In October of 2001, my girlfriend and I came to Korea to teach English to children for a year at a private language academy near Seoul. These essays are based on emails that I sent during our stay.
[i am thankful for my wear]
[ihae mot hamnida, or how i accidentally shaved my head]
[the thing with hand bells]
[street mermaids and ajummas]
[that soup just rocks my world]
[i could wallpaper my bathroom with these rejection notices]
[being john miguk]
The yin and yang of public transportation in the world’s most Confucian state.
Seoul’s subway system is marvelously efficient and comfortable. About the most complicated thing you ever have to do is look as a subway map at your point of origin, find your destination on it, and read the price of your trip. Announcements are made in English as well as Korean, station names are displayed in both languages (and Japanese too), the seats are cushioned, the people are reasonably courteous and sometimes downright friendly — recently a middle-aged lady with obviously expensive sparkly hair clips gave Jenny and me sticks of cinnamon gum for no special reason. There are flaws, of course — neighborhood maps in the subway stations are designed with north oriented pretty much at random, so that sometimes you’ll notice that it’s pointing toward the bottom left corner or something — but on the whole it’s pretty darn good.
Well, tonight I saw a man literally hurled from his seat and onto the floor of a local bus that had done nothing out of the ordinary, and it got me to thinking. In a country that is often called the most Confucian in Asia, where reciprocality is so culturally essential that the yin-yang is on the flag, perhaps it is inevitable that the sensible subways will have their inversion, their opposite. And Seoul’s buses clearly fill that role. The drivers are surly and listen to the radio at high volume. The interior designs are usually elaborately worked out so that there are as few seats as possible, with just one seat on either side most of the way back, and each seat is placed as close to a wheel or some other obstruction as possible, so that your knees are usually close enough to your face that you can smack your nose on them during one of the many sudden stops. And not only that, but the seats are covered in a slippery plasticine material, so that you’re constantly gripping the dangerous iron bars of the seat in front of you in an effort to stay in yours and keep all your teeth. And all this is if you’re lucky enough to get a seat, because otherwise you swing wildly on straps that hang long enough for you to look like Tarzan being badass every time the driver rounds a turn, which he (never she) inevitably does without slowing down.
In fact, just getting on the bus in first place is a death-defying adventure. First of all you have to determine which bus to get on, which is difficult because there are no bus maps at all. None. The only maps that exist, as far as anyone knows, are the cryptic route maps in the buses themselves, and then only in about every sixth bus. They mention the names of the stops, and about one in every five names corresponds to a name printed on a bus shelter where you stop. To get anywhere by bus, you have to know which bus to take or ask the driver, and the driver might lie. When we discover a new place, we usually know one bus that will get us there, and then we write down the numbers of the other buses listed on that stop and see if they correspond to buses we recognize from elsewhere. And just because the 9-3 runs from Seoksu to Gwanak Station does not mean that it runs from Gwanak Station to Seoksu, because most of the routes are elaborate loops. Nor does the route of the 9-3 share any obvious relationship with the route of the 9. Likewise, the 8, 8-1, 8-2 and 88 buses all have several stops in common, but are no more obviously related than the 1-2 and the 37-1.
When your bus comes, you wave at it and hope the driver feels like stopping. If there are too many buses already bunched at the stop, the driver will pretend that he doesn’t know the stop is there and zoom past it. Sometimes the drivers stop near you, while at other times they hurtle a good ten yards past and make you run. Then you climb on board and pay, which you can do in one of four ways. You can drop 600 won in coins into the box; you can drop a 600-won bus ticket into the box, and these are available from newsstands near bus stops; you can pay with an electronic badge, which is a prized item because you can no longer buy them anywhere, even though every bus is equipped with a reader; or you can drop a 1,000 won bill into the box. When you do, you are sometimes given your 400 won in change when the driver presses a button and the coins pop out of this other little box. But in theory different distances on the bus cost different amounts. In theory the driver asks each passenger where she’s going, the passenger answers honestly, the driver quotes a price that is correct, and the passenger pays it. In practice, 600 won allows you to ride to what the driver considers the end of the line, but to make up for it the drivers sometimes refuse to give change. All of this amounts to a battle over 36 cents, but it’s amazing how nasty it can make you feel at the end of a difficult day when the bus driver simply refuses to give you your change and instead sort of smirks.
Change or not, you are now on the bus and must find your way to an available seat. The bus is of course in motion, but it’s not a smooth, steady acceleration or anything. It’s more the sort of motion you use on a bottle of vinaigrette just before you pour. The driver brakes suddenly and you find yourself pushing hard up the aisle, but then the driver hits the gas again and you’re launched headlong into somebody’s lap. The other day I watched a little girl go hurtling face-first into the front of a seat and collapse in a wailing sprawl on the floor. And once you’re in your seat, each turn and each stop is a new opportunity to go flying out of it, as demonstrated by the man I saw tonight who had somehow managed to fall asleep and paid the price for it, tipping over and thumping to the floor in a sort of fetal position.
When it’s time to get off the bus, you press one of the buzzers that is located conveniently within reach of someone else’s seat but not yours. Sometimes the nearest buzzer is on the ceiling somewhere, which means you have to stand up, which means the driver has an extra chance to throw you around, and he will take it. When the driver gets to a place where he feels comfortable, and which may correspond to an actual bus stop, but which might also correspond to the middle of an intersection that is sort of near a bus stop, he comes to a halt or something like it and opens the back door, which is what doors on the starship Enterprise would be like if in this particular episode the ship had turned carnivorous. They slide open with a whoosh and then slide shut again, sometimes before anyone has managed to make a first move toward passing through. I’ve watched them open and slam, open and slam like some kind of masticating jaw of busly doom. Jenny has confessed to a fear of getting her ankle caught in one and being dragged along for blocks, which I must admit is, while not exactly likely, not as inconceivable as it should be.
Now I have traveled in India and Nepal, countries notorious for their third world buses. They are overcrowded with people and chickens and goats and extra passengers on the roof. They run at utterly mysterious intervals, or start five hours late, or don’t run at all, or run for a while and give up and turn around and go back to the start. They make frequent stops so that incense can be lit at roadside shrines, which is a good idea if you’re passing trucks on a two-lane road and therefore expecting to die pretty soon. There is horrible blaring Hindipop and internal design is completely unpredictable. But India is the third world and Korea is not. Poverty is an excuse for chaotic services and low-tech equipment. In Korea they’ve got those snazzy electronic badge readers on every bus, and also radio receivers that broadcast location announcements as you move around the route. The buses run even when empty, and they run frequently. The violence and opacity of bus travel is completely unnecessary and completely unaccountable. But perhaps the buses give the people of Seoul a focus for otherwise dangerous feelings of fear and disgruntlement. Maybe the government keeps the buses bad so people will gripe about them instead of about the ruling party or the six-day work week. Or maybe it’s just that you can’t get everything right when you build a nation this fast, and so far no one has gotten around to fixing the buses. It’s like the buildings that go up in four days: they might fall down in six years with a bunch of people in them, but in the meantime they look pretty much like buildings, and be careful not to trip on those exposed wires as you come in.
Considering how friendly everything else is here, and how cheap the buses are, and how often they get us quickly to our destination for either 54 cents or 90 cents, perhaps I shouldn’t complain. In Marin County, where I grew up, the buses were lovely and clean and comfortable and the nearest stop was five miles away and the buses stopped there during each solar eclipse and on alternate equinoxes and the only people who rode them were children and vagrants. In San Francisco I would wait three hours for six buses to arrive at once. In India I was awakened at 6 am by snapping fingers in my face and a man shouting, “Tea! Toilet!” In Nepal I rode on the roof of a bus that tottered around dangerous curves on the edges of cliffs. But for all the surliness I was sometimes showed by the drivers in these places or in New York, I never felt like they were trying to kill me, or that they enjoyed toying with the bodies in their fuselages. No, only in Korea are the buses specifically evil, a dark dangerous yin that flings you about from one sunny, friendly yang to another. I suppose, considering how flung about the Koreans themselves have been in the last 150 years or so, it’s only fitting that they should commemorate their whiplash somehow. Buses are part of the fabric of daily life now, the way Shamanism and brutal classism were in 1850, the way endless Japanese humiliations were in 1930, the way mortar shells and death were in 1951. Like a Korean quilt, the fabric of daily life is stitched together from disparate scraps, and maybe the bus drivers swerve so much because they’re stitching things together.
Or maybe they’re just mean.
According to Min Byoung-chul’s Ugly Koreans, Ugly Americans, a book about “cultural and behavioral differences between Koreans and Americans”:
Bus companies specify a number of round trips per day for drivers. The heavy traffic in cities like Seoul makes it difficult for the drivers to keep their tight schedules and this often leads them to skip stops when there is no one to drop off. While it may be understandable, it causes great inconvenience to people who have been waiting a long time for the bus.
Or maybe the drivers are just mean.
Making peace with the unsexiness of teaching munchkins.
I have never in my life had any ambition whatsoever to be a kindergarten teacher. Even when I fantasized about being a teacher, which was not often, it was always of middle or high school honor students whom I would expose to great literature and inspire to write well. I imagined myself as Mr. Poirier or Mr. Skinner, the English teachers who meant the most to me, leading students in intense discussions of Kafka and diagramming sentences joyfully together. I never wanted to be like Miss Marney, my kindergarten teacher, who convinced me that you could see the windmills of her native Dutch or whatever it was if you just squinted hard enough at the nearest line of hills.
And yet here I am. On a recent afternoon it was suggested in all seriousness that I play Santa Claus in the kindergarten winter show. My initial reaction was to burst out, “But I’m Jewish!” We were sitting around a low table eating lunch, Jenny and me and the Korean kindie English teachers, Suky, Sue and Eddie. I explained Chanukkah in such a way that they no longer felt sorry for me over my not having a Christmas, but as the only white man and certainly the hairiest person in the employ of the kindergarten — one of the students who is not quite right in the head enjoys running up to me, tugging my arm hair and shrieking with glee — I will presumably be donning gay apparel that has nothing to do with club gear or hot pants. Ho, ho, ho.
Upon reflection, though, the surprising thing is not that I’ll be playing Santa Claus, but that I’ll be involved in a kindergarten pageant at all, much less a Korean one. A year ago I was a tech writer in New York City, a well-paid, career-tracked, skilled professional in a high-tech industry in the thrumming metropolis that all sensible people recognize as the center of the universe. Granted, like most New Yorkers I had fantasies of leaving, but they were dreams of Seattle or something like it, some Western city full of hipsters and good bookstores and funky local musicians and surrounded by mountains — someplace where I could get a job as a tech writer and drive a Saturn and be a liberal yuppie with a novel in the works and a set of vague plans involving Bali and Thailand if only I could find the time.
And as for working with children, well, nice people do that. To be completely honest, I always shied away from the nice-people jobs — things like working with Alzheimer’s patients or doing physical therapy with injured sea lions — because they have a whiff of saintliness about them that makes them completely unsexy, at least for me. Being a tech writer is not quite like being a secret agent or a lion tamer, but it has a little bit of cachet, possibly even a very slight bit of sexiness. It involves computers, which at least until the recession were getting continually sexier, even Matrix-level sexy; and it involves writing, which while pretentious is also potentially sexy. I’ll admit that inventory forecasting software manuals do not exactly read like the diaries of Anais Nin, but upon meeting a tech writer or a Web designer or a reupholsterer of sofas, I felt no obligation to chase every last wanton thought from my brain. For no especially good reason, I did feel that obligation when it came to the nice people with the nice-people jobs, whom I duly sainted and kept at arm’s length, and I guess I was subconsciously worried that if I took such a job, other people would share this particular neurosis and refuse to think wanton thoughts in my presence, which would be a shame.
Fortunately these prejudices have not prevented me from landing in what turns out to be the fabulous job of teaching kindergarten, which is physically exhausting and so much fun. In Korea kindergarten kids are as young as three, too little even to color effectively, but they’re still good to play with. I get to do the Hokey Pokey and sing Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. I get to bounce a rubber ball around the room and watch a bunch of little kids fling themselves after it with abandon. I get to decide that today we will color the car and the truck, but we won’t color the ambulance until tomorrow. I get free hugs, and yesterday one of my students threw herself into my lap and kissed my cheek, and the day before that one of them came up behind me and gave me a massage, and the day before that — my third day, mind you — I walked past an open door where one of my students suddenly ran up, pointed at me, and shouted, “I like Josh Teacher!” And then another one did too. I have been given candy and the aforementioned rubber ball and more candy and an origami handbag. Four times a day, a chorus of young voices shouts, “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” Then I ask them how the weather is, and they tell me, more or less: “It’s cloudy and cold!” they cry out, which is fine except when the sun is shining. On Fridays we go on field trips to places like the Suwon Folk Village, and then I don’t even have to try and make them sit down and write the letter F or anything difficult like that. I just herd them, which would be easier with dogs but really isn’t all that hard anyway.
And they’re funny. One of Jenny’s students, Sally, likes to come up to you, put her face right in yours, and pop out her tongue like a lizard. One of my kids, Ted, likes to throw his hands in the air and cry out, “Teddy Bear!” which is his nickname, right before he does something he shouldn’t like knock over his chair or crawl under the table. Guile is not the strong suit of four-year-olds. The other day I was bouncing the rubber ball and decided to test their savvy against that of dogs by doing fake throws, and they caught on about as quickly as a six-year-old collie might.
One of my classes is learning adjectives, which are endlessly entertaining to teach. For fast and slow, we marched around the room fast and then slow, fast and then slow, and one day I brought my harmonica so they could dance fast and slow, fast and slow. For tall and short we stood on our chairs and stretched up high, then squatted down on the floor. For long and short I impressed them by balling up a piece of string in my fist and letting a bit of it dangle — short! — then gradually pulling it out so that it was now long. Teacher can do magic! You can probably imagine the nature of the demonstrations of noisy and quiet, and which of the two my students prefer. They now know that 1 + 1 and reading the alphabet chart are easy, while scary impossible math problems and reading paragraphs from the teacher’s manual are hard. And they have been informed that when they are happy and they know it they should clap their hands, when they are sad and they know it they should cry and cry, and when they are angry and they know it — their favorite — they should bang their fists, which they do very well.
Another nice thing about the kindergarten, having nothing to do with the kids, is the work environment. ECC, the main English academy, is filthy, cold, crowded and presided over by the ever-scowling Yu-jin, who looks suspicious whenever teachers are talking to each other or else not talking to each other. Kindergarten, by contrast, is clean, spacious, effectively heated and run by Annie, a perfectly pleasant woman who seems genuinely interested in both teachers and children. The students are not, to her, mere cogs in a complex piece of financial machinery, and we teachers get free Korean-food lunch whenever we want it. And the atmosphere of goodwill and helpfulness percolates down through the teachers: the other day I was actually consulted by Suky about the moving of a student from one class to another. She’s a formidable woman with a master’s in biophysics from SUNY Buffalo, and she’s the most experienced of the kindie teachers. (She’s also extremely helpful and knows shortcuts to just about everywhere we need to go in Anyang — we now walk to kindergarten in fifteen minutes instead of spending a half hour riding the bus.) So we now spend our mornings at kindergarten, have a break of a few hours, and then head over to ECC to finish out the day. The time there goes by much faster, and we still have an actual evening afterwards, and the days are way easier to get through.
Working with young children is marvelous, and I am glad that I let circumstance take me here. Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Vietnamese Buddhist monk, has written about our tendency to be dragged through life by our habit energies. For me, it wasn’t until Jenny was already a couple of months into her plan to come teach in Korea that it even dawned on me that I could go with her — that there was nothing that required me to be a tech writer in Seattle and that I was free to try something else. When I made the discovery, I felt elated and light. Actually coming here was scary, but it was also a new adventure for which I felt fully awake and excited, and I’ve found that the best things are often the ones that feel scary right when you’re about to start — going to college in New York, riding the Green Tortoise coast to coast, going to India, falling in love. And more often than not these opportunities have been right in front of me, just there for the taking whenever I was present enough to notice them. That’s one reason why I’ve been working on being more present all the time, which is something little kids are good at. The kids recognize what we all should, which is that a rubber ball bouncing around a room is really a fabulous thing, that there’s no reason not to love someone you just met simply because he’s been vaguely nice to you once, and that the Hokey Pokey is an entirely worthwhile activity if you do it like you mean it. Which they so do.
