doldrums


I just wasted countless hours not working this weekend and instead writing posts that will never meet the light of day. They all end up negative or are just too confusing. So many things about this place I’ll never comprehend.

You get here and you look around and say to yourself, “Where is this oppressive, group-think, ostracizing harsh society everyone talks about?” All around you is majestic nature, bright lights, big city, beautiful people, and shopping therapy wrapped in a pop music happy bubble. Except for the sea of black and brown hair, everything seems the same as any metropolis anywhere.  And you’re all happy to be on a new adventure, all optomistic and open to anything.

And then you go to your job and in short order you get whacked with a nail-studded 2×4 and jolted with an electric cattle prod and you remember: you can’t see discrimination, you can’t see racism, you can’t see political class or gender oppression, and you surely can’t see ideology. But oh, can you ever feel it.

And you find yourself wishing everyone wore clothing color-and-style coded according to Confucian status precepts, just to make understanding easier.  This must be how halmonis feel.

And then you tap into the media, because it’s your only company. And even though you love it and it’s never failed you, here it’s omnipresent. And you ask yourself that age-old question: Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art?

In the case of Korea, I hope the answer is neither.

For instance, I never in a million years thought I’d get sick of looking at good design or style or fashion.  But when every other channel is selling some kind of image enhancement and there are so many fashion and style shows when you turn on the t.v. and flip channels, it’s just excessive.  I can’t stomach one more second of it, and this weekend I reached my maximum saturation point.  (I am now only watching History, Discovery, and National Geographic as a result.  And I’m really appalled how they’re half reality t.v. now…) The counting eyelid surgery game is boring now.  The ankle blister counting game is boring now.  The watching girls totter and almost fall off their fetish shoes is boring now.  The criticism of each other, the self-awareness and level of pretension is nauseating.  Watching everyone (mostly insecure girls) kill themselves to be stylish is just depressing.  The fare is plastic people, clowns, or pitiful people.  Take your pick.

And then the movie we watched this weekend was also like the straw that broke this camel’s back.  My girlfriends got it because a favorite drama actor was in it, and it was about this phenomenon here called a model bar – the male equivalent of a hostess bar.  We all thought it would be fun, but watching it our lungs and livers and intestines were bleeding.  The room was silent and grim after. It consisted mostly of pointless,* lifeless/artless sex, drinking, and chain smoking, repeat from * across.  In between is deceiving women, swindling women, beating the crap out of women, and then more *.  It wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen glimpses of before in almost every Korean movie – its just that it was all there was, and there was no relief from the misery. The misogyny in Korean movies is horrific to watch.  And the violence has to be without par anywhere.  Women aren’t just smacked.  Women are punched.  Straight dead center in the face.  And then kicked when they fall.  I hope to hell art is not imitating life in these films.  But I fear it is.  And with all the violent films with images of dead women, legs akimbo, slashed and covered in blood, I really really hope the art stays on the celluloid.

On the occasions I’ve spent the night in a love motel to work on TRACK things over a weekend, I got to watch Korean porn.  No apologies here, as anybody would be curious.  It was so horrible, I can’t express how horrible it was.  And it’s not that it was soft porn, and it’s not that it was low budget, or any of that.  It was just mechanical, uninspired, and uninformed.  It makes me not want to bother.  A girl would better spend her time doing her taxes.  This is in contrast to love on dramas, which consists of twenty missed connections, awkward professions of liking, and then a peck and hug and a wedding ceremony.  I hope all that tension would culminate in something better than the glimpse of Korean groping and huffing sex I saw, and which is pretty consistently portrayed on screen. I hope each child born had more interesting beginnings than that, but I’m seriously doubting it…

Now, I have seen moments of erotic behavior in movies.  But it’s rare.  I actually think the older films were better at it.  There is also an excessive amount of acquaintance rape in those old movies.  :(

How are women here supposed to deal with such a strong patriarchy and so many misogynistic messages and behavior all the time?  Well, it seems they are dealing with it by being the opposite of demure – sometimes to the point of obnoxious – and they aren’t marrying and they’re choosing careers instead of depending on men.   And/or they are making themselves into pretty doll vessels.  Because the easiest way to deal with the patriarchy is to enable it.

