Old vs New Korea

You know, I have to wonder what all the Koreans back in the Day (the Day being anything before the early 20th century) would have thought about Korea today. Back then the metaphorical door to the world wasn’t open and Korea had a strong culture. The art, food, building styles, and traditions were very Eastern. The history goes back to ancient times, meaning there is a vast repository of colorful history behind the Korea that exists today. However, the Japanese invaded in the early 20th century and opened Korea up to Western influences, effectively ensuring that when McDonald’s came along, it would wedge its way in between every Korean restaurant in Seoul. It’s not just McDonald’s, either. There are Burger Kings, 7Elevens, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Popeye’s. It’s been years since I saw a Popeye’s in the States, but it only took six days in Korea for me to see more than one.

South Korea seems to be doing well for itself. (North Korea is not doing quite as well, but then again, they’ve closed that ‘door’ so they don’t have the influences of the two D’s – Dunkin’ Donuts and Democracy – to help them out.) The South Korean economy is great; their cars are getting smaller while their phones are getting bigger, and most of the time you can’t even tell you’re in Asia. I would have spent the entire trip believing that I was on an island a few miles east of Philadelphia had it not been for the ‘Yellow Dust.’ The Yellow Dust is a phenomenon that reminds me of the kind of thing George Orwell would have warned us about. I’m pretty sure it was also a major plot point in Spaceballs. It’s the pollution that comes from China and makes the air dangerous to breathe. No one seems too concerned; 5% of the population dons white face masks, while the rest carry on as if everything is normal. When I asked a Korean what would happen if we breathed the air, he said, “Well no one really knows but everyone does it because no one has died yet.” That’s a comforting thing to hear when the meter on the weather app says that the air quality is at 55% (55% what, no one knows). It doesn’t really matter, though, because it means that China and Korea are prospering economically, environment be damned.

Westernization is a good thing. That’s what the West wants us to believe, and it seems to be working well for the Koreans. Everything is new and shiny. There are almost no pesky cultural artifacts clogging up the streets. Everyone has a phone, a car, and a business suit. It’s all business, building, up and up! The things that did date back to the years of Dynasties and cool buildings seemed like an afterthought, surrounded by skyscrapers, crawling with white tourists and almost no Koreans. Even the food has been taken over by the West. I spoke with a Korean university student and she says that she loves American food. This seems to be true of many Koreans, because all of the traditional Korean restaurants we visited were nearly empty.

This is the new Korea, but I have to wonder, is it a good thing? I was always taught that globalization involves the spreading of cultures, but in some cases, it seems to be more about the erasure of certain cultures in favor of other, more economically favorable ‘cultures.’ Maybe a better way to say it is that culture is actually being swallowed up, and it’s almost completely disappeared behind men in suits, standing at the windows of their 100-story office building, peering out at the dust covering the city.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *