China’s image abroad: a preschooler’s perspective

Yesterday I went to pick up my son at his preschool, in a little nondescript building at the foot of a mountain on the outskirts of Seoul. My wife and I took our shoes off at the entrance and slipped into the sandals they provide, which always make my feet look bigger than they really are. We followed the laughter down the hall to his classroom, filled with five and six year old’s bumping into eachother as they ended the day’s Lego class.

All heads turned as I walked in, the most glaring evidence of my son’s distinctness from his fellow playmates. At three and half — or four in Korean age — he is of course too young to be embarrased by the questions my presence would raise among older, meaner kids. He ran up to me, and then past me and did a little dance as he went to get his shoes. We were headed to E-Mart to buy him a toy, a bribe I had promised to convince him to go to school earlier in the morning.

As I waited the kids approached, giggling as they practiced their English. “Hello, my name is Janice… heeheeheee.” They pointed at me, repeating “waegukin” or foreigner over and again. “Where,” I’d say jokingly, looking behind me for the stranger they saw. Then I told them I was Chinese. Ni hao.

They were silent for a moment, and then burst into laughter when they realized I was kidding. Then, in unison, they came up to me and said, “Do you like melamine?” Now I was silent. These are babies. They play, they run, they laugh, they cry. Their world’s are made up of cartoons and candy, and now toxic Chinese imports as well. “Mellllamine,” they said, drawing out the ‘l’ sound, “is bad for you.”

Of course it is. It’s used in making plastic for Christ’s sake, and has no business being in food or baby formula. But it struk me that as soon as these kids heard the word China, melamine was the first thing that came to their impressionable minds. Not its history, or its language or culture. No, what China conjured for these kids was a toxic industrial poison.

Every country has biases against its neighbors. To Americans, Canadians are a bunch of… well, they’re just not American. And as for Mexico, we just won’t go there. Those same prejudices exist here too, and yesterday I got a glimpse of how they’re formed early on. Parents telling their children to stay away from all those treats they used to enjoy.

“They’re from China, they’re bad.”

I see an ad on CNN every so often promoting tourism to China. Images of the Great Wall, a row of red lanterns above an empty canal and a group of smiling shoppers in Shanghai flash across the screen, with a knowing voice telling viewers that China is everything they can imagine.

I’ll say.

Korea’s shamanic past disappearing

An article in the Hankyoreh reports that an island off the southwest coast of Korea is seeking to gain official recognition from UNESCO for an ancient shamanic ritual practiced there as part of the world’s cultural heritage.

Jindo, in South Jeolla Province, is home to the ssitgimgut ritual, and advocates there are pushing the United Nations Organization to designate the practice a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. They say that as the number of Korea’s traditional shamans declines, the practice is in danger of disappearing alltogether.

The ritual involves the calling forth of the dead to resolve their worldly concerns and pray for their safe passage to the next world. It was designated a national cultural asset in 1980, but the rapid transformation of Korean society has lead to a decline in the number of shamans able to carry out the rite. Experts say the UNESCO designation will help preserve the tradition.

To support their bid, authorities in South Jeolla will host an international conference on the importance of shamanic traditions around the world. The conference will feature experts from South Korea, China, India, Hungary, Italy, Mongolia and Japan. Shamanism is Korea’s oldest religion.

Korea’s depressed go untreated

A report from Yonhap says that over half of those diagnosed with depression in Korea go untreated, explaining perhaps the country’s high suicide rate and the latest string of celebrity suicides here.

Although almost 80 percent of suicide cases are triggered by depression, according to experts, South Koreans tend to make light of or neglect medical treatment due to social prejudice against metal illnesses, leaving those afflicted with the disease to deal with their suicidal tendencies alone.

In the latest case, famed actress Choi Jin-sil took her life last week after Internet rumors linking her to the suicide of another actor, Ahn Jae-hwan, began circulating. An icon for generations of South Koreans, Choi was known for playing characters who faced life’s visiccitudes with strength and integrity.

Sadly, in real life Choi suffered deeply from depression, perhaps triggered by an ugly divorce in 2004 from a well-known athlete. She leaves behind two children.

It was reported after Choi’s death that at least two other suicides occurred in exactly the same manner as Choi’s, including one involving a transgender entertainer who had recently gone through an ugly breakup. In all cases the victims were found with an elastic band tied around the necks of the deceased. This after reports last month that South Korea has the highest suicide rate of all OECD member countries.

The number of people suffering from depression increased by 32.9 percent over the last five years, the report also showed, reaching 525,466 in 2007 from 395,457 in 2003. Women were more vulnerable to the illness, with 364,713 reported cases last year compared to 16,753 for men.

One could speculate on the causes of this dramatic spike in suicides. Lingering effects of colonialism and civil war. The impact of the country’s fantastically rapid modernization, with modern values clashing violently against more traditional ones. Society’s communal roots beginning to sprout individual strains.

In the case of Choi you had a woman whose TV life masked a painful existence, where her public role served to intensify the loneliness and isolation she felt inside. Indeed, it seems she was not alone.

Ignorance is strength, or U can see Wasilla from Pyongyang

Funny that Palin mentioned North Korean leader Kim Jong-il several times (see, ya guys, I do have what it takes, cause I know their names, and I can see some of them), considering she shares his knack for turning weakness into strength.

Like Kim, Pailn uses her disadvantages — lack of understanding, experience, knowledge, vision — to drag her opponent down into a rarefied, dumbed down debate over who loves Israel the most and hates “the dictators” more.

Palin makes up for her ignorance by looking straight into the camera, talkin ta us folks on main street, and reminding us that they “hate us,” Kim Jong-il hates America, Ahmedinijad hates America. They hate that a woman can shoot a moose here, u hear that, and this guy here, “Joe,” or “Obiden” as I think I heard her say, they want to talk to them.

Now what’s Joe gonna say? How’s he going to condense a complex international affair into a soundbyte that doesn’t make the Dem’s look spineless and “intellectual,” cause god forbid that’s the last thing we need. The result is that Palin takes her profound ignorance and uses it as the basis for a policy of paranoia that to even try and argue against would tarnish even the most eloquent and subtle of speakers.

That’s the brilliance of Palin. Her simplicity sets the ceiling on the issues at hand, leaving barely enough head-room (pun intended) for Biden to try and drag the audience back out of the collective darkness she wants to keep them in.

Now this is not to take away from Kim Jong-il, cause I think he’s probably got a better grasp of world affairs than does Sarah. He can see Russia too, remember. He’s practically her neighbor in that respect. And like the governor, he was thrust into a position as a prop for someone else; her for McCain and him for his dad.

What’s more, Pyonyang’s got a remarkable talent in harnessing fear, threats, and blather to mask what are inherently terrible weaknesses in its positions vis-a-vis the rest of the world. And it works damn well at keeping them in power, goin’ on six decades now.

Let’s hope the same isn’t true for the Republicans. Vote Obama.