Archive for the ‘Korean culture’ Category



July 28, 2007

One of my odd jobs lately has been providing some translation for a fashion design professor I met through a mutual friend. She produces what she calls “art-to-wear.” Her latest works include body painting and body suits that employ traditional patterns and pictures from the world of Buddhism. Such encounters are the types of things I’ll be missing quite a lot as I move on to life in Appleton. Don’t know how often I’ll be coming across things like this…


or this…


Still, the time has come, the goodbyes have begun, and it’s time to walk down a different branch in the road.


The Cats of Minsokchon

July 26, 2007

Some brief thoughts, but first a song for your enjoyment. The song and thoughts have no relation whatsoever. I’ve just been giving it a pretty hard listen, so, I thought I’d share. Pure pop, of the summer variety, by a band named Phoenix. They hail from Paris, and sing in English. Go figure… Song’s called, “One time too many.”

We said goodbye to Jaime, who had a splendid time here in Korea (and we had a splendid time hosting her). It was her first time in Asia, and she was very excited to take in everything. She seemed to really like the bath house, especially. I second that.

The monsoon weather has set in to a pretty even pattern, lots of haze, sometimes cloudy, occasional showers… and always humid. Luckily, we’ve escaped the wrath of heat I faced two years ago when I was here for a summer of research. Daily temps over 100 and scorching sunshine. No thanks.

A sign that home is near . . . the 10 day weather forecasts no longer apply.

A sign that will be near our home . . . I ordered a wood name plaque for the 방랑당 bahngnahngdahng. It turned out incredibly well. I got goose bumps when I saw it. Then, later that night, two of my study partners, Yujin and Giseok, gave me a going away present – a big dojang (stamp) with the characters 放浪堂. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Gave me goosebumps and a few tears. I’d show pictures, but that’d spoil it. If you want to see them, you have to come to the bahngnahngdahng.

Finally, we visited the Korean Folk Village in Yongin (한국민속촌). I hadn’t been there in 13 years. They’ve made continual improvements, and the entire site is just fabulous. The preservation of trees has made all the difference, as each section remains separated from the other, lending the entire park a feeling of multiple cozy villages nestled into one another. An interesting side-note, and one I hope that others will catch onto, such that the little guys might gain a little fame… the village is full of chubby, beautiful cats! There were cats everywhere we looked. Of course, they steered clear of the humans, and rightfully so, but they seemed to love the village the most of anyone. They reminded me of the cat portraits from the Joseon dynasty painters Kim Hongdo (김홍도):

Kim Hongdo

-Hwangmyonongjeopdo (황묘농접도)

and my personal favorite, Byeon Sangbyeok (변상벽):


-( I don’t know the title 😦 )

-Myojakdo (묘작도)

To the cats of minsokchon MAN-SE!- may they live long, peaceful, and happy lives (and stop fighting with each other, you two I saw – you have a huge space to yourselves, enjoy it!).


The End Game, and historical memories

July 15, 2007

written by Matty (for a change, thanks for the hard work the past few weeks Dominica!)

some music for your listening, er… pleasure(?): Sam Cooke, “Change is Gonna Come.”

Oh boy, it’s come to this, the end game. I started to leave about a year ago, in my head at least, and now I’ve started to come back, again, a little bit early. I could say it’s gone fast, but that wouldn’t take account of the cold, dark, long February that seemed to last forever. I could say that it’s gone slow, but that wouldn’t take account of the fact that it seemed like yesterday that I was having one last swim at Brighton Park and one last beer with my Ann Arbor homies. So, I’ll just leave it at, “it’s gone.”

I’ve been spending a lot of time doing things back home already, getting a new homeowner’s policy and changing the car insurance – a far cry from venturing through the mountains in search of remote hermitages, I know. But the tide of reality is rising, and the boat needs to be ready to sail. Already, the halting last (second last?) goodbyes, the promises of “one more visit before I go,” the plans of “last time doing X,” etc. etc. Two weeks and change, with one week spent in Gwangju and Haein-sa doesn’t leave much leeway for fulfilling all the finalities, but we’ll see what we can do.

Currently, we’ve sped up the final days by hosting an old friend from Ann Arbor (well, who we met in Ann Arbor, but is actually part of the Chicago/Wisconsin crew and now living in Libertyville, IL). This is her first time in Asia and she seems to be enjoying herself thoroughly. It’s giving me yet another chance to take in sights I’ve yet seen in my 13 years of coming and going here.

