Against the Disneyfication of Korea

#HappySeoul is the tag for a cover of Pharrell William’s Happy. In the video, expats and locals dance through a sun-kissed, verdant Seoul. Watch it because everyone in it is happy:

Thematically, shots of happy kids follow on from writhing girls in short-shorts. In the last shot, what appears to be a pregnant woman gets Happy Seoul written across her belly. Even her fetus will be happy. Seoul is hot… it’s cute… it’s heart-warming and family-oriented. Through jarring juxtaposition, #HappySeoul is all things to all people. What’s wrong with this picture?

1: this is not Seoul.

The video lacks smokers around every corner, people spitting on the sidewalk, and constant traffic, as Korea’s full-sized sedans perform their own dance of the machines along tiny sidestreets. Seoul is not this quiet and does not have this much public space: the city has 8% green space, the lowest of any big city in the developed world. Seoul is mainly huge roads and blocks of indistinguishable apartments that go on for miles.

Dance in this traffic – the street next to #HappySeoul’s BMX riders.

Dance in this smog – the spring dust storms from China combine with Seoul’s choking fumes to block visibility.

Dance in these crowds – Friday night in Hongdae.

The video’s lithe, expat dancers unintentionally reflect the pressures of the western labour markets: many ESL teachers have a fine arts background and can’t find work in their own countries. But if you come to Seoul, you will not find midriff-baring subway dancers or bikini-clad young women hanging out in the reclaimed river. Korea is conservative. There are many beautiful and sexy people in Seoul, but as I’ve pointed out, this is largely due to the brutal, unrelenting quest for status. The dancers posing in front of the Han, or in the Haebangchon underpass, could only strike those poses due to years of hard work and practice. Their apparent leisure is a product of Korea’s punishing work ethic.

In short, Korean society is not happy. There are many good social indicators of this fact. In the OECD, Korea has:

– the highest suicide rate
– the highest elderly poverty rate (and, relatedly, suicide rate among the elderly)
– the second-longest working hours and the lowest productivity
– the highest per capita rate of plastic surgery in Asia


If you visit the neighbourhoods featured in the video (I live in one of them), you will see happy people. But you’ll also see evidence of the above statistics. So what is this video actually saying?

2. Just because you say something doesn’t make it so

The response by the filmmakers and commentators to these points has been instructive. For example:

-Wow! You witnessed all that beauty and “Happy” and THAT is what you come up with??? That actually says more about YOU than the Korean people… Just watch the video again & have a “Happy” day.

-whatever the reason is, they made this video to share happiness, so don’t fight over records and such, be happy for whatever there is to be happy about right now.

-Actually this is seoul to the fullest. A few of my friends were in this video (worked on it too) and it was all done on a volunteer basis. Peopled turned up and just danced around on camera for free. Unless you were there during the shooting of this project please have several seats because you know nothing about Seoul.

Han on display – art in Hongdae

Pointing out #HappySeoul’s inaccuracy means succumbing to pessimism, projecting your own jaundiced perspective on the dancing masses. And even if there are some statistics suggesting otherwise, why point it out and make it worse? Be part of the solution rather than the problem.

But this isn’t the correct way to pose the question. It’s not about how optimistic or pessimistic you are, it’s whether the image you create has any relationship to reality. And if the city in #HappySeoul has a tenuous link to the real Seoul, what purpose does making a video like this serve?

The video captures one truth: Korean people are friendly and gregarious. You can’t sit in a cafe without at least one group of young women nearby, clapping and laughing. It’s common for Korean women to playfully slap their boyfriends. Korean social norms are expressive. But this video is all jeong and no han; as I argued in my last post, Korean society is equal parts solidarity and sorrow. This is not just an abstract statement: it’s constantly on display in the shouting, shoving and arguments that are part of pedestrian traffic here. The middle-aged men spewing complex colour palettes on the sidewalk after a night of company-enforced drinking are neither happy nor dancing.

There are bikini-clad women in Seoul, inexplicably advertising drumming lessons.

At best, a video full of happy people in an unhappy city is an attempt at reframing. There’s some truth to the cognitive therapy adage that if you find positive aspects of a bad situation, you can feel more hopeful and gain the strength to change it. But that only works if your circumstances are amenable to changing. The fatal flaw of cognitive therapy is that for those people in circumstances or structures well beyond your control, the reframing collapses in on itself and becomes a new way of self-blame. And that’s the conclusion commentators have drawn: if you can watch this video and not be happy, there must be something wrong with you. Which is a message that fits very well with neoliberal ideology: bootstrap yourself into a career, security and happiness. If you can’t do it, try harder. Those who have ‘made it’ have no responsibility to explain their rose-tintedness. They are free to blame the losers – and because there are winners, there must be losers.

At worst, this video is an active, if unwitting, obfuscation of social reality. What is a denial of very real social problems, from state repression to inequality, but a kind of sociopathy, an unwillingness to see the suffering on display on the streets of Seoul? It becomes propaganda, disturbing because of its very banality. The everyday of Seoul is dancing and smiling, it says. Come spend your money to experience it. Those who don’t fit don’t exist. They are the cracks in the pavement that our happy dancing will stomp on.

Yeonnam-dong’s own grumpy cat – if you’re pure-bred, you’re valuable enough to be kept on a leash.

Suffering is not motivational. Ripping the veil from people’s eyes doesn’t make them want to change it. This video resonates because it fills a need: people want to be happy, and to imagine a place where happy exists. This is fine in a Disney film, or in one of the giant theme parks that are so popular here. There’s no illusion about the escapism on offer in a theme park. But I think extending that narrative to an entire city is a form of violence. It denies the complex reality of 24 million people struggling to sell themselves in order to survive. #HappySeoul is not a story of redemption, of people facing challenges and learning to overcome them, or – god forbid – failing and learning about themselves. It’s an erasure of those struggles, an aestheticization of politics, like Benjamin warned us about. Given that it was made largely by foreigners, for foreign consumption, it even flirts with orientalist notions of happy Koreans, echoing similar images produced under Japanese occupation.

