Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Korean media stays classy in aftermath of earthquake

I wrote a few weeks ago, the day after the Japan earthquake, of the Korean media's near-immediate obsession with the popularity of its dramas and singers in Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake.

This week has been my first chance to see up-close the obsession of Korean nationalism with Dokdo, and it has been amazing. Japanese middle school textbooks will, as expected by anyone with half a brain, refer to Dokdo, two tiny islands controlled by South Korea, as part of Japan. This reaction is not all that uncommon from what I've read:

"We made warmhearted donations, and all we got in return is a distortion of history," lead activist Choi Jae-ik shouted during the rally. "We deplore Japan's ungrateful behaviour."

The corollary of this line of reasoning is that if Japan ever donated to Korea in the aftermath of a disaster, Japan would be reasonable in expecting a grateful Korea to give away Korea. If Korean nationalism never has to yield, why should Japanese nationalism be any more malleable?

One Korean official was quoted as saying that the two issues were not linked, but so many Koreans seemed surprised and hurt that Japan would publish the textbooks after Koreans donated money, which is not only unrealistic but stunningly callous: would Americans only donate money to Afghanistan if the Taliban promised to stop trying to kill American soldiers?

Anyway, the media naturally had a field day writing anything half-related to Dokdo, and Korean president Lee Myung-bak made an emergency visit to Dokdo, letting those Japs know, as overmatched nationalists with limited English skills proclaim, that Dokdo is the Korea land.

These are screenshots of the homepages of the three major Korean dailies (all conservative). The Chosun Ilbo and Donga Ilbo led with news about a regional airport, followed by a half-dozen articles about Dokdo, with the ongoing crisis in Japan buried way down the page.

This is the Donga Ilbo:

The Joongang Ilbo didn't bother writing about anything else, they went all-out on this one.

As far as these newspapers were concerned, there was simply nothing happening anywhere else in the world that was worthy of attention, certainly not anything in Japan.

Even the Communist mouthpiece China Daily comes out looking reasonable here, with some international coverage and no garish propaganda pieces today, though dozens of dissidents have been arrested in the background to the crises in Asia and the Middle East.

For further comparison, here are the Asia-Pacific sections of the BBC and the New York Times. The Times is a little "all tsunami, all the time", but that's a separate topic of criticism.

Finally, it's worth mentioning for the record, that Japan isn't the only foreign country claiming a part of South Korea. North Korea has, for the past sixty years, claimed all of South Korea, including Dokdo, Seoul, Busan, Gyeongju, Jeju and even Suwon as part of North Korea. What's more, unlike Japan, North Korea launched a war to realize its territorial claims, resulting in the deaths of about a million Koreans.

One more note: I had a student last year who identified Yeouido, an island in central Seoul, as Dokdo, which is a few hundred kilometres off the Korean mainland. This is roughly like a child in New York confusing Long Island with Hawaii, an unsurprising result of hearing incessantly about Hawaii all your life.

Book #2: Stones into Schools

I read Stones into Schools before I read Nothing to Envy, but the latter was easier to review. Stones into Schools was a fun, easy read though I one I read more for its setting than its heartwarming message. As interested as I am in education, particularly in that part of the world, it's my newfound fascination with the mountains of Asia that got me to buy this book.

A great deal of this book focuses on the Wakhan corridor, the tiny stretch of northeastern Afghanistan that separates Pakistan from Tajikistan. When conceived, of course, it separated British India from the expanding Russian empire. The corridor is isolated politically as well as geographically. On both sides are impressive mountains, the Tajik Pamirs on one side and the Hindu Kush on the other side going towards Pakistan.

The narrow eastern end is the Afghan border with China at 15,000 feet, perhaps the most obscure border anywhere in the world. The border has, from what I've read, been closed since the Communist revolution in China sixty years ago. In fact, there is no actual road crossing the border, those stop long before. As an added bonus, the time difference across the border is 3 hours and 30 minutes, owing to China's one time zone for a country the size of Europe and Afghanistan's location in Central Asia.

Reading about the Wakhan corridor was certainly worth the price of the book, the most I've ever read about the topic, not unlike reading about parts of North Korea that never make it into books or press accounts. Consider that many North Korean provinces have less written about them than obscure streets, neighbourhoods or websites on Wikipedia.

