Sep 26, 2008

The DMZ: Standoff Tourism

I majored in Political Science, minored in Philosophy, and dabbled in Economics and Sociology. I've heard the refrain before: Social scientists complain and kvetch that they can't do experiments, can't adhere to the scientific method the way "real" scientists like physicists can. It's not like they can set up similar societies with differing economic systems and see what happens. It's not like they can take areas of similar cultural backgrounds and observe the results when different political systems are applied.

To that I say: Korea.

If I were some kind of evil polisci supergenius with an infinite budget and bottomless ruthlessness, the Korean peninsula would be my idea of a pretty good experiment. Take a single nation that shares a common cultural, linguistic, and political background and spit it in half. Apply one set of political and economic realities to one half, and another set of policies to another. Wait fifty years, and see what happens. The result looks something like this:

You may have seen that picture before, as it's semi-well known. There it is, though. The area of the peninsula devoted to democracy and economic liberalism is lit up in bright technological glory, and the side of totalitarianism is literally swathed in darkness. You couldn't ask for a better illustration of the abject failure of communism, especially relative to the alternative.

We had some difficulty scheduling our trip to the DMZ. Tours weren't offered every day, and we had other travel plans as well. Eventually, though, we were able to secure a seat on a bus heading into Panmunjeom, the village that serves as the Joint Security Area between the two Koreas, and is where the two sides sit down to have occasional meetings. Our first stop, though, was at a couple of war memorials. I found them to be an odd mix of bland grayness and strange gaudiness. They were at once colorless and overmuch, triumphal and oddly unmoving.

After the monuments we made a stop at the Reunification Park near, but still outside, the DMZ. (This, by the way, was where J and I downed a few silkworm larvae.) The park itself was a bit more picturesque than the monuments. We climbed a green ridge dotted with pinwheels and white banners, all of which spun and flapped in the wind. Dominating the landscape was a series of wire-framed figures that abutted Moai-like from the ground and stared out into the borderlands.

We got on the bus, followed their gaze, and entered the DMZ. The Demilitarized Zone is, oddly, beautiful. The place has been untouched for fifty years, and the vast greenery of it all is sort of odd when one considers how densely packed the nearby Seoul suburbs are. The place's name is also something of a misnomer- it's easily the most militarized place in either North or South Korea.

The tour guide pointed out signs warning of land mine areas, areas of the road that were ready to be blasted apart in the event of an invasion, and sundry other things that all marked the place as tense and dangerous. Our presence there seemed extremely odd when compared with the gravity of the surroundings. The DMZ is tense, it is dangerous. There have been a number of incidents of violence there, and the two countries have never officially declared peace. However, it's tame enough to drive a tour bus through on a routine basis. Weird, that.

Unfortunately, talks were going on the day that we arrived, so we were not able to see the inside of the conference room, the thing that I'd been most looking forward to. We did, though, sit through a rather over-enthusiastically narrated presentation on the history of the DMZ. The man who got on stage and informed us spoke in a kind of English that I seldom hear in Japan: the bad, loud kind. What the guy lacked for in basic grammar skills he made up for in sheer volume and pro-South enthusiasm. He particularly emphasized how childish the North was for insisting on having a bigger flagpole on its side of the DMZ. It's the biggest flagpole in the world, as a matter of fact. A great, big, Communist, penis substitute. Here's a picture of it:

It's 160 meters high, 100 meters higher than South Korea's also-enormous standard.

After the presentation we took a few pictures at an observation point, looking into the distance at the above flag, and into the North Korean side of the peninsula. It was weird to think of myself standing about fifty meters away from totalitarianism. Not just authoritarianism (I've been to China, after all) but total dictatorship. Fifty meters away from me was somewhere where reason stopped working, where citizens wear pins on their clothes displaying either Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, where the government has banished religion by becoming a worldly cult.

I'll admit that I'd love to go to North Korea properly, to see it. Me and my blue American passport (and prominent Japanese visa) probably wouldn't ever be allowed in, but I'm perversely curious. Of course I want things to change, of course I'd love it if Kim Jong Il choked on his kimchee tomorrow, thus bringing about the destruction of the North Korean state. Of course I'm for that. But that part of me that's a curious political scientist would love to see the inside of the enemy's lair. More realistically, though, I'll have to settle for this- me and the gigantic Northern banner in the distant background.

Sep 25, 2008

Suwon: Fortress and Sprawl

We had at best a loose structure planned for our trip, one which was constantly revised and altered. Hostel reservations were canceled and remade, DMZ tour times constantly seemed to shift, and plans regarding trains were more or less fluid. Fortunately, J and I know each other well enough that we kept itinerary-related bickering to a minimum approaching nil, which was cool. On the second full day, we cracked open the guidebooks and wondered where to go. We were basically thinking "What the hell should be do before we can see the DMZ and then head to Gyeongju?" Basically on a whim, we and decided to head south of Seoul to Suwon, the site of Hwaseong Fortress, of which there are a few interspersed pictures.

