A Foreigner in Korea

081120-F-9104C-006In my life time I’ve visited Korea four times with my first stay coming as a tour of duty with the United States Army beginning in the latter part of 1976 and ending in the waning month of May 1979.  My most recent stay in Korea began when my wife & I arrived in July of 2007 and continues as of this writing.  My other visits occurred in 1995 & 1996.  In 1995 my wife and I stayed with her 2nd oldest brother for a month in their apartment in the Gildong area of Seoul.  In our 1996 visit we stayed three months with her youngest sister, Won Suk, again in the Gildong area of Seoul.  During our stay with her youngest sister, husband, and two grown daughters we stayed in a good size basement apartment and later moved close-by to a 4th story apartment when the previous landlord’s offspring moved in.  Presently we live in a small apartment in Pyeongnae-dong near the Namyangju fire station.  Over those years I observed first hand the many changes occurring in the Korean society, the advancement in their technology, and their strides in improving diplomatic relationships with many other countries.  I do not claim to be a scholar or a self-educated expert, just a casual observer and nothing more than that.

Korea has changed a lot since my first visit in 1976 as an Army PFC (Private First Class) stationed at the Kunsan Air Force Base.  I served as a fire control operator on the Tac Site where our Advanced HAWK Missiles were deployed in defense of the Air Force Base.  President Park, Chung Hee was the leader of Korea at that time and I personally had a lot of respect for him.  He would be assassinated on October 26, 1979, and I remember feeling sad about what happened in my wife’s country, though I believe he could have prevented it by stepping down voluntarily, but I guess he loved Korea too much and felt he was the only man who could do the job.  A deadly miscalculation.

The many changes that have occurred since my first time here in 1976 to the present time is astounding. One of the most noticeable changes  by this foreigner is the evidence  of prosperity I see being enjoyed by the Korean people everywhere.  Anyone who has only an introductory knowledge of the Korean people know the very special relationship Koreans have with food.  As the old saying goes, two Korean friends could be eating a meal together, and if one of the friends died, the other one would not notice until he finished his meal.  I know from my own experience there is a lot of truth in that saying.  I cannot eat a Korean meal without someone insisting I say, “mashi sseo yo,”  not once, but several times during the meal.  As an American we look to see if a person requested a second helping, then we know he really enjoyed his food.  It is common for an American to praise the food upon asking for a second helping by saying, “please pass those good tastin’ biscuits , I’ve go to have a couple more.”  When food and money are in abundance, guess what happens?  If you guessed an increased number of overweight people, you’re right.

Another sign of prosperity is the larger number of  young, overweight Koreans I see out and about on the streets of Seoul.  In the 70’s I hardly ever saw an overweight person, especially in the youth of the nation.  Today, overweight Koreans are quite numerous; not near as numerous as in the United States, but a good number.  I see heavy people on Korean TV regularly and see TV shows that show overweight Koreans attending weight-reducing programs to get in shape and attempt to attain the emaciated look now popular in the Hollywood crowd and throughout the global community.  As for me I see the increased number of overweight Koreans as nothing more that one of the signs of prosperity where people now have the extra cash to purchase ice cream, pastries, pizza, fried chicken, snack foods, and other fast foods that heretofore was unaffordable and/or unavailable.  We can cry over the fact that these fattening foods are harmful and lead to individuals becoming overweight, but without prosperity and improved trading relationships with other nations, the opportunity for obesity, if you want to call it opportunity, would not be there.  All countries who are prosperous must adjust to their prosperity after experiencing the unattended consequences that accompany it, like more overweight people and the health problems that go with it.

Another stark change in Korea is seeing men carry babies, push strollers, and accept more of the feminine roles in society and marriage.  Looking out my apartment window I sometime notice women going to work while some of their husbands stay home and keep the home fires burning.  I can’t remember ever seeing men do those things in the 70’s.  Even in magazine covers of the 70’s the men were shown in business suits carrying out the important task of providing for the family and taking care of business.  The domestic duties were left to the wife who stayed home with all the responsibility of raising the children, cooking, and managing the household budget.  Along the same lines is that couples today show far more affection for each other in public than ever before. It is still much less than one sees back home in the United States or in Europe, but the difference is stark compared to the past.  When it comes to married couples visiting the parks or hiking up a mountain trail, I still see many young husband leading the pack with his wife lagging behind with a child or two bringing up the rear.  That’s still typical of how it use to be in the 70’s.

There has been a big change in automobiles.  In the late 70s all the cars were small and fragile compared to the SUVs, vans, and sedans of today.  Some car enthusiasts are personalizing their cars with mag wheels, special paint jobs, scoops, dual exhausts, chrome exhaust tips, grille bars, etc.  all these things take extra money and require a prosperous country.  Now that more people can afford to buy cars, traffic jams are part and parcel of a prosperous country.  While roadways have been widened and improved, and more roads have been built, the number of cars in Seoul have surpassed the capacity of the road system to support it.  During Seollal it took twice as long to travel home as during normal traffic days.  Even then the roadways are too often jammed packed and running over.  Another sign of prosperity.

Korea is the most wired nation in the global community.  Broadband is available to almost everybody in Korea if they choose to purchase the service.  Ninety-three percent of the Korean population have cell phones.  I cannot ride the bus or take the subway without hearing someone talk on their cell phone or see a young person playing a video game or listening to music via ear phones on their cell phone.  Even when I go for a walk, I can’t take to many steps before I see or hear someone talking on their cell phone.  Sometimes I can hear someone talking on their cell phone several blocks away before I can actually see them.  When I see a movie or watch a Korean Drama, I expect to see a heated cell phone conversation between an antagonist and the star within 15 minutes of the opening scene.  The cell phone has become a very important part of the Korean psychic & a sign of prosperity.

That reminds me of a news story I read during the beginning stages of the Afghan war that’s still going on.  It has nothing to do with this blog other than I find this story so amusing to me.  An Afghan citizen was returning to his home town in Southern Afghanistan from Pakistan in order to setup a resistance movement to the the Taliban still in power there.  Traveling by horse the man found himself intercepted by the Taliban and soon to be surrounded.  With no means of escape and desperate, he took out his cell phone and attempted to call in an American air strike as that was his only chance to survive his impossible situation.  His attempt failed and the Taliban executed him.   Being aware that he was a Muslim like them, the Taliban sent his corpse and severed head back to his family in Pakistan for burial.  The contrast of him riding a horse in one of the most backward countries in the world and at the same time using the advance technology of a cell phone to attempt to call in an air strike appealed to my sense of the ludicrous.

Koreans are still very much Korean, but the global culture with its mass communication engine working 24/7 is making inroads into shaping not only the Korean youth but the young people all over the world into a juggernaut of sameness shaped by a pop culture of heroes who are holograms, images without substance.  As a part of life’s ebb & flow, these present trends of green and image will fade away into the abyss of forgotten history.  Who knows what comes next.  We will just have to wait and see what the future holds for us.  The problem with popular trends is that they can do a lot of damage before they move on; After they move on, the clean-up of the debris field is often messy and costly.  garland dale

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