Greg Mortenson's stories of life in Central Asia, unique for its combination of rugged beauty and being comparatively well-off not too long ago, was interesting. Today it's one of the poorest parts of the world, but it has apartment blocks, highways that tunnel through mountains and even a subway in Uzbekistan, unique not for their existence but for how long ago they were built.

Mortenson's unique anecdote about hiring and firing drivers for any reason up to and including too much time on the cell phone reminded me of my own experiences in a "shared taxi" driving across Kyrgyzstan at speeds as risky as the country was beautiful. For safety reasons, working in Afghanistan, they would name a nearby village as the destination and then recalculate.

As for me, my "shared taxi" came via a travel agent who charged $25 for a ride that cost $12 for a Swiss tourist and therefore maybe $5 for a local Kyrgyz. This consisted of walking to the market to scrounge up some guy hiring out his car, a strange man driving a Japanese Nissan that drove on the wrong side of the road, who made me wait for an hour before selling me off to a still-less-scrupulous man with a less scrupulous car who also got me to buy him his dinner.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Book #3: Nothing to Envy

I didn't anticipate a nearly three-week absence from writing, but I was busy enough with work that writing felt like a chore than an activity, ironic because I've had three half-written posts sitting around that entire time.

As expected, I bought and finished Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea in a matter of days. One of the few positives of the seemingly never-ending disaster that is North Korea is that a few excellent journalists and excellent writers have taken it upon themselves to tell the story. To tell this overwhelming story well, I think, requires focusing on a mere portion.

Demick, whose full-time job is as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, does just this, focusing on the lives of a group of defectors she met from the northeastern city of Chongjin. Demick goes farther than virtually any writer who focuses on North Korean defectors, noting that they're a particular case because most North Koreans who escape tend to come from the northeast. This produces biases in discussing events such as the famine of the '90s (I learned the North Korean term is 고난의 행군, March of Tribulations), where the obviously catastrophic events are exaggerated by the fact that the famine was worst in the northeastern province of North Hamgyung.

Demick also goes farther in largely avoiding the two issues that Western media focuses on, maybe because they're the only two that can be covered without talking to a North Korean, the issues of the Kim family dynasty and North Korea's nuclear program. Instead, we're left to read about ordinary lives in North Korea in impressive detail.

There were a few things Demick wrote about which I've never seen written about anywhere in English, except maybe in passing. This was impressive considering that although Demick lived in South Korea for a number of years, she refers to gochujang/고추장 as made from red beans instead of red peppers, and considers the Joseon dynasty to have lasted for about a thousand years instead of about five hundred.

First, she described in excellent detail the North Korean caste system, which is only hinted about elsewhere. Families are divided into various levels of loyalty to the state depending on their status during the infancy the North Korean state. Japanese collaborators, those who come from South Korea (and fought for the South during the war), the wealthy and the Christian rank very low, while peasants and those who fought with distinction for the Korean People's Army rank highly.

This might be obvious, but the extent to which this determines the life of North Koreans is impressive. Demick writes about students who were denied admission into teacher's college because their father had fought for the South Koreans decades earlier, and about a couple who could not marry because the caste differences would ruin the life of the man, who ranked as high as the woman ranked low.

Demick also writes about North Hamgyung province, noting its status during the Joseon dynasty as a place to exile troublemakers, a sort of Australia within the Korean peninsula where tigers might well have outnumbered people once upon a time. This might account for its relatively rebellious disposition to this day, she notes. She also notes the inhospitable climate and terrain, making it a harsh and undesirable place but not one without its beauty.

Also interesting about Demick's work is the way it connects the bulk of reporting about North Korea, centred in Pyongyang and centred around the state apparatus, to the real lives of ordinary people. Her interviews show that scenes like this after kim il sung's death, while spontaneous to some degree, were also supervised. North koreans were required to visit local statues of Kim Il-sung with their work group and show the appropriate amount of grief.

It's worth noting, also, that North Koreans feel an attachment to their country like anyone else. Even North Koreans who hated the country feel a certain level of attachment to the country, often against South Korean life, and regret that their lives often came at great expense. One defector made a particularly successful transition to life in South Korea, completing a master's degree and marrying a South Korean army officer. However, she is fairly certain that the sisters she left behind died for her defection. "My sisters died so I can drive a Hyundai," she notes (not the exact wording).

Perhaps the most interesting parts of the book are the moments North Korean defectors realize as shocking them about the outside world, one I enjoy for the way they illustrate the gulf between North Korea and the outside world, both for information and standards of living.

