Tuesday, August 30, 2011

From the Mouths of Babes

One of my lower-level classes read an article about Ban Ki-moon being reelected as Secretary General of the UN. This was the worksheet they did after the reading.

south korea english teacher ESL


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Obligatory Korean Tourist Spot #3: Bongeunsa

On Saturday, my friend Breda and I, and her friend Bo Seul, went to Bongeunsa temple. It's kind of deep in the heart of Seoul, right across the street from COEX (of the aquarium fame). Despite being in the middle of one the loudest, busiest, most crowded cities in the world, Bongeunsa still retains a very quiet and isolated atmosphere. I'm pretty sure there's some kind of force field (powered by super secret Buddhist voodoo?) keeping out all of the sound and chaos of the city around it.

This is part of a display in the main courtyard of the temple. The white flowers are left in memory of people who have died. The other plants are left with wishes. On the other side, you can light an incense stick and leave it burning there as a wish. I guess the idea is that the smoke or the scent carries your wish up to heaven?

Pretty sure this is related to some expression about enlightenment and the tail of a tiger or some such. Too lazy to look it up.

While we were there, they started the call to evening prayers.

After a couple hours of traipsing about the temple grounds, we sat here for a rest and a bit of zen.

And we ended the visit with spring water from a fountain.

We wandered around the long way to find it. Even though all the signs at Samsung Station point you towards exit 6 for Bongeunsa, it's probably easier just to walk all the way through COEX. Bongeunsa is right across the street. And best of all, it's free to visit. All in all, a great way to spend a free afternoon!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Korea, China, and Arirang

Recently, China decided to put the Korean folk song Arirang on their Heritage List. Specifically, they put a particular version sung by ethnic Koreans in Yanbian Prefecture, Jilin Province.

Now, for some background: China has a population of about 1.4 billion. Two million of that number are the ethnic Koreans living in China. About half of them live in Yanbian Prefecture in Jilin province in northeastern China. A visual reference:

It's an autonomous prefecture specifically because of the high number of "joseonjok" (Chinese people of Korean descent), as with other parts of the country where any of China's 56 recognized minority groups live in dense populations. I don't have sources on this, but I assume many of them are North Koreans who fled when they had the chance. A significant portion of China's landmass is actually taken up by these autonomous prefectures/regions/etc:

All that green out in the northwest is Chinese Muslim territory.

The problem with these "autonomous prefectures" is that despite the name, they enjoy something of a second-class status in terms of legislature and so forth; they are actually more restricted than non-autonomous prefectures. You'll notice that Tibet is one of those autonomous regions. So autonomous is actually not-really autonomous. Apparently every day is opposite day in the PRC.

In case you didn't know which one was Tibet, I'm saving you the embarrassment of having to look it up. You're welcome.

This is all to say: China may or may not respect the rights, desires, and wishes of the joseonjok living within its borders. It's safe to say joseonjok probably get the short end of the stick. And they don't even get the fringe benefit of American celebrities ignorantly trying to champion their cause using the situation to make themselves out to be better than everyone else maybe knowing where they are on a map knowing that they exist!

Free Tibet, free Mandela, free Mumia. Whatever.

China has listed other distinctly Korean things on their "Intangible Cultural Assets" list. Quoting from the English version of the Chosun Ilbo:

Earlier, China had designated as its own cultural heritage the traditional Korean feast celebrating one's 60th birthday, traditional Korean wedding ceremony, the traditional Korean dress hanbok and a farmer's dance, saying they are practiced by ethnic Korean in northeastern China.

Not Chinese.

Unfortunately, the news trail is difficult to follow beyond the superficial responses of REACTIONARY KOREAN RAGE, so I don't trust that everything coming to the top is unbiased. Unsubstantiated rumors are that China wants to make a push to put (this version of) Arirang on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List as well—for China. There's shadowy Internet talk about how this is related to China's Northeast Project and possible plans to absorb North Korea.* I can't find anything to back this up, so at the moment I'll give China the benefit of the doubt. All I know for certain is that China has included a bunch of Korean stuff on its list of intangible cultural assets already (presumably in a totally domestic, "for-our-use-only" way), and has now gone and added a version of Arirang to the list.

