feedback was demotivating. But for the Japanese, the effect was the opposite: positive feedback was a license to slack off, while negative feedback was an opportunity to prove oneself.

You can see this divergence in popular dramas, East and West. Americans love the narrative of a loser who becomes a champion when a great coach teaches him to believe in himself. You can see versions of it in Rocky, The Karate Kid, Stand and Deliver, The Empire Strikes Back, Kung Fu Panda. Korean dramas often start with a humiliation by the big boss, in which the main character is belittled and dismissed. The humiliation serves as the motivating engine for the protagonist’s drive to succeed in the end. (And sometimes to marry the big boss; a Korean Karate Kid would’ve had a lot less Mr. Miyagi and a brewing romance between Daniel and Johnny.)

Restoring truth, restoring harmony

That’s not to say that you can just dismiss negative feedback from your Asian boss. Sometimes you really are being told that you’ve done badly, and you need to take it that way. But even then, there can be a different understanding of what it means to give and receive negative feedback.

In the West, when your boss yells at you — or, more likely, has a civil talk with you about your performance — there’s a kind of back and forth. At least formally, there’s usually an opportunity for you to speak up for yourself, to defend your performance or to talk about what might be causing you to fall short. Social realities notwithstanding, there’s a kind of shared understanding that what you and your boss are after is truth and justice: honest information about what’s wrong so that it can be made right. The discussion has the atmosphere of a trial: there could be an acquittal, or possibly a punishment. If there’s no action taken, the implication is that the trial’s not over. That’s what makes these conversations so uncomfortable.

A couple of months ago, our team had a meeting like that. Our manager asked us how things were going, told us we were making too many mistakes, exhorted us to try harder, and then added that we would no longer have QA oversight to help prevent the mistakes we were making too many of. To me, this was profoundly disheartening, and for a while afterward I felt sick with worry. I had trouble sleeping. Were we on probation? What consequences might be looming?

Around that time, I was lucky to have as a house guest a Swiss friend who had lived for some years in Korea, pursuing a master’s degree in traditional music performance and embedding herself in the very traditional world of Korean shamanism. She told me about a time when she’d received a dressing down from the head of her academic department. “You just sit there and listen and don’t say anything,” he’d instructed her, which she pointed out was actually helpful: she was being taught the Korean way of handling negative feedback.

A couple of weeks later, she ran into his assistant, who asked how she was doing, and she told the assistant that she was upset and shaken, worried that the department head was still angry at her. “Oh, no!” the assistant said. “He already talked to you about that. It’s finished.”

From an Asian perspective, what needs restoring is not truth and justice, but social harmony. When something has gone wrong, the senior person needs to reassert authority, and the junior person needs to reestablish humility. As the junior, your job is to sit quietly, listen to whatever’s said, and promise to do better. (“네, 알겠습니다. 앞으로 열심히 할게요. Yes, I understand. I will do better in the future.”) Together, you restore balance and harmony.

That’s why, from the Asian perspective, it made sense to take away our QA oversight. As a Westerner, I wanted the ongoing measurement. Good or bad, it would help us to restore truth and justice. That’s because I was locating the problem in our performance. But our managers were locating the problem in the disruption of harmony between management and workers. The situation could be smoothed over by taking away the disruptive measurement. If the mistakes we were making had been causing serious problems, this might not have worked, but the reality is that, like a lot of things we get invested in at work, these mistakes didn’t matter all that much. A Westerner would want some ideological justification for downgrading their significance, but for Asians the social value of the downgrade was more than enough.

Meeting in the middle

The need for harmony is also helpful in understanding how Samsung tends to respond to customer complaints.

In any big company, you’re going to get customer feedback, and some of that feedback will be produced by idiots. At Google, we would assess incoming customer issues, and at times we would determine that a given customer complaint was simply wrong. No action was needed on our part.

That’s not how it works at Samsung. The first instinct isn’t to assess the complaint on the merits. That’s Western thinking: abstract the issue from the one raising it, look for fundamental principles, make a logical judgment. Instead, the first instinct at Samsung is to find a middle ground. Can we bend to the customer a bit? There’s much less sense of a broader right and wrong. Instead, the goal is to see things both ways and move closer together: harmony.

I find that this approach is also important in working with others internally. In a Western company, a kind of debate-style approach was a reasonable way to discuss choices about design or language: we could ask dialectical questions and try to come to a better understanding of what was needed. At Samsung, I’ve discovered that my counterparts aren’t very good at that kind of discussion. There’s a lot more deferring to authority — we want to do it this way because the VP likes it — and a much greater discomfort with pointed questions or outright contradiction.

