Wednesday, May 26, 2010 0 comments

RASKB lecture - Superstitions and Perceptions of Early Korean-Western Relations

It was good to see that I wasn't the only one looking forward to the lecture. A highly anticipated night, as per the RASKB website:
May 25, 2010 RAS Lecture Meeting
Tuesday / 화요일 Mr. Robert Neff
7:30 p.m. 2nd floor, Residents’ Lounge
Somerset Palace, Seoul
Superstitions and Perceptions of Early Korean-Western Relations
Following the opening of Korea to the West in 1882, Westerners entered Korea for various reasons. Some came as diplomats, representing and protecting their countries’ interests, while others came as advisors to the Korean government. There were merchants seeking business opportunities and many missionaries who provided altruistic services such as education and medicine all in the name of their religion. Some came to Korea seeking a new beginning; hoping to hide their unsavory past. To all of these groups, Korea was a newly-found frontier and an undiscovered market for what they had to offer.
In this lecture we will talk about the interaction between these early Westerners and their Korean hosts by examining Korean superstitions and the perceptions and misperceptions of the Westerners and Koreans.
The introduction of various Western technologies such as the railroad, streetcars and electricity were all, in the beginning, viewed with suspicion and fear by some of the more superstitious Korean people. Often these first encounters with these new technologies provided us with humorous anecdotes but occasionally ended in violence. The Westerners tended to either look upon these Korean superstitions as quaint or with disdain but were not above using them for their own gain as will be shown in the lecture.
Perception, or perhaps misperception, was also a factor in early Korean-Western relations. Sometimes misperceptions led to awkward and embarrassing encounters such as young Korean boys mistaken for bold girls or a young American male missionary mistaken for a young pretty lady. Other times these misperceptions led to violence as during the Baby Riots which will be discussed in detail during the lecture.
Robert Neff is a freelance writer and historical researcher specializing in Korean history during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He first came to Korea with the military over two decades ago and has a deep appreciation for Korean culture and its history. He is the co-author of Korea Through Western Eyes as well as Westerner’s Life in Korea and his writings have appeared in various newspapers, magazines and books including Christian Science Monitor, Asia Times, Morning Calm, Korea Witness, Royal Asiatic Society – Transactions, Korea Times, Korea Herald and Jeju Weekly.
Despite an unfortunate technical difficulty that resulted in Neff's powerpoint not being available to view, the topic was juicy and plenty interesting. Essentially an off-shoot of his most recent book Neff touched on some rather sensitive sentiments from a hundred years ago.

Of dutiful mention was foreign men's constant confusion over handsome young men and the gentler sex. Time after time, rugged travelers happened upon delicate flowers of the Orient who were indeed not graceful members of the opposite sex but in fact fabulously well groomed young men with excellent bone structures. We all had a laugh; especially at the perception on the opposite side of the spectrum. Neff tells of a half balding, mustachioed George Heber Jones, his trek across the Taedong River and subsequent encounter with a uncomfortably beckoning 아저씨 that had either had to much to drink too early in the day or was seriously misinformed of the standards of foreign women. It seems Jones was quite possibly mistaken for a young foreign female...for some reason.

To sum up the rest of the lecture, there was a lot of talk of exposed breasts, baby eating and naked children. In the author's defense, however, these were simple observations made a hundred years ago. The rather unflattering comments were from a time past and are clearly not meant in a pejorative way in modern times. As one commenter brought up, many of these misconceptions were not exclusive to Korea and no insinuation should be made of disrespect.

The lecture was full of other interesting and head scratching observations of times past. Early on in the questioning, Neff referred to himself as simply a "gossip columnist from a hundred years ago", which I will now affectionately affix to his work from now on. In addition to meeting Jennifer of Bomb English fame and Matt from Gusts of Popular Feeling, rubbing elbows with some of Korea's most well respected journalists, writers and historians is not a bad way to spend a Tuesday night in Seoul. If you missed it, shame on you.

