Korea is a state of mind


Working on the art project has meant lots of trips to Seoul lately.   I can’t tell you how exhausting doing that multiple days in a row is.  Because there are so many materials to source, I have walked hundreds of miles on top of it.  I’ve noticed I have one weak toe that just gets smashed by the strong ones on either side of it, and have developed a painful callous from the constant pinching and have to wrap it up with a bandage now.   This weakness theory is because my shoes have plenty of room in them, and the only thing hemming it in is the other toes!  Weird.  Guess I just never had to walk so much for such a prolonged time  before.

I stay at a love motel with an hourly rate that is double if you’re actually going to spend the night.  The bathtub hasn’t been scrubbed in eons, but the sheets are clean and it beats sleeping on a marble floor at a jim jil bang.

Because Jane lives in one of the older parts of the city, hanoaks abound, but many of them have been adapted into businesses.  Many of these have false fronts so, unless you’re looking like I do, you’d miss that it was once a hanoak.  This is because so many are in such disrepair, I’m sure.  I guess the mix of old and new is what makes Seoul so interesting, though, and why the new cities are so deadly dull.

Food prep under a tree in an old neighborhood in Seoul
this well-built hanoak's stately entry has fallen from all use except as staging for HVAC. The exigencies of life and modern comforts must always be taken care of first, I guess.
next door you can see the interesting stair sequence up to a second floor addition. Many of the hanoaks were modified with second floors that were built with modern construction methods. And next to that is a small Buddhist center, as evidenced by the sign with the swastika on it.
across the street is a hanoak allowed to totally go into disrepair, but is doing well in spite of the neglect because, well, it's hard to abuse brick too badly. Walking past its doors it seemed like maybe it's just being used for storage. Such a pity I can't have it and fix it up!

Often I’ll see hanoaks – especially the ones with the false store-fronts, that are about to crumble.  They’ve usually got serious roof problems and have tarps haphazardly stretched across them, or their roof tiles will be shedding and look like a small land-slide.

In the country, you see many hanoaks, often in disrepair as well.  Some of the brick ones that have been well-taken care of, unfortunately, have had their brick mortared over so they look like concrete blocks.  Others have had their traditional tile roof replaced with corrugated tin roofing.  But I like the hanoaks in the country better, because so many of them have the really high raised floor and some of them are still heated with wood. I passed by (don’t know if I can find it again) a hanoak in such disrepair that I could see through its walls, which was very interesting because I could also see the lattice of branches used as lathe for the mud and straw plaster.  This accounts for the thin thickness of the really really traditional hanoak walls, which were only about 2- 2 1/2″ thick.

Most Koreans are not all hot and bothered about saving hanoaks half as much as the foreigners are.  They have their lives to lead, and they want to look like success and live in luxury and comfort.

Yesterday I heard yet another person considering selling their soon-to-be-inherited country home to pay for a child’s education abroad.

In another conversation I was having about Korean nationalism (due to one of my students telling me, in response to what 5 things would you bring with you on a spaceship if the earth died, she listed taegugi,  the Korean flag, as something she couldn’t live without) someone told me that in an opinion poll, when asked if, in the event of war and occupation, would you stay and defend your country?  The response was something like 74% (I can’t remember exactly, but it was definitely over 70%) said they would pack up and leave.

At what appears to be an almost brand-new rectangular box of a home on my block, in the yard is an equally new wood-fired oven with a huge iron cauldron nestled in it.  I see the owner stoking the fire and boiling things in it all the time.  So I think that even though the traditional forms are abandoned, some cultural things will never disappear and the Korean people will take them with them wherever they end up.  It’s as if Korea as a nation is already disbursed in their minds, even though they live here.  In some ways maybe they share a parallel kind of post traumatic stress statelessness like Jewish people must have, even though their occupation is over and they live in their own homeland.  There is some deep-seated insecurity they have that manifests itself in the extremes of both nationalism and lack of loyalty:  they don’t think they’re good enough or deserving enough and yet constantly work at self promotion and checking their rage and resentment towards everything they covet.  When, damn it, I look around and it’s so beautiful here and they have everything a person really needs to make themselves happy.  Grass is always greener, especially here.  And so they kill themselves pursuing this mythic Korea while dismissing and not believing in the Korea they have.

Hope I’m wrong, but that’s the way it feels to me.

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2 thoughts on “Korea is a state of mind

  1. Not that I have any idea if you would want to, but you would make an excellent writer for National Geographic. You see interesting things in the place around you. Granted, you have a strong connection to that particular place.

    Also, your post reminds me of my wife and her family. She is a third generation American Jew. Mostly Austrian. Virtually all of her people are gone, and those left in the US are quickly losing their culture. Mostly by marrying non-Jews like me.

    Anyway, I think I sense this same thing in her. She has no real loyalty to anyone except perhaps myself and our sons. Beyond that, I don’t see it at all.

  2. In my hometown, most people used to have their own modest, usually self-built houses, and just about everyone burned their own garbage in old 45-gallon drums. There was often a pall of smoke in many neighborhoods a lot of the time (the local paper mills and other industry were another matter when the wind changed…) It was traditional; and I don’t think anyone would have ever foreseen the day when most people rented their accommodations — and the burning of garbage at the foot of the backyard or the alley had become absolutely verboten.

    I guess that’s progress.

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