Sights such as the Seodaemun prison, a museum dedicated to memorializing the patriots who gave their lives in the anti-colonial Independence struggle against the Japanese in the early 20th century. While I had hoped that this site might serve as an interesting entry point for our guest, giving critical insight into a key frame of the contemporary Korean mindset (namely, as a post-colonial state, still recovering from the trauma of a horrific past century), there was quite a bit of disappointment. We certainly were able to learn a bit about the predations of the Japanese and the trying circumstances facing Koreans as they were forced into the modern period through the wrenching gyre of the Japanese Imperial war machine, and there was certainly some admiration for the blunt force utilized in dioramas that left little to the imagination, yet. . . the blind nationalism that seemed to set in stone the monolithic ideas of an Evil Japan continuously torturing a Pure Korea was too much to take. Moreover, whatever pedagogical benefits may have been possible in the bold portrayal of the harsh truths of colonialism, even to the expectedly young audience, were wasted within a knee-jerk nationalism that only served to solidify already fixed and narrowed conceptions about Korea as perennial victim. That this reactionary nationalism was the true pedagogical purpose, and not some larger goal of developing a much larger and more encompassing hatred of torture, injustice and imperialism in general, was given credence by the presence of numerous bits of grafitti stating, “F**K Japan!” and the like.

In “The Memories of August 15 (Day of Liberation) Reflected in Korean Anniversaries and Memorial Halls,” (click link for PDF of the whole article) SNU Professor Jung Keun-Sik states the problem as such:

Displaying pictures or items of persons who were actually incarcerated in
this facility resulted in leaving out certain aspects that should have been included in the exhibition, and also ended up causing some problems. First, it generated a question of how other penitentiary facilities maintained during the Japanese occupation should be addressed in the exhibition themes of this Seodaemun facility. Second, the history after 1945 was completely dropped in the facility’s general programming, and it raised an even bigger question of how the issue of incarcerated left-wing prisoners produced by the political situation that followed the Liberation, and the incarcerated persons who were involved in democratic campaigns afterward should be addressed or included in the exhibition’s format
and contents. Third, the actions of the socialist activists were also ignored.
Fourth, the persons who were devoted to national liberation movements yet were incarcerated in other penitentiary facilities were left out as well. And fifth, other “general” criminals unrelated to political issues whatsoever yet incarcerated here anyway, were left out as well.

While this criticism might be parried by nationalists with the tired claim, “You have to understand, we are still recovering… ,” such rebuttals lose their validity when you have counter-examples to show that Korea is certainly capable of doing better in terms of historical memory. For example, the Donghak Peasants Revolution Memorial Hall in Jangeup, for example, uses the particular struggle of Korean peasants and links it up to the worldwide democratic revolutionary movement. Of course, this move is easier, because the Peasants were fighting with other “Koreans” (I use quotation marks because at that time, there were no such people calling themselves as such, there were peasants and the people who stole from them, without the new identity of “countrymen” to ideologically bind them). Fast forward to 2007 and we have the category “Korean,” pure and victimized, that can be used as a refuge against the “Others” whether Japanese, or American, or whatever. As a result of this maneuver, the museum fails to address anything that happened after the colonial period, as when Syngman Rhee used the prison to torture his political enemies, or when Park Chung-hee used the prison to torture his political enemies. Korean on Korean torture, of the same sort and in the same place as the present museum, gets erased – and what is left? Nationalist ignorance, xenophobic hatred, and political impotence – an altogether depressing story. ahuuuuu…..

But, let’s don’t end there. We moved on, to Namdaemun, where I managed to find a cane for our slightly ailing friend. While this wasn’t a big deal, in some ways it was quite fulfilling. We didn’t have much time and Namdaemun market is HUGE. We didn’t have time to wander, but I wasn’t making any progress. So, following the sage wife’s advice, I inquired at a pharmacy. They didn’t have canes, but they had directions. I followed said directions, and minutes later, voila, a cane. Trivial, yes, but with no minutes to spare on bad language skills, it was in some minor way a validation of the language training that this year was supposed to benefit. Yeah team.

