Tag Archives: korea

Three Bowls of Rice and Korean Parents

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“All we wish for,” my aunt who is the daughter of the oldest sister of my paternal grandmother said, “is for you guys (the children) to have your share of the three bowls of rice.”

This was mentioned as she drove us back from a lunch meeting of many old family members who were all related to me by my paternal grandmother. More than 10 people were there and I think the average age of the people present was at least 65 years of age, as my grandmother and her sisters, along with their sons and daughters (who were approaching retirement age) made up the most of the party. The oldest granny was 93 years of age, which meant that she was born during the time when Japan ruled Korea, went through her twenties when Korea was liberated but destitute, raised her children through the devastating Korean War in which her husband was taken by the North, lived most of her adult life under dictatorships and during the time of a miraculous turnaround of financial fortunes, and spent her days as an elder in the prosperous South Korea of today. She is basically a moving memory of modern Korean history.

Her generation experienced numerous adversities as Korea and Koreans faced fated historical hardships that were bombarded onto them one after the other. My parents’ generation suffered as well, as they were born into the postwar South Korea that had no wealth but was full of destruction. It was a poor Korea that grew rich as they grew into adulthood, a poor Korea that I can neither imagine nor comprehend.

Meanwhile, I grew up in Canada, where all necessities and superfluities of life were given to me and accepted as if it was my birthright. It is a rich country and all but few of its inhabitants live well. The poor in Canada have access to resources that even the rich in poor countries might not have. I think that all Canadians are a little spoiled. We are oceans away from the lands and the stories of people live in terrible circumstances, and we overreact with what are minor displeasures in comparison with the people beyond the ocean. We are able to dream and be idealistic as we are protected by unpleasant realities with the thick solid glass of the TV screen. These visions may enter but they quickly exit, as they are quickly replaced by trivial thoughts. The world beyond the TV screen seems fake, and incomprehensible in the context of our surroundings.

These days I feel pressure from all sides as my extended family fusses about my unforeseeable future. They cannot understand why I do not have a definite career plan and feel an insatiable irritation about my lack of worries about the future. For them, the best professions are the –sa professions, like the uisa (doctor), the guhnchooksa (architect) and the byunhosa (lawyer), or any type of professor. I think that this is because these professions give status and money and most importantly, stability. Meanwhile, my contemporaries and I are concerned with another, more elusive pursuit, happiness. “Why should I do something if it doesn’t make me happy?” “What career will make me the happiest?” “What do I like doing?” Such questions are the foundations for what we base our career choices on.

It’s no wonder why there are conflicts between these two generations. One is thinking about earthsolid stability, while the other looks for flighty happiness. We share a fundamental inability to appreciate each other’s views due to an irreconcilable system of values. It’s as if there is a wide and deep chasm between us, the chasm created by the shifting tectonic movements of time. On one side, there are three bowls of rice between many people. It is a constant struggle to keep one fed. Basic needs may be met but are not forever guaranteed. One the other side, everyone is given a bowl of rice each with extras for those who ask for it. Three meals a day with clean water and warm shelters are accepted as an assumed and unbreakable reality.

Which side is correct? Perhaps the former side is incorrect in thinking that there are only three bowls of rice, while the latter is has expectations that are too optimistic, as they have known no real hardship.

Photo: the lunch

Mold of Masculinity

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I have been in Seoul for a month. In comparison to the family free environment I lived in while in Taiwan, Seoul has been completely different. I haven’t been hanging out with many people my age here and instead the people with whom I’ve been passing time have been mostly family members who are from a past generation. Unavoidably, constant communications with this generation have brought their influences and ideas into my head. In this month, their wise but ancient values have seeped into my head slowly, like rainwater into sodden soil.

One of the impressions that quietly formed during this month relates to masculinity. What does it mean to be a man? I think that all guys contemplate this question while passing through the years of their teens. I don’thave a satisfying answer to this question myself. However, as I grew up in North America, I was exposed to one definition of what a man is. Coming back to Korea and being exposed to the culture on this side of the world has given me peeks at another.

In Western culture, I think that the archetypal male is someone like Ernest Hemingway. From what I know of him, he was someone who was similar to the persona of his protagonists. He enjoyed manly activities in the outdoors like fishing and hunting, and was an aficionado of bullfighting. He confronted death as an ambulance driver for the Italians in the Great War when he was only a mere boy at 19 years of age. Of course, as a man, he had his women as well, and plenty of them. He was married four times and even had an affair with a 19 year old Russian beauty when he was at the ripe age of 49 and still married to his fourth wife. Being a man, he was tough and honest, which reflected in his prose. There is something lonely and tragic about his story which also added to his public profile and mystique as a man, as he eventually ended his life by hanging himself.

