Skip to content

Korea Blog: Looking for Mexican Food in Korea

I, like anyone else who has lived in Los Angeles, hesitated to leave the city for one reason above all others: where would I get decent Mexican food? This might sound like a trivial concern, and one already addressed by Our Globalized Century, but an Angeleno needs not go far out of town any direction but south to realize just how good he has it. Seeing the world teaches us lessons we couldn’t learn any other way, and each new country I experience teaches me one in particular, more powerfully every time: Mexican food doesn’t travel.

The fact that while living in Los Angeles I forgot about the very existence of hard-shell tacos (a southern Californian invention, ironically) says all you need to know about the glories of eating Mexican there. Or rather, I’d forgotten until I went to Copenhagen and ordered, at typically great expense, one of their interpretations of that signature south-of-the-border street food. Out came a hard shell, of course — for what other kind of taco shell could there be? — made to shatter into a dozen pieces at the first bite, filled with watery ground beef smothered in mounds of sour cream topped with stiff orange shredded cheese: a culinary vision straight out of my elementary school days, but reincarnated in such comically huge proportions that it actually required the use of the knife and fork provided.

And so I made my peace with a lack of proper Mexican food in Korea even before I first came to visit. Still, that didn’t stop me from joining in on a trip to a local place called Dos Tacos right away, where, having learned my lesson back in Denmark, I ordered not dos tacos (or even un taco), but opted instead for — and I still don’t know if I made the selection in the spirit of curiosity, self-flagellation, or both — something called a 나초피에스타, or “nacho fiesta,” about which the less said the better, suffice it to say that its warmed Cheez Whiz sent me right back down the terrible Proustian path to the fourth grade.

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

Korea Blog: An English Ceramicist in Korea

When I think of my favorite travelers to read, I think mostly of Brits: Jan Morris, from Wales; Colin Thubron, from London; Pico Iyer, born in Oxford to an Indian family and raised part-time in California. But none of them, however much I wish they would, have written at length on South Korea.  In the peripatetic late chapters of her life after more or less quitting England, Isabella Bird Bishop alighted in Korea and produced a book still read by Korea enthusiasts today, though she did it back in the 1890s. The very well-known Simon Winchester and the less well-known Clive Leatherdale did get out here more recently — but by “more recently,” I mean the 1980s.

So it made for a relatively important new chapter in the history of British visitors to Korea when Roger Law arrived this year to put together Art and Seoul, a five-part series for BBC Radio 4. Law, whose name may not ring a bell to non-British readers, began his career as a caricaturist in the 1960s, going on in the 1980s to co-create the popular satirical puppet show (yes, really) Splitting Image. The show’s end in 1996, and thus the end of the arduous work of public figure-lampooning puppetcraft it demanded, gave Law a chance to pursue a new artistic dream: studying ceramics in China.

At some point in this East-oriented period of his life, Law took a glance over at the work of his neighbors on the peninsula and found himself captivated by the moon jar, in his words “a misshapen round pot, and it looks so simple — but it’s not. To me, it’s the very essence of the Korean soul.” He sets what he sees as this “quintessentially Korean” object against the “pretty flashy” pottery of China where “everything has to be perfect — perfect” and the “artsy-fartsy” pottery of Japan. “Korean pottery has a simplicity, an earthiness about it,” he observes, “that seems to me to be very Korean.”

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

Korea Blog: Reach for the SKY

As I first got acquainted with Korean culture, I started to wonder why Koreans talk about Harvard so much. I couldn’t help but notice that, when the subject of college came up in any Korean context, it was only a matter of time before someone mentioned Harvard (or rather, as Korean pronunciation renders it, 하버드 — habeodeu).Browsing the tables in Korean bookstores, I noticed that authors with even the most tenuous connection to Harvard got it loudly emblazoned on their books’ covers. I knew, of course, that Harvard has a long history in America, respectable ivy-covered brick buildings, and a great deal of East Coast cachet, but I couldn’t come close to explaining the evident depth of this Korean Harvard obsession.

