Saturday, July 19, 2008

More Reading About the Land of the Morning Calm (And a Bit of China Thrown In)

Before Jenn left I borrowed This is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood by Hyok Kang and found it fascinating. It describes his childhood in the "Jurassic Park of Communism" which was how Jenn and I described our experience of hiking in North Korea last autumn. The descriptions of his childhood, his belief in the Dear Leader, and what happened when the famine hit were moving. I could hardly put the book down and it was likely the fastest I've read a book in the past year. I highly recommend it to anyone curious about North Korea.

From our school library I borrowed Echoes of the White Giraffe by Sook Nyul Choi. The story is set in Pusan (now Busan) during the Korean war and begins with refugee students building a school for themselves, to replace Ewha School in Seoul that they had attended before having to flee the capital. The narrator, Sookan, is living in a hut on a mountain slope with her younger brother and mother. Her father and older brothers are missing. It tells the story of her budding love for Junho, a boy at her church.

The title of the story confused me for some time. The White Giraffe in question was a mountain poet, a man who shouted from the mountain tops in the mornings and gave Sookan hope and comfort. Her poet is called Baik Rin, which means White Giraffe and it reminds her of a story told to her by her grandfather of a scholar who fears that a white giraffe he finds will be killed by hunters, as it has no camouflage. The scholar dresses up in white every morning and goes walking through the forest in order to give the impression to the hunters that if they saw a white figure in the forest, it was him.

I have to admit, it annoyed me that their romance didn't work out. They both have plans to go into the seminary and nunnery - I was exasperated with them, I must admit. I suppose it stayed true to the times, in terms of romance and its role in one's life. The narrator is consumed with education - she takes extra classes at the refugee school and upon return to Seoul dedicates herself to studying and winning the chance to go to America, which she does at the end of the novel. As she leaves on the plane, she wonders: "I was going all alone to a vast country where I would be surrounded by total strangers. What had I done? Why had I never thought of it this way before?" I wonder if everyone doesn't do this in the same situation - certainly I had a last minute panic before the first time I flew to Korea when I suddenly wanted to just call the whole thing off. I had just spoken to Andrea on the phone and I had a moment where I wondered why in the hell I wanted to go to Asia and not know anyone when I had such good friends I could be spending that year with instead. Had the school not been expecting me, perhaps I would have chickened out.

Lastly, I read Comfort Woman by Nora Okja Keller. It was inspired by my trip to Sharing House, which is a museum and home for Korean women who were sexual slaves of the Japanese Army during the Second World War. I found the book a bit of a disappointment - I had been looking in What the Book for a historical book about the issue, but when I looked in the Asia Interest section, there wasn't a single book about comfort women. There were, however, any number of books about Japanese geishas, which seems a pointed statement to me - authors would rather fetishize Asian women and their sex lives rather than look at the shocking realities of women's lives in Asia in the recent past. The novel wasn't badly written at all, it just concentrated more on the mother's shamanistic religious practices, rather than her experience during the war, and I didn't particularly find the descriptions of shamanism all that interesting. Keller has written another novel about Korea though, and I'd like to read it.

Now for the bit about China - I finally got around to reading Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China by Rachel DeWoskin. So much of the book resonated with me - being in such a foreign place is an experience that I find easily cuts across cultures and allows for easy relating, regardless of the cultures involved.
"I felt anonymous in traffic; I could rush away from any impression I might leave behind. I had yet to learn that this feeling informed much of the way in which expatriates lived their lives in Beijing. Knowing they'll leave a city gives people a feeling of impunity, a meeting-strangers-on-the-plane energy. And almost every Westerner who moves there eventually leaves Beijing. Even celebrities are happy to shed their faces and Western images as soon as they're far enough from home... What American fans or voters will see bad ads so far away? And what hometown familiars will witness bad expat behaviour?"
Change the city name, and this quote is so much of what it is to live in Seoul. Whenever you move, you have that freedom that comes from being able to remake yourself for people with whom you have no past. It can be such a wonderful feeling. However, it was not a feeling that lasted as long when I went off to university or moved to Scotland. Both of those places I went to with the idea of a much longer time commitment than when I first came to Seoul (and when I returned, come to think of it.) They were also easily places I felt I could end up living in forever. Vancouver had none of it - I brought much of my past with me and re-encountered other parts of it in the city. But Seoul - it's a city I love, but certainly not one I will settle in forever. And for all that I am quite established here now, the transience of those around me means that I am always starting again, with new friends or combinations of friends as my regular social circle.

DeWoskin talks about the expatriate small talk and it's benchmarks - have I been here longer than you? Do I speak the language better than you do? She talks about the difficulty of discussing either loving or hating aspects of a new country with other foreigners. And the weirdness of being part of an expat community:
The loneliest I ever felt in China was around other Americans, because they inspired mistaken hope that we would know each other intimately, instinctively. It took me year to accept the fact that American strangers are just as unknowable as any others. It was hard to decide whether to nod to, wave at, or in any way acknowledge other foreigners. Such gestures felt vaguely conspiratorial and racist; were we special friends because we found ourselves and each other in an exotic an uncomfortable land? And yet, not acknowledging other laowai was pretentious and dishonest, since I noticed every single one I saw (and usually stared unabashedly.) Laowai who did not acknowledge each other were making a point, proving that they were old China hands and did not get excited at the sight of aliens from their own planets.
DeWoskin says that as foreigners in Beijing you have to earn your enjoyment, that daily tasks were impossible, and that learning to love Beijing made one feel like being in an elite club - I know that feeling well. Seoul is sometimes a city best appreciated in retrospect, from elsewhere. It's a great place, but it can be annoying difficult. In ways, that makes it an easier place to live, too.


moonrat said...

i loved foreign babes. i've never been to mainland china, but i've spent long periods in taiwan and japan and, like you, it really resonated.

i've read COMFORT WOMEN, too, and i agree with you--it came off a little uninformatively. i'm sorry i don't know your blog better, so you might already be familiar, but A GESTURE LIFE by Chang-Rae Lee is a really nice fictional treatment of the subject.

i'm a japanese history buffoon and get really tired of the fact that everything available is about geisha. we'll have to work on that.

Kay Bratt said...

Wow-- you hit the nail on the head. I just returned from 5 years on China and I remember when we first went there, we'd see a foreigner and get so excited. Later, after a year or two, we'd act all non-chalant even though inside I was wondering "how to make friends..." too funny...