[i am thankful for my wear]
Celebrating thanksgiving with Korean kids.
Yesterday for reasons having nothing to do with Thanksgiving and everything to do with inept management, Jenny and I had middle school classes for which the lesson was not pages from a textbook, as usual, but “ACTIVITY.” When I asked our boss, Yu-jin, what the ACTIVITY was, she sort of laughed and said, “You make.” So among other things to fill the hour, Jenny and I decided to teach our kids about Thanksgiving and have them write what they are thankful for. It ain’t as good as eating turkey and stuffing, but reading the results was good fun, and here are the best of them.
In the category of family relations:
I’m thankful for mother.
I’m thankful for father.
I’m thankful for brother.
I’m thankful for sister.
I am thankful for my cousins
I’m thankful for uncle’s son here.
I’m thankful for my dog here.
I am thankful for my parents because they help me for grow up and they care of me.
In the category of the religious:
I’m thankful for GOD.
I am thankful that I can go to church
I’m thankful for God Almighty.
I am thankful for my zezus.
In the category of the undeniably useful:
I’m thankful for my pen.
I am thankful that I can buy things.
I’m thankful for oxygen.
I am thankful that I can walk
I am thankful that I can eat
I am thankful that I wear clothes.
I am thankful that I can speak Korean
I am thankful for house
I’m thanksful for my air
I am thankful that I can learn
I am thankful for weather forecast
I am thankful that I was born, I have family and I live in Korea.
I am thankful that I can take a shower.
In the category of things yummy:
I am thankful for foods.
I’m thankful for eat many food.
I’m thankful for I eat past food.
I’m thankful for chicken.
I’m thankful for pizza.
I’m thankful for ice-cream.
I’m thankful for cookies.
In the category of the (accidentally?) poetic:
I’m thankful for my favorite thing.
I’m thankful for my hate thing.
I’m thankful for moon
I thankful for my life
I thankful for earth.
I thankful for many scientist.
I’m thankful for HOT.
I’m thankful for many trees and many rivers.
I’m thankful for mountins.
I’m thankful for earth.
I’m thankful for windy.
I’m thankful for a red sky.
In the category of fun:
I’m thankful that have good time
I am thankful that I can see B.S.B.
I am thankful that I can watch TV.
I am thankful that I can play computer games
I am thankful that I can run.
I am thankful that read a books.
I am thankful that I talk with my friends
I am thankful that I can listen to music
I am thankful that I can play the piano.
I am thankful that I can go to the beach
I am thankful that I can swam in the ocean
I’m thankful for Christmas.
I’m thankful for my birthday.
I don’t thanful that I have to do my homework
In the category of things that warm a teacher’s heart:
I am thankful that I study English
I’m thankful for go to the academy.
I am thankful for that my teachers are give a knowledge
I am thankful that my English teacher are teach me.
I am thankful that I can study
I am thankful that I have to do my homework
I’m thankful for Josh teacher
And in the category of silly English, which reminds me how much work there is to do:
I am thankful that I can see anythings
I’m thankful for many money.
I’m thankful for born in 1990.
I’m thankful for my wear.
I’m thankful for car, because we ride a car, we go fast.
I’m thankful for shoes, because we don’t wear shoes, we hurt our feet
I’m thankfor for telephone, because we say hello for our freinds for telephone
I am thankful that pencil because write a English and Korean letter
Because I learned a lot with they.
Because I can see anything.
Because I learn at books.
I’m thankful for air, rice, head, eye, computer, clothe, money, my house, Korean, pencil, brother, glasses.
[ihae mot hamnida, or how i accidentally shaved my head]
Confronting the inscrutability of a foreign culture.
When I take out the garbage, I worry that I’m not doing it right, and so I always hurry, terrified that I might meet the pigeon lady and get a scolding. If you find that a bit confusing, think how I feel. We can start with the garbage. You have to put it in special pink plastic bags that you get at the grocery, that much we’ve gathered. Also we know that there’s a recycling program. But what gets recycled? How are you supposed to sort it? What kind of bag do you put it in? I have no clear idea. Once I was taking out just the regular trash when the neighboring housewife saw me at it and tried to convince me to reopen the bag and take it back into my house because it was not yet entirely full. This struck me as not really necessary, especially considering the smell of the garbage, but I had to wait until the housewife was gone before I could bring the bag downstairs. And so when it’s time to take out the garbage, I assemble various collections of trash that look recyclable to me and put them out with my pink bags of straight-up waste, and I hope I don’t get caught by the pigeon lady.
The pigeon lady is an old woman with a bad perm who lives in my building, and who once wrapped her claw around my wrist to drag me to the back of the building and lecture me about the pigeon droppings on the ground. I think the problem was that pigeons would land on my bathroom window’s sill and then poop, but what I was supposed to do about this, I have no idea. I really don’t have the time to stay home and shoo pigeons all day, and of course the woman lectured me extensively in Korean, completely ignoring my helpless repetition of the phrase, “Ihae mot hamnida,” which one of my guidebooks claims means “I don’t understand.” About a week later I saw her again, and this time when she started in, I simply responded in English. “I know,” I told her. “I know about the pigeons, but what can I do? I really don’t have any good anti-pigeon ideas. Do you?” She seemed nonplussed, perhaps even a little bit offended, but I slipped quickly by and into my apartment and hoped she wouldn’t follow.
“Ihae mot hamnida” has become something of a mantra for me, despite its being effective only about 20 percent of the time. Usually it just leads to a complicated rephrasing in Korean, which helps not at all, but I can’t really blame the people I’m not understanding. After all, what would you do if you were faced with a Korean who wanted to buy a heater from you but kept saying “I don’t understand” as you explained the safety features? Before I came here, I’d probably have kept trying different English phrasings in the hopes that some of it might get through. By now, I have come to understand that mime is usually much more effective, but not every Korean shopkeeper in my neighborhood knows that. Which is why basic transactions are often fraught, and why what is often the easier option in America — calling a cab, ordering a pizza — is just as often the hard option here, as it involves explaining. And it’s little things, things you’d never think of. For example, buying tofu became suddenly problematic when I realized I had no way of asking whether a given package was firm tofu, and I really didn’t want the sort that crumbles as soon as it hits the pan. I tried various forms of mime, but “firm” is not an easy thing to demonstrate, and for a while the baffled grocer thought I wanted him to slice the tofu for me. Or the other night I tried to buy peeled garlic from one of the old ladies in the outdoor market. She scooped up two large handfuls, which was just an obscene amount. I gestured no. She dumped out about half. I gestured no. Crankily she hurled the remaining garlic into a bag and handed it to me, and when I tried to pay, she refused the money and scowled. Apparently a mere ten cloves is simply too little to buy. And all too often we end up with about nine times the amount of vegetables we intended to buy, which fortunately still costs very little. Restaurants are similarly fraught, and though we have been largely successful in our struggle to avoid the dreaded ojingeo (cuttlefish, a.k.a. squid, a.k.a. narsty stanky fishy slimy thing), the occasional ojingeo security lapses do loom large in our imaginations.
Considering how complicated it is just buying scallions in amounts less than a pound, I had been dreading a trip to the barber, and so my hair had gotten pretty ridiculously shaggy. Recently I’d begun to fantasize about clippers. I could cut my hair short by myself, and I would never have to look helplessly at a frustrated barber and say “Shorter?” while she cursed my incomprehensibility in Korean. Today, annoyed at my increasingly unmanageable hair, I bought a clipper in a nearby shop, took it home and experimented. Despite the 9-millimeter attachment, I managed in the first stroke to shave a patch clear to the skin, leaving a nasty little bald area at my right temple. It didn’t take long to figure out how to use the clipper so that it cut at the expected length, but by then it was too late. Having 9-millimeter hair, or even 3-millimeter hair, is sort of ridiculous when you’ve got a shaved patch on one side of your face. With Jenny’s help, therefore, I just shaved all the rest of it away, and I’ve now got a stubbly head that I can’t stop rubbing, and which requires no shampooing. If you’re trying to picture me, keep in mind that I’ve also got a goatee now. It’s actually not a bad look. I look like a balding Brooklyn hipster, which is something I aspire to be one day, or like the singer Jim Infantino, for those of you who know who he is. I’m actually rather pleased with my bald head, but it was an accident, and it gives you an idea of the lengths to which one goes when one can’t be understood. Come to think of it, three of the other foreign teachers at my language institute have essentially the same hairdo in various stages of regrowth. Like I said, it’s just easier.
Of course, language interactions are only the most overt variety of incomprehensible thing we run into. It’s an awful cliche to call an East Asian people inscrutable, but there is a kind of impenetrability to Korean culture. Korea presents itself as very modern, with fancy office towers and high-tech companies and a colorful history that lives politely in museums and palace-parks and historical reenactments and traditional arts performances. But last weekend we went exploring in the hills just north of Anyang, lured by the presence of several Buddhist temples, according to our atlas. We were surprised to find that the apartment blocks and little shops gave way to a small area of farms, although upon reflection it made sense considering how rapidly these suburbs have grown up. There are tumbledown old houses, shanty sheds full of farm implements, even shamanistic totem poles carved of narrow tree stumps, and we passed a beautiful little temple that was closed. Then we headed into the hills, and it wasn’t long before we heard a most mysterious and beautiful sound: a rich, complex ululating cry punctuated by primal howls. It was clearly human, definitely vocal, but not quite like anything we’d ever heard before, two or three voices mingling in a kind of wordless chant. We guessed that it was a shamanic ritual, but we didn’t really know. Eventually we headed back down the hill — it was getting dark — and caught a glimpse of the source of this marvelous music. It was just an old couple, bundled in jackets and sitting on the ground and ululating and chanting away.
You don’t read about this sort of thing in guidebooks or see it in Visit Korea commercials. It’s too sloppy, too superstitious and unbusinesslike in a country where even Buddhism is something to steer tourists away from — I was told at a tourist information booth at Insadong that there was really no reason to go see Jogyesa, Seoul’s largest temple. I found out from my colleague Suky that these kinds of shamanic rituals were simply banned under Park Chung Hee, whose increasingly despotic rule began in 1961 and ended in 1979, when the head of the South Korean CIA assassinated him. Suky explained that it was also under Park that South Korea lost a great many of its traditional holidays, replacing them with Constitution Day and Arbor Day and Independence Day, which have about as much cultural resonance as Labor Day in the U.S.
I have been in incomprehensible places before. India and Nepal were consistently baffling — far more so, in fact, than Korea — but they were completely up-front about it. A snake charmer shows you his cobra; a camel has a swastika branded on its ass; a man with a handlebar mustache is wearing a pink turban; a dreadlocked saddhu walks around in a loincloth and face paint. In Bombay in my first week, I kept passing this little Hindu temple — no more than a market stall, really — where a bald man in white robes and marigold garlands sat on a table, his hand above his head, ringing a bell that hung from the ceiling: clang! clang! clang! clang! clang! This went on all day every day, for hours and hours and hours. That’s just sofucking weird. India parades its weirdness at you 24/7, taunts you with it, welcomes you to it, and often enough Indians are interested in explaining themselves to outsiders. After all, simply to communicate with each other within the borders of India, people have to translate across languages, races, cultures, religions. If a Vaishnavite brahman from Bengal, a Tamil Hindu from the scheduled castes and a Muslim from Gujarat walk into a bar, they’ll need a translator before they can get to any sort of coherent punchline.
Korea, by contrast, is about as ethnically and culturally unified as any nation on earth. That’s not to say that all Koreans look or think or talk the same, but they’ve got a lot more history and language in common than two Indians or Americans or Chinese people picked at random. Which makes the culture all the more impenetrable. The Koreans want to learn how to talk to the rest of the world — that’s why I’m here — but the world is not all that interested in the Koreans, and so far they’ve done surprisingly little work toward opening their culture to the outside. It’s hard to find much Korean literature in translation, for example, or even Korean movies. Perhaps this will change as more Koreans emigrate to the U.S. and elsewhere, but for now, the ululating in the hills is something I will hear at a distance.
[the thing with hand bells]
The strange logic of putting kindergarteners through multiple costume changes.
A large hall. Banners. Bubbles. Balloons. The glare of hot lights. A sound system with giant speakers and a complex equalizer. A professional MC. Costumes. Sequins. Glamour. Flashing tube lights running along the foot of the stage. Welcome to ECC Anyang Kindergarten’s Winter Festival 2002!
Last Thursday night Jenny and I and all the teachers and children of ECC Anyang Kindergarten appeased the excessive and misplaced ambitions of a hundred-odd parents with a song-and-dance spectacular that was like the Academy Awards except not as short and not as limited in scale. To produce this gala affair, we have all worked for months to teach our children songs, dances, chants and poems, not to mention several inane and morally questionable skits. We have been teaching them this stuff instead of English. My students have largely given up reading and writing in favor of one more run-through of Lion and Mouse or Knock Knock, and the tedium has made all of us miserable. None of the Korean teachers had a shred of theater experience either, so it was left to Jenny and me to suggest as politely as possible that directing speeches to the back wall is a bad idea and that circle-dances look to the audience like a parade of butts.
But this, we are told, is what the parents want — all two-and-a-half hours of it, a length that was insisted upon by Annie, the kindergarten director. I have my suspicions that it is only sort of what the parents want, and that the person who really wanted this elaborate demonstration is Mr. Kim, president of ECC Anyang, who is rumored to be entering local politics. Whatever the reason, we were performing on a stage in a hall that probably dwarfs anything my director friend Daniel Kleinfeld has ever gotten to use for his shows, which have actual artistic merit and entertainment value, but which do not have tykes or hand bells.
And I couldn’t help feeling irritated that such an obviously expensive extravaganza was being put on by a school that’s been a week or so late in paying its teachers for three months running, and about whose financial situation the rumors have been increasingly dire. Last week there was talk of a strike by the Korean teachers, who hadn’t been paid a thing or given any information about the delay, but fortunately the money came through at the last moment. Unofficial word from the top — nothing is ever official — is that the financial situation should improve in another month or two. We have no reason to believe this to be true, but we never know what’s happening until it’s already happened, so it won’t do us much good to worry either.
Anyway, financial woes aside, last Thursday night we had a show to do. Fortunately extra kindergarten teachers were on hand to deal with the costume changes — yes, changes, plural — as our kids were quickly stripped out of one elaborate set of rented costumes and into the next. That left us regular teachers free to coach the kids through their performances, to corral the children backstage, and to stand onstage and hold the microphones in front of their faces — for all the expensive equipment, no one thought to get a boom mic. We were also therefore available to be harassed by the emcee, who set the tone by opening the show with surprise firework that had me diving for cover as backfiring cinders went shooting into the curtains behind me. For the rest of the evening, the hall was filled with enough smoke to make it resemble one of my college dorm rooms. At one point in the show he asked me some questions in Korean, which left me grinning like an idiot on the stage until he finally asked me how old I was in English. Later he did the same thing to Jenny. And when he wasn’t humiliating Jenny and me, this emcee was apparently humiliating our Korean colleague Sue, who told us afterwards that he’d asked whether she was married — she is — and then asked the audience if they thought she was pretty. Personally I think she’s beautiful, not to mention absolutely adorable, and one of the highlights of this whole performance nightmare has been watching her lead her kids through their choreography, as she’s an awfully cute dancer. But I would hardly put the question of her attractiveness to a crowd of people, especially people who are the parents of the children she teaches.