And when I think about women here, I don’t want them to have to pick either/or.  I just want them to have a lovely time.  Please, God, let them have a lovely time.

So now I no longer ask myself “Where is this oppressive, group-think, ostracizing, harsh society everyone talks about?”  It’s all around: under tons of makeup, stylish clothes, in the street, in the offices, in the alleys, in high tech gadgets, across big screens, and piped into my room.

You know, when I first got to Korea I thought I was going to be joining this  decades-old fight for adoptee rights.  But I was shocked to see how I am here on the ground floor:  of civil rights, worker rights, multi-culturalism, children’s rights, and women’s rights.  The economic miracle of Korea has been like giving a kid the keys to the family car:  they’re learning to drive sink or swim, but it’s terrifying, as they’ve not the experience and no skills or sensitivity with the accelerator and brake.  And I’m here and I should be excited, but instead I’ve got white knuckles.

I keep trying to find things to calm and comfort me, but always end up frustrated:  I can’t find the materials I need for my projects, the volunteer work I have to do brings me down, there is no espresso bar with scones in my small town, music venues are expensive and too far away, and my furniture is too compact to stretch out on.  And always I am isolated because I am a foreigner.

Crap.  Negative again.  Sorry.  I hate being stuck in this mode.

It wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen before in almost every Korean movie – its just that it was all there was, and there was no relief from the misery.
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4 thoughts on “doldrums

  1. “You know, when I first got to Korea I thought I was going to be joining this decades-old fight for adoptee rights. But I was shocked to see how I am here on the ground floor: of civil rights, worker rights, multi-culturalism, children’s rights, and women’s rights. The economic miracle of Korea has been like giving a kid the keys to the family car: they’re learning to drive sink or swim, but it’s terrifying, as they’ve not the experience and no skills or sensitivity with the accelerator and brake. And I’m here and I should be excited, but instead I’ve got white knuckles.” Confucian ethic is also responsible for economic miracle of Korea. I think you can take comfort that Korea’s social issues will also be resolve as fast. However, I hope Korea do not use USA as a model.
    I agree with you about the quality of Korean films about 20 years ago but what I have seen of Korean films lately is good to excellent. It must be your luck to pick a bad one. If you want to see a good film email me and I can give the names of at least top 3.

  2. Confucian ethic is also responsible for economic miracle of Korea. I think you can take comfort that Korea’s social issues will also be resolve as fast.

    Yes. I think you’re right. But that will be for my children to enjoy, not me.

    However, I hope Korea do not use USA as a model.

    I disagree with you here. America is a glorious mess and a fine experiment, given that it’s on such a huge scale. I think Korea should continue on its trajectory and refine, refine, refine so they can figure out how the American model is not just about capitalism, but to truly understand the goal and appropriate execution of personal liberty. I don’t believe Asia could implement more socialist models without them crumbling under corruption, (and Koreans are too concerned with their individual assets to contribute one penny more to society) so the American system of checks and balances is a good model for Korea. (even if America has plateau’d on progress) I just wish they’d get out of this militaristic mind-set of hammering down loose nails or giving purchase to thugs with money. There’s too much non-democratic residue that needs to be eliminated.

    I agree with you about the quality of Korean films about 20 years ago but what I have seen of Korean films lately is good to excellent. It must be your luck to pick a bad one.

    I see a lot of excellent, excellent Korean films. But a cross sample of the corpus at any given moment reveals a LOT of (excessive) disturbing messages about the value of women in Korean society.

    I’ve seen a couple of movies in the opposite direction, but the vast majority limit women to weak objects of desire, scorn, hatred, or all of the above.

    Here are a couple I’ve enjoyed:

    about two older individuals who don’t accept their lonely lot and pair up


    A may/december romance that flies in the face of every social norm but ends on a note of happiness instead of the usual tragedy.

    There are some very interesting documentaries I’d like to see but don’t have access to as well.

