Thor's Korea Diary

A Tale of Two Kingdoms

@21 January 2002

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Night after night on TV an enormously enthusiastic young lady plunges into isolated groups of older Koreans who obviously live hard lives in bleak, exposed farms and villages, or on little fishing boats. She chivvies them along, pretends to share their work, coaxes them to talk or sing, and usually ends up scoffing with gusto the rough food they offer in hospitality. To me it is all a mime show, for I cannot understand the simple meaning of a single word spoken. Yet by some estimates, 80% of our messages are decoded for how they are said rather than what the dictionary words mean. At that level, even a lumpen outsider like me can sense that the young lady succeeds wonderfully in bridging the gap between her own world and the ordinary folk to whom she is reaching out. And when I turn the TV off, the after-image which stays with me is the enduring reality of that gap between her lifestyle and theirs. This is a tale of two kingdoms.

Yes, the road from the mandate of heaven to the peasant's hearth has always been a long and dusty one. The yangban gentleman of centuries past, with his silk gown and pretentious ways, would hardly have deigned to admire the common folk. That attempt at bridging has come with illusions of democracy, new ideologies, a different kind of education. The coin of those two kingdoms has changed in other ways too.

My own window on Korean worlds is tiny and erratic. Since I ceased to use the old black & white TV set in my parent's home as an excuse to delay school homework -- and that was 1961 -- television has mostly struck me as a brain-dead way to squander the hours of a short life. As an expatriate though, transplanted into bizarre foreign cultures, TV does have its uses, for huge numbers of people everywhere stare goggle-eyed at the electron gun, hour upon hour. It is worth knowing at least what their heads are being impregnated with. (I also kid myself that by echoing the babble of voices which come pouring out, I may eventually pick up the rhythms of the local lingo).

In Bansong-dong, TV for me is a recent and accidental distraction. A departing teacher has graciously donated an ancient Gold Star model, together with a VCR. The two machines are not on speaking terms. I invested in a cable to patch the old TV to a roof aerial, but it can only manage a shaky hold on four or five stations. Various knobs are missing, channel surfing requires a pair of pliers, and every shimmering image is apt to disappear into a wavy haze at any moment. Nevertheless, with this arthritic instrument of social analysis, I seem to see evidence of two extraordinarily different societies.

In Wuhan, China, I had access to thirty-two channels with a rather fancy TV set (China has around 360 million TV sets, so they certainly know how to make them well ...). There was access therefore to a fair slice of Chinese public life, as seen through the camera. However the heavy hand of Communist Party ideology was never far below the surface. In way it was almost useful, a kind of known baseline against which you could measure the meaning of everything you saw.

The public media in liberal democracies pushes ideology as surely as their Communist cousins, but it is a fluid thing, a pattern of attitudes that emerges like a musical beat from the noisy clamour of interest groups and the prejudice or lazy repetitions of journalists. This is more or less what I am trying to pick up on in South Korea, willy-nilly, by interpreting body language rather than the actual meanings of words uttered (since I don't understand them). In fact, the game I am forced to play here makes me wonder about the shaky understanding of their new society that immigrants to countries like Australia and the Unite States must cobble together.

The world of South Korean TV (or the blurry fraction of it which I see) is remarkably promising. It is also a rather young world. Korean TV presenters are apparently hatched in the chicken factory as inseparable twins. There is almost always a man and woman, and they dance bright little minuets of turn-taking, perfectly choreographed by an autocue somewhere off-camera. They smile a lot, and appear to be witty. There is not a hint (in the body language) of gender put-down. You ask yourself how they emerged from a culture that, when the first Europeans came here regularly in the 1890's, made Taliban Afghanistan look almost sexually liberated. A country where women were only allowed onto the streets of Seoul between 8pm and 10pm daily, when a bell was rung and men had to go indoors... A country where even today the male birth rate catastrophically exceeds the female birthrate because of the (illegal) abortion of female foetuses.

Yet the boy/girl TV presenter twins do not seem to be atypical of younger Koreans. The daily programming itself has lots of quiz and game shows where contestants, invariably under thirty (often teens or even children) romp without a hint of camera shyness (and to think I used to be shy of using a telephone, let alone doing full frontal TV confessions). Again, the participants in these TV shows are always balanced elaborately for gender participation, often with a competition of the boys against the girls in a friendly fashion.