The emcee also earned his pay by repeatedly interrupting our own kindergarten emcees, Helen and John, two bright kids who have worked extremely hard on their extensive stage banter. Or turning up the incidental music in the middle of skits. Or cruelly turning on the bubble machine while the youngest kids were performing, which is evil, because what kid in her right mind can go on reciting poetry when there are bubbles to chase? The only time the emcee wasn’t around being irritating was whenever there was a problem with the sound. But then he’s the sort of person who’s available to emcee a kindergarten show on a Thursday night in Anyang, which is not where you find Korea’s greatest entertainment stars — who mostly aren’t that great anyway. It reminded me of the weird DJ DoubleClick got for one of its company picnics, a guy who dressed like Garth Brooks and played hip-hop all day, but then you don’t get DJ Skribble to spin for a company picnic at a summer camp in Central Jersey on a Wednesday afternoon.
I have to admit that the kids in their costumes really were adorable. Most of the girls and more than a few of the boys had makeup on, and there is simply no way that a five-year-old in a sailor suit or a cowboy costume or a marching band uniform is not going to look just spectacularly cute. And the kids performed their skits and songs and chants and solo poems admirably for the most part. And in fact the general incomprehensibility of the children during their skits and poems wasn’t really a problem because hardly any of the parents speak English anyway — which must have made it that much more boring to sit through all the plays and poems that didn’t have your kid in them, but there it is and I just work here. At least they got to see a kid in a gorilla suit.
My big number was Shadow Interview, in which I asked each member of Koala class, the kindergarten’s youngest, a few questions while the kid was hidden behind a screen, and then asked the parents to stand up if they could identify their child. The kids did pretty well, though a number of them answered “What food do you like?” with “I like tiger!” or “What animal do you like?” with “I am hamburger!” or “How old are you?” with “I like five!” And the parents did pretty well too, identifying all the kids who actually managed to speak instead of just shrieking. I was the only one who really fucked up, shouting, “It’s Cindy!” when it was in fact Michelle. Unfortunately Cindy, Michelle and Susan all sort of blur together for me as the Koala-girls-without-personalities, and they all look alike. (No, not all Koreans, just these three girls.) But nobody seemed to mind, and everybody loved it when Jack, who has a big, wide, always-grinning face and has to be one of the cutest kids the world has ever known, giggled and squealed through his answers. He was the last kid, and his uber-cuteness made me look good at the end, but that was when the emcee started asking me questions in Korean, and I ended up wandering off the stage in confusion after informing the audience that I’m 27. So much for a graceful exit.
Personally, I got a kick out of the various musical performances. There were a couple of melodion bits, which looked to me like some kind of twisted medical experiment as each kid blew through a white plastic tube and worked the keyboard intently. The xylophones were similarly amusing, again mostly for the incredibly serious concentration on the faces of the children banging out Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. It brought back memories of violin recitals I was in when I was, like, five, which I now realize were primarily interesting because I looked good in short pants and a sport coat, and not because of my ennobling performances of melodies from the Suzuki Method repertoire.
Then there was the performance on “rhythmical instruments” by Koala. It’s sort of a misnomer, as the children proved that there’s nothing inherently rhythmical about tambourines, triangles, castanets or a big bass drum. This particular number was near the end of the show, and once the gaggle of four- and five-year-olds who can barely write the letter O were all assembled onstage with dangerous percussion equipment and ready to go, the emcee decided that this was the moment to launch into an extended distribution of raffle prizes, which thus took place under a steady low-level barrage of thumping and dinging. When the kids finally had their chance to go at it, they were as awful as our rehearsals had led us to expect, but it was hysterically funny watching them all whacking away in patterns that may or may not have been related to the bravely accompanying piano. It came out sounding sort of like if Chinese opera just happened by accident.
My favorite bit, though, was the hand bells. I’ve never seen that before, and it so kicks ass. They all line up, and each kid is responsible for one note, and they shake their bells at just the right moments to make a song. How cool is that? It’s like dweeb gamelan! Jenny tells me hand bells are a church thing and that it makes her think of adult hand-bell choruses, where each socially inept thirty-something Methodist single is responsible for an entire octave. This, I admit, may be going beyond the aesthetically worthwhile limits of the instrument — being really good at hand bells is pretty lame, like being an Alp horn virtuoso or something, and it’s way less cool than being able to play the saw — but I do think that a hand bell chorus playing Nirvana tunes would liven up the intermissions of downtown theater performances (Daniel, are you listening?). In any case, hand bells are cool and Methodists are weird.
After the show the parents seemed happy enough, although it’s hard to tell whether they were just happy it was over. A lot of them wanted pictures of Jenny and me with their kids. I was being photographed with kids I don’t even teach, all so the parents would have adorable pictures of their little ones with the funny-looking creatures from far away. I felt like an ostrich at a petting zoo, and there was no sand anywhere. “This,” Jenny reminded me, “is what they’re paying us for, in some ways more than for being in the classroom with the kids.” And it’s true. All this extravagant hoo-haw was meant to impress the parents, and I think it worked, and if that’s what it takes to sell the product, then I suppose that’s what you do. ECC Anyang is a business, after all. I hope the Winter Festival made the parents happy enough that they keep spending their money and paying our salaries. And I hope I am never involved in any such thing ever again.
Except the hand bells. I could go for more of that. “Here we are now, entertain us … ”
[street mermaids and ajummas]
A catalogue of the mysterious tribes of Hankuk.
Having traveled east on a voyage of commerce and exploration, and having discovered in these distant parts myriad and sundry curiosities unknown in our fair lands, I now endeavor to describe the strange tribes of Hanguk, also called Korea, a peninsula near Cathay. These traveler’s tales are true: I describe only what I myself have witnessed.
AJUMMAS: The word ajumma means “auntie” in the language of the Hanguk people, but ajummas are hardly limited to a variety of blood relations. No, any woman over forty is quite likely to be one or another variety of Ajumma, of which there are many. However, all varieties share certain characteristics in common:
- Permed hair. Most often the hair of an Ajumma is curly and black. As the natural tendency among Koreans is to have straight hair, curls are invariably associated with perms, and perms simply scream Ajumma. These perms range from Richard Simmons afros to relatively subdued waves, but the hair is usually black, though it can also be various unnatural shades of gold or pink, and the perm is always awful. Some travelers report that government vans roam the streets, abducting women whose laugh lines have begun to appear, then strapping them down and brutally disfiguring them with an extensive hair-care regimen, but this is only hearsay, and I report it as such.
- Age: You can’t be an Ajumma until you look like you’re a little past it, which is why you have to be careful before you call somebody ajumma. Women in their thirties are often clinging desperately to Agassi status — an Agassi is what you are before you become an Ajumma — but frequently these very women make the bizarre miscalculation that a perm might make the look younger. The perm, of course, being the clearest identifying mark of the Ajumma, it is pretty much impossible that it will make a Korean woman appear younger, but people do incomprehensible things for youth and beauty.
- Bad sweaters: Not a requirement exactly, and not exclusively the province of the Ajumma, the bad sweater is nevertheless typically associated with her. It can be anything from a black-and-white checked cardigan to a gold-lame-and-spangles disaster, but it should be both hideous and unflattering.
CLUNK MONKS: One job of a Buddhist monk is to gather alms, and another is to spread the dharma (teaching). In Korea, the gray-clad monks combine these activities by going out into the streets with their wooden bells — and the word “bell” is generous here, as the sound is really more of a tok-tok-tok-tok! as the monk thumps the hollow wooden ball rhythmically with a stick. As he clunks away, he prostrates himself again and again, and he chants, often through a loudspeaker. Next to him, of course, is a donation box. And like Hare Krishnas or Christian missionaries on the street in New York (or like Christian missionaries here), he is studiously ignored by everyone who passes.
ENGLISH VAMPIRES: There is no way to spot an English Vampire. They can be found anywhere — in subway stations, in tourist information kiosks, on the street, even in the apartment next to yours. They look just like ordinary Koreans, but these men — they are always men — soon reveal their true colors. Engaging you in conversation, they quickly run through the first series of pleasantries, demanding to know where you are from, how long you are in Korea, how you like it and what you do. But the pleasantries don’t stop there, and in fact there is no real end to them. The English Vampire latches on, following you down the street and running through his entire English vocabulary if you let him. He will tell you everything you don’t want to know about a particular king of the Chosun dynasty, or list all the dozens of obscure places in Korea that you should visit while you’re here, or ask your opinion of every food product available in the Republic, and he will not let go. When confronted with such creatures, it is best to leap onto the next available public transportation and flee, or else curl up into a ball on the street and sob, though the latter tactic is likely to lead to a lengthy discourse on the healthful properties of kimchi or taekwon-do.
HELLO-FUCK-YOUS: In Korea, high schools are segregated by sex, which means that high school boys are even more immature and pent-up than they are in America. Harmless when encountered singly, high school boys become dreaded Hello-Fuck-Yous only when running in packs. At such times they are likely to engage you in English conversation, and absolutely everything you do or say will cause them to snigger nastily. “Hello!” they will cry. “Hello!” you will respond. And they will snigger. “Where you from?” they will ask. “USA,” you might reply. And they will snigger. “Welcome to Korea!” they will shout, and then snigger. Then they will point to each other and yell, “Crazy boy!” which is a much bigger insult in Korean than it is in English. (Well, actually they will call each other “crejjy boy,” but let’s not split hairs.) Eventually they might even go so far as to call each other “sex-crazy” or “sexy boy,” because sex and sexy are obviously daring words to say. And as you walk past, doing your best to ignore this bizarre display, they will finally throw their middle fingers gleefully in the air and shout “Fuck you!” the hostility of which they seem not to recognize.
JETSONS GIRLS: No matter the weather, indoors and out, the Jetsons Girl is there to dance for you in leg-warmers and sell you cellphones and canned goods. Dressed in platform sneakers and ridiculous minidresses that look like cheerleading uniforms from the 1950s future, they announce the openings of burger shops, hawk cellphones, restock shelves at the supermarket, or otherwise announce the presence of things you don’t really need to buy. The most unusual aspect of their appearance is the curious leg-flares so many of them wear, as if you took a pair of bellbottom vinyl pants, cut them off at the knee, and used elastic to turn the bottoms into conical leg-warmers. (We really have to figure out where one buys these outfits, because it would be fabulous clubwear for Jenny back in NYC.) In these bizarre uniforms, the Jetsons Girls then dance listlessly to shitty Korean pop, trying very hard to continue dancing and yelling the merits of their product while also attempting to stave off hypothermia. (Come summer, I expect to find them sweating miserably instead.)
Jetsons Girls are the only Koreans who consistently appear to hate their jobs. In a country where McDonald’s clerks are friendly and efficient, where desk clerks at hospitals seem genuinely concerned for your welfare and humanity, where even the bus drivers take a sadistic pleasure in their work, the Jetsons Girls stand out as the only people whose jobs obviously make them miserable.
KOREAN SOLDIERS: They’re all over the place, and none of them have guns. I have never in my life seen this many unarmed soldiers. But then I have never seen all that many soldiers period, so what do I know? Maybe soldiers go around unarmed in most countries. Anyway, it just seems kinda weird to me.
MERCHANDISE-STRAIGHTENERS: You are interested in purchasing a new frying pan, and you are checking out the merchandise at one of the nicer department stores. You pick up a pan, look at the price, decide it’s too much, and put it down exactly where it was. As soon as you do, the Merchandise-Straightener swoops in to adjust the pan’s position by microns. Why? I have no idea, but in some stores all customer-handled merchandise must then be straightened by a store employee as soon as possible. (Merchandise-Straighteners also perform the important duty of formally greeting you to a section of the store that you are obviously passing through as briefly as possible while shortcutting to somewhere else. I have been bowed to and formally greeted while taking four steps around a bra bin to avoid a tie-up of shopping carts in the main aisle.)
MOPED WARRIORS: Cruising down the sidewalk and sending pedestrians scattering, Moped Warriors live life at the edge. Their only purpose in life is to deliver hot meals, and if that means running over a Stroller Granny (see below), well, so be it. On the other hand, we can sit in our apartment and order up a hot meal that arrives quickly, we pay eight dollars or so (no tip expected), the meal is served on actual dishes with actual utensils, and an hour or two later the Moped Warrior returns to pick up the dishes from outside our door. Is it worth the risk of being brained by an insulated aluminum box every time I’m waiting for a bus? I’m going to have to say yes.
PLAID DISASTERS: Some believe that their special markings are meant to frighten enemies, while others hypothesize that their curious appearance has developed as a way of attracting mates, or even as a means of appeasing evil spirits. Whatever the case, Plaid Disasters have a unique ability to mix printed fabrics of all kinds — not just plaids but tartans, checks, animal prints, stripes, even zigzags — and to do so in the most appalling ways possible. Expert analysis by scientists at the Swedish Spectroscopy Institute has proved that the typical Korean Plaid Disaster is capable of blending colors that result in over 96.4 percent awfulness, a higher percentage than any other people on earth (with the disputed exception of the now-extinct Iron Curtain Escapee Plaid Disaster).
POINTY-FOOTED AGASSIS: There are many varieties of Agassi (young woman). It is believed by many that Pointy-Footed Agassis and Platform-Footed Agassis were once the same tribe, but the two have now branched apart and are completely distinct. In any case, the Pointy-Footed Agassi’s feet are so long and so pointy and her heels are so high that she must sidestep her way up and down subway staircases.
STREET MERMAIDS: Without getting into the complicated morality, ethics and politics of poverty, let’s frankly acknowledge that when it comes to begging, the more pathetic you are, the better your chances. Thus the Street Mermaids, a unique sect of Korean beggars, have developed an especially pathetic way to demonstrate that they have lost the use of their legs. (Whether a given Street Mermaid is actually paraplegic or just pretending is another question I won’t go into and can’t answer anyway.) The Street Mermaid swims the sidewalks of Seoul by lying belly-down on a small dolly, usually pushing a small rolling change basket in front of him. Often he is equipped with a radio that announces his presence. As for his legs, they are encased in enormous, heavy pants that are made from large sections of the inner tubes of tires. These pants can withstand the dragging along the sidewalk while protecting the legs, and their wide curves transform the Street Mermaid’s lower half into spectacular fins. Keep in mind that Korea is not a country without wheelchairs, and in fact many subway stations are wheelchair-accessible. And I have seen beggars in wheelchairs, too. But a paraplegic in a wheelchair is nowhere near as pathetic as a paraplegic dragging himself along the ground, and begging is a competitive business.
STROLLER GRANNIES: How do you transport a baby who can’t walk? The answer in Korea is obvious: put the child on your back, wrap a blanket around it, tie off the blanket in the front, and then fold your hands behind your back, under the baby’s bottom. There are strollers here in Korea, and some mothers actually use them, but most often they are the sole province of very old women — Stroller Grannies — who use them as walkers.
SWISS ALPINISTS: Say you wanted to spend the day walking up a moderate slope near your home. You would throw on a pair of jeans and your tennis shoes or hiking boots, maybe toss a water bottle and some granola bars in a backpack, and be off. Not so in Korea. For the Swiss Alpinist, hiking is as much about gear as it is about mountains or walking. Fancy boots, adjustable sticks and goofy hats are all de rigeur, not to mention fanny packs and daypacks and snazzy hi-tech fleeces and leggings. But it’s the socks that are most important. Giant argyle monstrosities that would make Pippi Longstocking proud, these socks must be pulled high and taut, and they must be ugly and ridiculous. Every time I see these things, I expect any moment to hear Alp horns and see blonde girls skipping over the next ridge, but of course the argyles trudge instead past twelve-foot Buddha statues and drink machines selling Pocari Sweat.
VEGETABLE-SORTERS: Squat. No, really. Get down low, with your butt right on your heels. Okay, now stay that way for the next fourteen hours and do some kind of inscrutable separating of scallions from other scallions, and you too can be a Korean Vegetable-Sorter. What exactly is being sorted is not clear — half the time I’m not even sure what the vegetable is, much less what constitutes a good or a bad one — but I have learned that it’s apparently best to sort your vegetables where they can soak up the absolute maximum of diesel exhaust. Barring that, subway steps are a good place to sort your veggies, because this location greatly increases the chances that they will be stepped on, and then you can do what Vegetable-Sorters do best (other than squatting and sorting vegetables): you can throw a complete screaming hissy fit. If I had to think of one situation that really made me wish I understood Korean, this might be it. These generally ancient women are capable of yelling and screaming with spectacular vehemence and stamina, going at it long after any possible positive result might be attained, and without any diminution in force or vigor. Most spectacular is a battle between two Vegetable-Sorters, which requires that each old lady continuously attempt to out-shout the other, and sometimes this descends into actual shoving matches. I have never seen such a battle end, and presumably they go on indefinitely.
