Archive for September, 2009

Running around, Modernity, and Being here

It’s been a little while since I last posted… In the blink of an eye, things suddenly became very hectic – between trying to prep & take the writing portion of the GRE, language course starting, getting used to the commute to SNU which is roughly over an hour to attend a class that I really can’t understand, but which I will continue to attend because it seems really interesting & I actually think I will be able to glean a lot of good information – and then there was also the 가야금 (gayageum) class Saturday morning, immediately followed by a two day Mongolian dance workshop, also held at SNU. Though this had nothing to do with my research, I promised to videotape for Professor Lee, and it was interesting, even through the total lack of linguistic understanding on my part. With the combination of more grad school prep (aforementioned GRE, applications, as well a required research paper for the apps) and adjusting to life here, the research, etc. life has felt just a little bit schizophrenic.

But — I can say that through the chaos and running around all over town, I have experienced a few moments of harmony with being here. In these moments, something clicks, and suddenly I’m here, really here, living in Seoul, and I understand it – feel I understand it more and more until it feels like the place I call home. For now at least. It is the place where I am, not the place where I’m just here as a visitor to do some work and waiting to leave. These moments come and go, but they definitely come, and that is a good thing.

Speaking of displacement, I am working my way through Roy Richard Grinker’s Korea and Its Futures: Unification and the Unfinished War, which discusses – many things, among them – Korea and modernity, a concept that addresses issues related to diaspora, displacement, separation (as in separated families from the War), shifting identities, the loss of tradition. Modernity: something that promises the new, exciting, seemingly boundless, and yet threatens everything a culture has identified as being; everything it has held sacred in defining itself. And here we are in Seoul -  a place that is now so far into modernity, what I think of as deep modernity. There is just no turning back. So what does that mean for unification? The South goes farther down a path of globalization, and the North remains frozen in time – in a time of pre-modernity, so far away from what is happening in the South, and the world, now. If unification seemed a complicated goal before (at least to outside critics), where does it stand now?

As I sat in a cafe near Ewha Womans University reading about unification being a sacred goal of all (South) Koreans; a goal assumed to be inevitable, but whose very achievement also threatens the foundation of S. Korean national identity, which is greatly based upon and defined by national division – I looked out onto the streets, full of young college aged women wearing the latest street fashions of Seoul, and I thought, Do any of these people even care? Most of them were born in the 1980′s and after – they are the children of a globalized and globalizing Korea. How do these issues that have so wracked their country for decades affect any part of their lives? The generations of people directly affected by the Korean War are beginning to fade, and I think that with that is the loss of something very, very important to the national, collective, cultural memory and psyche of this country. A recent survey from the Korea Peace Institute reported that out of over 1,000 S. Koreans aged 19-59, about half said that they could accept Korea remaining divided, so long as it is peaceful. This is a very different portrait than Grinker’s book (published 1998). It is too early to tell… I’m realizing a lot of the literature I have, though incredibly insightful and very important for my work, may also be outdated, even after just ten years. Things move fast on the road of deep modernity.

I can’t say if at this point unification would be a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing – or possible/impossible – or if those questions are even relevant anymore. So much of discussion around unification just seems rhetorical. Not to sound like a pessimist, I want to believe in the possibility, but… I can say that the unification discourses that have been allowed to take place have been problematic for various reasons which I am too tired to go into here (i.e. – Germany).

And I can also say that I noticed how Koreans seem to really like Waiting for Godot. Unclear if it’s so much Beckett they like, or just the play itself. The latter would make sense. If you insert ‘unification’ as the ‘Godot’ that we await, but which never comes.

Then on the other hand, hundreds of families prepare for a much anticipated and very fleeting reunion with loved ones across the 38th parallel; a reunion that is most likely the last for many of these people. A complicated picture. Heartbreaking, really. All this Han!