Not the Paris Commune – the ‘commune of radicals’ stripped of meaning and used to sell designer clothing.

For that reason, #HappySeoul accomplishes what it sets out to do: display a metropolis of smiling, carefree extroverts. And it accomplishes a darker purpose its makers may be unaware of: it disappears the conflicts and pain that make Seoul a real, vibrant, difficult place to live. #HappySeoul is propaganda that Koreans themselves have disavowed. Even mayor Park Won-soon doesn’t want Seoul portrayed this way: as he explained upon commissioning the video Bitter Sweet Seoul,

“Seoul has a sad history. If we try to project only the good side, it’s not the real thing,” Mr. Park said.

“Seoul is not a place in monotone; It has so many different colors… Having it depicted through this film will ultimately help attract more tourists,” the mayor said.

What does depicting Seoul with only one colour accomplish?


Stranger in a Korean land

Regular blog readers will be aware of my ambivalent attitude towards work. Having freed myself from that particular shackle, I was ecstatic and planned a week of craft beer and debauchery. My body had other ideas, and a few days later my scratchy throat progressed to a fever and chest cough, and my social activities were reduced to stumbling to a nearby cafe to read the newspaper. I was sick for two weeks.

In hindsight it makes sense: a year of keeping to a more-or-less rigid schedule, not to mention reconciling myself to the irreconcilable drudgery of wage labour, left me mentally and physically exhausted. There’s some cognitive dissonance involved: in the few lucid moments I had to and from the office, I planned glorious blog entries on the state, imperialism and social movements, and an ambitious research agenda to haul myself back on the academic wagon. But post-work mostly involved Simpsons episodes and trying to keep my sinuses from overflowing.

Duff Gardens hoorah!
Duff Gardens hoorah!

It’s also meant engaging with where I am. Working in an English-speaking office, absorbing English-language TV and books at home, and writing English-language job applications insulated me from the reality that I’m in a foreign country. Believe it or not, despite being surrounded by 24 million Koreans it’s easy to live in a bubble.

I can get British groceries from Home plus, the joint supermarket venture with Tesco’s. I can eat subpar Italian food in nearly every neighbourhood and Thai and ‘American’ in the central, foreigner-friendly ones. The internet allows me constant contact with foreign media outlets (and allows me to bypass the English-language papers in Seoul, which are remarkably content-free). The essentials of everyday life, like paying bills and rent, are entirely automated. If I wanted to, my only contact with Korean daily life would be the dozens of people serving my cappuccinos each week. This is not a good thing, but keeping that distance has helped me survive, because, post-work, I’ve realized how strange and foreign I am, or the place I’m in is – or both.

Some random Seoul graffiti: this one is in Haebangchon

‘Foreigner’ carries pejorative connotations in the west: someone dissociated from and rejected by mainstream society. But in Korea it’s the catch-all term for the 3% of people who aren’t from here. A friend of mine has observed that two years marks a turning point for most foreigners: they either find some reason to integrate or they give up and go home.

The familiarity of home has a strong pull on me. I wanted to leave Canadian comfort for many years, and I still find my country bland and insipid when it’s not being viciously reactionary, such as with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s support of Israeli state terror. I don’t identify in the slightest with whatever counts as authentic Canadian culture (except for maple syrup. I can’t live without that.) But I miss the diversity that comes with official Canadian multiculturalism.

This is skin-deep, to the extent that multiculturalism doesn’t mean much more than restaurants from different parts of the world, different music coming out of car stereos and the occasional street festival. As a white person, I have the privilege of sampling different cultures without committing to any of them or experiencing the racism that attends minority status.


However, there’s also a comfort level with seeing different kinds of people on the street, and there being different cultural practices available. I’ve only experienced this in one other city, London, which is a large part of why I felt so comfortable there. Even the surface-y multicultural stuff – like a good curry or kalamata olives in the grocery store – starts to grate when it’s missing.

It’s ridiculous to claim South Korea is a monolith. Korea is riven with multiple fractures of class, gender, sexuality and, in a different way, geography, as it’s trapped between the ocean and the Stalinists. This introduces a new form of status – those who can leave for education or citizenship, and those who are stuck here. Which leads to a defensive Korean nationalism vs. cosmopolitanism, which in turn is mapped onto class. For example, it’s no accident that the most foreign luxury cars are bought, and the most English is spoken in Gangnam, a place Koreans call “another country” (another wealthy country, as Psy reminded us.)


But the promotion of Korea as a centralized, unified entity has a long history. There’s nothing like repeated invasions and occupations to give you a sense of national purpose. This means that there actually is something identifiably Korean, and it’s more than a flag. I maintain that Canada and many other countries have no national identity other than a few surfacey details like sports teams and national dishes. (This doesn’t stop wars being waged using those symbols for their respective capitalists, of course.) Korea, on the other hand, has markers of a distinct culture, in its food and fashion on the surface, but also in its family relations, formal respect for authority and spirit of social solidarity. Koreans are proud of this, and even the ones who want to get the hell out of Korea are hardly going to reject it wholesale.

What I’m slowly getting to is that my experience of being a foreigner in Korea is different than being a foreigner in western countries I’ve been to. Most migrants eke out miserable lives on the margins in the hopes that their children will have better lives. But in theory, if you’re the right colour, class and gender, you can pretty much do as you please in London as you can in New York as in Toronto. Society won’t judge you, because society doesn’t share that much between its disparate individuals pursuing their fractured autonomous identities.

A dress in a vintage shop. Colour me good, Ryan Gosling. Colour me good.

In Korea, being a foreigner means working very hard to find all the places that you can consume different, foreign things; being subjected to intense curiosity about your foreign ways; and constantly feeling not just on the outside of the mainstream, as a migrant in any country must feel, but being outside of a thing called ‘Korea’. It’s presented that way by Koreans themselves: Korean people are the first to say that “in Korea, we are X and Y”, in a way I’ve never encountered in another country. Indeed, the existence of the category “foreigner” is the clearest sign of this: it designates some essential otherness that erases differences. There’s Korean, and there’s everything else.

