Leaving home to find it

I flew home last week, or what I thought was home. As soon as I stepped out of the airport everything appeared as if through a fog, vaguely familiar but somehow different, even foreign. After having spent the past couple of years complaining about, lashing out against and ultimately adjusting to life here in Korea, I found that I no longer felt at home in the city I was born and raised in.

For one thing, drivers in San Francisco have this strange tendency to stop for pedestrians. My first day back, brain addled by sleep deprivation and hours of continuous on-flight movies, I stood frozen when cars stopped at the crosswalk to let me pass. In Seoul there’s no question but that you get the hell out of the way when vehicles approach. I didn’t know what to do, unsure of whether the drivers would gun it as soon as I stepped off the curb.

I think I read somewhere once that San Franciscans were ranked some of the sloppiest dressers among residents of major urban areas. Once upon a time it never would have occurred to me to pay attention to how folks were dressed, but coming from uber-trendy Seoul it’s one of the first things I noticed. People in SF looked like there were walking around in their pajamas.

And the faces. All kinds, all ethnicities. So unlike the never-ending sameness of Korea, that maddening, comforting sense of living in a village/nation where everyone is a variation of the same theme. SF felt fragmented, everyone a stranger who neither shared the same tongue, ate the same food… only occupying the same space. In Korea I am a minority; in SF, everyone is.

That sense of fragmentation seemed to permeate the very air passing through the city, an air straight off the Pacific so clear and crisp like brittle glass that would shatter at the slightest touch. My neighbors of 30 plus years, Korean immigrants who worked their way from the bottom up to secure their piece of the American pie, lost everything in the recent finanical debacle. The father, who barely speaks English, just shook his head in disgust when he told me. “30 years, stupid stupid….” My wife urged them to return to Korea.

When I landed at Incheon International I breathed a sigh of relief at the familiarity around me. I left a place that I’ve always thought of as home, a place where traditions crumble and reform in a continual act of self-creation. I’m not sure now whether it’s home or not, but I wonder whether in the end that’s what it means to be a San Franciscan. Allowing the walls of certainty to come crashing down so that you can then rebuild them, piece by piece.

South Korean rice farmers look North

According to the Hankyoreh Seoul’s policy of witholding rice aid to North Korea is driving down the price of of the grain, prompting thousands of farmers to take to the streets in protest.

Approximately 30 thousand South Korean farmers convened together for a National Farmers’ Convention to ask the government to address plummeting rice prices on Tuesday.

The main cause of plummeting rice prices is the government’s decision not to send rice aid to North Korea, (they said)… During the previous administration, 400 thousand tons of rice were sent to North Korea annually, whereas the current administration has stocked up over 800 thousand tons of rice. (Protesters) say the excess reserves of rice are one of the main causes of the steep decline in the price of rice.

As if to add insult to injury, Seoul recently offered 10,000 tons of imported corn aid to Pyongyang, which further riled local rice growers and was, being far less than what  was  expected, rebuffed by the North as “narrow minded.”

With this year being a bumper crop year, a bag of 80 kilograms of rice is now traded at around 130,000 won, about 15 percent lower than last year.

Farmers are razing rice paddies out of anger, stacking bags of rice outside as they run out of storage space and dumping the surplus rice in the South while millions of people are starving in the North as they are short of some 800,000 tons of rice…

According to the local human rights group Good Friends, parts of North Korea are suffering from one of the worst food shortages in over eight decades. “People live on acorns and herbs they collect in mountains while the better-off eat mostly porridge to save rice, not just in Hamgyeong but also in South Pyongan Province,” it said.

so many mouths

A more salient factor behind the drop in prices could be the fact that Koreans are simply eating less of the one-time staple, and much of what they are eating is increasingly coming from overseas. As globalization continues to take hold, the local diet has become far more international.

Rice, which once determined a person’s financial status and served as the beloved staple of Korean food, is becoming less symbolic and losing its appeal here as the country increasingly opens its palate to the world and moves toward globalization.

During the 1980s, the average Korean consumed 130 kilograms of rice annually. As of last year, it stood at 76 kilograms, which is roughly equivalent to two servings a day versus four several decades ago.

One of the approaches to resolving the dilemma facing farmers is promoting consumption of rice-based products like makkeolli, the fermented rice wine that goes oh so well with a meal of barbecued bacon.

Exports of traditional Korean rice wine surged by more than 20 percent in the first nine months of this year mainly due to strong demand from Japan, a government report said yesterday.

