Seoul Searcher

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Burning Bright?

Let me make it clear from the outset that I, like so many people around the globe, was dismayed by the scandal of Tiger Woods' extramarital affairs and deeply disappointed in the famous golfer. I have been one of those who admired him for his superb athletic ability and extraordinary talent in playing the sport.

At the same time, however, I was amazed by the sharp and critical reaction of the general public here in America as well as in the rest of the world to what seemed to be a string of unending disclosures by the overzealous news media of Tiger's alleged adulterous affairs.

Displaying characteristic voyeurism and a penchant for scandal mongering, some newspaper and television reporters seemed to have had a field day digging up morsels of juicy tidbits as well as rumors and speculatgion day after day while self-righteous commentators and opinion leaders criticized, some even condemned, the golfer for his alleged "immoral" past. They predicted that most of the big corporations that had commercially endorsed Tiger would terminate their support for him.

But what I don't understand is this: who made Tiger Woods more than a great golfer? I mean aside from having become one of the world's richest athletes, who anointed him to be an unblemished and morally upright human being? Who made him to be a "role model," especially for the young? Who, in other words, placed him on the social and moral pedestal?

Weren't they those who are now working hard to bring him down sneering and laughing at him?

Tiger Woods himself said he is an imperfect man with all the human frailties and shortcomings. I don't think he asked or behaved as though he was superior to his fellow humans. Playing the game of golf better than other people does not make him a grea human being, and I think he knew it. It is true that victory after victory in professional golf tournaments, winning millions of dollars and commercial endorsements, could have possibly made him feel like a "superman" as some journalists put it. He could have become overconfident, even arrogant, as a man. But the fact remains that he did not seek to be a leader, or a model, if you will, or least of all, a great man in our society.

In this sense, the case of Tiger Woods should not be seen in the same light as that of President Clinton and even North Carolina Governor Sanford as both were leaders elected by the people. As far as I can remember, Tiger did not ask to be seen and reated as anything other than a good golfer. That doesn't, of course, mean that he should act like a jerk or oversexed fiend in his private life. After all, he is a public man--a celebrity, as they say--and as such, he had certain unwritten obligations to be a descent--not to mention law-abiding--person.

In addition to his inexhaustible energy for practicing and playing golf, he apparently has an unquenchable, strong sex drive so that he allegedly engaged in sleazy affairs with women, some of whom were reportedly "of ill-repute."

But as long as he did not violated the law, what he did in his family and with other women were private affairs and no one, especially reporters, has the right to pry into them.

As I said all this does not mean that we should try to understand or even condone his alleged adulteries. But he said he would stop playing golf indefinitely and set his family affairs straight and, above all, try to become a decent man. Indeed, I believe, more than anything he should try and grow up and be a mature person.

I am not a golf enthusiast. In fact, I have never been interested enough in the sport to be tempted to have a go at it. And yet, I said all this because I feel his talent is too great and too precious to waste because of his youthful, immature and moral misdemeanors of the past.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"We Don't Get No Respect!"

In a United Nations poll of young people in 17 nations in the Asia-Pacific region, conducted a few years ago, South Korean youths ranked last in showing respect for the elderly. The result of the poll, I remember, came as a big surprise to many in Korea that is more Confucian than China where Confucius was born and taught some 2,500 years ago.

South Korea was said to be just about the only country in the world where many people were following Confucian teachings, one of which is respect the elderly.

Korean educators and civic and religious leaders moaned and groaned over the finding and, as expected, blamed the elderly for letting down the younger generation and failing to earn their respect.

And, indeed, if young people are contemptuous of the elderly, or at least cannot respect them, they have good reasons, I believe.

The nation's politicians, divided into two groups, fight day in and day out, like a bunch of gangsters, while letting national administration and the economy go down the drain; many people, including businessmen, demonstrating their limitless greed, are out to cheat or extort money from the next guy to gain a few measly won; and last but not the least, most grown-ups violate the law routinely and without the slighrest heistation while their children look on.

Nearer to the problem that affects young people, though, let us take a look at the way we teach our childresn.

A majority of parents are said to be spending millions of won for their children's extracurricular studies in cram schools so that they can beat others into a better university. In the process, they unintentionally plant the seeds of distrust and contempt for schoolteachers in the minds of their children. The parents are, in effect, telling their childlren that their teachers at school are not good enough.

While we are doing this, then, how can we turn around the ask our chilldren to respect their elders in general and teachers in particular?

A great irony, however, lies in the fact that we, grown-ups, are doing all these things for the well being of our own children and grandchildren, and yet, these are precisely the things that cause us to lose respect in the eyes of the young.

But a more serious problem is the anachronistic--and to a large extent, irrelevant--Confucian idea that young people should respect the elderly blindly. Respect, needless to say, is something that everyone should earn by behaving correctly in public and living a respectable life. To put it another way, just because one is old, one cannot and should not expect the young to respect him or her. For as someone once said, "Wisdom does not always come with age. Sometimes, age comes by itself."

Nevertheless, our customs and tradition, formed by Confucianism over centuries, still demand that the young treat the old with respect. The Korean language, which we use to form our thoughts and communicate with each other, also forces us to show respect for the elderly: we have to use the honorific form when we address someone older than us.

Incidentally, I have seen some old people demanding that the young give up their seats for them in areas other than those designated for the elderly in the subway or city buses. Of course, they have no right to do so; it is up to young people to concede their seats voluntarily out of consideration for the aged and weak.

This demand for respect creeps into close personal relationship as well. Senior, or sonbae, as they called in Korean, at university or in the workplace, for instance, expect varying degrees of respect from their juniors, or hubae, regardless of their position or ability. This is one of the serious drawbacks in our country that is trying to become an advanced society where individual ability and drive--and not age--count.

Despite our customs and language, we are now living in a free, open and democratic society. And whether we like it or not, the attitude of young people is changing rapidly, often veerying away from traditional values, in time with worldwide trends.

Therefore, instead of shouting, "we don't get any respect any more," older people must do their part, face reality and give up the outdated notion that they deserve respect just because they are old.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Dear Friends

Noticing that I have not posted any article for nearly two months, you may have wondered what had happened to me. I bet some of you might have wondered if I was seriously ill or even dead--or if something had happened to my family. Well, nothing of the kind happened, although I must admit I have been running out of steam of late. During the long absence from this blog, I made a trip to my native South Korea. I then visited Hawaii for a week on my way back.

The world, needless to say, still remains a fascinating place with lots of interesting and strange, even absurd, events taking place every day, and I have felt the urge to express my two cents worth. But I was too busy with family and friends to sit down in front of a computer and write down what I saw and share my thoughts with you.

Anyway, I am now back in the saddle, in a manner of speaking, and trying to adjust my life to my old routine, posting an article from time to time in the hope that you will continue to visit this site as you have done in the past.

In closing, I would also like to extend season's greerings to all my friends.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Nationalism and Language

The Chosun Ilbo, one of South Korea’s mass-circulation dailies, published a big article in its Internet edition the other day criticizing some stores along Sejong Boulevard in the heart of Seoul for having their store signs in English. The newspaper said its survey showed that out of 58 stores, 18 or about one third had store signs in English.

What is outrageous and shameful, the paper suggested, is that those English signs were overshadowing the statue of King Sejong (r. 1397-1450), fourth monarch of the Choson Kingdom, who invented the Korean alphabet some 560 years ago. A statue of King Sejong was unveiled in nearby Kwanghwamun Plaza on October 9, celebrated as Alphabet Day.

The phenomenon clearly shows, the paper declared, that Han-gul or the Korean alphabet, which has been praised by linguistic scholars around the globe as the most scientific in the world “was being pushed aside” by English.

Reading the article, I was reminded of the fact that in the course of our lives, we Korans all have moments of patriotic fervor and feel a deep love for our language as well as all other things inherently Korean.

But what I could not understand was that, only a few years ago, Korea’s mass media, including the Chosun Ilbo, were exhorting the public day in and day out about the need to globalize the country. Hardly a week went by without one of the newspapers or broadcasting networks coming out and urging the people to try and turn the country into “an international hub” of one thing or other so that “we can stand tall” in the ranks of advanced nations.

Even now, I am sure, they would dearly love to be the center of the world. But how do they propose to realize their dream when they reject the use of English?

Heaven knows I have not been an advocate of English as an international language. Whether we like it or not, however, English is the most widely used—and therefore useful and convenient—language in the world today. Let’s face it, without a rudimental knowledge of English, it is very difficult to find our way around in other countries, much less communicate with other people.

Some Koreans suggested that they should try and make Korean an international language, presumably replacing English. How could we do that, though? Without becoming a superpower, how could we force other people to use Korean in place of English? It is one of the most impractical things to propose. It is just a pipedream, I am sorry to say.

Just imagine. Would the Russians, for instance, recognize that 삼성 on huge advertising billboards on buildings in Moscow was the Samsung business group of Korea or would Italians understand that the Korean cars that are running on the streets of Rome were produced by 현대, instead of Hyundai? Not in our lifetime, if ever, I am afraid.

We must also remember, people of other countries love their own language as much as we do and yet, they, too, like we, Koreans, see the need for the use of English when they are forced to communicate with others. Needless to say, English is the most widely used and understood language not only in diplomacy and world trade but also in scholastic journals and textbooks as well as in tourism. That’s why we are spending billions of won to teach our children English.

