Tuesday, May 31, 2011

China is not a kinder, gentler machine gun hand

I've seen the claim here and there that, unlike America, which sticks its nose everywhere in the world, China will be a more hands-off superpower, asking no questions as long as it has access to the resources it needs. Moreover, unlike American expansionism, China has no such plans.

However, even a cursory knowledge of Chinese history under the PRC reveals the opposite. While it's somewhat true that China, instead of conquering weaker states, opted for a vassal system, the PRC's history over the last sixty years has been one of steady if unnoticed expansion.

China borders fourteen countries along with quasi-states in Hong Kong and Macau, as well as maritime proximity to Taiwan, which sadly is considered a quasi-state in the legal if not practical sense. If we consider these seventeen entities and add in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, we have twenty in all.

Of these twenty, China has already utilized its human wave tactics to greatly subdue any irredentism in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. Protests, interestingly, are currently cropping up in Inner Mongolia.

Of the remaining seventeen, we have seen China do its best to seek reunification with Taiwan, turn Hong Kong into an extension of the mainland, and this year alone, station soldiers in the North Korean free trade zone of Rason while picking up one percent of Tajikistan on its other border. Also in North Korea, China is going to help develop a North Korean island on its border with China.

Farther from home, China also butted heads last fall with Japan over the disputed Senkaku islands while justifiably getting angry at America's encroachment in its claim to the South China Sea, to which about a half dozen countries have staked their name.

Now, what I term territorial expansionism on the part of China might simply be the counterpart of wingnuts referring to globalization as a new form of colonization. Every powerful country to some extent got to be that way by asserting claims which, controversial at the outset, were made permanent and uncontroversial by the forces of time and momentum. Whether China is more or less belligerent than the present guard of Western powers and Japan were about a hundred years ago is not the sort of debate I'm having.

I also don't believe, for example, that everything China does is a cause for concern. Just because China buys a lot of soybeans in Brazil, the subject of a recent New York Times article, develops a stealth fighter, or has an economy bigger than Japan doesn't mean that we should start brushing up on dull paeans to Deng Xiaopeng and a harmonious society. The most important area of concern with respect to China is not what it will do to us, but how well its own people are living and how freely they live.

That said, there are many things which China does that are specifically disconcerting. From my vantage point in Northeast Asia, a growing concern lost in breathless lurch-and-seize speculation about nuclear development and disarmament is the growing ability of China to project power in North Korea to the exclusion of all other states.

In simpler language, as Kushibo has been writing for a while now, what we might be seeing is the absorption of North Korea into China, informally at first but maybe on a formal basis down the road. That would certainly solve South Korea's worries about the costs of reunification, both financial and social, and also be something of a soft landing for North Koreans who can struggle to adjust to the paradoxical emptiness of a free society. There would, of course, be its drawbacks.

The fate of Taiwan is also disconcerting. If you consider that a China in the midst of what was essentially a genocide with a GDP per capita of about $100 was able to render Taiwan a non-entity just forty years ago, Taiwan's future has to be uncertain with China's rise. There is a movement within Taiwan to reunite with China and even those who disagree might find themselves in a difficult position in the future.

For decades, American military power has guaranteed the safety of Taiwan, which developed into a wealthy democracy with a GDP per capita higher than that of Japan. Naturally, this has been a thorn in the side of China, considering that America from thousands of miles away can control what China can or can not do in the narrow Taiwan Straits that separate China and Taiwan. One of the major goals of the Chinese military is to be able to neutralize American power in the Taiwan Straits. Once possible, will America really go to war with China over a country it doesn't even recognize officially?

Monday, May 30, 2011

수원, 나의 수원

I try to get out to Suwon once or twice a month. Suwon is the city about 30 minutes south of Seoul where I lived from 2008 to 2009. Suwon is not, in and of itself, the most exciting place in the world. There are some interesting places in there that make it worth a daytrip from Seoul, even if you don't know anybody who lives here.

