10 Most Wonderful Things About Korea (II)
By Jon Huer
Korea Times Columnist
As a follow-up to my earlier "Ten Most Wonderful Things about Korea," here is the second 10-most-wonderful-things-about-Korea list.
1. Korean National Anthem: Korea's national anthem, ``Aeguk-ga'' (Patriotic Hymn) is a small miracle, as it combines the characteristics of some of the world's best national anthems. It contains the solemn dignity of England's ``God Save the Queen,'' the stirring passion of France's ``Marseilles,'' the revolutionary fervor of Russia's national anthem; and the perfection and optimism of the U.S. ``Star-Spangled Banner.'' The words, loosely-translated, go something like these:
Until the East Sea is parched and Mt. Baekdu brought low,
May God bless our Korea for all eternity.
This land of Rose of Sharon glorious, mountains and streams pure,
For the multitude of Great Han, for the Nation of Great Han,
May it be preserved forever and ever.
The melody is beautiful but simple, the lyrics are commanding but heartfelt, and the whole tone is strong but peaceful. It is played, along with the U.S.'s, at all U.S. military bases everyday at retreat and before every movie, as the audience stands at attention. The Patriotic Hymn of Korea still captivates me every time I hear it.
2. Korean Shyness and Innocence: Few things are more pleasing to the heart than seeing the Korean schoolgirls and schoolboys at their shy innocence. This shy innocence is an albatross for many an English class, however. In the world of overexposure to theatrical propaganda and manufactured reality, Korea's earthly innocence represented in their shy demeanor is a truly happy sight. The encounter is so sweet and untarnished that one wonders how long Korea can maintain its natural innocence against the onslaught of artificial presentations of reality everywhere. May we see Korea's sweetness untamed by media calculations never disappear!
3. All Age Groups, Young and Old, to Be Seen Everywhere: Especially to those from the U.S., one of Korea's endearing sights is the mix of Koreans of all ages, young and old, seen together in public. Everywhere Koreans gather, at parks, on neighborhood streets, at amusement places, at restaurants, we see Koreans of all ages together enjoying the events. In the U.S., people are generally segregated by age, and it is rare that children and the elderly are seen together in the same place, enjoying the environment and mixing with one another. It is one of the more cherished images of Korea which still generates the feeling that
humanity is yet together, with all age groups as one community of the human family.
4. Korea's Emotional History and Authenticity: Say what you will about Korea's emotionality, and it is true that Koreans as a whole are emotional about many things, but one thing is certain: Korea's ability to love and forgive on the personal (not necessarily national) level still strikes me as unique and awe-inspiring. This quality, so honest and authentic, permeates all of Korea's popular movies, TV dramas, traditional songs, as the core of Korea's emotional foundation. Koreans refer to this as ``jeong,'' (loosely, ``heart-to-heart connection,'' ``affection,'' ``emotion,'' ``loving personality,'' ``true feeling,'' ``human relationship,'' variously combined and permutated), something deeply native to Korea. While there is no question that such powerful psychic ingredients can be violent and disturbing in many ways, especially when seen on the national level, foreigners can be touched and edified by Korea's still-honest and authentic humanity embodied in the heart's repast. The last phrase is aptly borrowed from my colleague and poet, Richard Dowling, who loves this quality of Korea.
5. Korea's Love of Classical Music: One of the endearing facts about Korea is that it is a nation that enjoys things ``classical,'' among them, classical music. Hardly a day goes by in Korea without some form of classical music performed somewhere. Sometimes it is at symphonies or operas sometimes just a smorgasbord of popular selections from the classic repertoire. Somewhere in Korea, it is likely that Beethoven, Mozart or Schubert is being heard. Music professors participate in various forms of public performance, on TV and on the radio. Early on, Korean children learn to play a musical instrument, and it is not uncommon to see children going to their music lessons. Pop music is vibrant in Korea, but classical music still commands the respect of most Koreans who, as a whole, value what is generally regarded as "classical" in all fields.
6. The Low Cost and High Quality of Medicare: Korea's quality of healthcare soars to the level of the world's advanced nations. Yet, its cost stays close to the earth. My own personal experience may be extreme but instructive. Three years ago, I had a reflux attack while visiting my son in California. The event took me through five links in the chain of expert medical care, from the ER to an internist to a gastro-intestinal specialist to an endoscopy specialist to an anesthesiologist to a biopsy specialist. The total cost was more than $3,000. One internist in Korea does all the work, from consulting to biopsy. The cost was only 50 dollars. All Korea needs is more fluent English communication at hospitals and improved hygienic practices for a world-class export.
7. Book-Reading Culture: Koreans still read. And that, to me, is a phenomenon of enormous significance. In spite of its world-ranking Internet advancement which basically discourages reading, Korea's reading, even popular stuff, keeps their intellect alert and their wits sharp. Everyday Koreans of all ages are encouraged to read. As a result, most Koreans are ahead of Americans in their
familiarity with literature and literary allusions and ironies. Now, only if their reading zeal could match their advancement in rational thinking.
8. Cultural Elite: Korea has one saving defense against the best-selling invasions of the mind: It retains a cultural ``elite'' whose opinions on high-quality thoughts are still respected in society. Professors, religious teachers, editorialists, political commentators, critics, artists, patriot-elders, and moral leaders, among others, retain their society's respect. While Koreans, especially the youth, can go quite crazy over their popular commodities and heroes, these teachers and leaders still retain some measure of their society's trust and do not sell out to the demands of best-selling popularity. This is no small treasure in a world where populism is the measure of success and power. These Korean cultural leaders often epitomize a certain mad devotion to principle that is so peculiar to few cultures in the world. Even with the massive invasion of Americanism, western capitalism, and technological relativism, it is wonderful to see that these Korean moral leaders refuse to succumb to such popular forces. Their days may be numbered, but as long as they are still part of Korea's moral bearings, Korea should celebrate this quixotic refusal to accept modernism and its many disguised evils.
9. Mixed Neighbors: Either Korea has no zoning laws or, if there are, they rarely apply. And it's a good thing that this is so. Lack of zoning laws creates some of the most unorganized urban developments to be found anywhere in the advanced world. But this absence of serious zoning laws has also contributed to all sorts of conveniences within walking distances of most people in Korea. The result is that most Korean neighborhoods are a microcosm of an independently self-sufficient community. In virtually every neighborhood, you see rich apartments and poor houses side-by-side, all sorts of stores and shops, doctors' offices and dental clinics, schools and private classes, marketplaces and government buildings, all in the self-contained proximity of a neighborhood. These mixed neighborhoods give the impression of Korea as a dynamic and not infrequently chaotic society. But what an enjoyable chaos, and what a convenient lawlessness!
10. Portions, Sidedishes and Ambience at Restaurants: Not everything is wonderful at a typical Korean restaurant. Food-handling hygiene and general cleanliness, for example, fall short of American and Japanese standards. But Korea makes up for its deficits in other ways that cannot be imitated in America or Japan: Their generosity in serving portions, the variety of ``side dishes'' they put on the table for you, and the ambience of the place, especially at a neighborhood establishment on a Saturday evening night-out, are
treasured sources of pleasure unique to Korea. You appreciate Korea's generous portions especially if you have eaten in Japan; the side dishes are delights either as appetizers or as part of the meal; and watching the customers enjoy their soju-inspired fellowship is an authentic heart-warming experience in Korea that you will long remember.
If I had space, I would also list Korea's fine sense of irony, its ``shame-based'' society, and its street safety once again where children simply put up their hands to cross the streets in total confidence. But they are for another time, perhaps.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org