Korean culture seen by a non Korean


Brother Anthony (ȼ)


              The first European woman to travel in Korea, late in the 19th century, Isabella Bird-Bishop, gave fascinating descriptions in the book she wrote of the squalor in which most people lived, the corruption of the ruling elite, the Koreans almost universal ignorance of the outside world, their apparently complete lack of artistic culture. Each evening she looked down from her hammock at the vermin of all kinds wriggling and running across the floor below, while crowds of curious villagers poked holes in the paper doors to stare at her. Yet after leaving Korea, she commented that there was no other country in the world that had made such a strong impression on her or awakened such feelings of intense affection. In a few years, she had come to love something about Korea and its culture that was stronger than all the negative aspects. Is love the sign of a successful intercultural encounter? In that case, we have to ask what can make us love aspects of a culture that may seem very un-loveable?

              It is not easy to answer the question of what Korean culture is today, or how we can love it. But as a starting point the identity of the non-Korean seeing Korean culture is perhaps more important. After all, an Asian businessman who spends three days staying in a luxury hotel in downtown Seoul, meeting Koreans who speak English, is not in the same position as a Korean-speaking missionary or university teacher born in Europe who has lived more than twenty years in Korea. The writer of these pages belongs to this latter category, having lived in Seoul since May 1980. He has had many years in which to reflect on what Korean culture is, and what it means to him. When he went to the ten years ago to ask about taking Korean nationality, the official he met asked some questions, then commented: People want to become Korean for a number of reasons, but you are the first one I ever saw who wanted to become Korean because he loved this country!

              That was a very kind remark, and it seems to be true that I love Korea and am happy to be living here. Now love, whether for a person or a culture, is not something we have very much choice about, of course. It is certainly a good idea, when you have to live in another country for a time, to try to have positive feelings about its culture, to be interested in the ways its people live and the things they value, to avoid the temptation to compare everything unfavorably with your own culture and values. But that is not yet love, I think.

              At the same time, to say that I love Korea and its culture is not to say that I admire everything I see around me in Seoul. It does not even mean that I keep silent about the things I do not like; but it does mean that the negative experiences are (I hope) powerless to change my affection. There is nothing worse than a westerner who works in Korea and spends all her time complaining about it. Luckily such people are quite rare; I suspect that it is because those who do not come to love Korea find that they prefer not to go on living here.

              I, and others like Isabella Bird, love Korea with a critical love that admits frankly the many problems facing the country, the many lamentable features of daily life. Our affection does not make us idealize a country that is so far from many ideals. It would be enough to watch the 9pm television news for a few days, to convince anyone that Korea is no earthly paradise. The news shows politicians who seem to care nothing for the welfare of the country, but only pursue their own political careers, and businessmen who believe that any money coming into their hands belongs to them, to be used to bribe poorly-paid officials to allow them to break the law. Drivers jump into their car after drinking several bottles of soju, kill innocent people, and curse the police who arrest them. Sometimes it seems that every prison must be full to overflowing. Most evenings there are tearful accounts of deaths that could easily have been avoided. At the same time, the non-Korean often waits in vain for some brief mention, at least, of events in the rest of the world. Television news in most countries is parochial, to be sure, but here the space given to foreign news and the depth of the reporting is outstandingly minimal. Except, of course, if a Korean is involved in some way, or Korean interests are affected. Then we hear much more.

              What, then, is Korean culture? Especially, what is the Korean culture that non Koreans are expected to see? One of the basic concepts in cultural studies is that of the stereotypes people have of a country, whether it be their own or another. Seoul taxi drivers, hearing I was born in England, invariably exclaim: Ż. Fog and Margaret Thatcher are other parts of the commonly perceived Korean image of England. What are the corresponding stereotypes of Korea? ġ, Ұ, ѱ, ... I have had university professors who know I have lived many years here ask, And have you tasted ġ? They seem unable to believe that I could actually like it. When asked to share their own Korean culture with non Korean guests, many Koreans grow rigid with anxiety. It is as if they have a completely negative image of their country. The automatic reaction to almost everything is: But you wont like that, You wont enjoy that. Visitors often plead in vain to be allowed to eat something other than Ұ.

              During an international celebration organized by the Korean Catholic Church, dozens of foreign guests were to be lodged in the homes of Korean Catholics. A very sensible housewife advised the families beforehand: You must not change anything. These visitors want to share your ordinary daily life; above all, they want to eat the food that you usually eat everyday. It was no good. Almost all the families banished rice, kimchi, soups and brought in bread, pizzas, cheese, and steaks. Foreigners, they felt, will only be happy if they eat foreign food. That may be connected with the way so many Koreans, traveling abroad, do all they can to eat the same food as at home, turning up their noses at foreign cooking.