I haven't been to the two or three famous places in Suwon, particularly its still-standing city walls that make it, reputedly, the only city in the world that's still a walled city. What I enjoy about Suwon is that it's a little more human than Seoul, even if I don't live there anymore and even if I have spent more time living in Seoul than I ever did living in Seoul.

When I lived in Suwon, I lived in a narrow slice of a neigbourhood that was in many ways the end of civilization as we knew it. The vast expanse of metropolitan Seoul almost literally ends after my tiny little neighbourhood to the south of which were the rural rice paddies of Hwasung. More interesting were the rice paddies directly next to the neighbourhood, a rectangle about a mile long and half a mile wide. On the other side was a quiet highway with a synthetic path I used for running.

In the morning or at dusk, as was the case tonight, the sunset shone off the flooded rice paddies with the squat low-rise buildings of the neighbourhood in the background, with the purple-orange sunset above them. I live in a similarly obscure neighbourhood in Seoul, not far from the centre, but something of a self-enclosed mountain village where time stands still in many ways and an ATM is a big deal.

There has always been something more human about Suwon, if only for its size if not for the fact that I know it so well. It's a tenth the size of Seoul, which is, to its credit and its detriment, a superhuman hyperstimulating ball of light, cars and people. Suwon, I feel, can be understood as a whole, but Seoul sometimes resists that. If you stand on one busy street corner in Seoul such as, say, Jongno, it seems staggering to consider that there are another half-dozen places that are just as busy. Suwon, on the other hand, contends with a half-dozen places so hopelessly obscure that you might not even realize people can or do live there, but it seems less overwhelming.

While Seoul is probably greener than Suwon thanks to its many mountains and its massive waterfront, and you could never get away with saying that Suwon doesn't have traffic jams, when I come to Suwon, I can understand how the suburbs appeal to people. If you can stand outside its controlled chaos, you can see why Seoul might simply be too big for human habitation.

I have my reasons for living in Seoul, which I think is more interesting than any other place in Korea, but I could definitely live again in Suwon.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Don't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs (no, I don't mean Tony Siragusa)

I hate the NFL off-season as much as I love the regular and post-season. The four months from early December to early April mark that hideous piece of football analysis known as draft predictions. If a college football star gets caught for drunk driving or tweaks a knee, people rush to predict the impact this will have on his draft placing: will he go fifteenth or will he slide to twenty-first?

So, naturally, it was hard for me to care when the owners locked out the players, despite the impact on actual football being played. I do vaguely remember the players responding by decertifying their union and then suing the league as individuals, though after that I assumed that things would sort themselves out. This, clearly, is not the case.

Football is not unique in its struggle over how to divide up a pie that is larger than it used to be. After all, even if everyone in society gets richer in absolute terms, we (most of us, anyway) would still have an issue with the wealth of all members of society relative to each other. That the owners want a bigger piece of the pie than they have right now hardly makes them unique.

Where the facts might get obscured, perhaps rightfully so, is in the absolute wealth of everyone involved. These are not striking factory workers, teachers or bus drivers. These are all very wealthy people, although how long they have to cash in on their wealth is limited by time, circumstance and health.

That's why no one really plays in the NFL just for fun, at least they shouldn't. At stake, in a league where the average career is four years, is a chance to make yourself and your family financially secure for the rest of your life. This is a side of the argument that appears lost on reductionist fans who, as they've shown over the past few decades with respect to violence in the game, care more about their personal entertainment than the players or their well-being.

The owners get criticized for being greedy billionaires, but how are they different from any other business owner? Generally it's accepted that a business owner will seek whatever advantage available to them, and if teachers, bus drivers and retail workers are overpaid, surely football players are overpaid as well. If the NFL owners operated in the same way as a major corporation, they would simply move the league to China and reduce salaries to a hundredth of what they are at the moment.

Naturally, everyone has interests, but this debate obscures them by being about the curious slice of popular culture that is professional sports. Ultimately, what's at risk is the popularity of football, which has never been higher and continued to grow in spite of confusing rule changes and what was then a looming labour conflict. Other sports exploited the gap left by baseball in 1994, though it's arguable that many of those changes were societal changes which would have dethroned baseball anyway.

