Thor's Korea Diary


An End to Beginnings

@29 December 2000
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 for a response to some points raised in this entry, see the thoughtful comments of Jinho Choi in Japanese Influence?? Believable yet absolutely wrong...

We are an accidental and mismatched crew, Chinese, Russian, ethnic Indian New Zealander, Vietnamese, Australian, supposedly teachers, being taught in the language of our host country, Korea. Song Young-sup is the Professor of Russian, newly appointed to head the Languages Department. A dapper, chunky man in his mid-thirties, he has been in the college for ten years, but freely admits to having little contact with the foreign teachers in that time -- a situation common both amongst the ethnic Koreans, and the imported teachers. A mutual loss. This semester he has taken a gamble, offering a weekly class in basic Korean, and those of us who care enough about this temporary home have taken time off from pretended expertise in the tongue we were born to, and relapsed to infancy: <<Hello. My name is Thor May. I come from Australia. Thank you. Goodbye.>>

We meet in a long, narrow room, with a line of tables pushed together down the middle, and often when we come in there are crumpled scraps of old notes lying about, or even the abandoned remains of somebody's lunch. In winter, the fluorescent strip high on the ceiling sheds a chilly light, since our portable whiteboard, itself smudged and scratched beyond redemption, blocks the only window.

Song Young-sup writes rapidly, pathetically simple snippets for a mind schooled in Korean, but for us even the letters of his cursive Hangul are a thicket of mysteries. Just three months in Korea, I decode painfully, letter by letter, but already the discussion has switched across a chasm to some new concept. Wang Xiaohua, here three years and master of a language that has yielded half of Korean's vocabulary, sits quietly at the end of the table. He's cruising, and taking some independent notes to keep his mind occupied.

Song Young-sup switches effortlessly to Russian, keeping Alexandra in the picture, then queries Wang Xiaohua with some Chinese characters, later searches for an expression in English. Nguyen Tranh too can trade on several years in Korea, and find links with the Vietnamese, which was tied like Korean for a thousand years and more to Chinese scholarship. Ranjeesh, young, bright, fresh from university and eager to be top of the class again, stands to recite.

I dog-paddle madly to keep my nose above water, dummy of the class. My only asset is linguistics, but when I ask a structural question, the rhythm of teaching stumbles in embarrassed confusion. These people are language learners, and good at it They don't know an agglutinative language from a sticky rice cake, and don't want to. I'm a wretched grammarian who can't buy a rice cake in the market.

At semester's end it seemed proper to make some gesture towards our teacher. His needs and wants, likes and dislikes remained unknown. There are teachers who let it all hang out, and others who take great care to separate their professional and private lives. As a group we ourselves had utterly diverse backgrounds and expectations. Perhaps a dinner would be the best course, for food and drink are almost universal paths to deeper shared experience.

Song Young-sup recalled a place that does great dog's meat. I shuddered inwardly. Call it sickly sentimentalism, but I can't relish dining on man's best friend. Then Alexandra remembered a place that the professor himself has already taken her to. So it was settled. On the appointed evening most of us crammed into Song Young-sup's little white car, and sped off into the night.

Somewhere we did a wiggle and found ourselves on a motorway, then plunged into the side of a mountain. Pusan is split by narrow, steep sided ridges, so it makes good engineering sense to get out a drilling machine and take short cuts straight through the rock. There are many tunnels (and lots of road tolls to milk the investment). It took me days to work out where exactly we went, but for those who know Pusan, we wound up in Changjon-dong, not far from a big LG hypermart which has opened recently.

If you pack a bunch of home team guys into one small car, they'll talk their heads off in half finished sentences, interjections, jokes and mock instructions to the driver. Five people from the ends of the earth though, different ages, genders, different cultures, different worldviews, swimming in a second language ... and you have to expect some limit on the spontaneous patter. In a scene like that you must work at conversation, and whatever you say, it will still come out like a Berlitz phrase book. Still, I'd had little chance to quiz a captive Korean in the three months I have been here. Even at the risk of running a schoolroom question & answer project, I decided to plunge in....

