Folk Villages

We went to the Korean Folk Village in Suwon today. A beautiful, peaceful place, nestled in a heavily-treed valley, hidden from any sign of the concrete wasteland surrounding it.
The bus ride from Suwon station takes you through the nightmarish urban landscape that rapid industrialization has wrought – human-beehives as far as the eye can see, garbage flung haphazardly everywhere, choking diesel fumes, and a brownish pall across even the clearest of blue skies. It’s the sort of dystopian vision of the future that science fiction writers were conjuring up 50 years ago, made real.
The bus pulls into a massive parking lot, shadowed by yet more of the beehive apartment buildings, the surrounding hills actually covered in trees. After you pay the entrance fee and pass through the massive wooden gates A traditional thatch-roofed house.(a grandfatherly ticket collector welcomed me in English, which was a pleasant surprise), you step into a world ably and lovingly preserved, free of the kind of kitschy disneylanditis that characterizes these sorts of places elsewhere in the world. Other than some modern sun-yellow and fire-engine-red plastic crap being hawked at a few of the ‘market’ stalls, the illusion is marvellous. The Folk Village is actually populated full time by artisans, farmers, performers, brewers and so on. It is truly idyllic, particularly in contrast to the unpleasant urban realities outside.
Interestingly, though, the idyll that it preserves, that of Korea of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, was not a golden age for anyone but the elite yangban class (about 10% of the population for most of the era). Commoners (sang-in or yangmin), which made up about 50% of the population – farmers, merchants (generally considered to be the dregs of non-slave society, oddly enough, considering the intensely mercantile nature of modern Korea), craftsmen – were forbidden by law to use the language of the yangban. Peasants were, by law, forbidden from leaving their land, and required to carry identity papers at all times. The lowborn, chonmin, were those born to hereditary professions like tanning and butchery, gravedigging, bark-peelers and basketmakers, and also included entertainers, shamans and kisaeng, the Korean equivalent of the Japanese geisha.
All non-yangban men were required to perform forced labour as well as military service. It is estimated that during the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910), approximately 1/3 of the Korean population were slaves, either privately- or government-owned. Slaves did not have surnames, and lowborn women frequently were not even granted a forename. Torture as punitive punishment for infractions of the law was de riguer. Life was not pleasant for the vast majority of the population, a reality not surprisingly ignored by the multilingual signs posted around the village. (There was, however, a photograph of a man being tortured above the entrance to the recreated jail. Koreans seem to have different feelings will regard to cruelty and violence than I am accustomed to – this is something I’m still trying to figure out.)
The Folk Village was lovely, and relaxing, but even with the perpetual haze, the endless waves of concrete, the hell-bent bus drivers and their demonic taxi offsiders, even with the corruption and sexism of today’s Korea, it’s a better place out in the city than it was in the carefully preserved Good Old Days.
But we all love a little nostalgia for what never was, don’t we?

Comments? comments.

Lunar New Year's

Suh-lal – Lunar New Year’s has rolled around again, and as always, it signals the largest exodus of Koreans of the year. It’s a tradition to return at this time of the year to your hometown, both to visit and pay respects to family and pay homage to your ancestors, echoing old animist practices. The government estimates that 33.4 million South Koreans will be on the move this weekend – this is out of a total population of 44 million!

Happy New Year! comments.

The shock of recognition

Sometimes in my wanderings, in life and on this here inTaRweB, I get that shock of recognition, that feeling when, no matter how many times we’ve realized it before and promptly forgotten about it, we suddenly understand that there are other people out there who have lived through the same things as we have. They tell us stories that are intended to be about themselves, but after we hear them, they are tales about our selves too. Thanks, Jonathon.

Re-cognition… comments.