It's conceivable that football loses the popularity it enjoys right now, as unfortunate as it would be. While both the players and the owners have legitimate grievances and legitimate interests, equally legitimate is our exasperation at how people so wealthy and so popular could squander it over comparatively small problems.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Book #5: The Dawn of Modern Korea

Andrei Lankov's The Dawn of Modern Korea is a great book for two reasons. First, Lankov is one of the most knowledgeable writers about any aspect of Korea, the endless dance with North Korea being one such subject. When he says something about Korea, there's a very good chance it's true. Second, the book is different from virtually any other history of Korea written in English (and presumably most of those written in Korean) in that it doesn't give us the narrative of war and politics.

Instead, The Dawn of Modern Korea is great for its look into how ordinary life in Korea modernized. The usual stories of politics are relegated to the backdrop. Lankov went to some lengths to find information about ordinary life over a very tumultuous period in Korea: the hundred years or so that spanned the end of old Korea and the Joseon dynasty, the Japanese colonial era, the Korean War and the three decades of dictatorship that followed.

What was striking about the book were its themes of life in "traditional" Korea, so drastically different from its modern counterpart. Whereas today we know Korea as a relatively liberal, Westernized open society, Korea at the turn of the twentieth-century was astonishingly conservative. It's not just that the miniskirts of today were not found in the past, but also considered inappropriate was shopping, eating out at a restaurant and staying out late, all hallmarks of urban life in twenty-first century Korea.

A constant theme throughout the book is the absence of cars. The number of cars in Seoul can be roughly tracked to the modernity of Korea. Whereas today there is one car for every three people, as late as 1980 there was one car for every 150 people. This helps to explain why taxis are so cheap in Korea.

Eating at a 24-hour restaurant, commonplace today to the point that you haven't really gotten the full Korea experience if you haven't had a full meal between 3 and 6 am, was unheard of. There were virtually no restaurants in pre-colonial Korea, partly because no one had the money for it, partly because it was considered culturally inappropriate.

Staying out all night is also a relatively recent phenomenon. Starting in about 1400, leaving the house between 10 pm and 4 am was forbidden as a public security measure. This practice in one form or another continued up until independence, when the Americans instituted it for its obvious advantages, and subsequent Korean dictatorships utilized it very well. It was only lifted with Korea's democratization.

In a similar vein, traveling outside the country was also forbidden for some time. Men could only travel for business, education or if they were over 50, an idea Lankov attributes as being portraying men as soldiers first and foremost, but also an attempt to keep currency within the country. If men couldn't go, women certainly couldn't go alone, and as a result, nobody went. It's not clear, however, how all those Koreans managed to immigrate overseas.

The idea of Seoul as a powerful metropolis is also a relatively new one. Today, the Seoul area makes up about half of the country's population. As late as the 1890s, some areas just outside Seoul were considered risky for solo travelers because of tigers. Considering that Seoul of those days was roughly bound by Bugaksan, Inwangsan, Namsan, Naksan, an area that's today only the core of Seoul, this means much of what's today Seoul was territory for tigers not too long ago.

The growth of Seoul is simply astonishing: its population was about 200,000 around the start of the Japanese colonization, reaching 1 million by its end. It then multipled tenfold between independence and democratization in 1987. This helps to explain why the first apartment buildings in Seoul were a disaster at the start: nobody wanted to live that high up in the 1960s, it was strange disorienting.

Korea's astonishing economic rise can be viewed, interestingly, through the disbelief of outsiders. When a country with a GPD per capita of $100 decided to start producing steel, the world thought it was insane. After all, Korea neither had the facilities, nor the education, nor the raw materials. At considerable risk, Korea used reparations from Japan to build a steel mill in Pohang. The Pohang Steel Company (POSCO) is now often the world's biggest depending on the year, but at its inception, it was a project that no one would touch.

