Sunday, June 19, 2011

Territorial Pissings

Hmm, so my last blog post was about 10 weeks ago? Sorry, I've been busy. Strangely, 10 weeks is also the length of the quarters in the online classes I've been taking. Coincidence? It's funny the things that make you notice the passage of time. For me, it's my t-shirt collection. Usually I keep two collections of t-shirts on hand: the Good T-shirts, which are reserved for situations in which people might see me and expect me to be wearing a clean and reasonably well-maintained shirt, and the Knockin' Around T-shirts, which are reserved for exercise, manual labor, sleeping and other occasions that are somewhat likely to ruin a Good T-shirt. When a Good T-shirt becomes too obviously worn, stretched or stained to stay in the Good T-shirt pile, it moves to the lower strata with the Knockin' Around T-shirts. I've noticed lately that several of my shirts from grad school have been relegated to the Knockin' Around pile, which has reminded me that it's been five years since I finished grad school. The thing about t-shirts is, since they tend to be distinctive and a lot of mine can be traced to specific institutions (schools, freebies from old jobs, souvenirs, favorite barbecue restaurants) they're fairly easy to date. Unfortunately, they're also a constant reminder of what's in the past and what's slowly coming unraveled by time. Kind of like having an archaeological record of a lost civilization in your closet. Sigh...

So what have I been up to? Work, mostly. Paying bills. Trying to plan my winter vacation (which currently involves browsing some guidebooks for Malaysia and Thailand and trying to figure out how many days of travel and how many plane tickets my expected savings will allow). Cursing myself for having frequent flyer miles on three different airlines, all in amounts that I can't use. Saving money, spending money, paying down ten years of debts and occasionally figuring out how to survive for two weeks on 50,000 won. (It's doable if you don't leave the house and have a fair amount of food from Costco packed away in the freezer. Getting paid only once a month can be a real bitch sometimes.) The good news is, I'm solvent, my balance sheet looks better every month and I'm enjoying myself. On to the specifics...

First, let me introduce you to my new baby...

28-85mm macro zoom, not a one or a zero in sight
I picked her up in the Chungmuro district in Seoul during the weekend of the Lotus Lantern Festival celebrating Buddha's Birthday. I had brought an old Yashica manual camera with me to Korea, and at some point last year when it was malfunctioning I checked out an FM2 body at one of the camera shops in Daegu and instantly decided I had to have one. Why buy an upgraded used 35mm camera in this digital age, you ask? Well, first and foremost it was about half the price of a comparable Nikon D5100 kit and the pictures are just as good, or better. Second, after two or three years of photo classes in undergrad and an MFA concentrating in cinematography, I'm used to shooting on film. No use letting all that education go to waste. On top of that I enjoy shooting a roll of color slide film or black and white negative now and again, and no matter what you say about the "Hipstamatic" program on your iPhone, there's no substitute for the real thing when it comes to certain film stocks. Above and beyond that, it's all nostalgia on my part. But you can pick up manual focus lenses for pretty cheap and Nikon isn't making any more FM2 bodies, so I figured it was worth investing in one now before they get any rarer. If I can save up enough money I might invest in something like a D5100 as a going away (or would that be coming back?) present when I finish this job, but that's still a ways off in the future.

In addition to the trip to Seoul for the Lotus Lantern Festival (which was tons of fun, by the way... Buddhists really know how to party!) I went on a trip sponsored by EPIK to the Korean islands of Ulleungdo and Dokdo. What is Dokdo, you ask? (What follows is a shorter version of a long rant that was only posted for about a day, so if it seems like stuff is missing, don't panic, it's intentional.) Dokdo is a group of two disputed islands in the Sea of Japan (whoops, I mean "East Sea") roughly halfway between Korea and Japan. Korea says the islands are part of Korea, Japan says they're part of Japan. You can look it on Wikipedia under "Liancourt Rocks", or read this article from the International Herald-Tribune, if you want some more background information. Honestly, I find the whole dispute really silly. But despite the fact that these rocks are essentially meaningless in any practical sense, they have a cult-like following in Korea as a symbol of national pride. There's a picture of Dokdo in the administrative office in my school. There are models of Dokdo in train stations and booths dedicated to Dokdo at festivals around the country. In 2005, when the prefecture in Japan that claims Dokdo as part of its administrative territory declared a 100th anniversary celebration for their claim on the rocks, Koreans reacted with appropriate, rational, level-headed restraint: protesters beheaded pheasants (the Japanese national bird) in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, one man set himself on fire and a mother and son cut off their own fingers. In fact, I'm not sure if I should even be talking about this issue for fear of offending my co-workers or the higher-ups at EPIK. (Ha ha ha, good thing this blog is anonymous. Sure, I re-post it to my Facebook page, so my co-workers who are my Facebook friends can read it there with my name emblazoned on it, but still... blessed anonymity, hooray!)

