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Korea Blog: The Colors of Pyongyang, Seoul’s Shadow Self

Much of South Korea had some or all of last week off work, owing to the chuseokfall harvest festival. Westerners in Seoul take the opportunity to enjoy a quieter version of the city while Koreans take the opportunity (or if you prefer, adhere to the obligation) to spend the holiday in their family’s provincial hometown. Westerners married to or otherwise involved with such Koreans discover with a start that, contrary to expectations they may have had of a cultural experience rich with tradition, families here increasingly tend to spend chuseok on their sectional sofas, having an experience rich with television. The networks, for their part, always make sure to keep the week’s programming interesting, and this year they found themselves blessed with additional abundance in the form of a political event to analyze, re-analyze, and then analyze the analyses of: the third inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, capital of North Korea.

Not so long ago, relatively few knew what Pyongyang really looked like. At the peak of my own onetime fascination with North Korea, I had a hard time finding pictures of anything more interesting than looming concrete symbols like Monument to Party Founding and Juche Tower, the menacingly incomplete Ryugyong Hotel, and blue-uniformed traffic ladies standing sternly in the middle of otherwise deserted intersections. Now a single Google search turns up copious amounts of Pyongyang media, up to and including thorough visual documentation of its subway system, which those of us fascinated by North Korea used to half-suspect of being nothing more than a set piece orchestrated to impress visiting foreigners. Now even GQposts galleries of streets shots taken in Pyongyang — and, since everyone knows that the government deliberately uses the capital as a prosperous showpiece, other parts of the country as well.

With no desire to see the officially approved sights — standard guided tours, as I understand, schedule a great deal of time at the feet of those Pyongyang monuments — I’ve never looked into traveling up north myself. The geopolitical situation has made it nearly impossible for Americans such as myself to do it now anyway, but in longtime Seoul expatriate circles you’ll find plenty of Westerners, of various nationalities, who’ve been not just once but many times. The attractions of Pyongyang fare poorly in comparison to those of Seoul, of course, even with all the Chinese money poured into the former of late, but those who have spent time in both cities often make a point of how much more colorful the poorer, emptier, more repressive one looks by contrast. Why, they wonder, does the capital of South Korea — the better Korea, as we Westerners know it, indeed the good Korea, the one to which all those starving Northerners must dream of escaping in between brainwashing sessions — look so gray?

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

Quillette: #MeToo Casualty Ian Buruma Was the Editor We Needed

In September 2014, I flew to Toronto to record a series of podcast interviews with a few of the city’s cultural figures, mostly writers, all of whom I’d reached out to either because I already admired their work or because they came to my attention through trusted recommendations. The sole exception was also the one interview that fell through: with Jian Ghomeshi, host of Q, the CBC’s most popular radio show. Although I’d only heard a few of his broadcasts, Ghomeshi seemed too famous, and too closely identified with the city that would give these conversations their unifying theme, to ignore. But the arrangements proved unusually complicated, and a week before my flight one of Ghomeshi’s enthusiastic-sounding team—I remember e-mailing with an Ashley, a Debra, and a Cait—informed me that, “Unfortunately, we aren’t able to fit this in his schedule this trip, but please don’t hesitate to let us know if another opportunity presents itself in the future.”

No opportunity to interview Ghomeshi, at least the Ghomeshi listeners knew, would ever present itself again. While in Toronto, I mentioned my attempt to a friend who has spent much of his life in close proximity to the Canadian entertainment industry. “Oh, Jian,” he said, shaking his head, his tone a mixture of disappointment and resignation. From his subsequent elaboration I gathered that Ghomeshi was well known for his boorish behavior, especially toward women, during both his career as a broadcaster and his time as a musician before that. Though I’d never heard any rumors to that effect before, it didn’t exactly surprise me: something about the apparent pains he took to be seen publicly projecting just the right sensitive, tolerant attitudes—his ‘virtue signaling,’ as such behavior was not yet widely labeled—struck me as unseemly, in the same way that the loudest and longest moralizing on the part of a certain kind of American politician always seems to precede the revelation of his utter depravity.

