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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).

Korea Blog: The #MeToo-ing of Ko Un, Korea’s Best Hope for a Nobel Prize

It pleased me to watch Wonder Wheel, Woody Allen’s most recent film, at one of my favorite art houses in Seoul. Though hardly an Allen devotee — I’ll probably never get around to a good third of his filmography — I wouldn’t have enjoyed quite the same freedom, back in America, from the expectation to interrogate the morality of my viewership. “It would make life easier if Woody Allen’s movies were as easy and as right to condemn as his behavior,” declares the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody in his own piece on the picture. “But that’s not my experience of his movies, and this makes it difficult both to watch and to write about them,” as he has done, unfailingly, with “considered queasiness.”

Those two words also describe the feeling with which, from the other side of the Pacific, I’ve watched the movement that has made, or attempted to make, Allen into a pariah, including but hardly limited to the sordid combing-through of his work (and even his archives) for evidence of deviant desires. It brings to mind my reaction to another American movie I watched in Korea, the still-untainted (but also less artistically respected) Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire, which I happened to catch on television not long before the floodgates of sexual-misconduct accusation opened onto Hollywood. Despite its place in the zeitgeist, I’d never actually seen it before, and I found myself astonished by the distance between its depiction of American life and the reality of American life today: the 1990s it portrays looks much closer to the 1950s than the 2010s.

When I brought this up to a friend who also grew up in America in that era, he pointed out the seemingly total disappearance of moral panics. Back then they’d been so common, and sparked by what now look like the most trivial phenomena: violent video games, “explicit lyrics,” a too-irreverent quip on the part of Bart Simpson. “A moral panic is always a reaction to something that has been there all along but has evaded attention — until a particular crime captures the public imagination,” wrote Masha Gessen, also in the New Yorker, late last year. “Sex panics in the past have begun with actual crimes but led to outsize penalties and, more importantly, to a generalized sense of danger. The object of fear in America’s recent sex panics is the sexual predator, a concept that took hold in the nineteen-nineties.”

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

Architectural Review: Amorepacific headquarters, Seoul, by David Chipperfield Architects

The world has come to know South Korea, one of the most rapidly developed countries in human history, through its exporting industries, but none of the Korean-made products that first won wide international use — ships, automobiles, electronics — presented the world with much of an image of Korea itself. In fact, Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and the other conglomerates responsible for such a large chunk of the country’s impressive economy once took pains not to present themselves explicitly as Korean at all. Not quite so, however, with the Korean cosmetics industry, which has risen to global dominance, in part, on the back of the story of Korea’s distinctive beauty culture and set of natural resources.

No company has told that story as convincingly as Amorepacific, and its considerable success has afforded it the opportunity to hire David Chipperfield Architects to design a new headquarters in Seoul, not just a building but the realization of a vision. That vision comes nearly as much from the mind of Suh Kyung-bae, Amorepacific’s CEO and South Korea’s second-richest man, as it does from the minds of the architects. Having made the official decision to construct a new building in 2009, Suh reached out to more than 50 world-renowned architectural firms, and after many a meeting determined that DCA’s design, which started as three high-rises but evolved into a single cube with holes cut into its sides, best incorporated his preference for open, permeable space and addressed his many concerns about environmental sustainability.

Making a statement against the closed-off corporate high-rises inhabited by the aforementioned conglomerates, Suh insisted on a building open to the public on its bottom floors. There under its atrium, when the installations finish, they’ll find not just places to buy Amorepacific’s cosmetics, but shops full of flowers and tea (from Osulloc, the Amorepacific-owned prestige tea brand) and even, in the basement, the Amorepacific Museum of Art. Suh inherited not just the leadership of Amorepacific but an apparently true belief in the power of beauty — as manifest in natural landscapes and manmade works of art as well as on the faces of his countrywomen — from his father Suh Sung-whan, who had begun growing the company from a small hair-oil business run by his mother in 1945.

Read the whole thing at the Architectural Review (free registration required).

Korea Blog: Is Simon Winchester’s “Korea” a Classic Travelogue or Cultural Offense?

“This book has a precious little to recommend for itself. It reads more like a white man’s fantasy.” “The vaguely creepy paternalistic narration was extremely off-putting.” “I found his voice to be a little bit too ‘male.’” “It would have been a good book if he had left his commentary out of it.” “I have to say I was pretty offended at times.” All these judgments come from the Goodreads user reviews of Simon Winchester’s Korea: a Walk Through the Land of Miracles, a book published well before the era of free-for-all internet commentary. It didn’t, however, come out as long ago as the complaints quoted here might make you imagine: 30 years have passed, and in that time has Winchester’s view of Korea, as well as the Korea he viewed, grown hopelessly outdated?

