Friday, January 29, 2010

A flair for language... or not

My tongue-in-cheek look at the flowery language of Korean newspaper columnists and politicians yesterday received some interesting responses.

One reader (you know who you are), suggests that the Koreans who use such language are merely trying to show off their knowledge of ancient Chinese proverbs and don't really care whether the reader understands the references. An older Korean editor at the JoongAng I work with is constantly telling me the same thing. It sounds a little ridiculous, but there's probably some truth in the idea of the indulgent author.

Another idea brought up was the influence of foreign languages in all of this. Korean students dedicate so much energy to learning English, the logic goes, that they no longer have time to properly learn the art of Korean writing.

It's interesting to note that writing in Korea has been a battleground for these sort of cross-cultural tensions for years: up until a few decades ago, after all, most high-level literature and academic books were written in Chinese. The rare book market here is nosediving because young people are learning English instead of Chinese and can no longer read older books.

Obviously, not everyone thinks that this move away from the old style of writing is a bad thing. This editorial is a harsher than usual look at the use of metaphors in political debates in Korea. It suggests that "in the battle of idioms, Korea loses."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A flair for language

Koreans love their metaphors. Pick up the JoongAng Daily on a given day and you'll find everything from politicians employing Confucian tales to discredit each other's positions to editorial writers brandishing folktales to admonish recent court rulings.

Many of these sayings and tales don't translate well into English. I find myself constantly struggling to understand things like how an ancient Chinese allegory relates to a debate over moving national government offices to a city several hours outside of Seoul.

I'd say about half of the time I miss out on understanding something because of the cultural gap. But the rest of the time it seems like a generational gap that only older Koreans who grew up in a country influenced heavily by China and Japan understand these literary references.

When ancient allegories are not being employed, I've found that well-known Koreans enjoy stretching metaphors beyond any logical recognition. Take this passage written by the senior editor on intelligence at the JoongAng Sunday comparing democracy with standardized tests for students:
Many merits of multiple-choice tests should not be underestimated...

They have close affinity with democracy. Democracy is about making choices. Multiple-choice tests are all about making choices.

When we go into voting booths, we are given a ballot with a multiple choice box, requiring us to put a check mark next to the candidate of our choice.

History also reveals a correlation with democracy and multiple-choice tests. The test system was developed in the United States, who claims that it is a partner of democracy.
I can't believe I never saw the connection between SAT tests and having a protected voice in my government!

These kind of linguistic cultural differences really make you think about how understated English writing can be. No American, after all, can out do Korean teenagers in emoticon ingenuity. (^(oo)^)

But nothing makes you appreciate a modest use of metaphors more than mixed ones.

At the end of last year the Korean Ministry of Finance held a party with reporters to celebrate Korea's economic success in 2009. They showed a short film extolling just how well Korea did last year compared with other OECD countries, despite the recession. One ministry official, who declined to be named, summed the film up as thus:
“Last year was like a roller-coaster trip that started on a hell-bound train. And the video, I think, showed how Korea has transferred to a heaven-bound one.”

Thursday, January 14, 2010

After The Beep

After having lived and worked here for over half a year now, I feel like I've earned the right to complain about Korea publicly (privately is another matter, as Nissa can attest). Anyway, I know I haven't necessarily earned all my stripes yet so I'll start small.

Ah, voicemail. I think back fondly to the days when I may not have heard my phone ring, or was in the shower, or was sleeping, or maybe just didn't feel like picking up the phone (gasp). Nevertheless, I would eventually return to find a little digital envelope waiting for me on an LCD screen. No, it wasn't quite as satisfying as receiving a real letter, or even an e-mail, but it was a message nonetheless. And I could listen to that voicemail, hear the voice of a friend, have a work appointment confirmed, or find out my landlord couldn't come by to fix the broken window until next week. Anyway, at least I learned something.

But Koreans don't use voicemail. The option is there, oh yes, because I've heard the beep before. But there's no point in trying. I have never received a voicemail here, not even heard the abrupt click of a voicemail thought twice. And even if I were to receive a voicemail, I would have no idea how to listen to it because I have not yet had the opportunity to use that function on my phone. And I know well enough not to leave a voicemail for someone. That would be like stuffing a letter into a bottle, sticking the cork in, and then throwing that bottle into hot, molten lava. And no, the bottle is not lava-proof. Sometimes you don't even have a choice. A kind, recorded operator will tell you the line is busy and to try again later. Then hang up on you.

