Are Korea and Japan similar or different?

The answer, of course, is both. The better question is: why would we ask this question?

Because Koreans do.

One of the most sweetly jarring things I noticed when visiting Korea for the first time in 1992 (while on tour with the Chicago Chamber Orchestra) was a national obsession with not being Japan. The hotel room’s little “Welcome to Korea” picture book, for example, went to great pains to explain the many ways Korea is very different from Japan. I never managed to reconcile this with its also prominently featuring a Japanese restaurant and offering numerous Japanese and Japanese-derived dishes in its other restaurant. But it wasn’t just the hotel–seemingly everywhere I turned was another demure if dogged denial of Japanese influence.

Even a typically ignorant American probably realizes that there are good reasons for this. The main one would be that Korea, like most other countries if you bother to read any history or guide books, has endured its fair share of invasions, occupations, and turf wars over the millenia–and also the usual series of dynastic turnovers and skirmishes–and the most recent occupation, by Japan from 1910-45, still smarts. Comfort women, conscription, and complicity by those Koreans who benefited are the painful side. On the other hand, this period is also credited with vast infrastructure improvements. Caveat lector, jump to your own conclusion, etc.

Anyway, my reaction in 1992 was along the lines of, “Methinks she doth protest too much.” If I hadn’t seen all these stubborn denials of influence or similarity, I wouldn’t have thought to confuse the cultures at all.

Yesterday at lunch, one of my translation team members asked, “Do you think Korea and Japan are the same?”

I answered carefully. I said that perhaps to Westerners, Korea and Japan seem more similar than different because both are so different from Western culture, but that the longer you stay and the more you learn, the more differences you see between them. Superficially all the Asian cultures I’ve seen or read about so far have more in common with each other than with the North American and European cultures I’ve experienced. Mind you, I have yet to visit Japan myself–please wait a day or two–but for business reasons I’ve studied the subect to death and hope that by now I know enough to seem respectful, at least, if bumbling.

Case in point. Many Americans know that Japanese etiquette demands that you fill others’ sake glasses (especially your superiors’) and wait for others to fill yours. So far Korean etiquette is the same, but last night at dinner I learned some distinguishing details. When you pour, you hold the bottle (and it probably contains soju, not sake, although Americans would probably confuse them) with both hands, and when being poured for, you hold the glass up (not leave it on the table as in Japan) with both hands (vs. saying thanks in Japan, or tapping the table with two fingers in China). Similarly you hold the glass with both hands when toasting, “Gombei,” (yes, this sounds a lot like the Japanese and Chinese toasts). Since you might not have room for all these hands, you can instead touch your sleeve with the second hand to represent the same thing. In the presence of a superior, you turn away to drink.

I also learned that you always eat with the soup to the right of the rice, except one day a year to honor the dead you switch the bowls. I have no idea (yet) whether there is a Japanese rule about this sort of thing.

Back to the dreaded question, my team seemed happy enough with this answer, so I turned it back on them. They gave me a surprising answer: they thought Japan and Korea were similar, and they really liked Japan and Japanese culture.

My team is young. I’d guess that the three women and one man ranged in age from 23 to 33, and probably they’re closer to 23 than 33.

I remarked that I knew this was a loaded question and thought perhaps there was a generational difference of opinion.

My reviewer, a distinguished professor who announced at some point that he is 55 years old (now there’s an East-West difference!) was also at lunch. He quickly agreed with me.

Later our conversation wandered to North and South Korea and whether they would ever be one nation again. I remembered the words of my Korean host (who coincidentally shares my reviewer’s name) in 1992, who commented on the pro-unification riots that were on the TV news as we sipped our tea after dinner that “Young people have too freedom! They want North Korea to be same as South Korea. They don’t understand. They have too freedom.” He had fought in the Korean conflict or police action or whatever it was that we were supposed to call that war. He had seen much suffering and as much as fled to the United States to study medicine. He returned to enjoy his wealth and made a great point of eating his favorite, most expensive fish every day, as if to erase the years of suffering. To him the pains of war clearly were still fresh, and he despaired that the youth would naïvely undo an uneasy armistice with their silly rebellions. I couldn’t help thinking at the time that he seemed to view the students’ positions much the same way my elders viewed my college generation’s demanding divestment from South Africa–yes, sure, that’s right, but you really don’t understand how complex it is, and have you taken the garbage out yet?–except that their naïvete was not just silly but also painful for him.