              Yet food is perhaps the most truly Korean aspect of modern Korean culture. Today, most Koreans live in apartments, sleep in beds, eat their meals sitting together on chairs around a single table, wear suits and ties and modern-style dresses, or jeans, watch television, drink beer and whisky, and listen to Brahms or rap, like people everywhere else in the world. Younger Koreans may never have been inside a ѿ, slept on a , seen their father and elder brother served their meals on separate tables before anyone else, worn Ѻ or seen anyone wearing the traditional . They do not enjoy pansori, or , or any form of . They do not know how to prepare a cup of green tea except using a teabag. The nearest they come to old Korea is when they drink ɸ. And there we are back with food.

              I know a tiny Ĵ in ȭ kept by an elderly woman who makes everything herself, including the , the , and the . The food is simple, the tables wobble, and on a cold day you may eat sitting on the Ʒ in her ȹ. I do not know who is more fascinated and delighted to eat there, my foreign visitors or my Korean students; the experience is almost as new for the Koreans as for the outsiders. How many different Korean cultures are there today?

              If I start by talking about Korean food, it is probably because there are so many restaurants in Korea and generally what is served in them is very unlike any other countrys food, although the younger generation seems determined to grow fat on hamburgers and spaghetti, pizza and coke. Still, even more essentially Korean than kimchi and bibimpab is the Korean language. It constitutes the main obstacle to communication between Koreans and the rest of the world, because it is so unlike almost all other languages, with the exception of Japanese and one or two others. Korean is so unlike most other languages that few visitors are able to pick up a smattering of it. Either you have to attend classes several hours a day for a couple of years, or you make do with a few simple words.

              In terms of cultural difference, the most challenging aspect of Korean for westerners is the distinction between and ݸ. Surely no other language except Japanese makes such a clear difference between people, stressing with every sentence that one speaker is younger or older, higher or lower than the other. Here is an area in which there can be many misunderstandings, although I find that most Koreans do not feel obliged to be as careful about language levels when talking to non Koreans as when they are talking to one another, and do not expect foreigners to get the styles right every time. For Koreans, it must be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to imagine a culture where there is no concept of and Ĺ, where people do not feel obliged to specify if their brother or sister is older or younger, and where students often call their professors by their given names. In Europe, we might easily hear a 20-year-old student referring to someone in their 60s as their friend if they share a common interest and often meet. Not in Korea, I think.

              In fact, the whole area of personal relationships is very differently organized in Britain and in Korea. Few British people would be prepared to spend much time with their fellow office-workers after work is over. They might have one or two with whom they establish a private, personal relationship, but in many cases the friends they associate with after work are drawn from quite different backgrounds. What must amaze any European coming to Korea is the size of the groups of people eating together in the Ĵ and drinking together until late; they cannot imagine being obliged to continue being together with all the people they work with, 15 or 20 at a time. Students in Europe are certainly more inclined to associate together in larger groups but even they expect to spend most of their private time in groups of just a few friends. In an English pub, it is very common to see married couples drinking together, and often couples form friendships with other couples, going on trips and holidays together. Korean men have often told me they could never make close friends after leaving high school. British men would find that very odd.

              The culture of a country includes the patterns of social obligation, those activities that a person is more or less obliged to participate in. Europeans find it amazing that Koreans can sit for hours in a listening to their boss, or their professor, or some other hierarchical superior, talking on and on, telling the same jokes time after time. The degree of personal freedom assumed in European culture makes such situations almost unthinkable there. Again, the non Korean living in Korea has to be sensitive to what is expected of them, and find ways of establishing their own relationships. This whole area is a very delicate one and will surely undergo rapid change in the coming years, in part as Korean women increasingly enforce codes of conduct protecting them from disgusting and disrespectful behavior, as in part as more and more younger Koreans refuse to destroy their health with excessive drinking. It is quickly clear to a non Korean that the way Koreans socialize is marvelously harmonious on the whole, displaying an ability to tolerate each other, interact and play games, entertain one another and generally have fun together that is certainly not found in northern Europe.

              Korean culture is nothing if not group-oriented, and the main group in a Koreans life is the family. This is true throughout Asia, where people are generally closer to life in the rural farming village, where a family has to work together in order to survive. At the same time, the Korean family is today perhaps the most vulnerable part of Korean society. The number of elderly Koreans who have no contact with their children, who have abandoned them rather than assume responsibility for their parents in their old age, is alarming. At the same time, the divorce-rate has suddenly soared as young couples no longer feel prepared to confront the challenge of living together. This too is an area where Europeans find traditional Korean customs hard to understand. The way in which Korean parents, especially mothers, undertake to find a suitable bride or husband for their children is rarely found in western societies, where today young couples may begin to live together without even telling their parents.

