Posts Tagged 'Culture'

On Dislocation

Lake Wingra. Madison, Wis. Photo by windelbo.

Lake Wingra. Madison, Wis. Photo by windelbo.

SEOUL — I WAKE UP AND EVERYTHING is gone. The familiar props have vanished like a set on Broadway, and in their place is a just a big window and the day ahead. There are bare walls; an apartment without memories. Slowly, the inertia of routine animates my limbs into showering, putting on socks. I’m out the door and I press the elevator call button. Night is draining from the sky.

Hours pass.

My legs gyrate awkwardly on an elliptical machine and I wonder who I’ve become. I am not someone who joins health clubs. I see flashes of the University of Wisconsin arboretum. The road is covered in patches of snow and I can see my breath. There’s tall grass on the edge of the the lake. My tires hum.

Pounding techno pulls me from my reverie. My reflection bounces up and down on the window; people on the street below scurry off to somewhere.

Everything about moving here has been harder than I expected. Stripped of the elements that made up what I called life — the time to write, my bicycle, locally grown food, coffee shops and friends — I’ve found myself in an identity funk. I slip back and forth between welcoming this, in hopes that the experience is somehow making me richer, and feeling like I’ve just lost track.

Korea, ironically, has in some ways felt more distant and elusive than I when I was Stateside. I mainly see three places: the apartment, the subway car and the office. What keeps me grounded in the fact that I am actually here is an often acute sense of alienation from my surroundings and occasional bouts of homesickness. What has also escaped me is progress towards finishing a set of personal projects: language fluency, regular posting and an in-depth piece of journalism among them.

I once read that a person can only successfully do 2.5 things during a given period of time. A job counts as one thing, a new marriage another, the saying went. I’ve been testing this theory since I got here, railing against it with inflated ambitions and strict time schedules. Still, the rule has held true. Which is why I find myself squeezing in 40 minutes at the gym on the odd day to keep from becoming totally sedentary, instead of taking the long, daily bike rides I would prefer. And why this blog has fallen into disarray.

All of this, however, is being viewed from a perspective that is too muddled in the daily without respect to the full equation. When I am afforded the presence of mind to observe where I am — both geographically and in life — I feel more satisfied. I notice the how the leaves are changing off in the mountains, the way Seoul’s air seems purer with the crackle of autumn.

What its even more enlivening is when I think about travel. My wife and I recently found a block of time in which to escape, and as soon as we had set the dates we stirred into action. Laptops flew open, clicking over maps and researching phrasebooks. Malaysia has taken our imagination. The idea of waking up in Sarawak and peering out towards the South China Sea sends a cool ripple through me; the unfamiliar once again inspires.

The Finer Points of Korea’s Drinking Culture

photo by riNux.

THERE IS NO BAR TIME in Seoul. Evenings tumble forth endlessly in the city while citizens enjoy copious amounts of beer and soju — or, more recently, wine and cocktails. From the late-night alleyway restaurants to the posh clubs of the Apgu district, drunken nights are part of the culture: they seal business deals, solidify friendships, and leave you with the kind of memories you hope won’t be forgotten in the morning.

But for all that drinking is in South Korea, it isn’t sloppy. There are rules to be observed, which, if broken, will put you on the wrong side of Korean notions about respect — or at least get you funny looks. Here’s a guide to help you navigate the blurry world of Korean drinking culture …

Read more at Vagabondish.

‘Suicide’ Shines Light on Brokered Marriages

IN A DISTURBING EXAMPLE of a brokered marriage gone wrong, a Vietnamese woman was found dead shortly after divorcing from her South Korean husband in what appears to be a suicide. But a number of confounding details have trickled out of the case, says the JoongAng Daily, leading to a police investigation and drawing attention to problems plaguing the marriage industry.

Back in February 2007, I discussed a growing trend of South Korean men heading to Vietnam and other SE Asian nations seeking brides, and posed questions about whether these women were being treated as commodities. The death of Tran Than Lan certainly makes an argument for the affirmative; her marriage to a man identified only as Ha dissolved after about a week. No considerations appear to have been made for the language barrier, and a series of difficulties ensued:

[Tran’s] diary, written from Jan. 17 to 29, revealed the typical problems in marriages between rural Korean men and women from developing countries.