Roboseyo (a blog worth reading whether or not there's controversy) asserts: "Nobody owns Arirang."

The Korean begs to differ.

Nonetheless, Roboseyo stands by his point. In a four-part series, no less.

So. Does China have any claim to ownership of Arirang? In any capacity? What about hanboks or farmer dances or 60th birthdays? Who wins, Roboseyo or The Korean?

Well, first of all, what the heck is Arirang?

Here is the hotly-contested Arirang. Or well, not necessarily the specific version currently under contention. I don't think this is the version China intends to lay claim to, but I'm also not sure if this is "the" version of Arirang (that is, the Seoul version; the most popular one).

You can look on YouTube and find hundreds more.

It is old. The all-knowing Wiki says the "standard" version of Arirang is about 600 years old, though it also says there are other folk versions that are even older. Importantly: it is old. It is old and it is a song every Korean knows and probably loves—or at least associates with being Korean, with their country, with their family, with the assorted accomplishments and achievements of their people, with their history that stretches back for thousands of years.

I think North Americans have a tough time understanding things that are just so old. We absolutely have culture, and we have songs and traditions and celebrations that are American (or Canadian) as much as there are are songs and traditions and celebrations that are Korean.

But at the same time, they are young practices. And because of their youth they are inherently plastic, flexible, transnational. I heard a performance of Handel's Messiah and Irving Berlin's White Christmas by a Tico choir while I lived in Costa Rica. I wasn't outraged at the theft of my American/anglophone culture; just mildly amused at a bunch of Ticos singing about their desire for a white Christmas in a tropical climate. The closest thing I ever came to cultural theft outrage was the recent cellphone commercial that used images of Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, and the fucking Greensboro riots to sell their product—but that was race rage, not cultural theft rage. I don't think there's a single American cultural item at whose cultural appropriation I would be utterly and grossly offended. America's culture has all come from somewhere else to begin with, after all.

Part of the reason for this is that those cultural items are practices that have come into fruition in a relatively globalized age and place: the great composers of Europe all had news of what the others doing and developing, even if not instantaneously; Shakespeare set many of his plays in locales very far from England. There was no radio, no TV, and little contact with the outside international world in Korea when Arirang was establishing its hold over the Korean mindshare. It developed in an extremely Korean setting and has continued to be associated with "being Korean."

So basically wait 600 years and Americans of the future will be listing this among their "Intangible Cultural Assets".

I think we also have a tough time understanding what it's like to be a minority culture. (Minorities within the US or Canada probably get it, at least a little bit better.) It's kind of easy to roll your eyes and scoff about China's claim on Arirang, or even to respectfully and intelligently argue for it, when you've never experienced your identity being the non-normative one; when you've never been a colonized people, or a citizen of a country forcibly divided in half exclusively for the benefit of other outside powers. I'm not trying to play the race card here, but my point is that if a significant number of Koreans are pissed off about this, there might actually be a good reason to be pissed off. And as a white guy from a relatively privileged nation, telling them they shouldn't be comes off as a wee bit patronizing.

(If you couldn't tell, I tend to fall more in line with The Korean's argument than Roboseyo's.)

There are a few factors, however, that mitigate things, some of which Roboseyo already outlined so I'll try not to repeat them:

  1. Is China listing Arirang as a whole, or only the Janbian variant thereof?
  2. Are they listing it domestically, or pushing for an international recognition of (one particular version of) Arirang as Chinese?
  3. Are they doing this to make amends with the joseonjok in China, or for less altruistic reasons?
  4. Are they doing anything else to foster better relationships with the joseonjok?

I think those go a long way towards deciding if China's actions are laudable, neutral, or reprehensible. My own take on it:

On the face of it, China's attempt to list anything as distinctly Korean as Arirang** in their own list of Intangible Cultural Assets smacks of hubris. Especially when you consider the attitude China has towards contemporary international IP laws (to which I think this is an analogous situation), this can only make China look bad.

That said, I do think China has a claim on any traditions that have arisen among joseonjok people since their move from the Korean peninsula. Culture doesn't appear in a vacuum, nor does it change or adapt in one. No doubt there are plenty of "Intangible Cultural Assets" that belong distinctly and uniquely to Chinese people of Korean descent, and the credit for those assets goes just as much to their Chinese environment as it does to their Korean heritage.

