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Korea Blog: The Asian Adventures of Percival Lowell

Just before moving to Korea, I took a road trip across America, from southern California to North Carolina. An early overnight stop came in Flagstaff, Arizona, a city overlooked by the Lowell Observatory, a scientific institution (and now tourist attraction) founded in 1894 by Percival Lowell, the American astronomer whose research led to the discovery of Pluto. The observatory grounds feature an exhibit about the man himself, and having a look at it I noticed the photo above, in which Lowell sits among a group of 19th-century Koreans, and below it a first edition of his book Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm: A Sketch of Korea.

It came out in 1885, just a couple of years after Lowell first went to Korea as a foreign secretary to the diplomatic Korean Special Mission. Having got the inspiration to travel to Asia from a lecture on Japan he attended in 1882, he remained there for quite some time, going on to write other such non-astronomical volumes as The Soul of the Far East in 1888, Noto: An Unexplored Corner of Japan in 1891, and Occult Japan, or the Way of the Gods in 1894. You can follow the links to download all of them for free from the Internet Archive. Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm, the first of them, also counts as the first full-length English-language personal narrative of Korea.

It also still counts as one of the richer full-length English-language personal narratives of Korea yet published, and quite possibly as the most thorough: Lowell divides this 400-page book into chapters on everything from the country’s geography to its climate to its government to its architecture to its principles to the many hats (literally) worn by its people. All fascinating stuff, and all suitable material for a man of such wide-ranging curiosity, but some modern readers may come up against difficulties right away with the structure and style. Lowell wrote like the scientist he was, not in the English-as-a-third-language way some scientists do — I find much to admire in his prose, the occasional Victorian excess aside — in the way of someone who regards detail and precision, especially pertaining to the natural world, as ends in themselves.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Urban Dystopia in “Blade Runner”, “Black Rain”, and “Her”

Now you can watch the video essay I made on visions of urban dystopia in Blade RunnerBlack Rain, and Her for my talk at the San Francisco Urban Film Festival. See also my earlier essays on Blade Runner and Her on The City in Cinema’s Vimeo channel.

Korea Blog: Finding Korea in Osaka

My friend Nick Currie, the musician, artist, and writer best known as Momus, has enjoyed a variety of roles in his career, most recently that of the Japan Times‘s Unreliable Food Critic. While he’s long engaged his own fascination with Japan in the service of his music, he only moved to the country relatively recently, about five years ago. (You can listen to a radio interview I did with him on the subject of going there at the bottom of my collection of podcasts related to Japan.) I met up with him yesterday in Osaka, his home as well as one of my favorite cities in the world — in a league with the likes of Seoul and Los Angeles — for what he calls his “prostitution and destitution” tour, an afternoon stroll through a few neighborhoods that happen to sustain those two conditions.

For all their fascination value, neither of these areas have much in the way of high eating. (Though the signs hanging outside the countless tiny, immaculately presented, and open-fronted brothels of Tobita Shinchi do present the businesses as “restaurants,” and, word on the street has it, will actually order in food from elsewhere should a thoroughly oblivious foreigner wander in hungry.) But that makes them no less fertile ground for the Unreliable Food Critic, a title the food-indifferent Nick crafted for himself that comes with a mission, stated in his debut column, to “explore back alleys where gimlet-eyed men in baggy carpenter pants glance up from enormous bowls, surprised to see a foreigner,” to “shop at garish supermarket chain Tamade,” and to “head to Osaka’s Korean district and rhapsodise about the cheap eats in the market.”

He did just that last in his second column, which found him “in the dark arcades below Osaka’s Tsuruhashi Station” chomping on anojingeo jeon (오징어 전), “a rubbery crepe filled with spring onions and flattened seafood, and I’m able to bite the pancake from the packet as I wander around this warren of rundown arcades. You couldn’t eat okonomiyaki this way, but here, the center of Japan’s biggest Korean community — almost 120,000 people at the last count — it’s not a problem.” And so, after having passed through the prostitution and destitution, I kept walking, making my own way to Tsuruhashi for a local taste, in as many senses of the word as I could find it, of the country I came from.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: Ways of Seeing Korean Plastic Surgery

The first morning of my first visit to Seoul, I went out looking for coffee and came back with a stereotype seemingly confirmed beyond all expectations. After I found the nearest main road and started walking down it, I soon came upon a coffee shop (as I knew even then, Korea has quite a density of them), but couldn’t bear to enter it. The second one I found had the same problem, and I walked on further still, past a third and a fourth that I avoided on similar grounds. They were all open for business, none with too big a crowd, and I certainly had enough Korean to order a coffee. So what spooked me so badly? It was their location: that is, they were all located inside plastic surgery clinics, institutions I had already learned to fear and loathe from the disapproving attitudes of countless trend pieces on Korea.

