Friday, November 29, 2013

10 other things South Korea does better than anywhere else

Recently this article about 10 things that South Korea does better than anywhere else has been making the rounds on social media, but when I first read it, I couldn't tell if it was sincere or satire. A few of the items on the list are not very positive, such as "overworking" and "using credit cards". So, I thought I would try to put together a better list. Here are 10 other things South Korea does better than anywhere else:

1) Small side dishes, a.k.a. "banchan" (반찬)

Banchan are by far my favorite aspect of Korean cuisine. Rather than the "appetizer and main dish" approach of the West, a Korean meal is essentially built around small dishes. Even a 5,000 won (about $5 USD) meal at a mall food court will come with two to four banchan in addition to the "main", and often people will actually choose restaurants based on the banchan (e.g., seolleongtang, or beef bone broth soup, places tend to have the tastiest kimchi). There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different types of banchan, based on the thousands of different vegetables, herbs, and wildlife found on the Korean peninsula, and the sheer diversity means that you will never get bored eating Korean food.

Mmm, banchan. Lots of banchan.

2) Paper crafts, a.k.a. hanji (한지)

I had heard talk of hanji for quite some time before I visited Jeonju and discovered what it really is. Essentially, hanji is traditional Korean paper. Paper? What's so special about paper, you might ask? Well, it's actually pretty darn amazing what they do with the stuff. Aside from the obvious use as a writing surface, hanji in its most interesting form is essentially a fabric that can be blended with other materials such as silk to create beautiful clothing. Some hanji dresses from a designer I like, 전양배:

전양배 hanji fashion show in Beijing.

3) Cold weather fashion

Seoul gets coooooooold in the winter, but compared to other cities, Seoul's women don't let sub-arctic temperatures temper their fashion sense. No sirree. Korean girls are hard core when it comes to going out in cold weather. Whereas other cold winter cities (New York, Beijing, San Francisco in summer, etc) will see people bundled up as though they're setting out for a trek through the Siberian wilderness, Seoul's winter fashion is characterized by ... well, mostly the same fashion from the rest of the year, except sometimes with leggings. Through some rigorous observational research, I've determined that the approximate temperature at which girls will switch from bare legs to leggings is around -7 or -8C, although there is always the occasional outlier wearing miniskirts without leggings all the way down to -20C. Hard core, my friends. Hard core.

4) Mass-produced pop music

I used to not be a very big k-pop fan, but over time it's grown on me. The most impressive aspect? The sheer efficiency and output of the industry. The major producers sign the talent really young and train them nonstop to be pop stars. It's an intensely cutthroat system - if you speak up in dissent, you're just replaced with another cookie cutter pop star - but it's hard to argue with its effectiveness. K-pop is strong and popular in most of East and Southeast Asia. The New Yorker had an interesting article on k-pop production awhile back. The redeeming aspect of k-pop for me is that there actually are some really talented musicians in there. Ailee (에일리) and Hyorin (효린) are two that come to mind, and of the major girl groups, 2NE1 has the most unique sound and look. On a side note, Korea also has an amazing indie music scene, and it's quite sad that it's so overshadowed by the factory-produced k-pop. But if you look for it, you will be pleasantly surprised.

Still from 2NE1's new music video for 그리워해요 (Missing You)

5) Hierarchy

Social hierarchy is stronger in Korea than anywhere else I've seen. I'm not saying this is a good thing, just that South Korea does it better than anywhere else. Literally every interaction in Korean society is at least partially dictated by hierarchy, and everyone knows their role. Eonni (girl's older female friend/sister), oppa (girl's older male friend/brother), nuna (guy's older female friend/sister), hyeong (guy's older male friend/brother) - these are just the beginning. Birth year, class year, school year, junior/senior at work, etc. The extremely strict adherence to hierarchy makes for a culture where everyone knows what to do and how to act because of societal scripts, but comes with all the problems one might expect of a culture where everyone knows what to do and how to act because of societal scripts.

6) Building really big things

Most people don't know this, but Korea's heavy industries are the world's best. Guess who built the Burj Khalifa? Samsung Construction and Trading. Taipei 101? Samsung again. Petronas Towers Tower Number 2? Also built by Samsung. Make no mistake about it - Korea is the world leader in building really big things. Not content with simply making "tall" skyscrapers, now Korea is going for more challenging things like "invisible" skyscrapers. And aside from skyscrapers, everyday construction in South Korea is astonishingly fast and astoundingly high quality. It's not uncommon to leave for the weekend and come back to find a completely new restaurant where a few days before there was a convenience store or cafe. South Korea also dominates at shipbuilding, although China is a huge player there as well.

7) Economic development

Starting in the early 60's, South Korea's economy developed faster than any other country in the history of the world (although China is now doing the same thing). This was the result of focussed government-directed economic development unlike any seen before. Sure, a good deal of the growth came from "fast-following" their neighbors to the east, but give credit where credit is due - South Korea's economic development was the result of massive work and effort on the part of South Koreans. Now South Korea is essentially the most developed country in the world, thanks to a few decades of blistering labor and growth. Was it worth it? Many Koreans have suggested to me that the country was a happier place back when it had the world's lowest GDP.

8) Public transit

Korean public transportation is amazing. The Seoul metro is cheap, fast, and blankets the city and surrounding areas. And where the subway doesn't go, busses do. From small town bus to aggressive intercity express bus, Korean public transit goes everywhere and won't break the bank. Not only that, it's safe and super clean! Just watch out for the pushy ajummas.

Also fitting loosely under the public transit category, last time I went hiking up in the Bukhansan mountains north of Seoul, I was amazed to discover that the exquisitely well-maintained hiking trails are actually part of the official road system - they have numbers and "road" signs just like the highways! Super cool.