Come to think of it, the students in my Busan college fit the pattern of friendly gender competition pretty well, although they are a good deal less worldly than young adults of the same age in Australia. As in most societies, Korean girls in their late teens and early twenties are more emotionally mature than the boys. (In a vacation class of 18 year old high school students I'm teaching at the moment, the boys will be wrestling on the floor like bear cubs as soon as I turn my back). Overall, there is a huge preference for doing things in packs, or at least in pairs. The loner seems to be a rare phenomenon. Also, only a small percentage of the College students (and none of the high school students I've seen) bond in public as boyfriend/girlfriend (with or without a sexual commitment). If they did that, they would be separated out from the one-gender packs immediately.

In these patterns of single gender packs, Korean young people are following the behaviour of their parents, yet I have a strong sense from TV, as well as from my students, that they are a lot less rigid about mixing freely than even a generation ago. It doesn't take too much of a push to get boys and girls working together, and they are fairly relaxed about it. Older Koreans will say gloomily that the youngsters are turning into Americans. That seems unlikely (at any deep level), but there is without question an enormous generation gap. It may be a generation gap similar to the revolution that my own post World War 2 "Baby Boomer" generation confronted their parents with.

The Baby Boomer generation, so-named for the huge surge of births in countries like Australia and America from 1945 to the early 1960s, has also been called "the Me Generation", the selfish ones. I was born a week after World War 2 ended in 1945, and so come at the very margin of this group.

My parents were moulded in a quite different environment from my own peers. Their childhood experience was the terrible deprivation of the Great Depression, and their young adult life was tempered by the desperate threat of annihilation from 1939 to 1945. Their generation had learned that life came with no guarantees, and their response was to labour mightily for a secure future (I am generalizing greatly about whole populations here). The post-war prosperity of Australia and America was built upon their backs. Their sense of civic responsibility was strong, they volunteered easily to help each other, as well as the less fortunate, and having looked into the abyss at an early age, they were enthusiastic supporters of the developing welfare state. Yet along with the self-discipline, the hard work and strong ethic of this war generation came a dogged social conservatism.

They often tended to dislike individualism, or the person who stood out. Their dress and personal habits were tidy (maybe life in the army had something to do with that). They also had strong ideas about the roles of men and women, and believed that marriages should be preserved at all cost. Men disliked the idea of women working -- it was an affront to their ability to provide; (indeed earlier legislation required women to retire from public service jobs and teaching upon marriage). Women should not be seen in hotel bars, shouldn't swear and shouldn't smoke. In the mating game, it was up to men to do the hunting, but once the female was captured, her life was in the home. The life experience of Australians in this age group was that mostly bad things came from abroad, including attempted destruction by a Japanese sub-species (as they saw it; they were 97% white Anglo), and for that matter they didn't even much like Americans. In all these things, my parent's generation followed the practices of their own parents, with some liberalization caused by war time compromise. Maybe virtue had its reward. The post-war adult lives of this generation were amongst the most peaceful, secure and financially rewarding of any generation in history. They lucked out. (Although my own parents made some hard earned gains from a zero base by eventually owning a house, we never made it to the chardonnay al-fresco lifestyle.. )

The Baby Boomers, my generation, came into childhood in a world where stories of living from hand to mouth, and the madness of war, were ancient history. They were guaranteed health care, schooling, and eventually in Australia, free university (not quite soon enough for me). Unemployment was about 2%, which is probably the irreducible minimum. It was tough to keep non-academic kids in school when they could drift from job to job at relatively high wages from an early age, and hence have quick access to cars, booze and girls (in that order). Land prices were going up like crazy, so that any old suburban home could soon make its owners feel like landed gentry. Things were just going to get better and better. This was the natural order of things.

