Before we get to the point I’m trying to make, I am compelled to put you through several thousand words of background to make you truly understand what I’m getting at.
But, before I do, I’d like to dedicate this blog entry to my dear wife who will be celebrating her twentieth anniversary of emmigrating to Canada from South Korea on July 24, 2011. I’m really glad you did, my jjaggung! I cannot imagine my life without you.
The Origin of the Korean People
As the story goes, as told to me by my wife and confirmed by Wikipedia (where you can get a more complete version of the myth), an ambitious tiger and a gentle, easy-going bear were given mugwort and twenty cloves of garlic by a god named Hwanung, who instructed them to stay in a dark cave for a hundred days with only the mugwort and the garlic as food. After a while, the tiger got pissed off and ran away. On the twenty-first day, the bear was miracled into the form of a beautiful woman named Ungnyeo [this is not a typo] as her reward for sticking it out.
Time passed and she wanted to start a family but the local men all knew that she had once been a bear, so nobody wanted to marry her. In her sadness, she sat under a sacred tree and prayed for a child. Feeling sorry for her, Hwanung materialized and they did the nasty. She eventually gave birth to a son, Dangun, who is considered the forefather of the Korean people.
So the moral of the story is if you meet a beautiful Korean woman with garlic breath and green stuff stuck between her teeth, you might get lucky because she’s probably spent the last three weeks in a cave. Be careful though — she can be a bear and her dad is someone you don’t want to mess with.
My Favourite Korean Myth — Chilseok
A Korean god had a daughter named Jiknyeo [again, not a typo] who was a first-rate weaver of clothes. One day she was looking the window of her home in heaven, saw a handsome herder named Gyeonwu just on the other side of the Milky Way, and fell in love with him. Being a nice guy, her dad gave his blessing to their marriage.
Once married, Jiknyeo fell behind in her weaving and Gyeonwu began neglected the cows and sheep so her dad got angry and ordered them separated. He did, however, allow them to visit each other once per year on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar but they found they could not cross the Milky Way. Feeling sorry for them, every year crows and magpies fly in formation, forming a bridge that allows the very-much-in-love couple to cross the Milky Way and catch up.
This myth explains why crows and magpies don’t have feathers on their heads (the couple running across the avian bridge puts undue wear and tear on their feathery heads) and if it rains on Chilseok, it is said that the raindrops are the tears of Jiknyeo and Gyeonwu saddened in the knowledge that they’ll have to wait another year to see each other.
Beautiful story, eh?
The History of Korea
Korea is an ancient country that has a history as exciting or as boring as any other, depending on how much of a history buff you are.
Korean culture and language were influenced by many other cultures, notably by the Chinese who tended to stick their noses, and tax collectors, into everybody’s business. To be fair, the Chinese didn’t impose themselves too heavily on the Koreans (we’ll talk about the 1950s later) and Korea retained its own language, culture, and tradition. Let’s skip ahead a few thousand years.
In the early part of the 20th century, Korea got royally screwed, quite literally, when the Emperor of Japan annexed Korea, forever associating in the minds of foodies everywhere rice and other stuff rolled up in seaweed with the word “sushi”, instead of with the original Korean name, “kim bap”. But Koreans didn’t squawk about the name change because they were too busy losing their property, and sometimes their lives, to their occupiers.
After World War II, Japan didn’t fiddle around nearly as much in Korea’s affairs as they found themselves occupied by the Americans. It takes a lot of energy pulling off jitterbug dance moves while wearing a kimono and eating hot dogs and apple pie with slippery lacquered chopsticks.
Then came the ’50s. While North Americans were experiencing a great economic upswing and paranoia over communism, the peoples of the Korean Peninsula were seeing a great communist upswing and paranoia over whether ordinary Koreans would lose their lives. The north part of Korea wanted all the wonderful trappings of communism, like rulers with absolute power and famine for everyone else. South Korea wanted all the benefits of a capitalist democracy, like looking forward to the fun surprises the son of the present maniacal Supreme Leader of North Korea has in store for them when he inherits his father’s title and personality disorders. So a war was held to which the North Koreans invited about a million of their communist friends from China and Russia. The South, not to be outdone, invited the rest of the world. Needless to say, when the party ended, both North and South Korea looked like frat houses after a legend-making fête. The trouble is, the party is not technically over… there is no peace agreement between the two Koreas.