I learned the reason behind it from my Korean language-exchange partner back in Los Angeles, after I laughingly brought up the well-known television drama Love Story in Harvard (러브스토리 인 하버드) in order to explain its misuse of the preposition. “They think Harvard is the American Seoul National,” she explained, describing for me the way her countrymen conceive of their schools in a purely vertical hierarchy, with Seoul National University (her own alma mater, incidentally) sitting undisputedly at the top. These Harvard-obsessed Koreans, it seems, simply turned around and applied that same thinking to America (the “number one” country to many of them, going by a purely economic hierarchy), assuming that the first American university they’d heard of must occupy the top spot.

When I meet new Korean people, I rarely sense any unbridgeable cultural gaps — unless, that is, the topic of conversation turns to higher education, which among Koreans (even those long out of college without school-age children themselves) it often does. Sometimes they look surprised when they realize that I don’t give the proverbial two shits about where they went to school, or when I tell them that not every American student who could get into Harvard applies to it (or even considers it), or when I express admiration for those who didn’t go to college at all.

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

Korea Blog: Christmastime in Seoul

Korean winters start out pleasant enough, waiting until the new year to bite. This I’ve heard from longtime Korea residents who’ve experienced many more Christmases here than I have — which is to say, any Christmases here at all. So despite the growing cold and occasional snow flurries, I won’t expect a white Christmas in Seoul, but since Los Angeles long ago trained me not to even conceive of that as a possibility, I can’t count it as a disappointment. Even in non-weather respects, I’ve looked forward to experiencing just what form Christmas takes in Korea, and the run-up hasn’t disappointed.

Some Western visitors to Seoul come away thinking of Korean society as crassly commercial and consumeristic, a damningly alliterative impression that I can’t easily argue away. America, of course, gets similarly criticized, but there we try to deflect it by pretending to yearn for some sort of vaguely imagined, possibly even unwanted non-commercial holiday ideal. But Korea isn’t fronting; people here directly acknowledge the role of commerce in their lives all year round, and in so doing, I would submit, acknowledge how much potential it really has to add interest to their lives.

Take Christmas decorations, with which Seoul really does it up — or, rather, with which the businesses of Seoul, from humble Chinese-made merchandise stands to pubs with their liquor bottles repurposed into tree ornaments to grand department stores, really do it up. It might comes as a surprise to an American that Seoul still has grand department stores, with concierge desks and escalators taking you from high-end foods to cosmetics to apparel to housewares to restaurants and seasonal enthusiasm and everything, the likes of which we think of enclosed suburban malls and big-box stores as having long since crushed in the United States.

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

The Korea Blog: Watching Korean Lit Go International at the Seoul Book and Culture Club

I intend, in the fullness of time, to give Korean literature at least its fair share of coverage here on the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ Korea Blog. But where best to begin? Readerly types newly arrived in Seoul might well ask the same question about how to take a first step into the realm of letters here, and in response I would direct them to the Seoul Book and Culture Club, keep-uppable with online through either Facebook or Meetup.

Hosted by Scottish expatriate cultural impresario Barry Welsh (whom I interviewed last year on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture), the Book and Culture Club has put on live events with such literary luminaries as poet (and prime Korean Nobel Prize candidate) Ko Un, Please Look After Mom author Shin Kyung-sook, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself author Kim Young-ha (whom I profiled here in the LARB), The Vegetarian author Han Kang, Native Speaker author Lee Chang-rae, and Drifting House author (as well asanother interviewee of mine) Krys Lee, all of which they conduct bilingually, in both Korean and English.

