Tuesday, September 13, 2016

From ‘Meeting Mr Kim. Or how I went to Korea and learned to love Kimchi’ by Jennifer Barclay

‘When have I not been weary in winter time, or indeed anywhere when settled?’
-          Edward Lear

South Korea, or the Republic of Korea, the ROK, has a population of forty-five million – close to that of England, though the landmass is smaller, nearer the size of Portugal.

Kim Il-sung, ……shaped North Korea over an astonishing forty-eight-year reign…..Kim Jong-il inherited the state just as all first sons inherit their father’s business in Korean culture.

….within Korea there has been hardly any intermarriage with other nationalities and the gene pool has essentially remained Korean.

Taxis were reasonably cheap, though spirits could be dampened by the mad traffic jams…….

Home to nearly eleven million people, Seoul has almost a quarter of the entire population of South Korea. Smog and dust hang in the air, amid grids of utilitarian commercial office blocks.

It was quite unusual to see fat people in Seoul. Some of the young women were extremely thin, but even older women tended to stay trim, as did the men.

….Korean culture had many rules of etiquette; discipline and obedience were revered; breaking the rules just wasn’t done. Rice dishes in Korea are eaten with a spoon, and that’s that. Chopsticks are for side dishes and noodles.

When I lived in Athens, an evening stroll around town would generally yield a few smiles, bizarre conversations, the occasional invitation to join in someone’s party, some little epiphany of Greek life. Whenever I felt lonely and down there, I’d just go for a walk and see what cropped up……..But making contact wasn’t easy in Seoul. I could wander around for hours and smile at strangers, but most people seemed not to notice me. In a world where nobody says hello, life can be pretty dull.

……Gav had the proverbial Irish gift of the gab……

…….Beer Restaurant ……The floor was strewn with food and cigarette butts and paper napkins. It reminded me a bit of a tapas bar in Spain. And yet not quite, because – ah yes, there you go – people don’t spit on the floor quite as much in Spain.

Seoul was impersonal, like all big cities……..

He told me Koreans were scared of foreigners because most Koreans didn’t speak English, and therefore didn’t know how to communicate.

People in Seoul took great pride in their appearance – even if the effect was unusual. Lots of young Korean men liked to dye their hair bright primary colours.

There was nothing ostentatious about these buildings, though they were lovingly decorated and cared for. Korean Buddhism teaches that we are all part of nature, and its buildings try to blend into their natural surroundings. They were quite different to the huge and imperialistic Buddhist temples I would later see in Japan, or those in China or Thailand with their gold roofs. Respect for nature, and oneness with it, is intrinsic to Korean Buddhism. Harmony with nature and simple, restrained elegance are Korean ideals.

The monks appeared happy. As I would read later, an important element of Korean Buddhism is that you cant cling to happiness or sadness; you walk peacefully and freely towards enlightenment. Everything that happens teaches you something and you move forward, whatever is happening. The only way to be satisfied in life is to learn your true nature.

Kyungju…there was a rather fetid international hostel…..I opted…..for …….the Green House, with the usual selection of violent and pornographic videos by the staircase.

Travel in Korea has not always been safe. The first European to write about a sojourn in Korea was Dutchman Hendrik ……..Hamel, who arrived in August 1653 when he was shipwrecked……Once on Korean soil, he found it very difficult to leave: he and his shipmates were held captive for thirteen years. The king in Seoul simply said ‘it was not his policy to send foreigners away from his land’ …….because he did not want his country to become known to other nations…….. Korea kept to himself, barely aware of the outside world. During those years, Korea was repeatedly attacked and invaded by its more aggressive neighbours, Japan and Manchuria. The country had recovered, but developed an understandable fear of other nations, and simply closed its doors. …….Hendrik Hamel’s account of Korea from 1653 to 1666 includes a section on marital law stating that ‘the Koreans treat their women as slaves’. Men then could have as many wives as they could maintain and visit prostitutes too……..Confucianism ranked the male above the female and created an oppressive social environment for women……….women existed to serve men and give birth. The only powerful women were mothers-in-law, who were allowed to treat their son’s wives as slaves. ……..Henry Savage Landor….wrote of his months in Korea in the 1890s…described the ‘very strange custom’ that accorded women the right to walk about the streets of Seoul during the ‘woman’s hour’ after sunset, during which time men were confined indoors but tigers and leopards were on the prowl:…….Isabella Bird, another English writer and traveler…. attested that ‘Korean women are very rigidly secluded, perhaps more absolutely so than the women of any other nation’ ………Not even the royal doctor could set eyes on the queen, while women of lower status were granted much more freedom. ……So much changed for women in only a hundred years! ……The women I had met generally seemed friendly and confident.

In The Red Queen, Margaret Drabble’s novel set in Korea, a character says ‘one of the principal weaknesses of our Confucian system was that it made no place for the spirit’. That’s where Buddhism was needed to create balance and harmony.

Its surprising how many South Koreans cant swim, when the country is almost surrounded by water. For most of the teenagers, the beach was about eating and taking photos.

Korea seems a good place to be old: a time for playing chess in the park, dancing, picnicking, always in company. Its firmly embedded in Korean culture that you must look after your elders ……..

…..Koreans always looked so young to me.

………he wished me happy memories of Korea, and left. I walked up the hill, smiling.
The president recently asked people to be especially nice to visitors in the lead-up to Visit Korea Year. Was it because for so long nobody left Korea with happy memories, and so few people come here to acquire them?

In the late sixteenth century there came the invasions from Japan led by Hideyoshi and his samurai army. Recovering from this, Korea once again accepted the dominance of China and agreed to pay it a tribute. Korea clung to China and entered its most pronounced period of deliberate isolationism, learning of the world only through China’s contact with it. Korea cut itself off from all other external contact; the Hermit Kingdom did not welcome visiting ships. The royal family of eighteenth-century Choson isolated themselves in the refined palaces of Seoul, rarely leaving the confines of its walls. Respectable upper-class women were supposed to remain indoors.

Koreans only take five days holiday a year, he said, all at the same time.

……..unless you were a monk, Koreans saw it as a sad thing to be alone, honja. To be happy, you must have company. That’s why food was best when you shared it, all eating from the same dish in the middle of the table. That’s why people liked travelling in groups. I found the same thing when I lived in Greece, where my friends would always like to do things with company; in Syntagma Square one day, an older woman ignored every other empty bench in the square and sat right up next to me.

In a Korean family, the wife is in charge of the home.

The discipline, obedience, orderliness and etiquette of Confucianism was more than balanced by the Korean people’s natural exuberance, their love of life and their country, and the unstoppable generosity and hospitality of the Buddhist spirit. They were a tight-knit family, but not unwilling to draw you in and make you a friend.

Drinking has been part of the social fabric of Korean life for a long time. It provided Koreans with an escape from the rather stiff constraints of their hierarchical Confucian culture. …….The only way to seal a friendship or business association is to drink together.

Almost a quarter of Koreans are Christians. Christianity entered Korea through Jesuits from the Chinese imperial court in the eighteenth century, and spread quickly but was suppressed by the royal family.

……Catholic and Protestant denominations thrive alongside Buddhism and Shamanism, and of course Confucianism, which is not quite a religion but certainly a moral framework.

‘Life demands that we offer something more – spirit, soul, intelligence, good-will …’
-          Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi

The hostel had a social lounge where you could meet other travelers, and the porn videos and circular waterbeds so prevalent in Korean yogwan were conspicuously absent here.

Japan was sophisticated and lovely. The people were polite and helpful. And yet, after a while, perhaps we missed the madness of Korea, the effusiveness of the people, the unfathomable differences, the rough-around-edges quality ……..merely being in Japan was astoundingly expensive, twice as expensive as Korea.

……mountains covered seventy per cent of Korea’s land area, making it one of the most mountainous regions in the world…

Unfortunately, while Korean people are hospitable, warm and good-humoured, most foreigners tend to encounter the stony face of Seoul. Its not very welcoming being laughed at in restaurants or told to leave, not easy getting around when taxi drivers are short tempered…..on getting out of Seoul, you begin to understand why Koreans are so proud of their country.
Korean culture must be one of the least diluted in the world, especially for such an advanced nation. ……..Elizabeth Kim…….says ‘the intense love for the country’s heritage and traditions has its darker side of hatred for anything that taints the purity of that heritage’……..Yet the Korean people have never sought domination over another nation. Perhaps its because there is spirituality at the heart of the culture: Seon masters who live in simple poverty, meditating in silence, living in harmony with nature. While Koreans strive for economic growth, they have a place in their hearts for the simple life away from the city and material things. They’re also a people who have massacred and repressed their own, who litter their beaches and build ugly beaches, of course. Its hard to generalize.

China is beginning to envy South Korea not only for its pop stars but for the marriage of individual happiness and sophisticated consumerism with Confucian values about family loyalty, something China lost during the Cultural Revolution. South Korea has modernized and yet retained its traditions.

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