I’ve mentioned more than once on the blog that I’ve come to believe that one of the big mistakes made by my younger self was to think that everyone else was basically the same as me.
While that might have been a trifle solipsistic, it’s also kind of true. The genetic difference between individual humans today is miniscule — about 0.1%, on average. To a bonobo or chimpanzee, 1.2%. 1.6% to gorillas.
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At the same time, mercifully few of us would like to think that we’re basically the same as, say, Hitler. I’ve returned to mulling over these thoughts during this past week or two for a couple of reasons. It’s occurred to me that, even in my most self-interested days as a midtown lawyer on the Upper West Side (note: some of my best friends are midtown lawyers on the Upper West Side), I don’t think that I would ever have shot a stroke patient first, just to make sure they would tell the truth when I started asking questions.
Also, Mrs Stroke Bloke and I went to a recent #EdinburghReads night at Central Library. The event was coordinated by Edinburgh Libraries in partnership with the British Council as part of the Korea Market Focus Cultural Programme at the London Book Fair.
Up in the gorgeously bookish main reading room, the Scottish writer Karen Campbell, and the Korean writers, Kim Insuk and Han Kang, were talking to BBC Radio 3 Arts producer Serena Field about their work. I thought it would be an interesting night for my immigrant partner and my repatriated self, because Karen Campbell’s recent This is where I am tells the story of a Somali refugee in Scotland, and Kim Insuk — unusually, I am told for a Korean writer — tends to focus on the experience of Koreans who live outside Korea.
The evening kicked off with great promise when Kim Insuk responded to a question regarding her status as a member of Korea’s 386 Generation. The 386 Generation (a term referencing, I later learned, Intel’s 1985-born, 32-bit, Earth-shaking microprocessor) is the generation of South Koreans who were very active politically in their 30s during the democracy movement of the ‘80s, having been born in the ‘60s. Kim’s answer was long, and clearly very thoughtful; the reply was evidently much-mulled and oft-rehearsed. This was evident even though every word was in Korean, a language in which I have no facility. When Kim was done, I hopeful optimistic that our talented translator would translate this extended soliloquy as…
What followed, before Karen Campbell spoke to us with beautiful insight about the protagonist of This is where I am, were chewy insights into the world of South Korea and the role of the writer, as provided by two thoughtful women. I was struck that, notwithstanding my studies with South Korean students in Philadelphia and the 2002 World Cup (football being the source of most of my geography knowledge), I knew very little about the country or its people. By temporal accident and physical distance, I don’t think I’d ever even heard the term 386 Generation before.
Kim Insuk and Han Kang, and later Karen Campbell, intimated their belief that the role of the writer — or their roles as writers — is to ask questions. In This is where I am, Karen Campbell asks her questions through the prism of Abdi’s experiences in Glasgow. Kim Insuk’s Sohyeon is written in the voice of a historical Crown Prince of Joseon who was taken hostage by the Qing Dynasty and died shortly after returning to Korea. We also heard an extract from Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, in which the reader becomes privy to the pain three narrators suffer in observing “a woman with an extreme personality and in physical and mental pain.”
Walking through the Edinburgh streets this morning, I listened to the recent Guardian Books podcast that coincided with the KMFCP. The music that played in Seoul’s huge central square as host Claire Armitstead watched warriors in bright silks of blue, red and green was foreign — other worldly — to my ears. The news report that framed the podcast spoke of the war that tore apart a country and families across an impenetrable political fault line. I was transported by the story of a foyer art display of, it is said, the cheekbones of plastic surgery patients. By the observations of one of Korea’s top translators, a native Cornishman and naturalised Korean monk, Brother Anthony.
Even the talk of the familiar foreign form of manga was shifted a few degrees to Korea’s own manwha. The manwha star Yoon Tae-Ho spoke of internet portals in striking terms I found hard to digest, as “living rooms”. What I was listening to were stories of Korea, a country so different to Scotland or America, and Korea, two countries so different to each other. All countries full of people so very different and so very similar to each other.
It struck me that another role of the writer, whatever her field, is to allow us into the mind of another human being, whether herself, the synthesis of the historical character, or the rare, mercurial amalgam of the fictional. To help us to and in the knowledge that we’re all the same and all different.
Even Stroke Blokes. I’ll leave you for now with Steve Malkus and Pavement bookending this post with some more careering Korean wordplay…
11 thoughts on “Korea Opportunities”
Since this week’s post is really about human connection, I’ve asked folks who get the tiny letter to share something about themselves this week, possibly by answering some silly questions. In that spirit, I’m doing the same thing:
1. Japan. More specifically, the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route. (What’s the country you would like to visit that’s properly foreign?)
2. Caitlin Moran. You’ll know that if you get the tiny letter. (Who’s your celebrity crush?)
3. At different times and in different ways, Fitzgerald’s Amory Blaine, Whit Stillman’s Tom Townsend, and Stevenson’s Henry Jekyll. So much for this idea — Solipsism, thy name is Stroke Bloke. (Who are the characters in literature (or film) with whom you most identify?)