The art is to discover a middle ground that my Western mind can accept. And having attempted it for a little while, I’m much more aware of my Western tendency to jump to categorical right and wrong before it’s warranted. We Westerners tend to stake out positions and defend them, and it’s hard for us to show up the next day and admit that we can see, with a little distance, how our initial judgments were perhaps too rigid. We insist on reasons for backing down, and they have to be case-specific reasons, not social-field reasons like deference to authority or keeping the peace. It’s the American version of saving face, but I’m not sure it has much relevance in Asia.

Rabbits in motion

These different ways of seeing things — Western, categorical, abstracted; Asian, situational, interrelated — explain why Koreans have a different moon. The Western moon has a face that’s just a face and nothing else. The Korean moon is more complex: there’s a rabbit in motion, though we never see the motion; that’s something you have to infer. The rabbit is making tteok, an act of transformation — rice into rice cake — that mirrors the moon’s ceaseless cycling. It’s also a social act: rice is communally planted and harvested, and the making of tteok is a community affair. To see a rabbit making tteok is to see a web of connections, interactions and transformations. The moon is never just the moon. Everything exists in relation to everything else.

For an American, much of the fascination of living in Korea is learning to see these threads of interconnection. To get there, we have to judge less, let go of our craving for absolutes, and be willing to hover in a kind of no man’s land of uncertainty that feels very unnatural. But if you’re willing to endure the dark for a little while, you may find the Korean moon surprisingly illuminating.

New Old Korea

Kim So Ra is why I live in Korea.

I discovered her this past Saturday night, after a new friend made a vague invitation to a janggu concert. It was a bitterly cold night, and the concert was in an underdeveloped, industrial section of Seoul called Yeongdeungpo, where the main street is still lined with small machine shops and artificial limb wholesalers. It reminded me of winter excursions to the Lower East Side twenty years ago to see experimental theater productions tucked in between old bra shops. I connected with some friends of friends at a chicken restaurant with an outdoor fire rotisserie and stacks of wood, and then we headed off, eventually finding our way to the Mullae Art Factory Box Theater, a stylish bit of postmodern concrete architecture hidden down an unpromising side street.

I wasn’t expecting much. The theater was small, the audience probably fewer than fifty people, and the theme of the show, “A Sign of Rain,” complete with accompanying video projections, seemed like it might turn into the kind of embarrassing conceit that masks mediocre playing.

But the art scene in Seoul, I’ve discovered, delights more often than it disappoints. Kim So Ra, it turns out, is not only a janggu virtuoso, but also a subtle explorer of world percussion, which she integrated into her playing in startling ways, incorporating everything from pouring water to Tibetan singing bowls (only the xylophone piece fell flat). Her fellow musicians — percussionist Hyeon Seung-hun, O No-eul on piri, Im Ji-hye on gayageum — created a rich, complex range of sounds that put me in mind of the Steve Reich performance I saw at BAM in 2015.

Visual music

Traditional janggu performance is inseparable from the excitement of watching the drummer swing the stick from one side of the hourglass drum to the other, and samulnori music comes fully alive as dance, with colorful costumes and long spinning streamers attached to elaborate hats. Kim So Ra augmented that visual tradition with video projections. At times it felt a little Pink Floyd laser show or nineties screen saver, but at their best, the videos helped to focus our attention on particular details in the music, or brought out themes and feelings, as when the screen behind the stage became a dancing watercolor ink painting, creating a kind of willed synesthesia.

Similarly compelling was a burst of modern dance from Kim Jeong-un, whose expressive face and joyous movement brought the theater to life even before she began spinning plates (which is apparently an old Korean art form that predates Ed Sullivan by some years).

The cleverest effect was a projection onto a white-painted janggu, timed to the rhythm so that drum hits became splashes of water and bursts of color. What could have been a gimmick turned out to be powerful and moving, in no small part because of the general tendency in Korean art to take craft seriously.

More than fusion

That all of this is happening in Seoul, right now at this moment in history, is a big part of why I’m here. Other than Japan, there’s nowhere else in Asia where artists are bringing together traditional and global ideas not as fusion — a flaccid affair that usually means old instruments and shitty synthesizers — but as serious postmodern art.

And right now, I think Korea’s more vibrant than Japan, or at least a lot newer and fresher at this particular game. It’s only in the past few years that young Koreans have started venturing out into the world, but they’ve gone in droves to the art and fashion institutes in the US, and what they’ve brought back with them is starting to take root. Fashion, music, art: Seoul feels like it’s on the cusp of something. Artists like Kim So Ra are why I’m here now, ready to wander off into weird neighborhoods in the freezing cold to see what’s happening.

Equality vs. Individual Freedom

Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing the every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality. The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.

– Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind