Skip to content

Korea Blog: How the Seoul Government Turned a Bestselling Feminist Novel Into a Controversial PR Campaign

Few readers in Korea seem to lack an opinion about Kim Ji-young Born 1982 (82년생 김지영), the best-selling novel in the country last year. The first book by Cho Nam-joo, a 39-year-old former television scriptwriter who quit her job after her daughter was born, it tells a story at first engineered for a maximum of normality: the title character grows up, goes to school, gets married, gets a job, and like the author leaves that job to become a stay-at-home mom once she has a baby. In another experience shared with her creator, Ji-young strolls her daughter out to a coffee shop only to overhear a few office workers refer to her as a mam-chung (맘충), or “mom-worm,” the kind of demanding, child-toting, deeply entitled woman some Koreans have come to see as a kind of modern menace.

The novel has drawn so much attention because of the frank manner in which Cho renders the countless indignities visited upon Ji-young in her still-short life, from the fact that her own mother had hoped for a son instead to being told that the boys who pick on her in school must “like” her to fellow bus riders’ reluctance to give up their seats for her during her pregnancy. The final straw comes when she has to cross the country to cook an elaborate feast for her husband’s family, just as she does every year of her married life, for the Thanksgiving-like Chuseok holiday. Ji-young suddenly snaps and demands to know why she can never spend Chuseok with her own family back in Seoul, but she does it in the voice of her mother, one of the succession of personas that overtakes her as she plunges into a kind of insanity.

To this extent Kim Ji-young Born 1982 has much in common with Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize in in Deborah Smith’s English translation, a novel whose thirtysomething female central character rebels against Korean society’s expectations by refusing to eat meat. This leads into a series of other increasingly eccentric behaviors, culminating in an intensely focused effort to live as a plant, whereas Ji-young remains essentially a recognizable everywoman right down to her name (anyone who spends much time in Korea will meet a Kim Ji-young sooner or later, and probably more than one) and the footnotes with which Cho documents the statistical basis of her averageness. “I feel like this is a story of a real Kim Ji-young living somewhere,” Cho writes in the novel’s prologue. “Her life resembles very much after that of my friends, colleagues and of myself.”

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

Essay in The Monocle Travel Guide, Seoul

I’ve got an essay in the back of Monocle‘s newly published travel guide to Seoul. It begins with all the books about the city, its architecture, and its urbanism that have recently made their way to the shelves of Korean bookstores, continues on to the question whether Seoul can grow a distinctive urban culture organically rather than importing it from more established world capitals, and of course gets around to Seun Sangga and what it says about the city’s past as well as its future. (I think I also had a short piece on Gangneung somewhere in Monocles most recent Korea issue.)

The Gyeongui Line Forest Park: Seoul Urbanism on TBS eFM’s Koreascape

Each month I join Kurt Achin, host of Koreascape on Seoul’s English-language radio station TBS eFM, for an exploration of one of Seoul’s urban spaces. This month we walk the Gyeongui Line Forest Park, which cuts across four miles of Seoul on part of the path of the Gyeongui Line train, which back in the colonial period ran all the way to Manchuria. Spared from the high-rise development that now exists immediately alongside it, the area of the Gyeongui Line’s old tracks has become a linear park replete with bike paths, art installations, bookstores, and open spaces for members of the communities through which it passes to complete as they see fit. Beginning just south of Hyochang Park, it ends in the center of the Yeonnam-dong, a neighborhood that has in recent years become hugely popular among young people not least due to the Gyeongui Line Forest Park itself — whose lively Yeonnam-dong section its many young habitués now call “Yeontral Park.”

Stay tuned for further explorations of Seoul’s architecture, infrastructure, and other parts of the built environment. You can hear our previous segments here or download them on iTunes.

Los Angeles in Buildings: Scientology’s Pacific Area Command Base (a.k.a. “Big Blue”)

It isn’t always obvious who owns Los Angeles’ notable old buildings, but 4833 Fountain Avenue requires no research more intensive than an upward glance. There, in sixteen-foot letters, its current stewards have mounted — lest the symbolism of the eight-pointed cross at the tip of the rooftop pyramid prove too obscure — the word “SCIENTOLOGY.” Every Angeleno’s list of quintessential Los Angeles experiences differs, but mine includes brunching across the street from that sign, mimosas and migas enjoyed under its looming presence as well as the blue paint job (which, unsettlingly, sometimes matches the sky) and mammoth scale (at least compared to the blocks of Hollywood around it) of the building holding it aloft.