  3. I do agree with you about the value of women in Korean society. However, like her economy, it is leaps and bound better than 20 years ago and I am pretty sure that in 20 years Korea’s gender equality will be very close. I know this does not help you now but then what we work for now is not always about us today but for our posterity. Likewise, your work with TRACK will bring reform in the future and future children to unwed mom will have TRACK and similar groups to thank for for not being sent overseas.
    My problem is with the welfare/social service here in the USA. It is almost entirely a handout system so there is no incentive to change for the recipient and that is why there are generations of people on welfare. I believe in the theory of teaching a man to fish not handing out a fish. If we continue with this system it will be a huge financial burden in the future. The USA also lacks a basic social service and that is universal health care. The health care system in the USA needs a complete overhaul because the cost of health care is EXTREMELY artificially high. Too many greedy/powerful hands in the cookie jar in my opinion. Funny thing is that Korea has universal health care and is a discounted system not socialized medicine so at least in one area Korea got it right. In other areas I do agree with you that Korea has much to learn but I am confident that she will and also do well but in a Korea way. Korea is also culturally a different country. Korea is a group society and she will always have a different view on personal liberty. More personal liberty is happening but I don’t think it will ever be the same as western countries and I for one hope not. I think the concept of group society is an area very difficult for most westerners to comprehend and sometimes many misunderstandings occur.
    I think I am talking too much so I am going to stop now.

  4. Being a former welfare recipient, I would disagree that it is a hand out system. The system consistently gives less than what is needed to shelter and clothe ones children, and THAT is a strong incentive to get out. The ONLY reason my children had shoes on their feet and a winter coat is because of student loans, which I am STILL paying for. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how welfare recipients NOT getting student loans managed to get by. In addition, the deadbeat dad gets the bill for this welfare. The costs to the public are due to the overhead of chasing down deadbeat dads who aren’t contributing to their children’s nurture or needs.

    Anyway, I think we agree – we need to teach people to fish. And the women shouldn’t be bearing all the blame for being recipients of welfare. Those who made a career out of living in poverty in the past did so because they had no hope for a better life. Contrary to what the privileged would like to think, sometimes people have no viable options.

    Fortunately for me, I was the last year of supporting women in college. Which was great because a degree pretty much erases recidivism. Which is NOT what I can say about the current system, which keeps people in unstable, unskilled positions and underemployment. Fortunately, I had a brain. But not all do. What about the ones who can’t be trained in a skill or get a degree? We would give a dog a handout, but not a hard luck woman with innocent children. I want to live in a society that treats its own better than this. And those children – I don’t think society supporting the basic needs of children should be considered a handout. The disadvantaged shown kindness and opportunity have a way of contributing more to society than a silver spoon.

    And in Korea, the 100,000 won (recently doubled from a mere 50,000) per month the unwed moms get is NOTHING. $92 bucks – that’s hardly support. And if the woman gets a job at 7-11, then that is taken away. I hear in Korea it only takes one address change for a man to erase himself from the deadbeat dad rolls. I hear there are almost no dads paying child support to their children. There are support programs for single parents, but only if they were married before.

    Don’t EVEN get me going on the insurance industry. They are the anti-Christ. And they’re getting fat in Korea, too, on grossly marked up life insurance policies. I’m sure the founding fathers are rolling in their graves wishing they’d anticipated how to deal with regulation of such unscrupulous bloodsuckers.

    And I have yet to see anything of merit to the Korean collective, because it’s not voluntary. It’s ideal and its reality are two entirely different animals. Living under its reality seems to have created an every-man-for-themselves mentality. And it closes Koreans to the world. And creates Korean self-imposed ghettos wherever on the planet Koreans live.
    ADDED: I mean, I’m sure there are merits to collectivist societies but I don’t see anybody doing anything for the good of all here: It just seems like a big fat lie.

    Gosh, is there anything I LIKE about Korea? I like some of the brighter kids. I like the rugged crafts and terrain. But the majority of the people seem to have sold their soul. I pretty much hate it here.

    ALSO ADDED: But there are days, especially when some high school boys say, “hello teacher I love you!” that I wonder what it would have been like to have grown up here and NOT KNOWN ANY DIFFERENT. Maybe then it wouldn’t seem so bad.

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