It was only about an hour away on Seoul's exceedingly user-friendly metro. But, just about any train system would seem user-friendly when compared with Tokyo. Tokyo's train system is a fantastic mess of twisting, labyrinthine train lines, of different mass-transit companies swirling in and out of each other's way. The whole of the Tokyo train system seems like it was designed by stoned minotaurs who decided to take a crack at urban planning after blowing their minds on Jackson Pollack paintings.

Seoul's metro, on the other hand, seems to have been designed by actual people. The only issue I had with it was that the ticketing machines weren't consistently designed. The transport system itself, though, was superb.

Look! More fortress!

We got to Suwon, and made our way up the hill upon which the fortress rested, and got a full view of the massive sprawl just south of Seoul. In the downtown area where our hostel was situated and where we'd wandered around the night before, it was sort of difficult to get a sense of just how dense the Seoul-Incheon metropolis is. Granted, being in Tokyo has inured me a bit to density, but the sheer size of these things was amazing.

There they were, great stacks of concrete that proclaimed beigely how the city had burst its boundaries and outwardness was being supplanted with upwardness. Oddly, one of the colossal buildings had a gigantic cowboys-and-indians mural on it, a strangely outdated American cultural signifier that clashed with the distinctly Asian fortress upon which we stood. I didn't get any particularly good pictures of the sprawl, sadly.

More fortress, though:

We trekked over and around the walls, and were sort of astounded that the whole structure dated from the late 1700s to the early 1800s. By that time, Europe had abandoned castles and America had never bothered to make them. I'm at a loss to adequately explain the technological differential, and J reminded me that I really ought to read Jared Diamond.

More into town, more into the body of the fortress, there were people lounging about on the castle structures, myriad students and smokers sitting on the walls and in the shade of the roofed structures. It was heartening to see something so old and stylized used as a public space. It was nice to be reminded that the place were were strolling was not a static museum but a very real town on the outskirts of a booming city. The structures pictured above and below were, up close, filled with refugees from the sunlight.

More to follow...

Sep 24, 2008

Seoul: In Which I Arrive in Korea

Recently, I took a very much needed vacation to Korea. I hadn't had a real break from work since China, and English teaching was starting to take up way, way too much brain space. I met up with J (my dear friend who goes by the rather inscrutible nom de net of xe.qon). It was good to see him again, and I was happy to have a travel buddy.

One of my first sights of Korea was a larger-than-life statue of Gandalf outside of a theater near my hostel. I'm pretty sure that the appearance of statues of English wizards in Asia means that globalization is more or less irreversible.

I met up with J that night at the hostel, and we got ourselves some of the famous Korean barbecue. I was pleased to learn that J had given up the untenable ideology of vegetarianism, and we ate with relish the fricaseed bits of beast and fowl. Then, during dinner, a dwarf tried to sell us gum. Oh brave new world with such people in it.

On our first full day J and I made our way to Gyongbokgun, one of Seoul's historical palaces. We were lucky enough to show up right when a collection of rather nattily-attired reenactors were performing a changing of the guard ceremony. It was quite the impressive crew of dudes spiky things and big hats. I really don't see that kind of thing often enough.

When I've been to palaces and castles and the like I've often wondered "Ok, this is a big space, but how did the utilize it?" Most of the places I've been to in Japan have not been furnished, and simply seeing an empty room won't tell you too much about how people lived or whatnot. Gyongbokgun did have a few reconstructed rooms, which was nice to see. I do dig the screen.

Another part of Gyongbukgun, an audience hall set upon a lake. I ever had ridiculous amounts of money, my place would probably look something like this.

Onto a totally different topic- I dig chick drummers. Lady guitarists definitely have there own appeal, but for some undefined reason, I find myself most attracted to XX percussionists. Make no mistake: I'd jump Joan Jett before the chorus of I Hate Myself For Loving You even got started, but Janet Weiss is my idea of Rock 'N Roll Fun.

This is relevant because near the palace J and I went to the Folk Museum and saw a rather nifty and random presentation of Korean folk music. The two dudes with flutes were, shall we say, calming. Calming enough that J fell asleep. Fortunately, the performance was capped off by the lady in the center leaping around in a circle, rocking out on a drum solo, and punctuating it with some well-placed yelps. It was pretty nifty. She rocked.

Away from the palace we found ourselves walking into downtown Seoul, modern Seoul, the part of the city that wasn't devoted to show and history. We wandered in and out of markets and commercial districts, and I was amused to find a statue of Admiral Ye Sun Sin, whom I'd never heard of. I had, however, heard of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and apparently this guy kicked his ass with some of the first ever armored ships. I get a daily diet of things Japanese, what with living in Japan and all. I do love it here, but it was nice to see a small bit of someone else's perspective.

More to follow...