On the other hand, the old bastards running the world in my youth seemed to be brain damaged. They were playing an insane game with nuclear weapons, threatening to blow us all away. Then, just as we got to university and knew that the future belonged to us, our stupid governments became involved in a war of national liberation in Vietnam. They said there was a deadly threat from Communism. We decided that they were the deadly threat themselves when they tried to conscript us to get our heads blown off in a Vietnamese jungle. It was time to revolt, which is exactly what many of us did socially, and in a non-violent way, politically. [Paradoxically, while the Australian government was willing to send its youth off to far away killing fields for free, the South Korean government of the day, which really did have a reason to worry about Communist insurgency, sent its army on hire to help the Americans in Vietnam. The South Korean contingents in Vietnam were one of the largest mercenary armies of modern times, and profits from their contribution (not to mention political payback favours by the American administration) significantly helped to bankroll South Korea's industrialization program].

Our parents (in the West) could not understand what the hell we Baby Boomers were on about. They simply couldn't recognize their own youth in our behaviour. Our music was as outrageous as our haircuts; (generalizations again : I never liked pop much myself). We were skeptical about a life-long commitment to one sexual partner, or for that matter, to one employer (a skepticism well justified by the corporate behaviour of businesses in the "new economy"). The idea of living just to work seemed a doubtful goal. Working to live made more sense. But whatever our parents thought, we had the numbers and commerce soon followed. The idea of a "teenager" as a distinct social animal, and a "teenage market", were both born in the Baby Boom generation of the West.

Now, looking around at South Korea, there seem to be some parallels (though of course there are also major differences). Korea's most recent Armageddon was the Korean War (1951-53), when some three million people perished. It took the population about a decade to come out of the daze of that trauma, not to speak of the attempted cultural genocide of Koreans by the Japanese from 1910 to 1945.

Finally, it was military government, notably in the persona of General Park Chung Hee, which galvanized one generation into an enormous effort of self-sacrifice : the whirlwind industrialization which transformed South Korea between the early 1960s and the early 1980s. The students I am seeing now were born at the very tail end of this period. The desperation, deprivation, and struggle to even eat which their parents knew is no more than a family myth (just as the Great Depression and World War 2 were ancient history to my Baby Boomer generation).

The vibes I pick up from my (pathetically inadequate) contacts with Koreans older than, say, their mid-thirties is that Park Chung Hee is a sort of cultural hero, and everything wrong with the country now stems from the moral degeneration since that heroic period. This conservative nostalgia seems particularly strong in Kyongsang (the south-east of South Korea, including Busan), where the current president, Kim Dae-jung (who stands, in their eyes, for Cholla and the west) scarcely garners any votes. The deification of Park Chung Hee conveniently overlooks the slave-like working hours of his period, the brutal repression and near total lack of civil rights, as well as the huge out-of-control network of internal spies and thugs.

Britain's industrial revolution was also brutal, and longer lasting. Its excesses spawned the reactive development of true social democracy (while also nurturing the Communist Manifesto, which was exported but not adopted locally). Park Chung Hee's police state symbolically committed suicide when the head of the KCIA, maybe fearing for his own neck, shot Park Chung Hee dead. Yet the chaebols, the factories, the roads live on as a legacy. Above all the legacy lives on through the social conditioning of that 35+ part of the population. They may be the last of their kind.

The students in the vocational college where I work are no intellectuals, but they do unconsciously carry the cultural fashions of their generation and era. They are basically into having a good time. The unemployment rate in Busan, especially for youth, is scary (quite different from the easy-come, easy-go job swapping of my youth), but they are no more enamored of a lifetime of work slavery than the Baby Boomers of the West were. I have a tough time getting them to listen to warnings about what an employer might expect by way of skills. They live in nice new heated apartments and daddy pays the bills. Sacrifice is an abstraction. The nearest thing most of them know to a moment of truth is being blown away in the mayhem of an electronic video game (to which they seem almost universally addicted).

Also like the Baby Boomers, one of their first visible signs of revolt is through hair styles. For my lot, it was beards and flowing locks. For these South Koreans, it is almost de rigeur to dye your hair, sometimes in alarming shades like bright orange. This reduces the more rigid of their elders to paroxysms of fury, while the sergeant majors can have special fun "straightening them out" when the kids get dragged in for compulsory military service.

Regardless, as the present twenty-somethings come to their majority and take control of the national agenda, I think the spring tide of generational change in South Korea will become a tidal wave which sweeps away the old Chosun forever.


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

"A Tale of Two Kingdoms"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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