Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Seoul Historical Tour

Last Sunday I joined a tour of historic sites in Seoul organized by the Royal Asiatic Society, a group of English-speaking foreigners dedicated to learning more about the history and culture of Korea. I had just recently learned of this group and was excited about the opportunity to befriend some of the other foreigners here.

The tour was in English and led by Peter Bartholomew, a Canadian who has resided in Seoul for over 40 years. We met at Doksu Palace at 9 AM and proceeded to meander the more scenic backstreets of central Seoul for the next 6 hours. My fellow tour-goers were an impressive bunch, including two ambassadors, a former Peace Corps volunteer turned scholar, a group of Dutch businessmen, a Korean couple very dedicated to teaching their daughter English, and a smattering of various other nationalities.


Our tour led us from Doksu Palace through the neighborhood that housed the major foreign legations at the turn of the century, through the lesser-known but very impressive Gyeonghui Palace complex, northward to the Blue House (the presidential compound) at the northern end of Gwangbuk Palace, and then back south through the artsy area of Bukchon, ending up at Unhyon Palace, where Queen Min was married and where the last surviving members of the royal family lived out their final years. 

The Blue House, female traffic guard in foreground

Far'ners tromping towards Gyeonghui Palace
Along the way our guide shared many historical tidbits about past kings of Korea and particularly the events of the last decades of the Chosun dynasty. I learned some things I had not previously known or had forgotten about. Mr. Bartholomew pulled no punches when describing how the Japanese empire gradually took over Korean sovereignty, through a combination of guile, manipulation and thuggery. "I can't give this tour for Japanese people," he told us with a sly grin.

We saw the site of the former Russian legation where King Kojong fled after his wife Queen Min was murdered, and the teahouse where young Prince Sunjong drank the opium-laced tea which left him brain-damaged for the rest of his life. We also got a detailed account of the functionality and symbolism of the various buildings in the sprawling palace compounds, and how they had diminished through various wars and disasters.

Doksu Palace, with modern buildings in the background
Mr. Bartholomew spoke very passionately about the fate of traditional Korean homes, called hanok. Under his guidance the RAS has attempted to purchase several of these buildings to preserve them and prevent them from being torn down and replaced with modern apartments or shopping complexes. At several points along the tour he would say things like "There used to be a beautiful old house here, RAS tried to buy it, but it got torn down to build that monstrosity you see now."

I could tell that our guide felt quite strongly on this subject and his moving words were having a powerful effect on the rest of the group, but somehow I was having trouble summoning much indignation over the subject. I've always been a bit uncomfortable with foreigners coming into a country and preaching about how the local people should preserve their own culture. I had the same reaction when reading Alex Kerr's writing on his efforts to preserve the thatch-roofed country houses of traditional Japan.

It seems to me that the practice of preserving and restoring old buildings is much more of a Western compulsion than an Eastern one. At one point during the tour, Mr. Bartholomew himself said, "Koreans traditionally do not care much about keeping their old houses." Is it not just another form of cultural interference to try to alter the local peoples' idea of what is worth preserving?

Koreans and Japanese tend to be more concerned with maintaining ancient practices, techniques and art forms than in keeping old buildings and objects themselves. One famous temple in Japan has been torn down and rebuilt every 20 years, in exactly the same way and by exactly the same family, for centuries. The tea ceremony is an art form based on repeating the motions of an ancient task in exactly the same way, without changing or innovating. Similarly, Kabuki theater, flower arranging, traditional dance, and martial arts all tend to focus on preserving the way things were done in the ancient past, rather than creating new forms as is the tendency in Western art, music and theater. If Asians don't tell us Westerners to stop re-interpreting Shakespeare, who are we to tell them to stop tearing down their old buildings?

Admittedly, I have an innate blindness regarding matters of architecture. I tend to see all products of human construction as more or less equally ugly, equally invasive of the natural environment. In my ideal world we would all be living close together in tiny apartments, reserving as much space as possible for wilderness, so that the egrets and polar bears and such can have plenty of room to prance around in peace.

When people like Alex Kerr and Peter Bartholomew say that the old, traditional-style buildings are more beautiful than the new ones, I have to take their word for it, because everyone else seems to agree. I can't see it myself. To my view, traditional homes only seem more attractive because they are old and, consequently, rare. The people who built them originally were not guided by aesthetic concerns but simply chose the most functional, utilitarian design possible with the materials available at the time.

200 years from now, when nearly all of our ferro-concrete apartment highrises have been replaced by something more futuristic, I expect there will be some group of passionate individuals dedicated to "preserving the ferro-concrete apartment highrises." This group will no doubt be dominated by foreigners.



Friday, March 11, 2011

GRE Temptation

I'm planning on taking the GRE sometime in May/June, and I just found out that it is considerably less convenient to schedule a test date here in Seoul than it was in Japan. This is feeding into my id's transparent attempts to talk my conscious mind into booking a trip to Japan this spring.