Koreans seem to think that if they bring foreign teachers to this island and spend a few days presenting lectures and distributing Dokdo propaganda it will inspire the teachers to spread the word on how Dokdo is clearly--I mean you can barely see the islands from Ulleungdo on an unusually clear day, what more evidence do you need?--part of Korea. I wanted the free trip to Ulleungdo, and getting paid to skip school seemed like a stupid thing to turn down, so I signed up for the trip to see what I might learn. What I learned, in a nutshell, is that the Dokdo issue is pointless at best and needlessly destructive at worst. First and foremost, the islands are uninhabited (bordering on uninhabitable) and have been for most of their history, except when people have been occupying them to try to claim them for Korea or Japan. The status of Dokdo could change the territorial boundary between Japan and Korea in the East Sea, but right now there are no actual disputes of substance regarding fishing or mineral rights in that area. Second, the only people in Japan that care about Dokdo are a few old conservative coots that haven't figured out Japan lost World War II yet, and  in my experience I've found that types like that are best ignored. Japan probably wouldn't care about Dokdo at all if they didn't have ongoing disputes with Russia and China over islands that are much more important to them. Koreans take a lot of pride in how these islands are "our land" and the easternmost boundary of Korea, but to me that all seems like a lot of insubstantial nationalist posturing. A country should take pride in its history, culture and accomplishments, and by those measures Korea has plenty to be proud of without concerning itself with rocks in the ocean.

To me, it seems like the most substantial element of the Dokdo conflict is Korea's continuing grudge against Japan, and I don't see grudges as something that should be a point of national pride. Yes, Japan did a lot of bad things in Korea (and China, and Malaysia, and numerous other places) during the colonial period prior to World War II, and yes, there have been other military conflicts with the Japanese going back to antiquity. Yes, the United States has probably had a more sympathetic ear to Japan over the years, including when the peace agreement that ended World War II and left the status of the island in dispute was drawn up. But guys, that was 65 years ago. The Japanese government that colonized Korea doesn't exist today, and the government that does exist is a peaceful, democratic one. Whatever dissonance exists in the Korean mind over their inability to shake off Japan themselves and punish them for colonizing Korea isn't a thing to be celebrated. Revenge is an ultimately empty and pointless pursuit. (And you know where I learned that from? Korean movies.)

As a modern, democratic state, I think Korea has a responsibility not to perpetuate old grudges with other peaceful, democratic nations. However the Korean people feel about Dokdo or the Japanese, the Korean government could be politely and diplomatically silent about the issue. Instead they've built a museum and an observatory on Ulleungdo and pay every year to bring foreign teachers to the island to beg for understanding. It's pathetic to see a country so enslaved by the darkest parts of its history. I've occasionally heard my students or other Koreans say rude things about Japan and I mostly laughed them off. I've probably even slipped up and said a few joking things about the Japanese that I wouldn't attempt to defend out of context. One of our orientation speakers, who was definitely too young to remember World War II, was nice enough to explain exactly why he hates Japan, even though he has Japanese friends. Most of the time I've been here I've compared it to the attitude of Red Sox fans towards Yankees fans and vice-versa. Sure, they hate each other, quite fiercely and vocally even, but I don't know a Sox fan that wouldn't save a Yankees fan if he were drowning. And I don't think Korean people really hate the Japanese--they watch Japanese cartoons, sent aid to Japan after the earthquake and tsunami, and are generally nice to any foreign visitors who come to Korea, no matter where they're from. I think they've just repeated it to themselves so many times that they've convinced themselves that they hate Japan, and worse, that it's an acceptable part of being a proud Korean. Which is why it's so vexing to me to see Koreans get so worked up over this Dokdo non-issue. Today, whenever I see Dokdo in a poster or a train station, I don't see the friendly, compassionate side of Koreans, who are so generous and kind that they would give you the shirt off their back if you needed one, that I see every day. Instead I see this unjustifiable, irrational, persistent grudge they have against another peaceful, generous and friendly group of people. I used to think Dokdo was just one of those Korean idiosyncrasies--like opening windows in the middle of winter for fresh air--that I would never really sympathize with but could learn to tolerate. Now that I understand more about Dokdo, it just makes me sad to see people embracing such a pointless grudge as a point of national pride.

I'm sure the United States probably has some elements of our foreign worldview as ridiculous as the Dokdo issue. I mean, we still have out ridiculous grudge against Cuba, even though they haven't done anything to anyone (other than Cuban citizens) for years. If Cuba suddenly annexed Puerto Rico one day I'm sure there would be a war, but then again there are people in Puerto Rico who might have some things to say about the development, unlike Dokdo. We've got this wholly ridiculous, xenophobic anti-Muslim thing going on right now back home that I'm extremely ashamed of, but it's not like the US government is building a "Muslims Did It" museum at Ground Zero. Admittedly if Afghanistan tried and convicted Terry Jones in absentia for burning a Koran and forcibly extradited him to Kabul for execution, I'm sure we might do something about it even if we were a little bit sympathetic. (That's probably the most apt comparison I was able to come up with, since that's another issue dominated by extremists and media hysteria that's based on an entirely inconsequential act.) But then again, Terry Jones is a US citizen so we have some responsibility to protect the idiot from himself. And sure, we're bombing Libya on pretty thin pretexts (I'm gonna blame that one on Britain and France, though) and we're supporting a regime in Bahrain that's killing its own people. But I don't think we're necessarily proud of all of that stuff. Well, I'm not, at any rate.

