15 July 2010

The Most Breathtaking Country

I have been living and working here in Korea for two years now so I feel qualified to make some observations on the subject. Bear in mind reading this that I am anything but a dispassionate observer. I love this place, this culture, and these people. Also, admittedly, my experience of other cultures with which to compare it is rather limited. Nevertheless, I am a fan and I tend to beat the drum and the observation I have chosen to make is probably universal regardless. Now I know Korea isn't perfect and there are a lot of entrenched attitudes that should change. But I think that there is a lot more positive about this place than most expats I talk to give it credit for. For one thing, living in a place like Korea gives you an opportunity to learn a new way of thinking.

For instance, in talking about Korean cities, some people complain about the stink. I will admit that on a hot summer day in Busan sometimes you get a whiff of something coming out of a sewer grate that feels like a punch in the gut. But I love the other smells: the fruit and vegetable markets early in the morning when the stands are freshly rainbow stocked with produce, dried peppers and piles of pungent aromatic herbs. The pine woods along the singing brooks on Geumjangsan when the sun hits hard the west side of the mountain before setting over Gimhae. The smell of the sea spray at Igidae, ripe with brine, with hints of seaweed and barnacle. The smell (yes, smell) of child laughter on the beaches. Eyes closed and earphones squawking, I can smell them, just beyond my eyelids: sun-blocked though fully clothed, bobbing in yellow rubber tubes, screaming in the rollers. Sun block and fried chicken and dried squid and sand. And wet towel. Yeah, that's it. And how can you not love the smell of a sizzling pile of samgyeopsal, kimchi and garlic popping in the fat, sea salt and sesame oil, duenjang, lettuce leaf. A bottle or two of cold Hite. These are smells that stay with you, too. And they enable the recall, walking past a forgotten alley or sitting on a beach or by a stream sometime after, of moments spent laughing and eating and drinking and talking and walking and swimming with friends.

You can spend a lot of energy feeling bad about something. I have a well-known propensity to get in a funk and stay there. But I have found that there is cheer and beauty available when you actively look for it. It is simply a matter of perception. I am perfectly capable of perceiving the stink of the world... but I can choose to call it something else. Juliet pointed this out when realizing that she had managed to fall in love with someone who had the wrong last name. She said: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet." Shakespeare is shaking the very epistemological foundations of his own art with these words by calling into question the link between language and meaning. And it is something to reflect on in the present discussion. What is flower? Red? Sweet? How much to the adjectives and nouns we choose to describe the phenomena around us affect our perceptions? It has been proposed that the act of naming may constitute nearly the whole of our conscious experience.

So what is the point of all this babble and what does it have to do with life in Korea? There are a lot of people who walk around frustrated because this place doesn't conform to their image of how things should look, or work, or smell. And if it is different it is by definition bad. This is a myopic and self-centered world view from which the inevitable outcome is discontent and anguish. I have learned, while here, that there is another way of thinking, and naming, that is outside of myself. When I am presented with an experience, say a smell, it is essentially a choice. And whether it is a bad smell or a good smell is largely irrelevant. It is a smell. And I am in control with what I do with it. Is it a stink or a "pungent aroma"? No, it is neither. It is merely another color in the rich palette of life. And neither am I saying to live a life of pure reason divorced from emotion. I am only pointing out that emotion is also a choice, and a powerful force which can and should be channeled positively. This applies to interpersonal situations as well. Like when one of my children removes the paper from the brand new crayons I just brought to class. Those are (were) crayons. This is a child. I name which one is more important and let that knowledge further inform my reaction.

I guess what I am saying amounts to the old adage that life is what you make it. And the little things that make up our daily life are all less things acting upon us than opportunities for us to act on the world. And in doing so, we can take control of our attitudes and possibly even our actions. I am very grateful for the chance I have had to live in a culture and landscape so foreign from my own. It has taught me a new way of seeing. And smelling.