              I have been amazed to see Korean couples get married less than 2 months after meeting for the first time, and in the past at least such marriages could be expected to endure. Today, many young people tell me how materialistic everyone seems to have become; the men are afraid to meet potential brides because the only considerations they have seem to be financial ones. At the same time, Korean women are less prepared to accept the traditional freedom of their husband to come home very late, drunk, after evenings which include the close attentions of female entertainers. The added stress on the family from the impossible cost of housing, requiring both partners to work full-time, only makes life more difficult for young couples and their few children. Yet one of the greatest changes in Korean society in recent years has been the growth of activities done by whole families together at weekends or on vacation. There was a time when a Korean father would never have been seen playing with his children, or even talking to them.

              Korea is more deeply torn between the past and the present than almost any country in Asia. Many Koreans now in their 40s can remember seeing their mothers weaving the cloth for their summer clothes, living in village houses with rice-straw thatched roofs where water was drawn from a well and where the laundry was done in a river. The children walked miles to and from school every day. Now everyone seems to live in an urban apartment. This is why the question What is Korean culture? is such a hard one to answer. Today, it involves movies, cars, computer games, pop music, popular comedians in television talk shows, baseball and soccer, underground music cafes, and golf—to say nothing of sending your children to a variety of п until late at night from the age of four. These aspects of todays popular culture are, certainly, very popular but the non Korean may not always find them very interesting, loveable, or very authentically Korean!

              The traditional artistic culture of Korea is in great danger of extinction. One reason why it is more threatened than that of many Asian countries may be because it cannot be easily harnessed to tourism. First, a lot of it is not immediately picturesque or sexy enough; besides, international tourism in Korea is mainly a matter of cheap group tours from Japan, China, and by Koreans living in the United States. The people in such groups have little interest in traditional culture of any kind, whether it be in the performing arts or in handicrafts. They are happy with karaoke bars, saunas, and shopping for ginseng, Ѿ and cheap souvenirs. They have little or no interest in green tea or hand-made pottery, Buddhist philosophy or ancient temples, traditional music and dances from court or countryside, expensive hand-made, hand-dyed fabrics or elegant, costly traditional furniture. To say nothing of Korean poetry or fiction.

              A fundamental error comes from the top, with the Korean government often seeming to think that culture is best developed in connection with mass tourism. There is a sense in which high culture means the finest expression of every aspect of life that a country can offer, things that may be rare, hard to find, more expensive. This is a matter of quality, not quantity and it must be said that very many Koreans tend to prefer quantity; they also tend to like doing whatever everyone else seems to like doing, while the activities connected with traditional arts are almost always the concern of a small minority.

              One simple example involves tea-drinking. If you ask for in an ordinary Korean restaurant, or even in the lobby lounge of very luxurious hotels, you will almost always be given a cup of hot water and a tea-bag containing some mysterious powder that turns the water a yellowish-brown. Or you will be offered coffee instead. Yet Korea, like China and Japan, has a centuries-old tradition of tea-drinking, and the best Korean green tea is far superior to that of Japan in delicacy of taste. It is not served in a tea-bag but carefully prepared in a tea pot with pure water at the correct, rather cool, temperature, poured into small cups, and savored with the eyes and nose before it ever enters the lips. Once it enters the mouth, the taste must be allowed to expand as the tea passes over the tongue and down the throat, then the aftertaste lingering in the mouth calls for attention.

              The place where the tea is drunk is also important. A temple or traditional Korean house in the countryside is best, with the sound of water from a nearby stream. The tea? Some of the finest tea in Korea is made using the ߻ from the slopes of and I usually go there in May with some friends to drink the newly made tea, made by people we know. There we come much closer to the most truly Korean experience of beauty and harmony with nature, with not only the tea but the delicious food prepared using the plants from the hillsides. Outside the cities, Koreas landscape is mostly composed of wild hillsides and this experience of the ways in which traditional Korean culture took advantage of all the resources offered by nature is of immense value. Where the culture of todays cities is mostly that found everywhere, the rural areas still remind us that Korea is different, and that its traditional culture, developed over centuries in harmony with nature, has important lessons for todays world which is so in conflict with the natural environment.

              The Korean tea culture originated and was transmitted within Buddhist circles; it was lost when Buddhism was radically deprived of its previous power and influence by a new ruling elite professing Confucianism in the 14th century. Thousands of temples were destroyed, their monks were mostly sent back into society, and in the following centuries the Way of Tea () was lost, together with very many other important aspects of Buddhist culture. There has been a great revival of Buddhist life in recent decades, yet few people across the world realize that the Korean practitioners of or Zen (it is universally known by that Japanese name) have inherited and practice a more authentic tradition than that taught by Japanese teachers.