4. Pan-fried haloumi. (What do you want to eat right now?)
1. I really want to go to the Seychelles. Does that count as properly foreign?
2. As you know, my celebrity crush remains Henry Rollins.
3. Hmm. Daria? No, Louie. Definitely Louie.
4. Now, it’s pan-fried halloumi since you just said that.
1. Nah, one of the primary political parties is the SNP. Or, yeah, any place is properly foreign if you read enough about it. Even home.
2. I’ll say it again. Left-handed, tattooed vegetarian (with bonus shaved head)? Excellent taste.
3. Heh. Kinda cool for me — I get to be Pamela Adlon. Kinda sucks for you, though, even if you get to be brilliant and funny. But who’s gonna be my Pamela Adlon now?
4. I got your pan-fried haloumi right here. Though I appear to have lost one of the Ls.
The 386 generation! Nifty reference
So anywhooz: vietnam (the food), tina fey (duh), thomas cromwell as depicted in wolf hall, and a light dinner.
I know I’m being obvious here, but there’s something monumental about the term “Generation X”. But maybe that’s just cause I read it in the original, square version. Or personal resonance. Or, look, Cut Your Hair!
So, as you say, anyhooz…. Vietnamese food — great, properly foreign, or both? Tina Fey’s an adorable call. Smart, in Muppets Most Wanted, married to a composer, in Mrs-Stroke-Bloke-favourite Mean Girls…. What’s the attraction for you? Cromwell is an interesting character. Prompt for a future TinyLetter — who would play you in a movie?
1. I don’t really think of anywhere as foreign. So I have to answer the question by explaining why I can’t answer the question. Which is my modus operandi when answering questions.
2. Anderson Cooper.
3. I don’t know but not Holden Caulfield. He’s seems to be a favourite for literary relatability, but that book did absolutely nothing for me.
4. I’m too lazy to go out and get breakfast, and I want to avoid the lunch hour rush. So I think I’ll aim for a late morning brunch of rice and curry. Rice topped with fried pork + pumpkin + green curry… if the shop has all those today.
P.S. Have you seen Oldboy? If you haven’t, watch it. (The Korean original, not the remake.)
P.P.S. The next time I see you (which may be dozens of months from now), ask me about Seychellois politics.
Really glad to hear from you on this one. I was wondering if that might be your answer to #1.
2’s a good call. I kinda love that double act thing he has going with Kathy Griffin.
Holden doesn’t do much for me, either. I wonder if it has anything to do with the age you come to him? My kid recently read Catcher and was quite taken by it; I think I’d passed on to the other side of the line. And, then, for whatever reason (Chapman? Our poor, impressionable kids?), Catcher seems to cast a shadow over the rest of Salinger’s work, so I never really got round to anything else by him. Never came back until Mrs Stroke Bloke (a big Salinger fan, Reader) introduced me to the Glass family.
Ooh. That sounds nice. We’ve just shared an individual-on-the-large-side cheese and onion pie, and an impromptu fruit salad. Nom.
Oldboy. Will do. It occasionally pings amidst the ocean of my cultural radar, and does intrigue. This is probably the nudge I need.
And Seychellois policitics. Partly because that’s intriguing, too. Mostly because I want to say Seychellois out loud.
1. Antarctica. The peace and solitude along with the sheer wonder of the frozen continent draw me. There’s also the novelty of the low number of people who have ever been.
2. Ooh, difficult one. Possibly Penn Jillette, but for pure phwoar-take-me-now-ness I’d have to say Alexander Skarsgård.
3. I took a Philosphy of Person class in college (joys of going to a Catholic liberal arts college) and we examined The Hobbit. Right now I’m feeling a bit of Bilbo Baggins. I like the comfort of the known and the routine, but there’s adventure lurking.
4. Well, since it’s late night, nothing really. But usually some type of goodness transported to my mouth by tortilla chip (aka nachos).
Thanks, Myra! If you don’t mind me joining in….
1. What a great shout. I was fascinated by super-dishy Guardian Science Podcast host and blog favourite Alok Jha and a party of scientists getting stuck down there in December.
2. What can I say, except “No, thanks” and “Phwoar”? Though Penn did a broadcast 1MM years ago that was designed for Tiny Stroke Bloke and other viewers to record and use as part of a great home magic trick. Adorable.
3. I can’t abide elf singing, but that’s a great answer!
4. [Insert Edinburgh nachos joke here.]
2. What do you mean “No, thanks”??? It’s MY celebrity crush. Hehe… just kidding. And yes, “phwoar”, that throaty, animalistic noise one makes when they see what they feel to be the epitome of phyical attraction. I love the Penn’s Sunday School podcast and just find him to be entertaining as well as attractive.
3. That’s why I’m more Bilbo than Thorin Oakenshield. I would get annoyed with everyone invading my house and dancing on my tables, but would secretly enjoy (while loathing) the company.
4. Yes, Edinburgh nachos are a joke. hahahahahahaha
2. Fair point on 2.
3. Thorin Oakenshield? Sounds like he should be spinning acid house in Ibiza, not just dancing on tables. (Too obscure?)
4. A plate of excellent nachos walks into a Scottish bar. Barman says “I’m sorry, we don’t serve your type ’round here.”