Sunday, November 2, 2014


Scene from "Miryang, A Welcome"

For the first time in my life I am identifying myself as indigenous. That is, I belong to a land and a culture that goes back many generations, perhaps thousands of years. I am not a visitor, an immigrant, or a colonizer, but a member of a nation not defined by a state. As far as I know, my ancestors are as much a part of this peninsula as the pine trees on mountainside cliffs and the currents of the Han River.

It’s an awesome sense of belonging which I am only just beginning to find the words to describe. Everywhere I look I feel affirmed, mirrored, connected, familial. As I gaze at all the different hair styles on the subway, I know that if I ran my fingers through one or another person’s hair, it would feel almost exactly like my own thick, dense hair. Amid the variations, the prominent cheekbones are familiar, the broad noses, square feet.

And yet I feel deeply alienated and conflicted about so much of modern Korean culture: the suicide-inducing, uber-competitive school system which almost invites cheating because of its unrealistic demands and aggressive gatekeeping; the heteropatriarchy that keeps women subordinate and dependent on men; the incessant, unrelenting pressure to consume; socially-condoned addictions which include workaholism and binge drinking, and other issues as well. These are not necessarily issues unique to Korea, but common in many other countries including the US. However, they seem more obvious here for a number of reasons, which includes living in a huge, extremely densely populated metropolis.

So my task has become learning to distinguish between the aspects of Korean culture that resulted from colonization and the aspects of Korean culture that are truly indigenous. Perhaps it’s impossible to completely distinguish between them, and these cultural practices, values, and beliefs run on a spectrum rather than on opposing sides of a clear boundary.

For instance, the prevalence of plastic surgery is literally changing the face of Korea. What does it mean when one no longer resembles their mother, father, grandmother, grandfather? When one has changed the shape of the eyes and eyelids, and shaved the sides of the nose to make it narrower? What happens when their child is born with the hooded eyelids and flat noses of their grandparents? What happens when you no longer recognize your close friend or family member because the structure of their face has changed?

I remember in the 1990s and early 2000s when yoga was becoming popular, especially “flow” styles in Los Angeles. It seemed like every actress in every film had the same yoga-toned body, the same deltoids and pecs and lean abdomen, as if they all had the same personal trainer sculpting the same body over and over again. Here in Korea, there is a certain “look,” almost like a mask, which you see repeatedly in ads and movies and music videos, especially among women performers. The same wide, round eyes with the necessary double lid, the pointy narrow nose, and pert chin, surrounded by long flowing brown, or sometimes shades of blond, hair.

But this is not indigenous culture. This represents a sliver of the Korean population, whose obsession with a certain definition of beauty results from internalized racism and a conscious or unconscious acceptance of white supremacy. This past week, Korean Clara Lee was named #2 Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Flanked by white women at #1 and #3, the announcement raises a slew of questions. Who gets to choose? Based on what kind of bullshit? Does Clara Lee represent indigeneity? What does it mean if a culturally-defined beauty is surgically produced? This is a layer of modern Korean culture I need to remove to access indigenous culture.

Similarly, I wonder about the Korean idealization of education, the cut-throat competition, and status based on and informed by this system. My understanding, which needs to be backed by much more research and discussion on my part, is that Korea’s emergence as a major economic power stems from the American occupation in the 1950s, following Japanese occupation.  Primarily, the US goal was to make South Korea a fertile ground for capitalism and a worthy trade partner. South Korea, a small and mountainous peninsula lacking many natural resources, made policies to invest in human capital, its greatest natural resource, and decided to emphasize education as the path to global success. Instead of education limited to the yangban class in the old feudal system, everyone was encouraged to study hard and go to university.

Sounds good, right? But the reality on the ground in 2014 is that Korean college grads, like their global peers, face high unemployment, frustration, and debt. They’ve subjected themselves to at least 16 grueling, often oppressive, years of schooling which, for many, entailed classes well into the evenings and weekends, and a harrowing testing system designed to continually weed out students less skilled in a narrow measurement of aptitude. Like the limited definition of beauty that enriches surgeons, the limited definition of intelligence creates an elite class based on exclusion.