Korea is such a deeply complex mystery to me – but I have the sense that understanding the nature of its mystery on a kind of gut level is going to be key to opening up some doors…

Non sequitur: some new words I learned this week

우주 (oo-joo) = The universe; cosmos

원리 (wol-li) = A principal, theory, fundamental truth => 우주원리

영가무도 (young ga moo do) = Spiritual dance

경과 (kyoung gwa) = Progression

There are a few other random thoughts I have had, but I cannot remember them now, so I will leave you with that.



09 2009

images from the week…

insa1 North Insa-dong


subway6 on the train….



Things are slowly progressing. Language courses begin next week, thank God. And I will begin attending a course taught by Aeju Lee (이애주) at Seoul National:


Last week I met with Dr. Choong Soon Kim, a former professor of anthropology and now President of Korea Digital University. A man with an interesting experience of migration and cultural border crossing. He left Korea in ’65 for the US, subsequently raised a family, received his Masters & PhD, then began teaching and conducting fieldwork in Tennessee and other parts of the US South. He worked with the Choctaw Indians as well as with poor pulpwood workers. He did not return to Korea until ’81, and describes this journey back to his native land as one of profound alienation – the country had changed so drastically in during all of that time, and some family members were very ambivalent about how to receive him. In the years to follow he did end up returning to do fieldwork in Korea as a Fulbright scholar, writing an ethnography on Korean family dispersal and the televised reunions on KBS. In 2001 he came back to Korea ‘for good’, accepting the Presidential position at KDU. His books are published in the US, and I highly recommend them.

Tags: ,


09 2009

First statement since return

So far in Seoul

Seoul has been a place of small and strange revelations. The experience of being a foreigner, yet not looking foreign, marks my experience here in a way that has been pleasant on the one hand, awkward on another, and still I can move about with relative anonymity, which is helpful. The other day I was looking for a bookstore in Jongno-gu (northern Seoul), and I stopped at a very conveniently placed public information booth. When the girl behind the window asked me where I was from, I found myself replying, “New York.”  It’s strange being in a place where things are totally familiar to me – faces, the sound of the language, the general cityscape, and yet everything is still very distant and other – foreign. In the moments when I try to recall the things that are familiar, those things of home in whatever city that has been my ‘home’ in the last few years, even those things feel more distant and far off. I began re-watching Chris Marker’s San Soleil today, and there is a line: “Memory is not the opposite of forgetting but its lining.” And to speak of this transition, perhaps really entering another country means entering into liminal space for a while. Before you ‘arrive’, you are neither here nor there, but definitely someplace in-between. To think of each place containing its own kind of liminal space and what that feels like… But this just brings me to refer again to Marker’s film which refers to T.S. Eliot’s verse: “Because I know that time is always time/And place is always and only place.”

All this is to say that it’s been an interesting trip thus far.

Seoul feels a lot more open than in 1994. I’ve seen a few kids dressed in various subcultural fare. You could drop them in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and they’d totally fit in, drinking their 카페라테’s at the Verb. But it’s definitely much more than these surface markers. It feels more open in that it seems there is less labor in the struggle to reconcile tradition and the modern city – not that this struggle is absent by any means – but there’s a bit more harmony. Also, I remember this place as being very over-crowded, a bit chaotic, not knowing how to manage rapid industrialization with quality if life. It doesn’t feel like this so much now. There is a stream that runs through downtown Seoul, unearthed by a system called daylighting, to provide tranquil public space in the middle of the city, and that has also lowered pollution & temperature levels.

I have spent much of my time in the outside world meeting with people. Professors, people helping me connect with professors often professors themselves, tomorrow I meet with a representative from the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts. Everyone I have met here has been so kind, so generous, extending a hand to help me in my work in whatever ways they can. I am grateful to them. There is the Korean hospitality that holds a kind of under-stated dignity and open-heartedness that is so completely rare in the U.S. and other Western societies.

Still trying to organize myself and plan out the flow of work, of which there is much…

Hard to believe I have been here almost one month.

Tags: ,


09 2009