(I’ve talked about related issues here and here and here, if you want the full story through the eyes of the wonderchicken…)
Anti-American sentiments are on the rise in Korea once again, on the heels of the ‘axis of evil’ script read recently by The Little President That Could. There is a real and legitimate fear that the ill-considered bad-cop posturings of the American speechwriters could push the peninsula into another war. These fears are not ameliorated by reports that the Pentagon believes that the most likely spot for a large-scale regional war in the near future is outside my window. (Aside : Bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, that, isn’t it? Considering the inroads made towards lasting detente, if not outright peace, by President Kim in the last 4 years, gains that have been systematically knocked back by the antics of W, it’s interesting that this report has been released now. By ‘interesting’, I mean interesting in the sense of manipulative, pernicious and propagandistic, of course.)
Anti-American protests have been a feature of the political landscape for about 20 years here. The first real wave of them occurred in 1980 and lasted for over a decade, as a result of the widespread belief that the American government backed General Chun Doo Hwan in his military coup and in the massacre of civilians at Kwangju. Despite the clear need for such a presence, protests have also focussed around the presence of the 37,000 American troops stationed here, and more recently, new revelations from a BBC documentary eye-catchingly entitled “Kill ’em All : American War Crimes in Korea” about the incidents at Nogun-Ri during the Korean War, one occasion (at this point 61 separate incidents involving the killing of civilians by US forces have been registered with the South Korean government) on which American troops were ordered by their commanding officers to open fire on unarmed refugees. A quote from that report :

“There was a lieutenant screaming like a madman, fire on everything, kill ’em all,” recalls 7th Cavalry veteran Joe Jackman, “I didn’t know if they were soldiers or what. Kids, there was kids out there, it didn’t matter what it was, eight to 80, blind, crippled or crazy, they shot ’em all.”

Coming at the same time as Shrubya’s lumbering, hamhanded comments recently, which have already stirred up resentment about America’s role in matters key to Korea’s very survival, this new BBC documentary has not helped matters much.
So the man in the street here in Korea is angry about what he sees as the American government arbitrarily derailing more than 4 years of work toward peace and reunification by President Kim, for which (I reiterate again for the benefit of the new-to-Waeguk) he was given the Nobel Peace prize in 2000, believing the motivation to be Bushy self-aggrandizement mixed with an unhealthy swath of darker, more colonial purposes. This resentment dovetails nicely with the anger Koreans feel at outside interference in their internal matters of state and culture, and the flames are being fanned by things like the recent controversies over dogmeat and the new revelations about Nogun-Ri. (I talked about the roots of that resentment in the context of the dog-meat ‘controversy’ here – long story short : Japanese occupation and more than 900 invasions in Korea’s recorded history).
Signs of hope are there, though. The North Koreans are reacting cautiously, and seem to be willing to resume dialog. Interestingly, during the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics today, when the president of the Salt Lake committee mentioned at beginning of his speech the ‘9-year old boy in Seoul, Korea’, that was the only part of the speech which was not simultaneously subtitled in Korean. It would seem to be have been a last minute addition, a small, politically-motivated olive branch perhaps, but a charmingly American one, for what it’s worth.

Puking up a hairball

After puking up a hairball about how little value I place in links without commentary, I exercise my right to be annoyingly inconsistent : I have nothing more to say about this.
Update : Or this – “If there were to be a war on the Korean peninsula, we would win but at a horrendous cost. It would be a classic pyrrhic victory. We could devastate North Korea, but we would lose hundreds of thousands of South Korean and Japanese allies in the first few days.”