Meanwhile, everyone is encouraged to spend, spend, spend, even money they do not have. If your child is dreamy and disinclined toward rote learning, with enough money you can buy private schooling, tutors, and hagwons to train those traits out of them. If you did everything right but cannot get the job you’ve been training for, and have to settle for demeaning work, you can still find fulfillment, or at least let off some steam, in the latest fashions, the coolest phone, a new hairstyle each month, and weekend binge drinking. If you look like you’re succeeding, that may just be enough.

This should all be quite familiar to Americans, for this pyramid scheme is the modus operandus of capitalism. Masses at the bottom doing service work for those above, a middle class impossibly striving to climb to the next rung, and a little triangle on top becoming more desperate and aggressive to preserve their power.

These are just a few examples of what I deem non-indigenous culture. So what is actually indigenous?

This week I watched a remarkable film called "Miryang, A Welcome" (미량, 방가운 손님), about a rural community responding to an extensive installation of power lines through the mountainside. Seeing the fierce village grandmothers protecting their ancestral land was awe-inspiring. They had been there for generations, farming, and their ancestors were buried in mountainside graves, about to be plundered by a power company. The grandmothers sat down in the middle of the road, refusing to move for workers. They took turns camping in hoop tents in the mountains to protect the land with their bodies. In a showdown with the power company they chained themselves to each other and to the tent, wailing, weeping, and singing, refusing to leave.

Slowly I am beginning to recognize indigenous culture. Like indigenous cultures worldwide, it has everything to do with the land, the rivers, the oceans, the wind, stars, and native animal and plant life. Here in the city, it’s easy to feel out of touch with nature, with all our artificial lighting, protection from the elements, so much concrete and so many distractions. Indigenous culture also entails all the arts, completely aside from K-Pop and mass media.

In the states, I took little interest in rural life, which is overwhelmingly white, conservative, and dominated by pesticide-sprayed monoculture industrial farms. For people of color, rural life, especially in the northern states, can feel quite unsafe. Add the layer of gender and sexuality, and for queer folks, small town America can be downright dangerous. Korean villages, often populated by the elderly, also tend to be politically conservative. Yet it’s much easier to access indigenous Korea in the countryside. Here in the city, I can learn poongmul, Korean traditional drumming, music, and art. But if I want to grow food, learn about native plants, and live more harmoniously with the land and be more conscious of the elements, I need to go rural.

Mountain hiking in Korea is not for the faint of heart. Every weekend the Seoul metro teems with serious, usually middle aged to elderly hikers going to their favorite mountain. They bring walking poles, kimbap, thermoses of barley tea. It's easy to make fun of the 등산 아줌마  (mountain hiking aunties) and I even dressed as one for Halloween. 

But I'm beginning to understand that this devotion to weekend hikes is a response to the call of the indigenous for big city dwellers. After all these women are the sisters of the warrior grandmothers of Miryang. They say the nature spirits are strongest in mountains and rivers. I've begun keeping a stone from the Han River in my pocket. Walking down city streets, my left hand toys with it and it sings to me.

Perhaps living in the countryside will be the next leg of my pilgrimage, after my semester ends in a few weeks. As I type these words my anxiety level leaps and my mind immediately starts making excuses: no one will speak English, they’ll regard you as an interloper, you’re too old/not old enough, it’ll be too cold, blah blah blah.

I bristled when I typed the title of this piece: why "Part 1"? I felt like I was making a promise I was afraid I would not be able to keep. And yet how disingenuous to believe that reindigenizing happens all at once. And so it goes, two steps forward and one step back, working through layers of colonization, trying to be patient yet firm with myself.

In love and struggle,
Sister Gwi-Seok


Winnie Imbuchi said...

listening...(sending greetings from myself, baby Omi and Renzo) winnie

peggy hong said...

so lovely to hear from you. i think about you and your family and am sending love. tonight met a woman from senegal via france in seoul. she has an 8 month old and showed me pics. missing y'all and see you soon. gwi-seok