Sunday, January 14, 2018

A simple reason to read novels in the age of TV

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, writing.
This is a somewhat random thought I've had for a long time, one that—to my surprise—I've never seen anyone else put down in words, though surely someone has. I'm scribbling it down just to get it out there, since I don't see any point in sitting on this particular idle musing.

There's a lot of talk these days about how TV, much of it very good, has taken the place in our culture that the novel used to hold in the 19th century: a medium in which we think about any number of issues of major public importance through imaginative fiction that reaches across divisions of class, religion, etc. The Victorian age was the heyday of the social problem novel; it was also one of the artistic high points of an ambitious and self-confident genre. A broad public audience looked to the novel to tell them about who they were; just the title of Trollope's The Way We Live Now suggests a certain representational gutsiness. Who shows us the way we live now? At least among most of my friends, as well as any number of writers and critics, you're more likely to hear names of TV shows—The Wire, Girls, Black Mirror—than titles of novels. And you're more likely to be able to have a conversation about them with a random person on the street, too. A wildly successful book sells 150,000 copies in the first week. Even if you sold that many copies every week for a year, you'd only have half the audience of a single episode of the show This Is Us (a title of Trollopesque ambition).

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The best things I read in 2017

I didn't read as much as I wanted this year—but I did get to read somewhat eclectically, which was nearly as fun. Here's a list of the things that made the deepest impression on me over the course of the past year:

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Name readings

I can see his face but I can't think of his name...
I forgot in exactly what context I was mentioning Deng Xiaoping to one of the English teachers at the school where I work in Korea. But I do remember her blinking and then saying, "Oh, you mean Deung Sopyeong (등소평)."

Chinese characters aren't unambiguously phonetic, so they can be pronounced multiple ways—in different dialects of Chinese and even in different languages. Still, it hadn't occurred to me that even in the 1970s, Koreans might still call Chinese leaders by the Korean readings of the characters in their names—so that Deng Xiaoping, 邓小平, would become "Deung Sopyeong" when pronounced in Korean.

Interestingly, this practice seems to have stopped at some point. Younger Korean people seem to use the Korean phonetic pronunciation of Deng's Mandarin name; the same is also true of Mao Zedong (Ma-o Jjeodung). But older people might still recognize Mao as "Mo Taekdong." Xi Jinping is just pronounced phonetically; apart from the tones, it transfers perfectly into Korean. He never becomes "Seup Geunpyeong."

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Suite coréenne

It's everywhere in Korea—on t-shirts, in shop windows, on bags and pencil cases. It doesn't always make sense. Whole sections of bookshops are dedicated to works in translation from it. We can analyze the extent to which this state of affairs is an unsavory artifact of a bygone empire, but most Koreans seem to sincerely think the language is stylish or cool. Yes, in Korea, people just can't get enough of French.

If English has become Korea's go-to second language in this century, there is a good case that French is a surprising contender with Chinese and Japanese for the runner-up spot. Not, perhaps, in terms of people who actually learn the language—as a glimpse at a bookshop's language-learning shelves will suggest—but in terms of sheer presence. The languages of Korea's neighbors are almost absent from consumer goods. Even when Japanese cartoon characters are marketed in Korea, the kana have always been transmuted into hangeul; there's no cool factor there (perhaps because of the imperial past). But French? Everyone loves flaunting little French phrases to show off the Frenchness of things, even when totally gratuitous.

Korea loves French-style bakeries: the two biggest chains are called Tous Les Jours and Paris Baguette. It's not quite French in the end; better to say that the cafés borrow French-style pastry ideas to make a new Franco-Korean bakery culture. Purists will sniff, but I think the combination (fusion? appropriation?) is delightful. Ideas like croissants filled with red bean paste and pistachio pain au chocolat are just delicious. And the brightly colored birthday cakes these bakeries specialize in—often with more emphasis on fruit flavors and much lighter, creamier frosting than their American counterparts—are works of beauty.

What's interesting to me from a literary point of view is that this seems to seep over into Korean attitudes toward books, too. Korean bookshops carry a lot more contemporary works translated from French than the average American bookshop—even in my little city's modest shop. These books are generally translated straight from French, rather than with English as a "clearinghouse" language (as happens between many other languages: if you're reading Ko Un in Norwegian, the chances are that he went through English first). Korea seems to have a particular obsession with Alain de Botton; more on this another day.

There aren't really any special historical reasons for this love affair, as far as I can tell. Korea never had a special military or technical alliance with France (like Japan's relationship with Germany), nor did it have a French colonial presence (like Britain and Hong Kong) or fall within a generally Francophone sphere. It seems more to be the case that Korea just genuinely likes French culture and its cultural self-projection. Many of the things France loves as little daily aesthetic indulgences—skin care, fresh flowers, nice alcohol, the aforementioned pastries—are also things Korea loves. This decade in particular, perhaps with a sense that the cardinal miseries of the twentieth century are finally dispelled, the South Korean joie de vivre is especially strong. English may be the functional language of hard work here—the language you learn because it's compulsory in school and it's practical in work life—but French is the language of joy, the language you sprinkle onto your daily life out of sheer affection.

