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Notes From The Road: South Korea and the Illusions of Gangnam Style, Part 1

Landing here in South Korea on my first venture into Asian waters was a shock to my psyche. I purposely did not prepare for this journey in the usual ways: studying what would more than likely be a homogenized version of its history, learning basic language skills and cultural customs that might come in handy, etc. No, I wanted to land blind and let this place wrap itself around me, surprise me and hopefully show me its truths. I have not been disappointed.

Korea is a nation struggling with the societal cost of extremely rapid infrastructure growth. While it is easy to create the worlds fastest internet grid, to build out sparkling cities with super high rises and efficient transportation, it is far more difficult to build out the cultural capacity for change of an entire population at the same speed. South Korea is paying the social cost of this prolific expansion in ways that I dare say do not necessarily bode well for the future.

Haeundae District, Busan Photo: Nancy Kotting

In its desire to embrace its role as an emerging economic powerhouse, South Korea seems to have embraced the trappings of a successful 1st world country, yet when I dig deeper into the lives of individual Koreans and observe street life and some rural areas, I see a gaping divide, as if this shiny beautiful ship has cast off for the future, leaving an entire culture standing on the docks questioning their own lives, their past and their future, not knowing quite where they fit, if they will ever measure up or if they even belong.

The global success of a four-minute K-Pop style YouTube video featuring Psy may indeed be the first impression millions are having of a South Korea beyond being able to recognize her flag in International sporting events. It is what Psy is juxtiposing ‘Gangnam Style’ against that interests me. Through my post-feminist, decidedly American and politically progressive lens, I absorb what surrounds me daily in Busan and the surrounding countryside. What I have found is that my observation and understanding of the social challenges being faced by South Korea come into a sharp focus when informed by the changing lives of women in South Korea.  It is through learning of their lives, their challenges and their reactions to the current state they find themselves in at this moment in the country’s history that I am able to understand and process more deeply the magnitude of impact South Korea’s astounding growth is having upon its social structures.

While trained sociologist, linguists, ethnographers and the usual myriad of scholars will most certainly lay claim to similar analysis, I think the thoughts, found herein, bring a decidedly non-academic clarity to the story that is South Korea at this moment in time and are therefore relevant.

I flew 18 hours, landing finally at the airport in Busan. I bumbled my way to baggage claim, following along behind familiar faces from my flight, trying not to look like a foreign tourist as the signage was in Korean and only Korean. I felt my first pangs of ‘arrogant American’ realizing my refusal to prep for this trip with at least a little Korean language skill was at its core disrespectful. South Korea was going to change me, this I knew.

My friend eventually found me and appeared to be quite relieved at having done so. He secured a cab and on we went. He spoke like a native New Yorker fluent in Korean to the cabbie, barking at him in traffic and ridiculing him for hanging in the slow lane. I was surprised at his urban rudeness, somehow I had not expected it but quickly realized I was now a student in a very strange land and best keep my mouth shut. He explained that ‘they’ will try to make an extra nickel anyway they can and that one had to stay ahead of ‘them’.  The cabbie kept his eyes straight on, showing no physical signs of acknowledging us. We drove into the city taking the thoroughfares that wound around the green hills erupting from the city, a city that laid itself out around them, pooled itself around them like water streaming with neon, endless trails of neon.

Neon at Night/Busan

The driver seemed resigned and more than relieved when we departed his cab after double checking the fare. A bit embarrassed, I gave him a smile and said thank you as I pulled my luggage out to which he threw a wide, saw-toothed smile right back at me and gave me a hearty ‘Thank You!’ obviously proud of his own language skills. I would later come to understand how important it was to this working class man that he could speak English, limited as he was.  Again, the pang in my gut prompted me to learn ‘hello’, ‘good bye’ and ‘thank you’ in Korean as quickly as possible.

