In the temple just outside Tokyo, the Mexican in full kimono lowered his voice and switched to Spanish. "You know the only culture more closed than Japan?" he said. "Korea. Sure, the Japanese are squarish, yeah? They're squares. The Koreans have never known a circle."
I wanted to find out if it was true. And after my fast trip across South Korea, I'm still not sure. It seems like subtlety is not an issue in Korea. Japan has an art of communicating without saying anything. Koreans are direct, and say things directly. So in that sense, it's more open. But at the same time...
Let's put it this way. Confucius was from China. Korea imported Confucianism and practiced it and "purified" it so much that the Chinese started coming to study it there instead of the other way around. That might give you an idea of what kind of culture Korea has.
Everybody knows something about China. Everybody knows something about Japan. If you stick a microphone under a western kid's face and tell him to rattle off things that have something to do with Japan, he'll go from "ninja, samurai, sushi, sumo, anime..." and keep going from there. Same with China, starting with Kung Fu and working one from there. Korea isn't really like that. If you say Korea to the average young westerner, mostly they'll scratch their heads, mention something about a war they don't really remember, bad stuff about nuclear weapons, and a little puppet with glasses running around singing how he's "so ronery inside, arr arone." If they're good, they might mention kimchi, garlic, and an unhealthy obsession with the game Starcraft, but that's about it. Korea doesn't advertise its culture the way its neighbors do.
My view of Korea comes from a week across beaches, up across mist-strewn forested ridge lines, up to the DMZ, from the bottom docks of Busan to a helicopter pad in Seoul. And even after all that, I feel like most of what I know, I know secondhand. The work ethic. The social gender segregation among young people. The history of the country getting kicked where it hurts again and again throughout its known history.
A smattering of things I know firsthand: I know that the Korean rock scene is hard to find, but worth the finding. I went with a pack of English teachers and a geography/language-genius-turned-farmer to a rock festival on the beach. I know the skateboarding is abysmal after watching three skaters ollie down five stairs and eat concrete again and again and again-- only one guy landed on his board and the crowd went nuts. Then there's what Koreans do at the beach. They don't swim. They don't use swimsuits. They run, fully clothed into the water until is at about their waist level. Most of them then fall over. The English teachers said this was pretty standard across the nation (except the falling over part) and that despite being a peninsula surrounded by beautiful beaches, most Koreans they know can't swim, and none of them use bathing suits of any kind.
Actually, while I'm on the subject, let's talk English teachers. In most other countries I've been to, teaching English is for travelers who want to earn some money while abroad, and get a deeper understanding of where they are. You'll find a few almost anywhere. But in Korea, teaching English is for the money. And the country is full of English teachers everywhere. Almost all are White, American or Canadian, and in their early twenties. Racial discrimination in hiring is openly acknowledged here, and I've met Brits and South African teachers who have been asked by employers to disguise or change their accent to be more American (which, let me tell you, they just love to be told). The pay is good, and it usually comes with benefits like an apartment and a bonus at the end of the contract. I asked multiple teachers why they were in Korea. All but one of them told me the exact same thing: there aren't any jobs back home, and this pays.
The main problem, aside from the racial discrimination, is that this means a bunch of Americans and foreigners get shipped out to Korea and suddenly find that, well, they don't much like it. The cultural attitude of unswerving respect for those above you, and the attitude that harmony is considered more important than, say, the written terms of a contract, drive a lot of unprepared westerners kind of nuts. And that just turns their mood sour over everything. Let that be my warning for you all: there are lots of relatively well-paying jobs in South Korea for young (white) English speakers with a year or two to spare. But please, please, please, do not take a job like that until you do your homework on Korea and Korean culture and decide you actually want to spend that kind of time there.
Korea has a lot to offer. I don't have the expertise after spending only a week there (and a good chunk of that with expats) to tell you about it all. I'm just going to touch on one thing I found near the northern border.
The so-called Demilitarized Zone or DMZ, is hardly Demilitarized. North and South Korean troops patrol the area without cease, none crossing the military demarcation line of course, but still maintaining an active, fully armed presence. The last hostile shot was fired back in the 80s. But North Korea has dug multiple tunnels underneath the DMZ well into South Korean territory towards Seoul. The last one was found in the 90s, and they expect to find more.
Yet despite all this, there is one overwhelming theme everywhere I went in or around the DMZ: Unification. The word seems like it's everywhere: Unification Road, Unification Park, Unification Museum, Unification Bridge. South Korea is the only country I've ever been to that doesn't describe itself as a sovereign nation. It's half of a country, painfully divided over the last fifty or so years. Millions of family member have been separated, and in culture which is designed to honor the elders of your family, living and dead, in their proper place, this is a more painful division than it could be just about anywhere else in the world.
The image that will stay with me most was the background image for some writing in a nearby museum exhibit. It was a black and white picture, mostly of coiled razor wire, of the kind they use on the top of the DMZ fences. It's being held in one hand by an old man to his own forehead. He is crying.
I've seen some great beaches, hiked great hills with shrines overlooking beautiful views, seen modern metropolises to match almost anything in Japan or the West, and eaten some good, bad, and, yes, just plain ugly food, but when someone says Korea to me now, I'm going to first think of that old man.
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