You can’t buy a good kitchen table in South Korea – nothing with legs longer than my shins. Or, you can, probably, but I don’t know where. I bought a desktop computer almost as soon as I arrived and lugged the kitchen table that came with the apartment into the bedroom, where it now serves as a rather garish office table. For about a month now, a microwave, a toaster, a kettle and an iron have sat sadly upon the kitchen floor, models in a melancholy still-life drawing. I’d been warned that Korea was futuristic, certainly. But I didn’t expect a computer to take control of the place quite as quickly as it has. It’ll be sleeping in my bed before long. The words here look like Tetris and, at night, the skyline takes on something of a classic Windows screensaver. The town planners seem to have designed each district using the help-mode of Sim City – a school beside a hospital beside a library beside a police station. More than that, a man dressed in a giant Luigi costume is often seen standing on street corners trying to sell mobile phone deals. Virtual reality is invading reality, and I am left to chop vegetables on the floor.
No prizes for guessing that I teach English here, for that is what just about every other foreigner (‘waygook’) in South Korea does too. I live in the country’s sixth largest city, a place called Gwangju, where in May 1980 a group of democrats comprised largely of students demonstrated against the recently installed military government of South Korea. Memory of the atrocity, which saw hundreds were brutally murdered, is closely held. At an event held to welcome us to the city, the head of the Gwangju International Centre told an audience of newly arrived English-language teachers that he did not like his role, that he had to work very hard to keep the centre running – and out of his own pocket, to boot. But he keeps doing it, he said, because of those who were killed in the 1980 demonstrations. ‘Those guys died,’ he reasoned – and although I can’t remember anything about them having died for the sake of an international centre, the centre’s effort to spread word of world cultures is noble work indeed in the Korean context.
Unlike most late-capitalist societies, where a false spirit of individualism is fostered in order to make its subjects consume more, Korean society is one of rigid conformism and ardent nationalism. This is a godsend for the Korean corporations, whose marketing departments must be considered the true inheritors of Hangeul, the Korean language whose original name (Hun-min-jeong-eum) translates directly as ‘the correct sounds for the instruction of the people’. Take K-Pop as an example. Korea’s brand of pop music is, like the overwhelming majority of pop music, pretty bad by any objective standard. Sung half in Korea, half in English, it is as bland and formulaic as you’d expect, over-produced and under-thought. That female middle-school students go nuts for it is to be expected. But that a heterosexual, male university student would be drawn to ask me if I, too, loved K-Pop represents the ultimate triumph of nationalism over the endocrine gland.
Music is not the only area in which Koreans think highly of themselves. Manchester United’s Park Ji Sung, forever typecast as merely ‘industrious’ in the British press, is genuinely believed to be one of the world’s best football players. Hangeul is constantly spoken of as the world’s most difficult language, while Korean cuisine is made out to be the spiciest in the world. It quite patently is not.
Korea’s national dish is Kimchi. I’m not sure what it says about a country that its national dish is a side-dish, but Kimchi is a type of spiced, fermented cabbage that is served every day, with every meal, without fail. Its texture isn’t up to much, but it isn’t the worst thing I’ve tasted in this, a country where every second dish has some sort of seafood lurking inside it. Some dishes are upfront about it. It would be difficult for, say, the deep-fried fish, served whole and only lightly coated, to be anything but upfront about its origins. But many dishes are altogether more underhanded. When browsing the leaves of your salad, don’t be surprised to discover the helpless tentacle of some wretched squid pressed up against the side of your bowl like Kate Winslet’s hand against the steamy windows of the Titanic. Seafood is so popular here, in fact, that every supermarket employs a man to stand next to the fish counter speaking into a microphone strapped around his head. I cannot make out what these men are saying, but they speak so constantly and so excitedly that they seem less like the market-women on Moore Street (their natural kin) than they do old horse-racing commentators, or particularly foul-smelling auctioneers. I presume these guys are everywhere because fish is so popular, but it could be the other way round; perhaps fish is only popular because these guys are everywhere.
Whichever it is, the fish-jockeys are not the only Koreans to make use of the humble tannoy. There was a parliamentary election here in the middle of April, and you couldn’t open your door in the morning without hearing the slightly distorted voice of somebody up for election (or somebody up for somebody up for election) wheedling that microphone for everything it’s worth. After undergoing extensive rebranding, the ruling conservative party, Saenuri, pulled off a surprise victory against the Democratic Union Party in what is seen as an indication of how the country will vote in the presidential election this December. But I am not particularly concerned with who the country votes for so much as in how they do so.