Were the dialects in Korea very distinctive? Oh yes. Seoul was the centre of the universe. Provincial dialects were down-market. Song Young-sup didn't like Seoul, though he had been required to live there for a number of years. Personally he liked Pusan. I agreed that cities where the mountains fell into the sea had a special appeal. So how did Pusan's dialect differ from that of Seoul? Apparently the pitch movements in Seoul were much flatter, while the Pusan locals gave a sing-song impression. Some of the vowel sounds were modified too. Above all, the suffixes attaching to verbs in Pusan often sounded Japanesish, a trend that was even more marked in the dialect of Cheju Do, an island between the two countries.

Our conversation drifted fitfully to the Japanese shadow. With a different history, you can see that Japanese influence may have been even greater (not only in language). Structurally the two languages are obviously cognate. But it is no secret that cultural relations are poisonous, a dislike shared from the highest to the lowest classes in both Korea and Japan. This has been the case at least since Hideyoshi's invasions of Korea starting in 1592, which more or less destroyed Korea's architectural heritage of temples and palaces, and fatally stripped its creative classes of craftsmen and intellectuals.

The disasters of 1592 were followed by three centuries of Korean isolationism, behind the cloak of Ming Chinese suzerainty, and a steady retreat from all innovation or development. The reduction of Korea to the status of a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945 was seeded with bitterness from the beginning, no matter that it swept away the corrupt Yi Dynasty and set the foundations for a modern state. Fukuoka, a beautiful city and only three hours by hydrofoil, is far closer to Pusan than Seoul is, but none of my students have been there, nor have the slightest interest in going. Recently the Japanese Prime Minister talked of building a rail tunnel from the Korean Peninsula to Southern Japan -- quite feasible technically -- but hell will freeze over before the Koreans let that happen...

Song Young-sup allowed himself one of those pay-back stories that are so familiar where brother hates brother (Ireland, Yugoslavia, India & Pakistan, Fiji .... they all have sotto voce tales to tell the credulous visitor ... ). Recall that Korea effectively lost it's monarchy when Queen Min was murdered in 1894 through collusion between the Japanese Representative in Seoul and the King's ruthless father, the Tai-Won-Kun, reducing the King to a virtual prisoner...

So Song Young-sup told us with special pleasure a deadly secret preserved by the Japanese royal house. You see (he said), Japanese royalty is really Korean, and to this day practices secret rituals that are utterly meaningless to the Japanese. When did this remarkable insertion of Korean spirit into the sacred heart of Japan take place? Well, it could be traced back to the Three Kingdoms period (3rd to 7th Centuries, A.D.), when Japanese political exiles often found themselves banished to Korea, and ancient lineage connections, dwelling quietly like ginseng roots in the Korean mountain valleys, could be drawn upon when Heaven's disfavour left the royal houses of Japan barren and without heirs. Hmm, a soju tale, or history? I'll park it for future reference. But there is no doubt that Korea did have a well-documented influence on Japanese culture and institutions at that time.

So why, of all possible languages, did Song Young-sup choose to study Russian? Well, in the final school examinations he didn't do so well, he modestly explained, and finished up in a foreign languages university. The lemmings of course headed straight for English, but that was hardly the road to a unique skill. He could have chosen Arabic, or Spanish, or Chinese, or perhaps some other Asian language. Russian looked like a good bet. After all, that was the 1970s when the USSR still appeared to be a formidable power. A somewhat dicey choice from today's viewpoint ... At Christmas I met a rueful American who had spent six years of his life studying all things Russian, and now found himself, he felt, with little more than a party trick to sell. Still, it is worth remembering that Russia predates and postdates Communism. As a cultural milieu, seen from Korea, the Russian world is one of four competing beacons ringing the horizon, beckoning the heart.

In ascendance at the moment is the American dream, flickering from every television set, US forces keeping the peace a few kilometers outside of Seoul, where a mad, murderous invasion from the north is always possible. Hovering in the wings is the ancient patron, China, giftor of half the words in the Korean language, reluctant guarantor of the Confucian ethic which still underlies Korean values, wily, tempting the ascetic Korean consumer with a promised avalanche of mercantile trinkets if only the customs barriers are lifted. Sulking like a rejected suitor at the foot of the peninsula is Japan, blood brother, blood enemy, a gargantuan economic power crippled by inept government and reactionary attitudes. A supreme pragmatist amongst Koreans will learn Japanese, mindful of the economic tentacles that the huge Japanese zaibatsu have wormed into the fabric of the Korean economy, mindful that there will be jobs even for a despised Korean who can speak that tongue. But the Russian ambience? That has a different flavour.