Now that public transit is solved, here's hoping that South Korea goes on to build the first Hyperloop.

9) Phonetic script

Hangeul (한글) is the phonetic script that Korean is written in. Koreans are proud of it, and I'm here to tell you that their pride is entirely justified. Hangeul is simply the best phonetic alphabet on the planet. Sure, there are a few exceptions that need to be memorized, but compared to the disaster that is English spelling, hangeul blows away the competition. Learn how to read in less than a day! Aspirations and glottalizations are built directly into the script! Each character comprises exactly one syllable! Beautiful design.

To be fair, when Korea switched from Chinese characters to hangeul, they introduced ambiguity into their writing system. I think the ideal writing system for Korean would use hangeul for pure Korean words and all verb conjugations (i.e., the entirety of the agglutinative awesomeness that is Korean), and use Chinese characters for all words derived from Chinese (한자어), but of course that would make it a lot more difficult to learn and read.

10) Change

The final thing that South Korea does better than anywhere else is change. When South Korea decides to do something, they can achieve that change seemingly overnight. Before the iPhone came to South Korea in 2009, there were no "smartphones" (except of course for the numerous "dumb" phones that made video calls and played TV as early as ten years ago). Within a year, smartphone penetration was among the highest in the world. This is why I'm confident that South Korea can grow into its potential - despite all the obstacles and problems that would accompany any country after five decades of breakneck growth and modernization, the national eagerness to change is a strength that can lead South Korea into a brighter future.

So, with that I'll conclude my somewhat random list of ten other things that South Korea does better than anywhere else. Hope you enjoyed. Until next time!

Monday, November 04, 2013

Is It Worth It To Learn Korean?

Learning Korean as a non-Asian foreigner is an exercise in masochism. Note that I specify "non-Asian". Why does that make a difference? Simply because Koreans possess a deeply-ingrained belief that non-Asians are incapable of speaking Korean. The self-fulfilling prophecy of it is that since Koreans expect you to be incapable of speaking Korean, due to this mental block, they are likely to not understand you regardless of your proficiency level. Additionally, they won't respond to you with normal Korean like they would respond to an Asian person, because they assume you couldn't possibly understand. You will rarely ever have an opportunity to hear natural Korean, because Koreans simply won't speak it with you unless 1) they are open-minded and awesome (meaning they have probably lived abroad - thank you to all of you), or 2) they have known you long enough that they've gotten past the odd sight of a foreigner speaking Korean.

In short, nearly every time you open your mouth and Korean comes out, you will be treated like a child or a circus monkey.

As a foreigner speaking Korean, you will begin every conversation the exact same way. Regardless of what you say, you will hear, "한국말 잘 하시네요!" - your Korean is very good. Every time I see a certain 할머니 in my building and say hello to her, she comments on how I "even know how to do greetings properly". That is, she is impressed with my ability to say hello. If you think this is a one-off thing, it's not. It is often difficult to move beyond this subject to what you actually want, because people are so caught up with the novelty of foreigners speaking Korean.

My Korean has gotten to the point where I sometimes think it would be better if I didn't know any. It throws people off that I can have difficult conversations. They simply don't know what to think about me, and in a society with such strongly defined thought patterns learned since birth, I think it miserably confuses people that I can converse in 우리말 ("our language"), because as a foreigner, I am not part of the 우리. I'm not part of the "we". Yet I understand the nuances between different verb endings, and I use the proper formalities when I speak.

Yet still, after conversing for awhile in Korean, I very often get asked if I can read and write Hangeul. The written language is literally the most well-structured phonetic alphabet in the world, taking less than a day to learn how to read, and people are amazed that a foreign mind could possibly comprehend it. This is a variant of "Wow, you're really good at chopsticks", and it's incredibly insulting. These micro-racial insults wear on you over time, and no matter how good you speak the language, you are never actually speaking the language - you are simply performing a trick.

I've gotten good enough at Korean that I'm offended when people use incorrect formality levels with me (i.e., when they talk "down" to me in situations where they would speak respectfully to a Korean). The first time I found myself offended, I was surprised at myself. But I realized that the language is not just a way of expressing ideas - it's a method of conveying culture and societal nuance. This was also around the time that I started "accidentally" using proper honorifics without thinking about it. Of course I still screw up from time to time, but I "get" it. Honorifics are more than simply habit. They convey a certain level of familiarity. In the same vein, I love when younger girls call me 오빠, because it means they've accepted me into a familiarity level normally reserved for Koreans. (On the flip side, when younger guys call me 형, it's almost always because they want me to buy something for them. I'm not dumb.)

So despite all this, despite all the pain and ridicule and incredulity and feigned misunderstanding, is it worth it to learn Korean? Absolutely, without a doubt, yes. Learning any language connects you with the culture in a way that nothing else can. Reading native literature allows you to peer into the collective mind of the culture that created it. Besides, what better way to give the finger to culturally-instituted racism than to be one of the few people that can understand the language swimming around the minds that comprise that culture?

Language is culture. Culture is language. There's no way around it. Koreans are protective of their language because they're protective of their culture, and given their history, it's not unreasonable to see why. However, you can't guard language, at least not very effectively, and the Korean language is a treasure that should be shared widely. Sharing is strength, because it stems from openness and vulnerability, while protectionism and racism are weakness stemming from fear. I look forward to a day when Koreans are eager to share their language and culture widely and without preconditions. Until that time, I'll keep reading my 만화, keep composing terrible Korean poems, keep singing my Korean karaoke, and I will undoubtedly give you a nice, big smile when you comment on my incredible ability to say hello. I am a monkey, after all.