Reflections on the Korean Condition

Busan Harbor ViewThe school year is drawing to a close. Books are being checked for completion, students are practicing dances to inappropriate American pop songs they will perform at graduation (Gimme gimme gimme a man after midnight), and the gray in everyone’s hair is starting to show. The students have none of the ‘school’s out for summer’ attitude popular in American high school movies, instead they know that they will leave Friday with one set of classes and Monday they will resume with another. How I just want to steal them away to an outdoor park for an hour. Teach them what ‘feeding the birds’ is like. They were confused by the idea when I mentioned it in class. I figure my dad will forgive me—he always said it trains them to expect food from people. Maybe they, like these kids, could use a little help.

The Korean condition. The more time I spend here, the more I discuss with colleagues and Korean acquaintances (and students), the more the culture shock becomes apparent. Surviving in a big city is a skill you acquire quickly—dodging old man loogies and standing your ground as the subway doors open become second nature pretty quickly. The little things take more time, and burrow in deeper. Granted, with two months under my belt I have barely scratched the surface and my opinions are primarily based on observation. As I make more Korean friends and push past the cultural boundaries, I’m faced with as many questions about my surroundings as answers.

Last weekend I spent time with two native Seoulites who did their best to appease my stored-up slew of inquiries. I met Hyunjoon at a dinner party and we immediately hit it off, talking about his time spent in the States and his interest in American culture. Often I find Korean interest in my culture as strong as mine in theirs, making for an excellent start of a friendship. He found it hilarious that he had visited more American landmarks. I admit that the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty are on the list, but I’ve always assumed that they’ll still be there when national adventure takes priority.

Hyunjoon is a graduate student in Economics and about to start at Korea University, one of the largest post-secondary schools in Seoul. His attitude is laid back but still very Korean, rigid social conformity showing around the edges of his converse and NorthFace jacket. When I saw his Facebook post re: contemplating eating live octopus again, I jumped at the chance to go back to the Noryangjin Fish Market with a native speaker. We never made it there, but our Saturday did consist of various local sightseeing. From walking through an extensive outdoor market (ginseng! Dog!) to exploring the Children’s Grand Park Zoo, it was a day filled with good conversation and interesting cultural discussion. He even stopped into a few mobile phone shops to help me figure out a phone plan. So much easier when you speak the language. We ended our time by meeting up with some American and Korean friends, having a rigorous debate over the meaningful classification of languages, and playing King’s Cup in a hof until the language barriers had completely dissolved. (Hyunjoon remarked at some point that King’s Cup is like all of the complicated Korean drinking games rolled into one).

On Sunday, I meet with Eun-mee. She is a 27 year-old graduate student studying Lifelong Learning (adult education), and a friend of a friend of a friend in Seattle. I really like her. Quiet and patient, we sit down over coffee and just talk, haltingly at first. Her English is good, but we both have our smartphones out on the table with translators ready. We discuss Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, and the cultural differences that are most apparent to me. The concept of Jeong immediately strikes me as the word for what I’ve been experiencing, the air of collectivism and conformity interlaced with support for your fellow man. While there doesn’t seem to be an English equivalent, the closest definition I’ve found online is “affection”, the “feeling or connection that you feel toward something or someone.” Broadly, “a culture-bound Korean concept of love.”

There are two kinds of jung, goeun-jeong and mieun-jeong. Goeun-jung is a love-love affection, like a husband and wife relation, or just simply, love. Mieun-jeong is a love-hate affection, like you’d have towards a best friend you’d give your life for, but occasionally want to punch in the face for being so annoying. You can also feel jeong  for things, for instance a ring that your grandmother wore at her wedding then gave to you. She dies, and you feel jeong for this ring like you would for a person. It’s complicated. Eun-mee also describes jeong as the communal commitment to one another, like the ‘ship’ in friendship or kinship. It makes people care for eachother, whether on the street or at home. And it’s very apparent here—never mind the elbowy old Korean woman pushing past you, there is another in the jjimjilbang who will come over and just start scrubbing your back (with painful vigor) if there is no one else there to do it for you. Based in Confucian principles, jeong is both a working concept seemingly not found in general Western society and what seems to hold Korean culture together. When you tap into it, it’s beautiful.