It is my good luck at the moment to be reading about the Korean world at the end of the nineteenth century. This puts a perspective on the Russian connection which contrasts strongly with present notions. For example, in 1898 Mrs. Isabella Bird Bishop published an account of her travels in Korea and surrounds between 1894 and 1897 ("Korea and Her Neighbours", reprinted by Yonsei University Press, Seoul, 1970; 488pp). At any time, she would have been a remarkable woman. Travelling in a world where local women were not allowed on the streets in daylight, penetrating the length and breadth of Korea by pony and sampan, she has left an account of Pusan (and many other Korean towns) which is less than admiring:

".. A miserable place I thought it [Pusan], and later experience showed that it was neither more nor less miserable than the general run of Korean towns. Its narrow dirty streets consist of low hovels built of mud-smeared wattle without windows, straw roofs, and deep eaves, a black smoke hole in every wall two feet from the ground, and outside most are irregular ditches containing solid and liquid refuse. Mangy dogs and blear-eyed children, half or wholly naked, and scaly with dirt, roll in the deep dust or slime, or pant and blink in the sun, apparently unaffected by the stenches which abound..." [p27].

Contrast this with her description of the foreign (mostly Japanese) settlement in Pusan: " It is a fairly good looking Japanese town, somewhat packed between the hills and the sea, with wide streets of Japanese shops and various Anglo-Japanese buildings, among which the Consulate and a bank are the most important. It has substantial retaining and sea walls, and draining, lighting, and roadmaking have been carried out at the expense of the municipality. Since the [Sino-Japanese] War, waterworks have been constructed ...." [p23].

Well, even today, you don't have to dig very deep to find, for example, foreign workers in Korea who are ready to say rude things about the Korean style (this sort of bleating is a habit amongst expatriates everywhere), but be fair to Isabella Bird Bishop, she was greatly impressed with one group of Koreans she met. And where were they? Well, in Russia, the Russian Far East, with its new capital (at that time) of Vladivostok.

Her journey from Vladivostok, a town in a ferment of construction as the new terminus for the trans-siberian railroad, to "Nowo Kiewsk", then down to the Russian-Chinese-Korean border is peopled with Korean settlers. "So far as I heard and saw, the whole agricultural population of the neighbourhood is Korean, and is in a very prosperous condition. There, and down to the Korean border, most of these settlers are doing well, and some of them are growing rich as contractors for the supply of meat and grain to the Russian forces. At this they have beaten their Chinese neighbours, and they actually go into Chinese Manchuria, buy up lean cattle and fatten them for beef. To those who have only seen the Koreans in Korea, such a statement will be hardly credible. Yet it does not stand alone, for I have it on the best authority that the Korean settlers near Kharbarovsk have competed so successfully with the Chinese in market gardening, that the supplying of that city with vegetables is now entirely in their hands." [p225]

.... "Korean houses of a very superior class to those in Korea were sprinkled over the country ... The farmers had changed the timid, suspicious , or cringing manner which is characteristic of them to a great extent at home, for an air of frankness and manly independence which was most pleasing." [p226]

Isabella Bird Bishop's argument was no doubt coloured by the European colonial belief of that age, that "backward peoples" could only benefit from coming under the wing of one of the great colonial powers, even the Japanese (whom she rather admires, but doesn't really trust). Nevertheless it is clear that Koreans themselves saw Russia at its best as a progressive and enlightening influence. The desperate Korean king, Kojong, had chosen Seoul's Russian Legation in which to seek refuge in 1896. The firm but fair administration of Russian officials, as opposed to the cruelty, corruption and incompetence of the Yang-ban (Korean aristocracy), had allowed ordinary Koreans to realize their true potential in the new territories...