A group of accompanying photos that illustrated the Chosun Ilbo report showed the stores with such signs as: “Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf,” “Dunkin’ Donuts,” and “Hollys Coffee,” among others. It is obvious that most of them are franchise stores of foreign companies. We cannot blame them, therefore, for using their franchisees’ names.

The French are well known as lovers of their language. There are still many who still believe that French is a better language than any other and that French should be the international language. When I visited Paris in the 1960s, I ran into many Frenchmen and women who refused to talk to me in English, even though, I suspected, they understood it all too well.

But even they couldn’t do anything about the “invasion,” as they put it, of the English language and American cultural influence. When I visited France last summer, I saw many “McDonald’s” stores all around Paris and other big cities; most shop owners and hotel clerks, who used to refuse to talk me in English, were speaking in fluent English.

The French have obviously learned their linguistic lesson and realize that they can’t go against the worldwide trend and that it was wise for them to use English in order to accommodate the millions of foreign tourists that pour billions of dollars into their country’s economy every year.

We often hear that many foreign tourists, visiting Japan and China, skip South Korea, and one of the reasons for doing so is—yes, you guessed it—the language difficulty. Because of the lack of street signs in English, for instance, it is extremely difficult for them to find their way around Seoul, let alone smaller cities. They also complain that they have a hard time trying to find suitable restaurants other than those in the hotels where they are staying. It’s also impossible, they say, to find public restrooms in the middle of Seoul.

You don’t have to be French or Italians to realize how important the tourism industry is for a nation’s economy. Unless South Koreans are ready to live in a closed society, like the North Koreans, we should not reject everything foreign, including English store signs, as the Chosun Ilbo apparently prefers us to do.

Last summer, I had a chance to tour the capitals of Scandinavian countries as well as Germany. And I was impressed by the fluent command of English of ordinary citizens in those countries, but at the same time, I could see that they also loved their own language. They have their own unique culture based on their language. This is why I come to believe that using English or any other foreign language does not necessarily mean we love our own language less.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Living With Ants

Shortly after we moved to a small town in southern California from South Korea, I visited a friend who was living on the seventh floor of an apartment building in Los Angeles.

While washing my hands in their bathroom, I was surprised to see several, tiny ants crawling up the wall. I didn’t mention what I had seen to my host then, but afterwards the ants made me think

If ants of that size—about 2 millimeters in length—could climb all the way up to the seventh floor from the ground level, isn’t it comparable to humans climbing Mt. Everest? Why were they making such superhuman, er, I mean, super-insect efforts to climb such a height? Maybe, they hitched a ride with humans up the elevator. But what was there for them there to make a living? Whatever the reason, I was amazed by the power and resilience of the ants.

According to the encyclopedia, ants have been living on earth for more than 100 million years. They can be found almost everywhere on the planet. And for that reason, they have been called one of earth’s most successful species.

My admiration for ants, however, turned to horror soon afterwards. Our house which is a modest two-story wooden structure, built nearly 20 years ago, in an area, which, at the time of construction, apparently was a barren, almost desert-like field, was infested with ants.

Millions of ants must have been living in the area for hundreds of thousands of years before we humans invaded the area and began built our houses depriving them of their living space. Refusing, however, to give up their time-honored way of life, the ants obviously decided simply to move into the houses.

Successful insects or not, I resolved not to allow them to move in and live with us. Thus, my war against ants began, even at the risk of being accused of killing another living creature by animal lovers and environmentalists.

At first, I noticed three or four ants crawling around the house, and I killed them by pressing them against the floor with a thumb or the tip of a finger in a manner of fingerprinting at an international airport. Little did I know, however, that the sighting of a few ants was merely an indication of the existence of several hundreds of their fellows somewhere nearby.

One day, I woke up early in the morning while it was still dark outside, and went to the kitchen to have my first cup of coffee of the day. As I turned the light on, I noticed what appeared to be a big, black blob on the floor. Since it seemed to be moving, I bent down to take a closer look. To my great surprise, it turned out to be a group of no less than 50 tiny ants, busily moving around a morsel of breadcrumb dropped and left there on the floor the previous evening.

They did not give me a sense of fear as a swarm of locusts or bees might. But their sheer number, however small each one of them was, gave me a creepy and disgusting feeling and raised goose bumps all over my body.

But what surprised me more than anything was that as I approached them with intent to kill, they seemed to realize the alarming development right away and began scrambling for shelter. Hurriedly, I grabbed some tissue paper, wrap it around my fist and started crashing them. But they moved so fast I barely managed to catch only a dozen or so.

Until then, I did not know that ants could see, smell and above all, feel approaching danger so that they can move to escape quickly. Later, I learned that ants have eyes and antennae. Their eyes are made up of many lenses enabling them to see movements very well. Their antennae are special organs for smelling, touching, tasting and hearing. And using them, they can communicate with each other.

The ants had intruded not only into the kitchen but practically every part of the house, including the bedrooms and study.

Horrified, I rushed to a hardware store and bought what they called ant traps and a bottle of a chemical that would supposedly keep ants away. But I soon found that those devices and chemical were useless. Ants didn’t seem to be attracted by the traps while they freely crossed the lines of chemical that I had sprinkled around the walls
The only effective weapon against them, I found, was a spray. Ants die instantly when they came in contact with the liquid but once the liquid dried out other ants would crawl around the area again.

I wanted to get rid of the ants not because I hated them. God knows, I am not killing them with hatred, passion, vengeance or, least of all, for the pleasure of snuffing the life out of such tiny, helpless creatures; I killed them simply because I wanted them to leave us alone and in peace in our own home.

Nevertheless I feel a sense of guilt. I tremble especially when I think of all those environmentalists whose power in this society is enormous. In our state, there are hundreds of farmers who are currently unable to grow any produce because authorities shut off water supplies to their farmland in order to save an endangered species of minnow living in dams.

What would those environmentalists think if they found out I was killing scores of helpless ants every day? But I take comfort in the thought that the ants that number in millions could never become an endangered species.

There is one positive aspect about the presence of ants in the house and that is, we are forced to keep our house squeaky clean. We were told that the ants would not bother people if there were nothing for them to eat. I still have some reservation about that information, however. For, we have seen ants where there was absolutely nothing to eat. But we are ready to do anything and everything as long as we can keep them out of our house.

Meanwhile, the situation was made worse by the presence of termites. We were told that our house was also under attack by the wood-eating insects. Now, the termites are a different problem all together. They are far more elusive and dangerous than ants as they could bring down the house if left to their own devices.

We called an exterminator who fumigated the entire house after covering it with plastic. And to our relief, the ants were also killed with the termites. The exterminator assured us that the termites would not come back for at least two years. As for the ants, however, he said they could come into the house again after only four days.

Well, that means that after such a brief victory, I have to resume my unending battle against the ants, if only to see which side is more determined, resilient and resourceful.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Same Old Dramas

Most TV dramas people watch in South Korea are variations on the theme of Cinderella; a poor girl is found by a prince charming, falls in love with him and gets married. Since they no longer have royalty in their country, the prince charming is substituted, of course, by a son of a chaebol owner, a dashing lawyer, or a promising medical doctor.

In some cases, the roles are reversed with a poor young man finding a daughter of a super-rich family.

Either way, the stories seem to tickle the imagination of viewers and give them a lot to dream about. And in this day and age, when an increasing number of people are finding life more and more difficult, it is good for them to escape into a fantasy world, if only for an hour or so every night, to forget their troubles in order to keep themselves going.

In this respect, I suppose such simple, unimaginative and frivolous dramas on the same old theme of love and marriage have a function in our society as a safety valve that helps release the steam from the restless populace--mostly those in the lower class or out of jobs--who are feeling mounting frustration and anger.

But unwittingly, I am sure, they also give viewers a sense of alienation as their settings are so luxurious and glittering that poor people like me have to feel that most stories are taking place out of our humble world.

I know they play most indoor scenes in studio sets. Nonetheless, living-, dining- and bed-rooms invariably appear to be newly built and furnished with brand new and expensive-looking furniture, the likes of which are out of reach of ordinary people; much less could they own a house with rooms like them. Nevertheless, they give us a glimpse of how the rich live in Korea.

Talking about an unreal world, the props and gadgets in dramas like the cooking utensils are almost always brand new--even in a long-running series. The cars are also new and gleaming all the time. What's more, drivers seldom run into any of Seoul's ubiquitous traffic jams. Nor do they have any problem parking.

Incidentally, many actors and actresses in dramas drink liquor, mostly soju, like fish and smoke cigarettes like chimneys, so that they are actually serving as walking advertisements for drinking and smoking for highly susceptible viewers, especially young people.

They often act violently, using rough and bad language or engage in illicit love affairs. Just as we often pick up bad words first when we start learning a foreign language, the directors of TV dramas seem to learn shoot-outs, wild car chases or bed scenes when they try to imitate foreign movies.

I am not saying that realistic portrayals of people's lives against realistic backgrounds are the only way to make dramas. We should, however, try and produce some dramas that reflect our real life, delve into and show the meaning of life or take up serious social issues.

Our society is already too materialistic; a lot of us are worshiping money without compunction; and many are living beyond their means in order to copy the rich. We don't have to inspire or further encourage these people by showing the same kind of cheap stories over and over again, set against fantastic and luxurious settings.

