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Korea Blog: The Essential Korean Fashion Accessory of 2018, a London Review of Books Tote Bag

Though I’ve lived in Korea only a few years, I sometimes fear I’ve already lost sight of the culture around me. When visiting foreign friends bring up sights that strike them as notable or even shocking, I increasingly have to admit that they no longer even register in my consciousness. Though I headed off the brunt of initial culture shock by studying the Korean language and living in Los Angeles’s Koreatown for years before ever visiting Korea, certain things still jumped out at me on my first trip here. The fearsome power of trends, for instance: as soon as a certain article of clothing gains popularity, you’ll see it on the streets of Seoul many times a day, every day. Every society has its fads, but the degree of speed, breadth, and regularity of adoption here boggles the Western mind. As a Korean-American friend once wondered aloud, “How do they get the memo?”

At this point, though, life in Seoul has dulled my sensitivity to these trends — in not just clothing but music, design, personal electronics, and much else besides — that wax and wane on a monthly and even weekly basis. This despite considerable effort, deliberate and otherwise, to retain my outsider’s perspective by keeping a foot in current Western culture. I do it primarily by reading magazines: not just those I write for like LARB, but others like the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books as well. To that last I actually only started subscribing while living in Korea. I’d expected to purchase a digital-only subscription, as I’d done with the others, but from what I could tell the LRB offered no such thing, insisting on accompanying my online access with print issues mailed fortnightly all the way to my home in Seoul.

Maybe the regular arrival of each paper LRB, two weeks after its content comes available on the site, primed me to notice its tote bags. Not that I made too much, earlier this year, of the first 20-something Korean girl I spotted on a train platform with one on her shoulder. For all I knew she’d brought it back to Seoul as a souvenir of an afternoon snack at the London Review Cake Shop while on vacation in the English capital — or even a year of study abroad there. And it wasn’t impossible that she actually subscribed, probably out of the same kind of aspirational English-reading impulse that gets parents enrolling their young children in after-school academies that force them to read the likes of Time magazine. (I myself occasionally pick up esoteric Korean literary journals on the same principle.)

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