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.

Simple curiosity or racism?

I tend to shy away from conversations about race in Korea, just because they tend to be circular and not really go anywhere. Also because more often than not they tend to be in English (or any other language that is not Korean) and thus miss the audience that most needs to be included in the conversation. But recent experiences that coincide with a few blog posts I’ve read and a NYT article have brought me out of my self-imposed silence, and back to the blogosphere.

My family and I spent the weekend with some friends in a small town in Gyeonggi.  Not far away is the town of Ildong, which boasts the only real sulfur hot spring in the province. Being a fan of the public mogyoktang, I decided to take my son there for the afternoon.

As I said I love the sauna, but in Korea it took me some time before I felt completely at ease strutting around in the buck through a crowd of naked Korean men. Partly cause I’m whte, and partly cause I’m blue. Or more precisly, cause I’ve got all kinds of tatoos scattered around my body that never fail to draw unwanted stares.

Anyway, for the first year or two I frequented Itaewon’s Hamilton Hotel, or the newer Itaewon Land (five stories of hot tubs, hot rooms and a kiddie playground for parents looking for a reprieve). I figured if there’s anywhere in Korea where an ink covered foreigner can fit in its Itaewon.  It worked well, more or less, and I’ve since gotten over the trauma caused by my first visit to a Korean bathhouse. (That was a nightmare!)

It’s a rainy Sunday in fall, perfect weather for lazing in a tub or sweating it out in the steam room. My 4-year-old son, an experienced patron of the bathhouse in his own right, eases himself into the steaming pool with a loud groan of satisfaction. “Siwonhada…” All the ajjusis stare with mute faces that could either be looks of disgust or simple curiosity. I can never tell.

Soon some of the kids approach, their eyes wide with wonder. Are we the first non-Koreans they’ve ever seen or just the first naked ones? One young boy of about 8 or so starts to follow my son around, pointing at him and barking out, “Can you speak Korean? Let me see,” with an innocent and unknowingly offensive snicker as if my son were some monkey performing tricks.

None of this occurred to my son, thankfully, who just starts repeating ni hao ma whenever anyone asks him to speak Korean (which he does, fluently for a kid his age). What’s worse is that none of it seemed to occur to the boy’s father either, or to the boy himself. Which makes me want to believe that it was and is simple curiosity and not the kind of hostile racism that I know others experience here. But still…

Do I want my kid growing up in a country where there are basically two main racial categories, Korean and non-Korean? Where his ethnicity and appearance will constantly be a reason to question his place here? Where (what are in my view) anachronistic attitudes about race that get hammered into kids starting at a very young age?

There are a great many things that I appreciate about being in Korea, and more than a few things that I think the U.S. could learn from this place, but when it comes to my kid that question always gives me pause.

Not long ago we were standing outside Itaewon Land sauna when a young African American couple walked past. My son asked in his childishly exuberant voice why they were black. They heard, but kept walking. I thought, “Christ, it’s time to get back to the U.S.”

Environmentalists behind Korea’s water shortage?

A piece in the JoongAng says water shortages in regions throughout the country don’t result from a lack of water but rather from the country’s poor storage facilities. Also cites resistence by environmental groups to the construction of dams as one cause for the lack of sufficient reservoirs.

Goh, a resident of Hwangji-dong in the city of Taebaek, Gangwon, said tap water is only available for three hours in the morning, and the family has been doing laundry just twice a week.

The rusty water might be tolerable for laundry, but the Gohs do not dare to drink it. And the limited supply of water in the morning means no water for the rest of the day; the family does not feel free to use the toilet at night.

I’ve visited friends – many of them monks who spend part of the year in remote rural areas – who say that during certain seasons their homes are unlivable due to the lack of water. It’s hard to fathom living in Seoul how dramatically different life can be outside the capital.

According to the corporation’s latest report, the country will be short of at least 800 million tons of waters by 2011, even if water resources are efficiently saved.

“Because of climate change, the severity of floods and droughts in Korea will worsen in the future,” said Professor Yi Jae-eung of Civil Systems Engineering at Ajou University. “It is imperative for us to build more dams, because that’s the surest way to secure water.”

“The current water shortage around the nation is the result of delaying dam construction for the past decade due to political debates,” Yi said.

In South Korea, older parents pressured to look younger

Not your typical mother

Not your typical mother

Sitting in a cab the other day with my four-year-old son, the driver turned and asked, “Is he a nut-doong-yi?”  It’s a word that doesn’t really translate into English, but refers to a child born of older parents, and was the fifth time in as many days that I’d been asked the question. I’m not that old.

I wanted to scream. I asked the driver as he peered through the rear view what made him think that. “He looks too young for you.” Another driver asked whether my son was the youngest of several siblings. Slightly more polite, maybe, but you get the drift.

Attitudes here continue to be dominated by this anachronistic image of a young stay-at-home mother who dotes on her husband and child with no thought to her own interests or desires. Is it really so shocking for a woman in her mid-30s to have a child?

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 207,300 babies were born to women in their 30s in 2008, an increase of nearly 18,000 from the year before. And in these uncertain times, more parents in South Korea are choosing to have children later rather than earlier as older parents bring more life experience and stability to a new family.

Still, the prevailing atmosphere here is such that many “older” mothers feel pressured to change their appearance. An on-line news site recently reported that with the new school season many parents in their 40s are increasingly anxious about their appearance. Some said they were considering wearing more makeup or even getting plastic surgery.

