intangible


The past few days have been really exhausting.  It’s always exhausting going to Seoul with toiletries, change of clothes, umbrella, homework, and my ten ton laptop in tow.  This trip was especially packed.

First, I met two European adoptees and we headed out to the fairly new Emigration Museum in Incheon, which was the departure point for the first Koreans to leave Korea and head outside of the hermit kingdom to work in the sugar cane fields of Hawaii, just after the turn of the century.  (not including “Chosun man” which Rembrandt painted) It seems we will be included in future exhibits and my mission was to discuss display of the art exhibit there.

Here’s an interactive on-line history of Korean immigration to America which is pretty interesting:

Click on the photo for a link to the website

The history of the Korean diaspora is pretty interesting, especially how many countries Koreans are living in.  The Mexican immigration seemed especially brutal.  And somehow, they ended up in S. America and Australia and Russia and…there’s even 5 in Iceland. Right now the exhibit concentrates on the Americas, but they are expanding to Europe and Asia in the next two years.

Amazingly, there is one sentence including the word adoptee in one of the exhibits.  We aren’t in any Korean history books and have been totally erased as unflattering history.  Neither are we included in historical mention when we return, as evidenced by a museum installation I saw last year on multi-culturalism and immigration to Korea and there was zero mention of adoptees, even though we out-numbered some ethnic groups living here.  And it wasn’t because we don’t fit into the category of multi-cultural or immigrant, because they mentioned the number of foreigners temporarily residing as well.  Everyone was distinguished except the adoptees.  So that one word of recognition really meant something.  However, the ghosts of erased people have a way of popping up at inconvenient times. They started popping up around 15 years ago, and damn it, they just keep coming and they don’t shut up…

The curator was really nice and gave us a tour of the whole place.

I gave her my one-way travel certificate out of Korea and will be sending her the rest of my “original” documents.  I had found that these were already in my possesion, unknown to me, after I had sent away for my “child records” from Holt International.

They are mostly on onion skin and have the official seal and red ribbon and are ancient like me, so a nice artifact to give to the museum.  I took one last look at them just now and will send them off, since they aren’t doing me any good, they might as well be in a museum.  Because most Koreans have never seen these documents.


Like Jane is writing about right now, Koreans can’t fathom not being referred to in relation to some family.  And our orphan hojuks list us as the head of our families, with no mother, no father, no siblings (liars!) and fabricated family seats.  Mine says I am from Daegu, when Holt Korea had in their possession documentation that I came from the Wonju area.  Just goes to show how inconvenient fact checking is and how irrelevant anything relating to our identity was and how there wasn’t even any attempt to be honest about it.

After Incheon was a dinner with TRACK members and then off to Koroot for an interview with film students from Sookmyung University.  Then to the love motel and up early to go to the Seoul Training Center for Important Intangible Cultural Properties in Gangnam to try and find some real classes in Korean arts.

Well, that was pretty stressful, as I got out at the wrong exit and was late meeting the film students for more filming.  And I didn’t have a phone so I couldn’t call for translation help and I went through three taxi drivers who didn’t have a clue where that place was, one of whom got screamed at by a bus driver who was unable to move without ripping my body apart as I explained where I wanted to go, and they almost got in a physical fight and the bus cut the taxi driver off later…nor could I explain to any of them that it was by a park and a post office.  Finally, I drew a map and was able to get one driver there with incremental directions.  When I motioned to turn right and said, oranjo, the old guy said right and then showed me he knew right and left in English and he was so pleased with himself.  And I was so pleased we had made it to the center that I just BEAMED at him as I nodded that he was correct.

So the students were all confused as to why we were there.  There wasn’t anything going on at the moment, and I explained that I was there to find out more about future classes.  Me not being able to read the schedule and arriving when nothing was going on didn’t seem film worthy to them, and I tried to get them to film THAT and they were doubly confused.  Because there was nobody at the desk, I figured the least they could do was film some of the difficulties we adoptees have, but you know – these kinds of things DON’T OCCUR TO KOREANS.  That we have difficulties doing the simplest things, or that it’s of any note.  (sigh)

All we could do is go upstairs to the exhibit room (which I never would have found without them there) and try and see if there was more information.  It, fortunately, was attended.  It turns out that the classes taught there were, unfortunately, for children.  They thought this would be good for me since I can’t speak Korean.  Well maybe…but the only thing childish about me is the little fit I wanted to have as I pouted that I want to learn something deeply and that I need adult classes.  They also have classes for Korean teachers and a lecture series.  The crappy thing is their website isn’t updated and the class lists are only for a month or two, so to find out about them remotely is next to impossible.  And they are all in Korean and it was clear nobody was going to take the time to translate that for me when they had filming to do.  The website told of an architectural repair course, teaching ancient building techniques and restoration techniques, but it didn’t seem to be offered.  So then all we could do was walk around the room, which was enjoyable for me because the translator was delightfully willing to OFFER information instead of just waiting until I had a specific question about something.  Young-a was the only Korean person who ever did that for me and it was a great loss when I snubbed her advances…