Some other quick notes (kind reader feel free to leave corrections):
  • The first Westerners to set foot in Korea were likely some Portuguese that accompanied the Japanese during the Imjin War.
  • The Imo Revolt of 1882 was placated by the end of an especially long dry-spell throughout the country. It was believed that the death of the Japanese solved the drought.
  • Prior to 1910s, there were only three well-documented international relationships consisting of Western men and Korean women. They include Percival Lowell, Dr. Charles Power, and an unnamed (rather, disputed) French diplomat whose lover tragically came back to Korea only to commit suicide years later. Was there not a mention of a snake oil peddler? Dr. Irwin? Can't remember...
  • For a lower class woman to expose her breasts in the countryside was a sign of pride; a badge of honor for bearing a son.
  • It is suspected that the Taewangon masterminded the Baby Riots. You know, the one where foreigners were supposedly eating slash using human baby limbs, sexual organs and eyes for making photographs and whatnot.
  • Despite the average height of the Korean male being 5' 4½" back in the day, Koreans were frequently compared to Chinese and Japanese as being the most tall and good looking.
  • According to common mention in old journals, letters, articles and such, references to Korean's cleanliness standards, namely their lack of any discernible standards, was notorious. One quote that stuck with me which I will now butcher with a cloudy short-term memory, was "...if filthiness is a virtue, then Koreans are by far the most virtuous people in all of the world."
  • Apparently there was a seven foot tall Korean female servant in the royal court named 고태수 (spelling?) who, apparently after growing tired of teasing remarks of her height, participated in the 1884 Kapshin Coup.
  • It is speculated that prior to Japanese occupation, and sebsequent education reform, Koreans were especially talented at learning English quickly. Prince 이진호 (spelling?) was said to have been sent to Japan to study English in 1881 and was trilingual as a result.
Friday, May 14, 2010 0 comments

Book Review: Korea Witness

Title: Korea Witness
Editors: Don Kirk, Sang-Hun Choe
Softcover: 472 pages
Publisher: EunHaeng NaMu; 1st edition (June 2, 2006)
ISBN-10: 8956601550
ISBN-13: 978-8956601557

The archetypal image I have for foreign correspondents isn't exactly flattering nor is it accurate. For that matter, it's not even of flesh and blood. It's a stock news reporting character from The Simpsons. No, not everyone's beloved Kent Brockman or even that guy with the poofy black hair who reported that pork prices began to rise in early trading. No, I'm referring to the skinny guy who dishevely dons a drab 1940s style suit and brown fedora. You might remember that he was with Bart when Blinky, the three-eyed fish, was discovered in the polluted waters downstream of the nuclear power plant. Although he has only appeared in the long-running TV series less a handful of times, you might have an image of him. Then again, you might not. His name, while completely forgettable, was actually Dave Shutton and he writes for the Springfield Shopper. I make this reference because like real foreign correspondents in Korea, their names may not be familiar to you at all but their presence and stories surely have captivated you. Korea Witness is a collection of dozens of stories of how these pioneers of their field got their scoops as well as the trails and tribulations associated with reporting the news in Korea.

Chronologically arranged, this book spans the careers of several generations of journalists and their careers involving Korea and its foreign press. Stories from parachute journalists based in Tokyo and English speaking Koreans working for foreign presses share their fascinating and surprisingly shocking stories from their time. From meeting other hacks, dodging Korean war bullets and bombs, interviewing CEOs in Japanese, rubbing elbows with Korean presidents, dangerously sneaking into the Gwangju student-led powder keg, pre-email era dictating horrors, enduring death threats and surviving tear gas assaults, these men (and one Pulitzer prize winning woman) have earned their right to call themselves journalists. Their stories are just as dynamic as any Hollywood movie.

The book design is non-distractingly pleasing and thoughtfully laid out. The plentiful amount of photos embedded are often breathtaking in their own right and certainly compliment the attached article. Cleanly laid out at the end of each entry is a short summary of the author which is footnoted to help fill in certain biographical details that might help the reader better understand the author's relationship with Korea. The editors have accepted works from a wide range of writers and the book is all the better for it.