In a country where every sign glows in- glorious neon, sound travels to the ear faster than light to the eye. Two weeks before the election, I left the bus terminal at eight o’clock to be confronted with the sound of more god-awful K-Pop. Nothing unusual about that, I thought, other than the fact that it was louder than perhaps was normal at this hour. Then the light from the sound’s source reached me. Across the street, there sat parked a fluorescent campaign bus in front of which some fifteen people dressed all in yellow performed the stupidest, most energetic line-dancing I have ever seen. On a stage built into the bus, a man waved on benevolently as a voice scraped out over the music – probably encouraging people to vote for the waving man, but possibly just trying to offload some fish. Ten minutes passed before the circus breathlessly packed up and drove on. At my feet, a crippled beggar wept – and not just for the sake of this juxtaposition. Similar hustings took place all around the city in the two-weeks that followed. At one, a man dressed as Spiderman danced like a maniac in a straitjacket. At another, someone dressed as a cow was stopping traffic to canvass. If it is sometimes said that Western democracy had been reduced to a personal popularity contest, then to the outsider at least South Korean democracy resembles little more than a fancy-dress dancing competition. Who knows? Maybe they’ve got the right idea up North.
That is, of course, a ridiculously churlish statement, but it is made to avoid a still more churlish omission. North Korea is not mentioned much around here. One boy told me he would like to travel to North Korea and a colleague proclaimed North Korea to be ‘our tragedy’, but I’ve heard very little about it other than that. Here, South Korea is referred to as plain-old ‘Korea’.
Gwangju’s President of Education is a small and cheerful man. He wears a wide variety of sparkly ties and refers to the city’s English teachers as ‘my lovely pals’. He is an only slightly exaggerated representative of Korean people in general, who are extremely friendly and sometimes ludicrously trusting. On the very first day I met the man with whom I share an office, he told me something that, if reported, would cause him to lose his job. ‘Kevin,’ he warned: ‘what I told you is a secret.’
The most common thing for students to do in my presence is compliment my appearance. To begin with, this felt flattering. Soon it became annoying. Finally it was weird. First they praise my height (not much, but not nothing either – 185cm) and then what they perceive to be my ‘high-nose’. That so many so many students, most of whom speak pretty bad English, can understand and use the phrase ‘high-nose’ is significant. The Korean ideal of beauty is Western. As many as 76% of Korean women in their 20s and 30s have had some sort of plastic surgery, the most popular form of which is an epicanthoplasty. This operation, otherwise known as ‘double-eyelid surgery’, creates an upper eyelid crease to make the patient’s face look more ‘Western’. It is commonly given as a gift from parents to their daughter upon her passing the college entrance exams. Other popular forms of surgery have a similar aim in mind: cheek reductions, jaw reductions, nose jobs. I wouldn’t mind, but the pictures they draw of me look like inversion of the classic anti-Semitic cartoons: I’m pictured with upward-facing hook-nose, like the curled toe of a court jester’s shoe.
As is common, this inferiority complex is twinned to a superiority complex. Koreans generally don’t marry non-Koreans, and almost never marry black people. Indeed, when students come across a picture of a black person in their textbook, or when are shown a picture of, say, Barack Obama, more often than not they will recoil in fits of laughter. A friend from Manchester asked his students to name some Man United players. One suggested Danny Welbeck and, having first congratulated first him on knowing someone other than Park Ji-Sung and Wayne Rooney, my friend mentioned that some of his friends had actually gone to school with Welbeck. ‘Is he handsome?’ asked the Korean co-teacher. ‘He is,’ said my friend (as indeed he is) and then proceeded to find a picture of him online. Cue uproarious laughter, followed by the disgusted judgment of the (adult) co-teacher: ‘Oh my God, he is sougly.’ You might put this down to Korea’s relative underexposure to black people and black history. You might also mention the mere fifty years it took Korea to move from a pre-industrial society to a post-industrial society. But whatever way you look at it, this obsession with maintaining racial ‘purity’ is an undeniably sinister aspect of Korean life.
South Korea is not much bigger than Ireland in geographical terms, but has some ten times our population. For this reason, almost everyone lives in extremely tall apartment complexes – generally no fewer than twenty-stories high. Given the associations of squalor and poverty such towers have for someone brought up in Dublin, it was at first hard to think of the ubiquitous clusters of towers as anything other than visions of hell. But, of course, there is nothing impoverished about these towers. The areas are safe. The apartments are spacious, expensive. To live in one is, if not prestigious, then at least confirmation of a certain social status – the phrase ‘upwardly-mobile’ seems apt in this case. A shortcut I take to school runs through one such cluster of towers. The feeling of walking through them, with my high-nose upturned still higher, is tinged with a pleasant sense of vertigo and seems to me not a little cinematic. I look up and somehow feel as though I am looking down on myself. All at once I am overcome with the sense that it is for this shortcut, where everyday my 185cm is utterly dwarfed, that I will feel nostalgia when the time comes for me to leave this place, when I’m back to chopping vegetables on a high kitchen table, when this future is no more than a memory.