Thursday, May 28, 2009

Intangible assets

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday at a "cultural experience program" designed for foreign English teachers living in Korea. We went up the coast to Gangneung for the Danoje festival. This is a festival of shamanic origin, where they have this awesome and hypnotic mask dance, and they march a tree and fire through the city to a designated location with a long line of lanterns following, each one with a wish paper attached. The lanterns are placed in a river where they float downstream together and are collected apparently by paddle boat and people in rubber overalls. The wishes are burned so that they might come true. I walked in the parade with a large group of other English teachers from all over Korea. We all wrote our wishes down on the wish papers. My friend Luke and I both wished for English teachers in Korea to not be assholes. I really hope this wish comes true because sometimes I feel ashamed to be associated with a lot of people who end up teaching in this country. Not that there aren't a decent amount of good people, but jesus christ sometimes it feels like they're few and far between.

The festival was pretty fun, overall. And there were half a dozen booths with Turkish people serving Turkish kabobs. They were delicious.

We watched a video as an introduction to the festival and the narrator kept talking about the "intangible cultural properties" of Korea. I thought this was a fascinating term to use to describe shamanic activity and beliefs. And later, I ended up being interviewed for television (I've learned it's fairly common to be interviewed by local television news people if you are a foreigner wandering around a festival in Korea). They asked me what my favorite part of the Danoje festival was, and I told them that I definitely found the intangible cultural properties a lot more interesting than any tangible ones, and that I had a personal interest in Siberian shamanic activity and it's dissemination across the Korean peninsula.

We stayed in a traditional Korean dwelling near Gyeongpo lake, which is a very peaceful lake located near Gyeongpo beach. Gyeongpo beach is very popular on the east coast, and it has a long strip of fresh seafood restaurants, with tanks of big and small crabs, fish, shellfish, and all manner of undefinable sea creatures (It's like one giant, edible aquarium, really; all you have to do is point and say "I want, I want"). It also has tons of small marts where you can purchase roman candles and other fireworks to go light off at the beach. I've spent many a fine night there having a few beers with friends and lighting off roman candles over the ocean and watching the sparks bounce off the sand. Last time we found a huge piece of plastic pipe about 20 feet tall that we played a couple rounds of caber toss with.

But the traditional Korean house was really beautiful, there was a lotus pond with a grass island, and houses with grass roofs. We were sitting under some trees until late at night and I had a really good conversation with one of the Korean coordinators of the culture experience program about the idea of family structure in Korea vs. much of the West. She said it was a very important part of life to live together, with family members of many generations; not just your parents and your siblings, but your grandparents, and perhaps even your own children. In this way, she said you are able to learn from all these people so many lessons about life and how to behave in society and whatnot. I do agree that Western culture places too much emphasis on getting away from the nest as soon as you can support yourself, and sleeping in a room with a door that locks. This comes at the consequence of making people who live with their parents until their late-twenties or later feel genuinely insufficient, and I don't think this is entirely right.

However, I do feel there is something to be said for the idea of individuality, occasional and much needed moments of solitude, as well as falling on your face a few times and making some mistakes on your own until you figure things out rather than just listening to your elders all the time. Many Koreans do not believe in or place the same value on this idea of individuality. It is a very collective culture here. Everything is meant to happen in groups and teams. Many restaurants do not have single serving portions available on the menu, and you will receive strange looks for walking into restaurants alone. It just isn't meant to happen. And I really like the communal nature of many elements of this culture. But this collectivity has the potential to inhibit one from becoming a free-thinker as well as restrict one's ability to transgress, and these are two freedoms in life I feel to be very important. So I don't know which way of life is ultimately better, I can only say which one I prefer.

This idea of collectivity in Korean culture flowed into another conversation about consumer buying patterns and the ways that corporations and chain stores function differently in Korea. Something that really hasn't caught on yet in Korea's consumer culture is the interest in anything vintage or secondhand. They have secondhand goods, but they're much more rare than in the States. People dump a lot more stuff here, in general. It's also rare to see older cars on the road. There's definitely not a car culture in the same sense. The vice principal at my school is part of a car club, but they just like Mercedes Benz and other new model luxury cars. I asked the coordinator what she thought about that, and she had a view point I hadn't really expected. Koreans tend to collect goods that are produced in Korea, and she said that if you buy secondhand, you are not contributing to the production of these goods, and doing something bad for the economy.

Wow, I thought that was pretty intense, because I've never even considered what I might be doing to the economy when I buy secondhand, I'm just happy to save a little money when I can. I really wonder how common this type of thinking is in Korea.

But it seems like, in general, Koreans think about how their actions affect other Koreans a lot more, since the culture is so much more collective in nature. And I never thought about how this might make their buying patterns different. Except with clothing trends, as it's impossible to miss how thoroughly something like this one beige Burberry plaidlike fabric pattern has taken the country by storm for some reason. I wonder if it's because this population is so much closer genetically that trends spread and homoginize so rapidly.

Before, I just thought that the interest in secondhand and vintage goods was just a natural evolution of consumerism which hasn't occurred yet in Korea. Since their graduation into a culture of capitalist slap happy purchase excess happened so recently, I just figured it would be a while yet until the idea of thrift stores and thriftiness takes hold, and then an offshoot of this causing the vintage trend and the collecting of used and old goods. But perhaps this isn't the case at all. In any case, who am I to say?


Lindsey said...

Remind me to get you the pictures of you being interviewed. Otherwise, why would anyone believe you're famous in Korea?

sg said...

"I definitely found the intangible cultural properties a lot more interesting than any tangible ones, and that I had a personal interest in Siberian shamanic activity and it's dissemination across the Korean peninsula." only you would have been able to vocalize a sentence like that. i miss you terribly.

G said...

That's really insightful Dave, I so would like to visit So. Korea.