Then there’s another, even more palpable presence: that of security, not just in the form of endlessly looping, bicycle-mounted security guards, but cameras installed in countless positions both seen and no doubt unseen. That will surprise nobody even casually familiar with the public profile of the Church of Scientology, owner of 4833 Fountain and at least 25 other properties across Hollywood. Members who defect and publicly tell their stories have drawn stern responses from the organization, to say the least, as have investigative journalists who try to find just what goes on behind the azure walls of the building Scientology officially calls its Pacific Area Command Base, or more casually, “Big Blue.”

Though the information those ex-Scientologists and reporters have come out with suggests that its doctrine deals with events going back trillions of years, the Church of Scientology itself was founded relatively recently, in 1954, by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Having made his first journey out to Los Angeles to write for the movies in the mid-1930s, the Nebraska-born Hubbard worked on “Dianetics,” which would become Scientology’s foundational text, in an office on Sunset Boulevard during the 1940s. At the time of the book’s publication in 1950, he’d opened an operation called the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation on Hoover Street. Despite having lead a fairly peripatetic life up to that point, he seemed to have adopted Hollywood as his own neighborhood.

Read the whole thing at KCET.

Times Literary Supplement: Michael Vatikiotis’ “Blood and Silk”

Everyone lies to you in Thailand”, a former Bangkok resident told me at a recent gathering of Asia correspondents. When you ask a local when the next bus arrives, for example, they’re likely to tell you five minutes even if it went out of service years ago. They do it not out of malice towards foreigners – far from it, when 10 per cent of their economy is dependent on tourism – but to save face. Thai society, writes Michael Vatikiotis in Blood and Silk: Power and conflict in modern Southeast Asia, “has developed a sophisticated range of conflict-avoidance mechanisms” that “outsiders interpret as a well-developed culture of manners, but which in fact are part of the suit of armour protecting against indignity”. In case of indignity, personal or political, “a sudden, violent response is not only warranted, but expected”.

The same goes, to varying degrees, for people in Myanmar, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, who together with Thailand constitute the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), established fifty years ago as a means of fostering development and beating back communism. It worked: not only has no member state gone red (Vietnam, capitalist in all but name, joined in 1995), many of them now boast capitals that often strike tourists as more modern than those of the West. But Vatikiotis, an American armed-conflict negotiation facilitator who first arrived in Southeast Asia as a student in the late 1970s, is no tourist, having witnessed at first hand the region’s considerable growth, and the boom of cities such as Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, now “among the most globally connected, modern and sophisticated places in the world”. And “beneath these sleek metropolitan glass-and-steel carapaces” he perceives “an enduring and seething underbelly of unmet popular aspiration suppressed by the effective concentration of power in the hands of a privileged few”. A “smiling mask of tropical abundance”, for Vatikiotis, hides “the reality of perennial threats to stability and survival, fuelled by rising levels of social and economic inequality and a chronic absence of the institutional safeguards and legal certainty we take (or at least used to take) for granted in the West”.

After the Second World War, “Burma, Indonesia, Malaya, and the Philippines were all granted independence as fledgling democracies. Not one stayed free and democratic for long”. Then came harsh suppression of dissent, violent crackdowns on protest, military coups, stretches of martial law, and campaigns of wanton killing sparked by anti-communist paranoia. Authoritarian rule became the norm by the mid-1980s, and continues to this day, the “high modernism of the early independence era” – embodied by leaders such as Indonesia’s Sukarno, Singapore’s assiduous if sententious Lee Kuan Yew, and Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej – having been replaced with “reassertions of traditional social and cultural behaviour, more rooted in the pre-colonial Hindu-Buddhist past”. Unlike “the generation that first embarked on nation building in the 1950s”, Vatikiotis writes, “the current generation of leaders is more parochial”. They include Rodrigo Duterte, the populist President of Philippines, whose rough-edged pronouncements leave international observers aghast; Thailand’s thrice-married, crop-top-wearing sixty-five-year-old King Vajiralongkorn, who throws lavish birthday celebrations for his pet poodle (an animal who also holds high rank in the Royal Thai Air Force); and Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia since 1985, who last year declared himself “Glorious Supreme Prime Minister and Powerful Commander”.