These, then, are some of the wondrous peoples of Korea, whom I have seen with my own eyes and to whose existence I can attest with a clear conscience.
[that soup just rocks my world]
Making our way in a new food universe.
I have been asked by several people what it is we eat here, and whether we’re wasting away. To the latter question I can answer a definite no. This country has pizza, burgers, Haagen-Dazs, Baskin Robbins and Dunkin’ Donuts just about everywhere, plus the occasional Cinnabon store, plus a wide variety of high-fat salty and sweet treats of every imaginable sort: squid crunchies, Pringles in flavors like “Wild Consomme” and “Crispy Curry” and “Funky Soy Sauce,” quality chocolate called Ghana, and all the major American candy bars too. (Jenny looked up one day while eating a Twix and declared it bizarre and amazing that this Twix here in Korea tasted exactly the same as a Twix you’d get out of a vending machine in New York or LA.) So no, our jutting ribs are not about to go clinking like washboards down the bathtub drain.
Fortunately, however, our diet is not primarily junk food. While it’s reassuring to be able to get a tub of Haagen-Dazs chocolate ice-cream and some Hershey’s syrup to put on it, that doesn’t exactly constitute a satisfying meal. When I was in India, I often found myself confronted with a barely edible dinner and ended up munching Cadbury’s bars instead, and it’s amazing how depressing chocolate can get when it’s been your dinner for the last three nights.
But then what is it that we do eat?
We’re the sort of New York City foodies who can tell you about every single Tibetan restaurant within the city limits. We think a good activity for a Saturday afternoon is wandering around Jackson Heights until we find a cuisine we don’t know anything about and then diving in. So when we arrived in Seoul, we were of course excited to try Korean food just as soon as we could. But just as of course, the menus were in Korean. Which is why we ended up in McDonald’s and KFC and Pizza Hut rather often during our first weeks. We actually walked into a Korean restaurant in our neighborhood, feeling brave, but after staring at the menu for several minutes, we couldn’t find a single thing that we could identify in our various guidebooks. And while we were prepared for new food experiences, we wanted to avoid the ones that would involve mystery fish — or worse, the dreaded ojingeo (squid), or the even more terrifying live octopus. In the end we had to retreat from the restaurant, apologizing profusely but incomprehensibly, and we have never been back.
With time, patience and intense study of the Lonely Planet and Berlitz sections on food, however, we have gotten to know our way around Korean cuisine, or at least the safer parts of it. We know what we can order in which kind of restaurant, and what the dishes are that we like, and which restaurants to avoid (the ones with happy squids on the signs and the tanks of unhappy eels out front). We’ve made a few mistakes — there was the nice new restaurant near us where we ordered what we thought was chicken soup and got bowls of steaming ojingeo soup instead, which stunk so badly that we had to leave right away. But most of the time we do fine. We’ve even managed to figure out how to get food delivered to the house, which is fabulous: they bring us dinner on real dishes, we put the dishes outside our door when we finish, they collect the dishes, and at no point are we expected to tip. And at this point they don’t even have to ask us who we are and where we live, because we’re the only people in the neighborhood who phone up and speak pidgin Korean.
One of the most common Korean dishes is bibimbap, which is a bowlful of rice, seasonal vegetables, pickled fern bracken (way better than it sounds) and a fried egg, plus a large dollop of hot sauce. You mix it all up together, and there you are. It’s a remarkably healthy dish, and you can get dolsot bibimbap too, which is bibimbap in a sizzling hot bowl that crisps the rice on the bottom. Another favorite is bulgogi, which is a sort of soupy stir-fry with beef and onions. You get it in one of those hot bowls, and you dump a bunch of rice in, and once again, there you are. There are also mandu (dumplings), served steamed, fried or in soup, and available for next to nothing at most little groceries, though finer varieties get served in restaurants; mild fried rice dishes; donkkaseu, which is fried pork cutlet in gravy; and chaeyuk-deopbap, which is a very spicy pork stir-fry over rice.
A curious thing about Korean food is that the people eating are expected to do some amount of work. With galbi (Korean barbecue), you actually cook your meal yourself, which always makes me feel a little sorry for the wives who sit there working the grill on their night out at the fancy restaurant. But even with simpler dishes, you play a participatory role. With bibimbap, if you just dig in as soon as it hits the table, you’re doing it wrong. You are expected to mix it up yourself — which is a good thing, because it means I can scoop out some of the hot sauce. Then you can eat. With bulgogi, you get the rice in a separate bowl, and then you immediately take that bowl and dump its contents into your bowl of bulgogi. This lets you determine just how much rice you want, but it also involves scooping and stirring. And it’s amazing how many dishes involve cooking at the table and/or snipping with scissors. There are dishes you don’t have to do much with — fried rice, say, or donkkaseu — but those are Chinese and American food, respectively. If it’s Korean and not a soup, prepare to do your part.
Likewise, dish-washing must be a national pastime, because whatever Korean meal you order, you always get a zillion side dishes, each in its own little plate. There is always kimchi, Korea’s national food, which is a sort of crunchy pickled cabbage with hot sauce. Or if there’s not the regular kimchi, there’s some other vegetable pickled in exactly the same way, like cubes of radish. (When you order pizza or spaghetti, you get sweet pickle chips, which is apparently the kimchi of the West.) And there are often little piles of tofu, whole small fried fish, cold fried egg slices, acorn jelly, bunches of super-tiny fish in various sauces (what’s sometimes called sakana zakana in Japan), vegetables even the waiters can’t name (we’ve asked), and then just completely unidentifiable stuff. When it’s not fishy, I like to try what my mom used to call a “no thank you portion” when I was growing up. She would tell me, “You never know if today is the day you’re old enough to like lima beans,” or whatever it was I said I didn’t like. And she was right often enough, though I am apparently still not old enough to like more than a little bit of kimchi, usually with something else. Koreans tend to eat it for breakfast, or so my kids claim, but I couldn’t possibly stand to face the stuff before noon. And as for ojingeo or boiled silkworm larvae — a hideous vat of which seems to be bubbling outside most subway stations, to the delight of, well, somebody apparently — I don’t think I’ll ever be that old, so I’m keeping that no thank you portion at zero.
And then there’s the dark secret of Korean cuisine. Some Koreans still eat dog meat — the brilliantly funny Korean film Barking Dogs Never Bite involves, among other things, an apartment block janitor who steals people’s dogs and cooks them in the basement. Now, I personally have never actually seen anything to indicate that dog meat was available anywhere, and it’s currently illegal, but it might not be for long. Under pressure from Italian and other animal rights activists, FIFA, the organization that manages the World Cup, warned Korea that it had better eliminate its dog meat problem before the games begin this summer. This justifiably outraged Koreans, who wanted to know what on earth dog meat had to do with soccer, and where a bunch of people from countries that eat cow, goat, sheep and pig get off deciding that Korea has chosen the wrong mammal for stewing. Korea is now considering the re-legalization of its underground dog-meat industry, and various merchants have announced that they intend to open dog-meat stands near the exhibition venues should the law permit. If this all comes to pass, it will be decidedly weird. I don’t have any particular moral objection to dog meat rather than some other kind — I just don’t see how killing dogs is meaningfully different from killing pigs, which are similarly intelligent — but I’ll admit that it does sort of freak me out on a visceral level, and I can’t imagine it will be good for tourism. But then my students were horrified that I would eat a duck.
I realize that I’m making Korean food sound like some hideous parade of dog, squid and insect, which isn’t really fair. Most of the time Korean food is somewhere between palatable and excellent, and it’s only rarely scary if you order correctly. And if you don’t fear mystery fish as much as Jenny and I do, Korean food is probably not scary at all. In any case, our favorite Korean food is galbi, which is Korean barbecue. You can get various cuts of pork and beef, but the best is sogalbi, which is marinated beef ribs. There’s a wonderful restaurant in our neighborhood where we go most Friday nights and splurge on sogalbi, and the family that runs the place now knows us. Partly we love it because the food is fantastic, and partly it’s because the family is so nice to us. They always smile and help us out with new foods, and the father likes to show off his new English words with us — one night after I paid the bill, he gave me back 1,000 won (about 75 cents) and proudly announced, “Discount!”
So the deal with galbi is that you go in and sit on the floor at a low table with a grill in the middle. On cold nights, this is a very happy thing to have next to your legs. Then they bring a plate of raw meat, a pair of tongs and a pair of scissors (oh, and also a wet washcloth to clean your hands, which is just so eminently civilized for a meal that is largely finger-food). In a lot of galbi places, you’re expected to do the cooking yourself, but at our favorite place they always do it for us, unrolling the long strips of meat from the bone, flipping them with the tongs and snipping them into bite-sized pieces. Once the meat is ready, you take a piece with your chopsticks, dip it in one of the sauces, put it on a leaf of lettuce or mint, add some other stuff — cucumber, kimchi, pickled or raw garlic, whatever — wrap it all up, and pop it in your mouth. It’s fabulous. It’s delicious and interesting, and you end up eating a lot of lettuce and raw vegetables, which means your meal is essentially grilled lean beef with salad. And after living on pizza and bulgogi for a few days, fresh vegetables can be pretty darn exciting.
The other best thing about our favorite galbi restaurant is the soup (which arrives at a different point in the meal each time, sometimes early on, sometimes practically as dessert). This was one thing where the no thank you portions paid off. At first I wasn’t really into the soup. We don’t know what the stock is exactly. It’s reddish and full of garlic, and there’s a crab leg or two floating around in there. The flavor isn’t particularly fishy, and I could tell it was a well crafted soup, but I just wasn’t into it. Jenny was the same way, but then one night she suddenly couldn’t get enough of it, and the next week I was wolfing it down too. I don’t know what happened exactly, but now that soup just rocks my world.
Another delightful if labor-intensive cuisine is that of the traditional tea house. Tea is one thing that East Asians really get: it’s not just about a cup of something hot, but about relaxing and refreshing the mind, body and soul. Korea has a traditional tea ceremony similar to Japan’s, but I’m talking about simply going to a tea-house and ordering tea. You can get various medicinal (and delicious) herbal teas that usually just come in a mug, but if you order green tea, there’s a whole process. You get a container of dry tea leaves, a thermos of boiling water, a tea pot, a bowl with a pouring spout, and cups. First you take the tea leaves and dump them in the tea pot. Then you pour in the boiling water. Then you wait for the tea to brew. When it’s ready, you pour it into the cooling bowl. Then you wait for it to cool. Then you pour it out into the cups. Then you drink. Then you do it all again. Oh, and if you ordered the powder tea, you do something with a bamboo whisk, but I haven’t gone that extra step quite yet. It’s surprisingly pleasant to sit quietly and focus on performing each step in the process. It brings you back to yourself and focuses you intently on the present moment, and all the noise and confusion of Seoul seems to fall away by the time you’ve got the tea in the cup.
But life is not all galbi and tea houses. We eat plenty of Western food — there are some pretty decent renditions of Italian food around, and we end up with pizza or burgers or fried chicken somewhat more often than I’d like to admit. And we cook at home pretty regularly too. We’ve been able to gather most of the things we need — spices from a shop near the embassies, good jam from a French megamart called Carrafour, salsa and olive oil from a different megastore called E-Mart, etc. For coffee we’ve been going to Starbuck’s, though we’re newly converted devotees of a modest little shop called Apgujong Coffee — but I’ll tell you about that some other time. Black tea is mysteriously rare here, but we found a giant box of Lipton, a small tin of better stuff, and a packet of chai masala at a Pakistani shop in Itaewon. The one thing that I most miss and can’t seem to find anywhere is black beans, not to mention refried beans, or even a steady supply of kidney beans. But we do okay. As for beverages, there’s everything you could want: Coke, 7-Up-flavored soda that they call “cider,” Fanta, gatorade, a wide variety of juices (even a kind of rice juice!), beer, whiskey, wine (7-Elevens, which are everywhere, carry good wine). Our life here is not one of deprivation, and I’ve been enjoying cooking and steadily expanding my repertoire.
Frankly, what we miss most is not American food but other foreign cuisines. I miss pad thai and Thai curries. I miss burritos. I miss Indian food. I very much want a plate of shogo fried momos (dumplings) from Tibet Shambhala on 84th and Amsterdam, with a good dollop of that fantastic hot sauce they make. (For devotees of Tibetan food, by the way, you will be amused to know that there is a cartoon character here called Puppy Momo, which brings up that whole FIFA situation again.) There is Indian food to be had in Korea, and we’ve actually had a bit of it, but I miss it simply being there wherever you go. Likewise, you can get Japanese food like ramen and soba noodles, but it’s difficult to know what you’ve ordered to go on them, and often it’s chewy mystery bits in a gelatinous brown bean sauce, which is not really very compelling. There’s also Japanese sushi and sashimi around, but Koreans have their own version of sushi, which is called kimbap, and which has ham and egg at the center of the roll instead of raw fish. Kimbap is apparently what you take on picnics, and we get kimbap for lunch whenever the kindergarten goes on a field trip, and we really don’t feel the need to eat it more often than that. And you can find other cuisines if you’re willing to travel and pay a lot, but it’s just not … well … I mean it isn’t … Okay, I’ll come right out and say it like the snob I am: It’s not how they do it in New York!
New York has spoiled me. It’s a place where you can conjure up some ethnicity in your head and then go eat its food; where you can sample Ukrainian, Georgian and Russian cuisine, Burmese, Thai and Cambodian food; where there are always at least three ethnic cuisines within easy walking distance of where you are (although, as my friend Lauren has several times pointed out, there is no Uighur food). You just don’t have that variety here, where foreigners still make people (including me) turn their heads to look, even in Seoul. The third-largest city in the world (1. Mexico City, 2. Tokyo), Seoul is bigger than New York, but it doesn’t feel that way, and in part that’s because every neighborhood is a Korean neighborhood. For all its hugeness, Seoul lacks the cosmopolitanism of a truly international city. And like the cuisine, Seoul tends to repeat itself to the point of blandness. Outside the pockets of interest right at the heart of the city, one neighborhood looks very much like another, with pretty much nothing to distinguish them. Koreans know about the outside world, but they know it through their own emigrants who send back reports of life in Los Angeles and New York. The rest of the world has yet to come here and settle, and I don’t expect Korea will be encouraging such openness anytime soon. So the next time you walk into a Thai, Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, Vietnamese, French, German, Irish, Cajun, Colombian, Venezuelan, Japanese or Korean restaurant — hell, the next time you order the Swedish pancakes at IHOP — give a little thanks for the immigrant society you live in. It’s what makes the cultural landscape so varied and keeps New Orleans from feeling exactly like Cleveland.
[i could wallpaper my bathroom with these rejection notices]
In a country without editors, the language books get weird.
Some people do not like their jobs. Some people like their jobs just a little too much. I’m not sure which category it falls in, but one of the series of language books we use, Wake Up, which is produced in Korea, has some spectacularly named activities listed in the teacher’s guides. This is not Konglish or Engrish, mind you, but a twisted mind wreaking havoc in a land with no English-fluent editors. And keep in mind also that the actual activities have absolutely nothing to do with the titles. For example, “I Could Wallpaper My Bathroom with These Rejection Notices” involves drawing, cutting, pasting, and making little books about toys or pets.
Here are some favorite activities for children:
Forcefeed the Fat Boy!
Under My Arms
Give Me My Legs
Colonel, Some Dessert Please
Look Ma, No Warts
Find My Body Part
House and Apartment Vocabulary (and nothing to do with Rome):
Don’t Throw Garbage in my Yard
Weezie, we’re Moving Up to the East Side
Carmichael, I Love What You’ve Done to the Place
Monty, What’s behind the Curtain?