I have the privilege of a Korean girlfriend, who has not only helped me negotiate the more difficult aspects of life here but given me access to Korean society that I wouldn’t have otherwise. We’ve been to weddings, pool halls, noraebang (karaoke to use its Japanese term). So I haven’t been sucked into an expat bubble, exclusively hanging out with foreigners – which would be easy considering I live in the expat neighborhood. It’s also meant I haven’t had to function on my own as a foreigner in a strange society. Moreover, my girlfriend has given me insight into the real functioning of Korean society, beyond the tourist board image of Korea and the polite-and-friendly front that Koreans present to white foreigners. Thanks to her I know about things I don’t hear foreigners or the government talk about, like:

– the intense appearance-ism that leads to plastic surgery, comb-overs and disturbing kpop advice videos
– the shyness that Korean people feel about speaking English, and their shame at lacking English abilities
– the ageism permeating Korean society: women are over the hill at 30 if they’re not married and careered, while middle-aged men are an object of ridicule

My girlfriend’s knowledge of how things really work here, and her ability to confirm or correct my own impressions, has been invaluable.

She counts on her fingers by closing them; I count by opening them.

But despite this, I’m still experiencing what I’m going to call ‘delayed culture shock’, or maybe ‘culture weariness’ is better. There are dozens of blogposts about culture shock in Korea: the poor-quality public toilets, the shared soup dishes, the differing ways of addressing older and younger people. Some of these are written within weeks of foreigners’ arrival here – it’s not hard to figure out how things are different from back home, and the observable differences are quaint and manageable. For example, I don’t really consider a staff person repeating “Welcome to Uniqlo” every 5 minutes when I’m buying underwear that big of a shock. Learning that a caramel macchiato is actually just a latte with caramel syrup was disappointing but not earth-shattering. I just learned to ask for an espresso macchiato.

No, what bothers me about my medium-term adaptation to Korea is that the longer I stay here, the more deeply-rooted things I learn about how Korea works… and the less I like some aspects of it. Maybe I would’ve figured this stuff out earlier had I been single and working in a private school. But newly unemployed, and woozy from cold meds, I had time to contemplate the aspects of life I find difficult. The constant second-hand smoke, the poor selection of vegetarian food and the near-complete ignorance of what that is, the complete lack of public space, to the point where houses are walled to hide gardens from the road and sidewalks are a rarity, notions of public and private health I find baffling – these are wearying. (For example, gym shoes that only see use in the gym are banned from locker room floors, so as not to track dirt in. Yet nobody uses flip-flops in the shower room, despite the obvious threat of fungal infections.)

Just in case you weren’t sure what hipsters are into

It’s also the lack of English. You may ask what kind of an asshole comes to another country and expects them to speak his language, and you’d be right. In my defence, I’m the kind of asshole who believed that 15 years of mandatory, relentless English studying by every Korean person meant actually learning English. But English is a requirement to get into a good university and company job. As a friend put it, it’s a sign of submission, proof that you will be a pliant worker. And there’s no surer way to kill learning than to make it entirely test- and performance-driven. So I don’t blame Koreans in the slightest for not knowing how to speak English: I would do exactly the same in their shoes. If anything, not learning English is a Korean form of passive resistance to the concentration of money and power at the top.

So, while this makes it hard for me to communicate, this is my fault: my Korean skills are below the abysmal level they attained last year, and I feel badly that I can’t communicate beyond smiles and hello with the old women who squat outside my front door every morning. Everyone I know who’s mastered Korean has studied it full-time for at least 6 months. When I’m not struggling to scrape together the $10,000 a minimum rent deposit requires, I’ll do just that.

Most Seoul cafe names are non-sequiturs, but Thanks A Latte nailed it.

Less trivially, as I’ve written before, the intense focus on status – which many expats seem to be oblivious too because they’re not targets of it – is deeply troublesome. And the explicit hierarchies – the expectation that you must do what older people tell you because they’re older, the deference to authority and its flip side, the adherence to group culture, the rigid gender roles – my resistance to these has been growing. Living in Korea as a foreigner has made me aware of how western I am. For that I’m grateful, because going abroad has cured me of some naive, false universalism I held back home – the idea that most people enjoy living the same way.

For instance, I’ve learned that I dislike the “all together” attitude and, instead, really value my privacy. I don’t just mean physical space, though I can’t say I enjoy being squeezed on a sidewalk by slow-moving groups. It’s more the expectation that people must eat, drink, and walk together at all times. For example, my Korean friends tell me that there’s immense social pressure to eat lunch together at the office, which would’ve killed me at my last job. It’s indicative of a social, expressive culture that values reciprocity and feedback… which apparently I don’t.

Kimchi II (Our Fragrance)
Though this is from a DPRK film, there’s a grain of truth in his self-criticism.

As I face the next period of uncertainty, stuck in a country that I’m not sure I want to be in, work visa-less yet unclear where else I could go at the moment… I’m learning that in a crisis, it’s possible to let go of all the politics, caring about people and events happening thousands of miles away that will never affect me personally. On days when I’m wondering how I’ll pay my rent deposit, and stop my greedy landlord from overcharging me for repairs, it’s occurred to me that, if not for Facebook and progressive websites, the broader world wouldn’t even exist for me.

But after all that, there are still things to do: work or looking for it, rent/mortgage, getting to work, paying for groceries and hoping to afford an occasional holiday weekend. So the contradictions – chiefly of having little income when some people have vastly more – don’t go away, and politics comes back, but more personalized and in some ways more scary. There’s no leaving the issue behind at the pub after the demonstration and resuming everyday life. This is everyday life in a society that does not guarantee our means of existence, and it’s hard.

