A President's Reflections

Lost in Translation II

Posted on February 15, 2012

It is 3 AM here in Seoul and I am most emphatically on NH time still.  The goods news is that it is 1 PM back in Manchester and I can email and skype and do work, though the 14 hour time difference is weird.  Like living in a parallel universe.

Last night was a working dinner with our SKU counterparts, reviewing our program and discussing a renewal of our partnership agreement.  Later this morning we head off to spend the day on campus at the graduation ceremonies.  Apparently I  have to do a costume change when I receive the honorary degree, starting in SKU robes and then switching into SNHU robes backstage at some point.  Little odd, I know.  Looking forward to meeting our graduates when we do a smaller, additional event for them.  The SKU staff overseeing our program is doing an excellent job and care deeply about quality and the students, as the recent NEASC review affirmed.  However, I get so confused.  Is everyonehere named Park, Kim, or Lee?  If you yell for Professor Kim, I bet 40 to 50 people would come running.  Really.

Yesterday we had the first morning to ourselves, so Vicky Teo and I signed up for a four-hour tour of the city.  Seoul is full of hills (with mountains just to north — a good thing given their crazy neighbors) and divided by the Han River.  North of the river is old Seoul, full of cultural and historical attractions and quaint old neighborhoods.  To the south is the sprawling new city, more upscale and stylish, but less charming.  Like so many Asian cities riding the boom of economic growth, technology, and newfound swagger, Seoul has the kind of bold architecture and urban renewal zeal that is so lacking in most American cities (with Chicago, New York, and LA as notable exceptions).  Yet much of the city still has that dense, warren-like, and tumbling down feel that characterize Hong Kong and Tokyo and Shanghai.  That’s part of the drama, the tension between those two worlds.  Right around the corner from some glass and steel Blade Runner concoction you can wander down a narrow  market street with straw baskets of fish set out as they were hundreds of years ago.

Our tour started at the Jogyesa Buddhist Temple in the center of the city.  The temple was founded in 1396 (most of our forebears spent their days wondering how to get rid of their body lice those days — Asia really was so far ahead of Europe), though today’s temple was built in the early 20th C.  The temple itself was full of devoted worshippers in prayer and I made a small donation of a few coins to pray for Bob Vachon’s love life.  Three enormous gold Bhuddas sat inside the temple itself, one being the largest of its kind in Asia.  I take our guide’s word on this, but now having visited temples all over the region I’m pretty sure I have heard that said of every single Buddha I’ve seen. 

My favorite was the little fat smiling rendition of Buddha as a child.  Seems like Buddhism has more room for this kind of joy and delight than most religions.  Remember a 1960s popular poster of Jesus laughing?  Don’t see that very much, but Buddhism seems to make room for it.  I think laughter is the ultimate “grounding” impulse — it means not taking things too seriously, even oneself — and that doesn’t work very well for many religions.

As is so often true, nature trumps man here and there was something moving about the 500-year-old pine tree on the temple grounds, considered sacred, and the equally old scholars tree.  People hug the latter to feed their intelligence.  Vicky tried it and I swear she walked away speaking fluent Chinese.  Wait a minute.  She is Chinese.  Maybe it was German. 

We went from the temple to Changdeok Palace, one of the fiva palace complexes of the Joseon Dynasty (founded in 1392) and a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Smaller than the more famous Gyeingbok Palace, but widely considered more beautiful and human in scale, it was nearly deserted when we arrived.  It has a Secret Garden and is beautifully landscaped, including a 750-year-old Juniper tree.  I love the aesthetic of the palaces, though prefer the simpler, more unadorned homes on the edge of the compound.  Only three kinds of building could have colored roofs and walls during the dynasty: palaces, temples, and shrines.  There was so much that was ingenuous about these buildings.  They had a version of radiant floor hear with ducts that run under the building and chimneys far removed to aid against fire.  The grounds are always sand and gravel of a light color to reflect more light into the buildings.  Summer sleeping quarters had no foundation underneath to aid ventilation.

Seeing the throne room, you could argue that it was good to be emperor.  Not so really.  From what I could tell they were always being assasinated, poisoned, or just dying from being so overweight and out of shape (they were always carried, too heavenly for their feet to touch ground).  Palace doctors would check their feces every day to gauge their health (Korea’s “Dirtiest Jobs,” the ancient edition) and they never slept in the same room twice for fear of assassination.  The story of the last emperor and his queen, deposed by the invading Japanese (who ourguide dubbed “frenemies”), was sad and movie material, with love, loss, and displacement the major themes.

But enough about cultural sites, let’s talk food.  I’ve had more kimchi in the last 36 hours than I’ve had in the last two years and it is delicious.  I lean towards the older, more fermented and thus more sour versions.  The annual making of a year’s supply of kimchis still an important family tradition in Korea and houses typically have two refrigerators: one for regular food and a special one for kimchi.  There is even kimchi flavored chocolate, though everyone seemed to agree it was a bad idea.