“My husband slapped me across my face,” Tran wrote, “maybe because I didn’t do the chores the way he taught me. But I still don’t know what he’s talking about.”

The initial investigation showed that Tran “jumped ― or somehow fell ― on Feb. 6 from the 14th-floor balcony of the apartment she shared briefly with her husband.” She was 22-years-old.

Tran’s mother, Huynh Kim Anh, says that when the matchmaker who brokered the marriage between her daughter and Ha called to inform her that Tran was dead, she refused permission to have the body cremated. But it was too late; Tran’s remains were incinerated the day before.

Ahn is now in Korea searching for answers about her daughter’s death. Another mysterious aspect of the case is that Tran bought a ticket back to Vietnam the day before she was found dead — unusual behavior for someone contemplating suicide.

It appears not much has changed since last year. Resources to help foreign brides adapt to Korean life were largely absent then, as they appear to be now. This is irresponsible. While the local government may have little room (and little right) to interfere in issues of marriage, it has a duty to make sure its citizens — Korean-born and otherwise — are healthy and safe.

Culture for Sale

REAL ESTATE BILLIONAIRE SAM Zell’s reiteration of his willingness to sell the naming rights to Wrigley Field along with the Chicago Cubs baseball team is just another reminder that our culture is up for grabs to the highest bidder. While the field might already bear the name of a corporation, a quote in a Tribune article today hits on why that’s missing the point:

Fans argue the Wrigley gum company could solve the problem and generate goodwill by ponying up to preserve tradition. The company — which has had its name on the stadium since 1927 when it was named for team owner and gummaker William Wrigley Jr. — has no comment, a spokesman said.

Brad Sarna, a sports valuation analyst at Absolute Brand LLC in Milwaukee, thinks the Wrigley company wouldn’t get enough out of a deal.

“I don’t even think of Wrigley gum when I think of Wrigley Field,” he said. And calling it Orbit Stadium, after a Wrigley brand, would defeat the purpose.

What this is really about is tradition, about the memories that we have tied to names, words and places. Yet across our society these ties are shamelessly being severed and rearranged to serve consumerism. Seattle’s old football stadium was simply called the Kingdome; now it’s Qwest Field. I can’t hear the Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye” without thinking “Hello, Goodbuy.” And as these companies gain by hijacking our culture, we can only stand to lose.

Photo: wrigley field north, by nytejade. chicago.

This Land

IT WAS AN UNEXPECTED TWIST of language. I was explaining to Hanju (in Korean) my concerns about Barack Obama, whom I’d recently seen at a rally, when I used the term uri nara – our country – in reference to the United States.

That might not seem at all strange, except that uri nara is a phrase that is only ever used to talk about Korea. The words are almost symbolic, an expression of solidarity and collectivism, two things rarely if ever associated with American culture. Yet at a time when our nation’s communities seem irreparably disconnected, that was the exact feeling I sought to evoke.

As I stumbled through a politial dialogue in my adopted language, I learned a few new words. Hanju learned a new one as well: rhetoric – by one definition, the art of making persuasive speech. The night before, Obama had spoken about the importance of young people reinvesting in their communities. In his words there were echoes of Kennedy’s famous line: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” These ideas resonate with me as I’ve long felt that what ails this country is growing apathy and a general disinterest in our fellow man.

But amid Obama’s talk about changing the culture I was forced to wonder, is it just rhetoric? Uri nara is faced with so many problems, I said to Hanju, that we can’t afford four years of pretty words.

I talk a lot on this blog about wanderlust, about my desire to pick up and get lost in the big world, yet I have to admit to my affection for this land. As travelers it’s easy to lose touch with the romance and wonder of our own nation – to get bogged down by our misanthropic foreign and domestic policies. But every now and then something comes along to remind us of what we have here, and what we lose when we stop caring. How strange that my heart’s ties to the homeland were made plain while speaking the syllables of another tongue.