Exports of makgeolli, or rice wine, reached $3.56 million totaling 4,380 tons up until September, the Korea Customs Service said.

I’ve recently spotted canned versions of the drink, which usually come in plastic green bottles. I even saw a packet of garlic flavored makkeolli. But again, the problem is that most of the rice used to produce makkeolli and similar rice based products comes from abroad, meaning local farmers are not likely to benefit from the stronger sales.

Obowma-san

Last week I headed up to the 9th floor of my office building to take care of some routine duties. The floor is filled with young interns, dressed in the tattered jeans and flannel shirts that are the trend during Korea’s wintry weather. Turning a corner I bumped into one of them, a young man who looked to be barely in his twenties. He bowed to me, and it was so abrupt and unexpected that I didn’t return it.

I worried at first, after my mind had a chance to register what had just transpired, that perhaps I had come across as rude. As a foreigner it’s something I’ve become at times acutely conscious of here, not wanting to unknowingly give offense. Then – and this surprised me – I experienced a sense of pride. My chest puffed out a bit and my head became inflated by the thought that this person had acknowledged me as a superior. As superior.

That felt good. But frankly I doubt its how Japan’s Emperor Akihito took Obama’s bow.

Obowma-san

Conservatives across the US are deriding the president for sending the message that America now “willingly prostrates itself before the rest of the world.” They say Obama seeks to “transform the United States,” to “teach Americans to bow before monarchs and tyrants.”

My sense is that the bow was in fact not intended for Akihito himself but rather to win over the Japanese public, which has grown increasingly anti-American in recent years. And while the outcome of Obama’s visit to Tokyo may not have been as frutiful as he would have liked, that simple gesture likely went some way in assuaging local sentiment. It was an aggressive, not a passive, move.

I studied judo for about five years when I was in my teens. The first thing you do before beginning a match is bow to your opponent. It doesn’t mean you’re going to roll over and let him throw you around like a rag doll. You bow and then go at him, with of course the utmost of respect as an opponent, an enemy and even perhaps a teacher. It’s an attitude America would do well to embrace.

Which brings me to China. Some two centuries ago a British admiral traveled to the court of the Qianlong Emperor, the Son of Heaven, in order to convince him to loosen trade restrictions that were then bleeding England dry. There were some issues of protocol to be worked out before the meeting, however, including making sure that Adm. Macartney banged his head on the floor before the emperor as a sign of England’s submission to the greatness of the Middle Kingdom. The proud Englishman of course refused.

I remember the event because of something I heard during a college lecture. According to an employee of the East India Company and member of the mission who recorded the journey, Macartney despite his obstinance apparently tripped and banged his head while approaching the emperor, who then graciously accepted the Englishman’s submission, though he refused his demands.

The failure of the mission has been described by scholars as a missed opportunity for China to accomodate the West, a political stumble by Beijing – not Macartney – that would lead to nearly two centuries of chaos and instability that China is now looking to put behind istelf. Now it’s America that is indebted to Beijing.

Obama has called hismelf America’s first “Pacific President,” and if his recent trip through Asia demonstrates anything, it’s that he’s learned to speak Asia’s language. Besides the bow, he’s drawn fire for backing off on pressing China over its human rights situation, something his critics have described in words akin to the president knocking his head on the floor before Beijing. Or bowing low.

In truth, as this piece in the Asia Times points out, Obama’s outward show of “deference” is no mere sign of weakness, it is not fueled by an apoligist approach to foreign relations. It is a genuine display of respect that allows the wheels of diplomacy to turn all the more smoothly and reflects a measure of confidence that America does not diminish itself simply by acknowledging its opponents.

In David Halberstam’s last book on the Korean War, he quotes a converstaion that Mao Zedong is said to have had with Zhou Enlai regarding the commander of U.S. forces, Gen. MAcArthur.

“What kind of man is he,” Mao asks. “Arrogant,” comes the reply, at which point Mao smiles and says, “Good, an arrogant man is easy to defeat.” That war still hasn’t ended.

Playing to ‘lose’ with NK

Andrei Lankov has an op-ed in the IHT offering his take on what American negotiators can accomplish as they prepare to engage with Pyongyang fully aware that its leaders have no intention of abandoning their nuclear arsenal.

1) it is possible to agree on dismantling the North Korean nuclear research and production facilities.

2) North Koreans will probably agree to some nonproliferation measures.

3) the negotiations will allow a channel of communication with Pyongyang to be kept open at a time when Kim Jong-il’s health is ailing and changes (not necessarily for the better) might happen at any time.