Young Korean Men

One of the dominant facts in a young Korean man’s life, perhaps the biggest one, is the inevitability of military service. All able-bodied young men (although exceptions are sometimes made for those with enough money, or the right connections, as with everything else here) are required to do a minimum of 26 months of military service (ranging up to thirty months in the Air Force). The callup usually comes about midway through university.
I often wonder if this single fact goes a long way toward explaining some of the enormous differences in attitudes between Korean men and, for example, us Canucks, as much as culture and language and other factors. I’ve talked before about the infantilization of the youth here. Almost every 20-year-old I meet here seems to have the emotional maturity of, say, a 15 year-old in the west. This despite (or perhaps as a result of) the fact that during their high school years, they are driven to succeed, with students who hope to go on to university often sleeping 4 or 5 hours a night or less for years on end, and attending private evening schools for every subject they study, including english, after the normal school day. This kind of grinding 7 am to midnight schedule is the only way, they believe (or more significantly, their parents believe), for them to score reasonably well on the national university entrance exam. Their performance on that exam will decide the caliber of university they attend (at least if their parents are not wealthy, or do not know the right people), and thus the shape of the remainders of their lives. Not attending one of the first-rank (in name if not nature) universities guarantees that you will never reach the top of your chosen profession. The doors will simply not be open to you.
By the time young people reach university age, they may have had very little contact with the opposite sex, as single-gender schools are still very common for teenages, and the long hours they put in preclude much in the way of socialization. With the boys in particular (and boys they still are), the culture has molded them, their mothers have explicity taught and trained them, that they are the absolute center of the universe, and everything is secondary to their will and whim, and amongst other things, that throwing a tantrum is a perfectly acceptable way to react to being thwarted. A first-born male is the shining, much-beloved center of any family, and this is communicated (both to the boy and to his female siblings if any) throughout their young lives.
Suddenly, though, these spoiled, pampered young men are required to join the military. Stories that Korean friends have told me indicate that the treatment of new recruits is uniformly brutal by their ‘seniors’, The DMZ and random beatings and abuse are the norm. It is, by all accounts, a hellish experience, made more so by the fact that it requires a fundamental shift in how these young men must view their world. It is during military service that most young men start the serious drinking and smoking that characterizes so many Korean men, and during this time as well that most of them lose both their virginity and their innocence. Any pretence they held about equality and fairness is systematically stripped from them, and they are taught that the rules for adult life can be summed up adequately by the phrase ‘f–k or be f–ked’. This, it often seems, becomes the mantra that they carry with them into business dealings in later life.
So I sympathize to an extent with Yoo Seung-jun, a singer who recently took full US citizenship, primarily to avoid the draft. He has been barred from re-entering Korea, and there’s a fair bit of controversy swirling around this decision. At this point, though, with Bush-created fears of a new war on the peninsula running higher than in recent memory, there is little sympathy amongst the general population, and little concern about the interesting precendent that this government decision has created.
What would you do if your country were demand military service, or institute a wartime draft? I’m still not certain, but then I haven’t really lived there for more than a decade…

Comments? comments.

Voices Sweet to My Eye

I’ve been scratching my head, not so much due to insect infestation or any of my collection of amusingly rare skin conditions, no – I’ve been doing it all afternoon because I was in Deep Thought about how I could somehow tangentially, tenously tie the stuff that I’ve been pondering to the self-proclaimed theme of this blog, which is, in case you hadn’t noticed :

Why I Love Korea Even Though It Turns Me Apoplectic With Fury
How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.