In later years though, unhappily for those prosperous farmers in the Soviet Far East, most of them were shipped off to rot in central Asia by the megalomaniac, Stalin. And just as Korea for centuries fell victim to neo-Confucian zealots aping and outdoing the Chinese, so North Korea has had half a century of terror, dehumanization and famine at the hands of deranged Communist imitators, (even to the point of widespread cannibalism, "saram koki" : refer to Carla Garapdian's account of North Korean refugee reports, Korean Herald, 27 December 2000)

In spite of such sad experience in recent history for Koreans attracted to the Russian beacon, it is easy to see that a longer view could find much benefit in keeping that contact alive. Amongst the cities of South Korea, Pusan is probably best able to maintain the Russian link. Since international trade began in earnest at the end of the nineteenth century, Pusan has been a haven for Russian Far Eastern shipping. The west coast of Japan, though closer to Vladivostok, is inhospitable to shipping, and Japan, after all, was Russia's great rival in the region. Even now, the unsettled business of the disputed Kuril Islands sours contacts between Japan and Russia. Thus, there is a certain natural camaraderie between the Russian Far East and Korea, standing against the Japanese. Today, in the port area of Pusan I am often mistaken for a Russian sailor, and "Cowboy Street", the "foreigner's shopping area" with its Cyrillic signs , bars, piecegoods shops and restaurants is more obviously pitched at Russian mariners than American soldiers on R&R.

What mix of these background influences moved Song Young-sup to take up Russian I cannot know. Certainly now he has a steady job with a good income, and a small but steady quota of students willing to learn the language. He has been to Moscow, but prefers StPetersburg. Have you ever met a Russian who didn't also prefer StPetersburg? It would be nice to travel more, he admits, but it is so expensive... There had also been a brief trip to Japan with some colleagues, but the prices were terrifying...

I wondered aloud who else in the car had traveled internationally. I knew that Alexandra, who was to meet us at the restaurant, had been to StPetersburg as well, though that was inside her own vast country, and probably a pilgrimage for every educated Russian. Ranjeesh was on his first trip out of New Zealand. Wang Xiaohua also, had only made it across the Gulf of Bohai from his native Tianjin. Nguyen Tranh had somehow latched onto the corporate coat tails of Citibank and lobbed in Pusan from the tropical chaos of Saigon, but then decided that being a "professor" was more respectable than being a bank officer -- the old Confucian myth dies hard, never mind that taxi drivers make more money than professors in China itself, and probably in Vietnam too; (It's also ironic, since the Confucian respect for "learning" was always based on money and power, not intellectual enquiry or research & development).

Here in Korea the college teachers at least don't do so badly. I'm paid almost exactly the Korean average wage at 1.5 million won a month, but for less than a third of the average Korean's working hours, and with accommodation and several months of paid holidays thrown in. Song Young-sup himself makes many more won than that, but sighs that he has to spend much longer on the job (foreigners are spared the minutiae of meetings and most administration work).

So just how worldly was our little dinner party group? When it came down to it, our polyglot company each stood on his or her own narrow base of national perception. In a way, that narrowness gave them a commonality. My own home is where my bed is, a citizen of the world, veteran of working as an expatriate in six countries, and a traveler to perhaps twenty others. It was unlikely that I was wiser than my companions, but I certainly had a mark of strangeness branded between the eyes..

No matter, in a Korean restaurant, our guest, Song Young-sup was the only knowledgeable starter. We were lucky to find a parking space right across the road from the prosperous looking establishment with its tastefully varnished window frames and stickers for credit cards. A draught of warm air rushed out to meet us from the large reception area. Waiters padded hither and yon, giving the appearance of a busy and popular spot. Firstly we had to step from the tiled door well onto the polished wooden floor, warm with ondol heating. Step from our street shoes into scuffs provided by the house. A sea of shoes swirled on the tiles, awaiting the return of their owners, but to the left was also a bank of varnished shoe lockers with keys, where careful diners could keep their gear safe.

Quickly we were ushered through sliding doors to a large room humming with conversation. Sitting cross-legged about low tables were family groups, groups of friends, small parties of work colleagues. Tobacco smoke curled to the ceiling, bottles piled up, waitresses hurried about with large trays of raw, ragged meat for the grills. Nobody ate alone, and nobody took the slightest notice of our entry. In a way, that preserved our privacy.