One friend who has a seven-year-old daughter told me she’d gone out of her way to try and look more hip at a recent school activity. Donning her trendiest outfit and putting on an extra layer of makeup, she was devastated when a classmate of her daughter approached and said, “Your granny looks very young but she’s fat.” My friend told me her daughter later said she was ashamed of her and begged her to lose weight so as to look more like the women on TV.

With a declining birth rate and an aging population, the term nut-doong-yi is becoming more commonly used not only for parents but also for professionals who enter a career later in life. Not exactly derogatory , it still carries an inherent judgement on the person its used for. It singles you out as different from the norm, and for some here that can be an excrutiating label.

One driver recently told me my hair style made me look older. I’ve wanted a frizzy hairdo for a long time and recently got a perm. Maybe I should have gone for the botox injection instead.

RELATED STORY: North Korean beauty secrets

Recession boosts book sales

According to Yonhap, the financial downturn has boosted sales of books on finance, employment and religion, the last of which saw a 185 percent spike in sales last year. Cooking too was a big seller as more families are staying in to eat rather than dining out.

“Books are hardly luxury items. They are one of the most inexpensive means of entertainment that last quite long compared to movies or plays,” said Song Young-ho at Yes 24, a local Internet bookstore that sold more than 25 million books last year. “We expect to do even better this year with our increased discount services.”

“People are, naturally, trying to find answers to the financial crisis and are turning to religion and self-help books for comfort,” said Park Young-joon, the branch manager of Gwanghwamun Kyobo Book Center. “Novels are also popular during the difficult times with many people keen to escape from reality.”

Looks like the recession did what all those mothers out there couldn’t – get their kids to read more.

Of square skies and graceful arches

Seoul's hanoks

Seoul's hanoks

We moved to Gahoedong about a month ago, after spending a year in a remote corner of southeast Seoul in an enormous house we were renting from a friend. Surrounded by mountains and with an expansive yard, the place was truly palatial, but I felt cut-off somehow. I’d come home from work, close the door, then close another, and another.

Our new home is tiny in comparison, barely 18 pyung. Three square rooms in a straight row separated by sliding paper doors. There are no divides other than these, no space where I can shut out the world. Wherever I am in the house, I can either see or hear my son. I feel closer to my family here.

In Korean there is a word that I have yet to find a perfect translation for. Pronounced ‘jung’, it expresses acertain closeness, a bond or loyalty, even warmth, that ideally exists between people. I think traditional Korean homes were designed with this trait in mind. Of course they were also separated along social and gender lines, with male and female, or master and servant, designated clearly marked quarters. But even these architectural divisions seem to blend into one another, like the sloping roofs that follow the contours of the mountains in the distance.

There is a spiritual quality to the design of a hanok. While keeping out the elements, particularly the biting winter cold, they are also permeable in that nature seems to bleed into them. With the wooden beams and clay walls, it seems almost as if they sprouted out of the ground on which they sit. They were made with an eye to harmony that transcends aesthetics.

Hanoks come in different shapes and sizes, resembling the letters of the Korean alphabet. Some are L-shaped, others resemble a square shaped mouth. All have courtyards. Ours is shaped like the Chinese character for the number 1 – a simple horizontal line – with a newer bathroom and kitchen added on to either end, and of course a courtyard in the center, a sort of extra room with a view of the heavens.

As the nation careened into the modern era, hanoks became equated by a majority of Koreans as a sign of backwardness, their squat frames disdained for the newer rows of apartment blocks that now pollute the skyline in all of Korea’s major cities. Under Gen. Park Jung-hee, who ruled the country for 30 years under a policy of forced modernization, a disturbingly large portion of Korea’s cultural heritage was destroyed, from archaeological remains to architectural treasures. With the exception of the city of Kyongju and a small pocket in Seoul, Korea’s hanoks never stood a chance.

Yet not all the blame lies with the government. A neighbor who recently purchased a hanok not far from our own invited us over to see her place. She showed us the damage done to the house – built over 90 years ago she says – through the neglect of its previous owner, who by the looks of it made a half-hearted attempt to modernize the building. The result was a sort of patchwork of concrete and wood, with bathroom tiles laid in all the wrong places.

A walk through the neighborhood reveals that the remaining hanoks are all in various stages of upkeep. Some are resplendent, like proud sentries bedecked in their finest. Others are barely hanging on, dilapidated shells of their former selves. Many are just gone, replaced by brick and mortar “villas” that promise a greater return on property values but literally squeeze the life out of the hanoks on either side.

Still, the area is undergoing a sort of renaissance as streams of Japanese tourists and young couples increasingly ply the narrow byways enjoying the rustic atmosphere, taking in a sea of tiled roofs that gently curve their way down to the skyscrapers below. Likely they know little of the struggles that went on recently to save what was left of the old houses, the corrupt bureaucrats and greedy developers who systematically swallowed up a majority of the original buildings.

But on their faces is reflected the beauty of these humble reminders of Koreas past. And who knows, maybe that will be enough to stymie even the worst laid plans.

This story originally appeared here.
UPDATE: More on Korea’s hanoks from OhMyNews

Snow for the New Year

Seoul in white

Seoul in white

Seoul gets a coating of snow ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday on Monday. (Photo courtesy of Yonhap News Agency.) Note the empty street. This is seriously the best time to be in Seoul, as the usual crowds have all gone off to the coutryside to be with family. Thus, hour long commutes are reduced to ten or fifteen minutes, trains are empty with lots of seating and no old ladies elbowing you out of the way. I could go on but I think you get the point.