So I wondered aloud at lunch if perhaps younger generations view this topic differently. I said that it seemed to me if Korea could hold itself together for most of two thousand years of history, it would probably be one nation again eventually. (I should note that others had already commented on the division with some sadness; my reviewer’s family, for example, had been from North Korea and as a result his parents and all the rest of his family now live in the U.S.) My reviewer shook his head sadly and said it would take at least a hundred years.

This sounded about right to me but astonished our young colleague. He said, “No! I would have said fifty, at the most!”

The young women just listened.

In other news, I have learned how old I am. I could sit on the floor cross-legged for hours when I was a kid, and I remember my mom and great aunts once chuckling about how it hurt just to look at me sitting that way. Sitting that way for three hours at dinner last night, under a table so low I could scarcely shift without making a big production of it, was excruciating! Dinner was delicious, opulent, amazing, beautiful, and included almost nothing I’d ever had before in all my years of visiting Korean restaurants (including in Korea)–one of my hosts described it as food for royalty that the lower classes were not allowed to eat–and I worried if I’d be able to walk out afterward.

The time it took me to put my shoes back on after dinner let my joints recuperate enough for the ten minute walk back to the hotel. The bill, for three hours and four people dining in luxury? W250,000–about US$260.

Was anyone else an Alastair Cooke fan?

Don’t worry, my pretensions are modest this time–I just stole his title.

It’s Korea day 2 if you count an evening to get to the hotel, have a drink, and crash. I don’t.

An aside about business travel: when I travel in my real life, I’m about as low-budget as they come. I’m happier in a pup tent with a pup curled up next to my sleeping bag for a $10 camping permit than a hotel, especially when I’m spending my own money, even Super 8 costs more than I can see spending for a lousy bed in a noisy room that won’t get dark no matter how hard you try. My dream vacation involves that tent, a canoe, and nothing resembling a telephone or email device. But when you travel for work, at least if you’re I, you completely wear yourself out in marathon workdays, and the hotel where you grab too little sleep between onslaughts can’t possibly be too luxurious, all the moreso because you need to be looking crisp, cleaned, pressed, and otherwise professional, and these things are not natural occurring phenomena right out of the suitcase. Quick services for pressing, shoe-polishing, and so on really count.

Anyway, I’ve decided since I have little choice about how I eat when I travel for work, I can at least be strict about working out each day, in yet another ambitious plan to avoid packing on ten pounds per business trip. This morning I got up at 7 and hit the gym, which is gorgeous. I survived only 13′ on the treadmill, outfitted with a personal LCD TV with headset jack yet!, but to make up for it I did all my arm weights for the first time in centuries, so now I can barely lift my espresso cup. Then I wandered into the lovely aerobic room, complete with hardwood sprung dance floor, for some pathetic push-ups and sit-ups, and finally strolled out past the swimming pool, where there was a little station offering pots of Korean “herbal detoxifying tea, provided with compliments,” which was a hot, sweet, gingery delight. Yum! Now that’s a classy touch! There was also a little refrigerator full of Gatorade and the local equivalents, such as “Pocari Sweat” and “Enerzen” for W2,000-8,000, or about US$2-9.

Tomorrow (or late tonight) I might try the pool and sauna. Everything in the fitness center is free except the sauna–go figure! Fortunately the club rate includes sauna. Luxury can be addictive.

I can’t decide if it’s good or bad that my room rate includes breakfast in the club lounge. On the one hand, it’s nice to use the free wifi and save the $25 or so it would cost to eat in one of the hotel restaurants; on the other, I could get traditional Korean and Japanese breakfast there, and here is your basic European continental (cold meats, cheeses, beautiful lox, pastries, cereal, etc.). It’s a pretty good version of that, but I’m in Asia, for crying out loud!

One consistent theme I’ve found in world travel is that you can never tell about juices. I’ve seen the reddest looking V8-y tomato juice in the world turn out to be (blood) orange, something that looks like generic lousy orange juice turns out to be some kind of carroty concoction, and so on. You just pour what looks most appealing and hope it tastes good if not quite what you expected. This theme is at play again this morning.

One juice that looked like grapefruit tasted more like some kind of melon, and the red stuff that looked like pink grapefruit but was incredibly pulpy and frothy turned out to be tomato–not V8ish or anything like that, but more like fresh tomatoes had been thrown into one of those juice-it-or-else machines approximately two seconds before I poured my glass. Not exactly what I was wanting for breakfast this morning, but an incredible taste all the same. I can’t help wondering what sort of bloody mary could come from this stuff, but the rest of the ingredients aren’t on offer, alas.