By the way, Important Intangible Cultural Properties, if you didn’t know, is the title bestowed on living national treasures.  These are artists or craftspeople who are the repository of cultural knowledge that is endangered.  I asked the student who was there as my interpreter how many of them existed, and she said, “oh loads!”  (she’d lived abroad in the UK.  Do they say loads in the UK?)  Well, I checked on-line and there are actually only 354 of them.  I think the idea of the intangible cast-off being taught a priceless Korean heritage art by an important intangible cultural property would be sooooooo poetic.

As you know, I’ve been searching (actually, for eons, but only renewing the search) for the past week for something non-adoption to do here in Korea.  And the fare is pretty pathetic.  The classes offered to foreigners are really superficial and not much more than finishing-off kits of “look what I did in Korea!” souvenirs.  Give us a lot of money.  Here’s a box someone else made.  Cover it in paper, stain it, and you are a hanji paper artist.  In two hours you will own some Korean culture.  Congratulations on your new Korean skill…This is all that’s available to me as a non-native speaker.  And this is the depth to which the ethnic Korean who’s been involuntarily exiled but who’d like to explore Korean culture more can go.  Well b.s. to that.  I want the intangible, damn it.  I’ve got it in me:  I’m detailed enough, perfectionist enough, embrace tedium enough, to learn a Korean fine art.  Give me access, damn it!  I’m also resourceful enough to think of tracking down intangible cultural properties and asking them to please take on a deaf mute student.

So the reason, dear students, that I drug you to this place is because I want to see what other arts exist besides straw, paper, and knots.  It took awhile, but I think by the time we had walked through their exhibited works they understood where I was coming from.  The students were sweet.  I hope they walked away with a different idea about what being an adoptee means.  We surveyed embroidery that looked like painted brush strokes.  And silver inlay that looked like it took years to finish.  And some amazing painting techniques on ceramics, and then — then I spotted THE SHOES.

Little finely wrought shoes of silk and kid leather.  I quickly asked if it said which intangible cultural property had done them, and vowed to look on-line (the website had their names and phone numbers listed) so I could contact the artist.  Later, when I got home, I looked up this artist and he wasn’t on their contact list!  So I’ll have to call or email them to try and get it.  Then I found out more information and he was the only one in Korea who can make these shoes.  (yayy!  maybe then he will take me on!)  And then still later I read that his son will apprentice with him and this legacy will continue, so I’m afraid neither of them will want anything to do with me now.   :(

Oh well.  I will try…

I went to try and show you some photos of the royal shoes, but couldn’t find any images.  Lots of wedding or hanbok ones – but they look very different.  And I did find some small images, but didn’t save them and it would take hours to find them again.

But anyway, here are what the modern ones look like:  molded in one piece out of plastic.

common plastic gomushin today, from http://urin79.com/zb/759154 - they usually come in primary colors (yuck)

I actually hate these things – they’re too wide, too rounded, made like “jellies” and probably good for a blister.

Rubber shoes from the past

But I love the old rubber shoes.

But look!  You can order them on Gmarket!  And I totally plan to buy some of these rubber shoes that I finally found.  Will I wear them?  My students would probably laugh at me, as the only people wearing them are old people. It’s really weird how I love raimie fabric and traditional all-natural fabrics, but I also don’t want to be seen as the weird Korean pretender.  There is definitely a small group of Koreans (about my age) who wear all-natural hanbok-inspired clothing who have a matured hippie zen kind of thing going on, but it’s more authentic for them to be looking roots than me.

So I can’t really go there without being some cultural tourist – EVEN though the fabric is cooler and the production supports the continuation of the craft and most of the traditional functional arts just make environmental sense.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot nobody can afford to look like that anyway.  Supporting hand crafts is super expensive.

Anyway, you might not find that exciting, but I did.  The rubber shoes are not only more refined and graceful, but also much thinner and more flexible than the plastic shoes available now.  Wearing them you are every bit as nimble as wearing keds…

Plus they had design and color added on the children’s shoes, and they could be patched.  I had some blue ones as a kid, but they weren’t sent with me from Korea, as Holt asked all the parents to send Western clothing in advance of our plane trip. I seem to remember some fair and there actually being a Korean table and me picking them out…

I imagine a lot of poor kids with dirty bodies and dirty socks were pretty smelly wearing these.  I know cleanliness was superficial at the orphanages and from talking to a Korean (not an orphan, just poor) my age about cleanliness back in the day, he said that the children in his home had to take baths last in line, after the adults, using the same water, and that it was such a chore to make the kids take a bath that it didn’t happen very often.  Plus they were kids playing outside, so they were always dirty and stinky.

traditional "hwa" shoes that extend over the ankle and the Korean version of Japanese geta - shoes raised on wooden platforms to stay out of the water -- from: http://atelier.de.francais.over-blog.com/article-18639196.html

And I just discovered there’s another shoe museum besides the Bata shoe museum in Toronto, (that I had the privilege of checking out – I’ve always wanted to make shoes.  I would love to go to the Cord Wainers school in the U.K.) in Belgium, called Shoes or no shoes

and they have an on-line ethnographic collection and a whole page of Korean shoes there.