Anyway, a great man once said, "Never discuss politics or religion with your friends," so I've probably said too much already. Like I said, my goal with this post isn't to offend my Korean friends or co-workers, and I am grateful for the trip and the days off from school that I got from EPIK. But EPIK clearly thought they had a responsibility to show Dokdo to foreigners, so I feel I have a responsibility to share my reactions with other people, even though the trip didn't quite have the intended effect on my opinion. I'll shut up now.

Right, the trip. Ulleungdo was wonderful, even though the high-speed ferry on the way there should be rechristened "The Vomit Comet." It's a beautiful, peaceful little island, just large enough not to feel claustrophobic but not so big as to not feel like an exotic getaway. We ate a lot of excellent food and did a lot of hiking on some beautiful walking paths, including an especially dramatic section that follows the lower edge of cliffs along the ocean on the southeast edge of the island. The trip to Dokdo, on the other hand... We took a ferry there, we disembarked onto a concrete boat launch platform (never actually set foot on any natural surface of Dokdo), we wandered around for 10 or 20 minutes and took some pictures, we saw some seagulls and rocks, we got some free postcards and then we got back on the boat. It wasn't exactly how they described the pilgrimage to Mecca on the travel brochure. If you're a foreigner, under no circumstances should you ever pay to go there. (Ulleungdo, on the other hand, is worth every penny.) If you're a Korean, and you're convinced that seeing a Korean rock in the middle of an uncaring ocean will give you some sort of important swelling of national pride, well, I guess it's your money.

Our Rock
By the time we arrived at the Dokdo Museum and Observatory at Ulleungdo on the final day, I was so disenchanted with the whole non-issue of Dokdo that I just wanted to leave and never come anywhere near Dokdo again. It's sad that an island as beautiful as Ulleungdo has to be saddled with this spiteful, pointless political issue that has nothing to do with anything but a line on the map and some unresolved history. Forgiveness is a beautiful, natural thing. Grudges are ugly. Ulleungdo would be a much nicer place if Dokdo sank into the East Sea. But then again I suppose the people who aren't ready to accept history and move on would find some other line in the water to draw if they didn't have a rock to plant a flag on.

The absolute worst thing about the trip was trying to put a good face on it when I got back to school the next day. I still felt pretty genuinely sick and angry about the absurdity of the whole thing, but I didn't want to offend any of my co-workers by saying that right off the bat. Mostly I just repeated, "Ulleungdo was wonderful," when asked about it, and pertinently left it at that. A couple teachers told me how they had tried to go to Dokdo on trips to Ulleungdo and weren't able to land because of the weather, and how lucky I was to actually land there. I didn't feel lucky. I felt like a schmuck that had been suckered into joining a fight he didn't understand and was getting congratulated for knocking some other poor schmuck's teeth out. It didn't feel good.

Ugh. Enough about Dokdo. Remind me to never go anywhere disputed again. Except maybe Taiwan. Taiwan was nice and they seem to be dealing pretty well with the whole not-being-officially-recognized-as-a-state thing. I would go back to Taiwan. Good food, too. Hooray for Taiwan.

In positive travel news, over the Korean version of Memorial Day I took a much nicer trip up to some places in Gangwondo, namely Samcheok and Donghae. I guess car-owning Seoulites are more widely knowledgeable of the beaches and good times to be had on Korea's upper east coast, but it's a six- to eight hour train trip from my province (whereas Seoul is about two and a half hours from my province via KTX) so people where I live don't travel up there very often. (People where I live all flock to Haeundae Beach in Busan. Even though there are multiple beaches in Busan, everybody goes to Haeundae. Dynamic Korea.) Somewhat ironically, I had also gone to Haeundae before leaving for Gangwondo because I wanted to see the sand festival there. I spend a few good hours taking pictures and visiting the Busan aquarium, which is awesome, so I have no regrets. In Gangwondo I visited several beautiful sandy, uncrowded beaches, hiked through the most amazingly vast cave system I've ever seen (Hwaseongul caves, outside Samcheok) and ate some really good scallops and shellfish with friends at a restaurant along the beach in Donghae. It's kind of funny to me that eastern Korea has such amazing beaches and yet you can go to them on Memorial Day weekend and they're still half-empty. Oh well, more beach for me. Don't come! It's awful and it takes to long to get there! (Heh heh.)

So that's my life. Summer quarter starts next week, so I guess I'll regale you again around August 31st with takes of seducing Russian track stars from the Daegu IAAF Track & Field World Championships. Na zdorovie!

When I was an alien... Cultures weren't opinions...

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