The CBC suddenly fired Ghomeshi just a few weeks later, and the following month he turned himself in to the Toronto police, facing four counts of sexual assault and one of the even nastier-sounding “overcoming resistance by choking.” In Canada, this all became Trial of the Century material. But in the rest of the world, where most people first learned of Ghomeshi when he fell from grace, only spared its attention for the charges (three more of which, related to three more women, came in January 2015) and the verdict. Along with his decision to acquit Ghomeshi completely, Justice William Horkins also delivered a damning assessment of the credibility of the women who took the stand against him. “The evidence of each complainant suffered not just from inconsistencies and questionable behavior, but was tainted by outright deception,” said Horkins. “The harsh reality is that once a witness has been shown to be deceptive and manipulative in giving their evidence, that witness can no longer expect the court to consider them to be a trusted source of the truth.”

Read the whole thing at Quillette.

Korea Blog: Talk Like a Busanian

Foreigners living in Seoul seldom travel around the rest of the country as much as they’d like to, and Koreans living in Seoul seem to do it even less. Hence the popularity of a television program like Travelogue Korea (한국기행), which brings the remote island and mountain villages to Seoulites rather than the other way around. Part of the problem has to do with the sheer capital-centricity, unrivaled in Japan or even England and France, that makes Seoul the city where nearly everybody wants to live and almost nobody needs to leave. (I used to make fun of that, before I realized that I describe everyone in America as living in either Los Angeles, New York, or “someplace weird.”) But though Korea may not have any other cities in Seoul’s league, it does have other big cities, all conveniently connected by the high-speed KTX train, each possessed of its own distinct history and culture.

None has a culture more distinct than that of Busan, Korea’s second-largest metropolis. Located on the southeast coast, almost as far as a South Korean city can get from from Seoul and still be on the peninsula, Busan long served as the country’s main entrepôt, giving it a reputation as an international sort of place even in the centuries pre-modern Korea spent as a “hermit kingdom.” Historically, many of the arrivals into Busan came from nearby Japan (a distance one can now ferry across in three hours), and that cultural influence still manifests still manifests in the accents of the locals. I can attest to the conspicuousness of the effect Japanese sounds have on Korean speech; I happen to study Japanese as well as Korean, and speaking the former has had enough influence on the way I speak the latter that a Korean tells me I “talk like a Japanese person” at least once every few weeks.

Not that my Japanese skills, such as they are, have helped me get much of a handle on Busan-style Korean. Busanians speak with not just their own accent but in their own dialect, or saturi (사투리), which at its richest can leave Korean-speakers — even native Korean-speakers — accustomed to the relatively clear version of the language spoken in Seoul in a state of incomprehension. To put this in geographical perspective, Seoul and Busan lie about as far apart from each other as do Los Angeles and San Francisco; Angelenos and San Franciscans may not see eye-to-eye on everything, but it’s impossible to imagine ascribing their communication breakdowns to differences in regional speech alone. But then, California hasn’t had the oft-referenced “5,000 years of unbroken history” in which the various cultures within Korea have developed and differentiated.

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

Sewoon Sangga, the 1960s Megastructure Reborn: 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 explore Sewoon Sangga, the concrete megastructure that has survived half a century of change in Seoul and is now the subject of a revitalization effort like no other. Originally commissioned by Seoul mayor Kim Hyon-ok (nicknamed “The Bulldozer”) and designed by famed architect Kim Swoo-Geun (known for works like the Olympic Stadium, the SPACE Building, and the Freedom Hall), Sewoon Sangga opened in 1968 as Korea’s first large development mixing both commercial and residential space. Now, with the eight original buildings reduced to seven and much of the business for its electronics shops lost to other parts of the city — but plenty of activity still going on in its labyrinthine interior and on it wraparound public decks — the Dashi Seun (or “built again”) project is rethinking, remodeling, and augmenting Sewoon Sangga for the 21st century in an effort to bring together the expertise of the older generation already there with the enthusiasm of the younger generation of “makers” only just discovering the place.

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.

Korea Blog: Short Skirts, Flying Chopsticks, and the “Worst” Korea Essay, Ten Years Later

In the summer of 2008, the New York Times ran “Urban Seoul,” a piece of about 800 words on life as an American expatriate in Korea. Its author, a writer in his mid-30s named Gabe Hudson, had arrived here the previous year to take professorship at at Yonsei University, becoming the founding chair of the creative writing program at its Underwood International College. This reflection on “the ups and downs of newbie life in Seoul,” as the Korea Joongang Daily‘s Richard Scott-Ashe writes, “sparked some lively debate on local blogs, foreign and Korean alike.” That’s one way of putting it. A decade after its publication, the collective Seoul expat memory still regards Hudson’s short essay as the standard-bearer for bad Western writing on Korea, the worst first-person sketch of the country to appear in a major publication this century.