Things Korean teenagers like, part 2

Two haircuts are trendy right now, one with boys and the other with girls. There's the "two-block," a kind of stark undercut where a rim of long hair suddenly drops off into a buzz-cut, kind of the opposite of a fade. It's super popular here, but to my eyes has a wince-inducing likeness to the "bowl cuts" inflicted on so many boys (especially Asian boys) by hairdressers in the early nineties. As with so many haircuts, it either works really well on you... unless it doesn't (i.e., if you don't have the looks of a pop star), in which case it looks awful.

The "two-block" (투블럭) cut. From

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Koreopsis: Past and present

The roads in Gangwon Province all wend through mountains; there’s no such thing as a straight path. “I’ve never lived around mountains before,” I told the English teacher (I will call her "Mrs. Oh," not actually her name) who came to help pick me up from our teacher-training program, as we hurtled north—past Chuncheon, the provincial capital, its apartment complexes and office towers striving in vain against the enormous hills all around. In another half-hour, we reached my town for the year: Hwacheon, a small city of about thirty thousand nestled at the juncture of two rivers, ringed by woods and worn old mountain peaks. Hwacheon’s name comes from Chinese words for “magnificent river,” 華川; the Bukhan River flows through it in its course toward Seoul, where it becomes the Han after merging with the Namhan. It’s the seat of a rural county filled with farms, proud of its annual ice-fishing festival, only ten miles or so from the Demilitarized Zone.

Mrs. Oh explained to me later that since Korean public schoolteachers are rotated between schools every five years, most of the faculty at the Hwacheon schools actually live in Chuncheon to the south and commute north. Chuncheon is a much larger city with more to do, and if you settle there, you stand a better chance of being able to stay in one spot when reassigned, without having to move to another part of the province. “When I started teaching in this area around the time you were born in 1990,” she told me on another occasion, “almost none of the teachers had cars. A lot of the households in the province still used coal-burning furnaces. It was a totally different country then.” Even then, she remembered, in outlying areas families might end their girls’ educations after middle school so that they could do factory work to support the family—especially if they had sons, who were more likely to go to high school.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Things Korean teenagers like, part 1

Despite the name, there's actually like eleven of them;
I think they reproduce by binary fission. 
The pop song of the month is the boy band Wanna One's “Energetic”—a band that formed from a reality TV show contest and just came out with an album (like exactly two weeks ago). Other top K-Pop acts so far include boy bands BTS, Seventeen, and iKON, girl groups Bolbbalgan4 and Red Velvet, as well as solo rapper Zico and anyone who has been on the rap-contest TV show "Show Me the Money." As far as foreign pop music goes, Ed Sheeran and Adele are super popular (props to Brits), as well as Justin Bieber and (tbt?) anything from the "Pitch Perfect" movies. (Shout-out: the kid who wrote on his questionnaire that he likes Beethoven's third symphony is truly after my own heart, bless his soul.)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

What North and South Korea call each other

South Korean actors playing North Korean soldiers in a movie.
I know I just wrote a post last month about Americans' weird fixation on North Korea. But I wanted to write a little note about something I find truly interesting: what the two states on the Korean peninsula call themselves, and each other.

The nation that we call South Korea in English refers to itself as "Hanguk" (한국).  "Han" is the name of the Korean ethnic group (not to be confused with the Han Chinese ethnic majority; in Chinese, the tones on the two words are different, as well as the hanzi for those words). "Guk" is the Korean word for nation, state, kingdom, or country (cognate with Mandarin guó 國). The formal name of the South Korean state, often translated as the "Republic of Korea," is the "Daehan Minguk." "Dae" is cognate with Mandarin dà 大, meaning "great." "Min" is cognate with Mandarin mín 民 and means "people"; hence, "minguk"—a people's country—means "Republic." (Sometimes you see the full phrase in hanja, 大韓民國, on soldier's uniforms and equipment.)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Koreopsis: Arrivals—and expansions

At a market stand in Sokcho, Korea.
A little over a month has passed since I left for Korea, and I've spent much of that time in the hamlet of N——— in the middle of the country—or rather, in the university adjacent to the town, mostly studying and working. We're here for six weeks of intensive Korean classes and workshops on teaching and culture; most days run from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., before homework. So I hope that I can be forgiven for taking several weeks before sending along news. It has been hard to find time to put anything into words. The thing about language study is that there is always one more thing you could be doing; there never really is such a thing as "good enough."

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Commonplace book: Knowledge (Part 2)

[Mrs. Ramsay] was glad, Lily thought, to rest in silence, uncommunicative; to rest in the extreme obscurity of human relationships. Who knows what we are, what we feel? Who knows even at the moment of intimacy, This is knowledge?
—Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse ("The Window")

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
—Elizabeth Bishop, "At the Fishhouses"

To say you know when you know, and to say you do not when you do not, that is knowledge.
—Kongzi, Analects 2.16