photos by nacrowe
i'm not gonna lie, SOUTH KOREA is a strange place.
and that is from the perspective of someone who practically seeks out unfamiliar cultures and actively attempts to understand them on their terms. for most visiting westerners, especially americans, it is easy to get caught up in the neon lights and dizzying hustle and bustle of SEOUL and its labyrinth of cavernous subways and seemingly infinite shopping destinations. the place basically has no central district with multiple competing neighborhoods basically competing for influence. at the time i was living in JAPAN outside YOKOHAMA and for me SEOUL seemed to me a more bloated version of TOKYO for reasons already described.
but what got me about this country wasn't its massive cities but the insular nature of its people. living in JAPAN i often felt quite isolated, which to me was funny because at that point i had lived for years in politically and economically depressed countries like ALBANIA and VENEZUELA that were a step removed from mainstream "world culture." yet i never felt alone there. i always felt welcome and not a curiosity. JAPAN was very much a situation where you never felt welcome. people were impeccably polite but it was a politeness that acted as a barrier. its hard to verbalize what i mean. there was a definite insularity and rigidity of thought, a lack of curiosity. i found JAPAN jarring but SOUTH KOREA was another level indeed.
i worked at an international school in JAPAN and there were several CANADIAN counterparts of mine that had JAPANESE spouses. i learned that in SOUTH KOREA dating was carried out with the forethought and determined specificity of two merging corporations as families would want to the income and occupation of not just you, but up to three generations before you. the two participants were just an afterthought in this intense negotiation that had as much to do with standing and honor as it did about commitment and love.
and i get why. the JAPANESE were absolutely brutal to the KOREANS during their occupation and post-KOREAN WAR this country had to basically pull itself up by its bootstraps and make something from basically nothing. literally nothing. most of their ancestral architecture was defiled and destroyed by the JAPANESE. most or all you see today of past royal palaces are works-in-progress recreations. its funny now because SOUTH KOREA has basically followed JAPAN into consumer electronics and beaten them at their own game. revenge indeed.
but much like JAPAN, SOUTH KOREA has a problem with teen suicide and depressions. families have few children and put a lot of resources into their education, putting excessive pressure on them to succeed and procure employment that pays off this investment. what results is that you have a country that sees value only in your ability to produce. i have teacher friends out there that i stayed with and it felt claustrophobic being around that educational culture. all students played violin or cello or piano not out of interest but out of needing something to fill out your college application out with. everything seemed backwards like the kids were supposed to fit into a pre-conceived mold. it was conformity of the most intense variety. even pop culture (K-POP specifically) was about meeting a predetermined standard of demeanor, purity and naïveté.
i found the place claustrophobic and is one of the few countries i've visited that i don't have any real urge to revisit. people there are treated as a commodity by their families and it makes perfect sense to me why so me seek a way out, suicide itself being a normative means of maintaining family honor in a warped moral landscape.
and i haven't even gotten to talking about NORTH KOREA yet. stay tuned.