Plus, if China is doing this as a step to recognize the value of their Korean citizens, and to assign a value of worth and respect to the native culture of their immigrant/minority groups, then this should be encouraged. Presumably it could open up the door to Yanbian and the other autonomous prefectures actually becoming autonomous. Not opposite day, PRC-style "autonomous." This is good, and this is a case where I think it would be worth Koreans to bite their lip and deal with it.

It's my own estimation that this take is a bit too Pollyanna, however. I admit I may be buying into the modern-day "Yellow Peril" hype that gets propagated around the US ("The Chinese own us! Evil Commies!") but the current Chinese government doesn't really do a whole lot of things that are in any way commendable. Why they would suddenly reverse SOP on this particular topic?

But where does Arirang specifically fit in with all of this? If it is significantly different than the versions of Arirang that are well-known on the peninsula (above and below the 38th, by the way), then can China still lay claim to it? Or is it simply just too Korean?

I think there's a simple litmus test you can apply in this situation. When Korean people in China sing Arirang, do they think, "Wow, I feel so Chinese right now!"? When Irish immigrants, and second- and third-generation Irish in the US sang Black is the Color of my True Love's Hair, did they think, "Wow, I feel so American right now!"? Like Roboseyo asserts, the people who practice the culture should be in charge of labeling and preserving it, not governments.

(Of course all this discussion of "Who owns Arirang?" is so much less important than doing what we can to help the DPRK normalize, excise the corrupt regime, and save its people. That goes without saying. But culture is still important!)

*Why would one want to absorb one of the most backwards, bankrupt, chaotic countries in the world? Two reasons. One, upon total regime failure and national collapse, the flood of DPRK refugees into China would be extremely disruptive, and quietly absorbing the country minimizes that damage (or even turns it into an advantage: lots of cheap, educated labor!). Two, North Korea has vast mineral resources. Vast as in, valued in the trillions of US dollars (give or take, obviously it's hard to get solid data). They just lack the means and manpower to extract it due to, you know, starving to death.

**I know that the burden of proof is on me to demonstrate how Arirang is "distinctly Korean" but I don't feel like going into that right now. My proof is this: most Koreans feel that it is part of their culture as Koreans (as opposed to part of their culture as Asians), therefore it's something uniquely Korean.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Chuseok Plans

Originally I was going to do some international traveling in Southeast Asia, but surprise! Those things cost money! More money than I can responsibly spend with just one paycheck in the bank! So finally, tonight, I came to grips with the sad realization that I will be spending my second long-haul vacation in Korea. At first I was groused at having to keep my Chuseok domestic—not because of Korea, but because it's Chuseok and therefore domestic travel will be packed and things to do will be closed.

Then I remembered: I hadn't done a temple stay the first time around. What better time than Chuseok? I nosed around a few places which all seemed okay except I wanted more than a two-day stay (since I have four days off). Then, I found a winner: a special "just-for-Chuseok" retreat at Golgulsa Temple that starts Saturday evening and finishes around lunchtime on Tuesday. Check out this schedule:

Sunmudo? Archery? Tea ceremonies? This the closest thing I'll ever get to training at a shao-lin temple!

The only downside is that Golgulsa is in Gyeongju. Remember that time I went to Gyeongju? Part of me feels that going to a place I've already been to is a waste of a vacation, but I'm convinced that the experience will be worth it, since I will be doing something entirely different. Plus, my trip was in January before; it'll be nice to see the landscape in the late summer/early fall greenness. The tricky part will be making sure I can get to Gyeongju.

I've also heard people grouse about the temple stays: "Why pay money to wake up early and do work?" Granted, certainly not everyone's cup of tea. Fortunately, I've been to equivalent retreats in the US and so I know exactly what it entails. Plus something about it speaks to the part of me that still wishes she could be an old-school monk. (Though, I guess technically I would be a nun.)

If you're interested in doing this with me, send a message on Facebook or leave a comment.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

History: A 7-Year-Old's Perspective

While I'm sure this student had help from his parents, I'm also sure he understands exactly what he wrote. My favorite line is: "It was [a] dark age for Korean[s]." Quite the poetic turn of phrase!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Movie Review: May 18th

A Korean friend of mine mentioned this movie to me when I asked him about the Gwangju Democratization Movement. I've been meaning to go to Gwangju (and probably will at some point), mostly because it's an important piece of history I know almost nothing about. Also, Gwangju seems to be a hip and happening art city that would be worth a visit on its own without the history.