It hasn’t taken long for them to lean hard on a narrow set of tropes: the tense relationship with the North, the ultra-competitive academic culture, the robust pop music and television drama industries, and, yes, the creepy popularity of cosmetic surgery. No matter the medium, these reports usually make their way to quotes from a few Kim Jihyes on the street who blithely state their intentions to get new eyelids, a new chin, a new nose, or some combination of the three (maybe even bought as a gift by her parents, should she do well enough on her college entrance exam) in order to one day land the right job, the right man, or both. This sort of thing causes a good deal of us in the West, and especially America, to stroke our imperfect chins and lament what we see as some sort of conformist, surface-obsessed dystopia of the image.

The subject comes so laden with baggage and cliché that, on one level, I haven’t really wanted to write about it; but on another level, some of the questions I consider most interesting never really get asked. At the top of the list: what about Korean plastic surgery, exactly, bothers Westerners so much? Different Westerners have different theories. Some think it has to do with a perceived hypocrisy, in that the longer a non-Korean lives here, the more of the glories of the Korean race that non-Korean will have heard implicitly or explicitly trumpeted. So why, they sarcastically wonder, does this world-beatingly superior people so badly need the assistance of cosmetic surgeons?

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: Bitter, Sweet, Seoul

Even the least well-traveled Americans have a mental image — no matter how fantastical, outdated, or simply inaccurate — of cities like London, Paris, or Tokyo. But bring up Seoul, and apart from a few of the more garish sights seen in the “Gangnam Style” video, most of my countrymen draw a complete blank. I actually lamented this just today to a lady who works for Seoul’s city government, an organization that knows all too well the Korean capital’s lack of international recognizability.

That, given the steady flow of mostly Seoul-produced Korean cultural exports, will change in time, but therein lies the multi-million-dollar question: what will form that the ready-to-hand international image we all one day have of Seoul? Or perhaps, given the money Seoul has put into self-promotion in recent years, we should call it the multi-billion-won question. Some of that money funded “Seoul, Our Movie,” a campaign that called for video clips of everyday urban life there and ultimately brought in over 11,000 of them, shot on everything from film-industry-professional cameras to cellphones by people from all around the world.

The filmmaking brothers Park Chan-kyong and Park Chan-wook (known together as PARKing CHANce) edited and soundscaped about 150 of them into an admirably coherent hour-long movie. (You may know the latter Park brother for having directed pictures like Joint Security Area, the first Korean movie I personally every knowingly watched, the grotesque thriller turned unexpected flagship of Korean cinema Oldboy, and the more recent international collaboration Stoker.) If you’ve never been to Seoul and want at least some foundation on which to base your own mental image of the city, you could do much worse than give that hour-long movie, which appeared with the title Bitter, Sweet, Seoul (고진감래, a saying meaning “sweet after bitter” or “pleasure after pain”), a watch, whichyou can do free on Youtube.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: David L. Ulin

Colin Marshall talks with David L. Ulin, former book critic at the Los Angeles Times and author of such books as The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith, The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, and the novella Labyrinth. He is also the editor of the anthologies of Los Angeles writing Writing Los Angeles and Another City, and his new book, Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, deals directly with his nearly 25-year history in the city and what it means, to him and others, to live here.

You can stream the conversation just above, listen to it on the LARB’s site, download it on iTunes.

Korea Blog: Multicultural Love and Its Discontents

I watch television here in Seoul, but I watched even more Korean television back when I lived in Los Angeles. My girlfriend and I got satellite TV installed especially for the small bundle of Korean channels available in the States, which required the technician to bolt another satellite dish onto our balcony next to the standard one, which we never used since we never watched any channels but the Korean ones. If I did, I’d lose out on a valuable opportunity for listening practice (listening being the formidable wall so many students of the Korean language never completely scale). But soon, the entertainment value of Korean television for me matched its educational value, and I assembled a roster of favorite programs to which to tune in.

All those programs air on EBS, which stands for Educational Broadcasting System — so whatever the entertainment value I personally derived, educational value at least remained the mandate. I usually describe EBS as the Korean equivalent of PBS, an analogy that works in some respects but not others. Whereas my childhood memories of PBS after my Sesame Street years consist mostly of licensed British programming and frequent pleas for donations, EBS features a huge amount of original content (with, in my viewing experience, nary a pledge drive to interrupt it). I first got hooked on its travel shows, like the domestic Travelogue Korea (한국 기행) and the international Thematic World Tour (세계 테마 여행), which, like many EBS productions, you can watch free on their Youtube channel.