A century ago Isabella Bird Bishop complained of being mobbed and rudely stared at everywhere. Our colleague, Ranjeesh, with his dark Indian features has the same complaint. My own experience though is that people resolutely ignore my presence, much more so than in China. At times it is slightly disconcerting being treated as a ghost, when you feel that your "foreign" presence has indeed been registered covertly. But often enough, apparent indifference may be just a cultural style, for the Korean face in public places tends to be an immobile mask of unspoken disappointments, or rigid pantomime in the case of most service staff, shop assistants etc (only the business manager may extend a flicker of recognition to encourage repeat business).

While Song Young-sup went out to find Alexandra, the rest of us settled down on thin cushions. Instinctively moving to keep my eye on the passing circus, I chose a spot with my back against the wall, even though two low table legs made things a little uncomfortable. Wang Xiaohua warned me that this was the guest's seat of honour. Quite right of course -- nobody could put a knife in his back there. But when he returned, Song Young-sup insisted that Alexandra take the spot.

As soon as there was someone she could talk to, a waitress approached Song Young-sup for our order. These women were muscular rather than girlish, hearty and businesslike, wearing loose black culottes to preserve modesty with frequent kneeling at the tables. Each of the rectangular tables could handle four people (we had two end to end), and each had a hole cut in the centre to take a brazier for cooking. The brazier was topped with a low conical cover on which to throw the long strings of torn meat, and the cover was changed every fifteen minutes or so as it acquired a glaze of burned fat.

As in China, meat in Korea has great globules of fat hanging off it, heart attacks waiting to happen. Song Young-sup remarked that until recently the Korean diet contained meat only rarely, it was a banquet food for special occasions. Ditto China again. Our guest preferred pork to beef, though he remarked that it was 30% more expensive.

A big difference with China though was the abundance of green leafy salad, leaves of many kinds whose names I did not know. The trick was to palm a leaf in one hand as wrapping for your choice of grilled meat, grilled octopus, pickled onion, raw garlic cloves, onion ...... You were supposed to engorge your creation with a single bite. Innumerable side dishes ringed the meat grill, almost all savoury or hot flavoured, or freshly picked .... lettuce and baby Chinese cabbage, kimchi, capsicum, chili peppers, sesame oil, sweet potato, sliced raw onion in oil, a kind of sweet potato, the chopped lungs of something, deep maroon, strips of marinated tripe (only Song Young-sup would touch these last two).

A pot of cloudy barley tea occasionally topped up our mugs (... I think that is what it was. Nobody could give it a name. Unlike China or Japan, real tea is not a traditional drink in Korea). We finished off with some quarters of skinned persimmons. Very firm, but not bad. I previously had the idea that persimmons were extremely bitter. Maybe they were treated somehow, or maybe the varieties differ. Though apples, oranges and bananas can be had (not cheaply), there is nothing like the abundance of fruit (fresh or dried) that you can find now in central China, let alone Australia.

With some hesitation, Song Young-sup had also ordered a couple of small bottles of soju, the Korean national drink, a clear spirit that looks and tastes rather like vodka or gin. The alcohol was more symbolic than real, just enough for a couple of toasts, though I noticed that unlike the Chinese custom, Koreans were free to sip when they liked, without calling a toast each time. Soju tends to be gulped rather than sipped by enthusiastic party-goers, but we learned the useful habit of not emptying the glass, hence giving no rebuke to a host who might feel obliged to immediately refill it. In fact, this was one party that did not become more voluble as the evening progressed. Mixed company never bothers me. Indeed I prefer it, and don't need to get drunk to enjoy myself. Alexandra of course had no Asian inhibitions either. Her Russian tastes would surely be untroubled by a bit of tippling, and she has given more than one hint that she finds Western (read American) party habits pretty limp.

But here we had Nguyen Tranh, with her Vietnamese ideas of respectability, and Song Young-sup, Wang Xiaohua and even Ranjeesh who all probably belonged to that large male tribe which divides the female world into good girls and bad girls. In any case, it was clear that they were being pretty restrained, their conversation languished, and only I plunged on with my tactless interrogations. Song Young-sup, slowly becoming aware that I also had the vice of writing, seemed to become more wary in his comments. About 8.30pm Ranjeesh slipped out and paid the bill. The party was over. Our first term in Korea was over, the end of the beginning.

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"An End to Beginnings" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved
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