Rome was not Built in a Day
When In Rome
Roman Polanski Presents
The Children’s Cupboard Crusade
Kitchen Rhymes with Chicken
Roman Times Were Hard
The Maytag Guy Does Get Lonely
The Fall of the Roman Empire
Bedroom and Bathroom Bull’s-Eye
It’s My House; Designs are My Choice
Weather and Clothes:
The Raincoat is Quicker than the Eye
Roll the Die and Wear It!
The Great Clothing Hunt (2 variations)
Who Has the Bomb?
I Want a New Job
Get on the bus!
The Pilots of Penzance
The Wright Way
Book ’em, Danno
Who’s the Man?
Move Along Son
Between the Wars
Between the Buttons
Who do you want to be in front of?
Baby, You Can Drive My Car
The Amazing Kreskin!
Psychic Friends Relay
Have You Ever Seen a Student?
The Captain and his Crafty XOs
Tractors, Turtles and the Big Bad Teacher
Crazy Cow ‘Hay’-jinx!
The Great Hay Relay Buffet
Flying Friandise Foodfest
“Flap On, Flap Off … The Flapper!”
Big Wing Wannabes
The Black Sheep of the Family
A Horse of a Different Color
Wag ‘Em If Ya Got ‘Em!
Making Heads or Tails Out Of An Animalistic Situation
Stop Crying, You Baby!!
(This) Is Just A Simple Drawing Activity
Indian Poker Review
Down on the Farm
Pin the Zookeeper in the Zoo
How’s Your Bench?
Hot Wheels on Ice
Crazy Dancing Snakes
Five Weak Monkeys
Only the Strong Survive
The Deluxe Dolphin Mobile
The Zeitgeist of it All
William Tell is Hungry
The Walls of Fruit Are Closing in on Me!
Watermellon Balloons in Strawberry Fields
We Share the Same Brain
Crazy Carrot Limbo!
Onion Rings Are Flying Through The Skies
The Living Lettuce Head
Leaf Me Alone!
Formal Salad Mixer
Drinks to Dice For
Search For the Secret Spritzing Soda
Showdown at Some Flipped-Out Corral!
Much Ado About Something
Some Snake Slappin’ Spinfest
Funky Fast Food Franchise Face-Off
Chickenbread, Chickenbread, Where Are You?
Zen and the Art of Sandwich Making
Love is Blind But Favorites Are Blindfolded
Joy of Yearning with Cards in English
I Want Some Academy Awards!
Some Precognition Can Bring Lots of Good Fortune
Time, Time, Look What’s Become of me.
Same to You
Funny Forked Road
Even the Nights are Better!
An Eastern Western wedding in hypermodern Korea.
Thursday, April 4: In a conversation about weekend plans, Suky mentions that she might be going hiking on the 21st, but then stops herself. “Oh,” she says, “but that’s Yu-jin’s wedding. Are you going?”
I’m at a loss. The director of our institute is getting married? This is the first I’ve heard of it. “Are we supposed to go?” I ask.
“Oh, you didn’t know about the wedding?” Suky asks. Then she turns to James, the assistant director, and asks him — in English — whether she can tell me about Yu-jin’s wedding. Halfway through, she catches herself and switches to Korean. In English, James says that she can go ahead.
According to Suky, all of the teachers at ECC are invited. She knows this because Sally, the Korean lady who manages the front desk upstairs, has told her. Of course, as with virtually all information that percolates through ECC, no one is sure about anything — did Yu-jin actually say anything that would indicate that we’ve been invited, or did Sally just find out about the wedding and assume? The simplest way to solve this mystery would be to ask Yu-jin directly, but right now at least, the wedding is still something of a secret.
Or at least it’s implicitly a secret — or something — so the only person I tell is Jenny, who is as excited as I am at the prospect of witnessing a Korean wedding. Korea seems to have wedding fever, with wedding halls all over the place: big atrocious glass buildings with huge portraits of happy couples out front. From the outside, they look like the nuptial equivalent of a multiplex cinema, but we’ve never actually been in one. This may be our only chance.
Friday, April 5: Arbor Day: no work. When Graeme and Karen come over, I share my juicy tidbit about Yu-jin, only to discover that they already know. Then they tell us about Korean wedding festivities, which apparently involve the passing of an unbroken raw egg yolk from mouth to mouth and the flogging of the groom’s feet with fish. At least, that’s what Karen’s adult students have told her. Graeme doesn’t think we’ll be witnessing anything nearly that exciting, though. Apparently the eggs and fish are for the special guests. The ordinary guests just get a quick ceremony and a free lunch.
Thursday, April 11: We’re planning to be in Seoul for the weekend, so I ask Suky whether we should get some kind of gift for Yu-jin, and if so, what. After all, I haven’t a clue about Korean wedding etiquette. This question sets off a conclave among the Korean teachers. They finally decide that no gifts are required because 10,000 won is taken out of each teacher’s pay every month for a fund called “Mutual Aid,” which is supposed to pay for special events like this. (Graeme refers to the Mutual Aid money as “[ECC] President Kim’s drinking and whoring fund.”)
Friday, April 12: I email my friend Allison about the wedding. She tells me Korean weddings are fast and dull. Suky agrees.
Monday, April 15: The wedding is still a secret, but it is now a secret that everyone knows. James tells us that we can all meet at ECC and take the school’s bus to the wedding. He tells us this individually, not as a general announcement.
When I mention to Suky how weird I find it that everything is so secretive, she tells me that Yu-jin is shy about informing everyone about the wedding. I don’t buy it. Yu-jin has been “shy” about telling us pretty much everything, from basic administrative requirements to problems meeting payroll. Nobody ever knows anything for certain at ECC until after it’s actually happened, which means that Yu-jin is never responsible for living up to any commitments. At this point I’m wondering whether she’s informed the groom yet about the wedding, and whether he knows it’s a wedding and not, say, an engagement party or a golf tournament.
Tuesday, April 16: Disappointment: Suky tells us that we’re not really wanted at the wedding, and that the invitation — the secret, informal, third-hand invitation — was out of politeness and a sense of obligation. I don’t think I understand Korean manners.
Wednesday, April 17: Today each teacher is given a formal invitation card, printed in Korean. Are we wanted or not wanted? Is this more politeness, or are we actually invited? I don’t know how to read the symbols — I figure it’s one of those things foreigners can’t understand — but when I ask Suky, she doesn’t know either. By the end of the day, consensus opinion among the Korean teachers is that we are actually invited to the wedding, but it’s an uneasy consensus and doubt remains.
Thursday, April 18: James goes around the room asking people if we’ll be taking the school bus to the wedding. He tells us to arrive on Sunday at 10:30, which he subsequently informs us means 10:50. I assume we won’t leave before 11:30.
Meanwhile, gossip is now in the open. Susan used to live next to Yu-jin, and noted that she recently had a gentleman caller quite regularly, and then she moved out. And she’s gotten a haircut and dyed her formerly blondish hair a more demure black.
Apparently feeling magnanimous, Yu-jin has set up meetings with every single teacher to see what she can do to make our lives easier. When it’s my turn, I offer my congratulations. She smiles shyly, asks if Jenny and I have plans. I say yes. That’s as far as it goes, but it’s by far the most warmth and human interaction I’ve ever had with Yu-jin. Yes, she’s patted my on the shoulders and smiled before, but only when our pay was late. This is the first time we’ve ever had what could even remotely be called a personal conversation, and it feels nice. I wonder whether we’ll ever have one again — is this is just a prenuptial thaw, or has the relief of finding a life partner actually mellowed Yu-jin out? I even begin to wonder whether all of Yu-jin’s endless stress these last six months has been connected to the impending wedding, but then I remember that her reputation as irritable, inscrutable and confused was solidly in place when we arrived.
Saturday, April 27: I have nothing decent to wear, so I go shopping in Anyang. I manage to find a white shirt and khakis without much trouble, but the quest for a tie and a blazer is more problematic. I find myself in a department store, trying on jackets next to a mannequin that’s dressed in checked pants and a plaid shirt. There will be no relying on the taste of the salesmen here. Amazingly, I find a wool navy blazer that fits without needing alterations. There are tasteful clothes to be found in 2001 Outlet, but you have to find them in between the brown linen suits with the elbow patches and the rack of multicolored sweater-vests. Oh, and by the way, if you ever wondered where old-man clothes come from, they come from Korea.
Sunday, April 28: We arrive at 10:50 and board the school bus, which departs at 11:30, heading for the posh district of Gangnam-gu — the only place in Seoul where you regularly see foreign cars, and we’re not talking Fort Escorts either. We pass the dealerships for Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Ferrari before pulling up in front of an especially huge wedding hall. In we go, walking up the stairs and through the turmoil and confusion of several other weddings in progress, until we come out on the fifth floor. James points out a young man, delicate but handsome, who is standing in a tux by the door of the main hall and waving a white-gloved hand. He, we are told, will be Yu-jin’s husband.
Then James asks us if we want to take pictures of Yu-jin. No one wants to miss this chance, but when we are led around the corner to the small room where Yu-jin is sitting — and, it must be said, looking radiant in her white dress — we discover that we’re not taking pictures of Yu-jin, but having our pictures taken with Yu-jin, and not with our cameras either. The photographer counts off — “Hana, dul, set!” — and flash! and then we’re hustled out, left to mill around the fifth floor lobby. Our attention is drawn by a curious little side room that has a raised, enclosed area for sitting on a traditional-looking floor. We ask Suky what it is, and she explains that this is where the mothers of the bride and groom are sitting in their hanbok. These traditional garments, long robes tied with a half-bow just below the breasts, were worn by most Korean women as recently as the 1970s, but now they’re mostly trotted out for special occasions. Suky asks us if we want to take a look, so we do, and lo and behold, there are two middle-aged ladies in hanbok, sitting on the floor and reading the newspaper.
Soon James is back, shepherding us all into a group so he can give us our meal tickets, which will get us the promised free lunch after the ceremony. Then we’re led into the main hall, which is decorated with white fluted pillars and piles of fake flowers and candles, all of which look like they came from some kind of high-tech wedding factory somewhere. After a few minutes, the ceremony begins with the solemn entrance of the armed flight attendants. At least that’s what they look like: two women dressed like 1970s stewardesses, complete with little caps, come marching in, one on either side of the aisle, and each with a sword pointed in front of her. And they’re not Korean swords either, but the kind of sword that US Marines carry on formal occasions. They stop halfway up the aisle and form an arch with the swords, and then Yu-jin enters, led by her father, and walks under the arch to the altar.
There’s organ music and a kind of solemnity to the procession, but it’s undercut by the unceasing rumble of conversation from the lobby, which never dies down at any point during the ceremony. Acoustically, it’s like hearing a wedding being performed in a busy airport departure lounge, and this effect is heightened by the electronic crackle of the sound system that broadcasts the officiant’s speech. He’s Yu-jin’s husband’s professor, and he apparently gives a lecture on economics and then exhorts the couple to read a lot of books, or so we are told afterwards. While this is going on, the videographer is swooping all over the place, the klieg light on his camera alternately blinding us and casting weird shadows. Then, with a blast of bubbles from a bubble machine, it’s all over. The cake is carted in. Dry ice is spilling out in clouds underneath it, which makes it look like it’s about to blast off. The groom slices it, but no one appears to eat any of it, and it certainly never makes its way to any of us. Then Yu-jin marches out and the flight attendants are suddenly wielding trumpets, which they position at about crotch level and then fire — yes, fire — sending out showers of confetti. And that’s it. Yu-jin is off to the bowing room, and we’re all being hustled upstairs to the seventh floor, past a wedding in progress on the sixth, and into a big room with tables lined up like in a soup kitchen. We hand over our meal tickets and sit down to what is, to be fair, a pretty decent meal of beef rib soup and the usual Korean assortment of side dishes. Unfortunately it’s sweltering, so we eat quickly and go. Graeme, Susan, Jenny and I spend the rest of the lovely spring afternoon wandering around Gangnam-gu, looking at boutiques and having pretty good Mexican food for dinner.
So yes, Korean weddings are fast and dull, but fascinatingly so. I mean, a bubble machine? Flight attendants with swords? This is what they consider a Western wedding, but as usual, what Koreans think of as Westernization looks more like playing dress-up to me. Somehow Korea has managed to obscure its own overt traditions by taking on the surface elements of American and Western European culture — the white dress, the swords, the tuxes — but that just makes the whole affair that much more inscrutable. What does a white dress actually mean to a Korean? Why on earth would a Korean couple choose to have a formal US Marines-style wedding, except with the part of the soldiers played by women dressed like airborne cocktail waitresses? If they all wore curious costumes and bowed a lot and ate mysterious things, I would have been much less confused. As it is, Yu-jin’s wedding felt like some kind of mutant cultural phenomenon that crawled out of the modernizing mind of Park Chung Hee, Korea’s relentlessly modernizing dictator from 1963 to 1979. Park’s ruthless rule simultaneously built South Korea into a powerful modern economy and wiped out traditional Korean culture wherever possible. Traditional holidays were replaced with meaningless national days off like Arbor Day and Constitution Day; shamanistic rituals were banned; old houses were destroyed in favor of anonymous brick and concrete boxes. Factories and heavy industry were promoted as Korea’s only safe passage to the future, and the culture of industrialization — uniform clothes, apartment towers, even weddings — was actively promoted as a replacement for traditional culture, which was considered backward. A generation grew up that didn’t remember Korean culture from before the civil war, and a curious gap was created.
To this day, Korea has a deeply conflicted, awkward relationship with its own traditions. On the one hand, Koreans are proud of their culture, which they’ve preserved against brutal repression from the Japanese and through an awful civil war. But the traditions are often treated like museum pieces, like something unchanging and therefore lifeless. You never hear Korean drums in a hip-hop track. Holidays are celebrated, but their religious significance is downplayed.
This is only a conjecture, but I wonder whether the division of Korea has something to do with the arm’s-length approach to prewar culture. The Korean peninsula is just about the most monocultural place on earth, except that for the last fifty years the north and the south have been completely isolated from each other; what links them is what existed before the war. If South Korea began to move that traditional culture forward, to let it breathe and grow and even change into new, previously unimagined forms, the connection between north and south might break. Anything that isn’t shared between north and south must not be considered “real” Korean traditional culture. And so South Korea looks forward and outward instead, creating its contemporary culture out of what it finds in the rest of the world. Still, despite Koreans’ increasing taste for rap songs, Christianity and hamburgers, it would be a mistake to think that these things are replacing Korean culture. Rather, they are becoming Korean culture.
Scientists tell us that it’s the edges of ecological zones — the places where jungle merges into grassland, or where wetlands become forest — where most new species evolve. In the same way, Korean culture is evolving most rapidly at the edges, where it meets up with other cultures. The core may be preserved like a stuffed critter in a natural history museum, mounted on a pedestal and carefully kept from changing; but on the outskirts, where ordinary people eat, work, get married, go to the movies — in those places, Korean culture is vibrant, energetic, frequently tasteless, often inscrutable, and unquestionably alive.
It turns out wedding halls are nothing new in East Asia. From The Travels of Marco Polo:
Near the central part [of the city of Kin-sai in eastern China] are two islands, upon each of which stands a superb building, with an incredible number of apartments and separate pavilions. When the inhabitants of the city have occasion to celebrate a wedding, or to give a sumptuous entertainment, they resort to one of these islands, where they find ready for their purpose every article that can be required, such as vessels, napkins, table linen, and the like, which are provided and kept there at the common expense of the citizens.
[being john miguk]
Malkovich! Malkovich! Malkovich!
The trouble with picking up a little of the local language is that you start to understand what people are saying about you. Wherever we go — at least out here in the suburbs — there’s a little ripple of excitement, a murmur through the crowd. And now, with my slightly expanded Korean vocabulary, I can pick out the voices crying out, “Miguk! Miguk saramieyo!” “American! It’s an American person!” They are the voices of old ladies, shopkeepers, passing strangers, children. Especially children. Oh, so very many children.