Vicky and I went a little hole in the wall joint that makes only one dish: ginseng chicken.  Amazing.  This is Korean penicillin(Vicky says the locals call it Korean viagra — I’ll wisely leave that one untouched) and maybe the best chicken soup I’ve ever had.  It consists of a small whole chicken stuffed with rice and ginseng and then cooked in a broth.  One sort of pulls the chicken apart, dispensing of bones and unsavory parts into a supplied container  (though I seemed to have more of those than my fellow eaters who were tearing into every part of the chicken).  The chicken was so flavorful and the soup both familiar and also different (given the ginseng).  A highlight of the trip.

Our business dinner was hosted by SKU at a local Korean barbecue restaurant (do I need to call it Korean if it is in Korea?) where we started with….yup, you guessed it, kimchi (three varieties).  Meat was cooked communally in the middle of the table and was followed by cold noodle soup.  The soup is bland, but you punch it up with hot mustard.  Our hosts looked a bit wide-eyed as I added a healthy dollop to my noodles, but it was fine until the end when the small remaining broth has a high concentration of eye-watering, runny-nose inducing mustard.  It hurt so, so good.

I’ll end with a few observed and sometimes quirky details:

As I noted elsewhere, Korea is the land of newfangled and often very cool gadgets, but a control panel out of the Starship Enterprise controls everything in my room: curtains, lights, phone, temperature.  Really, it is pretty easy to open curtains manually, as well as hitting the little up and down button for the thermostat.  Groping around in the middle night I have inadvertently turned all my lights on at once (rendering myself momentarily blind), had my curtains going back and forth like an insane theater, and apparently informed the maid not to clean my room or disturb me.  Sometimes technology just makes things harder.

If you need any reminder of the still large US military presence here, surfing the local channels invariably brings you to AFN, the Armed Forces Network, where one sees add for PTSD treatment, deployment assistance, and the GI Bill. 

Because I am up at odd hours, I’ve actuallybeen better about working out (what else is there to do at 5:30 AM?).  The very good hotel gym still has those odd 1950’s style belts one puts around their butts.  The belt vibrates, ostensibly vibrating or breaking down one’s fat.  I thought those were widely discredited, but that news hasn’t hit Korea.  Lots of people using it.  Also using these  platforms into which one straps oneself and that help you hang upside down for a while.  Not sure what those do beyond giving one a glimpse into the life of bats.  Also, while there are lots of ellepticals and bikes and whatnot, all the Koreans coming in use treadmills and walk, never really breaking into a run or even jog.  Not sure what that’s about.

Korean cars are taking the American and European market by storm and while they dominate here, many of the models that sell like hotcakes in the US are looked down upon in Korea.  A car like the Elantra, for example, has lousy sales numbers in Korea.  Interesting how culture shapes consumer behavior so strongly.  Even in matters of color.  Where as Japanese aesthetic favors black and white, Chinese red and gold, the Koreans have a thing for blues and greens (note the Korean Air colors).  Our guide explains, perhaps dubiously: the Japanese see the world in rigid ways, thus black and white; Chinese love status and money, thus red and gold; and we love nature, thus blue and green.  And Americans?  I forgot to ask her.

In case you thought Jeremy Linn mania is restricted to New York Knick fans, all of Asia seems to be going wild for him.  Especially in Taiwan, but the Asian press is filled with Linmania stories.  Pretty neat.

A final note.  Manyof the  places we visit seem to be racing past the US.  Asian airports make some of ours look third world.  New, daring architecture in places like the Gulf, Asia, and still in Europe seem bold, assertive statements of sophistication and economic swagger.  Places like Singapore and Korea are investing in higher education, research, and new technology as we cut support for higher ed and slip further behind in the number of citizens with college degrees.  It shocks many to discover that countries like France now allow much more social mobility than hapens in the US (the bedrock of the American Dream, right?).

Yet I continue to run into people who dream of coming to the United States, especially if they had a taste of it.  In the last year, I’ve met Brits, Italians, and Saudis who yearn to live in the US.  They all seem to be prospering in their home countries and seem to have a fairly realistic sense of the challenges of American life (little safety net; gun-toting crazies — visit the NH state house, for example; obliviousness to the needs of the poor), yet they are like the young Korean with whom I was chatting.  He had attended high school in the US and I asked him if he could ever imagine living their again.  He practically teared up and sighed, “It is my dream.”

I think the draw is really the sense of personal liberty.  So many of the young people I meet live in cultures that are highly constrained.  Often by class, but also by clan.  Constant dinners with family, a strict sense of honor or bringing shame through one’s decisions, constraints on behaviors running from fashion to drink to sexual and romantic behavior.  One of our students, from North Africa, said to me, “For everyone, we live within strict rules, but as woman it will be doubly worse for me.  Here [in the US], I never ask.  I do what I feel like doing!”  Another person lives in a society where connections are the key to professional success, what Saudis call “wasta,” and there is little real meritocracy.  He explained, “I know that no matter how good I am at my job, in my company the sons and the cousins will always be the managers and I will rise only so far.  No matter how good I am and bad they might be.”  Connections matter in the US, but even in modern Korea the clan and the family lead to inefficiency, lack of competition, corruption, and corporate cartels.  I have to say that the sense of personal liberty that runs particularly deep in place like NH remains a distinctly American trait, for good and bad.

As always, it takes some time away from home to remind oneself what is that we cherish about the place.

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