At this task, I have failed miserably. Thus the lovely background to this post. Entirely too many colored rectangles around here lately, which means that either I’d better start exercising a little self-restraint, or I’d better start thinking about moving the goddamn goalposts. I put ’em up in the first place, after all.
Plato! So my little screed for today came to me whilst I was doing my almost daily rounds. There’s a list of blogs (over there to the right, you see ’em? The ones labelled ‘Voices sweet to my eye’ are the ones I’m talking about here, although there are also a goodly number amongst the Metafilter gang and the Blogrolling list further down) that, after I finish reading, I’ve either had a good laugh, or feel like a marginally better person, or feel like ‘Damn – there’s what I oughta be shooting for here’, or some combination of the three.
The rare ones are the ones that give me the Full Treatment. And this is the point of my little sermon today. You see, I’ve found that I most enjoy reading people, at least in blogland, that I feel like I could be friends with. This is hardly a world-shattering revelation, I know, but bear with me. Some of the Voices Sweet To My Eye are serious. Urbane. Frighteningly intelligent. They give the impression that they will brook no silliness, not from a wonderchicken, not from nobody! I come away from their blogs feeling like a better person. I’ve learned something. Spent some time with someone who knows a helluva lot more than me about quite a few things, and can synthesize entirely new ways of looking at those things while having a crap. There are others in the list who make me laugh, make me smile, make me feel that I’m having a virtual drink or two with them, and the cares of the day pale to insignificance. There are still others that, through their elegance and light touch, through the way they deftly and apparently effortlessly turn a phrase, make me want to work harder at this writing thing, or at design, or coding, or whatever. I love all these folks, and I am grateful each and every day for the existence of this medium that has allowed me to share in their creativity and passion.Groucho!
But there are very few, and this is the crux of my point, that combine those qualities. What I mean to say is that I am a firm believer in both the value of granular analysis of semantics, for example, and in the ineluctable modality of the fart joke, for another. Preferably simultaneously. And I find that the people I enjoy most in real life are able to exist, and in fact revel in living on both of these planes simultaneously. It’s these madcap philosophers to which I am most drawn. This may be in large part because I try to be that very thing, and of course we often love that in our friends which most closely mirrors what we perceive ourselves to be. Which is why most of my pals are inveterate boozers and reprobates.
I’m not going to list the few voices I’ve found in my travels that give me that ‘Here’s a person I wish I knew in real life’ feeling, which at the end of the day, all the crap I was talking above is about. People who challenge me, educate me, make me laugh until I involuntarily pee – who can do all of those things. I can’t and won’t list them, because you always end up leaving someone out, and besides, there are more out there I haven’t found yet. There are a lot out there, though, and one of the great joys of recent months for me is that some of them, even in this rarefied bloggy air, are talking back to me.
Although it’s slightly embarrassing to do so, I offer you this obvious snippet of good ol’ Jack Kerouac as a coda of sorts :

“…and I shambled after them as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”

Afterthought : You can infer how impressed I am by the idea that the most important thing about a weblog is the links. Pfft. They merely add torque to the engine of the brain behind the words.

Talk to me! comments.

New! Improved! Less taste, more filling!

New! Improved! Less taste, more filling! I’ve decided to flag meta-posts (ie stuff that’s not about life in Korea) with a nice colorful box, and a pretty dashed line, ’cause I’m nothing if not flavour-of-the-moment. Starting now. Offer may be terminated without notice. Void where prohibited by good sense.

Do any of my loyal readers (all three of you!) have any recommendations for cheap-ass hosting? Something with a bit of space to host some images, something that I can maybe run Moveable Type on, or just continue with Blogger – the usual. Any assistance and advice would be most graciously accepted. Still pondering a domain name…

Let me know…and thanks. comments.


A couple of evil-doughers. Pretzelboy, in his State of the Union address last week, named North Korea as part of his fanciful ‘axis of evil’. This has gotten the government here worried enough that the president has publicly announced “We should not let our 70 million people face the threat of war…We should ease the tension through dialogue with North Korea, and we should keep [the United States and the North] from drumming up a war atmosphere.” Living, as I do, less than 100 km from the DMZ, this concerns me a bit. I’ve talked about this before, but this ‘axis of evil’ thing takes it to a new level, and the sheer white hot rage of a thousand suns that I feel when I contemplate the things that the American government is doing prevents me at this moment from commenting cogently (not that anyone who frequents this place expects cogent commentary from me, I know).
I will note, however, that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is quoted in the above Korea Times article referring to the North as “the world’s number one merchant for ballistic missiles.” To that I would reply that in the year 2000, the US was responsible for more than 50% of global arms trading, and the wackjob up in Pyongyang was responsible for 0.4%.
‘World’s #1 merchant’ indeed.
Update : This “Critical Analysis of the 2002 State of the Union Address” was helpful to me in fine-tuning my fury.

Comments? comments.