From Namdaemun, on to Bongeun-sa. This is the second of the two major urban temples in Seoul, the other being Jogye-sa in downtown. It was nice, impressive, but I was a bit too hot and busy to really enjoy it. Still, another Seoul attraction seen for the first time, so, enjoyable.

Sunday was on to Jangdeok-gung, one of the major palaces in Seoul. This one is special in that is only open to guided tours, so you have to show up at a certain time. A particular highlight were the king’s ancient Daimler and Cadillac. Smoooooth. But most spectacular was the “hidden garden” off o’er the hills and up the mountain a ways. The sounds of the city were entirely absent, though only hundreds of yards away. Sweets songs of rare birds drifted through the blowing leaves. I could have stayed here for the whole afternoon. Alas, we only got about ten minutes.

Then, a trip to Insa-dong, where we began our last bit of tourist shopping, including what may be my most exciting purchase of the trip, a hyeonpan or name plaque for the new house. I won’t say more till it’s ready to go… don’t want to jinx it. Let’s just say I’m very eager.

Tomorrow starts the week long trip. I won’t be around for a little while. Till then, be well.


Squeaky Clean

July 13, 2007

Oh, the joy that is going to a Korean bathhouse! Tuesday was made even more perfect by a post-run trip to our neighborhood bathhouse. Besides family, friends, and food, this is definitely the thing I will miss most about Korea.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about how to write this post, mainly because I felt that since these basically don’t exist in the US, photo illustrations would be indispensable. However, for obvious reasons, cameras are not allowed in bathhouses! But with a little imagination on the part of readers and some help from google images, hopefully I can give you all some feel for the experience.

Read the rest of this entry ?


On a clear day, you can see forever…

July 10, 2007

. . . or at least Namsan Tower (which, Dominica is being too humble here to let everyone know, was designed and constructed by her uncle, the late Chang Jong-ryul). After what seemed like weeks of hot, muggy, rainy, miserable weather, the heat and humidity broke finally broke today. The high of 77 degrees fahrenheit felt almost chilly by recent standards and the strong, cool breeze lifted the omnipresent smog such that we could see clear across the city. We celebrated the glorious weather by going for a run to the top of World Cup Park, a renovated landfill built to commemorate the 2002 FIFA World Cup games.

From the observatory on top of the park, on this rare clear sky day, we were happily reminded that Seoul does indeed have a beautiful skyline. We’ve been busier than usual recently with editing and teaching (I’ve recently taken on 4 students), so it was a treat to just enjoy the beautiful day together.

In two days, our good friend Jaime will arrive for a 10-day visit. We haven’t seen her for two years and she’s never been to Asia, so it will be wonderful both to catch up with her and to visit all of our favorite places one last time with “beginner’s mind” before heading home.


On Korean Language and Identity

July 7, 2007

All those lines and circles, to me, a mystery…
-10,000 Maniacs

Unbeknownst to me until a much later age, my father made the decision when I was a toddler to encourage an English-only policy with me as I began school in the United States. Understandably, he worried that I would never completely master English if forced to speak Korean at home. My mother disagreed greatly with this decision, rightly fearing that I would grow up never learning Korean, and therefore, losing the most obvious (yet certainly not the only) means of deeper communication with them. Because his decision was made wholly out of love for me and concern for my future, I would never begrudge my father for this, even as I know even he himself now regrets it.

Although I have always been able to understand Korean (as much as my parents use it with me, in any case), I have never been able to speak it beyond the level of a 3 year-old. (I say 3 year-old because some years back, I had the rather depressing experience of finding an audio tape of me babbling away as 4 year-old, all in Korean!) Ever since I was able to understand that speaking Korean is something I “should” know how to do, the inability to do so has caused me great embarrassment and shame. It has also deeply affected my sense of what it means to me — and to others — to “be Korean.” In 1989, for example, I took my first trip back to Korea. On several occasions, after it was discovered by relatives, family friends, and even strangers that I didn’t speak the language, I was told in disapproving tones that I “wasn’t Korean” and, on two occasions, even had restaurant servers make a grand show of taking my chopsticks away from me (even though I am perfectly capable of using them) and returning with a fork for me.