I found a room in what turned out to be a college bar district run by a young man who catered to foreigners. After my brief tour, he made it very clear I was not to discuss my rental with anyone in the building. I eventually ascertained that this space was actually rented long term by another (currently away on break), cleared of his belongings by the landlord and sublet to me, all on the sly. My first lesson in Korean entrepreneurship.  It was a studio with a kitchenette to the left of the entry door, backed by a completely tiled bath which in essence was a huge shower with a toilet and sink in it. The main room was 11 x 11 with a linoleum floor upon which I was ordered NOT to tread with my shoes. As is tradition, Koreans sleep on the floor which is well padded and heated. To leave ones shoes on and tread across the home-owners bed is the height of rudeness! These floors are decadent to walk on in stocking feet and feel strangely natural to curl up on after a day out in the Korean winter weather, Korea being just a tad close to Siberia. Needless to say, there was also a western style bed in this first apartment which I opted for.

Moving around the city of Busan, I am immersed in everything alien with none of the usual markers available by which to navigate. I am stripped of language both visual and audible. I am surrounded by a language in which I cannot even decipher simple syllables. To my untrained Western ears, the noise of Korean being spoken on the streets feels like one is in an aviary with the familiar sound of automobiles providing the only recognizable element. The high-pitched, musical chatter of Korean being spoken by teenage girls, especially in crowded coffee houses filled with students, goes from enchanting to deafening as the brain quickly hits overload after failing to pull any linguistic correlation from it.

Once, while shopping in those first few days, I lost sight of my friend but thought nothing of it. I knew the general direction he was headed in when I last saw him and just kept wandering, enthralled by the array of merchandise. Hearing my name abruptly above the Korean chatter started me: there was my friend stalking toward me, angry as he could be.  I then received a lengthy lecture on just how screwed I would be if I were to get lost here. No language, no ability to read and a streetscape daunting in its visual complexity of competing neon and prolific signage useless to me, blending into a bizarre kleidascope of symbols, color and occasional recognizable images. The only way to navigate is by gross shapes of buildings and the ability to memorize ones zigs and zags through the maze of congested streets, a task impossible for the directionally impaired such as myself. As the full realization struck me, I became unsettled: he was right. I became an attached child afterwards, never letting his tall, imposing frame out of my sight.

Outside of Seoul, South Korea is just beginning to acquire the use of English which is being taught in the private and public schools by an army of Western 20-somethings, the only Westerners I encounter. Only a minute percentage of Koreans speak English so when navigating the city, the option of stopping a passerby and getting an answer to ones inquiry is simply not available. If one is fortunate enough to address an English speaking Korean, it is often the case where, sans them possessing the correct answer, the individual will give you his or her best effort at an answer that quite often has not a thread of truth in it, just to save face. It is not to say Koreans purposely lie to you, they simply are not willing to admit they do not know the answer in a face-to-face scenario. I hear story after story of wayward Westerners boondoggled by this cultural difference. It is confusing, and very problematic under some circumstances. I have learned it is best when necessary to ask each question three times, of three different people and if I still feel leery, I’ll bump it to five with the odds of at least two somewhat identical answers increasing.

English as a second language in South Korea is at such an embryonic stage that the only natives speaking it somewhat fluently are schoolchildren for whom the language is insisted upon by parents relentlessly pushing the next generation out into the world, vying to get them a stateroom on the shiny ship. Just as the language divides me from my surroundings, so it is dividing this entire country. Old ones are shut out, never to see the world from the deck of the shiny ship. They are left to live out their lives in the Korea of old: agrarian, rudimentary industry and a closed culture revolving around family, church and the growing seasons. They remember the war. The young English speakers do not. Therein lies the rotted rope bridge few venture to cross.

(To view part 2, click here)

© 2012, 2013 Nancy Kotting   All Rights Reserved    Reproduction by Permission Only

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One comment on “Notes From The Road: South Korea and the Illusions of Gangnam Style, Part 1

  1. Fremont
    January 19, 2013

    Good story so far- did you continue??

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