Hierarchy, and the acceptance of your role in society, is another Confucian principle predominantly displayed in Korean culture. Most westerners I’ve talked to have a problem with the concept of being born into a certain role in life. Our cultural history of ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘the pursuit of happiness’ make us want to know that there is no limit to our social ladder, that we can rise from rags to riches or flip burgers if that’s what our calling is. Koreans see hierarchy differently. You know your place, and you must work the system in order to move up. At work, you are completely subservient to those above you. Never contradict or criticize, what your boss says goes. What his boss says he does without question, and you support him. Both in the office and out, you are required to be present for every social function, to keep up with your boss’s drinking habits, to never leave before a supervisor does. To be sober when your boss was drunk would be shaming him. To leave early would be incredibly rude. Two examples:

A friend told me he was on his lunch break at work when a supervisor called, saying he needed some numbers crunched and rushed over in a hurry. In a flurry, he dove into the paperwork until a second supervisor showed up at his desk and asked him to come out for lunch. Unable to say ‘’no” to either, he went to lunch and came back to slew of demoralizing and angry emails from boss No.1. My immediate reaction was Well, why didn’t you tell boss No. 2 about the first request, crunch the numbers, and meet up with him? Seems legitimate. Impossible, was his answer. If a supervisor asks you to do anything, anything, you do it. Caught between two impossible situations, he chose the one that was standing in the door. His other boss now won’t speak to him at work, and makes snide comments when he walks by.

Example two, same person. At six o’clock one evening, he started packing up to go home when his boss came in and told (not asked) him he needed to stay until nine. Unpack, sit back down. At nine, the same boss appeared and said there was a corporate dinner he was needed for. Off to dinner, then drinks, back home around two AM, to be up and at work again at six. The next night, the same thing happened. With less than nine hours of sleep in a 48-hour period, he was exhausted but uncomplaining. You just have to do it.

 

Capitalism has blurred some of the financial strata, but there is still the familial expectation to know your place. Those millions you make with your innovative business will more than likely go to your parents, to care for them, to repay them for when they cared for you. Expectations and hierarchy play an enormous role in the family dynamic. Most women live at home until they are married, which by that time is both a blessing and a curse. The subservient role you play towards your parents for the first third of your life is then transferred to your husband for the rest. Korean women are seemingly vicious creatures because of this, in my outsider opinion, yet some of the most beautiful women on the planet. The control they may lack in their destiny they make up for on the street, which is where I encounter them. Fierce, ruthless, determined, these women would be the last you’d want to meet at a free-for-all clothing sale. Yeeowch.

I’m reading a wonderful book by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a story about raising children the Chinese way in America. In short, Chua discusses the differences between Chinese and Western parenting. While Western parents give their children the ability to choose for themselves, Chinese parents decide what is best for their children. What instrument to play, whether they can go to sleepovers, that they can never be in a school play… these all fall under the jurisdiction of the parent. The child’s desires are not part of the discussion. The child will grow up talented, skilled, ripe with knowledge, and will be expected to make his parents proud.

I do hope I have made my parents proud, but sadly I know it would be my strength of character rather than my achievements that would cause such an emotion. True to Western style, my parents have always been incredibly supportive. Allowed to make my own important decisions, be they class subjects or who to be friends with, I was given (comparatively) a lot of control over my young life. In my mid-twenties, when the really hard decisions begin to present themselves, my parents continue to be supportive and kind. Sometimes—only sometimes, mind you—I wish they had made more decisions for me. It would be great to be able to play the piano now, even though practicing made my mom and I scream at each other. It would be great to have a business degree instead of one in Art History. Instead, my parents relied on my ability to make my own choices, chose to support me instead of control me, and ultimately produced a soft-around-the-edges but generally well-read, well-mannered, capable and accepting human being. I can handle that.

My time in Korea is teaching me (schoolin’ me is probably more accurate) many things. My life has been easy so far. If you want the reward, do the work. Shut up and put on a sweater. The West Coast is where I’ll end up. I saved way too many things when I packed up my house; I can live on much less. My parents are wonderful, supportive, curious and remarkably individual people. Putting on make-up and heels to go to the corner store still feels like overkill, but how you present yourself does make a statement on your opinion of yourself and those around you. Teaching is a job I enjoy, but I’m not convinced it is what I want to do with my life. Cooking is a job I really enjoy, but I’m not convinced it’s what I want to do with the rest of my life. Loving and being loved by someone you respect, learn from and are supported by makes you capable of just about anything. Peet’s coffee and dark chocolate are amazing, and worth having imported. Being absent for the death of a family member is complicated. I’m really all I have when it comes right down to it. While I’m not convinced that everything happens for a reason, my life being what it is makes me confident in my decisions and my future. Despite a large part of my heart still residing on the West Coast, I know I’m where I need to be.

 

 

 

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Kimchi jjigae!

