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Four Summer Reads About Seoul, in English and Korean: 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, as summer begins, we discuss four recommended books about Seoul, three in English and one in Korean: Janghee Lee’s Seoul’s Historic Walks in Sketches, Jieheerah Yun’s Globalizing Seoul: The City’s Cultural and Urban Change, SPACE Books’ Beyond Seun-sangga: 16 Ideas to Go Beyond Big Plans, and 오영욱’s 그래도 나는 서울이 좋다 (I Like Seoul Anyway). Each of them offers new ways to perceive and consider the city — political, economic, architectural, artistic — and paves the way for other writers to approach Seoul from their own points of view in the future.

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: 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.

Korea Blog: “Burning”, an Acclaimed Korean Auteur’s Explosive, Haruki Murakami-Adapting Indictment of Inequality

South Korean audiences have turned out in force for Burning (버닝), the latest feature from Lee Chang-dong, which opened here the day after it played at Cannes. Its success so far doesn’t come as a surprise, due not just to the strong buzz generated (albeit not from a Palme d’Or win) at the festival, but the combined enthusiasm of two separate but dedicated fan bases as well. Lee, one of the most respected Korean filmmakers alive, hasn’t made a film since 2010’s Poetry (시). His latest comes based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, a Japanese writer quite popular worldwide but especially so here. This cinematic adaptation — and considerable expansion — not only conjures up a suitably uncanny Murakamian mood, but also makes use of a few of his signature tropes: a vanishing cat, a dried-up well.

Murakami’s casual readers will already be chuckling in recognition, but his hardcore fans, who know that Burning takes as its basis the story “Barn Burning” (originally published in 1992, as translated by Philip Gabriel, in the New Yorker), may feel confused: that work counts among his few that involve neither a cat nor a well. Lee and his collaborators have thus, on one level, taken a Murakami story and, in expanding its scant 10 pages into nearly two and a half hours, made it more Murakamiesque. But they’ve also Koreanized it, using Korean settings, Korean characters, and intensely Korean themes. Lee, who in his 60s remains enough of an angry young man to repeatedly title his works-in-progress “Project Rage,” has imbued Murakami’s observant disaffection with simmering, ultimately explosive anger.

“I met her at the wedding party of an acquaintance and we got friendly,” begins Murakami’s story as translated by Alfred Birnbaum in the collection The Elephant Vanishes. The narrator is a married 31-year-old writer; the girl, a 23-year-old pantomime student and part-time ad model. Her “guileless simplicity” attracts “the kind of men who had only to set eyes on this simplicity of hers before they’d be dressing it up with whatever feelings they held inside.” But not so much the narrator, who simply invites her out to eat or drink with her once or twice a month, picking up the bill every time. Only in her presence, he realized, can he truly relax: “I’d forget all about work I didn’t want to do and trivial things that’d never be settled anyway and the crazy mixed-up ideas that crazy mixed-up people had taken into their heads. It was some kind of power she had.”

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

Korea Blog: On Not Being Interested in North Korea

I once asked a former foreign correspondent in South Korea what he wrote about. “North Korea, North Korea, North Korea, and North Korea,” he said. “Oh, and some North Korea as well.” But he’d done that work, for the Economist, something like a decade ago, when the Korea he actually lived in commanded much less international attention than it does today. I naturally assumed, when moving to Seoul a bit over two years ago, that some semblance of a balance had since been struck between media focus on the North and media focus on the South. Events of recent years, including but not limited to the ejection of a president, have indeed put this country in the international headlines, but more of them have stoked the world’s persistently greater fascination with the other one.

That kind of attention has, at least, added to the list of subjects, most of them already threadbare, that reliably generate stories in South Korea: pop music, academic competitiveness, suicide, Samsung. Now we have the “Why aren’t South Koreans obsessed with North Korea?” piece, which usually reflects little more than Westerners’ own obsession with North Korea. I once asked a longtime American resident of South Korea for his thoughts on why so many expatriates here develop such bad attitudes, and he chalked it up to the universal tendency of expatriates everywhere to take on certain characteristics of their host population, in this case habitual complaining. Something similar seems to have happened to me, not in terms of an acquisition of the grumbling instinct but the loss of interest in — bordering on the loss of awareness of — North Korea.

It wasn’t always this way. I remember indulging a mild North Korea obsession of my own in college, scouring the internet for then-scarce photos of the streets of Pyongyang, with its nearly carless streets, blank-faced citizens, and stern traffic ladies, when I’d meant to study for finals. (Some of those procrastinated-on exams were for political science classes, I reminded myself by way of justification, though the professors didn’t then consider the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea anything more than a curiosity.) Something about the combination of orderly poverty, exotically bland aesthetics, ever-present ideological charge, and hilariously obsolete technology took me back to the Cold War. Or rather, since the Cold War ended quite early in my academic career (though world maps with the USSR hung in the classrooms I sat in for years thereafter), it took be back to a certain idea of the Cold War.

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

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.