Although Ernest Hemingway was a figure from many decades ago, this kind of definition of what “the Man” is supposed to be still prevails in popular Western media. We usually see this figure in movies being a leader, someone who directs and runs the show. He has a special aura around him that makes people around him want to listen. He is fatally attracted to females, while they are in love with him. He is largely indifferent to what people think of him, and knows what it is that he wants. There is something that is romantically self-centred about him that is related to a search for freedom, as he engages in a struggle for what it is that he desires over the obstacles that restrain what is essentially him. To get more concrete examples, I think a lot of the action movies in Hollywood promote this mold of masculinity, from Fight Club to the Fast & Furious series.

Meanwhile the idea of masculinity I gathered in Korea was different. Of course, I am not attempting to say that this mold of man is one with purely “Korean” characteristics. It is just a structure that built itself out of the impressions I accumulated in this country. It is a very limited idea that is not representative of the Koreans, as most of my contact had been with the older generation. This accumulation of my impressions is just a description of what masculinity could be, without any attempt at labelling.

In either case, the stories of men that I am exposed to in Korea are different. They are less manly by the standards of the former and far less glorious. The men that have left an impression on me in Korea are figures resembling my father. They are devoted to their family at the cost of themselves. An example can be seen in the less than glamourous example of the “seagull fathers.” These men are nicknamed “seagull fathers,” as they continue to work strenuous hours in Korea and live on basic needs in order to support their families who live abroad. This is done in order to give their children an education in English speaking countries. The mother of the family goes over as well in order to take care of the children, leaving the father halfway across the world in a completely different time zone away from the people he is making the sacrifice for. I think that the man in this context is one who engages in a struggle with himself in order to overcome his desire for freedom.

In the end, which of these two definitions are correct? I think that it depends on the cultural context. With societal developments, the role a man should play, thought convenient by that society in that particular moment of time, might be what determines the definition of an ideal man. Perhaps it is unfair to judge one as lacking masculinity for not conforming to the popular definition. Maybe the essence of masculinity and the sole requirement of being a man is something much simpler and more fundamental, like the blessing all men are cursed with from birth that has a mind of its own.

 

Picture: Somewhere in Corleone, Sicily (think about the Corleone family in the Godfather) where we were very nervous about everything, including taking photos. (Hence this bad photo with my finger visible)

Another City

 

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The plane landed in the Incheon International Airport, but I did not feel as if I had yet arrived in a new location. I got out and took a bus to the city of Seoul. Inside the bus, there were people speaking Korean, and I soon fell asleep. I woke and I took a look outside, at the Korean lettering on the store signs. They seemed familiar but foreign. I reached my destination, got off the bus and looked at the wide structured roads full of cars which were not the alleyways of Taipei. I tried not to let my tears overflow as children walked past.

Another city with its own personality and people has gone by already. In the short five months there had been many experiences that built bonds between me and Taipei. I left pieces of myself there, in the alleyways and streets where motorcycles motored by. I left pieces of myself in the people I met as well, although I know beautiful friendships slowly disintegrate with time. I feel as I left less than whole, the price I had to pay for a life in Taiwan.

Will I continue to go leaving pieces of myself in the future like this? I still feel restless, wanting to go to new places to see new things with nice companions. I want to embrace the world and know it. At the same time, I want to return to the places where I left pieces of me, perhaps to try to collect them to make myself feel more whole. What a process this is, being fuelled by the glimmer of a future with distant locations while continually reminiscing of a golden past.

Where will the future take me? Will I find somewhere suitable to settle down? What will happen to my memories, as I lose contact of the familiar? Without the continual reinforcement of my external environment, my memories will quickly fade. Many dreams have past, leaving disappearing residues. The past disappears and leaves me without a sense of belonging.

But I’m only 22 years into my life, so maybe there is no use in thinking so much about this when I have just exited the gate. I still have long ways to go before the end of the race. Perhaps memories do not disappear, they just hide below the surface, waiting for the right occasion to come up and impart warm memories. Instead of losing pieces of myself, perhaps I give and take to create a different whole.