Korea is pretty popular now for two contradictory reasons. The first is that the Korean government is subsidizing Korean pop culture, much as a way of exporting brand Korea to help Korean businesses. The second is that at least in America, what is often cool is what is obscure, and for whatever reason, Korea has not attempted to infiltrate the American pop market. So many young Americans are following K-Pop as sort of an underground, obscure-is-cool thing. But underneath all that glitz, glamor, comedy, and drama is this very dark, chilling, subterranean historical world of intense suffering, pain, fear, and evil. There is Korean word for it, “han” which I think is often expressed by another apt word, “aigu” which I would translate as “good grief.” If you ever meet a Korean for the first time, what you’ll get is a great façade. Korean culture is all about obedience and conformity, at least on the surface. This is very telling, because it speaks to the Japanese Occupation. If you are being ruled by a foreign culture that has the power to starve or kill you, you might want to give them the impression that you are obedient and conforming while hiding the real you. So the Korean will offer you a pleasant smile, agreement, and as normal behavior as you can imagine. You won’t find many Koreans wearing flashy clothes, drawing attention to themselves, and saying outrageous things. Keep in mind, Korean entertainers often do the exact opposite, just as English comedians will behave extremely inappropriately to juxtapose their extremely appropriate normal behavior. It is only after you really get to know the Korean or get them drunk that their true selves will surface, and it may be a great shock.
When I wonder about why I act or think the way I do, I wonder how much influence came from my parents’ behavior, how much from my DNA, and then a third factor, epigenetics. Epigenetics is not the process of inheriting DNA but rather the on or off position of genes. This may be a grossly inaccurate example, but let’s say we are born with a gene that makes us either anxious or calm. We have inherited this gene from the days when we were rat-like creatures living in trees. However, depending upon the environment, we can switch this gene to anxious or calm. In a dangerous, scarce environment, we switch it to anxious. We then have kids, and not only do we give those kids the gene of being either anxious or calm, but we prepare them for the environment they will grow up in by putting the switch on their gene to the anxious position. Now, this is all debatable, because what if the baby is born with the switch in neutral, but during gestation, because the mother is anxious, the switch is moved to the anxious position. It is also very difficult to say whether I am anxious because I learned to be anxious from my mother or because I inherited the switch position for anxious from her. You may propose a study of adopted Korean kids to see if they are any more anxious than their nonadopted counterparts, but then you would have to control for the natural anxiety that being an adopted child creates as well as the possibility that their adopting parents were anxious.
So what is all this darkness in the Korean soul? From 1910 to 1945, the Japanese occupied Korea. The occupation was somewhere between genocide and Hawaii. The Japanese were brutal and destroyed Korean culture and language. At the same time, many Koreans collaborated with the Japanese, and the most of them went on to form the new South Korean government. Within South Korea, there was this shame, division, and complexity. Not all Koreans suffered equally. Korea then suffered a civil war. While Americans were considered the saviors of the South, they weren’t exactly saints. Korea was just a pawn in the larger war against Communist expansion, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Korean civilians were killed by US carpet bombing.
When you see Korean movies, what often strikes you is how much older Koreans like hitting younger Koreans. There is also the odd punishment of forcing a person to rest only on their feet and head in a V type position. Since the Koreans adopted the Japanese school uniform, I would have to believe, they also adopted corporal punishment from the Japanese. The Koreans must constantly ask, what behavior comes from Korean tradition and what comes from Japanese influence and occupation? There is a similarity with blacks and why they too are quick to fights and corporal punishment. Also, much of modern Korean cuisine seems to be based on occupied Korea. Under Japanese occupation, if Koreans ate meat at all, it was usually offal and hence, offal remains in Korean cuisine. While short ribs are a staple of Korean beef, just like BBQ ribs and black culture, the reason is because the ribs were often discarded by the rulers as being too tough and fatty to bother with.
So how is all this suffering translated into behavior? The answer is laid out rather neatly geographically. There is a North and South Korea that represent two ways of reacting to oppression, suffering, pain, violence, and injustice. The North has become paranoid, insular, xenophobic, mobsterish, micromanaging, hypervigilant, ultra-conformist control freaks. The South has become obsessed with self-image, wealth, materialism, hard work, conformity, ambition, perfection, and grandeur. I should always warn myself that understanding my ancestry and heritage is not an excuse. I don’t say, why is my life a mess? Oh, because I’m Korean. Rather, it should be empowering. If you know how a car works, you can better fix it. If you don’t know anything about your parents, your culture, your heritage, you won’t understand most of your behavior and thoughts. If you don’t understand your behavior or thoughts, you can’t change or fix them. All animals, including humans, can quickly change their behavior as often explained by Cesar Millan. If all the sudden you act like the alpha of the pack, your dog’s aggressive and anxious behavior will go away. I used to be drawn to people like my parents, because I simply didn’t know any better. Understanding them better, I learned that this was a bad habit I could easily break. In other words, I was drawn to highly anxious people who often expressed this through overly outgoing, exuberant, loud, aggressive behavior. Wow, I thought, the life of the party! Only later in life did I realize that they were really anti-social and anxiety-stricken and the exuberance was merely show. As much as I can, I am now trying to find more mellow, laidback, easy-going people who are comfortable in crowds and with intimacy.
People may argue that Americans suffer from a cultural amnesia. If you’re an eighth German, Cherokee, Swedish, Irish, black, Dutch, Russian, and Jew, what is your ancestral culture? Where does your behavior come from? What they fail to understand is that America itself is a culture. Regardless of what you are, if your grandparents grew up in America, you all experienced pretty much the same culture. It is a culture of immigrants, of two world wars, the bounty of the 50’s, the crazy 60’s, the disco 70’s, the yuppie 80’s, the dot com 90’s, the Internet 00’s and the socially networked 10’s. It is a culture I have adopted and infused into my own behavior and personality. What I learned from my American friends was frankness, openness, trust, responsibility, rugged individualism, authenticity, classical liberalism, and diversity. For me, reading this book was an incredible insight into my culture, but for Americans I would suggest reading books about 20th century American history including personal accounts.
I have a few criticisms of this book. The first is that it is broken up by decade and topic, so you lose track of any one’s single story. Instead of personal stories, you get small snippets that dilute the power of each story. For such a horrible period of Korean history, it really doesn’t sound all that bad, and that is really the fault of the book’s editor. At the same time, fact is, most of us find it difficult to properly describe the horrors of a traumatic experience. I even have difficulty describing something that is shocking and wind up making it sound rather conventional. This is also what the human mind does. The human mind tries to adapt to something unfamiliar and shocking and horrible by lacquering it with a thick, opaque coat of normalcy. This is really what you’re getting from this book, people’s attempts at maintaining the normalcy of their lives while diminishing the weight and shock of the occupation. There is only one true story of misery regarding a prison experience. There is one particularly chilling note about how a Korean laborer in Japan came across malnourished and starving Western POWs but it was too brief to have much impact. Finally, perhaps the worst crime of all was the comfort women, and there is no story from one but a story about surprisingly a Korean who said he refused to participate with one. This is perhaps one of the most shocking things that a Korean guy would knowingly use a Korean woman forced into prostitution. It just goes to show you just how complicated the story of Korean suffering is.
What this book truly proves is that when humans suffer great trauma, they actually do a good job of remembering the common, trite, minute details of normalcy and gloss over the horrors. This is how we deal with trauma. There is also selection bias. We are hearing stories of survivors not those who died in prison or from war or fighting for the resistance. It is also unlikely that you’ll get a story from a Korean who admitted to conspiring with the Japanese occupiers and getting other Koreans killed or imprisoned.