4) the negotiations will create an environment in which North Korea’s exchanges with the outside world will become possible.

In conclusion, Lankov writes, the “pace of negotiations should be slow, bargaining should be hard, and no magical breakthrough should be expected.”

He does not mention here how Beijing factors into Washington’s game plan, though he does say that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s much trumpeted “Grand Bargain” would be a grand waste. “Alas, a cash-for-nukes solution will not be acceptable to Pyongyang: The lump sum payment would be spent quickly, and without nuclear weapons, additional aid would be very moderate…

Jeju love affair

An article on the life and work of photographer Kim Young-gap, who spent the last ten years of his life submerging himself into the hidden beauty of Korea’s southern island. Kim died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2005.

I visited a gallery set up in his name on the island in 2006. His love of the island and his devotion to his craft shined through in every single image.

He would spend days searching for the perfect shot and once he saw the image he was looking for he would set up his camera and wait, returning to the same exact place day after day waiting for the wind to push the clouds into frame, the sun to give the perfect light, for the colors to be palpable and full.

He spent the last ten years of his life walking through the mid-mountain ranges waiting to find the sublime. The tangerine famers that lived in the rural areas of his search did not know what to think of him. So alien he seemed with his long hair, his camera, sitting in fields for days on end that they mistook him for being mentally ill or at the very least a beggar…

Made in China

Went to the local E-mart a few nights ago. Standing around with my son while my wife finished the shopping we both got sucked into staring at a nearby flat-panel TV screen showing Madagascar 2. “Wow, look at that quality, and the price… but what the hell is a Haier?” The sales woman told us it was the latest model out of China, a big hit in Europe. Always wary of sales pitches I chose not to believe her spiel, assuming it was likely some no-name knock off.

This from Reuters:

Korea also faces stiff competition to hang onto its edge in sophisticated manufacturing from China itself. In electronics, Haier and Hisense have developed wide product lines while automakers from BYD to Geely have started to attract attention overseas.

I guess she was telling the truth afterall. In fact South Korea is facing increased challenges from its rising neighbor on all fronts, including the local mainstay. According to a London-based researcher, Chinese shipbuilders outstripped their South Korean rivals in orders this year. British author Simon Winchester begins his book on walking across Korea with a look at the country’s shipyards nearly twenty years ago, predicting that the sight before his eyes spells a death knell for England’s own shipping industry. I wonder if local manufacturers are now thinking the same thing when they look west.

Trade wars

It’s not all doom and gloom though. China may (or may not) move to allow its currency to appreciate against the dollar, which would be welcome news to the U.S. and columnists over at the IHT. For South Korea, analysts say a stronger yuan would mean “more demand for Korean goods on Chinese markets.” China is South Korea’s largest trading partner by the way and has been since 2003.

The bulk of that trade, however, isn’t in consumer goods but rather in materials used to produce finished exports. Per the Reuters article cited above:

Geographic proximity, cultural affinity and its own recent experience of economic development provided South Korea with a platform to reach out to China. Its companies — notably, electronics makers such as LG Electronics and Samsung — adapted their business models to send intermediate goods to China for assembly before selling the finished products abroad.

Such manufacturing inputs account for roughly half of all of Chinese imports. So as China’s export factories revved up production, South Korea and Taiwan, the two countries most integrated in their supply chain, reaped huge dividends.

China rising

Playing with fire

An editorial in the Korea Times bemoans the country’s lack of fire prevention and overall safety standards, echoing President Lee Myung-bak’s statements that the fire that claimed 10 lives, including seven Japanese tourists, at a Busan shooting range diminished South Korea’s reputation.  A breakdown of tragic fires in South Korea over the past decade:

Eight people died in a fire at a state-run psychiatric hospital in northern Seoul in 2000 and another eight were killed in a blaze at a cram school in Gwangju City in 2001. A fire in a red-light district in Gunsan City claimed 12 lives in 2002. No one can forget the arson attack on the Daegu City subway train in 2003 which killed 192 passengers. Nine foreigners were killed in a fire engulfing the immigration service’s detention center for undocumented visitors in Yeosu, South Jeolla Province, in 2007.

Last year, 47 people died in separate fires at two refrigerated warehouses in Icheon, 80 kilometers south of Seoul. The country also lost Namdaemun gate, a 610-year-old landmark at the heart of the capital city, in February 2009, due to another arson attack. All those incidents were blamed on the nation’s widespread violations of safety and fire prevention steps.

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