Granted, Koreans (at least in Seoul) are now a bit more used to encountering non Korean-speaking Korean-Americans. But these very painful memories still linger as I struggle once again to learn the language, this time through private lessons at a wonderful language institute here in Seoul. The process is very frustrating for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that even as I’ve tried on several occasions in the past 15-odd years to learn Korean (always in fits and starts), I still found the time and energy to become fluent in another language! Shouldn’t getting a PhD in French mean that language learning is supposed to come easily to me?

And then, there’s Matty. . . I couldn’t be more ecstatic or proud that he has in 10 years mastered Korean enough not only to become a professional translator, but (even more importantly to me) to be able to communicate and create close bonds with both my immediate and extended families. Still, I admit to getting a wee bit annoyed in certain situations, especially since it’s clear that Matty and I are held to very different linguistic expectations. For example, I’ll be the first to describe my Korean as pidgin-level at best. Still, it’s good enough pidgin to survive a 90-minute weekly lesson exclusively in Korean. Yet Korean friends and family still say (when introducing me, for instance) that I “don’t speak Korean.” A few weeks ago, to give another example, I spent 30 minutes alone with our neighborhood hyoung and his family in their beauty parlor. Sure, we weren’t discussing literature or politics, but we had a nice, simple conversation about my family and about how their daughter liked her new middle school. Yet just last week, hyoung tried to teach me how to say “thank you” in Korean, telling me “even if you can’t speak ‘our language,’ you at least need to know how to say ‘thank you.'” grrrrr. Even more annoying is the fact that while I’m obviously far from being considered a Korean speaker (by Koreans anyway), Matty is tirelessly fawned upon and declared perfectly fluent by every waitress or taxi driver to whom he manages to say annyoung haseo (hello) without a noticeable American accent. Does that sound fair? I think not!!

Oh well, it’s frustrating indeed, but it really bothers me a lot less than I let Matty believe. As you all know, he’s very fun to tease. In any event, 점점점 (bit by bit), my Korean is improving, and I am feeling more comfortable in the language — and with my identity as a “non Korean (speaker)” than I ever have in the past. Who knows?  With continued study over the years, maybe one day I’ll be as fluent as Matty . . . and maybe even as Korean, too. 🙂


Bae bulleo! (배 불러!)

July 4, 2007

“My belly is full!” In fact, my belly is ALWAYS full here. Korea is a not a place for timid or small eaters. Korean cuisine has bold flavors and the meals are huge, cheap, and oh-so-delicious. Sure, there is fried everything and grilled fatty pork to be found on almost every corner, but for the most part, food here is extremely healthy, with any given meal providing a diversity of leafy greens, vegetables, spices, grains, and tofu. They say that the more color you can put in your diet, the healthier it will be. Behold the culinary rainbow:


[this beautiful picture was stolen from our friend Elaine‘s blog]

As you can see from the photos, Korean meals generally consist of a main dish (often tofu/meat/fish-based) accompanied by a large variety of smaller side dishes called ban chan (반찬). There are a countless number of ban chan in Korea and one of the most enjoyable experiences of any meal is anticipating which kinds you’ll be served, and then of course, sampling them all. Some form of kim chee is always present, but other favorites include acorn jelly (도토리묵), green onion pancakes, fried tofu, simmered lotus root, and egg custard but to name a very paltry few. At restaurants, the best part is that these side dishes are bottomless. Even in the cheapest of places you’ll be served at least three (they are almost always served in odd numbers since even numbers are seen as bad luck), and as soon as you empty one dish, it will be refilled as many times as you ask (or even if you don’t), for no extra charge.

One of the things I appreciate most about Korean eating culture is that it is so communal. Traditionally, each diner will have only a bowl of rice to himself. The main and side dishes are there to be shared by all, with everyone reaching across the table to take a spoonful of soup or a chopstick’s-worth of ban chan. It makes for a very cozy dining experience.

All this, and for dirt cheap. Matty and I almost never pay more than $5 each for a full Korean meal. There are two main downsides to this, however. First of all, it’s way too easy to eat like pigs here, especially when hosts take it as their personal mission to make sure guests can barely lift themselves off of the floor after eating. Secondly, it makes going out (especially for Korean) in the US seem so incredibly expensive – $10 for bibimbap? $15 for a single Zingerman’s sandwich, are you unsane?? Oh well, we’ll just have to fatten up this last month with cheap Korean goodness in preparation for the long Wisconsin winter to come.