If I had to call it before the final buzzer sounds, I’d have to say that South Korea gets the Championship Cup for having an economy that grew almost non-stop from near zero to over a trillion dollars in less than fifty years and for allowing its people travel to, and communicate with, the rest of the world. The ordinary North Korean gets an honourable mention for sticking it out under a regime that has screwed things up so badly for the citizenry that they have to make do on a diet with about the same calories per day that the bear only had to endure for twenty-one days before being rewarded with being transformed into the beautiful Ungnyeo.
My Own Personal Observations
I have tremendous respect for South Koreans. I have never been to North Korea but if the Norks are anything like their brethren to the south, they are a warm and wonderful bunch.
Be forewarned that the Koreans are a gift-giving lot. Two of the traditional gifts they give travellers are socks and underwear. The socks make perfect sense… travellers have come a long way and may have worn out their socks. The logic behind the underwear gift defies me. I feel the need to further warn you that the Korean bum tends to be smaller than the North American arse so your gift might not fit properly. Even if you gauge the size of the garment to fall short of you gluteal requirements, smile and be gracious. After all, it’s the thought that counts! And, no, you don’t have to model your gifts to the givers.
Now I might have gotten special treatment in Korea because most of my dealings with the locals was with my wife’s relatives. There is an amazing amount of respect thrown around, and I got more respect there than I get at home here in Canada from friends and family members who have known me my whole life. Maybe one of my wife’s nephews or nieces is on the verge of becoming tremendously famous as a stand up comedian specializing in Canadian uncle jokes.
I spent the vast majority of my time in Korea in the bustling city of Seoul. In spite of having a population of close to 11,000,000 people, the place is spotless. There is also very little graffiti and what tagging I did see was very polite and unobtrusive. Seoul is an incredibly exciting place with things happening around the clock, especially traffic. For those of you who espouse the notion that Asians are terrible drivers, try driving in Seoul without cashing in your travel insurance’s death-while-overseas rider.
Seoul, like all large South Korean cities, is modern with historical buildings preserved in their original locations. Now by historical, I’m not talking about the room Marilyn Monroe slept in during the 1950s, I’m talking 700-plus-year historical. This is in a city where they have LED lights embedded into some roadways to mark off lanes, everyone has in-floor radiant heating (they’ve been doing that for hundreds of years), and where the GPSs are 7″ wide, have cute non-mechanical voices that warn you of speed traps and stuff, and have picture-in-picture of TV traffic reports. They also have Western-style sit down toilets, mostly with bidet functions. All the comforts of home in an exotic locale!
I cannot comment on hotel prices or rent but prices of other stuff was reasonable. Cigarettes cost about $2 a pack and a gallon of 30% alcohol soju, the national beverage that is sort of like a rice-based vodka, cost only $5! For a gallon! Nikon camera equipment was priced within a single percent of what I’d pay here in Canada. Attractions like the National Museum of Korea are fabulous, and inexpensive. That particular museum is free!
So, What’s Your Problem with the Koreans, HoaiPhai?
My problem is linguistic. The Korean word for my personal favourite insect, the noble firefly, is “keh-dong-buh-leh”, which when its component parts are translated, means “dog poo bug”. Surely a culture that has produced such imaginative and symbolism-filled tales as the story of Chilseok could have come up with a more poetic name for one of nature’s most wondrous and beautiful creatures.
Do you have a suggestion for our Korean friends for a replacement name for the firefly?
[If you claim some sort of ownership to the photos displayed on this page, you are a goddamned liar! All photos were taken by HoaiPhai with his own camera and on his own time. Stick it in your ear and make “it” large and thorny.]