May 18th movie

The story centers around a few fictional characters placed in the midst of the turbulent events leading up to the violent clash between the civilian militia and the ROK military under the command of Chun Doo-hwan. Kang Min-woo is an easygoing taxi driver, supporting his studious younger brother, Kang Jin-woo. There's the requisite fragile love interest in Park Shin-ae, a nurse at the local hospital.

The movie clocks in at just under two hours, and while it doesn't drag per se, you do see a lot of slow-motion death scenes and shots of overwrought mourners that might have been trimmed by a few minutes here and there. (I'd like to take this moment to say: can moviemakers agree to stop with the overdone "slow-motion, cut the sound" editing style whenever someone mourns the loss of a beloved character killed in action? It's overdone to the point of being cliché.) It doesn't quite cross the line into ham-handed (for me, anyway) but it gets kind of close. Melodramatic theatrics are more of a staple in Korean pop culture than in American, so I assume this was well within the Korean standards of "acceptable drama."

It's also easily excused because the rest of the film is pretty damn good. I admit to not being a good judge of acting (except in picking out the absolutely terrible), so when I say I thought it was extremely well-acted, take it with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, Kim Sang-kyung's performance as Min-woo definitely gave me the sniffles. It's a shame he hasn't been in more movies; IMDB lists a little under one a year since his first movie released in 1998. Hopefully this is because he has discriminating taste: one of his roles is the detective Seo Tae-yoon in Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder (another movie I've been meaning to watch because Bong Joon-ho makes some good stuff).

The only problem with the movie is the lack of moral ambiguity. When you take a story about military action that left hundreds of civilians dead, you're going to have to tread a fine line when it comes to representing the soldiers. I don't doubt for a second that at least some of the paratroopers were as bloodthirsty as portrayed in the movie, but I'm sure there were ones who were just plain horrified. Instead you get a black-and-white, "the militia is good and the paratroopers are sadistic bastards" treatment.

Unfortunate since it started out with potential to be fairly balanced: the movie opens with an idyllic (if a bit overdone) shot of Min-woo driving around the countryside in his taxi. The title flashes, and then immediately cuts to paratroopers getting ready to be deployed. As the plane takes off, the commander gives them your generic military pep talk: go get those commie rebels and give 'em hell, etc. One of the troopers asks his commander if that means they're going north. The commander replies that their destination is top secret and that they'll know when they get there. Everyone takes this to mean that yes, they are going north. Only when dawn breaks does another private realize they're flying south:

"We're going south."
"The sun's rising on the left. We're going south."

Upon upon realizing this, the expression of smug satisfaction on their faces (at fighting the DPRK) changes to a mix of confusion and horror. An expression that you don't see on another paratrooper's face for the rest of the movie; they all seem to take pretty readily to massacring unarmed civilians.

The only exception to this portrayal is the token "good guy" paratrooper. Shin-rae's stoic and respectable father had served in the military and left or been discharged for reasons never made clear. One of the mid-ranking paratroopers assigned to Gwangju served under him during this stint in the military and holds him in great esteem. He pays a visit to Shin-rae and her father to warn them of the troops being stationed at the university in Gwangju, lamenting the corruption of the generals and other higher-ups. In the final confrontation at Provincial Office, he lets the father go, unwilling to kill him in cold blood.

The rest of the movie, though, the paratroopers are all sadistic and violent, with nary a shred of humanity in them. And on a visceral, am-I-enjoying-the-movie level, I'm okay with this. People want clearly-defined bad guys and clearly-defined good guys; it makes for easier story-telling. The too-easy moral schematic only really bothers me if I stop and think about it too much.

The movie follows most of the major events that happened over the course of the nine days, ending with the doomed confrontation at the Provincial Office. The violence is also handled tactfully, in that it's far more understated than the events in question were. For example, eyewitness reports confirm the indiscriminate use of bayonets on unarmed civilians, even a pregnant woman. Needless to say this doesn't show up in the movie. No headshots, no extreme gore or mutilation, just your standard-fare bullets and corn syrup splatters.