We live just up the block from an elementary school, and no matter what time we pass, it seems class has just been dismissed. A zillion children run after us shouting, “Hi! Hi! Hello! Watchurname? Nice to meetchoo!” in English, and whispering, “Miguk! Miguk! Ishishi seonsaengnim (ECC teacher!)” in their own language. They follow us into the Internet room, crowding around to watch the Miguk type. I’m at a loss to explain the appeal to an eight-year-old of watching someone browse email in an incomprehensible language. On the other hand, I’ve never questioned the entertainment value of going to zoos to watch baboons eat lunch. All the attention can be disconcerting. I feel like I’m in the movie Being John Malcovich: no matter what’s happening or where I am, everything is mysteriously, inscrutably about me. Except I’m not being stalked by Cameron Diaz, which would actually be pretty cool; instead I’m instantly recognizable to children. I sometimes feel like I’m walking around in a Tinky Winky costume, my burbling voice merely tolerable to adults but strangely compelling to children. Parents don’t discourage the assaults, either. They may be too polite to clamor all over me and shout in my face, but I think they get a vicarious thrill by letting their little ones poke the funny monkey. Worse, I’ve had shy children shoved at me by mothers who desperately want them to say hello to what is clearly a hairy monster of some sort, and in this way I have made children cry. (This feels much worse than making children cry in a professional capacity, which I do regularly by insisting that crayons are not for combat and that not just any three pencil strokes on a page qualify as an acceptable capital A.)
Adults are far less likely to approach us; the ones who show the most interest are the middle-aged men who ask whether Jenny is Russian — “Roosiya? Roosiya?” — which is a coded way of asking whether she’s for sale. But that’s not to say that all adults are clever or polite enough to recognize us as entirely human. I mean, if you were stuck in an elevator with complete strangers at a department store, would your first instinct be to say hello? Koreans don’t say hello to other Koreans in such circumstances, but I regularly get a “Hi,” invariably followed by embarrassed giggles. These people have nothing to say to me. They are not interested in either receiving or imparting information in a normal human context. I’m being treated like an exhibit, and they only ever ask for the information that should be on a plaque somewhere: what my name is, where I come from. I don’t want to make it sound like these are the only interactions I ever have. Some people push the conversations two questions further, asking the purpose of my visit and whether I like it here. And still others actually want to communicate, going so far as to listen to my answers and respond to them. But an appallingly high percentage of my conversations with Koreans boil down to nothing much more interesting than “Malkovich! Malkovich! Malkovich!” Just the other day, for example, as Jenny and I walked home from kindergarten, a man drove up next to us, rolled down his window and simply giggled and stared. When we stared back, he began to nod vigorously. I resorted to my current mode of revenge, which is pointing and shouting, “Hanguk saramieyo! It’s a Korean person!” But this only encouraged more nodding, until finally the man smiled, pointed to the sky and drove off. Perhaps the worst, though, are the overly solicitous people who proudly display their English by telling you useless information. The other day we walked up to an Internet room, tried the door, found it locked. A stranger wandered up. “What are you looking for?” he asked in English. “Pishi-bang,” I said. “PC room.” He stepped back to look up at the side of the building, which was adorned with a very large sign advertising Internet connections inside. Then he tried the door, which was locked. Then he shook his head at us. “No pishi-bang,” he explained. This was about as helpful as having a man tell you it’s raining when you’ve already got your umbrella open. But he wasn’t telling us because we needed to know; rather, it was because he wanted to be friendly to the foreigners. World Cup was just days away, after all, and Koreans have been endlessly exhorted to be friendly to the foreigners.
Sadly, Koreans haven’t got a clue what foreigners want or how they’d like to be treated. They’ve spent tons of money putting the destinations in English on each bus, but they haven’t made any maps, and how much good would it do you to know that this next bus starts in Geumjeong and ends in Ansan? I thought so. Likewise, they’ve gone to enormous lengths to promote the games, but you can’t watch them with English commentary in your hotel room — not even the games taking place in Japan, much less the ones happening all the way on the other side of Korea. But then, you can probably find a Korean who will helpfully flip channels for you until he finds the game on the Korean Broadcasting Service and then proudly tell you the score in English. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that people react to us strangely. There just aren’t that many foreigners around — especially way out here in the suburbs — and I admit that I look up every time I catch a glimpse of one, too. But then, having caught that glimpse, I just nod and smile and keep going on my way. Maybe it’s a New York thing, this ability to see someone who looks unusual without needing to talk to her; maybe it’s an American thing. Or maybe it’s something that only happens in multiethnic societies, which means most societies but not this one. Whatever it is, I wish I could explain it to the creepy kids who follow me around shouting “Miguk! Miguk saramieyo!”
Korea welcomes the world, porkie-pies and all.
Nothing obsesses modern Korea more than its international image. Korea desperately wants to be taken as seriously as Japan, the one Asian nation that has gone completely from “developing” to “developed” and settled into a French- or German-style long-term recession. That’s why, when FIFA announced that Japan would host the next World Cup, Korea mounted frantic and incessant protests. Somehow football’s governing body was convinced that the games should be split because Japan occupied Korea in the first half of the 20th century. I can’t follow the logic in the argument — Germany is to be the host in 2006, and neither France nor Poland has complained — but football is a game of passions, and Korea got half the games. The final match — the world’s most widely watched sporting event — will still be in Japan, but Korea will nevertheless be getting a whole lot of attention.
Korea’s been getting ready for this since before we arrived. They’ve built new stadiums, prettied up subway stations, printed large numbers of match schedules in Korean, and generally behaved like very anxious hosts who are about to receive space aliens in great numbers. They’ve done a few things right and a lot of things wrong. On the positive side, they’ve generated enormous enthusiasm among their own people — one of my kindergarteners informed me that the final would be between Korea and France. Their own soccer team has improved enough that in recent friendlies it tied England and lost to France by only one goal, though it’s worth noting that reigning World Cup champion France was just defeated by lowly Senegal.
But not everything has gone quite so smoothly. Ticket sales were managed disastrously, so that the tickets were sold in confusing rounds and largely snapped up by the Koreans themselves. Hotel reservations were briefly taken out of the hands of the hotels and given over to a British firm, but by the time the spaces were listed as available, the deadline for reserving them was already past. In the end, the hotels were given back control over their rooms, but only after they’d spent a month turning away potential business during the World Cup month because they had no rooms available. Hotels are facing less-than-average occupancy for June. Then there’s been the ongoing dog-meat situation. FIFA wanted Korea to clamp down on its illegal dog-meat trade, which prompted enthusiasts to suggest that they would sell dog-meat soups and beverages outside game venues. Knowing how Korea works, it’s likely that some foreigner will end up eating dog completely by accident, which is very not good. Meanwhile, you can get a World Cup T-shirt at just about any subway station, but you can’t get a bus map. Likewise, English is considered important enough that it’s used for official announcements at the games, but none of the five channels broadcasting the games have English commentary. Considering that the games are spread widely across two countries and that tickets are expensive (and nearly impossible to purchase), most fans will only be going to a few games; they’ll probably want to watch the rest of them in their hotel rooms, and they won’t be happy when they find out they’ll be watching in Korean, with even the scores presented in Korean script. As for me, I watched the opening ceremonies and was completely baffled. An English explanation of the dancing monsters with TV heads might have helped, but then again it might not have.
Yesterday I went into Seoul and saw largish numbers of these World Cup foreigners. They were shoving and being shoved through the crowds on Insadong, which has been turned into a lively festival space for the duration of the games, at least on weekends. Never have I seen so many exhausted, befuddled white people here in Korea, and it was even more startling to hear European languages — Dutch, Danish, German, French — rather than just English. Jenny claims she even saw some Poles, who were looking hot, as Poles tend to when you spot them anywhere south of Paris, and also a little frightened: they’re the opponents in Korea’s first game, and hospitality has limits.
It’s hard not to feel like all these foreigners are invading my turf. It’s not like I’ve begun to blend in here or anything, but I’ve gotten good at looking like I know what I’m doing. I can get around, I can buy things, I know a smattering of Korean pleasantries and shopping words. But now all these nincompoops have arrived, and I look like an idiot by association. Lately Koreans have responded with dropped-jaw shock when I answer basic Korean phrases or use the correct forms of “hello” and “goodbye” automatically. And everyone asks me hopefully whether I’m here for the World Cup — “Walled Cop?” they grin. They’re disappointed when I tell them I’m a teacher. On the other hand, I keep getting free stuff. At the galleries on Insadong yesterday, I was given innumerable posters and exhibition catalogues, and I was flatly refused whenever I tried to pay for them. I witnessed no fewer than three live musical performances and was fed several different mystery beverages, all for free. I even had a small bottle of baeksaeju, Korea’s not very good traditional rice wine, shoved into my hand despite my protests.
In the end, free stuff may be much of the point of the government’s carefully orchestrated Walled Cop hysteria. As with the Olympics in 1988 (about which, mysteriously, I have heard hardly a whisper from Koreans), it may ultimately be a financial loss, but it’s been a fantastic excuse to upgrade the country’s infrastructure, and the worldwide attention serves to advertise how far Korea has come. For all the individual losses faced by hotels, shops and corporations, Korea, Inc. will probably come out ahead.
Of course, the biggest issue was and is prestige. It’s worth remembering that Korea was a colony and Japan its master less than a century ago; Koreans have the same inferiority complex that you find in India, Africa, the Middle East, except they have it towards the Japanese. Koreans very much want the world to see them as equal to Japan, and to see them as “dynamic” and “the hub of Asia.” I expect that the games will be at least a partial success in that respect. Japan has come across as stiff and sullen, going on ad nauseum about the precautions it’s taking against soccer hooligans; Korea, meanwhile, has been incredibly eager to please. And Japan is stuck in an endless recession, while Korea’s economy is booming. Yes, Korea is the poorer nation, but it’s also the one that feels like it’s on a roll. I don’t think World Cup will suddenly make Korea as important as Japan, but it will remind people, briefly, that Korea is here, and that Koreans are capable of working very hard and getting big things done.
Forty-nine percent of Koreans are Christians, but that hasn’t stopped them from going over to devil worship with a collective enthusiasm that would make Anton LeVay wet his pants. Specifically, it’s the Red Devils they’re worshipping — Korea’s national football team, along with its Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, who has been awarded honorary citizenship and granted free first-class flights for life on Korean Air. And for what it’s worth, the actual mascot is a traditional Buddhist demon, so another 47 percent of the population has been given a fair chance at apostasy.
Korea is not a football nation. Americans tend to imagine that football — what we call soccer because we don’t like it — is beloved everywhere else, and only Americans are lucky enough to have real sports like basketball and Temptation Island. The truth is more complex. Yes, football is a sacred pagan cult across much of Europe and Latin America — Honduras and El Salvador once went to war over a World Cup match — and it’s widely popular in Africa and the Middle East. But there’s a reason Asia has never before hosted the World Cup: no one here much cares. India, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia — football is insignificant in all of them. In fact, Japan is the only nation east of Afghanistan where there’s a real enthusiasm for the sport. Young Japanese have been following the Spanish and English leagues for years now, as well as supporting their own local teams; it’s a sort of rebellion against their stiffer baseball-loving parents. Crowds of Japanese turned out to support various teams other than their own, and England’s charismatic captain, David Beckham, was treated like a Beatle, unable to leave his hotel room without guards to push back the mobs. It was this passion that earned them the 2002 World Cup in the first place.
South Korea got its World Cup for entirely different reasons, largely nationalist ones, and it’s only since then that the Koreans en masse have shown any interest in the sport. You can tell they’re new to football because they only have two chants. They care about their national team — no, they are obsessed with it — but they don’t care about the sport itself, which has given their intense support an unsettling edge.
At first, of course, it seemed reasonable enough. South Korea is a host nation, after all, and its people ought to exhibit some passion for the team, even if they haven’t followed the sport before. I was rooting for the Red Devils right along with everyone else — for the sake of Korea’s national pride, I hoped the team would make it to the second round before being dismissed. But when Korea played the United States, I mostly prayed that there would be no controversy. After all, we’re still hearing about Apolo Anton Ohno, the short-track skater who knocked over the Korean and won the gold in Utah this year; when Ahn Jung Hwan scored his equalizing goal against the United States (the final score was 1-1), he promptly performed a pantomime of short-track skating.
Of course, Korea did make it to the second round. They got there by defeating Portugal in a bizarre game that involved the sending off of not one but two Portuguese players, which meant the Koreans had eleven players to Portugal’s nine. It was a less than decisive way to advance, but the Koreans were understandably ecstatic. And anyway, it was hardly the only upset of the first round: favorites Argentina and reigning champions France were both knocked out, while Senegal and Turkey moved on.
In the Round of 16, Korea came up against Italy, who were clearly the most attractive team in the tournament. They all looked like Armani models and had expensive haircuts, and I must admit I was rooting for them, not the Koreans. I was glad that the Red Devils had made it to the Round of 16 — just as good as the Japanese, who by then had been eliminated — but now I was ready for it to end. I was sick to death of the same two football chants, particularly when they came spontaneously from my students at inappropriate moments. Even more, I was sick of Korean nationalism, which too often involved ranting about the evils of Japan.
But I was disappointed. Again Korea eked out an upset victory against an undermanned opponent, the Italians having lost a player in the second half. To be fair, the Italians looked sloppy all tournament, and in their game against Korea they seemed to think their one early goal was good enough, settling back to play defense for the rest of the game. It was a poor performance by the Italians, and they might well have lost even without help from the referees. And the next morning, the Italians showed themselves to be poor sports indeed: the owner of Perugia’s team declared that he was firing Ahn Jung Hwan, the Korean star who scored the winning goal against Italy, because Ahn had “ruined Italian football.” (He has since apologized for this outburst and offered to keep Ahn on the team.)
By the time the next game rolled around, I was rooting for Spain with surprising intensity. For the first time I experienced football the way fans around the world do, as a brutal period of anxiety in which the clock becomes your nemesis. In this case, I wanted it to slow down. Spain put the ball into the Korean goal twice, but both times it was called back by the referee: once because the ball had supposedly gone out of bounds (it hadn’t), and once for a penalty that simply wasn’t visible to the naked eye. But surely the Spanish would do it again, and then it would count, and that would be the end for Korea. I sorely wanted to see the Koreans humbled. Okay, so they’d gone one better than Japan. It was time for them to remember that until three weeks ago most of them didn’t understand the offside rule. It was time for them to take the loss with dignity and go back to feeling small.
I was surprised at my own vindictiveness, but not that surprised. Korea’s xenophobia was running rampant. Student activists wanted to turn the tournament into a protest against the United States, and the anti-Japanese sentiments had begun seriously to grate on me. I actually got into an argument with one of my classes over whether Japanese people their own age were “bad.” Yes, I told them, I know about the occupation, but what did young Japanese people have to do with that? And yes, the Japanese killed 400,000 Koreans, but that was a piddling amount compared to the 2 million they themselves killed during the Korean War. Were Koreans bad? I could get no more than an agreement that the North Koreans were bad, and then they were back again on 1910, when “Japan eat Korea.”
The Spanish goal never came. The game went into overtime, and then to the penalty shoot-out phase, in which each team has five chances to kick the ball into the goal from a short distance away, with no one but the goalkeeper defending. It was a nail-biting affair, but in the end the Spanish missed. The Koreans moved on to the semifinals, having defeated three European sides, each time with the help of controversial refereeing. UEFA, the European football organization, was calling for an investigation. So far there’s been no indication of any orchestrated wrongdoing, and it’s worth noting that up to that point, Korea was the most heavily penalized team in the tournament. Still, the Korean side had won only one match — their first, against Poland — in which all of the opposing team’s players were on the field at the end. They drew against the United States, beat a nine-man Portuguese team and a ten-man Italian one, and then lost 2-0 to the Spanish, except that the referee canceled those goals.
But somehow the victory over Spain changed everything. A few minutes after the game, my friend Graeme called me and suggested that Jenny and I should go watch the celebrations in downtown Anyang. We did, and the pure joy was infectious. A sea of red-clad Koreans filled the streets, banging on drums, shooting firecrackers, singing, dancing, riding on the tops of cars. No Asian team had ever gone this far in the World Cup; from here on out any further success would be icing, but the Koreans felt that by beating Spain they had already taken the cake. There was a certain humility in this. The Koreans were satisfied now; they didn’t need the trophy, though they still wanted it badly.
