The moment of landing at the international terminal in a largely unfamiliar country is one of disorientation. You've probably not slept well, the language is new, the airport is designed to push you through and out as quickly as possible.
I arrived at Incheon International Airport on a chilly autumn afternoon, and my introduction to the nation is a sign five meters wide: “The world knows Dokdo is Korea!”
This is the island knows to the Koreans as Dokdo, to the Japanese as Takeshima, and to the English-speaking world as the Liancourt Rocks, so named for the French whaling ship wrecked there during the reign of Napoleon III -- an island which Korea has had full military control of for more than half a century, mind you. What to outside eyes look like an uninhabitable igneous seamount, are to Japanese eyes an integral part of national territory opportunistically seized during the MacArthur Era, and to Korean eyes, the first place where Japan began its encroachment upon the nation's sovereignty, and plotted its imperialistic designs.
Every country has their national narrative. The Americans and French built their polity on the ideals of a long-ago revolution, the Russians and the Turks talk about their position straddling Europe and Asia, the Japanese emphasize the uniqueness of their island empire.
Each museum and each historical site I visited seemed to have a single-minded focus, the Bad Things the Japanese Did. Not just in the brutal colonial period of the early 20th Century, but over centuries. This isn't to downplay that history – it is important, and outside of Korea, it is not well-known at all – but I suppose I had expected more about the Cold War, or the economic miracle of the postwar years, or the formation of the early Korean kingdoms, or the long, difficult, and heroic fight for democracy and labor rights in spite of constant oppression and state violence.
But the struggle is much larger, and it runs deep. This is a country that went from one of the poorest in the world to fully developed in a matter of decades, and in which the wealth one sees – and an image of wealth that is broadcast across East Asia – is so recent.
Consider the famously untranslatable Korean word “han.” A simple monosyllable, but one that contains a whole range of emotions, sensibilities, and ideologies. The best way I've had it explained to me is as an unspeakable and unresolvable rage, sorrow, and resentment at the miseries of history.
You see a history of recent struggle in how the people are dressed. The streets of Hongdae and Gangnam in Seoul are filled with some of the most stylish people you'll ever see. They're not wearing the almost cosplay-weird outfits of the pop singers, but have the same elegance you see in Paris, in Tokyo, in Manhattan. Yet the older people seem stuck in a perennial warp, with all of the women dressed near-identically: permed hair, visor, neon windbreaker, floral handbag, polyester slacks, shoddy-looking athletic shoes. You don't see many of the elegant older men and women you see in Japan, Thailand, Singapore – a reflection of the fact that half of the elderly populace lives below the national poverty line.
And you see the struggle in the gastronomy, in a cuisine that reflects a nation with a bare minimum of arable land and a frigid climate. The markets of Korea brim with dried seafood of all sorts, vegetables pickled in every way imaginable, kimchi both fermented and fresh, spiced and unspiced, made from cabbages, daikon, spring onions, garlic stems. Instant noodles aren't used as student poverty foods, but as a frequent addition to soups and hotpots at restaurants – combined with chopped up hot dogs and spam, they become budae-jjigae, the “army stew” made from supplies scavenged from US Army bases during the war. Even the tea is stretched out, pine needles, mulberry and bamboo leaves, barley, buckwheat, and corn filling in for when the supplies run low.
The architecture, too, is relentlessly functionalist, with people crammed into Stalinist concrete high rises, many of them with absurdly hopeful English-language names, and many of them with paintings of cherry trees and peacocks on the side. The suburbs of Seoul and Busan smell of cement dust, with new houses standing on land just recently hacked out of piney hillsides. Like Appalachia, each little town is crowned with a high steel cross, a symbol of the Protestantism that came over with the New England missionaries, and which found a fertile substrate in the old Confucian hierarchies. And when the desire for novelty occurs, it too often comes in garish, rainbow-colored lights streaming down the sides of buildings, in love motels imitating bits and pieces of Disney castles and French chateaux.
Beneath the veneer of the new, there still also lies the ancient and the almost-primeval. Range after range of gorgeous mountains run on endlessly, interspersed with scrub land, most of the population living in the narrow arable valleys, and increasingly in a handful of major cities as the country faces serious rural depopulation. You see the remnants of an almost Siberian sensibility in the shamanic rituals that are still practiced in the mountains, in the rural shanties with stacks of firewood in front, in the groups of hikers throwing back bottles of soju, reminding me more than anything of cowboys swigging bourbon on the trail.
Of course, I know this is not a thesis statement, it is an impression, the impression of an outsider. As palpable as the feeling of struggle was, it is one of many metaphors I could have taken. I could have focused on the curious burial mounds of Gyeongju, the delicious meal of grilled eels, cold beer, and chive kimchi with fresh lemon I had above a fish market with a view of Busan harbor, the boozy haze I found myself in each night in Seoul, the way the quiet streets of Sokcho at night reminded me of a small Midwestern city on an autumn night, complete with the aroma of burning oak leaves. Or the nuclear paranoia of the moment, a small, poor nation and a large, rich nation playing whose-dick-is-bigger on a global scale. But the funny thing is, sense-perception doesn't necessarily precede pattern recognition. The patterns quickly begin to inform the perception.
My time in Korea ended with a hydrofoil across the Tsushima Straits, to the old enemy nation across the water, with the terminal showing none of the histrionic signage of the airport. Rather, I was greeted by helpful trilingual staff working for both Korean and Japanese ferry lines. Again in antiseptic, deracinated space, a deep breath between one nation and the next.