I know there are some Cinderellas and charming princes amid us. But I also know 90 percent of our fellow men and women are ordinary people who are trying to eke out a tough, day-to-day living.

And there are dramas in the lives of these ordinary people, too, which is why I hope someone--some producer, director or TV networks--can come up with a drama every now and then that we can really related to ourselves or that can move us deeply.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Do It When You Can

Venice, they say, is the city that you must visit at least once before you die.

Sure, I would like to visit the Italian city but it is just one of many cities and places that I would like to visit. Sadly, though, I realize it’s more than likely that I will die before I have a chance to do so. Time is running out on me fast.

Like so many others, I wanted to visit those famous places when I was young. But it was the period in my life when I was too poor or too busy trying to make a living to do so. Since I retired, I have time enough and a bit of money, but, ironically, I have reached the stage in life when traveling is simply too strenuous to enjoy.

There is a saying in my native Korea: “Play, play when you are young. For, you cannot when you are old.” How true!

But when you are young, as I said, there are a lot of other pressing things for you to do (which is generally known as “the rat race”), so that traveling for pleasure or enlightenment has to take a backseat, in a manner of speaking.

Last year, my wife and I went on a cruise on the Baltic Sea. No, it wasn’t a fancy or luxurious cruise, I thought, but since it was my first and only experience, I have no way of comparing it with others. But it was a good way of travelling and sightseeing for old folks, my wife agreed, because it wasn’t physically demanding as we moved from one country to another by ship. But it was a far cry from my youthful days when the ideal trip was to visit places alone or with friends who shared similar interests.

I used to despise group tours when I was young. I thought it was foolish for tourists to follow a guide, like a flock of sheep, from one place to another in accordance with the schedule set by the tour company. They passively listen to what the guide tells them and exclaim “ah” and “oh” as they look at the things the guide points out to them.

Herded by their guide, they breeze through museums, barely managing to have time to click their cameras at “famous” paintings or sculptures, before moving hurriedly on to catch up with the group.

In this connection, I remember an episode I read a long time ago. Dostoevsky, while visiting a museum in Basle, was transfixed in front of a painting of the crucified Jesus. According to the story, Dostoevsky stood there, apparently all alone, for a long time staring at the painting, “Descent from the Cross,” by Holbein. Perhaps because his reaction to the realistic painting that depicts the physical suffering of the divine being was so intense, he suffered an epileptic fit on the spot.

There are very few who can be captivated so intensely by a painting as Dostoevsky was. Although I wasn’t such a sensitive connoisseur of the arts as the Russian author and visionary, I used to prefer to visit a place—be it a museum, a church or even a public park—when I could spend as much time as I wanted, alone, so I could enjoy it.

But in this day and age when every well-known museum in major tourist destinations like Paris and London is packed with milling visitors, it is impossible for anyone to stand in front of a famous painting for a long time undisturbed.

The idea of going through such a vast and grand museum, for instance, as the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in Russia, in a couple of hours is ridiculous, even outrageous, and yet such, it seems, is the norm for any group tour these days.

Perhaps, it would be worthwhile to join such a tour if your purpose for visiting world famous places is to tell your friends and relatives about it as well as to remind yourself that “I have been there,” and to show the pictures or video clips to prove it. But of course, we all know that we like to visit well-known places to satisfy our intellectual curiosity and aesthetic senses.

Should I ever be able to visit Venice, I would go there not just to ride one of the gondolas through the canals or sip a cup of espresso sitting in the famous St. Marco Square, but rather to look at paintings by renaissance masters and cathedrals and other beautiful structures I had been introduced to through The Stones of Venice and The Seven Lamps of Architecture, both by John Ruskin, among other books.

But if my experience during our visits to St. Petersburg and the Scandinavian capitals were any indication, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate all those wonderful buildings as well as works of arts, if I were to go there under the arrangement of a guided tour.

In St. Petersburg, in particular, I wanted to stroll around the Nevskii Prospekt, the bridges and embankments of the Neva River and the back alleys of the old Russian city, all of which have become familiar to me by reading and rereading the stories of Pushkin and Gogol. I had also hoped to have at least a glimpse of the apartments where Dostoevsky and Nabokov were said to have lived. But touring those places was impossible, unless I gave up the tight tour arrangements made by the travel agency.

Years ago, I visited the Grand Canyon. It was indeed a grand experience to stand on the edge of a rocky precipice and feel how great—how infinitely great—the works of nature were and, conversely, how tiny and insignificant I was in their midst. But later, I realized that we had only skimmed the surface of the Canyon. Far more magnificent and awe-inspiring spectacles were hidden, as it were, from us, I found out, when I went into a nearby theater and watched films that showed breathtaking, unbelievably beautiful views of the Canyon down below where we hadn’t had the time or energy to go.

Then, I thought that even if we like to travel, there is a limit to it, like everything else we do in this world, and that there are many places where we can only visit in our imagination aided by books and DVDs and television programs.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Gingko Trees Forever

The city of Seoul has been the capital of the Chosun Kingdom for 500 years and of the Republic of Korea for 61 years. It is an ancient city by any standard. And yet, today, it is a modern metropolis and many old landmarks and structures have been torn down mercilessly in the name of economic development. They were replaced with tall gleaming—and ugly, I must say—steel and glass buildings as well as broad streets and boulevards, that were paved with concrete to accommodate millions of cars running over them day and night.

Except for a few city gates, palace buildings and pockets of traditional houses that were designated by the government as “cultural ”assets,” there are few structures that Koreans can proudly show to foreign visitors not to mention enjoy themselves as part of their time-honored heritage.

There used to be a stream that ran through the heart of the city but even that was covered up to build a highway in the 1970s, the period of rapid and heady economic progress. Recently the highway was torn down and the stream was rebuilt with concrete.

It is true that whereas most buildings and roads in the capital cities in Europe were built with stone, granite mostly, those in Seoul and other Korean cities, were built with wood that easily decayed or was destroyed by fire. Compared with stone structures, wooden buildings, needless to say, are difficult to preserve, especially in time of war. And Korea has its share of wars triggered by foreign invasions.

Incidentally, most Koreans do not remember but during the World War II, when Korea was part of Japan, the United States did not drop a single bomb on Korea from its aircraft, thanks to the ardent appeals by Syngman Rhee, an exiled Korean leader in America, who later became the founder of the Republic.

In any case, many old buildings that survived the Korean War (1950-53) were razed to the ground, without a second thought, by government authorities and the construction industry during the 1970s and ’80s when South Korea was making the dizzying economic ascendancy, which eventually become known as the Miracle on the Han River. A few ancient structures were also rebuilt and sometimes relocated as they were forced to make way for new buildings and streets according to ever-changing city reconstruction plans.

The latest victims in the city’s fast changing façade were a row of large, old gingko trees that line the middle of Sejong-no Boulevard, Seoul’s equivalent of Champs Elysees in Paris. Some 29 gingko trees, 12 to 13 meters high, that stood in the traffic divider in the middle of the street were uprooted and moved elsewhere in the city under the plan to build a plaza in the middle of the boulevard.

The gingko trees up to 100 years old had graced the otherwise desolate and traffic choked street with their green leaves that turning to brilliant yellow in the fall. They provided Seoulites not only with a beautiful and romantic atmosphere but also cleaner air, as they are extraordinarily environment friendly trees.

The gingko trees on Kwanghwamun were designated as the symbol of the city of Seoul in 1971. But President Lee Myung-bak, when he was mayor of the city in 2004, decided to remove them in order to build a plaza.

In an opinion poll, however, 88.7 percent of citizens opposed the plan. But when it was publicized that the gingko trees had originally been planted there by the Japanese colonial government (1910-1945), 72.3 percent of the people approved their removal. The Koreans hated the Japanese colonialists so much, they want to destroy and erase everything Japanese from their memories.

When I visited Seoul last summer, the construction of the plaza was going on in full blast with most of the gingko trees already gone. And the work has been completed by now, and the plaza opened to the public on August 1. But if you are living overseas, there is no way of knowing how the boulevard looks now with the plaza in the middle of it.

I read somewhere that the plaza was going to be declared a rally and demonstration free place, but I am willing to bet my last dollar that it will be used by the people of what has become to be known as “the demo-crazy” country sooner or later. After all, the street is lined with the main government buildings and the U.S. embassy and therefore it is, in a way, an ideal place for political activists to air their feelings and grievances.

In any case, in a country where the cityscape seems to change at the whim of government leaders, I hope that someone in Seoul city hall or in the central government will decide to replant those wonderful gingko trees in the Kwanghwamun Plaza someday soon.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mona Lisa and Me

When did I first see her? It was such a long time ago that I cannot remember exactly. It could have been when I was in fourth or fifth grade in primary school in a remote mountain village in Korea.

One day, leafing through the school’s only copy of an encyclopedia in the small reading room that was dubbed a library, I came across Mona Lisa.

It was a faded black-and-white photo printed on coarse paper. The caption, I remember, said something along the usual line that the name of the woman “with the mysterious smile” was Mona Lisa and that it was a great portrait done by Leonardo Da Vinci.

I just didn’t know what to make of her. To tell the truth my first impression was that she wasn’t so beautiful. I thought she looked rather severe, if not forbidding, on account probably of her fixed and unflinching gaze. And her famous smile was not a smile at all; it simply looked like she was smiling because of the shape of her mouth.

Thinking back, I realize it was impossible to judge any work of art by looking at an extremely poor black and white reproduction only a little larger than a postal stamp in the Japanese edition of the encyclopedia. What’s more, I was only 10 or 11 years old, born and living in a remote village where I had had no chance of running into a Westerner. There was no point of reference, in other words, and therefore, I had no way of knowing whether Mona Lisa was a beautiful woman or not.

It was during the Japanese colonial period in Korea. And Japan was in the midst of the Second World War against the United States and its allies. The Japanese imperialists had been brainwashing their own people as well as Koreans with daily bombardments of propaganda that portrayed all Westerners as evil incarnate and downright monsters. That was despite the fact that Japan was part of the Aix with Germany and Italy.

In view of the hatred that we were supposed to feel toward the people in the West, it was almost unimaginable that there still existed an edition of an encyclopedia in Japanese that showed the Mona Lisa among other objects of Western culture.

I saw the “real” Mona Lisa in her permanent home—the Louvre Museum in Paris—in 1964. Even now, whenever I think of that day, I feel it was like a miracle as I had the great fortune of being almost alone while standing face to face with Mona Lisa in that room.

It was a dismal rainy Friday afternoon in late October that I happened to pass by the Louvre, on my way to my flat from Alliance Francaise, the language school. I noticed that there weren’t many visitors at the museum, perhaps because of the inclement weather or perhaps because most foreign tourists had gone home by then and the Parisians were busy preparing for the coming weekend. Anyway, I decided to drop in.

As expected, the museum was practically deserted. Even in the room where Mona Lisa was hanging, there were only two or three visitors at a time. And even they were not lingering in front of the smiling woman for long.

Imagine how excited I was! There was a god-given chance to have a tete-a-tete with Mona Lisa without being distracted by other visitors. I told myself to be calm and collected while unobtrusively looking at her from various angles and distances and without disturbing the occasional fellow viewers.

Needless to say, since my first encounter with her in primary school in Korea, I had seen many different copies of the masterpiece before I was actually able to look at the real Mona Lisa. And some of them were really excellent reproductions showing even the traces of individual brush strokes. I had also read a great many articles and books on the paintings by Da Vinci written by art critics and cultural historians. As a result, I had already formed a vague sense of admiration for the Mona Lisa, like so many people around the world.

Yet, the moment I stood in front of the painting, all they said about her seemed to have vanished; there was only her “real self,” having shed, as it were, the words of almost universal adulation and appreciation; there was only the close and intimate look and the feelings that I got from her in return.

My initial reaction was that the painting was small, much smaller than I had expected. And it was also dark, perhaps because of her dark hair, the dark brown costume she was wearing and dark bluish background. If I had not known her all those years through reproductions, I must confess, I could have easily passed by it after giving it a cursory glance as I would at many other portraits by other major Florentine artists that were hanging in the Louvre. But then, of course, it was Mona Lisa, and she is different from all the rest.

Even though I was untrained and unsophisticated as a lover of art, I was struck by the ethereal quality that, I understand, is evident in all Da Vinci paintings. There is that all-too-well-known smile of hers with a slight touch of irony and sense of being amused at the whole set-up she found herself in—posing for a portrait.

But because of her serious and unflinching gaze, I felt, she was not only an enigmatic woman but also a nobler lady than the mere wife of a wealthy merchant as she was reported to be.

I lingered in front of her for more than a quarter hour and then, thoroughly familiarized with the famous woman, I came out of the museum and into the October rain, with a profound feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.

“Accomplishment,” I must admit, is a strange word, but in view of my later experience where Mona Lisa was concerned, I, indeed, felt that I had accomplished something on that day in the Louvre.

The next time I came close to meeting the Mona Lisa was in 1970 or 71 in Tokyo. The Japanese Government borrowed the painting and exhibited it at the Ueno Museum in the capital. At that time, I was working as a reporter for a large international news agency at its Tokyo bureau.

Since I was covering social and cultural affairs, I had the right to attend the “introductory” event open only to the members of the press prior to the opening of the exhibition to the public. But somehow the highly coveted ticket allocated to our agency found its way to the teenage daughter of one of our bosses at the bureau. And I was forced to write a report on the exhibition without having gotten another look at the painting.

As I still felt like meeting Mona Lisa once more, I decided to join the crowd one day during the exhibition. Expecting a few hundred visitors and ready to wait in line for some two hours or so, I went to the Museum.

To my great surprise, however, I found a serpentine line of Japanese art lovers extending at least three long city blocks from the entrance to the Museum. And I was told I would have to wait at least four hours before I could get to Mona Lisa. That was not all, you were allowed, they said, to halt in front of the picture for only a few seconds, much less minutes, as visitors were constantly urged to move on. Even if you insisted on halting for a few more seconds, you wouldn’t be able to because the people behind you would push you right out of the way, they said.

After a long debate with a friend who went there with me, we decided to drop out of the line and go home. I was able to consol myself because, unlike my friend, I had had the chance to see Mona Lisa in Paris less than a decade before.

The last time I saw Mona Lisa—a glimpse of her, really—came in 2008 when my wife and I went to Paris for a visit. Even though I didn’t tell my wife in so many words, one of the reasons I wanted to revisit the City of Light was to meet the Mona Lisa, among other great paintings at the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay.

When we got there, it was at the height of the tourist season and the Louvre was filled with an incredible number of people. Every corridor and every room were crowded with camera toting tourists from all corners, I suppose, of the world. Especially the room where the Mona Lisa was being shown was packed with so many visitors that it was well neigh impossible to move around even if you managed to squeeze into it.

And everybody in the room seemed to be taller than me (at 5 feet 7) so that it looked as though a huge wall was formed inches from my eyes; I tried standing on my toes and craning my neck as much as possible in order to take a look over the shoulders, if not over the heads, of the people in front of me. But despite my desperate efforts, all I got was a couple of fleeting glimpses of the Mona Lisa who now seemed to be smiling in amusement at so many of her admirers.

But what made me really feel bad about the whole affair was that my wife, who had never seen the real Mona Lisa before, had a much harder time as she is shorter than I am and is not such a strong and aggressive person that she could push her way somehow through the walls of milling people. To make the situation worse, the room was very hot and stunk with sweat and other bodily odors of the many people so that my wife decided to give up her attempt.

Coming out of the Louvre, I suggested that we buy a good reproduction of the Mona Lisa at the souvenir store, but my wife, who is an art purist of sorts, said no. “No one can live through one’s life by doing everything one wants to,” she said. And I agreed with her but took secret comfort in the fact that at least I had had the good fortune to take a close and intimate look at Mona Lisa when I was young.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Brief Encounter

The following is fiction but it is based on a real incident that I heard about from various sources. It occurred during the Korean War (1950-53) in a remote village in the mid-section of the Korean Peninsula. While I was still in middle school, I became a refugee from the North Korean Communist-occupied Seoul and lived with relatives in a village near where the incident happened, and the story has remained in my mind all these years.

I wrote it down based mostly on my imagination as to what might have happened to the American flyer and young Korean girl. I keep talking about the war because it took place when I was at an impressionable age and because I realize that people on both sides of a war suffer countless, unknown personal tragedies and yet resilient life—including love and marriage—goes on even amid the death and destruction.


Speaking in halting but correct English, the girl told him again and again that he should never come out of the cave during the day under any circumstance. She said her village was small but there were quite a few Communists, and the minute they sighted him, they would report him to the occupation forces from the North.

The girl was sure that there was no one in her village who knew of the existence of the cave. Nor did they know that the pilot of the American fighter plane that had been shot down over an adjacent mountain a few days before was hiding there.

The cave was shaped like a small, rocky tunnel, barely large enough to accommodate three city buses. And it was difficult for anyone who did not know its existence to spot it as the entrance was practically blocked by thick undergrowth. (“How did you manage to find the cave anyway?” she asked him later).

Still it was best to remain in the cave during the day, she said. You never know when someone may decide to come up here for some reason. After all, “I ran into you unexpectedly, didn’t I?”

But hiding in the dark, hot humid cave all day was becoming unbearable for Lt. Erwin Walker of the U.S. Air Force. His plane had been hit by enemy ground fire, and he had injured his shoulder when he ejected. Now it seemed to have become infected because the throbbing pain was getting worse as he lay in the dark.

He wanted to crawl out of the cave if only for a few minutes to look at the sun and bask in its light for the first time in two days. He also wanted to look at the winding white road down below for any sign of the girl who, he hoped, would come before sundown.

The girl hadn’t shown up for more than two days now. When she last came, she had brought enough food to last for several days. Maybe, she wasn’t able to find a time when she could come up here without anyone noticing her absence. It must be difficult for a young girl to sneak out of the village.

Or maybe, she was trying to get the penicillin that he had asked her to try and find for him. Although he knew it would be almost impossible to get penicillin in her tiny village at a foot of the mountain, he asked her to try anyway.

The girl said she would have to walk 15 kilometers to the nearest town where she might be able to buy such medicine, if she were lucky. Anyway, she promised him she would do her best to get it as soon as possible.


When Walker had first seen the girl, he thought he was seeing a mirage; she was sitting on a small rock in a grassy clearing less than 20 feet below the mouth of the cave. Appearing to be in her late teens or early 20s, the girl had come up there leading the family cow to the small, enclosed meadow for grazing. She was dressed in what he thought was worn-out clothes.

She was of an average height for an Asian woman but appeared smaller from the distance. The top of her head would come up to his chin, he figured. As he approached her, though, he could see that she was a bit taller and older than he thought. She had high cheekbones and firm, thin lips that gave her an air of a strong-willed woman. But her eyes, which seemed to be smiling, softened the impression.

While the cow was feeding nearby, she looked vacantly at the setting sun. The top of the mountain to the east was still ablaze in the light of the August sun, but a pale, bluish darkness was already enveloping the meadow, which was surrounded by woods consisting mostly of medium-high birch trees. It was an ethereal scene—calm and beautiful—which enabled Walker to forget, for a brief moment, that he was in the midst of a cruel war and that he was desperately running for his life in enemy-occupied territory.

After making sure there was no one else around, Walker decided to approach her as he was beginning to feel desperate. So as not to frighten her, though, he laid down his only weapon, a .45mm handgun, near the mouth of the cave. Deliberately making noise, he nonchalantly walked down the slope toward her with a big forced smile and half raised arms in a gesture of surrender.

Terrified by the appearance of a man out of nowhere and a Westerner at that, the girl seemed to hesitate, not sure whether to run, leaving her cow behind, or confront the fast approaching stranger.

“Please, don’t be frightened,” Walked called out, without knowing if she could understand what he was saying. “I’m an American Air Force officer, a friend of your people.”

The girl took an instinctive, defensive gesture for a fleeting moment before seeing that the man didn’t mean to harm her. “Oh, hello,” she said. “You must be the pilot of the plane that was shot down…”

It was now Walker’s turn to be surprised—shocked, really—by her response. “Well, well! You speak English and well,” Walker stammered. It was not a statement; nor was it a question. Rather, it was a remark made to convince himself. But then, he realized immediately that he must look foolish. Anyway, it was incredible because she was a Korean girl, in a remote, mountainous village far, far removed from what Walker thought of as the civilized world like the capital city of Seoul.

“Yes, I can speak English a little,” she said modestly. “My name is Lee… Lee Jae-in. Lee is my family name; I’m a student at a college run by a Christian mission in Seoul. I studied English there.”

“Hi, Miss Lee,” he said. “My name is Erwin Walker.”

He then added: “By the way, your first name sounds like Jane; so why don’t I call you that, if it’s okay with you, of course.”

She nodded her assent with a smile.

Jane then told him that she had come to this god-forsaken village from her home in Seoul after the war broke out. One of her distant relatives was living in the village. “So, I’m a kind of refugee here, waiting for the fighting to end.”

“I see.”

“I heard that an American plane had crashed into a mountain far from here the other day,” she said. “If it was you who flew the plane, you’ve come a long way.”
Walker told her he was lucky to be alive and lucky to be able to walk all the way from the crash site to this place without being seen by anyone. “I got here two days ago and have been hiding in the cave up there since,” he said. “You’re not going to inform on me, are you?”

“Of course not,” Jane said, somewhat indignantly. “On the contrary, I’ll try and help you however I can as long as you promise me you’ll keep hiding in that cave and never come out during the day.”

“Yes, I promise,” Walker said. “But there is one thing I have to ask you right away: can you bring me something to eat? I haven’t had anything to eat for two days, and I’m starving.”

Jane said she would. “But I’m afraid there isn’t much that you can eat,” she said, “Can you eat rice? Or, potatoes, maybe?”

Having eaten enough berries to last a man a lifetime over the past three days, he explained, he could eat anything that humans could eat.

Leading the cow gingerly, Jane left the meadow telling him she would be back when she could without arousing the suspicions of the villagers.

It was another whole day before she came back with a basket in which there were boiled potatoes and corn and some cooked vegetables like spinach and cabbage. She looked at him as he wolfed it down like a starved animal.

“Ah!” Walker sighed after he had had his fill. “You know what? I’ve never had such a delicious meal in my whole life.”

“We have a saying in our country: hunger makes everything taste good. Now I know why they say that.” As she said it, though, she looked at him with an expression of sympathy and concern over the uncertainty of the immediate future. Perhaps, she was also thinking about the danger that could befall her if the Communists arrested him.

“I know you are risking your life by harboring me this way,” Walker said. “But don’t worry I’ll leave here as soon as I regain my strength.”

“But where to? There are North Korean troops all over the place,” Jane said. “I think it’s better for you to stay here until American and South Korean troops push the invaders back to the North.”

On that day, along with food, she brought a bar of soap and a couple of used but clean towels, a straw mat and a small blanket for him to lie down on. “There is a small stream on the other side of this mountain, not far from here. You can go there if you want to wash. But only late at night,” she said.

After Jane left, Walker came out of his cave and started to walk in the direction where, she said, there was a stream. He ignored her warning about not going out in the early evening. He couldn’t wait any longer to wash himself in running water—for the first time in nearly five days. It wasn’t difficult to find the stream. And there wasn’t anyone bathing there. But Walker decided to wait in a bush nearby until it got really dark.

Perhaps because he was so happy to be able to take a bath in cold, clean mountain water; he scrubbed himself a bit too hard, including his left shoulder where the fresh wound was on its way to healing. The next morning, he began to feel slight pain. Then it became worse as time passed. It had apparently gotten infected, and by nightfall, he even felt a slight fever. That was why he asked Jane to try and get penicillin when she visited him the next day.

She showed up three days later with a vial of penicillin. She said she had found it in a town some 30 kilometers from her village. By then Walker was delirious with a high fever. She had no experience giving injections but with a borrowed injector that was used for animals, she gave him a shot. The effect of the penicillin was immediate and positive. Within a couple of days, Walker was up and walking around the cave and from then on Jane spent a lot of time nursing him.

After Walker had found the cave and had slept there for two nights, he planned to keep moving from one area to another—preferably deserted and isolated areas—so that pursuing parties, if there were such an organized effort to capture him, would loose track of him. He was sure the U.S. Army which was fighting down south of the peninsula, would soon come up to liberate the parts of South Korea occupied by the Communists.

But now as Jane visited him almost daily, bringing food and taking care of other necessities, Walker forgot all about his plan to move on. And while they were enjoying each other’s company, they were oblivious of the time that seemed to be flying by. Walker lost count of the days since he had settle in his cave.

Then, one day when he was out enjoying the sun in a small clearing near the cave, he looked up into the sky and saw quite a number of U.S. transport planes flying north toward Seoul. It might have been going on for several days already or it might have begun that day. In any case, he realized that if the planes were carrying ammunition and other logistic supplies north, it could only mean that the U.S. and allied forces had already recaptured the areas north of where he was. It was time to move out of this hole, he thought.

But on that day, Jane came to the cave and told him that some villagers were saying that a lot of North Korean soldiers, some in tattered uniforms and without weapons, were racing north along the high mountain ridge that runs behind the village. She said she had come to warn Walker to be very careful in case some of them passed through this part of the mountain.

A Brief Encounter (II)


As it turned out, the very next day, it was Jane herself who unexpectedly had the most dreadful experience in her young life. Her aunt and uncle had gone to work in their rice paddy, leaving Jane alone in the house that was relatively isolated from the rest of the village. Nestled against the foot of a mountain, the house was more than two hundred yards from the nearest neighbors. Without warning, a man, wearing farmer’s clothes but carrying a rifle walked into the yard.

Jane could easily see that he was in his early 20s and that he was a fleeing North Korean soldier. He was frail and short, so short that the rifle he slung on his right shoulder almost touched the ground. And perhaps because he had been forced to skip meals in recent days, he looked pale and haggard. And yet, he was extremely alert with his black eyes darting from one place to another as he looked around nervously.

Making sure that Jane was alone in the house, he demanded something to eat. Actually, when he showed up, Jane had been in the midst of preparing some food to take up to the cave in the afternoon. She hurriedly went into the kitchen and while going through the motion of preparing the food, she thought about how she could escape. She had heard from some villagers that the fleeing North Korean soldiers had attacked some women in a nearby village. They had also taken several farmers hostage and forced them to accompany them, carrying loads of food and their equipment.

But there seemed to be no way Jane could sneak out of the house and run away, leaving the man alone. He would simply stay there until somebody—her unsuspecting aunt or uncle—came walking in.

“What’s taking you so long, girl?” the man hollered at Jane from outside. “All I want is a bowl of rice and kimchi!”

The man was sitting on a wooden bench near the well in the middle of the yard. He began gulfing down the food as soon as Jane handed it to him.
After the initial attack on the food, he slowed down a little, eyeing Jane narrowly. “Are you from a city?” he asked, “You don’t look like a farmer’s daughter.”

“No, I was born and raised here,” Jane lied.

”Then, you must know the way around this part of the country,” he said, making her nervous. She knew what would come next. He could very well force her to lead him to a deserted mountain pass or escape route to the North. A sudden and acute sense of fear gripped her, and she began trembling in spite of herself. She swallowed hard and said:

“I’ve never been to the mountains beyond the one behind this house,” she could barely talk. “I really don’t think I could be of much help to you.”

As she mumbled, she noticed that his rifle was left propped up against a nearby tree a few steps behind the man. He must have used up all the bullets and that was probably why he had fixed his bayonet on the end of the rifle. It appeared terribly menacing with a sharp, gleaming blade.