It’s 9:30am here, dinner time yesterday at home, and it’s time for me to pack up the pair of laptops, gifts, etc. and head over to the office, which I think is across the street. I’ll be happy to get all the chocolates and teas for the team and two of the three bottles of wine I schlepped over here out of my suitcase and even happier to get it out of my backpack today. (I know, I should use a briefcase, but when you schlepp this much crap on your business trips, a briefcase is a lousy idea. I can only take the whole “dress for success” thing so seriously…)

Letters from Asia

I’m in Korea and Japan for two weeks on business, and I thought my email home might make a reasonable sort of blog post, so here goes:

I’ve arrived safely and found my way through the usual hassles of getting cash, bus to hotel, checked in, and so forth. Now I’m in the club floor lounge enjoying their free happy hour drinks and fussy snacks, and it’s all so comparable to the Hilton Paddington lounge (but a lot fancier) that it feels like you ought to be here, Mom and V. I’m having a negroni in your honor. I don’t see any orange marmalade, so no breakfast martinis for me…

I’m staying at the Grand Intercontinental in the convention center district, which seems to be a fairly recently developed area, and it’s pretty darned posh. The room is modest in size but luxuriously fitted out; I’ll have to take some pictures for you. It’s more similar to the St Regis in Shanghai, except that the prices are closer to American prices–and no iron in the room means that getting two shirts and a suit jacket pressed is going to set me back about W27,000, roughly $28.

It’s a long flight here–12 hours doesn’t seem that long until you spend it in an airplane seat after several hours knocking around an airport. Food wasn’t great, but we had a decent selection of movies–I watched Family Stone, Geisha, and Rumor Has It. I’m pretty tired, but the good thing about flying to Asia is you get here in the evening, and you feel like crap, so you have a bite and a drink and just go to bed, and jetlag isn’t so much an issue. It’s 5:30am body time but 8:30pm local time.

My seatmate was a pleasant older roundeye woman from LA who is marketing manager for a Korean tourism agency, but she was a bit more interesting than you’d expect from that description: daughter of New Jersey dad, Irish war bride mom, lived here in Seoul for last two years of high school when her dad was stationed here, married a Korean man, knows Korean, etc. She gave me some pointers. Turns out next Friday (my last full day here, with both Thu and Fri to be days off) is both Children’s Day and Buddha’s Birthday, so it’ll be a big spectacle with parades and all that. I’ll have to summon the energy to take my camera and be a tourist.

My mobile phone doesn’t work here and won’t work in Japan, either, and so far I’ve decided not to rent a phone, so for now email is the best way to reach me. Internet is free in the lounge, though, so Skype turns out to be the way to check my voicemail, call home, etc. If you sign up for Skype you can call me for nothing, assuming I’m online, and in the meantime I can “call” numbers anywhere in the world for about 1¢/min. The call quality could be better, but $2-4/minute for actual telephony makes me care less about that.

Guest post from my dad: 20,000 casualties later

Here’s my dad’s latest column for a Butte, MT rag, the Roun’Town Review, to be published in April. Reprinted without consultation or permission. You tell ’em, Pop! (Pop pictured here with Candy, back when she lived with Mom and Dad.)

20,000 Casualties later

Paul F. Vang

This last month we observed the third anniversary of our country’s invasion of Iraq. It wasn’t a celebration.

In the March 2003 issue of the Roun’Town Review I wrote about the then impending invasion. On the topic of “War in Iraq—Tragedy in the Making,” I wrote, “While war is imminent, I can’t help but think of President Bush’s fixation on war against Iraq as nothing short of insanity.”

Nothing I have heard, seen, or read in these last three years has changed my outlook on the situation. We went to war, supposedly, because of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction,Iraq’s ties to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and purchases of uranium from Niger. We never found weapons of mass destruction—and we certainly looked. The only thing we found was that U.N. weapons inspectors, who had to flee Iraq before the war began, were right when they said they couldn’t find anything, either. The supposed ties to Al Qaeda and 9/11 proved false, and there was no Iraqi purchase of uranium in Niger. The exposé of that fiction led to the illegal uncovering of CIA officer Valerie Plame.