A recent report on the Korean news has reminded me that I may never really understand the workings of people’s minds here. What am I saying – ”may never’? I can’t even understand the workings of the minds of the people I grew up with….
Seems this guy bought a car at a Hyundai dealership, and it was a lemon. Despite the reputation that Hyundai cars have in some quarters, this is actually a rarity these days. All sorts of things were wrong with the car apparently, and it was basically undriveable. Within two weeks of purchasing it, he took it back to the dealership and demanded that the salesman who flogged it to him replace the car. The salesman spoke to Hyundai, and they basically came back with “We’ll fix it, but we won’t replace it. Not our problem.”
The guy who bought the car was irate, and demanded a replacement. The salesman, caught between his bosses, with whom he couldn’t possibly argue, and the irate customer, who wouldn’t take no for an answer, stonewalled.
The guy went away, came back with a container of gasoline, flung it onto the salesman and himself, and set it alight. He set himself on fire, apparently in protest.
My sympathies are with the car salesman, of course. He didn’t have much of a choice in the little drama. The bit I find incomprehensible is why the irate customer set himself on fire over a car. A f–king car. I just can’t get my head around the self-immolation thing. Even if someone snaps in Canada, they’ll go on a murderous rampage with a firearm or something, rather than set themselves alight. Or was this guy just a nutjob unrepresentative of his peers? I don’t know.
Both survived the episode, apparently, and are recovering in hospital. Hyundai, of course, is denying all responsibility and refusing to assist in the salesman’s hospital bills.

'Kim chic'

‘Kim chic’. The popularity of Korean pop culture, appropriately enough, is soaring in East Asia. This is not surprising, as Korean fashion, television shows, films, music and video, and software are all slick and modern in the extreme, if not often precisely my cup of corn tea. Corn tea isn’t even my cup of tea.
The TV shows are invariably concerned with love and matters familial, and seem to reach their zenith in stories of love made untenable by the iron-willed, set-jawed glare of the disapproving mother. The music, as I’ve discussed before, is boyband pap taken to its logical extremes, g.o.d. even with the few ‘street gang’ type groups, who always make me giggle with their hollow posturings. The game software tends to be variations on the theme of the real-time strategy, owing to an odd national obsession with Starcraft (‘Stah-crapuhtuh’) that is perennially made fun of in the gaming community. On the other hand, I’ll admit that the few Korean films I’ve seen have actually been quite good, and hard to generalize about.
I would argue that South Korean pop culture is seen as fresh and edgy but non-threatening not because “they’re Asian and they look like us,” as quoted in the linked article, but because it is non-threatening. Designed that way. Even more blatantly than in the west, pop-culture output is targetted at teenagers here, and it shows. The infantilization of Korean youth continuing right up into their university years, which I’ve touched on before here, virtually guarantees that any truly confrontational or countercultural elements are thoroughly avoided, or sanitized and co-opted, if they appear. This is beginning to change, but slowly. Any sort of ‘adult alternative’, in music or otherwise, is very thin on the ground. [thanks y2karl!]
Pop goes the world!

I'm messing with my template

I’m messing with my template here, going all-css and stuff. I love a project!
Things might look a wee bit strange for a while. Bear with me.. If it looks utterly broken for more than a couple of minutes at a time on your browser, please drop a comment in the usual commenty place. Thankee.
Update : Well, completely new code under the template-hood, and after all that work it looks basically the same. Sheesh. But it’ll be a lot easier to fiddle with now, and possibly go ORANGE. Or not…

The usual commenty place.


Time, at the end of the day, as a person’s most limited, unrenewable resource, is precious to me. Time to think, slowly, langorously, time to drink a bit when I feel like it and then enjoy the cushioned-by-clouds-of-cotton feeling the next day. Time to pay attention to what I do in my work, examine it, and find ways to do it better. Time to type self-absorbed crap like this into my blog, even.
Time that is not beholden to anyone, my own, privately-owned moments and hours and days and weeks, is one of the reasons I came back to Korea in August 2000. This week I’ve been presented with the opportunity to return to Australia again, to quadruple my salary back to what it was, get back into IT, work with some old friends, and lose all this glorious free time that I so enjoy. Wrestling with the decision is hurting my brain. Thanks I suppose to the (granted, reluctant) work-ethic of my stepfather, I do sometimes feel guilty about the months of paid holiday I enjoy in my current employment, and the four-day work-weeks. I can hear his ghostly voice saying in a loving but ungentle way – “You fink! Get off your ass and do something!”
I’m really not sure what to do, but this article (via rebeccablood) certainly helped me put my thoughts in order. It’s worth reading.
Update : Some interesting meta-commentary from Jonathon.
All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain…