Seoul Searcher

##################################################### #####################################################

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 μ‚Όμ„± 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 ν˜„λŒ€, 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.



About Me