Ever since moving to Korea, I’ve felt a sort of personal disconnect from the country, not in that I feel like a foreigner in a foreign land, but in the sense that I just don’t feel a spiritual connection to this place. I enjoy my work, I enjoy the people, the food, the landscape, but I just don’t feel that extra something. Granted, spiritual is a loaded term, and for that reason, I don’t like to use it often, but what I mean is that something ephemeral and essential to your sense of self, that food for the soul, that intuitive sense inside you that floods your heart whenever you’ve encountered something truly meaningful. And so far, I feel like Korea and I have gone on a few dates that were pleasant, with nothing untoward or out of the ordinary, and we’ve found several overlapping interests, but for some reason, it just ain’t cutting it.
That reason, I’ve realized, is art.
When you travel to Europe, you see the churches, the Sistine Chapel, the Bernini’s and the Picassos. You go to see the Colisseum and the Parthenon, places where history and art explode and dazzle, and to touch your hand on the blackened, smooth pillar of a Roman temple makes you feel like you’ve dipped your hand into the stream of time and touched upon something legendary. This pillar, carved by human hands hundreds of years ago, in the age of Jupiter and Hera and gladiators and leather sandals, an age that inspired Russell Crowe and Frank Miller, in a city that inspired Audrey Hepburn to stardom and Attila the Hun to glory. We think about how that inspired the strappy sandal fad of 2010 or the plethora of “This is Sparta!” moments around the same time. In short, when we encounter a piece of art, historical, modern, whatever, we touch upon a web of interconnected ideas, and we feel the vibration of that meaningfulness in our lives.
Art is the series of assimilations and permutations and reactions to social times and occurrences, whether it’s architecture, paintings, films, or, mostly importantly, novels. That’s why I love Japan so much – everything about what they’ve experienced and how they feel about it is present in their daily lives. Call it the collective unconscious, the national aesthetic, whatever. It’s that thing that gives a place its flavour and identity.
Korea, though, well…I just draw a great big blank.
Maybe I haven’t been to enough museums or read up enough on Korean history, but I just can’t seem to find anything to grip onto. All I see are the practical things, the rows and rows of identical apartment blocks, the shiny cellphone shops, the primped-up K-pop stars pumping out commercialized, choreographed music videos.
Whenever I ride the bus, I take an inventory of the cars I see on the road, and by an overwhelming majority, all cars in Korea come in four colours: white, black, grey, and silver. The main exception being the blue pickup vans that always trundle by, hauling big piles of fresh-picked produce, still brown with earth. Compare this to America, where a car is a personal statement, a chance to show off one’s flair or personality; the glossy red convertible, the quirky lime green Beetle, the reconditioned VW van with the custom art painted on. But in Korea, things are practical. Sensible. Pragmatic.
I see rows of identical housing and think: a country spurred into rapid economic development, sudden urbanity, rise of a middle class, the remnant of a traditional family structure, an emphasis on efficiency.
I watch K-Pop videos and think: the influence of American pop-culture post-occupation, the juxtaposition of all of the most gratuitous and frivolous aspects of modern music with the lingering conservatism of Korean sexuality.
I see the lack of art in everyday life here and think: a country rushed into modernization, without time to stop and think about what it all means, how they feel about the whole thing. What’s the collective unconscious here? Where’s the self-reflection?
It’s a complaint I see a lot on blogs and on waygook forums: Korea is a bland and superficial country. It’s a girl with a pretty face and no personality. But that can’t be true, not entirely! Where are the writers? Who are the big thinkers? I tried googling “important Korean literature” once, and came up with surprisingly few results. Three authors, at most. I thought, “How is this possible? They must have a literary culture here…of some kind!”
That’s what I’ve come the realize – if I can’t read the literature of a place, I can’t understand its culture.
I went to a Korean bookstore yesterday. Not a single book in English, except the simple readers meant for Korean students to study from. Finally, I had found Korean literature! I looked at the stacks and stacks of novels and thought – Ah, here it is! A room full of thoughts…and I can read none of it. That’s the thing, I guess. Korean literature just hasn’t been translated.
So, in an effort to reach out my hand and pluck the ripe persimmon that is Korean culture, I’ve ordered an anthology of Korean short fiction from What The Book, an English-language bookshop based in Seoul. It was quite pricey, about $50, and I suspect that it’s actually a textbook for a literature course in America somewhere…but it promises a range of pieces from before the war, to the occupation, to the modern day. Maybe this will build a skeleton for the dewy skin and shining hair I see now. Maybe it will build the brain, the eyes, the endearingly chipped tooth that’s only noticeable when she’s caught off guard and laughing, lips stretched fully back and unashamed.