One North Korean, hearing a radio drama depicting an argument over parking spaces, could not understand a country with so many cars that deciding where to put them all was an issue. Another wrote of seeing white rice and meat on the ground, a virtually unheard-of meal in the North, not realizing that it was food for animals. There was the woman who heard that her daughter was in Hanguk (what South Koreans call their country), and asked "where is that? Shenyang (a regional Chinese city)?"

A North Korean soldier once got his hands on an American-made nail clipper and marveled at how well-made it was, wondering "if North Korea couldn't make such a fine nail clipper, how could it compete with American weapons?" Even propaganda contained little clues, the sort we wouldn't notice, but the sort noticed by people who have been fed lies. A propaganda photograph of a South Korean student on a picket line showed that he "wore a jacket with a zipper and had a ballpoint pen in his pocket, both of which were luxuries at the time."

What makes Demick's book such a great read is that it sets out to accomplish a relatively limited task, and does it well. This is not a book about all ordinary lives in North Korea, but six ordinary lives in North Korea, and six people from a single city at that. It is not meant to be any more, and in its limited scope we can both better understand North Korea, as well as better put into context the small details so often missing from writing on the subject.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A day of infamy for the South Korean media

Yesterday was a day full of the Korean media applying simply stunning, CNN-esque newstainment standards (since copied by The Daily Show and the Onion News Network) to its right and left. To the right is Japan and to the left lies China.

Before the massive earthquake in Japan yesterday afternoon, there was the long-running story of Korean diplomats leaking information to a Chinese women with whom they were romantically involved. Her face was splashed all over the news, in contrast to the Korean men whose faces were blurred out to the point of being silhouettes.

Someone suggested to me that though this was horrible, it was excusable because Koreans have not had much experiences with foreigners. You could try to explain why Korean students tend to refer to blacks as being dirty or looking like monkeys, but the Chinese Han Dynasty invaded Korea over 2,000 years ago, to give just one example. It's not like they've never seen a Chinese person before.

And then, of course, there was the earthquake. In the middle of last night's newscast, MBC took the time to inform us that one of the most powerful earthquakes had disrupted the schedules of Korean entertainers, or more specifically, had checked the unfettered advance of the Korean wave, where ubiquitous Korean culture can be proven superior to inferior Japanese entertainment, thereby proving the superiority of the great Han people of KOREA, Republic of.

Using the headline "일본 한류 열풍 타격", the MBC news anchor went on to inform us that "there are concerns that the earthquake in Japan will deal a large blow to the Korean Wave craze across the country. Because concerts and appearances in Japan had to be rescheduled, it looks as though the Korean Wave is subsiding."

Feel free to correct my translation of the original Korean: "이번 대지진이 일본 내 신 한류 열풍에도 큰 타격을 주지 않을까 우려된다. 일본내 공연이나 출연 일정을 조정할 수밖에 없어 당장 신 한류 열푸풍이 위축될 것ㅌ으로 보인다."

Elsewhere, the Joongang Ilbo and the Seoul Shinmun ran headlines that read "Japan Sinking", a reference to a 2006 Korean movie that depicts Japan consumed by natural disaster. You can see pictures of today's Joongang Ilbo here and the Seoul Shinmun here.

Now, of course, my criticism is of the Korean media, particularly the established old guard of major dailies such as the Joongang Ilbo, Donga Ilbo and Chosun Ilbo, who learned to do business with both colonial Japan and then dictatorial Korea by shutting their mouth and not being too critical or open-minded. I do often agree with them when they take a hardline against North Korea, but clearly they were out to lunch today.

The article linking to MBC's coverage is by the equivalent of a tabloid, sort of like the New York Post taking ABC to task for its coverage of a natural disaster, a rather shameful state of affairs. And, of course, just as CNN running airheaded bullshit doesn't mean all Americans think that way (or watch), Koreans obviously took notice.

And, after all, the Sports Seoul article on MBC's coverage is headlined "Viewers criticize MBC News for worrying about Korean Wave during Japan earthquake coverage", and I've seen dozens of Tweets on this topic criticizing empty-headed nationalism.

As for Japan, the earthquake happened at 2:46 local time (the same time zone as Korea). I was rearranging my classroom at the time. I was home about a half hour later to read about army response to an earthquake that I presumed was a minor one that had taken place hours earlier.