While the man continued eating, paying little attention to his surroundings, Jane went quietly around behind him and picked up the rifle as though she wanted to take a look at it only to satisfy her curiosity. It was surprisingly heavy but she held it tightly and leveled it horizontally, aiming the tip of the bayonet at the man’s back. And before realizing what she was doing, she thrust it into his body downward from a few inches below his neck, with all her might.

The 12-inch bayonet pierced through the upper left part of the man’s chest from behind almost to the hilt with a considerable length of it coming out of his chest. It went into the man’s body so easily that Jane felt as though his soft body was absorbing all her strength. Death came instantly. While still clutching the rim of the rice bowl in his left hand and the spoon on his right, he simply fell over on his face.

In a state of stupor, she sat down next to the body, unable to think about anything for a long time, until the enormity of what she had done started sinking in. With shaking hands and knees, she went around the house, found a large sack woven with straw and, squeezing out the last ounce of strength she had, she put the body into it. She rolled it onto a three-wheeled rickshaw and pushed it through the weed-covered passage up the mountain behind the house. She dumped the body in a shallow crevice, and, working fast like a mad woman, she covered the body with small rocks and stones, topping it with layers of leaves.

Seeing that the grave was so well covered that no one could spot it unless they knew there was a grave there, she fell to the ground nearby, totally exhausted. She felt as though she had just had an awful nightmare, but she shuddered to think what had actually happened only a few hours before.

Suddenly she realized that she had to hurry home before her aunt and uncle come home from the field. She knew she had to erase all traces of what had happened at home. To her horror, she remembered that she had left the rifle in the yard. But more than anything, there would still be a pool of blood near the well. She had to wash the spot clean before anyone came into the house.
She had already decided that she would never ever tell anyone what she had done—not even her aunt and uncle.


It took two days for Jane to recover from the shock of having killed a man. She felt like lying in bed forever. Had it not been for the nagging anxiety over Erwin Walker who had been waiting, no doubt, anxiously for her to come, she wouldn’t have gotten up at all. She wanted to tell him what she had heard from her uncle who had said that he heard from other villagers that they had seen “many trucks” carrying American troops and heading north on a national road leading toward the capital. It was odd, they said, that the American convoys seem to be hardly worried about the possibility of meeting any resistance from the Communist forces.

When Jane relayed the information to Walker, the American jumped up in elation. His premonition was confirmed. He didn’t know exactly how it had happened, but the U.S. and allied forces must have cut across the peninsula north of where he was, cutting off the supply lines to the Red Army in the south and forcing them to flee.

Walker decided that he would leave his hideout and descend the mountain. He wanted to tell Jane about his decision right there, but checked himself. He didn’t have the heart to do so as he wasn’t sure how Jane would react to their imminent parting.

After Jane left, Walker looked around the cave as though he was inspecting a house or condo. He knew there probably wouldn’t be anyone else who would visit the cave, much less stay here as long as he had. For more than two weeks, the cave had been his home. He somehow felt a bit of sentimental attachment to the place that had provided him safe haven. He began cleaning it up.
As he left the cave the next morning, he folded the blanket neatly and left a brief note on a small piece of paper on top of it. It read:

Dearest Jane:
I’m sorry to leave you like this. I know I should at least wait for you and bid you goodbye in person. But I thought it would be very hard for both of us to part like that. Words cannot describe how grateful I am for everything you’ve done for me. You saved my life! I don’t know where I’m going or what will happen to me. I also don’t know if or when I will be able to get in touch with you. Whatever happens, though, I will never forget you for the rest of my life. I hope all goes well with you. Be happy. Love, Erwin.

Friday, August 21, 2009

My Pride and Prejudice

When I was studying at a state university in the Midwest, I went flat broke only two months into my junior year in 1960. Unlike many other foreign students, I could not expect any money from my family back in South Korea. Nor was I able to pay for my room and board and other living expenses with the wage I earned by working as a busboy at an American Legionnaire Club after classes.

A Korean friend of mine who was in a similar situation suggested that we drop out of school, go to Chicago and work there until the end of the semester the following February. By then, we would be able to make enough money to support ourselves through the second semester.

The job he had in mind was at a large wholesale bookstore where he had worked as a shipping clerk every summer for three years. There would be similar jobs for both of us even if we went there in the winter, he said.

The only trouble was that as foreign students, we were not supposed to drop out of school, much less work full time. But we didn’t have any other choice. We slipped out of town in a Greyhound bus at night without telling anyone where we were going.

In Chicago, we rented a one-room flat on the third floor of a decrepit red brick building near the downtown so that we could walk to work. That winter, it was especially cold even for the windy city, and we went to work everyday under a starry sky early in the morning and came home watching the stars again at around midnight. It really was a tough and dismal life.

That was why my roommate and I were so surprised when we discovered that a couple of female Korean students were living right next door. At that time, it was very rare for any Korean to run into another Korean on the street, even in big cities like Chicago. As I remember there was a total of only about 200 Koreans living in the entire city. There were fewer female students than male students as only the rich and powerful were able to send their daughters to the United States to study.

So, imagine, how surprised—and delighted, needless to say—we were to find ourselves as neighbors of two pretty and vivacious Korean girls!
Our excitement, however, didn’t last very long.

It turned out that the girls had many Korean boy friends, (“suitors,” probably, is a more appropriate word); there were so many of them that a long line was formed in the corridor outside our flat over the weekends.

Since my friend and I were working 16 hours a day every day, the weekend was the only time we could catch up on sleep, do the laundry and clean our roach-infested flat.

But we succumbed to the charms and coquetry of the girls and agreed to make our flat available as a sort of waiting room for their callers while the girls were meeting—or rather “interviewing”—other visitors in their room.

Years later, when I recalled that period, I wondered why we didn’t think of courting the girls ourselves. We were not so interested in the girls, I suppose, because we were simply too tired to pay any attention to the opposite sex.

What’s more, we must have been impressed by all those Korean guys who appeared to be rich without the slightest sign of the worry about money that my roommate and I had; many of them had their own cars and appeared to be only too glad to take the girls out for a spin.

Actually, though, we simply did not have the courage to ask them for a date. Besides, we were too proud to join all those guys who were competing against each other for the girls’ interest and favor.

Talking to the boys who were waiting in our flat for their turn to meet the girls, I found that the jealousy and sense of competition among them were so fierce that it was actually frightening. I wouldn’t have had the heart to join the race, however attractive the girls were.

“There are plenty of fish in the sea,” my friend and I joked about the expected abundant availability of girls later in our life.

But some of the visitors to the girls apparently didn’t see it that way. They must have seen us, who were lucky enough to live in the same building as the girls, as having plenty of chances to court them. And one or two of the guys must have decided to get rid of us to reduce the number of “competitors.” That is why my roommate and I were almost certain that one or more among the suitors had anonymously informed the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) about us.

One Saturday afternoon in early December, two INS agents visited our flat and asked us to accompany them to their office.

During the questioning, an INS official told us that we had violated the law by not attending school and by working instead.

“We can actually deport you back to your country,” he said.

We pleaded guilty but asked for his “understanding and generous consideration” as we were not working in order to make money but to continue our study. We pointed out to him that we had only a year and half to go before we graduate from the university.

“We will then go home,” we assured him.

“They all say that,” he said with a knowing smile. “But most of them stay on under one excuse or another and try to obtain a green card if they can.”

“But not me, sir,” I blurted out suddenly. “I’d go back because, I believe, I have a lot to contribute to my country which I love.”

Later, I realized that I hadn’t had to say what I did. But that wasn’t all, I added needlessly: “I’d leave this country even if you people asked me to stay.”

“Oh, yeah?” the officer exclaimed with a touch of disbelief and irony. “Well, then, let me record what you’ve just said in your file.”

After duly transcribing my remark in my file, the official told us that the INS would let us work until the beginning of the next semester. But on condition, he said firmly, that we go back to the university in February.

As dusk was falling on that day, we came out of the INS office, giving out a deep sigh of relief. But little did I know that my cheap nationalistic outburst and the uncalled for pledge that I would go back to my country after graduation would dog me around, posing an unexpected obstacle to my career as a journalist.


My friend and I went back to the University in January. And I graduated in the spring of 1962 with a degree in journalism. As all foreign students who earned a degree in a professional field were allowed to work for one year as an intern, the very day after I got my diploma, I packed up my things and left for New York where I was lucky enough to get a job at the Associated Press.

At the end of my internship, I decided to seek a permanent resident status in the United States. The INS, however, rejected the petition, filed by the employer on my behalf. It did not give detailed reasons for doing so, except to say that the applicant had expressed his desire to go back to his country as soon as he graduated from the university and that the INS had no choice but to honor his stated wish.

Told to leave the United States, I resigned from the AP and travelled to France first and then to Britain in order to see other parts of the world before returning to Korea three years later. I got married to a Korean girl and went to Tokyo where I worked as a reporter for the AP. After working in Japan for more than six years, I followed my wife who decided to immigrate to the United States.


Back in New York, I got a job at the AP, this time as an editor in the World Service Division. I worked there nearly 20 years but took early retirement in 1989 and returned to Seoul in order to work as an editorial adviser and columnist for an English language newspaper in Seoul.

It was a politically tumultuous time back home as the leftist national leaders took over the government and as anti-Americanism began to sweep the nation.
I have not been a particularly politically minded man. Nor was I one of those “pro-American” journalists. Despite my earlier personal difficulty with the INS, I have been a firm supporter of democracy and the free market system as well as the alliance between South Korea and the United States.