So that’s one idea.  Though I realize to actually be an apprentice I’d have to live with the guy and be his slave and unless I find a rich husband or win the Korean lottery (which I don’t know how it works and wouldn’t even know if I won) then classes aren’t really an option.  But maybe the guy will have pity on me.  So I need to find a translator so I can hand him my deaf-mute plea to take me on as a bumbling student.

Plan B is to take a foreigner cooking class, which are either really super expensive or almost non-exist
ent.  The unwed moms are teaching some of these but they are not consistently offered (yet) and I want to meet people outside adoption land.  Actually, I don’t really want to cook right now, and Mangchi does a fine job demonstrating on-line, but it would be nice to know at some later date and would be a good social activity.  Plan C is volunteering somewhere.

And the plan at the moment is to get some sleep…

ADDED:

A little more snooping with some google translator and I found this photo:

See how colorful they were?  And the edges are so soft and round – not with that sharp edge like the plastic ones…

There are many Korean blogs and people writing little essays using the rubber shoes as a vehicle for poetry and reminiscence.  One essay was about the history of shoes and what they tell about the wearer.  Reminds me of the Great Gatsby, how he knew someone’s fortunes had changed by looking at their shoes.  I believe (google translate can only take meaning so far) the author was chastising the elder Koreans for their adoption of western wear and ridiculing them because no matter what they did, their rubber shoes gave them away.  It sounded like they appeared around 1922 after the failed Bolshevik revolution for some reason.  And they were a welcome addition because Korean people could not afford leather shoes and the straw were often inadequate.  And they started their decline around 1960, when the city folk could now afford western shoes and the rubber shoes gave you away as being a country bumpkin.

Another blogger wrote wistfully about a day when simple flat shoes were thought to be beautiful and how now women only want to wear 길힐 (kill heels) to impress men.

I could spend days on this kind of thing, which I have, which I shouldn’t as I’ve got work looming over my head…

Oh yeah, and after the cultural center I went to Hongdae to LUSH and purchased tea tree powder for those times you wear shoes barefoot. $$$ Ate at a Japanese noodle restaurant, then met an adoptive mom of two in Insadong, who actually helped find the family of one of her adopted children and is working on finding the family of the other child.  He and his half brother were goofing with each other the entire time and the mom quipped how amazingly alike they were in personality.  And his sister by adoption said, “yeah.  it’s scarey!”  (how much alike they are)  I made them stop at Red Mango and order binsu, which is fruit and ice cream over shaved ice.  Usually with red beans.

Then I hobbled back home and purchased two FULL SIZE towels at Daiso for 3 bucks each.  (There’s a Daiso right at my train station and I can’t leave without getting something)  I have no idea why the Daiso as a Japanese company only markets itself as Daiso.co.kr here in Korea and almost all their items say Made in Korea on them.  Anti-Japanese sentiment seems to be more about claiming and or glory, so getting territorial about two dollar items seems incredibly petty.  And if it’s really a Japanese based company, does it even matter if it’s masked to be Korean?  Koreans are still buying and the money’s still going to Japan…Anyway, It’s so great to have a big towel, even if it is baby terry and not very thirsty.

I know I looked crazy laden down with messenger bag, shopping bags, and a lamp the museum had given me.  I really should give in to my inner ajumma and carry that cart with me wherever I go.  But if I were a hardcore ajumma, I would just push around a baby stroller.

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3 thoughts on “intangible

  1. OMG I remember wearing 고무신 and I remember patching some too. I can’t believe they still make some. (that tells you how old I am) I am glad you got out of your apartment. I think 한복 with 고무신 on a Korean woman looks very beautiful and natural.

  2. Yes, I found two manufacturers on-line! I hope they will fit, as I have to order the smallest size and the odds are 50/50.

    Converse has gomushin-like shoes out now and they cost a fortune. If they fit I will buy a lot and decorate them with acrylic paint.

    Did you wear normal socks with them, or the traditional socks?

    Also, I added some to the post above…

  3. Mostly traditional. Those shoes had 2 problems that I can remember. First, they were not very durable. Second, more importantly, you sweat a lot in the summer time so your feet smell as well as they get very dirty. Ha ha, the good old days. :)

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