One can criticize Hudson for writing about a foreign country from a place of ignorance, but he says as much himself up front. “I don’t speak Korean and most Koreans don’t really speak English,” he admits in the first sentence, “except my students, who speak as many as four languages and who bow to me when they walk by on campus.” A Korea-resident Westerner not speaking Korean is, as every new expat here discovers — some with a shock, some with relief — more or less par for the course. So is the expectation of English proficiency for students in Korea’s most prestigious universities, the top three of which, Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University, constitute the striven-for holy trinity of “SKY” schools.

That linguistic contrast alone could provide the basis for an entire book on Korean society, but Hudson confines himself to his own experience of awe and bewilderment. “When Ja-Won buzzes the front door to my apartment, an image of her face instantly appears on the silver Samsung video screen on my living-room wall,” he writes of the beginning of a night out with his Korean girlfriend. “When I step into the hall to greet her, the door behind me suctions itself closed, locks itself with a motor and speaks to me in Korean.” His description of Korea in the 2000s begins to sound uncannily like many a Western writer’s description of Japan in the 1980s: “In the elevator, all sharp angles and shiny silver, a computer monitor plays Korean commercials continuously.”

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

Korea Blog: A Traveler’s Video of Seoul Astonishes, while Official Promotion of Korea Embarrasses

A video that recently hit the internet may well turn out to be the year’s most effective piece of Korea-promotion — if not the decade’s most effective — and Korea’s official promoters had nothing at all to do with it. Titled “seoul_wave,” the seven-minute production presents a day in the life of Korea’s capital as hyperkinetically shot and painstakingly edited by an American “nomadic filmmaker on an endless world tour” named Brandon Li. This might not sound like high-priority viewing for those who actually live in Seoul, and I might never have watched it myself had not seen it praised by other expatriates here. Not the easiest group to please, they keep their knives perpetually out for cynical or ignorant Korea-boosting — in other words, for much of the Korea-boosting done to date.

Take, for instance, the Korea Tourism Organization’s “Have You Ever… ?” campaign. In its teaser video, published the very same day as “seoul_wave,” members of the boy band EXO ask questions like “Have you ever slept?” and “Have you ever been to a restaurant?” To which a variety of non-Koreans, mostly Westerners, provide responses, to the best of their ability, like “I’ve never slept like that” and “Never been to a restaurant like that.” Presumably they mean they’ve never slept like they could in Korea and never been to a restaurant like the ones they could go to in Korea, but the generic, not especially Korean-looking backgrounds against which the speak only muddy the meaning further. But the awkwardness goes deeper stil: the EXO boys’ words have clearly been dubbed over, a risky choice given the obsessiveness and hypersensitivity of K-pop fan bases.

“The ad resurrected memories of other embarrassing promotional campaigns,” writes the Korea Times’ Jon Dunbar, “most notably the city’s three-year-old slogan ‘I.Seoul.U’ and 2008’s cringe-worthy national tourist slogan ‘Korea Sparkling.’ And I almost forgot about the doomed slogan ‘Creative Korea.’” One might well wonder why official Korea, in the development of ostensibly Westerner-targeted ad campaigns, apparently consults no Westerners. “Actually, they do,” writes Dunbar, who for a couple of years worked for the culture ministry’s Korean Culture and Information Service (KOCIS), a body originally formed in 1971 as a propaganda apparatus under strongman Park Chung-hee. “The problem is, they don’t listen. They come looking for a rubber stamp, often late in the planning stage when it’s too late to change anything.”

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

일기: 건축탐구생활

외국에 살든 아니든 간에 외국어를 공부하는 사람들은 똑같은 도전에 직면하게 된다. 그 도전은 외국어를 구사하고 싶으면 무엇보다도 방대한 양의 그 언어에 노출되고 또한 소화해야 한다. 옛날에는 언어 습득을 위해 충분한 양의 언어를 듣는 것은 힘들 수 있었지만 소위 뉴미디어가 풍부한 오늘날에는 많이 쉬운 일이 되었다. 한국어를 배우는 나만의 독특한 방식은 매일 한국어로 된 뉴미디어의 일종인 팟캐스트를 듣는 것이다. 여기서 말하는 팟캐스트란 한국어를 가르치는 팟캐스트를 뜻하는 것이 아니라 한국인 청취자를 위해 만든 것을 말한다.