Did I learn anything about the Gwangju Uprising from watching this movie? No, nothing I didn't already learn from Wikipedia and reading around on the Internet. But does it help bring to life the some of the absolute horror of the incidents? Sure thing. Worth watching? I'd say so, though this is hardly the first SK movie about Gwangju. 1996 saw the release of A Petal, which won a bunch of awards at assorted film festivals; Peppermint Candy is not exclusively about Gwangju but touches on it; and the TV drama Sandglass. Sandglass is sometimes credited with touching off a sort of "Gwangju revival" in the Korean public consciousness, resulting in movies like A Petal and Chun Doo-hwan's conviction of assorted war crimes (though his life sentence was later commuted on the advice of Kim Dae-jung, Chun still paid something like 53 billion won in reparations).

Overall, I liked it, but I seem to be in a minority, as reviews online are mixed. It's managed to escape the view of all the major critics in the US: it has only one audience review on Rotten Tomatoes, and nothing from the so-called "Top Critics." Not sure why this is, when the deplorable and mediocre 2009: Lost Memories has five proper reviews, including three Top Critics. The difference in the audience rating between the two is only a mere .2, but oh well. I stand by my assertion that May 18th is a good movie and worth watching, nonetheless.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Great Pierogi Reckoning

One of my kindergarten students went to a farm over their three-day hagwon vacation and picked some potatoes. ("On my vacation, I found out what it was like to be a day laborer!") Her mother, in a gesture you see far more often in Korea than in the US, gave both me and their "homeroom" teacher a giant shopping bag full of potatoes from the trip.


And as far as I'm concerned, there's only one thing you do with potatoes: starchy Eastern European goodness!

So that's what I did with my weekend: schlep back and forth to HomePlus for supplies and ingredients and make what promise to be delicious little packages of joy that I can fry up for dinner whenever I come home from a terrible, rotten, no-good, very bad day.

Round One: Finished

I have so much filling, though, that this will probably be a project for a few days.

(Korea has its own dumplings too, of course; but nothing that comes close to approximating the starch-in-a-starch of a good old-fashioned potato pierogi.)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Visit Seoul With Yorae

I managed to stumble upon promotional material from the Seoul Metropolitan Government, presumably to entice foreigners to come to Korea (for vacation?) or to try to educate the foreigners that already live here. It's...interesting. Yorae learns about makgeolli, for example, which she says is the liquor most representative of Korea.

Really? Makgeolli, and not the little green bottle?

That aside, take a look at how the Seoul Metro Government goes about trying to sell makgeolli:

The healthy, traditional Korean alcohol, makgeolli! A variety of factors make makgeolli popular, but its nutritional value is one of the main factors. The health benefits of this drink give it an advantage over many other alcoholic beverages.

1. Nutrient-rich ingredients
You’ll find at least 10 amino acids and an abundance of proteins in makgeolli. It also contains 1.9% protein content, compared to 3% in milk, as well as vitamin B.

2. Helps in cancer prevention and menopause
Makgeolli has been found to be effective in preventing liver damage, cancer and helps with menopausal disorders. It’s recommended that you shake well before you drink so that you get the nutrients found in the chunks that settle to the bottom of the makgeolli.

3. Excellent skin care
Makgeolli promotes healthy blood circulation. Also, organic acids found in the drink, such as lactic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, and others, help revitalize your metabolism and clean out wastes that accumulate in your body. In addition, the yeast found in makgeolli helps relieve constipation.

Health benefits? Really now? That's why people drink? Imagine if Sam Adams tried to bill itself on relieving constipation and "promoting healthy blood circulation."

The Korean currency one is kind of cute and interesting, but some of the others are a bit more surreal and scattershot. You can find them all here. They're way too long (and big) for me to post even a selection here (each entire "episode" is one giant image instead of a few smaller ones), but here's a sample of the art style:

If nothing else, it's reading material for down time.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Piggy Dolls "Piggy" No More

Piggy Dolls now looks like a generic K-Pop trio. I am so disappointed by this, but I can't say I'm all that surprised. Being fat (or "fat") was a gimmick; the gimmick didn't work; now on to the tried and true formula.

piggy dolls

piggy dolls