              Nothing can be more truly Korean than the experience of life in a Buddhist temple. Yet relatively few Koreans have had such an experience; they only visit temples briefly as tourists. I am deeply thankful for those times when I have been able to spend a night in a temple, drink tea with monks and be woken very early in the morning by the sound of the temples great bell echoing across the surrounding forest and hills, serving as prelude to the morning chanting in the temples main hall, while night birds sing and the polluted cities seem very far away.

              Tea and temples do not form part of most modern Koreans culture; neither do ǼҸ or any other form of . Today, millions of Korean children are forced to learn the piano or violin, while only a small number are encouraged to learn the ߱ or ر or ܼ. There are many exponents of traditional Korean performing arts, as well as of manufacturing crafts, who are growing old without having found anyone to whom to transmit their skills. Traditional Korean musical culture is a unique part of the worlds cultural heritage, and yet it is being allowed to wither and die without anyone taking any notice. It is my joy to know a number of performers, including ± whose skills in Ÿ are extraordinary and have enthralled audiences here and abroad. Yet he has to survive on a minimal allowance from the state, and it is not sure if any modern young Koreans will be prepared to undergo the hours of painful training needed to master his art. He is able to sit cross-legged on the rope, using only a tattered fan to keep his balance, and talk to the audience at the same time!

              Culture is a word with many meanings, as we have seen. It covers every aspect of a societys life, while also being used in a more limited sense to refer to the arts and crafts practiced within that society. My own deepest contact with Korean culture in both senses has come about through literature. After living here for about ten years, teaching English literature, it seemed that the time had come for me to do something going in the opposite direction. I felt that I should also try to make works of Korean literature available to readers in Britain and the US by translating them into English. I began with the poetry of the great Catholic writer, Ku Sang. Here, it seemed, was a man whose vision was universal yet deeply Korean at the same time. His western, Catholic vision had been enriched by contact with Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist writings. His poetry was often rooted in very simple, everyday experiences of life—meeting people, seeing a river polluted by modern industry, walking in the hills—but within it was a deeply religious, metaphysical understanding of the cosmos as Gods redeemed creation destined for eternal life.

              Later, I translated works by other modern writers including , , , , . Reading their works, meeting many of them, and discovering more about their personal life histories, I was given a much deeper insight into an essential aspect of Korean culture—its inheritance of pain. Each of those writers, like all the Koreans of their age to a greater or lesser extent, had been marked by the events of recent Korean history. was obliged to flee south from the ideological terror developing in North Korea in the later 1940s, leaving his mother and elder brother (a Catholic priest) behind, never to see them again, of course. The life stories of each of the others, too, was similarly marked by indelible scars caused by the events of the Korean War, the 1960 April Revolution when hundreds died, the years of dictatorial repression when dissent was forbidden, the industrialization of Korean society, the crushing of the 1980 Kwangju democracy movement . . .

              Above all, I discovered the poet õ , although only after his death, and his faithful companion through 20 years of poverty and pain, , with her tiny cafe õ hidden in a corner of λ絿. For the last ten years, they have been my guides and companions in a deepening relationship with Korea and its culture, its history and its beauty. It is wonderful to feel that for many Koreans, despite all the materialism and superficiality of modern life, õ and are great figures, true heroes, displaying the victory of the indomitable Korean spirit over hardship and pain. It amuses me to think that while serious academic critics mainly ignored his work, õ was earning for himself the reputation of being the only truly sincere Korean poet among the younger generations. As a result, his books are still steady best sellers in the bookstores, ten years after his death, where other famous poets works hardly sell at all.

                   What inspires love? Beauty. That is the main idea in much of Platos writing, where he points out that true beauty has very little to do with physical appearance and is essentially a quality of the heart or the soul. That is what raises us up and draws us out of ourselves. That is the message of õ s most famous poem, õ:

ϴ÷ ư.

̽ Ҿ տ ,

ϴ÷ ư.

Բ ̼

ٰ ϸ,

ϴ÷ ư.

Ƹٿ dz ,

, Ƹٿ ϸ......

When he wrote that poem in 1970, he had recently been tortured brutally for no reason, he was jobless, penniless and homeless, his health was broken and he thought he was going to die aged only 38. Yet all he wants to say about the world is that it is beautiful. In the end, he survived thanks to his friends and . In 1988, they were told that his liver was failing and he would die within days. With no money, he could not expect to receive treatment at a hospital. As they sat together by the streetside, at a loss what to do, he suddenly saw a child, smiled brightly and exclaimed: ! His own troubles were all forgotten at joy before childhood innocence. He and his poems stand there reminding us that nothing is more important than the simplicity and joy of a truly human heart. That is perhaps for me the most important lesson I have learned from any aspect of Korean culture, and helps explain why I love it and am so grateful to have been invited to come to live here.