The popular thinking in South Korea, however, was that anyone who criticized “our” country and people must be pro-American. Conversely, anyone who condemned the United States as an imperialist state, or said he or she simply disliked America, was regarded as a patriot.

It was at a time like that that I wrote a column, pointing out the follies of nationalism and blind patriotism. For saying such a thing, though, scores of Koreans sent me angry e-mails, lashing out at me with verbal abuse that is not fit to print in any publication in a decent society.

Among the e-mails was the one sent by a student at Seoul National University, Korea’s equivalent to Harvard or Yale. It said:
“People who are eager to criticize our country and fellow countrymen are all traitors. They have no right to live here; indeed, they should be kick out of this country. The trouble with traitorous people like you, however, is that even the United States, which you no doubt worship, would not accept you; that means, you have no place to go; all you can do is fall into the Pacific Ocean and drown at the midway point between Korea and America.”

A few months after I received the e-mail, I had a chance to go to the United States for an extended stay. It would not be an exaggeration to say I had a sense of uneasiness when an immigration officer at an American airport went through my passport.

That was why I was a bit taken aback when the INS officer said, “Welcome to America and have a nice stay,” with a bright smile.

Of course, I knew he was saying the same thing to everybody who was arriving in the United States to live or visit unless he or she were on a list of terrorists or was an international criminal on the loose. Other than those, everyone is welcomed even if one had been—and still is—politically anti-American as long as one doesn’t publicly say so.

In fact, I have met a number of old Korean men and women in the United States, who, I knew, used to be politically active and who had taken part in numerous anti-American demonstrations in Seoul in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Naturally, I was surprised to find them in the United States because they used to say openly that they hated America so much.

The anti-American slogans they shouted during demonstrations in front of the U.S. embassy in Seoul and elsewhere were worse—to my way of thinking—than my youthful and immature outburst to the INS officer in Chicago some 50 years before. That had come from my youthful pride and nationalistic sentiment.

And yet, the anti-American Koreans from the old days apparently had had no trouble getting their green cards when they tried to immigrate to the United States.

When I thought about all this, I felt the whole thing was not quite fair somehow, but then, I suppose, that’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Profitable Business of Kidnapping

I followed former President Clinton’s visit to North Korea and the release of two American woman journalists by Dear Leader Kim Jong-il on television last week. I thought the whole thing was like watching one of those absurd dramas by Eugene Ionesco.

Here is this pseudo-Communist regime run by a son of the country’s founder and deified leader and his thuggish lackeys and cruel henchmen who turn the whole country into one huge prison and rule 24 million meek and fearful people in complete isolation.

In order to survive as a nation, they have been reportedly selling illegal drugs overseas, printing counterfeit dollars, kidnapping people of other countries for ransom and, above all, producing nuclear bombs and missiles to threaten and blackmail its peaceful neighbors.

What is amazing is that while committing all these things, it masquerades as a legitimate government and acts like a proud member of the international community.

In their latest mischief, they apparently lured the two young, naïve American journalists only a few inches into their territory across the Chinese border, arrested them and tried them on trumped-up charges of espionage. They sentenced the frightened women to 12 years of imprisonment and hard labor.

Then, using them as bait, they forced the United States to send no less a prominent leader than the former President to Pyongyang for a pre-planned show in which the Dear Leader, out of the “goodness of his heart,” ordered the release of the journalists so that they could return home with Mr. Clinton.

What a cynical show! What an absurd and contrived drama! We know that the poor journalists were kidnapped for all intent and purposes and used like a pair of pawns in a crude and disgusting game of politics.

As expected, their propaganda organs touted the whole affair to their people as a visit by President Clinton to their country to “apologize” for the journalists, emphasizing that the Dear Leader had granted a “special pardon.”

Before the world forgets how generous and magnanimous Kim Jong-il has been, however, North Koreans were reported to have said last Sunday that the issue of the American journalists was, in fact, handled “so wisely” by “General” Kim Jung-un, the third son, who has been designated the heir-apparent by his ailing dad. So, the Dear Leader had to share the credit for the brilliant feat of kidnapping and then releasing the Americans with his rising son.

I don’t know when the 26-year-old heir became a general, but he is apparently mastering the ways of dictatorship already.

Anyway, if there was anyone who was really generous and who acted like a humanitarian, it surely was President Clinton who voluntarily carried out the dubious and difficult task of meeting the North Korean leader in order to obtain freedom for the two Americans.

After the journalists returned home, though, many Americans were wondering out loud how much the United States had paid or promised to pay as ransom as there has not been any mention of the conditions for their release.

We all know that virtually nothing moves in North Korea unless and until money moves into the pocket, so to speak, of the Dear Leader.

Later in the week, Pyongyang’s official press came out telling Seoul to learn from the United States how to make an “under-the-surface contact” with North Korea, if it hopes to obtain the release of its citizens being held in the North.

The broadcast could only be a thinly veiled suggestion that Seoul pay for the release of the South Korean hostages.

And, indeed, the chairwoman of South Korea’s Hyundai Group, visited the North last Monday to negotiate with the North Koreans to obtain the release of a company engineer who had been detained for 136 days on charges of denouncing the North’s political system and urging a North Korean female worker to defect to the South. The 44-year-old engineer had been working in the industrial complex built by the Hyundai Group just north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) as part of the South’s economic aid to North Korea. And on Thursday evening (KST), the North did in fact free the man and allow him to return to the South.

It is not immediately known whether the Hyundai group agreed to pay for the release and, if so, how much.

In the meantime, indefatigable and ever optimistic groups of people, both in the United States and South Korea, seem to believe the Dear Leader’s “gestures of goodwill” could be an indication that North Korea is willing to return to the Six-Party Talks for the denuclearization of North Korea, or is seeking bilateral contacts for the establishment of relations with Washington.

But how many more times do the members of the international community have to experience a letdown before they realize that negotiations with North Koreans will get us nowhere? We have seen time and again that such talks, which usually drag on for years, only give them time to keep working on their mischief such, for instance, as miniaturizing nuclear warheads and developing long-range missiles to deliver them

But then, they ask, what else can we do with the North Koreans? What is the alternative?

The only answer, I believe, lies in our resolution to keep enforcing the U.N. sanctions against them until the Kim Dynasty collapses. We know the sanctions will bring further suffering and misery to many innocent North Koreans but concerted action by the international community is necessary if we are to put an end to one of the most ruthless dictatorships in the world.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Car Chase

One of the strange and, indeed, silly happenings that I have seen on local television from time to time since I settled in Southern California four years ago is what they call a “car chase.”

A man (or it could be a woman, I suppose), in a stolen car, drives wildly at breakneck speed through city streets and freeways, ignoring traffic rules and often barely avoiding disastrous accidents involving not only the driver himself but also other motorists and innocent passersby.

As soon as the police spot such a car, one or more patrol cars start pursuing it. Thus, a high-speed chase is on.

The police are not the only ones chasing the car, however. Television networks broadcast a running account of the chase via a camera affixed presumably onto a satellite or a pursuing helicopter overhead. Holding their breaths, viewers are glued to the TV as though watching a stockcar race or even a demolition derby. It is exciting because the outcome is, as it were, up in the air.

What amazes me is the judicious and patient approach of the police to the whole affair, which, after all, is an on-going violation of a whole series of traffic laws, if nothing else. Anyway, as far as televised car chases go, I have never seen police acting stupidly.

And the lenient, hand-in-glove handling on the part of police is what the stolen car drivers are apparently counting on as they no doubt enjoy playing a cat-mouse game.

I don’t know about other TV viewers, but I can’t help visualizing the driver—and his companions, if he has them on board—gleefully laughing as he outmaneuvers and outfoxes the pursuing police cars. He might go 90 to 100 miles (144-160 kilometers) an hour over freeways, weaving through traffic jams and driving on shoulders of highways or even going in the wrong direction, avoiding oncoming cars by a hair’s breath.

If the fugitive driver chooses to go through crowded city streets, the chase gets even more dangerous because almost all such drivers with the police patrol cars closely tailing them do not hesitate to go through red lights at intersections. I even saw some of them drive through busy pedestrian crosswalks, jeopardizing countless people.

Watching such a car chase, which is not a rare occurrence in Los Angeles and vicinity, I often wonder whether the police couldn’t take some effective and drastic action to prevent or nip it in the bud, so to speak, before it develops into a full-blown dangerous car chase. One would have thought there must be a way.

Police could, for instance, shoot and puncture the rear wheels of the stolen car when the driver is forced to slow down. I saw one case in which a truck driver brought his 16-wheeler to a halt, blocking the entire width of a highway after hearing on his radio that a stolen car, chased by police, was heading his way.

When chasing a stolen car, police officers are extra careful, I understand, because their action could easily escalate into a shootout. That probably is one of the reasons why patrol cars usually keep a “respectable” distance throughout the chase.

In any case, a stolen car driver calls it quits presumably when he gets tired, runs out of gas or drives into a dead-end street.

After a long, dangerous and nerve-wracking race, wasting so much public funds and police manpower, and sometimes causing senseless casualties, all car chases eventually come to an end. Then, and only then, the stolen car is surrounded cautiously to police officers who jump out of their patrols cars, which by then number six or seven.