The now clogged Gyeongbu Expressway between Seoul and Busan is similar. When first built in the 1960s, the world refused to finance it: it was pointless to build a highway to connect a dirt-poor country where dirt roads weren't an issue since no one even had cars. In the event, General Park's gamble paid off in both cases, along with several others, though it obviously came at considerable cost. This is still a country where you input your national ID number (SIN for Canadians, SSN for Americans) just to buy a movie ticket.

If you live in Korea, have lived in Korea, live in Asia, have lived in Asia or simply enjoy contemporary history, I guarantee you will enjoy this book (it's much cheaper in Korea, I bought it for 13,000 at Kyobo). The writing style is simple, engaging and the book is organized in short chapters that are vignettes or anecdotes of history rather than a long, purportedly academic undertaking of the subject.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

It's a small world, even smaller if you're a professional Platonist

On the subway last night, I turned to the man to my right to see what he was reading. He was reading Plato's Cratylus, a dialogue that deals with the seemingly ridiculous question of whether the names we give to things have any intrinsic meaning, or whether they're just arbitrary. For example, why do we call it 'red'? Is there some special reason that we refer to the colour red as 'red'?

A good example of names that have some intrinsic meaning would be onomatopoeia, sounds which are named because of the way they sound. We don't call a thud a screech because the sound thud matches the meaning of the word. Now, this might not be a very good explanation, considering that I've never actually read the Cratylus.

I heard about it from my professor of Platonic philosophy four years ago. If I recall correctly, she either wrote her dissertation or a book on the topic (possibly both). I always wanted to read the Cratylus, but life being what it is, I ended up in Korea about eight months after the course, and it's not easy to find obscure Platonic dialogues translated into English.

But here was this man next to me, reading Cratylus in Korean peppered with the original Greek, a case of two misunderstandings somehow leading to a greater understanding. I almost interrupted him to say, "you know, I had a professor who specialized in this topic", before considering how obnoxious it would be of me to say that.

When I looked over to the next page, a handful of footnotes on the page mentioned what looked like recent scholarship in the area, one such footnote being reserved for the very professor I was going to bring up. I thought this would be a good time to interrupt the man to note that I learned a great deal from her, but for all I knew, he learned under CDC Reeve, he whose name appears on just about every translated work of ancient philosophy.

As a sidenote, while writing this, I discovered that my former professor, Rachel Barney from the University of Toronto, ran for the Green Party in the Trinity-Spadina riding in Toronto. Surprisingly for a riding populated by hipsters and yuppies, she finished a distant fourth with five percent of the vote, well behind even the Conservative candidate. As everyone who has ever been enchanted by philosophy consoles themselves, the purity of philosophy and the filth of politics simply don't mix.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Rumours of my rebirth have been greatly exaggerated

It was suggested here that this blog, along with its scrawny balding operator, are going through a sort of Adeel-naissance. This Adeel-naissance is putatively marked by posts that are increasingly combative, caustic and disagreeable in their disagreement. Personally I find the argument to be without water. If my posts of late seem more belligerent, it's not that they themselves are more belligerent, but simply that there are more of them.

At any rate, I did turn 25 years old this a few days ago, an occasion appropriately marked with pompous circumstances. I got to do many of the things I love most, such as drink coffee on a sunny weekday afternoon, observe the city from a mountain, eat pastries and read. However, looking back at your life is not simply to put tape of your greatest hits into a cassette player, so many of the more blatant failures of my life were neatly sequenced into the space of one Friday morning, the first day of the second 25 years of my life.

To wit:

- I ran in what seemed like a 10 x 100m relay race involving just about every teacher at my school. I've never been particularly fleet of foot, and trying to catch up to the person in front of me, I set off a chain reaction of explosions from my hamstrings to my lower back.

- I've always sucked at sports, but I don't think I've ever sucked at sports in front of every single person at my school.

- This didn't stop me from playing soccer for about an hour right after this, though I don't think I'd played an hour of soccer combined in the preceding 25 years, and it showed.

- I got caught up in the rain without an umbrella to cap the day.