Just last weekend I attended a Book and Culture Club event which gathered onstage four young Korean writers (“young” meaning, given the high barrier to entry of Korea’s literary scene, younger than fifty) for a discussion of the direction of Korean fiction today, all of whom now have a novella out in a dual-language edition fromASIA Publishers. Lee Jangwook, a poet, critic, and Russian literature specialist in addition to his work as a novelist, wrote Old Man River (올드 맨 리버); Lee Kiho, who specializes in telling stories of societally marginal characters in unusual forms, wrote Kwon Sun-chan and Nice People (권순찬과 착한 사람들); the Korean-Chinese Geum Hee, whose work focuses on the lives of North Korean refugees, wrote Ok-hwa (옥화); and Baik Sou-linne, who grew up in Paris from junior high on, wrote Time Difference (시차).

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

The Korea Blog: Korean Punk and Indie Rock in a K-Pop World

After years of solo study, I first started taking Korean language classes at Los Angeles’ Korean Cultural Center. While sampling the levels on offer to find one that matched my ability, I noticed a trend. The classes started out huge at the beginner level, thinned out at the intermediate level, and got quite small indeed at the advanced level. That, you’d expect, but the type of people enrolled also changed on the way up: the ranks of the beginner class heaved with students brought there by their love of Korean pop music, or “K-pop” (perhaps you’ve heard of it), while, by the advanced class, they’d almost all fallen away, leaving, for the most part, me and a bunch of Korean-Americans finally interested in communicating with their grandparents.

Global interest in K-pop rose alongside my own interest in Korea — a pure coincidence, I can assure you, unless you buy this business about the pan-pop-cultural “Korean wave” supposedly crashing against shore after shore over the past decade or two. But there’s no arguing with all those Big Bang, Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, and 2NE1 enthusiasts packing the Beginner A classrooms: more so than the movies or the television dramas, the country’s disproportionately huge number of subtly different idol singers, girl groups, and boy bands have, for better or for worse, defined for the world what the world has begun to call “Korean cool.”

“Japanese cool is quirky, the sum of the nation’s eccentricities,”writes Jeff Yang at CNN. “Hong Kong cool is frenetic, representative of the society’s freewheeling striving spirit. American cool is casual: It’s cool that’s anchored in doing without trying, it’s about being quintessentially effortless. By contrast, Korean cool could not be more effort-ful,” with its “candy-colored, otherworldly aesthetic,” its performers “invariably dancing in perfect sync,” having been “recruited as adolescents and trained for years in groups that are required to live, take classes, eat, sleep and rehearse together until they’ve achieved a transcendent level of harmony.”

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

The Korea Blog: The Poetry of, or Rather in, the Seoul Subway

When I want to learn about a city, whether researching it on the internet or stepping out into it in reality, I first look to its subway. It might surprise you how much you can infer about the overall personality of any given metropolis just from riding its trains, be that metropolis Los Angeles (incomplete and inconsistent, but still new and promising) or San Francisco (charming and infuriating in equal measure), New York (often old and dirty, but nevertheless an attraction for all walks of life) or London (highly serviceable, as long as you can enjoy grumbling about it), Mexico City (lively, brightly colored, enjoyably strange, and subject to sudden dysfunction) or Copenhagen (expensive).

I’ve ridden a good deal of urban transit in my time, none superior, thus far, to Seoul’s. Angelenos, who can count themselves as having a good day if their train shows up within fifteen minutes — assuming they need to go someplace a train actually goes, and assuming they know their city’s rail network exists in the first place — can only marvel at not just the system’s range, frequency, and cleanliness, but a host of features they’d never dared imagine: unbroken cell and wi-fi signals, displays that map the next few trains on the way in accurate real time, heated seats, and a variety of shops and cafés, or at least decently stocked stalls and vending machines (as well as non-horrifying bathrooms, the one true marker of civilization) in every station.

Once they adjust to all that, they might then notice, especially if they study the Korean language, how often they see poetry during their short waits for trains. And I don’t mean that metaphorically, as in the “poetry” of bustling, well-orchestrated urban life or what have you — I mean it literally, as in actual poems put up for everyone to read. The program that did it began in 2008, ostensibly to provide the harried citizens of Seoul with opportunities to pause and reflect amid all their underground to-ing and fro-ing. Today, theses poems have made their way up in nearly 5,000 locations in about 300 different stations.