Going into the game against Germany, my feelings were no longer ambiguous. Jenny and I went with Suky and her family to watch it on a big screen at the local middle school. I wore my “Be the Reds” T-shirt like everyone else — the T-shirt vendors are the real winners of this World Cup — and I cheered for Korea. At half-time the score was still 0-0, and the crowd around us reacted as if they knew this might be their last hurrah. Fireworks were everywhere, and a circle of dancers beat on drums and Korean cymbals. It was very foreign and very beautiful, and we were reminded once again that we are living in a culture that is not our own.
It was also during half-time that Suky asked us if we knew what this day was. No, we said. “Today North Korea invaded South Korea,” she explained.
World Cup is about losing. It’s not like the Olympics, where each event produces three medalists and there are dozens of events. In the World Cup, every team except for one has to lose sometime, and there’s only one trophy. In the second half against Germany, Korea fought valiantly, but the Germans were relentless in their assault, and at last they scored a goal — the only goal of the match. It was the end of the fairy tale, the Koreans’ turn to lose. They responded with dignity and pride in their team’s achievements. The crowds in the streets — as many as 7 million people across Seoul — kept cheering long after the game was over, and there were no riots. When the Koreans lost, they lost well. But of all the days to lose, it must have been a hard one.
As we walked home from the middle school, I tried to console Suky, telling her how impressed I was both with the Korean team’s performance and with Korea’s success in hosting the games. I was lying a little — Korea made many mistakes in its management of World Cup, and despite much hoopla, tourism numbers were actually below the seasonal average because the Japanese stayed home to watch the games — but I did think Korea had much to be proud of nonetheless. After all, the team had done spectacularly well, and as far as I could tell, the tourists who came here enjoyed themselves. Even the non-English broadcasts were less disappointing than I expected them to be, and because of one SBS announcer’s curious pronunciation, I will now always think of goalkeepers as “porkie-pie.” Indeed, there was a strange poetry to it:
Suky agreed that World Cup had gone well. “This is different from the Olympics,” she added. “This really unified the whole country.” But then she explained her disappointment. “It’s not because we lost the World Cup,” she said. “It’s because we really wanted to play in Japan.” Now, instead of Yokohama, Korea would play its final match in Daegu to see who would earn third place.
When a Korean mentions unification, of course, it has an additional meaning, even if the speaker didn’t intend it. World Cup united the southern half of Korea — I think the South Koreans completely missed the irony of collectively dressing in red, going to mass demonstrations and shouting nationalist slogans in unison — but the northern half is still as far away as ever. The games have not been shown there. Instead the impoverished North Korean government has staged a massive Arirang Festival, a pageant of acrobats and singers and dancers that no one is watching; they may not have bread, but the government is at least providing a circus. Still, when the South Koreans played Italy, they waved signs and banners that said “Remember 1966” — the year in which the North Korean team defeated Italy.
Most of the time it’s easy to forget that Korea is a divided nation, but World Cup brought South Korea’s tangled emotions to the surface. I think much of the anger at Japan is simply transference of Korea’s deeply felt guilt and shame, and also an attempt to blame someone else for the disaster of the Korean War and the subsequent division of the nation: it was the occupation that was the real disaster, goes the thinking, and the civil war would never have happened if the Japanese hadn’t come. While that’s probably true, it’s like blaming the American Civil War on 17th-century slave traders; history is what it is, but people kill each other in the present. The South Koreans’ guilt is perhaps deepened by the inequity of violence: the south lost 47,000, while the north lost 2 million. And by now, the fierce competition between the two Koreas is largely over, at least on the southern side. In 2001, South Korea threw away more food than North Korea produced; South Korea’s economy has one of the best growth rates in the world, while North Koreans are fleeing to China in search of food. But that may only exacerbate South Koreans’ sense of failure and helplessness: so many Korean people live under an oppressive regime, so many of them are starving and suffering, and the South Korean leadership can hardly orchestrate a sustained round of negotiations.
On the morning of the day when Korea would play its final match, north and south engaged in the fiercest naval battle in years, which left four South Koreans dead and another 20 wounded. That night the Red Devils looked exhausted, and so did their fans; Turkey scored a goal in the first minute and went on to win easily, 3-1. There is still the final to be played tonight between Brazil and Germany. But for Korea, World Cup is over.
Korea freely displays its past and its future. But what about its present?
Korea goes on vacation all at once. During the hottest week of the summer, its factories, schools and major businesses shut down and everyone heads for the beaches, which are as densely packed with roasted bodies as Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Even if you’re heading inland, it’s a lousy time to travel. The trains are booked solid, the highways are sclerotic, and, well, it’s really hot. Given the choice, we would have gone to see Korea at some other time of year. Spring is nice. But we weren’t given a choice. Our contractually guaranteed vacation time had long ago evaporated, so this would be our only chance to get out of Seoul and see the rest of the country.
Of course, if you’re Korean, then there’s some advantage to having everyone go on vacation at once, because it means all your friends can go with you. Like the Japanese, Koreans like to travel in packs. As for us, it meant that our colleague Suky would come along and be our guide and interpreter.
There was plenty about this trip that made us nervous. For one thing, it would mean eating Korean food almost exclusively for a week. It might sound pathetic to fear the local cuisine, but anyone who has traveled in an alien culture will understand just how important it becomes to find meals for which you don’t have to brace yourself. Complicating the matter was Suky’s tight budget and her insistence that we cook our own meals for the first few days, which meant I was now involved in planning menus and buying the necessary groceries to throw a couple of dinner parties for five people (Suky’s husband and nephew were coming, too), all to be prepared on one pan and a portable stove. Then there was our exhaustion with Korea. We knew we ought to go see the country, but we didn’t feel any excitement about it. And finally, we were worried that despite our attempts to explain our philosophy of travel — go slowly, absorb the rhythms of a place, linger over details — we would be pushed to see as many discrete, officially sanctioned sights as possible in the least amount of time, which seems to be the tao of Korean tourism.
Our first destination was Gyeongju, the only Korean city I’ve seen that is actually beautiful. Like every other city in the country, it has a bland downtown of identical groceries and banks and motorcycle shops, and its population is spilling over into soulless beige apartment towers. But large sections of the city still consist traditional houses, their tile roofs sloping in elegant curves over round wooden beams, and someone seems to have given actual thought to the aesthetics of the place, so that even gas stations are given charming tile roofs with dragons on top. And the city is less dense than others, punctuated with large tracts of rice and other crops that shimmered green and buzzed with cicadas. It wasn’t Paris or Kathmandu, but at least it felt organic, with a history you could actually see and feel in the landscape and the architecture. Most Korean cities keep what little remains of their past locked away in fenced parks, while everything else looks like it was built as cheaply and quickly as possible since 1970. Which is because it was.
In fact, it’s not just the cities but the historical sites themselves that have been built since 1970. A surprising number of Korea’s temples and palaces are actually new structures rebuilt to match ancient specifications. Of these, a substantial number were not built to replace structures lost during the Japanese occupation and the war, but to recreate buildings that hadn’t existed since the Japanese invasion of 1592.
In many ways Korean culture simply ground to a halt for 370 years or so. The Hideyoshi invasion of 1592 was followed by a vengeful sacking by the Manchus of China; after that Korea closed its doors and kept them shut until they were blown open again in the beginning of the 20th century. Then, of course, Korea fell under Japanese domination, and that was followed by the Korean War and the immediate struggle to rebuild in the aftermath. It wasn’t until the 1970s that a modern South Korean state had the wherewithal to think seriously about its heritage and its future.
So far, the two have been kept almost entirely separate. In Europe, it’s not surprising to find a Roman ruin next to a Rafael next to a Bernini, or to have an I.M. Pei glass pyramid on the grounds of the Louvre; in Korea, there are some modern buildings that are meant to blend in with the old — the National Museum in Gyeongju is a good example — but for the most part the old buildings and their meticulous reconstructions are kept separate from the modern urban developments, and there is no sense of play between the two. Korea is in desperate need of an architectural movement.
It was well after eight when we finally pulled into our hotel. The place was taken over by high school students who were in town for a major taekwondo festival, and the central courtyard resounded to the sound of feet and hands smacking against vinyl punching gloves. As for the rooms, they weren’t much. We were in a windowless basement cell with no furniture but a built-in cabinet with a TV on top. Sleeping would be done on blankets on the floor, which is the traditional Korean style. It was a curious feeling to find myself in an Asian hotel for the first time since I left India four years ago, in a room that was spartan in a way you’d simply never find in America. It brought back memories, not all of them pleasant, and I felt a wave of apprehension at the six months of travel we have ahead of us.
The next morning we set out for Bulguksa, which the Lonely Planet calls “the crowning glory of Silla temple architecture.” As with everything else in Korea, the original buildings were destroyed by the Japanese in the 1590s; thus, depending on how you look at it, Bulguksa was either built in 528 and expanded in 751, or else it was built between 1970 and 1972. Whatever. It’s a marvelous temple complex, each building’s eaves a lavish universe of intricately carved and painted interlocking wooden beams. Its exuberance and loveliness far outstrip anything in Seoul, whose Joseon-dynasty palaces, built during Korea’s long isolation, look downright dowdy in comparison.
Hidden in the mountains behind Bulguksa is the small cave temple of Seokguram, home of Korea’s most famous Buddha. After the collapse of the Silla dynasty in the ninth century, Seokguram was forgotten, and it was only rediscovered in 1909. The occupying Japanese tried unsuccessfully to steal the Buddha; when they failed, they began a restoration of the temple that destroyed much of it. Fortunately the inner chamber remains, a circular room with a domed ceiling and carvings along the walls. At its center sits the most compelling Buddha I’ve ever seen, intimately human yet with the sleekness of a Brancusi. I’ve gotten to know the sculpture from a black-and-white poster I bought at the National Museum in Seoul, and it was curious now to see it in the living yellow sandstone, a touch of long-faded red paint still lingering on the lips. Unfortunately, visitors must view the Buddha from behind a glass wall twenty feet away; the reflecting barrier and the press of tourists filing by managed to make the experience less intimate than simply looking at my poster at home.
Monday was hot in that way that makes it impossible to remember what real cold feels like. The thick mists of the day before were gone, replaced by a relentlessly blue sky and air so humid it seemed to have surface tension, clinging to the edges of objects and blurring them.
Suky’s husband had left the night before, taking the car with him, so that afternoon we boarded our first bus; our destination was the folk village of Hahoe, but first we would have to stop in Andong, which turned out to be a grim industrial town. By the time we arrived, the last bus for Hahoe was gone. Tired as I was, I hoped this meant we would simply find a hotel nearby, then go into town for dinner and maybe spend some time at an Internet cafe. I’d caught sight of a Pizza Hut and it had set my mouth watering. But Suky’s nephew kept accosting strangers until he wrangled a ride from a local who didn’t mind driving two hours out of his way for a few strangers.
Hahoe sits in a great bow-curve of a wide river that runs up against rough-surfaced red and brown cliffs on the far side. The village itself consists of tiled and thatched houses — the former for bureaucrats and nobility, the latter for peasants and servants — all kept discreetly behind tile-topped mud walls of at least shoulder height. We found our way to a minbak, or homestay, in a beautiful old house that formed a ring around a central courtyard with a wooden platform at its center. Privacy was obviously not a major goal in its construction, as just about every room was linked to the next by a paper-covered wood-frame door. Still, we had our own little room complete with mosquito net and fan, and the halmoni (grandmother) who ran the place was kind enough to lead us to yet another minbak where we could have dinner.
By the time we finished it was dark. Back at our minbak Jenny crawled into bed, but I wasn’t yet ready for sleep, so I invited Suky and her nephew out for a walk. We wandered for a while along the dirt paths of the village, then found some rocks by the side of the road and sat down to talk and look at the stars. It was a long time since I’d seen the stars. Despite the orange halo of a nearby street lamp, you could see hundreds of them, even the Milky Way, which the Koreans call the Silver Water River. And there was the Big Dipper, a spoon in Korea as well, not a plow like it is across Russia and much of Europe. Suky asked exactly what a dipper was, and I realized we never use the word except to talk about the stars.
Breakfast was enormous, a flotilla of side-dishes: mini-omelets, whole fish, kimchi, soup, things I couldn’t identify. Suky had advised us to “eat breakfast like a farmer, eat lunch like a king, eat dinner like a beggar,” and we were certainly on her diet plan this morning.
After breakfast we wandered through the village. We found ourselves in the front yard of a tiled house where an old man in a white T-shirt sat in the main room, whose doors were thrown wide. We weren’t sure whether we were invading his privacy — Hahoe might charge an entrance fee, but it’s still an actual village where actual people live — but he beckoned to us, so we went up the stairs and joined him. The small room was decorated with gorgeous calligraphy paintings, black ink and red stamps on white paper, and the old man was sitting on the floor creating more of the same. He asked where we were from and we told him: “Miguk saramieyo. We’re Americans.” He laid down a few quick strokes on a sheet of paper, then explained to Suky that they meant “America and Korea working together as friends,” or something to that effect. Then he put his stamps on it, folded it up, gave it to us, and proudly told Suky that normally he sells these things for a hundred dollars.
A little while later Suky’s nephew led us to a small museum, a sort of shrine to Hahoe’s ancient hero, the commander of the Korean forces that repulsed the Japanese invasion in 1592. There were his armor, his spear, his shoes — he was apparently a very big man — all preserved in glass cases, along with reams of ancient paperwork. The documents of the general’s life tell a remarkable story, beginning with his Confucian exams. There the characters are stacked neatly, each one formed with the conscientiousness of a nervous student; later, once the war has begun, his handwriting becomes loose and fluid, the emotions visible in his letters to his wife and family. There are also maps, some of them crudely drawn in the heat of desperate campaigns, showing the lay of the land and the placement of enemy fortresses. And not least are the royal decrees that punctuate the general’s life, great broad sheets with five-inch-high calligraphy and the great red stamps of the royal seal. These proclamations rapidly raise the young man to general, then to supreme commander of Korea’s forces, and then just as quickly banish him from the royal confidence when he is accused of treachery by two of his soldiers. In the end, several years after the war, the general was exonerated and his rank reinstated, but the intervening years must have been bitter as he watched others receive credit for the victory he orchestrated.
By lunchtime we’d seen what there was to see in Hahoe, and the momentum of this vacation didn’t allow for an afternoon spent sitting by a river and staring into space. From the start we’d been dragged about at a furious pace, and by now I was nearing my limit.
We took the three o’clock bus to Andong. The plan was to go to from Andong to a different folk village that was supposedly just like Hahoe except unpopulated. There we would get hotel rooms, leave our bags and return to Andong, then get on another bus to see a Buddhist temple, double back yet again to Andong, and finally take the bus back out to the folk village to sleep, only to leave first thing in the morning. I tried to find out, as politely as possible, why the fuck I would possibly want to drag myself and my backpack to this folk village that we didn’t even plan to stay in long enough to see. Weren’t we in a folk village this morning, if that’s where they wanted to spend the night? Why did we need to go to another one, and haul our bags and ourselves all over the place in the process? And where was dinner in all of this plan?
Jenny and I agreed to be firm this time: we would stay in Andong and have ourselves a Western dinner. We argued that it would save us four bus rides, and Suky relented, but she seemed startled and a little hurt by our insistence. Suky and her nephew didn’t want Western food, so Jenny and I had dinner on our own that night. We couldn’t find anything better than Pizza Hut, but Pizza Hut was heavenly, and it gave us our first chance in days to spend some time together and really talk. I asked Jenny whether she thought I’d been awful to Suky; I felt like I’d been too demanding and difficult, but I wasn’t sure how it looked from the outside.
“You’ve been hinting at things a lot,” Jenny told me, “and then you get frustrated when Suky doesn’t pick up on it. But it’s really hard for her to pick up on your hints.”