Whatever the answer to that question, the book has held its place on the very short list of essential long-form travelogues of modern Korea. In fact, it nearly constitutes that list by itself, the other possible candidates having fallen quickly out of print and into obscurity after the small burst of interest in the run-up to the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Winchester, too, wrote his book with the Games in mind, wanting to see as much as possible of the country that had charmed him as a Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent before it opened itself more fully to the wider world. As much as Korea has changed since then — not least due to its late-1980s conversion to “near-beer democracy,” as he calls it, so painstakingly scrutinized by many of those other forgotten volumes — something about Winchester’s take on it has endured.

“With all the enthusiasm of a naif,” Winchester remembers in the introduction, “I planned a book that would present a series of ruminations about the Korean people, who are quite unsullied by the evils of money making, are uninterested in the mechanics of power seeking, and had long forgotten the miseries of battle. I would, I vowed, go straight for the kokoro, the often-ignored, rarely understood heart of modern Korea.” Two things stand out here: first, that few would now (or even them) call the Korean people “unsullied by the evils of money making,” and second, that kokoro is the Japanese word for heart, not the Korean one. He does explain his use of the term toward the end of the book, but too late to steady the shaken confidence of a reader familiar with east Asian languages.

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

Guardian Cities: Gangneung in the Spotlight

The 2018 Winter Olympics will soon open in Pyeongchang, South Korea – which has taken pains, of varying effectiveness, to prevent the world from confusing it with Pyongyang, North Korea. But the games won’t be limited to the tiny mountain town of Pyeongchang itself; with a comparatively enormous population of 213,658, the nearby coastal city of Gangneung can lay claim to being the true Olympic capital.

Located on the other side of the country from the megacity of Seoul, Gangneung’s relatively remote seaside location has long made it an attractive destination for Koreans looking to get away from it all. Now, with the opening ceremonies approaching, it is scrambling to make itself a destination for the entire world. The mood has something in common with the capital’s Olympic Games 30 years ago, but can they introduce Gangneung to the world the same way they did Seoul?

Gangneung today exudes a mixture of readiness and unreadiness. A newly built line of the KTX, Korea’s high-speed train network, began service last December, originating in Seoul and terminating at Gangneung’s gleaming new station. Outside the station wait dozens of equally shiny taxis, each equipped with “empty” signs in both Korean and English (an accommodation not even seen in the capital), and two large-scale figures of the official 2018 Olympic mascots, Soohorang the tiger and Bandabi the bear – smaller versions of whom peer out from shop windows throughout town.

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.

Korea Blog: Letter from Gangneung, the Real Capital of the 2018 Winter Olympics

A whole new line on the KTX, South Korea’s high-speed train system, opened just last December. It connects Seoul to Gangneung, a modest coastal city on the opposite side of the county, reducing a trip that formerly took more than six hours to what now takes less than two — an hour and 55 or so minutes, to be more precise, and one can only imagine the pressure on the engineering team to get the trip time down to the more marketable side of two hours. Still, it couldn’t have been as intense as the pressure to get the line up and running before the Winter Olympics, many of whose events take place in the place where it terminates, and without the presence of which it probably wouldn’t have been built at all.

The name Gangneung might sound unfamiliar even to Olympics fans. Didn’t the games go to a city called Pyeongchang? Many know that name, or some variation of it, because of the official pains taken to differentiate it from Pyeongyang, the capital of North Korea. (Hence some branding that renders it PyeongChang or Pyeong Chang.) And indeed, Pyeongchang does have a stop on the new KTX line, but that tiny mountain town makes Gangneung, which itself has fewer than 215,000 people, look like an urban colossus. Though competition venues have gone up all over Pyeongchang County, it’s Gangneung, the biggest city in the area, that can in some sense lay a more convincing claim to Olympic-capital status.

Always game to ride a fast train, new or old — their existence, after all, being one of the most compelling reasons to leave America — I recently caught a KTX out of Seoul and rode it all the way to Gangneung. Getting to Seoul Station that day involved making my way past hundreds of oldsters, almost all of them waving the flag of the Republic of Korea. The ones that weren’t held the Stars and Stripes instead, seemingly an even more meaningful symbol to Koreans of a certain age. Either way, they’d all come to demand the same thing: a boycott of the Olympics due to what they consider the illegitimate impeachment and replacement of Park Geun-hye, daughter of Park Chung-hee, the strongman under whose 18-year rule they’d seen the country grow prosperous enough to first host the Olympics under his successor in 1988.

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