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

The Korea Blog: Korea Through the Eyes of Hong Sangsoo

When we moved to Seoul, my girlfriend and I, not unstrategically, chose an apartment located near several major universities. This guaranteed a robust level of cultural amenity; imagine, if you will, the features of several American “college towns” all stacked up within a few square miles. One morning after getting settled in, we took a walk up toward the Film Forum, a kind of miniature art-house multiplex right across the street from Ewha Womans University. There we caught a screening of what, for me, made for the ideal first movie with which to begin my life in Korea: Hong Sangsoo’s Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은 맞고 그때는 틀리다).

Koreans often ask me what got me interested in their country, a question that inevitably leads to Hong Sangsoo. Nothing has motivated me to immerse myself in things Korean as much as the language itself (about which more another day), but my first exposure to the language came through the movies. I got that exposure when Korean cinema enjoyed its first international boom in the early 2000s, which flung out into the world such slick but thematically and tonally distinctive pictures as Park Chan-wook’sJoint Security Area (공동경비구역) and Oldboy (올드보이), Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (살인의 추억) and The Host (괴물), and Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (봄 여름 가을 겨울 그리고 봄) and 3-Iron (빈 집).

Having watched through the filmographies of those Korean auteurs, I found my way to Hong, perhaps the auteur-iest of all Korean auteurs. By that I don’t mean to call him the absolute best filmmaker of the bunch (though I do follow his work with by far the most enthusiasm), but the one who — having made a movie a year for almost the past two decades now, each on a shoestring budget and some with scripts written shooting day by shooting day — has arrived at the most developed style, one he uses to examine, with clear eyes from many different angles, the stories that unfold when a certain type of man (often an filmmaker or academic) and a certain type of woman (often an artist) collide in modern Korea.

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

The Korea Blog: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love I.Seoul.U

Just before I came to live in Korea, the capital introduced a brand new English-language slogan, the fruit of a much-publicized process wherein real, everyday citizens — alongside a panel of nine “experts” — got to vote on ideas submitted by other real, everyday citizens. The victorious entry, which originally came from a philosophy student, won over not just 682 of the 1,140 Seoulites who turned up to Seoul Plaza to cast their vote, but the entire expert panel as well. And so, beating out rival candidates “Seoulmate” and “SEOULing,” emerged the city’s next global banner: “I.Seoul.U.”

I watched all this happen from a distance, back in Los Angeles, and when I say “watched,” I mean I watched my Facebook news feed explode with ridicule. (One wag wasted no time Photoshopping a version of the slogan for the village of Fucking, Austria.) I.Seoul.U proved controversial from the get-go, but I daresay that the loudest of the controversy — and even my view from Facebook made this clear — erupted among Seoul-based expatriates, especially those from English-speaking countries, a group on whom you can always count to get powerlessly worked up over matters of Korean policy.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” goes the mildest of the objections. Indeed not, but that just puts I.Seoul.U on the long list of the English slogans adopted by Korean cities that hit the native English speaker’s ear somewhat askew. These range from the bland (“Amazing Iksan,” “Beautiful Gyeongju,” “Good Chungju,” “It’s Daejeon”) to the unpromising (“Fine City Hwaseong,” “Just Sangju,” “Namyangju: The Slow City”) to the ungrammatical (“Amenity Seocheon,” “Do Dream Dongducheon,” “Wonderfull [sic] Samcheok”) to the threatening (“Bucheon Hands Up!”).

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

The Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: Brad Listi

Colin Marshall talks with Brad Listi, founder of literary and culture site The Nervous Breakdown and author of the novel Attention. Deficit. Disorder. He also hosts the podcast Otherppl, on which, right here in Los Angeles, he has conducted “in-depth, inappropriate interviews” with over 400 writers about their lives, their working methods, their social media habits, and what they think happens when we die — among many, many other topics.

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