- Upon returning home, my back seized up to the point that it took all my strength to crawl about 8 feet to my dining table to answer the phone. I crawled because I couldn't walk.

Still, my life hasn't been a total wash, so let's pull out the old scorecard.

Skills learned:

- reading
- writing
- basic motor skills
- can usually stand upright when called on
- can grip small objects using opposable thumb

Skills not learned:

- swimming
- cycling
- following instructions
- drawing
- how to express Canadian Confederation in a 3-5 minute skit

Places lived:

- Pakistan 32%
- Canada 56%
- South Korea 12%

Sports tried, formally:

- running
- wrestling
- baseball

Phobias acquired:

- water fowl
- heights (since lost)
- concrete dividers on highways
- ostriches (this its own category)
- unleashed dogs (mostly gone)
- tying a tie in a rush

Useless skills acquired:

- ancient Greek (mostly gone)
- unfortunately photographic memory of baseball statistics
- words which frequently appear on the GRE
- typing at 100 WPM
- the differences between the major schools of Greek philosophy
- why you use the phrase "it begs the question" incorrectly

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Right when I do it, wrong when you do it

When English speakers move to Korea, there's a short grace period after which their near-obsession with the pronunciation of English loanwords in Korean becomes to sound a lot like a suburban housewife who went downtown, saw an unshaven bum and breathlessly told the story for weeks on end. Granted, the gratuitous use of English in many fields, marketing being one such case, is annoying and verges on being incoherent.

Rare is the Korean car commercial that doesn't finish with a native English speaker giving us an adjective, a noun and the name of the car, though never a sentence. We get things like "excellent luxury: the Hyundai Sonata". Korean Air has a commercial for its A380, scheduled to enter service next month, that uses the slogan "from 기대 to 놀라움". Korean Air also uses the car commercial (maybe it's a transportation thing?) tradition of using an American male to tell us their slogan. It's "Excellence in flight: Korean Air".

This is a case that bothers me, but it's different from what usually earns sophomoric jokes from Westerners, which is the use and pronunciation of English loanwords. For example, there's a very popular department store in Korea called Home Plus, along with its competitor E-Mart, roughly the Korean equivalents of Wal-mart.

The Korean language is unforgiving to consonant clusters notwithstanding words like 닭, 흙, 짧게 or 몫. So, a word like Home Plus becomes 'Home Peullawseu', turning one syllable into three. Of course, opposite examples, such as the one-syllable word for filial piety (효) being a six-syllable phrase in English, tend not to count for such people. Yes, it's probably interesting to someone who has been here for a few months, but when you could listen to an Australian and a Canadian have a half-hour conversation about this, or when someone injects this joke into an otherwise unrelated conversation, it's cringe-worthy.

Much of the humour comes from a sense that Koreans are so stupid that they can't even pronounce a simple English word like 'plus' or 'bus', always adding a syllable or two because of their innate stupidity and their innate ability to speak English. These same people, invariably, can't figure out Korean vowel sound and spend years talking about life in 솔, shopping at 덩대문 and 영산 and clubbing in 신천 or 신츤.

Generally, the worst speakers of Korean are English speakers because of the fact that it's easier to find an English speaker than a Chinese or Hindi speaker. So, there's generally very little incentive for an English speaker to ever learn Korean, similar to how someone who lives in a Koreatown overseas doesn't really need to learn English.

It's not that a failure to learn what is a very difficult language with sounds, grammar and context very different from English is a moral failure, but to equate the presence and usage of English loanwords in Korean with a limitless source of humour is thoroughly unjustified. Yes, 'livingtel' is not an English word and neither is 'libingtel', but is a security czar really a Russian king? Are political pundits actually that knowledgeable about Hinduism?

To hear them talk, it's not as though English has ever taken a word from another language, changing the meaning and pronunciation to fit linguistic and cultural circumstances. It's not as though English has its own bizarre set of rules and customs, ones which make the Korean idea of a sentence becoming more formal if you append 'imnida' seem like the most natural idea in the world.