I didn't know until today that news and emergency response had been so swift, as remarkable as Japanese preparation for this event. The death toll may rise much higher, but considering that this was the fourth-strongest earthquake in recorded history, the damage seems to be, mercifully, not as horrendous as it could have been.

A densely populated country (if Japan was as big as Canada, it would have 5 billion people) hit by a massive earthquake could do far, far, far worse than Japan. Japan's preparation for a massive earthquake of this sort, developed by the Kanto earthquake of 1923 (80,000 dead) and refined by the Kobe earthquake of 1995 (6,000 dead) may well make this the strongest yet safest of the three major earthquakes to hit Japan in the last 100 years.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Is Hyun Bin the Korean Lou Gehrig?

It seems impossible, particularly if you're a 20-something female, to overstate the significance of what Korean actor Hyun Bin just did. Arguably one of Korea's most famous celebrities, Hyun reported later than others to his military service at the age of 28, but more than made up for it by joining the Marine Corps. Ten thousand fans, mostly female, watched Hyun Bin report to duty yesterday afternoon in Pohang.

Before leaving for 21 months of service, Hyun made a short speech, cried, took off his hat to reveal his military-approved hairbut, and made a formal bow where he touched his forehead to the ground. Interesting to note in the background were all the ordinary soldiers and their crying fans, largely their mothers. Some of the soldiers had a hard time keeping a straight face as they stood in the background of endless coverage of Hyun.

Also making news yesterday was the fact that Hyun donated a car to UNICEF yesterday, the reason being that he won't need it while in the military. With that in mind and watching him bow to his fans, I was struck by the notion that maybe Hyun is secretly a deranged murderer, because he seems too good to be true.

Hyun's decision to join the marine corps is especially relevant because it deals with two key aspects of Korea's military service: masculinity and equality. In theory, all men serve two years in the military around the age of 20, but in practice, some people, usually well-off, can get around this for reasons of health, postponements for education or career, or nationality. Men who do not serve in the military can face the same issues as American politicians who were of fighting age during the Vietnam War era.

Needless to say, attempts to circumvent the service for whatever reason are not well-received. Nationality laws are constantly revised to prevent dual nationals from avoiding their duty, and would-be dodgers face a backlash for ridiculous attempts to find loopholes, as was the case of famous rapper MC Mong.

In light of all this, to watch Hyun Bin do so with dignity, albeit career-serving dignity at that, is welcoming. He will work harder than others in the Marine Corps and will not do the desk job that so many others seem to find. To watch him do this at the peak of his success after the drama Secret Garden is, well, like watching Lou Gehrig deliver his famous speech.

Of course, Hyun Bin is performing a duty required of him by law that he has already managed to put off for years, while Gehrig was dying at a cruelly young age from a terminal illness. And, of course, Hyun Bin's squeaky clean actions will benefit his squeaky clean image with fans and the public, but it never hurts to watch someone do what's difficult and yet the right thing to do.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Why Korea is a sort of cleaner Pakistan

Someone once told me that Korea is a lot like Pakistan. On the surface, it's not clear why a wealthy democracy with a mix of Confucian, Buddhist and Christian thought is in any similar to a feudal Islamic basket case that's a perennial contender to blow up half the world with its nukes. So, allow me to share this anecdote with a taxi driver, a la Thomas Friedman:

Adeel: Wangsimni station, please.
Driver: Wangsimni station? I was just there.
Adeel: Oh really? That's weird.
Driver: So where at Wangsimni station? The intersection, the stores or the subway station?
Adeel: Uh...
Driver: Just the intersection?
Adeel: Yeah, sure.
Driver: Do you live there?
Adeel: No, I live here.
Driver: Then why are you going there?
Adeel: I'm going to get on line 5 there.
Driver: Ah, so where are you going in the end?
Adeel: Yeouido, Yeouinaru station.
Driver: Do you live there?
Adeel: No, I live here.
Driver: So why're you going there?
Adeel: I have a race.
Driver: You're running a race?! Where are you from?!
Adeel: I'm from Canada, but--
Driver: You're a professional? You came from Canada to run this race? Are you going to be on TV?

Maybe it's just me, but it's often the case that older Koreans will make your business their business, whereas Canadians often seem to go out of their way to keep your business yours and yours only. I've had taxi drivers analyze my finances for me based on my salary, the rent I pay and how often I cook (don't ask me why I answered those questions).