It's amazing to me that in a country so technologically advanced the voicemail phenomenon has not caught on. And I don't dare to say "yet" because I don't think it will ever catch on. Text messaging is so common here that, in some ways, there is no point to using voicemail. You can probably get just as much accomplished with a few button presses, all while avoiding the awkward feeling of talking into a machine, and then fumbling toward some kind of conclusion that doesn't make you sound crazy. So, yeah... But voicemail does have its benefits -- namely, knowing why the heck someone called. And I think that if everyone here just experienced that one time, this country would be on the road to a saner future.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The inside story of North Korean prison camps

Me talking with Mr. Jung about his experience
as a prisoner in a North Korean camp.

Back in July I received an e-mail from an old coworker, Dave McGuire, who at that time was working for Radio Netherlands. He was looking to do a story on North Korean prison camps and was wondering if I could help out. Of course, I said yes!

Five months and quite a bit of searching later, the show aired. You can listen to the interviews we did with a former prisoner and a former guard at a North Korean prison camp here.

I'm pretty happy with the way it came out and feel like it gives listeners a rare glimpse into what have been called modern concentration camps. I hope that before we leave here we can use our experience in journalism to tell more stories of North Koreans now living in the South, so stay tuned!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Yongsan Tragedy

Yesterday, thousands of people turned out in downtown Seoul for a funeral that took nearly a year to happen. The story goes back to January 19, 2009, when a group of protesters took over a building set for demolition in the Yongsan district of Seoul. They were protesting the city's policy of redevelopment and the forced eviction of tenants, which had been (and still is) affecting people all over the city. Early the next morning, police raided the building to root out the protesters and somehow, during the clash, a fire broke out on the roof, killing five of the protesters and one SWAT officer. It's still not clear who or what caused the fire.

The families of the protesters who died vowed not to bury their loved ones until they received an apology from the government and proper compensation for the deaths. The bodies of the five men would remain in a hospital freezer until then. Meanwhile, as months went by, the families and their supporters created a kind of permanent protest vigil at the site of the tragedy. I visited the building a few days ago and found a kind of base camp of protesters -- they huddled around gas stoves for warmth, had piles of blankets and sleeping mats for spending the night, and even a kitchen (which was in full swing) to feed the coalition.

Finally, just before the end of the year, the families reached a settlement with the developer, and Korea's prime minister issued an official apology on behalf of the government. This paved the way for the funeral to be held, nearly a year after the protesters' deaths.

It's been interesting to see how yesterday's event has played out in the Korean media. The three major newspapers here form a triumverate that people refer to as the ChoJoongDong (조중동), short for the Chosun, Joongang, and Dong-a newspapers. They're often criticized for being stolidly conservative and government-friendly. This was plainly shown on their websites over the last 24 hours. While the more progressive newspapers here made the Yongsan funeral their top featured story -- complete with running coverage of the procession and editorials -- the ChoJoongDong gave the event very little play over the course of the day, sticking it on their front page maybe for a few hours only to bury it with the rest of their news soon after.

The Korean government has been trying hard to move past this event ever since it happened, and it looks as if they may have, if not already, succeeded. The public outcry, in spite of the large turnout at the funeral, seems to have dwindled to near indifference at this point, and redevelopment projects throughout the city, including in Yongsan, continue to be pushed forward. It'll be interesting to see how significant the one-year anniversary of the Yongsan tragedy turns out to be on January 20. It could either signal the real beginning, or the end, of the movement.

For anyone interested in learning more, a group of people put together a fantastic documentary about the Yongsan tragedy that I've posted below. This is part one. Full video can be downloaded here.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Snow Day

Today Seoul saw the most snowfall in recorded history (something like 70 years). The total was less than a foot, which isn't much by Chicago standards, but it was still enough to take much of the city by surprise. The roads were a mess, with people leaving their cars stranded in parking lots and even on the street; the lack of shovels was apparent as store owners cleared their storefronts with whatever they could come up with, including brooms, dustpans, and even signs; I saw one man on a side street shoveling snow into an open manhole, since there was no place else to put it. Oddly enough, a lot of people had their umbrellas out to cover themselves from the heavy snowfall -- something I'd never seen or thought of before (and it's not a bad idea) but also could not bring myself to do as a native Chicagoan. I mean, what would Mayor Daley think?!