This bizarre myopia is hardly a Western phenomenon. If you take ten Koreans and ask them to share three impressions they have of Japan or the Japanese, odds are you will hear the idea that the Japanese can't speak English. It's true that even major Japanese cities have less English signage than their Korean counterparts, and that you are less likely to be spoken to in English, but we're really just splitting hairs.

What's more comical still is the way Koreans take the Japanese to task: their English is awful because of the way they pronounce McDonald's, a pot-calling-the-kettle-black anecdote I've heard quite a few times. Both the Korean and the Japanese way of pronouncing McDonald's is so far removed from the English that you would have no idea what the person was saying unless you were both sitting under a Golden Arch chewing a Big Mac. In Korean, it's 맥도날드, pronounced make-dough-nahl-duh, while it's マクドナルド or Ma-ku-do-na-ru-do in Japanese. Ironically, the Japanese aversion to consonant clusters that makes Japanese easier to pronounce than Korean (try pronouncing Cheongnyangni) turns McDonald's into a six-syllable tour de force.

In a similar vein, while Western ideas sell in Korea, Eastern ideas do just as well in the West. Consider, for example, the Western obsession with yoga, martial arts and Buddhism. Think of how easy it is to open up a Chinese restaurant back home with some combination of the words "lucky", "dragon", "palace" and "garden". Once you've done that, all you have to do is play up your accent and sell a $6 plate of chicken and black bean sauce with their choice of steamed or fried rice.

If you want, you could just add some of your weirder dishes, make it taste worse and add a sign in Chinese. Then you have the sort of "authentic" place that hipsters can frequent, a Western equivalent of the man who once stopped me in a Subway to ask, in front of his kids, whether those sandwiches were "the same as in America".

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

We've been laden with this nonsense

There were a few thoughts I had on the death of Osama bin Laden on Monday.

1) In the last ten years, we entered an age where just about anything could be doubted, at least when it came to the truth-averse American government and its shifty, modernity-averse opponents in the Middle East, Central and South Asia (hereafter referred to simply as "Southcentral"). Technology, political aims and the absence of other parties made the truth impossible to figure out at times, at least conclusively and to all involved.

In this case, what's notable that the American government did not present any proof whatsoever that bin Laden had been killed, even claiming that the body had been disposed of in the sea. However, this is a proof by contradiction: bin Laden is well-connected enough that he ought to be able to stand up and verify that he's not dead.

This might not satisfy those who claim that he died of kidney failure because the forklift the CIA paid him to drive into Building 7 did not have functioning dialysis equipment.

2) That this doesn't really change anything underscores the relative insignificance of terrorism as a threat to our security. Yes, it's possible that terrorists could unleash a nuclear weapon in an American city, but couldn't the guy who makes your sandwich at Subway also stab you to death? Couldn't the car stopped at a red light waiting for you to cross the street just run you down?

In the ten years that have followed 9/11, about 150,000 Americans have been murdered and another 400,000 have died in car accidents. Against the deaths of a half million Americans, we have a few botched bombings and terrorist incidents outside of America. If Al Qaeda or anyone else truly were serious about terrorizing America, they could simply send a dozen men into a dozen public places with automatic weapons every day.

3) We learned something about how to hide. One Pakistani security analyst explained bin Laden's seemingly unusual choice as thus: a more remote location would be prone to free-wheeling drone attacks and incursion by intelligence operatives and the like. Living in a town close to Islamabad with military academies and facilities was genius because of its restricted activity and checkpoints, a seemingly paradoxical phenomenon that would explain why Saddam Hussein's Iraq probably had a surprisingly low crime rate.

4) Though bin Laden did not live with a great deal of protection, reportedly he was guarded by only three men, it's hard to believe that he was simply under house arrest for six years. His movements and those of his couriers, associates and others must have been known to one of the world's largest militaries. Just as it's absurd for the US to say that Pakistan knew nothing about their "intrusion" into Pakistani territory, it's equally absurd to suggest that the Pakistani state did not know where bin Laden had been living this entire time.