528695_796113909505_2009643140_nIf I’ve learned anything in my brief time in Seoul, it is that if you open yourself to the world, the world will do the same. What a whirlwind of experience, all condensed into a few short weeks. Moving into a new apartment, New Year’s eve and day, my first experience making home-cooked Korean food and a jimjilbang… the ‘Wow Moments’ just keep coming and each one is unique. I feel myself adapt to a new life, a new city, a starkly different culture.

New Year’s weekend rolled around and it was finally time to move into my school-appointed apartment. At last! Tim had been a wonderful host, but living out of two suitcases got old really fast. What should have been a smooth transition quickly proved to be a huge mess, in more ways than one.  My contract replaces that of RJ Teacher (everyone is a teacher here, even the accountant and the janitor), meaning that I take over his classes and his apartment. Basically, I come and he goes. Well, he went alright… without leaving me any information on his classes, and (dun dun duuun) without a key to the apartment. Jump to: Me standing on the landing with all my things and no way to get in. I’ll spare you the details of that day, except to say that it just kept getting worse and worse. When I finally did open the door a few hours later, it was to a scene out of a horror movie. RJ had basically just packed the things he wanted and left everything else. Cigarette butts, spilled cat food, dark dried stains on the floor, piles of stained bedding… despite the custom of not wearing shoes indoors I ended up throwing out the first two pairs of socks I wore inside.

Luckily this was on the Saturday of a four day New Year’s weekend. Translate: plenty of time to get on my knees and start scrubbing, but what a way to spend a holiday! With a faucet-like head cold to top it off, the whole scene was a nightmare.

 

Around five in the evening of my second day of cleaning I hear a knock on my door. I lay the scrub brush on the floor of the bathroom, hastily wipe my nose on the nearest piece of tissue and try to pull the dish gloves off my hands enough to be able to open the front door. My neighbor and co-teacher Jennifer is there, eyes straining past me into the apartment, searching for confirmation of the rumor that RJ had left the place a mess. Her eyebrows go high and stay there when she sees me; I must look pretty insane after two days of intense cleaning, nose-running and general fuming.

Jen had heard that I was interested in learning Korean cooking, and is here to invite me to another co-teacher’s house to make kimchi jjigae. My savior! A break is exactly what I need, not to mention some spicy Korean soup to clear my sinuses. I literally can not get out the door fast enough to meet John Stephen and Jen at the market for supplies.

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Now when I say market, I mean the grocery store in the subway station. I know. Apparently there are many other markets and grocery stores in Seoul, but I have yet to go to them as this one is the most convenient. It’s your basic small grocery store, stocking everything from cleaning supplies to snacks, to a small selection of alcohol and some meat and very expensive produce. That is definitely one thing to note: produce is the most expensive food group here by far. And the selection is slim to none, mostly onions and sweet potatoes, with some imported tomatoes and peppers. Lettuce is nearly impossible to find, and ridiculously expensive when you do. So much for salad.

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When they don’t have exactly what we want, John Stephen suggests we go to the outdoor market for the bulk items, like kimchi. We step out of the subway station, go down a main street I pass every day on my way to school, and turn right into a narrow alleyway. Suddenly we are in a different world, surrounded by late-night shoppers, stalls of salt fish, buckets full of grains, garlic, ginger, chilies, literal wooden tree stumps used as chopping blocks covered in fish scales with a cleaver slammed into the center like something out of a morbid still-life painting. Everything from the last two days of depressive scrubbing evaporates instantly. THIS is the foodie Korea I want to see! The stalls are so close together, their awnings nearly touching overhead, and each has thick sheets of plastic hung over the entrances with an overlap for a door to keep in the heat. I’m not sure if Jen and John Stephen are entertained or thrown off by my enthusiasm, maybe just surprised. The smell of ground ginger is in the bitterly cold air and I am in culinary heaven.

The old lady that John has bought kimchi from before has already closed her stall, so we go in search of another vendor. I find a man with two tables covered in kimchi of various kinds: cabbage, green onion, radish, cucumber, grass… you name it. I don’t see the kind we are looking for, however, so I ask him as politely as I can, bowing, “Kimchi jjigae kimchi, juseo?”

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He nods, and reaches under one of the tables to pull up an enormous bucket. Motioning to me with his hands to ask how much I want, he winds the opening of a clear plastic bag around a wire loop, slips kimchi in through the opening, and pulls it back off, tying it with a clean swish. Simple. Effective. Korean. He holds up four fingers, I hand him 4,000 won (about $4), he hands me a football-sized bag of kimchi, and the deal is done.

Back at John Stephen’s apartment, we slip off our snowy shoes at the door and Jen and I sit on the floor as John starts to prepare the meal. I’m taking copious notes on my iPhone until I realize that kimchi jjigae is really incredibly easy. If you like kimchi and can find a decent variety, you should definitely make this. It is spicy (depending on your kimchi) and tasty and filling. Oh, and CHEAP.