팟캐스트로 다운받을 수 있는 내용은 많을 뿐만 아나라 놀라울 정도로 다양하다. 어떠한 관심이 있어도 그 관심과 맞는 팟캐스트가 존재할 가능성이 굉장히 높다. 나는 도시와 건축에 지대한 관심이 있어서 어딘가에 갈 때마다 적극적으로 그 곳의 건축전반에 관한 정보를 찾는다. 나는 외국어를 공부할 때 관심이 이미 있는 주제로 그 언어를 공부하라고 하는 흔히 들을 수 있는 충고에 따라서 건축과 관련된 한국 팟캐스트를 때때로 검색한다. 몇 달 전에 그러한 충고를 따라 검색해서 <건축탐구생활>이라는 유망해 보인 팟캐스트를 접하게 되었다.

팟캐스트는 언어를 배우는 방법의 한 가지로서 라디오보다 큰 장점이 있다. 그 장점은 팟캐스트를 진행하는 사람들이 전문적인 진행자가 아니라서 딱딱하지 않게 보통 사람처럼 말하기 때문이다. 그것 뿐만 아니라 전문가와는 달리 팟캐스트 진행자들은 생활에서 쓰는 필요한 속어를 잘 쓰기 때문이다. <건축탐구생활>의 진행자들은 다 한국 건축계에서 일을 하고 모든 에피소드에서 다른 주제를 가지고 건축에 대하여 토론한다. 첫 시즌의 에피소드들의 주제 중에는 술과 목욕탕과 크리스마스와 올림픽과 영화와 같은 다양한 테마가 있다. 어떤 에피소드들은 건축을 제주도나 일본이나 북한으로까지 펼쳐지기도 한다.

내가 팟캐스트를 라디오보다 좋아하는 또 다른 이유는 팟캐스트 방송이 라디오 방송보다 시간의 제약 없이 훨씬 더 길기 때문이다. <건축탐구생활>의 에피소드들은 보통 두 부분으로 나눠져 있고 한 부분이 거의 한 시간 반까지 지속될 수도 있다. 아이튠즈 후기들 중에 진행자의 대화가 산으로 가는 경향이 있다고 불평하는 것이 있기도 하지만 나는 바로 그 산만함을 즐긴다. 내 생각에 흥미로운 주제란 한 주제 뿐만 아니라 여러 다른 주제와 쉽게 연결될 수 있는 주제이여야만 한다. 이 팟캐스트가 보여주듯이 건축은 건축 뿐만 아니라 가구나 패션이나 음식이나 어린이 등 다양한 다른 것에 대하여 토론할 방식이기도 한다.

<건축탐구생활>은 작년 10월에 시작되었고 첫 시즌이 지난 6월에 끝났다. 이 팟캐스트와 관심이 맞는 나는 두 번째 시즌을 간절히 기다리고 있지만 진행자들이 청취자가 많이 없는 것에 대한 농담을 자주 해서 두 번째 시즌을 만들지 않을까 걱정된다. 그러나 최근에 한국에서 건축에 대한 풍부한 책과 잡지와 행사는 이러한 팟캐스트를 듣고 싶어 하는 사람들이 꽤 많다는 것을 시사한다. 나는 건축 팬으로서 뿐만 아니라 한국어를 배우는 사람으로서 쇼가 계속 되길 바란다.

Seeing Seoul’s Subway as It Really Is: 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 talk to Nikola Medimorec, co creator-with Andy Tebay of Kojects, an English-language site covering all manner of urban developments in Korea, with a focus on transport and public infrastructure. Nikola has recently got a lot of attention with the aerial photos of Seoul, Busan, and Daegu he has enhanced with the lines of those cities’ subway systems. They show all these rail lines not in the abstracted form we’ve grown used to on standard subway maps, but as they really are, the way they pass through their real geographical environments. Executing the project in Seoul revealed to Nikola a few interesting qualities of the city’s urban rail and its prospects for further development. (You can also listen to my Notebook on Cities and Culture conversation with Nikola here.)

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.