A woman once yelled at me from about 50 metres at Haeinsa temple in Gyeongsang-do to leave my bag behind considering the hike I was in for. Older men have, on several occasions, offered a free-of-charge appraisal of my clothing and equipment with respect to the weather and trail conditions before a hike.

Pakistanis, of course, are similar. When I came to Korea for the first time, the man operating the metal detector was a Pakistani. He deduced that I was a Pakistani-born Muslim from my passport and used the opportunity to learn where I was going, why I was going there, and to offer his approval. At my first part-time job in a mall, I was stocking cans of Coke when an old man stopped to inquire about my ethnicity and, upon learning that I was Pakistani, proceeded to narrow that down to a specific city for his own edification.

There are, of course, other signs. There's the culture dominated by the whims of older males. There's the way of informally dealing with people that considers rules, regulations and procedures to be incidental at times, with the potential to be either exhilarating or disastrous. There are the laws that get ignored.

There's the narcissism of relatively minor accomplishments: I grew up proud that many soccer balls were made in Pakistan, Koreans will tell you about the way they preserve wooden blocks at a temple. This, likely, is the result of living next to a giant neighbour that's far more famous, two giant neighbours in the case of Korea.

Less critically, there's the spicy food that's similar but not identical to that of its neighbours. There's a national myth-making machine with heroes known only to those on the inside. There's the feeling of immense pride every time someone on the outside takes notice of an export like Park Ji-sung or Imran Khan.

There's the vast diaspora living overseas, the near-constant state of war for the last six decades, a long stretch of military rule by sometimes-benign general-slash-dictators. There's a royal dynasty deposed by a colonial power, a peculiar style of dress and the burgeoning popularity of cultural exports (okay, Pakistan's going to piggyback on Bollywood here) overseas, along with the immense pride at seeing a white person eat "our" food.

While I was born in Pakistan and while I live in Korea, I don't think many people would consider me to be fully a part of either culture. The annoyances of nosy strangers, cultural foibles and other peculiarities that can seem burdensome to those who can't just laugh off the advice of an older man still retain charm and novelty to me, no matter how much I act like it's normal.

Friday, March 04, 2011

I'll be here Monday to Friday, try the rice!

I gave the same Powerpoint introduction to my class(link here) eight times in two days to about 110 grade 5 and 6 students.


- about two or three students were able to identify the Pakistani flag, though except for the boy who said he learned from the newspaper, none could say how
- when I showed a picture of Hong Kong's stunning skyline, one 11-year-old girl mused that Hong Kong wasn't a developed country because it is a part of China
- one student asked if I was "mixed-blooded"
- about a half dozen students had been to a Tim Hortons, and about a dozen had been to Canada, although none to Toronto
- one student confirmed that Quebec was a part of Canada before saying he had been
- because Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, about half of my students thought the painting was found in Italy
- many felt that either the painting was fake or my picture of it was fake because the Louvre doesn't allow pictures (it does, from about 10 metres away)
- almost no one could identify a picture of Charlie Brown (maybe two or three), but about half of the students had heard of Snoopy
- hockey was usually identified as ice hockey, or sometimes NHL
- a staggeringly large amount (20%) had seen the Iron Man movie
- thanks to the proliferation of cold, sweet coffee drinks in convenience stores, almost half of my students said they liked coffee
- most liked Korean-style sashimi (hwae)
- football has emerged as a popular sport among some grade 6 boys thanks to a student who lived in America for a year and has a football
- maybe 10% of students profess reading books as a hobby, unless we're talking about comic books

Reactions to me ranged from "I had this guy last year, I don't really like him" to "man, he's much tougher than [previous teacher]" to "you have a very wide forehead". I was pleased at how many laughs I earned with my jokes and pictures, and also at how much I had improved my delivery and selection by the last presentation.

I also learned the importance of a first impression. Last year I resolved to start tough and gradually ease up, but while my classes were good, I felt that I never established a personal bond with my older students, which meant less input and less discussion in class.

My reputation as an authoritarian preceded me this year, when I'm teaching only grades 5 and 6. One grade 6 homeroom teacher was happy to see me because he had heard I'm very strict, and my grade 5 students from last year told their new teacher that I'm scary.

But by earning more laughs this year at the start, I learned a difficult lesson about how I'd failed last year. Setting high standards in class for students with heaps of loving sarcasm for troublemakers, the gist of my presentation, is a more productive endeavour than mercilessly brow-beating them into working hard, my theme from last year. More students lingered after class to ask questions, remind me of their name, or simply to stare.