When the causus belli couldn’t be proved, the President reinvented the basis for war. We were bringing democracy to the Middle East. We wanted to get rid of their dictator. We got rid of their dictator and a show trial is one of the current side shows now playing in Baghdad. Have we brought democracy to Iraq? That’s a thornier question. There have been elections, which is good. Every day, however, the reports from Iraq tell us that the country is sinking further and further into all-out civil war.

In the meantime our soldiers and marines keep dying. The Administration would just as soon we wouldn’t dwell on such trivia and, in fact, raised a firestorm of anger against publications that published secretly-taken photos of a planeload of flag-draped coffins a couple years ago.

As of mid-March, over 2,300 American military personnel have given the ultimate sacrifice for their country. In addition, 17,269 men and women have suffered wounds. To be specific, according to CNN tabulations, as of March 21, 2,316 Americans, 103 Britons, 13 Bulgarians, two Danes, two Dutch, 11 Spaniards, two Thai, and 18 Ukrainians have died in Iraq. This is a total of 2,521 Coalition deaths. The butcher bill continues to mount, even as the Administration cuts funding for Veteran’s hospitals.

As to the total death toll, only God knows. A couple months ago, the President estimated, when asked at a press conference, that there had been 30,000 Iraqi deaths. Bob Herbert of the New York Timesrecently cited a Foreign Affairs article estimating that the number of Iraqi deaths has reached six figures—meaning over 100,000, not including deaths caused by previous sanctions prior to our invasion.

From the perfect vision of hindsight, and the continuing revelations of events leading to war, we can look to an ever-growing list of mistakes made in the preparation and execution of the war plans. We went in with too small of a force to truly occupy the country and to make Iraq’s borders secure. When we occupied Baghdad we let mobs take over the city—except, naturally, the Oil Ministry building. We turned Saddam Hussein’s notorious prison at Abu Ghraib into our notorious prison. In rebuildingIraq’s infrastructure, the Administration gave sweetheart contracts to politically well-connected contractors rather than give Iraqis a chance to participate. There was, and is, no exit strategy.

In spite of the ever-growing list of problems, President Bush continues to live in his self-delusional world where he thinks we’re winning in Iraq. In his March 21 news conference he said, “I’m confident, I believe, I’m optimistic we’ll succeed—if not, I’d pull our troops out.”

At the same time, we’re building major U.S. military bases that signal Bush’s intention and commitment to continue our occupation of Iraq indefinitely. Kellogg, Brown and Root, the construction company subsidiary of Halliburton, Vice President Cheney’s old company is, naturally, a major contractor for building these bases. George Bush will leave the White House in January 2009—less than three years from now. Who knows how long it will be before American sons and daughters stop dying in support of Bush’s misguided war and we finally bring our troops home?

From my perspective here in peaceful western Montana, I see no reason to be optimistic aboutIraq. An army of occupation will never be loved. We may be grudgingly tolerated in the best of situations, but according to recent opinion polls in Iraq, the vast majority of Iraqis consider our invasion and occupation of their country as their biggest problem, and that outlook is not likely to get better. They’re glad we took out Saddam Hussein but that’s as far as it goes. After all, if there have been 100,000 deaths among Iraq citizens, the chances are that just about every family in that country has lost someone in the process. Whether that death occurred because of U.S. military action or sectarian violence, the chances are that the family will say, “It’s all America’s fault.”

It’s no longer a war on terrorism. We’re just trying to survive the war of insurrection. Our troops hunker down in their secure enclaves between excursions into civilian territory where they become targets of opportunity from varying factions of Iraqis. If there’s any logical conclusion to this conflict it’ll likely be when Shiite Muslims achieve control of the country, proclaim an Islamist Republic, and become allied with that other member of Bush’s so-called “Axis of Evil,” Iran.

In Afghanistan, the battlefield from which Bush diverted troops to start his invasion of Iraq, violence continues to increase. General Michael Maples, director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, testified to Congress that the Taliban, the gang that sheltered Osama Bin Laden in 2001, is making a comeback, and presents “a greater threat to the Afghan central government’s authority than at any point since late 2001.”

While Bush, Cheney and their minions continue to defend their war and question their critics’ patriotism, it’s a losing proposition. Militarily, there’s all too much resemblance to Vietnam, our disastrous war of the 20th Century. From a political standpoint, Bush’s approval rating in opinion polls continues to sink. Even conservative commentators are distancing themselves from Bush, as we learn more about the basic lies about the basis for war, and the strategic mistakes that were made in planning and executing the war.

In the meantime, we continue to soak Iraq’s deserts with American blood.