Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Book #4: 내 이름은 심은경입니다

My Name is Shim Eun-Gyung (내 이름은 심은경입니다) is not the first book I've read in Korean, but it's the first book for adults that I've read in Korean. The premise is an interesting one: Shim Eun-Gyung is the Korean name of the American ambassador to Korea, Kathleen Stephens, which she picked up when living here as a member of the Peace Corps in the '70s. Stephens is able to offer significant insight into the way Korea has changed in the last thirty years, but doesn't do so as much as she could.

In fact, once the novelty had worn off about halfway through this book, I was disappointed to realize that it was quite boring. Stephens is, of course, a diplomat, and she wrote a very diplomatic book that returns, time and time again, to two central ideas. The first is the beauty of Korean culture, both modern and ancient, and the second is the importance of the American-Korean alliance.

When you add in the cheery, overly formal tone of this book, it reads like a letter from a bank or a lecture from a middle school teacher who won't get into the really interesting parts of a topic. Obviously, as a serving ambassador, Stephens has a job to be, well, diplomatic in both her tone and her message. This is unfortunate considering that she has seen Korea's rise over the last three decades, its democratization in the 80s and now is someone who remembers what it was like when meat was hard to come by, a fact she mentions briefly in her book.

Now, the book was not a complete wash. Here and there are interesting anecdotes about Stephens' time in Korea, usually meetings with dignitaries, but sometimes stories like seeing someone take a whole chicken (possibly live, it wasn't clear to me) up a mountain when hiking.

This aspect of the book is one that I think many Westerners could take to heart. Too many spend their time complaining instead of marveling at life here. That's not to say that Korea is the pinnacle of civilization, a claim only made by foreign residents who think they know what Koreans think of their country, but that this, like any other part of the world, has so many things at which to marvel. For someone like me who has not lived here all their life, living in a city as large and as confusing as Seoul with as many mountains is a never-ending marvel.

It's interesting to see someone so amicable work in the US embassy in Seoul. The embassy is located at Gwanghwamun in the present and historical heart of Seoul, which is not a problem, although its absurd security theatrics make me wince. The embassy is set far back from the street and protected by a high security wall, with a courtyard in between. At any point, you can see about one or two dozen police officers in front or next to the embassy, along with various police or military vehicles. This is how Naver depicts the US embassy on its street view function.

At any rate, once Stephens retires, she would no doubt have the experience and the knowledge to write a great story about her time here. An honest, frank and somewhat undiplomatic book would be a great read. Still, if you're an intermediate-level speaker of Korean and want to read this book, which only costs about 7,000 won at an online bookstore, it would be a good choice. Reading about topics familiar to an English-speaker, such as American place names and ideas, as well as ordinary daily life in Korea, is less intimidating than a tougher book about more unfamiliar topics.


Anonymous said...

For whatever reason, I picture the first chapter about how Korea has 4 seasons, the second about how spicy kimchi is for her (and other non-Koreans) and the third is about how awesome/brilliant Sejong was.

Adeel said...

You're not that far off with the first comment. The bit about kimchi not so much, but there is a lot of shallow "Korean weather is like this, but American weather is like this" type of talk.