I last took the GRE in 2004 in Japan, and I remember the whole process as being very efficient and almost enjoyable. I registered online and was able to choose almost any date I wanted. There were no test centers in my city, which meant an excuse to take the train down to Tokyo for a weekend. The test itself was entirely on computer and entirely self-directed, which for some reason I found to be less stressful than a paper test. For the multiple-choice sections, the computer spit out my scores instantly as soon as I finished the test. The essay section score and percentage rankings came in the mail a few months later.

In Korea, the situation is not so great. They only allow computerized testing for the analytical writing (the essay) section, and you have to take the rest of the test on paper at a later date. To make matters worse, the paper part of the test is only offered twice (!) a year. A co-worker informs me that this has something to do with the high incidence of test-fraud and cheating in Korea. Also, apparently you can't register online; you have to dial a phone number and talk to an icky human.

Okay, actually the next available test dates are not so bad for me. If I do this in Seoul, I can take the essay test anytime between now and May 7th, and then I have to take the rest of the test on June 11th. This is pretty much within the time frame I had in mind, and I suppose there are advantages to taking the test in parts over a stretch of time. That is, there would be advantages for a normal person; in my case, it would just mean two sleepless nights and two terrible churning stomachaches instead of one. The knowledge that I can only take the tests on those particular days, and the thought of sitting in an uncomfortable desk in a big lecture hall with a stack of #2 pencils and a scantron sheet, somehow fills me with a deep sense of unease.

Meanwhile, a little voice inside my subconscious that I had not really acknowledged until now is getting louder. It says "Go on, go to Japan, you know you want to. You can take the test in Osaka and then spend the weekend hanging out with old friends or relaxing in some lodge in the mountains. You need to refresh your Japanese anyway..." This subconscious voice knows that I deeply miss certain aspects of life in Japan, and it wouldn't take much to convince me to go back. Especially now that spring is coming, and I know that in Kyoto the air will be fresh and sweet and everything will be turning that brilliant shade of green that you just don't see here in Korea. I've acknowledged before that it's unfair to compare Kyoto and Seoul, but there it is. The main thing that's holding me back is that I need to conserve my vacation days for a big grad-school scouting tour in the fall.

So I wrestled with this all yesterday afternoon, my rational thoughts inexorably getting taken over by my gut desire to see Japan again. When Unni came home around 10pm we sat together watching TV for a while and I told her what I was thinking about. She immediately responded with enthusiasm, "Sounds great! When do you think we should go?" I hadn't even thought about Unni coming along, but if she wants to it would be so much fun to show her Kyoto in June. There's a 3-day weekend then and I wouldn't even necessarily have to take any time off work. I warned her that on the day of the test I would most likely be sleep-deprived and vomiting and not any fun at all to be around, but she remained unfazed. So what started out 24 hours ago as "I think I'll go see about registering for the GRE now" has become "Unni and Changmi's Big Adventure in Japan."

*Update: At lunch today I was talking with two of my co-workers about my current plans, and both of them also expressed a half-serious interest in tagging along. Wouldn't it be hilarious if I showed up at the test center with a small army of Korean groupies cheering me on?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Bizarre spam messages

Last September, after finally obtaining a decent visa status, I discarded my old pre-paid phone and got a real cell phone. The prepaid phone was KT (Korea Telecom); my new phone is with their competitor SKT, because the KT guy (erroneously, it turned out) told me that as a foreigner I couldn't qualify for their discounted cell phone plan.

Ever since I got the SKT phone, I've been plagued with bizarre text messages and wrong numbers. Apparently whoever had my phone number before me either had a truly impressive number of girlfriends, or was a big fan of various adult phone services. I frequently get texts like this:
Text reads: "Oppa! When are you coming over? I miss you."
Text reads: "Hey you. What are you thinking of?"
Text reads: "Oppa, let's do it like this today."
Text reads: "Oppa, one more time? Hee hee."
Basically, if a message has hearts in it and starts with "Oppa," I immediately register it as spam and delete it. But they just keep on coming. At first I completely ignored them, but more recently I've come to enjoy trying to figure out what's going on in the x-rated emoticon drawings. I've learned a lot of good slang vocabulary as well.

Aside from naughty texts, the next most common form of spam comes from sketchy financial institutions trying to sell bonds and the like. Sometimes I'll get a call from one of these people, always late afternoon on a work day. I have developed an ingenious way of getting rid of them: I simply say, "I'm sorry, you'll have to speak more slowly, I'm a foreigner and I can't understand Korean very well." They always hang up immediately. No goodbye, no sorry for the inconvenience, just a click and then silence.

*Oppa means, literally, "elder brother" (only used by women; men have a different word). This word is also a universal term of endearment used by young women to address their boyfriends. A more complete description of the cultural implications of the term can be found here.