 

 

What you’ll need:

A good chunk of cabbage kimchi (standard kimchi)IMG_3717

Some pork cut into 1 in. cubes

Firm tofu

Pork or beef bouillon or seasoning

Water

That’s it.

First, sauté the pork in a deep pan until mostly cooked. Don’t get it too brown or overcooked or it will be tough. Add your kimchi, mix, and cook until everything  is heated through. Fill the pan with water so that the kimchi is pretty much covered, add a small amount of bouillon/ seasoning, cover and simmer for about 15 minutes. Stir well, then cube your tofu and layer on top. Cover again and simmer for another five minutes. Kimchi jjigae!

As the kimchi is really the main ingredient, I’d only recommend making this in the States if you can find some good kimchi at a local Asian market. If you do stumble on some, make this immediately. In a Korean restaurant it is served in a hotpot, literally boiling like lava and much too hot to eat at first. Torture… the smell is so appetizing that I always burn my tongue anyway. It is also always served with rice, which is delicious to mix in to soak up the broth. Also recommended: Soju. Kimchi, soju, rice. TIK.

This is Korea.

Chuck Close, Up Close

This morning at my uncle’s house in Marina, just north of Monterey, I woke to the smell of coffee. This must be a common Harris thing: wake early, brew a strong pot, catch up on what’s happening in the world. A family morning ritual I can stand behind. This particular morning, Rabobank mug in hand, I watched footage of a major tunnel collapse in Japan, political stirrings in Egypt, heat-mapped weather projections of the storm raging outside. Good to know what’s going on over the horizon. It starts to make sense towards the end of the first mugful.

I had planned this weekend to take some ‘me time’—perhaps a jaunt in the Freedom camper into the redwoods, or a night camped by the beach. California had other plans in store for me. The storm that raged up the coast was enough to make outdoor activities less than desirable. Luckily, the Saturday I spent touring Monterey with my Uncle was relatively clear, and what fun we had!

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I learned about Chuck Close during my studies at University of Washington. It’s difficult to learn about twentieth-century artists without his name popping up, and for good reason. His large and dynamic portraits, specifically the ones made up of hundreds of colorful tiny abstract squares, have always appealed to me with the sheer depth of creativity taken to produce them. Yes, yes, he has a huge team assembled to help him. Yes, yes, the inspiration for leveling a face into a two-dimensional image may come from a learning disability preventing him from recognizing faces. No matter. Even if you’re not ‘into portraiture’, it’s easy to see why these works are genius.

In contrast with his contemporary Andy Warhol’s famous stylized images of celebrities (e.g. Elvis, Marilyn Monroe), Close chooses subjects unknown to the general public (at least at the time of the portrait) and breaks the images down into grids of abstract color. In my eyes, the true talent of Close’s work becomes apparent when the viewer examines the image up close, noting the grid-like systemization of color, then falls back to a distance and is surprised to see that as a whole these many abstractions combine into something like photorealism. It’s amazing. A video played on a projector in art school does them absolutely zero justice.

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The exhibit included more than Close’s large paintings. Huge wall sized portraits of men and women done entirely by thumbprint were scattered through the exhibit. By thumbprint, you ask? Yes, by thumbprint.

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There were also some amazing pieces involving a mirrored cylinder surrounded by a drawn-out image. This process completely blew me away. The angle of the cylinder to the paper produced a reflected face that was completely indistinguishable on the surrounding paper. Amazing.

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SO, you can understand my excitement when Uncle Greg mentioned the Chuck Close: Works on Paper 1975-2012 exhibit at the Monterey Museum of Art. A day to visit with my Uncle AND see Close’s work up close? (buh dun chhhh) Yes, please.

The Monterey museum has two locations: one in downtown Monterey on Pacific Street, and the other, La Mirada, in the surrounding hills. I love the separation of spaces allowing for a more intimate viewing experience, but I had no idea what a gem the La Mirada location was. An old Spanish-style building surrounded by gardens, rough-hewn beams sprouting from ceilings, whitewashed walls catching the sun and echoing sounds… even if it wasn’t filled with fantastic contemporary art I would feel at home here. The intimate, elegant space flowed easily from one room to another, and the deep colors of the polished hardwood floors brought out the rich hues in the artwork. It is definitely a place I will be visiting again.

More photos from our day of fun:

Southbound

And the path starts… now. Closed my front door this morning, locked it, slipped the house keys into the mailbox for the landlord and set off towards the street. Right. Left. Right. Left… right.