Life isn't fair

I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour

I’ve been quiet about work on this blog, as I’ve been waiting for various papers to be shuffled, ducks to line up, etc. In the interim, I’ve taken on a number of tasks, such as:

– writing a journal article
– turning it into a conference presentation
– assembling paperwork to teach two courses at different universities
– finding a new apartment

Race (Long-distance runner)

Each of those could be broken down into a dozen steps, all at various stages of completion. To give just one example: to get paid for a job at a Korean university, I had to supply my Korean bank account. But despite operating in the most wired country in the world, where you can pay bills simply by swiping your smartphone, the university only deposits wages into 3 banks… none of which were mine. Presumably there’s some monopoly licensing agreement, like when a school only permits certain soft drink brands to be sold on campus. So I had to open a new account just for that university. This is separate from the multiple levels of paperwork required to get permission to teach.

All this is worth it because I’ve decided to stay in Korea for the time being. As much as I miss my friends (and my books) back home, there’s nothing there but part-time contract employment, and even those jobs are being bitterly fought over by underemployed PhDs. In Korea, I’ve learned the importance of networking. I applied for over 100 academic jobs and got nowhere; I got introduced to people, who introduced me to other people, who offered me jobs without an interview. If I wish I’d learned one thing during grad school, it’s that ‘it’s all who you know’.

A steady job (Modern Times)
At some point anyway.

Life is looking a mite more stable than previously. Yes, I’ll be teaching for dismal wages – 40% of western contract salaries, which are already terrible – and I’ll go further into debt to pay Korea’s ridiculous rent deposits, but I’ll be building my CV, networking, writing, teaching.

Except I won’t. My work visa just got turned down. The reason? The university is paying me too little. Korea will only issue visas if you make a minimum of $1.5K a month, and I make far less than that. I made up for it by getting a contract at a different university – every adjunct prof knows the joy of cobbling together contracts to make a wage. Except that if I can’t get a visa for the first one, I can’t get a visa for the second. Unlike other countries, Korea issues visas according to your workplace, not your residence.

It makes little sense (The Purple Ball)

It’s not just that I move in two weeks, and I’ve paid a thousand dollar non-refundable deposit. It’s not just that I have a dozen other pressing tasks already, and I don’t need to be negotiating my status. It’s that Korea says it’s open to the world, and it wants foreign expertise. The government PR department calls it “the Korean dream”: just like America, people with skills can come here and create a life for themselves. But as my Korean friend told me the first week I was here, the Korean government doesn’t actually want foreigners in the country. They’re tolerated for specific jobs, mainly English-teaching. In what no doubt is an attempt to protect ESL teacher wages, they’re willing to fuck over those of us who are willing to be super-exploited because, well, that’s the nature of adjunct work.

So, as of today I’m in debt, jobless and, if I renege on my lease, out a thousand dollars and one very angry landlord, who’s so Confucian that even the real estate agents had to sit quietly while he lectured us. Or, if I stick it out in Korea, I become deeply indebted with no income, all because my university failed to learn the rules before it told me I could have a job. (Naturally I checked the rules too, but the government never mentioned an income requirement.)

Nothing goes as planned (The Matrix III)

I feel like I’ve given a lot to this country, chiefly financially, but also as a foreign ambassador of sorts. Westerners have a mixed reputation here: despite misplaced gratitude for saving the country from Communism, Westerners are often touted on social media as drunks, perverts and thieves. There is truth to this, although no more than for any other group. Yet I try to be consistently polite. I get out of the way of people when they’re barrelling into me, I don’t complain when I request a vegetarian meal and get ignored, and most of all, I try very hard to write and teach what I’m requested to do. For the most part this is appreciated, with one glaring exception: the Immigration Department, who doesn’t give a damn about me or my university, and only cares about enforcing opaque, arbitrary rules that they won’t tell me about beforehand. And my university is willing to offer me work without understanding how to make it legal. In short, coming to Korea has occasioned an enormous amount of personal growth and fulfillment; but professionally, coming to work in Korea was a really bad decision.

There’s a reason why foreign faculty last an average of a single year in Korea before getting fed up and going home. The work rules are just too arbitrary. Don’t agree to work in Korea unless you have everything sorted out beforehand… and be prepared to have the rules changed on you as you go.

Fuckers (Street Angel)

The sounds of summer 2014

Greetings. I thought that quitting my job would open up a vista of opportunities for blogging. And I’ve started a few entries, but the enormity of the subject matter – unemployment, Korean social problems, the Israeli assault on Gaza – has proved overwhelming. So instead, here are some photos of my summer in Korea.

Goraebul Beach

We visited this east coast resort town a week before tourist season, which meant the 8 km long beach and hotel was largely deserted, save for clam pickers. The water was alternately delightfully warm and, on the last day, cramp-inducingly cold. The town itself was being renovated, with a great cycle path and pedestrianized area, but its amenities were restricted to a 7-11 and a few fish restaurants. There wasn’t even a coffee shop, which is strange for Korea.

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The beauty of the beachside location was only marred by the hotel owner’s predilection for 1970s soft rock. I’ve never heard so much Foreigner, Journey and Abba in my life. To make sure we enjoyed it, the owner had installed outdoor speakers by the pool and entrance, and the music was on from 10am-10pm. (I thought it might be a mistake – a mistuned internet radio station – but he had a soft rock hits CD in his minivan too.) Wanting to wake up to waves instead of Carole King, I asked if the outdoor speakers could be turned down, to which the owner’s wife told me – quite apologetically – that it was impossible, and added that only one other person in 8 years had mentioned the music. Koreans tune that sort of thing out. I tried to do the same, particularly when the new age saxophone Christmas hits came on.

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The gorgeous beach. Soft, hot sand, and it really was this empty… except for a military base smack in the middle. We hiked past some desultory barbed wire strung halfway down to the water and noticed there were far fewer footprints. Two soldiers in a guard tower about 100 meters away scoped us with binoculars and then one, on a megaphone, told us this was a restricted area and to get out. We started back the way we came, and his comrade waved at us to keep going, which was friendly enough. Given North Korean submarines have attempted mini-invasions on the east coast before, I see why there are military bases here, but having them in the middle of a civilian beach makes no sense to me. The chances of the North Koreans choosing that exact spot to invade seems remote. The well-built cyclepath goes by the other side of the base, and one evening cycling back I heard the soldiers singing noraebang (karaoke). I can think of worse ways to spend one’s draft time than singing and telling tourists to move along.