However, one early chapter about Japanese correspondents in particular feels like a rough draft of what could have been a memorable story. There's not else much to criticize other than the comparatively small amount of non-Caucasian American male voices to be heard but that's likely indicative of both the language of the book and the likely small ratio of European, Chinese and Japanese correspondents of the time.

Korea Witness is an smooth and entertaining read. If not limited in scope, it tells of a war-torn, post-Liberation, economic miracle, Olympic hosting, economic collapsing, technology exporting powerhouse that, through the eyes of the foreign press, have plenty of stories to tell. This book sums up those stories quite nicely.

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Respectfully disagreeing with Ask A Korean's ambivalence towards English language resources on Korea, these trailblazers did their job admirably and in my opinion contributed immensely to the world's understanding of Korea. Not only did it raise my awareness of the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club (SFCC), but it really put some human perspective on certain events. The first hand accounts of surviving a Korean war bomb, investigating No Gun Ri, and the tragic death of 육영수 are worth the price of the book alone. Plus its got the Neff. You can't really go wrong with this one.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010 2 comments

May Link Dump

This won't always be a feature so don't fret if link dumps aren't your thing.  Relax and click away:

Ask A Korean has a word or two about the recent announcement of Korean and Japanese scholars issuing a joint statement on history. His English translation is well worth reading. (read more)

Respected, if not occasionally controversial, journalist Michael Breen getting sued by Samsung for an apparent libel Christmas joke. (read more)

Thoughts on ActiveX the Joseon Dynasty (read more)

Korean economy is good in Q2 (read more)

I'm pretty sure I'd fail this test (read more)

Some young Korean woman like foreign men. In other news, water is wet. (read more)
Monday, May 10, 2010 1 comments

Book Review: Korean Perceptions of the United States

Title: Korean Perceptions of the United States: A History of Their Origins and Formation
Author: Young Ick Lew, Byong-kie Song, Ho-min Yang, Hy-sop Lim, Michael Finch
Hardcover: 394 pages
Publisher: Jimoondang (February 10, 2006)
ISBN-13: 8988095901

It seems the longer the title, the less commercial value a book has. It becomes perfectly clear when a book has nothing but a simple clipart graphic for a cover and a curious lack of illustrations inside that this will be a book only for those with a specific interest. No matter the time and effort spent on such a valuable contribution to the field if the book looks like a total bore. However, don't be turned off by the lack of flair and narrow scope of interest because there's a lot to be had in such a text. Such is the case with Korean Perceptions on the United States: A history of their origins and formation.

Well respected historian Young Ick Lew collaborates with three (not counting the translator) other well rounded and equally respected professors to present a 140 year-long timeline of the views and opinions of America broken into four identifiable periods of time spanning from before 1882 to post-Liberation. The first chapter, serving as a sort of overview, is sufficient enough for the casual reader to understand the five major stereotypes of America and why Koreans have believed as such. However, for a more detailed account, the remaining four chapters serve as excellent sources of reference.

There's a lot of good stuff in here, believe me, but it's not the most page-turning book I've picked up. The fourth chapter especially seems to drag on and feels monotonous. There's also a fair amount of high context references that might go over a casual readers' head. But then again, how many casual readers of Korean-American international perceptions can there be? The book unsurprisingly covers the post-Liberation period only briefly and avoids delving into modern relations perhaps out of respect for the droves of modern analyses widely available.

I came away from this book feeling a bit drilled and rehashed but also well informed and enlightened. I take confidence to refer to history in order to better understand the present situation between the two countries and this book delves into the nitty gritty of such history. There's also a wonderful bibliography, concise index and even a list of Hanja-based names for America found on pages 40-41. While it's not going to be on everyone's shelf due to its lack of flair and limited distribution, because of its comprehensive English language contribution and excellent reference value, I say it should.

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Although at times it felt like pushing a mule through the mud just to get through another page, I'm glad I read it. It was a bit disappointing coming off the heels of the last book I read from Professor Lew but it still did what I'm sure it set out to do: make a valuable contribution.