Sep 11, 2008

Something Rich and Strange

Why is there "C?" Seriously. Why? Three steps into the ABCs, one gets to an artifact of English that is seemingly odd and nonsensical. Three steps into the basics of English, absurdity abounds.

C doesn't do anything. The hard C sound like in "cat" can be duplicated by K, and the soft C sound like in "secession" can be duplicated by S. The only unique sound that C makes is "ch," and, really, that should be it's own unique phonetic symbol, given that it really has nothing to do with either the C or H sounds. (Someone a while ago did point out that C can affect word stress- that the stress on sounds in "school" is slightly different than in "skool," but this is a fairly minor advantage to be gained from this mostly vestigial letter.)

I know it's too much to ask for a language to be regular and logical. Languages evolve over time time, come from a variety of sources, etc., etc. But, I've been teaching myself Hangeul (the Korean script) in preparation for a trip to Korea next week. It's amazingly logical and easy. I was sort of surprised by how non-difficult it is to read. Granted, I still have to slowly sound things out a-la a kindergartener, but I know that there's no way one could read the Roman alphabet in the same way.

When I teach my kids phonics, or when I'm dealing with adults who aren't so hot at reading, I sometimes feel sorry for them. There's no good reason why "hyperbole" is pronounced with a long "e" at the end, and "cough," "enough," and "through" seem designed specifically to confuse learners. The list goes on.

Phonics is just the beginning. As others have pointed out, how can you be "disgruntled" but not "gruntled?" People can be "ruthless" but not really "ruth." What the hell?

But it's a beautiful mess. Aesthetically, I absolutely love the chaos that is English. I love the irregular verbs, weird spellings, and unregulated grammar, given that we mercifully do not have an academy. I love the regional irregularities and even the pervasive jargon. I love that there's a bunch of stuff that makes no sense and we use it every day. From all of this we can get some real gems of linguistic niftiness- two of my favorite exploitations of English are the stand up of George Carlin and the quirky dialogue of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both use the ideosyncracies of the language to wonderful effect, creating something rich and strange. I'm also reading Ulysses right now, and while it's plotlessness is sort of hard to put up with, it's dizzingly wonderful as an aesthetic object simply because of its use of language (it's still overrated, though). I pity any translator who would try to tackle Joyce- so much of his art and humor comes from linguistic oddness and the bending and folding of English.

In contrast, every past tense verb in Japanese (and therefore every sentence in the past tense) ends in "ta." How regular. I'm sure there's weirdness aplenty in Japanese, but I'm not there yet in terms of study. There have been plenty of movements to simplify English spelling, and I'm glad that they've consistently failed. In my heart of hearts, in what I truly, fundamentally, want and love, I choose the panoply of disorder and all of its accompanying beauty.

And yet...

I can understand that my students have very real difficulties and frustrations with the material at times. I wish that the connections were more explicit for them, the path better marked. I can understand (even as I disagree with) why someone would advocate linguistic simplification, or an easily understood and regular language like Esperanto. A pernicious and weird part of me does long for order and regularity, would love to see modes of expression as a beautiful machine. But we'd lose too much.

It seems cruel and selfish, but my students' frustration, difficulties, and confusion is all worth it. It's worth it because even though the system of English is disorderly, it is still a system. It's worth it because we, as native speakers, can indulge in something gloriously odd and complicated. We have an awesomely privileged, entertaining, and nifty position, and even though it causes my students to knit their brows in consternation, I wouldn't have it any other way. Ours is a fantastically labyrinthine means of communication, and we're lucky to have such complexity.

Of course, maybe the Japanese feel the same way about all those kanji...

Sep 3, 2008

Sayonara, Fukuda-San

Yesterday, Yasuo Fukuda resigned as prime minister. Like Shinzo Abe before him, he was in office for less than a year and had approval ratings hovering at about 30%.

For decades, Japan has been run by the same conservative political institution, the Liberal Democratic Party. Over the past two years the government has led the economy into a recession and garnered apathy and dissatisfaction from the electorate. The opposition, the Democratic Party, did make some significant gains in the last election, but not enough to seize governance from the LDP.

Where, I wonder, is the outrage? Where, even, is the pissed-offedness?

Every student with whom I've talked about politics has said that they didn't think much of the current administration. They don't believe that they government can or should do very much, and when I've asked them to name a politician they really like, they've almost always named Barack Obama. I don't want to draw broad political conclusions from my own biased experience, but it seems that people here just aren't angry enough about their government.

The Japanese economy was called a "miracle" at one point- it went from a pile of rubble to the second largest in the world. Now it's in recession. Why aren't people more riled up about this? Why do they keep electing the LDP over and over again even after that party hasn't delivered? Why isn't there a more vocal opposition? Where is the discontentment that forments change?

As someone for whom politics is an addiction and passion, I find it all frustrating. I hope I'm wrong, that the next round of elections sweeps in some new coalition government. I hope that I'm misreading the situation, that there's passion out there and I've just missed it.