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Our hotel cat. The owner said he had fleas and had to stay outside. Once he realized we were friendly he spent a lot of time trying to get into our room. He was old and stiff, with the exception of when he decided he didn’t want my attention and left some marks on my arm.

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The owner setting up our poolside barbeque. My girlfriend explained that barbequing is a woman’s responsibility in Korea – which I found a little surprising, given it’s a rite of manhood in the west. So by providing this service, which included hot coals and chopped meat, he was giving overworked mothers a break, although of course they’d still have to do the roasting themselves.

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This was up at the local government office. As I write, the decomposing body of the Sewol ferry owner/religious cult leader has been found a couple of days ago in a plum field. But he was missing for months, and some aspiring police artist thought this might be helpful.


The home of Samsung, Suwon is also a smallish (over a million) historical centre. I’ve mentioned before on this blog that historical monuments leave me cold – I don’t feel any emotional connection to piles of rock made hundreds of years ago by one ruling group or another. And I’m not a big fan of Korean traditional architecture.

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However, this gate was impressive… if you could get to it. Which, unless you had a car, you couldn’t, as some urban planner had built a ring road around it. Koreans are proud of their heritage – understandably, since the Japanese occupation force spent decades trying to wipe it out – but modernity = cars, which rule the streets here. So I admired the gate from a distance, because it was impossible to walk to it.

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I love the willingness to violate copyright here. If it’s at all marketable, someone will copy it.

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The fact that they have to put up this sign speaks volumes.

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Three of my favourite things.

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Seoul streets


From wikipedia: “Under the influence of Hongik University (Hongdae) which is well known for its prestigious art college, the neighborhood was built on a foundation of artistic souls since the 1990s.”

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Beside Cacaoboom, the premium chocolate shop

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Inside Cacaoboom. It tasted as good as it looks.

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Cafe Object

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The uber-rich come to Hongdae. I drove one of these in Need for Speed, but mine wasn’t metallic blue.

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On the wall of one of the recently-ubiquitous french fry and beer cafes. I’m so happy that particular trend has come to Korea, as I’ve really missed good fries. This restaurant has KakaoTalk animals – for those outside Korea, KakaoTalk is a universally-used messaging app that features chubby dog, cat and – well, I’m not sure what the last one is – mascots.

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And others. This is my favourite. It’s the equivalent to Homer’s “you can stay but I’m leaving.”

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A private school at the Hongdae Homeplus supermarket. He looks as happy as I would be at that age doing complex equations.

Other parts of Seoul

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Near Sookmyung Women’s University. She will never, ever drop the mic.

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A street west of Gwanghwamun palace in central Seoul.

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Near Isu station.

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Bastard wind.

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Shops selling yappy purse dogs are everywhere.

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I’d prefer this as a pet. No idea what it is, but it’s more than an inch long and crawled over my bag.

Words, words, words

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Be original and go local 2018. Something I’m coming to terms with in Korea is the flexibility of meaning. Go local has a tenuous-enough meaning already, but how can an Italian restaurant in Seoul be anything but global/foreign? Or is that somehow going to change in 2018?

For my whole life, I’ve grappled with how to express ideas as precisely as possible, and disputed what I consider to be the wrong meaning of words. But what about words that have no meaning at all? This isn’t babytalk or random machine gibberish: meaningful English phrases appear all over Korea, often as slogans. But they’re divorced from their context and stripped of their significance. English, for non-native speakers, can be decoration.

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Here’s a more sinister example, also from Hongdae. The designer knows what fruit is, but misses the context and hence destroys the song he/she loves. Or more likely, they don’t love it, the words just suggested an image. Spoiler: it’s not about fruit.

For contrast:
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In trust we trust. That only makes sense because it’s a riff on a famous slogan. But of course, it makes no sense at all. I thought it might be a critique of consumerism, showing how circular the worship of money is. But considering that’s one of the most expensive clothing stores in Hanganjin, an already-expensive neighbourhood, I doubt it.

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Here’s some meaning I’m more comfortable with, at Soongsil University.


My neighbourhood has transformed dramatically in the two years I’ve been living there. There was one craft brewery last year; now I count 7. New restaurants and bars keep popping up; I counted 5 under construction within a 5 minute walk of my house. And while the main street used to be filled with flip-flopped foreigners holding red cups and shouting ‘Wooo!’ on weekends, now there’s a steady stream of well-dressed young Korean couples.

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This is entirely unremarkable; a former curry house being gutted and transformed into a gelateria in a matter of weeks.

My girlfriend says Koreans are bored, and coming to the foreigner neighbourhood is cheaper than travelling abroad. And while travelling, Koreans like to eat; in addition to the soon-to-arrive gelateria, there’s…

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… a creperie (the first I’ve seen in Korea). I ordered a nutella crepe and they gave me free blueberries and bananas. In Korea it’s called ‘service’: a freebie designed to attract customers.

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…And a soft ice cream parlour whose offerings include ‘whisky flavour’ (tastes like the real thing) and occasionally emits dry ice.

These are all steps from each other. The neighbourhood is old and crowded, so retail clusters along a few designated strips. But the real estate, hardware and vegetable shops are being replaced with cafes and bars. I can’t say I’m unhappy about that. Itaewon (the neighbourhood right next door) has a bad reputation based on years of drunken US soldiers from the nearby base (literally across the street from the ice cream), but that’s largely ended and it’s become a go-to destination: Saturday night feels like an unending party with beautiful Koreans dressed in impossibly expensive clothing. There will be negative side-effects of course: undoubtedly the demographic of the neighbourhood will shift as older people sell up and younger people move in. But right now rents are still cheaper in HBC/Kyungnidan than the rest of Seoul, and living there means I’m steps away from ice cream and craft beer. I welcome a more exciting class of petty bourgeois.