What puzzles many TV viewers with the ending of most such car chases is that the fugitive drivers usually come out of the cars with their arms raised over their heads, showing no detectable sign of guilt or remorse. On the contrary, some of them even display the audacity of grinning or sheepishly smiling at the policemen as if to say: “How was my driving, eh?” or, “We had some fun, didn’t we?”

While hundreds of thousands of viewers watch, police handle the law-breakers as though they had done nothing terribly wrong. They are apparently relieved that no more serious incident occurred.

No doubt, those fun-loving perpetrators are sent to prison upon conviction but are released soon enough so that they can steal a car again and race with patrol cars whenever they feel bored with life.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Pollution In Seoul

I flew over the southern outskirts of Seoul on a domestic flight some time ago. Looking down at the great city of ours, I noticed that the entire metropolitan area was enveloped in gray soupy smog. The smog was so thick that it was almost impossible to spot any landmarks or familiar buildings. It was unbelievable that until a few minutes before, I had been down there, breathing that foul air and yet survived.

What was more discouraging, though, was the thought that I would have to return to the city in a couple of days and live there, along with 20 million other residents, as though this really were a nice clean place on earth to spend the rest of my life. Actually, though, it is almost a miracle, I felt, that people can live in an environment like that without constantly struggling and panting for air, like fish out of water.

Then, I remembered a brief news item a few weeks before that lung cancer had replaced stomach cancer as the No. 1 killer in South Korea. Despite the report, no one—including city and health authorities or civic groups—seemed to have taken the finding seriously and try to do something about the worsening air pollution in the city.

It is true that we can get used to anything except death. Unless we get a chance to go up in an airplane and look down on the city, as I did, or ask newly arriving foreign visitors, most of us are unable to tell how awful the air we breathe is or how serious the problem of air pollution in Seoul and other major cities around the country is.

In our usual selfish and nonchalant way, each of us seems to think that even the quality of the air is none of their concern as long as they are not directly affected by it, i.e., suffering from asthma or other respiratory ailments.
And yet, we are unconcerned about our health. On the contrary, I can safely say that there are few people who are more health-conscious than Koreans.
Such animals as deer and otter are being hunted down to near extinction by poachers and sold to those who seem to believe that eating any and every wild animal is good for health and virility. Some people don’t even hesitate to eat earthworms or maggots while savvy businessmen are importing ostriches or other esoteric animals from other regions and breeding them for eventual human consumption.

It is heard to understand, therefore, how such health-conscious people can be so unconcerned about the dirty air we all breathe and, for that matter, the polluted water we drink and contaminated food we eat. They seem to think and act as though environmental pollution does not affect them, or at least that they are problems for other people to resolve.

In an effort to help reduce the amount of carbon monoxide in the air, produced by ever-increasing number of automobiles, government authorities urge people, among other things, to leave their cars home as much as possible and use public transportation to commute to work instead. But appeals like this fall on deaf ears as most of us obviously feel that such a campaign is directed at other people but “not me.”

Some people point out that air pollution in other parts of the world, especially Beijing and other major cities in China, is much worse than it is in Seoul. But we shouldn’t take comfort in the miseries and predicament of our neighbors.

It is true that air quality in Seoul has improved considerably over the past decade, thanks to the stricter enforcement of regulations on automobile exhaust fumes and the use of low-sulfur petroleum by industrial plants and private car owners. Seoul, however, still has a long way to go before the residents there can boast the air quality over their city to the rest of the world.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Tips For Vacationers In Korea

In case you haven’t gone on vacation yet or are hoping to take one in South Korea next year, I will tell you how we, Koreans, are enjoying—or rather, torturing—ourselves on our vacation every year, so that you can adjust to the local customs and become a part of the great summer ritual.

First, you have to decide on a place where you and your family will spend your vacation. I don’t know about you, but personally, my idea of a vacation is to get away from it all, if only for a few days. I would like, therefore, to grab a few books and go to a quiet place—it doesn’t matter whether it is on a mountain or at the seaside—and catch up on my reading of the latest mystery novels in the cool shade during the day and stroll in the woods or on the beach in the morning and evening.

The point is, the fewer the fellow vacationers around, the better. But most of my fellow Koreans seem to prefer to go to places where there are lots of people. In fact, the more people milling around, the better or more exciting and enjoyable.

You must have seen at least one TV segment that showed more than half a million people just standing in the water shoulder to shoulder in the sea, off Pusan, or Kangnung on the East Sea coast—or, thousands of children practically turning a swimming pool in one of those amusement parks near Seoul into a neighborhood public bathhouse.

If you want to go to a popular or famous vacation spot, just follow the crowd, and you can’t miss it. And don’t think that where you are is the only crowded place in Korea. You can safely expect a mob of at least several thousands wherever you go, if the place is well known.

Once you picked your destination, you will have to decide whether you will take public transportation or your car. If you want to relax on your way, leave the driving, as the popular advertising goes, to the driver of the bus or the train engineer. But if you are like a Korean, you have to take your car, no matter now awful traffic conditions are during the vacation season.

Driving a car to Pusan or Kangnung, for instance, takes more time, sometimes, than flying from Seoul to Los Angeles. But you shouldn’t mind, because driving through that horrible jam is part of the fun for Korean drivers. If you don’t believe it, just look out of the window of your car and you will find many Korean drivers grinning and even waving at you happily, instead of gnashing their teeth and nursing their impatience to an explosive point.

If you are really in a hurry, you can drive on a lane reserved for buses. Driving through that lane is against the law, but many people are doing that with impunity and why shouldn’t you? And if you worry about parking, you shouldn’t because you can leave your car almost anywhere you like. You may have noticed that narrow rural roads to a national park, for instance, are almost completely blocked by illegally parked cars so that they have practically become obstacle courses for visitors on foot.

Next, you have to pack uncooked food, like marinated beef for bulgoki, and a portable burner. The idea is to cook your dinner or lunch on the spot, I mean, in the mountains, on the beach or wherever you are.

There are no officially designated picnic areas where you can cook. And cooking in public places is actively discouraged these days. Nevertheless, cooking and eating is still a must for most Koreans wherever they go. I often see a family sitting around in an off-limit lawn in city parks or on the banks of the Han River and cooking.

Oh, I almost forgot. You have to bring your soju—or Korean whisky, if you like—so that you can drink with your bulgoki, get drunk, sing as loudly as you can and dance. If your fellow vacationers frown on you, just ignore them. They are obviously not used to Korean customs.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Fighters for Democracy

There was yet another violent brawl at South Korea’s National Assembly (parliament) between the rival representatives last Wednesday. The fighting erupted when the ruling party attempted to pass a set of bills aimed at easing restrictions on ownership of television networks, and opposing lawmakers tried to block its passage by force.

The brawl was duly recorded on video, and foreign television networks broadcast them for the world to see and ridicule.

Physical combat in the Korean legislature is nothing new, however.

Last December, a debate over a free trade agreement turned violent when opposition lawmakers used a sledgehammer to knock down the doors of a room that had been blockaded so that the ruling party committee members could discuss it, and the ruling party lawmakers used fire extinguishers against them.

What is amazing is the fact that these lawmakers, especially the ones in the political parties currently in the opposition, believe that they are “fighting for democracy” when they grapple with the ruling party representatives.

Obviously, the self-righteous politicians on both sides of the aisle do not know that the essence of democracy lies in compromise and not, as it were, in their fists. These self-described “democratic” politicians also do not know how to concede when they are defeated in elections. Nor are they willing to honor the will of a majority of the people they are supposed to serve.

Interested only in partisan politics, they are engaged in an endless zero-sum game with their rivals, turning a blind eye to the national interests and the general wellbeing of the people.

As these politicians pursue their goals, parliamentary fighting has almost become a time-honored tradition as old as the Republic of Korea that was founded in 1948.

In one of the earliest parliamentary sessions, I remember, an incensed representative brought in a can of excrement and sprayed it over the heads of fellow lawmakers. The incident marked, I’m ashamed to say, the beginning of South Korea’s parliamentary brawls.

In between their physical clashes, rival representatives spend nearly all of their time and energy in bickering over such relatively unimportant issues as the formation of committees while ignoring pressing legislation. Thus, our highly paid representatives took more than a month and half to just convene the current session that had been scheduled to open on June 1.

While they are fighting tooth and nail over one or two pieces of “crucial” legislation, they ignore others until they are forced to take action on them. Then, they pass them en mass on the last days of the session, without even giving them a detailed reading, much less holding debate on them.

Despite this kind of irresponsible but typical behavior, some people are said to be pushing a change in the Constitution, aimed at replacing the current presidential system with a parliamentary form of government.

But are they in their right mind? I mean, haven’t they been watching what’s happening in our parliament day in and day out for over half a century? How could our National Assembly operating as they have been over the years carry out the affairs of the nation normally?

The way they tend to leave the assembly closed for more than half the time of a session and the way they continually fight over one or two bills for all the rest of the session, it would take a miracle for the country to function under our legislature.

That is unless the National Assembly decides to set up a boxing ring or a wresting arena in the middle of the assembly chamber where the representatives physically fight it out and the assembly adopts the legislative bills pushed by the winners of the matches.

Joking aside, though, even under the current presidential form of government, the nation will never fulfill the Korean people’s ardent and unrequited aspiration to join the group of advanced democracies, unless and until our politicians in general and representatives in particular grow up and learn to be sophisticated, refined and responsible leaders.


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