Read the whole thing at the Times Literary Supplement.

Korea Blog: Frank Ahrens’s Life-in-Korea Memoir Seoul Man

Dropping into a recent gathering at an expatriate-oriented wine shop in Seoul, I met an American couple quite different from the countrymen I normally encounter here: not only were they born, raised, and married in Texas, they’d come to Korea together for one year and one year only. The engineer husband’s employer, a certain electronics giant called Samsung, had brought him over from their research-and-development center back in Austin to put in some time at their home base. This left the wife, a schoolteacher, free to spend her days exploring city and country. Halfway into their year here, they reported that they found Korea a much more congenial place than they’d imagined.

Such short-term expats, those who arrive with a fixed return date and little to no previous experience or knowledge of Korea, typically have questions for those of us with more of an investment in the country. But I find I enjoy hearing their impressions more than conveying my own, since they’ve known the kind of culture shock that, having studied the Korean language and lived in Los Angeles’s Koreatown for years before moving here, I never could have. So did Frank Ahrens, the author of Seoul Man, a Westerner-in-Korea memoir that my chat with the amiable Texans reminded me I’d missed when first it came out.

Subtitled A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan, the book tells of Ahrens’s stint as a public relations director at Hyundai Motors between 2010 and 2013. He took the job after 18 years as a journalist at the Washington Post, a career move prompted both by his Foreign Service-employed wife’s Seoul posting and the bleak future of the newspaper industry evident in the very business stories he’d been reporting. About South Korea they went in knowing, he writes, “little more than most Americans do: it’s the most wired nation on earth, the kids are ultrahigh academic achievers, and they eat kimchi.”

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

Korea Blog: Bad Air Days in Seoul

Last week a voice boomed out of the speaker in my wall and told me not to go outside. One might more readily associate un-mutable commands broadcast directly into the home more with North Korea than South, but we live with them here in Seoul as well. Or at least many residents of apartment buildings above a certain size do, though through their speakers come piped not the national anthem or the stirring words of the country’s great leaders but information about renovation work on one floor or another, updates on the ever-shifting local garbage disposal policy, and announcements of impending visits from the gas-meter reader. Sometimes they also issue warnings about bad air days.

Other systems operate for the same purpose on a wider scale, such as the emergency alerts sent out to every mobile phone in the area when the measurements of the fine particulate matter floating around pass a certain threshold. The means of communication about this condition seem to strike many an observer as nearly as dystopian as the condition itself, though among expatriates talk about the air quality in Seoul has, in recent years, taken on an if-Bush-wins-I-swear-I’m-moving-to-Canada edge of obsessive frustration. Many Westerners here check the real-time air quality index daily or even more often; some post about it on social media, frequently and to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Why does Seoul’s air get so bad? For a time, the most often heard explanations by far simply blamed China. But the ever-increasing number of officially unhealthy days per year has prompted more rigorous analyses of the real causes, most recently in partnership with scientists from NASA. The research so far says that about half of the pollution inhaled in South Korea comes from sources in South Korea, be they cars and trucks, factories, or power plants (often coal). Seoul may have more days of healthy air per year than the likes of Beijing and Shanghai, but the country as a whole still comes in nearly at the bottom of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, air-quality rankings, above only Turkey.

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

What Seoul and Los Angeles Can Learn from Each Other: Seoul Urbanism on TBS eFM’s Koreascape

Each month I join Kurt Achin, host of Koreascape on Seoul’s English-language radio station TBS eFM, for an exploration of one of Seoul’s urban spaces. This month, having just been to Los Angeles for the first time in the two years since I moved from there to Seoul, I ask what these ever-changing cities can learn from one another. How much does Los Angeles remain a metropolis that “makes nonsense of history and breaks all the rules,” in the words of architectural historian Reyner Banham, and to what extent has it moved past what Los Angeles Times architectural critic Christopher Hawthorne calls the “building blocks” of its postwar self, “the private car, the freeway, the single-family house, and the lawn”? Does Seoul’s constant construction of more and denser — but blander — forms of housing offer a solution to Los Angeles’ worsening cost-of-living (and, increasingly, homelessness) crisis? Can both cities meet their separate challenges of finding a built form and aesthetic commensurate with their formidable status in the 21st century?

