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[personal profile] plumgirl
Korea, historically, remains a wonderful place in my mind.

But culturally, I find there be a dissonance between the Korean cultural values that I learned from my immigrant parents and the modern Korea today.

More than two decades have passed since I have seen Korea. I was only a small child when I last was there, and then it was an overwhelming place, full of the problems and smells of a developing country. Korea shed the last of its "developing" country and emerged as a solid economic power long ago thanks to the Olympics era modernization. Today, arguably, Seoul is New York City on steroids, and Korea is largely developed and surprisingly enterprising (with Chejudo almost driving me crazy with to the degree which they take hawking merchandise at every tourist stop.) Old buildlings are constantly being pulled down and replaced with wonderful modern things that are Ikea catalogue showrooms in duplicate.

There are some strange things that have happened though. Korea is a largely safe place. There is not a general distrust of people because in Eastern Asia cultures, there is not usually a concern of random attacks or predators coming after you. A strange side effect ,though, is witnessing children running around amok in museums, public places, and wherever children seem to be. While I generally enjoy watching kids play freely, there's someting unappealing about watching middleschoolers or high schoolers trotting around museums or airports, or draping themselves all over the bathroom floors unsupervised and without any apparent discipline. Somehow this all flies in the face of all the scoldings we received as children growing up in a Korean church. It seems to defy what our parents and their friends often said to us. The tour guide offered this observation to us Korean-Americans. In th old days, families would have seven children, and would take care of the oldest, who would then help pass teachings and take care of those who were younger than them. So one parent would take (most) care of one child, who would then care for another. Today, it's seven people taking care of one child. Society has inverted itself significantly.

And in some ways, you can see the effect of that shift. There is palpable generational tension between the older folks in society who still reflect "old Confucian Korea" with respect for education and public behavior and the younger generations (X/Y and their kids). I was ashamed to see teens lost in their cellphone/media player world on trains and buses ignore old seniors who were forced to stand on the trains. I was appalled by seeing disabled people either ignored or stuck at stations where there are no elevators (only weird lifts that would go up long flights of stairs, IF they were actually were working) while many able bodied people walked by, not caring or stopping to see if that person needed help.

I witnessed a fight on a train where an older women, angry at kids just sitting around while she stood, started a tirade, and another gentleman argued back, saying that kids had a lot on their minds these days with worrying about studies and keeping up. While he was right, she was also right too, at least according to the cultural mores of the Korea of thirty years ago -- the values that immigrant Koreans smacked into the heads of their children.

And then there's experiencing firsthand the understanding that Korea is a land of conformity that makes one wonder how unhappy people are if they can't fit in. Trains would be filled with students all wearing the same kinds of jeans, tennis shoes, and the most ridiculous ill fitting horn rimmed black glasses. There is a sense of acquiring things because it is what others have, not because it makes you look good, or makes sense. The older women would all sport purses and shoes that were expensive. You are judged on what you wear and the cost of what you wear. But worse, there is the conformity in lifestyle in terms of work. Everyone puts their children into expensive schools and then expensive hagwons -- which are after school academies that specialize in everything from Math to English. English is the hot subject of the moment. My twelve year old cousin goes to one, my three and five year old second cousins also go to one.

While the commitment to education is commendable, the costs of hagwons are significant -- a thousand or more dollars each month - and perceived to be necessary. The life of children also is significantly impacted -- they often do not return until well after dinner and then have to juggle the demands of both regular school and these academies. It makes me wonder what the long term benefits and downsides will be. Will children know how to ever enjoy life and being still? Will they burn out before they reach adulthood and rebel in even more profound ways that have never been witnessed in Asian culture?

In the meantime, the adults work excessive hours. Americans often like to pride themselves on being some of the hardest working folks in the world, but Koreans easily work ten to fourteen days Monday through Saturday. Some stores in the local markets stay open from 10am to midnight on a daily basis. Admirable, but also frightening.

In many ways, this is a culture now on steroids that also seems to have no social order like it used to. I was perturbed by modern 2010 Korea -- the Korea my parents' generation embodied seems now like a culture that I'm afraid will no longer exist.

Travel is not merely about seeing new places or acquiring new experiences, but to paraphrase something my dad said to me, "It is a break from your everyday that allows you to gain perspective on the everyday."

Travel is not only a removal from your everyday environment, but can be an introspective experience. In particular, when one goes off to a foreign place, where there is a language and cultural barrier -- with so few people to communicate with, one learns to rely on either distraction by sightseeing or distraction by one's own thoughts.

Reflecting on what the sum of those thoughts, I came to the realization that I as a person have a fundamental detachment to a lot of people and things. One can sift through your thoughts and realize what one doesn't miss. One realizes, then, the relative value of various things, hobbies, people to you. And one is left also evaluating the role of all the things left behind and their relative importance.

Oddly enough while away, I never read any of the books I had with me, never picked up a pencil to sketch, never really did anything with all the things I had thought important to bring along except to write intermittently to a small tiny group of people or keep up with them sporadically on Facebook and jot notes down in a small journal I kept on my person. The things I enjoy while at home I think are not essential after all, just means of more significantly passing the time.

It makes you wonder then about how to approach the everyday things now that one is back - things that are now diminished in relative value or importance like work, hobbies, and material things. And on the flip side, it makes you wonder how soon before you can leave again.
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