Times Literary Supplement: Ian Buruma’s “A Tokyo Romance”

Last year, Ian Buruma succeeded Robert Silvers as Editor of the New York Review of Books. The long journey that brought him to that position began in his native Netherlands and passed, for six years from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, through Japan. Though he went there in his early twenties, the period constituted something more than a youthful detour: “Japan was the making of me”, he declares towards the end of his new memoir A Tokyo Romance. He launched his writing career – which has widened in geographical and historical purview over the decades – by interpreting Japanese culture for a Western readership.

Buruma’s contribution to the tradition of the Westerner-in-Japan memoir marks the first essential addition since John Nathan’s Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere a decade ago. “Nathan lived in Tokyo in the glorious 1960s, where he had distinguished himself far more than I ever had”, writes Buruma. But despite considerable accomplishments – becoming Tokyo University’s first American student of Japanese literature, translating Yukio Mishima and Kenzaburò Òe – Nathan was always haunted by “the possibility that I possessed the wherewithal to distinguish myself only as an exotic foreigner in an insular island country”.

The even-tempered Buruma has fewer bouts of self-doubt and despair to relate, but his experience in Japan has much in common with Nathan’s, including directing a trilogy of television documentaries about Japan for broadcast in his homeland. Nathan took as his subjects an urban family, a rural family, and the samurai film star Shintaro Katsu; Buruma chose the Japanese army, a Yamaha motorcycle factory worker, and a young woman’s intensive training to become a department-store “elevator girl”. At first, Buruma confesses, “I watched this spectacle with the sniggering attitude of a typical Westerner, reaching for the clichéd image of Japanese as human robots. But Hiroko was very far from being a robot. Hers was a performance, and she took pride in it”.

Read the whole thing at the Times Literary Supplement.

Korea Blog: What Jonathan Gold Understood About Korea

Even after I left Los Angeles for Seoul, I kept reading Jonathan Gold. Few who appreciate Los Angeles, no matter where in the world they live, could ignore what his restaurant reviews said about the city as a whole. On my last visit there earlier this year, I got into a conversation with a couple of friends about whether his writing was still relevant. One argued that, like the professional generalists of so many cultural realms, Gold had been superseded by thousands of amateur or quasi-professional specialists: where once we needed one man to tell us where to find the best Japanese ramen, Mexican chapulínes, or Ethiopian kifo, we now consult a numberless force of ramen bloggers, chapulín bloggers, kitfo bloggers. But Gold’s unexpected death three weeks ago and the flood of tributes since since issued forth have shown how essential a role he played in the life of the city — and the unlikelihood of anyone else completely filling it.

I became a Gold fan as soon as I arrived in Los Angeles, and specifically in Koreatown. Though many new Angelenos use it as a cheap point of entry (or at least they did when it was cheap), I actively chose Koreatown, refusing to live in any other part of the city. Already possessed of a taste for Korean food and several years’ self-study of the Korean language, I felt ready for a neighborhood that was, in Gold’s words, “functionally a distant district of Seoul — in capital as well as in culture, in both commerce and cuisine.” As his reviews of its restaurants suggest (“When I first started going to Kobawoo House back in the first Bush administration,” one begins), Gold’s history with Koreatown went uncommonly deep. When he lived there in the early 1990s, his neighbors “were mostly elderly white people who had lived in the neighborhood since the ’30s, when the old ballroom around the corner hosted big bands, when a romantic night out in the neighborhood might have involved a show at the Cocoanut Grove, big steaks at the Brown Derby, maybe cocktails afterward at the Town House or the Cove.”

Not long after, “the Koreans started moving in: a few families at a time at first, then into most of the block.” He soon found that “the fire escapes now were blanketed with cabbage leaves in the fall, clotheslines (like mine) bristled with drying fish, the silence of dawn punctuated with the steady, rhythmic pounding of garlic in wooden mortars.” But he was ready: “I had eaten Korean food, of course. My father, a great fan of buffets, particularly admired the spread at VIP, the first grand restaurant in Koreatown, and I had been taken to the Pear Garden, up on La Cienega’s restaurant row, for bulgogi since I was a child.” Not that those experiences quite prepared him to expect the “nightlife zone almost as dense as Tokyo’s Roppongi District, a 24-hour neighborhood of neon and giant video screens, alive with the squeals of tweaked-out Honda tuners and bone-stock AMG sedans, the smell of grilling meat, and the bleary eyes of party people who have stayed up till dawn” that Koreatown had become by the mid-2000s.

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