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.

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Taking Kim Yu-na’s name in vain

The Korea Herald reports that fans of Kim Yu-na are in an uproar over certain political and academic institutions trying to cash in on the Kim Yu-na name, or face in this case.

Here’s an image of a member of the ruling GNP, with the caption that reads something like:  following Kim Yu-na’s lead to “conquer the world.”

Skating to conquer the world

Skating to conquer the world

One fan writes: “Kim Yu-na is our national treasure. For these GNP politicians to paste their images next to Yu-na for political gain is visually improper.”

Right, and there’s nothing wrong with the ENTIRE NATION cashing in on her success. Seems a little twisted to me, the way she’s become this exemplar for the country. Corporations, universities, political parties, they’re all cashing in on her achievements.

She seems to be taking it all in stride, but to carry the weight of an entire nation on your shoulders. That’s got to be a lot of pressure, and I wonder whether it’s fair to put that on her. She’s not even a person anymore, she’s a brand to be marketed, whether by companies looking to make a profit or a country looking to polish its image.

Korea road trip cont.

Driving south down the expressway towards Busan I ponder the rows and rows of apartment blocks that litter Korea’s skyline. Many of them look like government housing projects back home, and they’re everywhere, like sentries on duty. What are they protecting? The power  of South Korea’s ruling political and business elite, which have so thoroughly defined Korean society for decades that the two are now inseperable.

There’s no competition. A handful of conglomerates decided decades ago what kinds of homes were going to be built and went ahead building them. There were no alternatives, no firms vying for customers with better designs. In a short period of time Koreans found their living spaces defined by these companies and their corrupt heads. Society began to adapt to the new layout. Kindergardens sprang up in these new “communities,” convenience stores, barber shops. This is how most poeple in South Korea live now.

I’m not saying there’s anything necessarily wrong with living in these complexes. They are convenient in a lot of ways, and in a country with more people than space it makes sense to build up. The point I’m trying to make – in a round about sort of way- is the enormous might of this select group in shaping Korean society. It’s eerie, and it extends beyond architecture into the realm of media, fashion, entertainment and politics.

Honestly, I don’t know what the majority of people here think about this. Whether they are too busy or preoccupied to consider it. I suspect attitudes likely break down along economic lines, but even that may not be the case. Culture here is in many ways used as a commodity – marketed and sold to ensure that folks not only accept the framework, but support it wholeheartedly. “It’s my culture, and I’m gonna defend it.”

I love being in Korea. I’m thankful for what the country has given me in my time here and have a tremendous amount of respect for its people and history. But I wonder what that culture means when so much of it is defined by these elite circles in order to sustain their hold on power.

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

USFK personel adopting Korean kids for cash

The Korea Times reports on USFK personel adopting Korean kids for payment so the kids will gain access to DOD funded schools on bases here.

The United States Forces Korea (USFK) has turned a blind eye to allegations that U.S. base personnel have adopted Korean children who wish to attend American schools in army bases in exchange for money and other irregularities.

According to some parents and school staff, there have been complaints related to their inability to get “legitimate” children into Department of Defense (DoD) Dependent Schools due to them being overcrowded with Korean students.

Not knowing the ins and outs of this particular issue, it is always a little jarring to learn about the extent to which parents here will go to get their kids a “proper” education.

Korea more egalitarian ’cause of Japan

Korea c. 1904

Korea c. 1904

An article in the IHT by Norimitsu Onishi about the buraku of Japan and their slow rise out of the traditional depths of Japan’s ancient social hierarchy, a rise — and article — that took inspiration from Obama’s election in the U.S. What caught my attention was a short graf in the middle that referred to Korea’s more egalitarian society, a result, says Onishi, of the wars and invasions that swept the peninsula and Japan’s colonial occupation.

…nearly identical groups of outcasts remain in a few other places in Asia, like Tibet and Nepal, with the same Buddhist background; they have disappeared only in South Korea, not because prejudice vanished, but because decades of colonialism, war and division made it impossible to identify the outcasts there.

As far as I know, it is factually true that the successive wars that erupted in Korea destroyed among other things the family records of thousands born into slavery. Those same people were then freed from their traditional lower status, with some even gaining the ranks of the elite yangban.

Still, the statement did make me pause because it seemed like a casual snub at Korea. But an interesting read nonetheless.

Missiles, money and ribeye steak

Seoul Outback

Seoul Outback

New Year’s eve. As Israeli missiles begin to fall on Gaza, my family and I are at the Outback Steakhouse in southern Seoul waiting for a table.

It’s my first time here and the first steak I’ve eaten in about twenty years. Despite the recession, the place is packed and we stand alongside a number of others waiting for a table. I notice in the corner a young muslim family, the wife covered with only her eyes showing, the father smiling down at his young daughter playing under his feet.

We are foreigners, them and I. Even my wife, who is Korean, stands somewhat apart as she pushes my son to play with the young girl, named for a rare deer native to Saudi Arabia. Always the outgoing one, my wife begins to chat it up with the young girl. She’s five, speaks a smattering of Korean, Arabic and English she’s picked up from TV. We begin to talk, an unlikely conversation that leaves much unsaid.

“Where are you from,” I venture.

“Saudi Arabia, and you?”

“San Francisco… the U.S.”

OK. I can hear the synapses firing as all the stored up information gets pulled up. Politics, religion, identity.

“I’m sorry for all the shit my country has done to the Islamic world,” I want to say. “Terrible what’s happening in Gaza. My tax dollars at work.” I wonder what they’re thinking.

“How do you like Korea,” my wife asks, no hint of  internal dialogue behind her smile. She’s a traveler and loves meeting people.

“Korea is a good place. It is safe, people are friendly. Life here is good,” the father says. The wife is silent but her eyes speak volumes.

I’m always curious when I see another foreigner in Korea. Granted there are plenty of us, more and more all the time. But Korea is by no means LA when it comes to ethnic diversity and so I can’t help but wonder what brings people here.

I once asked the onwer of a local Indian restaurant that question. “The money,” he said matter of factly. So much for romanticism.

Our names are called and I shake hands with the young father before heading to our table. There’s more I want to ask and I contemplate fleetingly inviting them to share a table with us. The steak is mediocre, the pasta supersized and heavy.

On the way out the mother enters the elevator alone, thinking her husband and daughter had already gone ahead. My wife says they just passed her by in the hallway and she thanks her in flawless American English before hopping back out. My four-year-old son looks up at me with this quizzical expression and says, “Daddy, why was she wearing a mask?”