But then I found another category of favorite show, one even more compelling because it reflected my imminent future: reality shows about foreigners living in Korea. Korean audiences seem positively unable to get enough of watching non-Koreans try to make a go of it in their society, and EBS serves that demand with at least two different programs: 한국에 산다, which means something as straightforward as They Live in Korea, and 다문화 사랑, or Multicultural Love. While they differ a little in sensibility, they share the same central question: Vietnamese wives, Canadian husbands, Indonesian civil servants, French buskers, Japanese hostel workers — how can these people possibly handle Korean life?

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: Coffee Life in Korea

When last I lived in Los Angeles, I met a Korean friend for coffee every week. After a few months of doing so, I noticed that she always, without exception, ordered an Americano, so I asked why. She explained that, if she simply ordered a coffee — or keopi (커피) back in Korea, she might well wind up with something made from a powder. And so, now that I live in Korea myself, I follow the very same rule. As it happens, I already had plenty of  experience adhering to it in Mexico, another piece of that globe-spanning territory I like to call “Nescafé country.”

Older generations of the Korean population remain quite influential within their country, most notably in their unflagging support of something called dabang keopi (다방 커피), a foul mixture of instant coffee, copious amounts of sugar, and often artificial creamer named for the old-style coffee houses that first served them. But apart from the few establishments that, over the decades, have become attractions again through sheer persistence combined with an unwillingness to change their décor, most dabang have given way to what we would now call second- and third-wave coffee shops, seemingly none of which permit a spoonful of Nescafé — or such home-grown brands as Maxim or French Café — on the premises.

Famed Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold helpfully breaks down the “waves” as follows: “The first wave of American coffee culture was probably the 19th-century surge that put Folgers on every table, and the second was the proliferation, starting in the 1960s at Peet’s and moving smartly through the Starbucks grande decaf latte, of espresso drinks and regionally labeled coffee. We are now in the third wave of coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure.” And as with most things that make it across the Pacific, Korean coffee culture has followed the same path, only much faster.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: Living the Vertical Life in Seoul

My friend Darcy Paquet, who preceded me to Korea by almost twenty years and in that time became a famous film critic here, once wrote a piece in the Hankook Ilbo (한국일보) about having to readjust his sense of space from that of the rural Massachusetts in which he grew up to that of Seoul. “It’s not just the crowded streets and buses that I had to get used to, but also the sense of always having people around me,” he wrote. “Living in a large apartment complex, with so many other families going about their lives behind my walls and under the floor, took some getting used to.”

He quotes friends back in America: “I can’t understand why anyone would want to live in one of those apartment complexes, like bees in a hive.” In my experience as well, more than a few Americans express their feelings about the density of a city like Seoul with beehive imagery, assuming they don’t jump straight to the word “dystopia.” I’ve given a lot of thought to how movies create urban dystopias, and Western ones tend to signal hellishness with height, Blade Runner‘s treatment of the Los Angeles of the future being the most influential example, but however expressed, the notion that bad things happen in tall buildings, or that tall buildings cause bad things to happen, enjoys a special prevalence in the Anglo-American mind.

Blade Runner, recall, had an American setting but, in Ridley Scott, an English director. We’ll have another vivid entry in this canon later this year with the release of the new film adaptation of High-Rise, J.G. Ballard’s novel of a luxury London tower block’s near-immediate devolution into an ultraviolent bacchanal. Sometimes I ask friends who insist on calling dense high-rises dystopian whether piloting a metal box down a strip of asphalt in a metal box at seventy miles an hour strikes them as any less so, but Ballard, who made the ravages of the automobile the object of grim fascination in the David Cronenberg-adapted Crash, beat me to the point.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: Why Is Korean So Hard?

The summer after my freshman year of high school, I took a short computer programming class. Getting up to speed in C, the programming language of the day, looked like a daunting task, but the instructor reassured us: “Look, guys, I don’t expect you to learn C in two weeks any more than I’d expect you to learn Korean in two weeks.” I took his point, but the specific comparison baffled me: sure, great, but who on Earth would choose to learn Korean?

Now, living in Korea myself more than fifteen years later, I realize that I’d have done much better to take a class in Korean than that class in C, which even when it interested me I could never get much of a handle on. But at the time, Korean struck me as a hilariously obscure language to bring up: why not Japanese, at which I’d tried my hand a couple years before out of my love of Japanese video games without seriously imagining ever being able to comprehend it, or Chinese, which some Americans surely wonder, deep down inside, whether the Chinese themselves can understand?

I didn’t give a another thought to that programming teacher’s remark until the year after college, as I hung around and plowed through all the Korean movies available at the university media library, eventually starting to suspect I could teach myself a thing or two about their language if I put my mind to it. Some time earlier, I’d learned the one thing about Korean that everyone who knows only one thing about Korean knows: its written language, known as hangul (한글), is just an alphabet with letters arranged into blocks, not a logographic language like Chinese (or the adapted-from-Chinese characters used in Japanese) which requires a massive amount of memorization even to approach functionality.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.