A flash mob in Hyehwa singing We Go Together from Grease.

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To end on a political note, one of the weekly rallies near City Hall for an independent public inquiry into the Sewol ferry disaster. Months later and thousands of young and old are still attending.

The Korean ferry disaster

Anyone living in South Korea has most likely been triggered by the wall-to-wall coverage of the ferry sinking. It’s being called a national tragedy. Quick update for cave-dwellers: the Sewol was making a routine trip from Incheon in the north of the Korean republic to the traditional resort island of Jeju. It strayed too close to shore, made a sharp turn and hit something, then slid quickly – but not too quickly – into the water, where as of today it remains wholly submerged, while 500 divers retrieve bodies from inside.

Which brings me to the collective trauma currently being inflicted on the South Koreans as they watch the ferry rescue operation unfold. Seoul is quiet: last weekend was warm and sunny, yet sidewalks were still navigable and there were seats in the cafes. It’s considered poor form to laugh too loudly, and no one feels like it anyway.

Unfortunately, the collective grief is shot through with scapegoating. The captain of the ferry left the boat early, as did many of the crew. Although five minutes into the disaster they were told to prepare the passengers for evacuation, the order didn’t get broadcast for another half hour, by which point the boat began seriously listing. It’s easy to look at the crew as a bunch of cowards, intent on saving their own skins rather than helping the passengers. Indeed, the inexplicable order for people to stay below deck in their cabins seems like outright murder, a point that President Park has been quick to capitalize on.

These facts, combined with the heartrending texts as the teens discovered too late they couldn’t leave, have led to some predictable responses. Suicide by a survivor; attacking the rescuers; attacking the governor of Gyeonggi province for making the questionable decision to write some poetry about how difficult the rescue operation is. What drives these responses is how personalized they are: the problem lies with individuals. For grieving parents, this is understandable; for politicians, it’s calculated.

The more level-headed media outlets, international and local, have pointed out major flaws with the ‘evil sailors’ argument.

1) The uncertainty of the crew’s actions. The transcript of the unnamed crew member trying to get instructions from the maritime control station is infuriating – possibly moreso because I’ve had so many conversations like this in Korea, albeit with far less at stake:

Controller: “Please go out and let the passengers wear life jackets and put on more clothing.”

Crew member: “If this ferry evacuates passengers, will you be able to rescue them?”

Controller: “At least make them wear life rings and make them escape.”

Crew member: “If this ferry evacuates passengers, will they be rescued right away?”

Controller: “Don’t let them go bare. At least make them wear life rings and make them escape… We don’t know the situation very well. The captain should make the final decision and decide whether you’re going to evacuate passengers or not.”

Crew member: “I’m not talking about that. I asked, if they evacuate now, can they be rescued right away?”

The crew member tries to get a straight answer on whether it’s safe to evacuate, and the controller either doesn’t know or won’t tell him/her. The captain had similar concerns: he claims not to have ordered an evacuation because he thought the teenagers would get swept out to sea and die of hypothermia. Even if this seems to present a greater chance of survival than staying below deck, it’s the kind of ‘best guess’ thinking of the untrained – and given he wasn’t on the deck at the time of the disaster, and a 26 year old with 6 months’ training making only her second navigation through those waters was – training was clearly lacking. The first ‘bang’ signalled the ship’s listing and may have been cargo shifting in the hold, since the hull appears undamaged. Some couldn’t walk because they were injured by shifting cargo, making the evacuation order irrelevant.

Yet the crew were certified safe, and this points to 2), the much-larger story that President Park is keen to bury with accusations of murder: there are systemic failures at every level of the disaster response and shipping company policy.

a) The ship was only allowed to operate because the Korean government relaxed safety regulations on the import and retooling of old ships in 2009
b) the cargo was not loaded or secured properly, and safety inspections weren’t done
c) the ship may have been travelling too quickly to make up for lost time – spend any time in a Seoul bus or taxi and you’ll know this is standard procedure
d) the ship may have had its stabilizing ballast load emptied to go faster

The crew members were irresponsible, maybe criminally, but so were the ship owners and government regulators. And the amateurish disaster response, which featured different ministries refusing to share information with one another, shows that however criminal the crew were, the bureaucrats were just as unfocused.

The story will develop for a long time to come; the laughter of Seoul’s happy groups of students will be muted as well. (That sounds terribly cliched but it’s true: you can’t walk in a campus, or down a street in a trendy neighbourhood without hearing groups of laughing young adults, often slapping each other.) Whatever the details to follow, the only clear feature of this tragedy so far is that it was a collective failure, not a personal one, sparked by shoddy regulations and genuine instant decision-making. Let’s not rush to judge.

Relative safety

I’ve saved the speculation till last, because it’s subjective and could be entirely irrelevant. But since other commentators haven’t shirked from blaming greed, cowardice or human nature, I’m going to add in my observations of Korean safety rules. First, I’ve seen heavy moving equipment balanced on old wooden beams, I’ve dodged cars and scooters driving on sidewalks, I’ve had to pressure my landlord to buy a cheap smoke alarm, which apparently is not mandatory – safety standards in Korea are not what I’m used to in the west.

Second, there’s the ‘rigid rules, flexible implementation’ model of laws and regulations. Everybody knows that you can argue your way out of a speeding ticket or immigration violation. Bureaucrats often don’t know the rules they’re supposed to enforce. Again, this is something I never realized before I came to Korea. Where I come from, bureaucrats delight in the immovable nature of rules, presumably for the power they provide. Here, things are flexible. That’s not a bad thing: it’s part of the reason Korea can develop and change so rapidly. I’ve seen 10 restaurants open in my small neighbourhood in the last six months, and I highly doubt each went through a planning and environmental assessment process. If you want to get things done quickly, it helps to be flexible. But then you can get things like poorly-secured cargo.

My deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the dead.

Why do older Korean women bump into me?

Koreans are incredibly polite and generous. I am constantly smiled at, greeted in English, and apologized to if people don’t speak English. For example, I lost my passport in a park. By the time I realized this, night had fallen and the park had closed. Yet the security guard loaned me his flashlight, and my girlfriend and I scoured the park. Another security guard saw the beam of light, and shone his light in my face. Then he was very helpful and promised to tell the park cleaners to look for my passport. My girlfriend told me that he was very upset until he saw I was a foreigner. White/foreign privilege in action – if I was brown I wouldn’t get this kind of respect. I can’t say I’m not grateful.
Today’s cafe / designer remade clothes shop.

Yet one of the hardest things to get used to in South Korea is the lack of personal space. It’s a regular occurrence to be bumped into, sometimes hard enough to hurt, on the sidewalk or in the subway. The perpetrator is usually, but not always, older and female. Soon after my arrival in South Korea, I was told this was just something Koreans do, and not to take it personally. Which is good advice, because it happens to everyone. I met a traveller who stayed in Korea one week. He was waiting to get off the subway. The doors opened, and an 아주마 – ajumma, Korean woman over 50 – was waiting on the other side. Subway etiquette – and posters and videos on every train – dictates that she move, but she didn’t. Instead she barrelled into him, smacking him on the chest. Last week I was standing on the subway and someone left a seat directly in front of me. I was in the process of swivelling to sit down when, out of nowhere, a tiny ajumma darted in front of me, pushing me out of the way and sitting down. I gave her the best British glare I could but she simply avoided eye contact.

I’ve done pretty well in not taking the daily pushes and shoves personally, and I’ve since discovered that I’m not alone in confronting this. A quick google search reveals comments from a traveller, an ESL teacher and even the scion of the Underwood family. That is, Koreans tend to cut off other drivers, run down pedestrians by riding motorcycles on the sidewalk, and act antisocially. Commentators put this down to a kin-culture: Koreans are polite to people in their immediate family, school and work-cultures, but there are simply too many people, in too small a space, to be polite to all and sundry. Social graces might have worked in a village, but not the megalopolis of Seoul.

I find this explanation unsatisfying. There are plenty of other large cities where this doesn’t happen; moreover, Korea is a friendly, sociable place where group solidarity is a spoken rule: 형 – hyeong, if I’m not misspelling it, means social affection, a kindness that you automatically extend to strangers. Since foreigners find that ajumma don’t extend it to them, they leap to some Orientalist conclusions about Asians, the upshot being that older women are selfish or irrational.

Like so many racist and sexist ideas, this derives from the viewer seeing confusing behaviour, finding it impossible to explain it, and therefore assuming the behaviour is irrational and rooted in some equally unchanging, inexplicable feature of human society like culture, skin colour or gender (‘They’re all like that.’) This is a way to create ideology: attach false explanations to real phenomena. Sometimes leftists respond by denying the behaviour exists. This is understandable but, in the case of the ajumma, wrong: every Korean I’ve spoken to accepts pushy ajummas as a part of life. I think there’s a better response, which is to provide a materialist explanation for social phenomena, one that roots apparently crazy or rude behaviour in capitalist history.

I am a SWM (straight white male), and I’ve read that we shouldn’t even comment on Korean social behaviour, because we don’t know what we’re observing. This is often true. But what follows is not my story, but that of a Korean friend, who happens to be a journalist, activist and intellectual and who freely admits this is just his theory. Plus I’ve run it by my girlfriend, who thinks it’s a good explanation. That counts as research in my books.
The entrance to a poor Korean market in my neighbourhood, for reasons that will become clear.

Korean capitalism is usually thought of as corporate. After the Korean War ceasefire in 1953, giant corporations, created by ex-collaborators with the Japanese occupation forces, built huge factories with the assistance of a right-wing dictatorship. Capitalism was carefully regulated and nurtured along classic developmentalist lines.

As some have pointed out, this model isn’t really a model, as there’s no such thing as developmentalism, only contingent alliances between the US military and local ruling classes benefiting from the latter’s largesse. But regardless of where the money came from and why, the impact on the ground isn’t in dispute: rapid industrialisation created an army of wage workers and salarymen who sacrificed their lives to the factories.
Down the stairs, turn right

So far, so exploitative; but what were the women doing? Korea was rebuilding its industrial capacity: it had no money for niceties like blocks of flats, supermarkets, or urban planning. Workers lived in giant slums around the factories, and vast unregulated markets sprung up in their alleys and courtyards. While the men worked in factories, the women worked to get the day’s rations at the market.

But capitalism abhors a vacuum: these petty bourgeois local markets weren’t paradises. Local mafia sprung up to vie for lucrative protection income from the merchants. Violence was a daily occurrence, as gangsters and their allies fought for influence. Like all good small business people, the merchants passed the costs along to the consumers. The women became adept at sniffing out a bargain and grabbing it before their neighbours could. They also knew when they were being cheated. Irrational and emotional? On the contrary: they were exhibiting market-rational behaviour of the first order. This was how they survived.
The vista that presents itself inside the tiny market. Note the leaking roof. This used to be very common in Seoul.

That system endured for decades. It would be the height of naïveté to think that people trained to fight for a living would stop once they got flats, cars and public transit. What this suggests is that there are two kinds of Korean capitalism: The first is the highly regulated, heavily capitalized version so feted by political economy textbooks. The second is the informal petty bourgeois cutthroat version that sprang up in the chaos after the ceasefire. One is productive, the other, reproductive. One relies on male workers; the other relies on female workers. Both depended upon each other. And their unwilling subjects form the backbone of today’s government in Korea.