Stay tuned for further explorations of Seoul’s architecture, infrastructure, and other parts of the built environment. You can hear our previous segments here.

Korea Blog: “Travelogue Korea” and the Dream of Isolation

A Korean friend I knew back in Los Angeles often talked about a recurring fantasy of hers: to drive through empty American states like North (or sometimes South) Dakota for hours and even days on end, not setting eyes on another soul all the while. Though, like any self-respecting American, I do enjoy a good long road trip, and even drove across the whole country before moving abroad, her vision always truck me as more terrifying than tantalizing. Where would you get decent coffee? What if the car breaks down? Could you even get a cellphone signal out there? How long before everything would inevitably go full Deliverance?

After I started watching Korean television, though, I began to understand. Soon after getting satellite television hooked up at home in Los Angeles specifically for the Korean channels, I settled on a favorite program: Travelogue Korea (한국 기행), which airs every night on the educational network EBS. Somehow, in a country about the size of Indiana (and of a considerably smaller size than Dakota North or South), the show has found hundreds upon hundreds of episodes’ worth of places to go, paying special attention to the inhabitants of remote islands, small farms, fishing villages, and rural hamlets.

But then, as I wrote about in Gangneung — a veritable megalopolis compared to the average Travelogue Korea destination — South Korea feels much bigger than it is when you’re traveling through it. Some of this has to do with the sheer concentration of the country’s population, half of which lives in the Seoul metropolitan area alone. When you pass out of it, two changes become apparent: not just a dramatic drop in the density of inhabitants, but a rise in their average age. Hence the venerability of so many of the episodes’ stars, and some of the themes on which it focuses: long lives, almost-as-long marriages, the continuation of long traditions, the flavors of local food, the variety of local dialects.

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

Times Literary Supplement: Suzy Hansen’s “Notes on a Foreign Country”

Not long ago, a curious artefact of American culture suddenly went viral: a short promotional video for a casual dining chain called Sizzler, once one of the most popular in the country. “All across America, a song of freedom rings, a song that’s growin’ stronger every day”, declares its soaring ballad. “That’s the Sizzler way: get a little freedom in your life.” This startlingly unironic song plays over similarly earnest footage of dogs chasing frisbees, hard-hatted construction workers frowning at blueprints, and sailors smooching their girls at sunset, all intended as a promotion of the restaurant’s then new buffet feature.

Though the video’s sensibility feels closer to the 1950s than the twenty-first century, it dates from 1991, the year of the first Gulf War. “Mostly what I remember of this war in Iraq was singing on the school bus”, writes Suzy Hansen in Notes on a Foreign Country. She sang “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood, at whose MTV clip – an even more crudely sentimental piece of red-white-and-blue mythology than Sizzler’s – she recalls tearing up. Like me, she grew up in the suburban America of the 1980s and 90s, and there received the standard-issue education of our generation, its lessons haphazard and strangely contextless. “History, America’s history, the world’s history, would slip in and out of my consciousness with no resonance whatsoever”, she writes of herself on the cusp of adulthood.

Her outlook began to sharpen when she left her blank hometown of Wall, New Jersey, for the University of Pennsylvania. She later found a job at the New York Observer and worked there until the age of twenty-nine, when she won a two-year writing fellowship from the Institute of Cultural World Affairs. Created by the globally minded son of an American plumbing parts magnate, the ICWA fellowship, in the words of a prospectus from the programme’s foundation in the mid-1920s, sends holders abroad to attempt the task of “interpreting a people, or a group, to itself and to others”. Or, as Hansen more bluntly puts it, “the committee wanted to see what would happen if they dropped an ignorant person into a foreign place”.

Read the whole thing at the Times Literary Supplement (free registration required).