I’ve moved many times in my nine years in Seattle. Moved from apartment to house, to California and back, lived with friends and by myself, but always with a tangible plan spread out before me. This move feels more like… that moment when you go to dive, arms spread wide in the air before forming an arrow that will lead you decisively into the water. That moment when your toes aren’t quite on land but haven’t fully committed to the air. That moment when your eyes want to instinctively close but you keep them open anyway to see what’s ahead of you. Leaping into the unknown. Eyes wide. Body tense. Wind in your hair. Lungs at capacity.

Being on the road feels good. Natural. Travelling with my dad is something so familiar to me; we have used roadtrips and car time—‘Wanders’—as our time since I can remember. “Where should we go, Wup?” he’d ask. “North or South?” Today we go south. In a month, I’ll travel further west on a plane than I’ve ever been. (Although really, when you’re going that far, east and west kind of lose their meaning.)

I’m going west, to the East.

It has been nine years since I moved to Seattle. Nearly a third of my life has been spent exploring the Pacific Northwest, a region I knew little about and have grown to love immensely. “You’re going to Seattle for College? It rains a lot there, doesn’t it?” Yes, yes it does. Salmon. Cedars. Native Americans. Punk rock. Grunge. And then you live here, and there’s just this certain something about it—like you are an integral part of this beautiful, tiny corner of the world full of cyclists and foodies and craftsmen and the most delicious fucking beer you’ve ever had. Surrounded by people who enjoy good things and take the time to do them right. We would. It’s raining outside.

Leaving seems… well, beyond the sheer feeling of adventure, it feels like crawling out of a warm blanket and into the cold, crisp, potentially brutal air of possibility. Seattle will always be a home for me, but I do believe there are others to be found out there. Korea may or may not be one, but I have no doubt it will be a lover of mine for a while. Seattle, you’ve done me well. Within you I’ve gained lifelong friends, loving family, and a sense of self. I have no doubt or regrets about you. And perhaps that is why I can leave you knowing that the part of my heart I leave behind will always be kept safe. Don’t change too much while I’m gone (and for goodness sake, stop building condos).

Farewell, my Northwest home.

I, Freedom(the camper), Yonder(the truck), my dad, and a U-Haul containing my material life head South. So does the rain.

Travel and a sense of Self

Last night I flew from Seattle to Oakland, CA where I am spending a couple of weeks with family. After devoting myself almost exclusively over the past month to getting this website up and running, the change in scenery was a shock to my system.

I love to travel. I could wax poetic about scenery and freedom and seeing new things but what I really get out of traveling is a true, simplistic sense of self. When I’m traveling I’m not surrounded by the daily reminders of routine and responsibilities, nor by acquaintances, nor my apartment full of ‘stuff’ that has come to represent the physical proof of my existence. When I travel those things break away and I am left with just me. Sometimes that’s a scary realization: I am who I am independently of my external surroundings.

So this morning when I woke up I had one of those “where am I” experiences. Since I moved to Seattle from the Bay Area both of my parents have moved a few times, so when I come to visit the feeling of ‘home’ centers around people, not places. Lying there on the hide-a-bed in my dad’s home recording studio, it really hit me that when I travel I break myself down and find the essence of ME.

Last April I was lucky enough to travel to Italy for two weeks where I spent my first few days wandering Roma solo (sola). Before leaving Seattle, I comically spent three weeks cramming on Italian language CD’s yet made the (somewhat irrational) decision to just immerse myself as much as possible once there, sans map. I landed at Fiumicino airport with directions to the hotel I had booked for one night and not much else. Over the next few days I just walked. I had been to Rome once before in 2003 so I had an idea of the places I wanted to revisit and things (mostly art) I had missed the first time around but was determined to avoid ‘a plan’ as much as possible.

After two days of aching feet, a full belly, two memory cards full of pictures and a new-found appreciation for the Italian way of life (and homemade pasta), I noticed that the anxiety I sometimes experience before throwing myself into a new situation had never even come up. I reflected on this over many cappuccini. Like I did this morning, I came to the realization that traveling by myself in a new environment had stripped me down into my component parts and what was left was a true sense of self. Once this idea had sunk in, it was like a fire had been lit inside me. With everything else stripped clear, I felt shiny and literally able to accomplish anything I set my mind to. I was also so far removed from my usual surroundings and acquaintances that all ties felt severed and I was free to just EXPERIENCE without external influence.

In those two weeks I just ABSORBED. Having a true sense of self in an unfamiliar place was like a license to try everything on for size to see how it fit. I very much admire people who are present enough to experience this daily. Apparently I need to get out of dodge before the realization hits.

Have you experienced this before?