There’s been much talk of the nostalgia for the go-go 1970s that led to Park Geun Hye being elected last year, largely by older voters. Although these voters are conservative, they are not uniform. Older Korean men often have ‘the blood of the nation’ running through their veins. They are proud of their sacrifice for Korea, and are willing to talk in glowing terms about the collective effort that built the nation. However, some older Korean women think their husbands are hopelessly naive. For their formative years, life was a dog-eat-dog competitive struggle. Their conservatism rest on deeply personal trauma from having to survive by fighting the merchants, the gangsters and each other.

So: two kinds of capitalism, corporate and gangster. Two kinds of labour, productive and reproductive. And two kinds of gendered effects of that capitalism, creating different psychologies. That Korean social solidarity survives at all under the onslaught of the Japanese occupation, the war, the American occupation, and the dictatorship is remarkable. That there is a gendered aspect to Korean capitalism that’s left out of the textbooks is perhaps not so surprising. So, the next time an older woman barrels into you in the subway, or appears out of nowhere to take your seat, spare a thought for the hardships that shaped that behaviour. Her rationality points to the hidden history of post-war Korea.

Korean underground hip-hop


Last Friday my girlfriend and I went to Hongdae, the cool, student and artist neighbourhood in central Seoul. I had heard very little of substance about Korean hip-hop: there was Psy, and the impossibly cool people milling around Hongik University dressed in Adidas and shiny things, but not much else. Of course, every K-pop star worth her salt can rap, but I wanted the real thing. Hip-hop is more than a music style, it’s a lifestyle combining art, dance, music and performance. Take it from the 39 year old white guy: before you can really understand the street, you need to watch Wild Style and Style Wars. What does that look like in Seoul? We were about to find out, at 5th Rappers Night.


A caveat: in lieu of analyzing the skill and complexity of the artists, I recorded iphone videos so you can do it yourself… if your Korean skills are better than mine. Occasionally my girlfriend would explain what some of the stage patter or lyrics meant, which added a lot to the experience. But I’m still just gleaning a small piece of what were clearly well-thought-out performances. Music is universal, but I regret not being able to understand the call-and-response, even if I could mouth the phrases phonetically. I can’t even tell you most of the artists’ names, though I welcome IDs in the comment box. (I also regret not having a better recorder – iphones don’t capture bass very well.) That said, it was a great evening. Almost all the performers were high-energy and, I later learned, highly sarcastic and funny. They weren’t imitating; these guys had studied and internalized contemporary hip-hop flow.


It was literally an underground club, two flights down. Like Prism, where I saw the hardcore shows last summer, it was impeccably clean – possibly because the space was rented. The crowd was small, though larger than the metal one. I feel a little badly for Korean subcultures: if you’re not pop, you’re not anything. Though I guess being on the margins is a badge of pride for subcultures.

The first performer always has a tough job at any show, and I thought he did all right:

After this he re-interpreted a traditional Korean folk song, adding a beat and waving a huge Korean flag. Everyone knew the words. I found the overt nationalism a little much, even as I understand why Koreans feel touchy about their national pride. The next duo picked up the pace:

The next group were a little more lyric-based and observational. No, I couldn’t understand the observations. But their diction was clear:

The next act was my second-favourite of the evening, due to the dancing and tiger-striped hoodie. Also, note the backing track includes lyrics. No group had a DJ, despite a band telling us at one point to ‘drop it’. But they rapped anyway over more widely-known tracks, just like early Jamaican DJs.

Hapkie had a strong novelty factor in his favour: he was the biggest Korean man I’d ever seen and inhabited the gangsta role with panache, right down to the sneering:

But despite my healthy appreciation for old-skool gangsta rap (or even terror rap), it wasn’t my thing. He pointed a lot but didn’t dance, and he spent a lot of time directing the crowd to rap. People duly obliged but I felt it was more out of politeness, or just fear that he’d crush us like a bug. He took a girl’s hat, wore it for a while and returned it; the second time he tried to take it, she hung onto it. I thought he could’ve followed the other performers by being less macho and taking the piss out of himself a little. Still: points for style.


The sixth group had been on in the number 2 slot, but returned with a guest, the skinny guy with blonde hair. OK, they’re all skinny. But they had the pugnacious attitude and smooth flow that marks all good MCs:


Rapper 7 was a little less animated but good-natured. He also brought his girl/friend on stage to sing the chorus; she had a fine voice but didn’t rap. Speaking of which: where were the female rappers? I know they exist.



The headliners were the Korean LMFAO. High-energy, smiling, swearing, their music sounded more like party-rave than hip-hop, and they still managed to rap and dance at the same time. My phone ran out of storage space at this point, which is a shame because I would’ve liked to capture their whole performance.



A Korean friend of mine said that his culture is kitsch. Having been erased by the Japanese occupation and then the US-backed military dictatorship, authentic Koreanness is dredged up from the distant past and sold to tourists and Koreans alike as a glorious past, one that says more about the grandiloquent designs of contemporary governments than it does about the social history of the Korean people. But Korean hiphop is not kitsch. It’s a decades-old form that Koreans have assimilated and made their own, in a range of styles. Psy is bringing Korean music to new audiences, but hopefully his greatest impact will be encouraging people to search out the Korean underground. Pop culture is way more than K-pop, and it’s a lot more fun too.


Here is the first break-out act of k-pop: Seo Taji (서태지) and Boys, with Nan Arayo (I know). Before this, I’m reliably informed*, Korean music was countryfied ballads for middle-aged men. In 1992, Seo Taji broke it wide open. Skip ahead to 1.11 to see his skills:

Sure, it’s still imitative: he’s doing MC Hammer. If memory serves, that style of b-boying peaked in 1990. But maybe it took them two years to practice the moves, because that’s some of the best Running Man I’ve ever seen. I feel badly that they have stand there, stockstill and sweating, while the host casually discusses their act. But it shows that hip-hop was present at the birth of k-pop. So the guys at 5th Rappers Night aren’t riding the Hallyu wave, they helped invent it.

* (Anytime I’m informed about Korean culture and don’t reference my sources, it’s my girlfriend, who has reliably informed me that I have to learn about the birth of k-pop if I want to understand Korean music.)