Photo: sunset over a wheatfield, by jfhatesmustard. eastern washington state.

Where We’re From…

AS SOON AS I HEARD the title I reached to turn up the volume. I was listening to a podcast released by Seattle’s KEXP when the DJ announced that the next song was called “Northwestern Girls,” sung by one-man-band and former Brooklynite Say Hi. It was a beautiful track and, despite a lack of much description of the song’s subject in the lyrics, the simple utterance of the syllables north-west seemed to resonate.

I grooved to the song a bit more than perhaps I would have if it had been named, say, Southwestern Girls, not because of some nostalgic or romantic reason (my fiancee is, in fact, a Midwestern girl) but because of something that is more subtly ingrained in the hearts of statesiders – regionalism.

The US is a big country. We may be tricked into thinking the nation is monocultural because of the homogenizing effects of mass media and nationwide chains, but deep down we feel the differences in texture, in speech, in values and in thoughts. I didn’t really notice this until – duh – I left the Northwest.

At my study abroad program in Korea I was not only thrown into the mix with Koreans, Dutch, Australians and Chinese, but also with Americans hailing from all corners of the country. Even as we acknowledged the vast differences in culture between our nations, we statesiders began to take note of the differences between our home cities.

Kids from the east coast commented on the relaxed manner of those from Southern California, while Northern Californians piled on criticisms of LA. Northwesterners got the dubious reputation of being “granola,” Midwesterners got called out for their flat pronunciation of words like “bag” and “Chicago,” and there was at least one terrible mix-up over slang terms (On the west coast to “kick it” means to hang out, in New Jersey to “kick it” means to have sex).

While this expression of regionalism was more playful than anything else, it was at least partly responsible for the bonding of new friends and even the creation of small cliques – where we were from became the common denominator.

The strange thing is that as soon as we returned home all notions of regionalism seemed to evaporate. Walking the streets of downtown Seattle I felt no immediate sense of connection to the people I passed, nor any inclination to give friendly acknowledgement – despite the fact that we all lived in the same community.

Of course we can’t expect to bond with every person in our home city simply by the virtue of cohabiting a few square miles; yet the idea that we might warmly greet a stranger from our hometown while traveling some foreign road but coldly pass the same person on a normal day warrants some reflection. We are not as disconnected as we think.

Photo: seattle dreams by Slightlynorth.

Double Standard

ROUGHLY HALF OF SOUTH Korean undergraduates lack English speaking proficiency, according to a recent survey conducted at a Korean university. While the extrapolations made from the survey data are questionable (the results of one university are not necessarily representative of the whole), the normative conclusion drawn from the outcome – that Koreans must study even harder – is indicative of a huge international double standard, and of a global societal ill.

English has become the “international language” – there’s no way around this. But too often have native English speakers taken this as their ticket out of learning a foreign tongue, while millions of students the world over are left to struggle with a daunting and seemingly lawless mess of English grammar and idioms. Though recent surveys show that enrollment in foreign language classes is up at American universities, I would bet a hefty sum that American proficiency in a foreign language is dismally lower than 50 percent (recent immigrants excluded). Even outside the U.S. there are problems; a recent Guardian article reports that British schools are ignoring language learning targets.

The other problem is that as university students in other parts of the world focus on their English-language education, they often lose sight of the importance of using their native tongue effectively; a Korean friend of mine said to me in a recent conversation that he’s noticed many of his friends pepper their speech with Internet slang and Konglish (Koreanized English), and give him blank stares when he uses more high-level vocabulary.

The drive to learn English has also likely limited Koreans’ options in taking up other languages – such as French, Chinese or Arabic – that English-speakers freely pursue. Americans, after their mandatory year of a foreign language at university, either opt out or continue if they have a passion for it; the rest of the world chokes down English because not doing so would threaten their chance at a successful life.

To call this an inevitable reality of globalization is a cop-out; this is a glaring disparity that must be addressed by making responsible changes to the educational systems on both sides.

(Updated 12.13.2007)

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