It was true. I’d meant to be polite and avoid being pushy, but the result was the opposite of what I intended, because my subtle hints went right past Suky until I got snippy and complained in a way she could understand. The same thing, in fact, had happened back when she and I had worked together on the kindergarten’s Winter Festival. I resolved that from now on I would stop hinting and start speaking directly. If I wanted something, I would just say so in the simplest way I could. Sure enough, that was the end of my conflicts with Suky. As an unexpected benefit of this vacation, I’d learned a vital lesson about diplomacy.
For reading on the road, I’d brought along An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan, an astonishing book by Jason Elliot. In it he writes:
“In ordinary life you know yourself from your surroundings, which become the measure and the mirror of your thoughts and actions. Remove the familiar and you are left with a stranger, the disembodied voice of one’s own self which, robbed of its usual habits, seems barely recognizable. It is all the stronger in an alien culture, and more so when the destination is uncertain. At first this process brings with it a kind of exhilaration … but once it has run its early course a deeper feeling more like anguish begins to surface, until the foreignness of your surroundings becomes too much to bear.”
Compared to Elliot’s death-defying ramble into a war zone, of course, my little zig-zag around civilized Korea was about as daring as a trip to the A&P for a pack of Skittles and a jerky stick. But it was also the first time I’d tried to match so closely the rhythms of someone so foreign, which made it in some ways more challenging even than the months I spent traveling alone through India. There I was always master of my own mental space; when India became too much, I could pull back inside myself and feel shitty about everyone and everything around me. Here I was a guest with a guide who was trying very hard to give me the best her country had to offer, and I was obliged to maintain a degree of respect not just for the places I was in, but for the way I was taken to visit them.
Korea is deceptive. After ten months in Seoul, we thought we knew what Korea was about, and much of it felt like a kind of down-market American metropolis, all Internet and karaoke and schmaltzy wedding halls and churches and grotty machine shops, lightened here and there with bits of Chinatown snazz. It’s easy to forget how very far away Korea really is from the West — so distant that Marco Polo missed it entirely. It imported most of its culture from China, then closed its doors for hundreds of years. When it was forced open again, it was by the Japan, that other Asian nation that sometimes gets mistaken for a European power. But for all its gun factories, Japan was no more Western than Germany was Indo-Aryan, and it wasn’t until after World War II that Korea began its engagement with the West. (To be fair, the missionaries got here back in the 1880s.) A few pop bands and T-shirts and white wedding dresses can make Korea look agreeable to European and American investors, but it’s only a costume. I was beginning to realize just how different Korea is from the West once you pull back the veneer.
Having finished with our historical tour, we were headed today for Suky’s village, a long bus ride from the northeast to the southwest of the country. The aircon was faltering at best, and I was drowsy in the sticky heat, leaning against the window and letting my thoughts wander.
We emerged from the mountains of the Andong region and entered the city of Gumi, a long string of high-tech factories dominated by a Phillips-LG plant large enough to have its own street signs. On one of the buildings was the slogan (in English): “Look at the future.” I looked, and it did seem like a kind of progress. This wasn’t one of those Chinese cities you think of when you hear the word “globalization,” full of choking smoke and exploited workers. The apartment blocks outside each factory were shiny and new and presumably full of all the latest amenities. Still, as in Seoul, I got the sense that this was all a step toward something else — that Korea is unfinished, in transition. For the last four days I’d been following the brown road signs to the reconstructed landmarks of Korea’s past, and now one of Korea’s corporate giants was exhorting me to look at the future. I felt like Korea was conspiring to keep my gaze from settling on the present. I even began to wonder whether there was such a thing.
Suky’s family lives in Jeollabuk Province on the southwest coast. Susan, the Korean-American at our school, has declared that she would never marry someone from Jeollabuk-do because they don’t have good hygiene, and Suky told us that in old Korean TV shows, bad guys always had Jeollabuk-do accents and good-guys always had Seoul accents, even if they were from the same village. (This pattern changed once Jeollabuk-do’s native son, Kim Dae-jung, became president.)
Jeollabuk-do is also the home of pansori, Korea’s traditional vocal style, a melodramatic wailing that sounds like flamenco without the guitars. By sheer luck we arrived in the city of Jeongeup on the night of its annual free pansori festival.
For once we were hearing traditional Korean music that was being played for a discerning audience of Koreans, not for foreign tourists. The musicianship was of a different order than anything we’d heard in Seoul — like the difference between a jazz band that plays at the Blue Note and a jazz band that plays on a cruise ship. A performance by a percussion ensemble had the syncopated funk and intensity of good Latin jazz, and the drummers’ faces glowed with the universal joy of musicians who are in top form and who know they’re laying down a righteous groove. They were followed by a pansori singer whose plaintive flourishes and keening high notes brought shouts of enthusiasm from the crowd, like Spaniards shouting “Olé!” She sang four or five songs; at the beginning of each, the gentleman next to me leaned over and explained that in this one she was waiting for her husband, until I began to imagine some poor businessman on the F line in Queens, looking mournfully at his watch as the train ground to yet another halt. Like Ella Fitzgerald, the singer managed to convey the mournfulness of her songs while still sounding like she was having a marvelous time.
Late that night we finally arrived at Suky’s family home, where we were greeted by her 73-year-old mother and her 88-year-old father, as well as by various aunts and uncles who wandered over to take a peek at the foreigners. Suky’s mother was clearly the matriarch of the family, directing the flow of traffic, ordering this or that relative to bring us food or drink, laughing gleefully every time we used our bits of Korean politesse. “Kamsa hamnida,” we would say — “Thank you.” “Ah!” she would shout, eyes glittering. “Kamsa hamnida!” And then she would dissolve into laughter. When she recovered herself, she would put her hands to her face and praise our good looks. When we returned the compliment — she was, indeed, a beautiful old woman, her thick hair still naturally black and pulled into a tight bun, her face remarkably smooth, with only the subtlest of lines to mark years of squinting against snow and sun as she worked the fields — she dissolved again into giggles, flirtatiously hiding her face in her hands. I noticed that they were big, muscular hands, the hands of a farmer; everyone in the family had big hands.
We all sat in the main room, eating watermelon and trading family histories. Suky is the ninth of ten children (the first three were born to her father’s first wife, who died in childbirth), and the walls were covered with photos of children and grandchildren, as well as ancestors in black-and-white photos of the sort I’d only seen in documentaries about Asia. On one wall was a plaque that was given to Suky’s great-grandfather by the local government to honor his filial piety, which involved sleeping in his father’s tomb and not changing out of his mourning clothes for three years. On another there was a row of graduation portraits, and Suky told us that all of the kids had gone to university except her eldest brother, who still lived with his wife in a small second house behind this one. He had arrived to video and audio-tape the evening’s proceedings, which was disconcerting at first, but apparently the family had grown used to his curious way of interacting with the world, and soon we did too. (Later we were shown his house, where he told us proudly that he has 500 video tapes and another 500 audio tapes, which comes out to something like 155 days of footage. The next morning we caught him videotaping the bushes.)
Suky was worried that we wouldn’t like her home, that it was too rustic and ordinary, what with its outhouse and its cows around the back. But we thought it was wonderful. Shamanistic and Buddhist inscriptions were pasted above the doors like mezuzahs to ward off bad luck, calligraphy paintings hung in the kitchen, all the rooms were furnished beautiful old trunks and cabinets of dark wood and bright brass. Her family, Suky told us, had lived in that place for 380 years, though the house wasn’t quite so old. On the floor of our room was a computer; in the main room, the TV sat next to a great big old wooden writing desk with a phone on it. Here the new blended with the old, which blended with the ancient, and I felt at last like I was somewhere real, neither cut off from the past nor frozen in it.
We didn’t have any set plan for the next day. In the morning we took a short walk around the farmhouse to see the cows in back and the pepper fields in front, where Suky’s mother and a half-dozen other old women were already hard at work picking the ripening crops. Suky pointed out a path that she used to have to keep clear of weeds; it was overgrown now.
Then we piled into Suky’s brother’s battered old car — he filmed us getting in — and headed out to explore. To give Suky a sense of direction, I’d picked a tourist destination almost at random from my guidebook — a temple about two hours away — but what we really wanted to see was just the ordinary life around us. Suky’s brother drove us first to the family’s rice fields at the edge of town, and again we caught him filming vegetables. He also wrote down the time and location on little slips of paper every time we stopped.
From the rice fields we drove up into the thickly forested mountains to a small temple. Inside the main hall, a monk chanted and rang his bell; a middle-aged woman performed her silent prostrations next to him, and Suky joined her. (Her brother filmed outside.) Jenny and I slipped off our shoes and went inside too, admiring the dragons in the ceiling. Scattered around the grounds were several other small shrines, each decorated with a series of paintings. One series depicted the arhats of the Buddha — his disciples. One clutched a sack of money, another wrestled with a leopard; here an arhat had a stick in his ear and was staring dreamily into space; next to him another was completely absorbed by a mountain of books, and next to him a sad little fellow peered into an empty liquor bottle. And these are the Buddha’s very disciples! The Buddhist tradition delights in subverting our preconceived notions; here we were being reminded that every human being no matter how revered, has basically the same set of frailties and distractions. If you feel like a failure because your mind wanders during meditation, just look at what a hash the arhats made of themselves. And if men as crass as that could get it together, then so can you.
Next we went to a set of dolmens, big rocks under which prehistoric Korean chieftains were buried. From there we drove to the rocky coast, where we found an uncrowded beach and climbed out to a pine-covered island that was accessible because of the low tide. Young men in broad-brimmed rice-straw hats fished from the rocks below, and from small dhows on the water, and further out we could see more little islands. Grandmothers dug at the ground with little hooked picks, searching for clams. Cumulus clouds bunched themselves in lines over the ridges just inland.
We stopped for lunch at a seafood restaurant where I tried my new communication method. “Suky,” I said, “we like seafood, but we don’t like squid or octopus.”
“Okay,” she said. She ordered us the mixed seafood stew without squid. It was delicious.
When we finally reached Seonunsa Temple that afternoon, it was a little disappointing to be back among the throngs of tourists. The ancient forest and river were gorgeous, but the temple itself was disappointing and we were beginning to feel the heat.
On our way back to the house, we stopped at a sauna. Suky and Jenny went off to the women’s side, while Suky’s brother declined to join me, so I spent an hour on my own, soaking in the hot water and cleaning away the sweat of the day. The men around me were obviously farmers, their bodies smooth and pale and muscular, the skin turning suddenly red and leathery at their necks and wrists. From Jenny I received a report on the female version of the sauna experience. They get all the squishy babies, she said — the boys don’t accompany their fathers until they’re a bit older — and also that she saw a lot of naked grandmothers, a genre she describes as “cool-looking.”
That night we spent more time with Suky’s family, and again I had the sense of being anchored. As the capital, Seoul was pulverized in the Korean War, and it has since faced the most relentless modernization campaigns. Here in Jeollabuk-do, though, far from the seat of power, where the war passed by only briefly, like a brushfire, life stretches back in an unbroken line right into history. It’s no small thing to keep your family in one place for 380 years. Three-hundred eighty years ago is about the time that the first permanent European settlements finally took root in North America. Isaac Newton was having good ideas back then; I have no idea where my family might have been. Yet Suky could point to the house where she grew up and know that she was the twelfth generation to live on that land. Here, at last, Korea seemed to cohere. University graduates, video tapes, paper walls, Confucian awards for filial piety all jumbled together in the unruly manner of real life, without signboards to designate it as historical or bulldozers to wipe it away.
Still, as Suky’s brother showed us the video he’d made — it was surprisingly good, especially the shots of vegetables, and we were grateful when he gave us a copy — I began to wonder how strong the anchor really was. After all, the children all lived elsewhere now, and who could know whether any of the grandchildren would want to give up city life for labor on the land? The burden of twelve generations behind you is a heavy one, especially when there’s a plaque on the wall to honor your great-grandfather’s filial piety. For the grandchildren, it might turn out to be a burden they’d rather not carry. For Suky’s brother, it had become a kind of sacred duty to record everything in forms that could be passed in case the land was not.
The next day was the last of our trip. We would head back to our home in Anyang that afternoon, but first Suky wanted to show us her family shrine. It was a simple wooden building with nothing in it, but once a year, on the anniversary of its construction, they would open its doors and set a feast for their ancestors. Up the hill was her grandmother’s tomb, whose location had been selected by a shaman. It was a good resting place, Suky said, because you could see the river from there. Below it were more of the family’s rice and pepper and sesame fields; today Suky’s brother would go through them spraying pesticides. In the distance I could see more fields, a village or two, the mountains beyond, and running through it all the highway that would carry us back to Seoul.
At a summer camp for returning Korean expats, we meet ourselves.
The other day, one of Jenny’s students was in a panic because he had lost his scissors. “Life is hard,” Jenny informed him. “You’re tellin’ me!” he replied. This is the sort of response we dream of, but it had nothing to do with our merits as teachers. No, this was International Experience Camp, where Korean kids who have lived abroad spend three days together in the Suwon Folk Village. Along with one other teacher at our school, Jenny and I were loaned out for the duration to take charge of a few activities and generally behave like camp counselors.
The kids, who ranged from kindergarten to middle school, came from all over the world: England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, Sweden, Australia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Fiji, Saipan, Dubai, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil, India. The Japanese and Chinese kids were in their own groups. There were kids from all over America, too: Los Angeles and New York and New Jersey, of course, but also Arizona and South Carolina and Rapid City, South Dakota. The most curious extraction was that of the Iranian boy, who explained in broken English that his parents were both Iranian Muslims, that his father had died, and that his mother had remarried a Christian pastor who was now stationed in Korea after a stint in Canada.
For us, it was fascinating to hang around these kids and hear their stories. For the most part they spoke excellent English — even the ones from Malaysia or Costa Rica had spent their time in international schools where English is the lingua franca — and they had much to tell us both about the places they’d been and about Korea. We led a few activities and conducted tours of the Folk Village in the pouring rain, but mostly we just hung out. (The camp directors had no problem at all with the concept of free time, which struck us as very un-Korean.) The boy from South Dakota taught me a pig call. When the boy from Mumbai heard about my plans to visit India, he sidled up to me and asked, “Do you like dosa?” Yes, I told him. “What about samosas?” he asked. We went on to name about twenty of our favorite Indian dishes before he told me not to visit India because it was too dirty. The camp began with an orientation activity in which each child made a small poster to celebrate the country where she’d been, and many of the kids had photos to attach; the girl from Dubai had a snapshot of herself on a muzzled camel.
It was interesting to see how our colleague Matt responded to the whole experience. A recent graduate of the London School of Economics, he arrived in Korea only two months ago, and this was his first major excursion. The word he kept using to describe things was “surreal,” and I could see what he meant. The kids’ cabins were perched on a hill above an unfinished sculpture park which included, among other oddities in steel and stone, a pair of giant granite breasts. As you walked down the trail to the cafeteria and the “international” plaza with its pastel-painted cement mock-ups of European architecture, you could see a drive-in movie screen, which in the evenings was showing Men In Black II.
Ten months ago I probably would have found it weird too, but by now none of it was especially surprising. What for Matt was an initiation felt like a summation to us. Partly this was because of the timing: the camp served as a punctuation mark, separating the gradual progression of ordinary time from the concentrated activity of departure. What we have left now is a week of oral tests, and then we’re into our final month. We are into the lasts: last visit to this or that place, last dinner with this or that friend; last classes, last students, last evaluations to fill out. The break for camp brought home how little time we have left here.
But there was more to it than that. The experiences of the kids matched our own so closely. Like us, they had been away from home for long enough to get comfortable in a new place, and they had only recently left their second homes behind. It was the first time we felt like a group of Koreans really understood what it’s like for a foreigner here. These kids know what it’s like to be an alien, and to make your home in an alien land.
Being understood had a strange effect on us. It fooled us, and for three days we fell into a kind of fantasy, letting ourselves believe that this understanding was a denouement, that somehow Korea finally got it. But then we returned to Anyang, and it was the same Anyang as before, where our experience is as foreign as we are.