Sunday, April 21, 2013

Book Review: Korea, The Impossible Country

With 8 months under my belt here in South Korea and some sense for how things work in these parts, I'm continually surprised by how little knowledge of Korean culture or language a foreign face needs to show to impress many of the locals.  Just by saying a couple phrases of broken Korean that I have learned or knowing the names of the past couple presidents and I have somehow been able to wow people.  Just the other day, I surprised one of my Korean colleagues on my new team at work with my chopstick abilities in the Samsung cafeteria.  I understand that some foreign tourists might visit without knowing how to use chopsticks but I don't see how a foreign expat living here could possibly get by without this essential skill.  I would starve.

My foreign face made an impression on this Korean ajumma (who insisted on taking a photo with me).  In Daegu.

I've tried to be a student of the history and culture during my time here.  Indeed, I would feel even more out of place than I already am if I didn't have some sense for what was going on around me and why.  I try to keep my eyes open and observe as best I can, watch a little Korean TV every now and then (even when I can't understand what they are saying), and read bits of English-language Korean news.  Also, because the history of the country strongly dictates the culture, I've tried reading some books to improve my understand of what underlies the Korean psyche.  Korea Unmasked, by Rhie Won-bok, was a good start to learning about the differences between Korea, China, and Japan.  Ask a Korean Dude, by Kim Hyung-geun, is a quick and irreverent read detailing some of the quirks of Korean culture.  Recently I read Korea: The Impossible Country, by Daniel Tudor.  When he is not writing books, Tudor is Korea Correspondent for one of my favorite periodicals, The Economist

I very much liked Tudor's book because it tells the story of modern Korea from a Westerner's perspective.  It shows the strains and contradictions that have woven themselves into Korean society to create the country that exists today.  Since Korea is so poorly known to the Western world, Tudor's book fills an important need to better explain what modern South Korea represents to foreigners.  Tudor not only describes the ancient influences that remain very strong here, such as Confucianism, but also the influences on Korean music, business, politics, education, and other topics relevant for a full understanding of Korean life.

Tudor asserts his view of modern Korea in his book's title.  Korea's near-impossible ascendency from an impoverished backwater to a wealthy technological leader deserves to be studied, Tudor asserts.  But the book's title has a double-meaning.  Despite having pulled their country up by its bootstraps, Koreans remain the country with the longest working hours in the world, and children endure grueling amounts of education to compete fiercely for the few spots at top universities and Korea's all-powerful chaebol business conglomerates.  South Korea puts too much pressure on its citizens to conform to impossible standards of education, reputation, physical appearance, and career progress.  South Korea is now second to only Lithuania worldwide in terms of suicides per capita.  Tudor wonders when Koreans will uncork the champagne and relax a little.

I highly recommend Tudor's book to anyone embarking on an extended stay in South Korea.  Korea: The Impossible Country describes many elements of life here that foreigners should understand.  Why the Korean society is so sexist, for instance, and what women are doing to break through centuries-old barriers.  The source of Korean nationalism and its "bunker mentality" that resists foreign influence.  Why saccharine, similar-sounding K-pop sounds prevail on the radio.  What motivates some Koreans to spend a third of their after-tax income on private English education for their children.  I wish my blog can provide an understanding of some of these elements of life in Korea, but Tudor's work is far more thorough and intellectually nourishing than whatever I will be able to accomplish online.

Koreans invest a lot into learning English, but much of it I still don't understand.  Why so serious?

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