Monday, November 6, 2017

The Times They Are a-Changing (And The More They Change, the More They Stay the Same)

Following on yesterday's post, quoting the same American-Korean blogger's post:
When I landed at Incheon International I breathed a sigh of relief at the familiarity around me. I left a place that I’ve always thought of as home, a place where traditions crumble and reform in a continual act of self-creation. I’m not sure now whether it’s home or not, but I wonder whether in the end that’s what it means to be a San Franciscan. Allowing the walls of certainty to come crashing down so that you can then rebuild them, piece by piece.
Again, there's probably some rhetorical exaggeration going on here, and I probably notice more change in Korea because I don't live here but simply visit every year or so.  But Korea is changing rapidly: technology, certainly, but also the economy and the politics.  This would have been visible to the blogger even in 2009, but I think it's accelerated since then.  The downfall of President Park Geun-hye under massive popular pressure, but also US pressure even before the accession of Donald Trump, has forced changes in Korean life that are going to continue making traditions crumble.  As a result, many older Koreans are responding just as many older Americans are, and in similar ways.

I observed some of a pro-Trump demonstration in downtown Seoul on Saturday.  It was much smaller than the vast candlelight vigils that helped bring down President Park, and almost all (around 99 percent, I'd guess) of the participants were over 50.  They waved Korean flags with American ones, begged Trump to visit Park Geun-hye (unlikely, since she's imprisoned and awaiting trial), and to restore her to office.  Part of this was nostalgia for her dictator father Park Chung-hee, which accounts for her popularity among elderly Koreans.  (But elderly Koreans also helped bring her down.)

South Korea has been changing, technologically and culturally, ever since the Japanese occupation -- actually since the introduction of Christianity in the 1800s -- and the change has accelerated over the past couple of decades.  The civil war of 1950-1953 shouldn't be overlooked either: it uprooted people on both sides of the 38th parallel, and led to occupation by US troops, who required R&R support: bars, prostitution.  (This morning I saw a complaint in comments on another blog, about how unwelcome uniformed soldiers are in European public accomodations.  I don't want to stereotype, but there's a reason for this: soldiers are trained in violence, they're young and rambunctious, and they feel entitled to let off steam when they're off-base.  US soldiers in Korea, as elsewhere, have a long unsavory record of violence against local civilians, often exacerbated by white racism against black soldiers and the Korean women who served them.  Many in the military also despise the people they supposedly serve.)  Park Chung-hee's forced-march industrialization in the 1960s and 1970s drew many younger people from the countryside to the cities to work in the factories and offices (a normal process in capitalism) -- and now they're old people.  It's something else Seoul and San Francisco have in common: many Seoulites were not born here, but moved here for school, work, or escape from the countryside.  Traditions have been 'crumbling' in Korea under the hammer blows of 'modernity' in the same way they have elsewhere.

But I have to remember that the old people who were at the pro-Park/Trump demonstration are not really traditionalists: they're the generation that benefited, however ambiguously, from modernization.  They got electricity, trains, buses, television (even remote old rural houses have satellite dishes perched on them), refrigerators, washing machines, sanitation, a higher standard of living generally -- until the late 1980s, anyway, when growth began to slow and the Korean conglomerates, or chaebol, decided that the Korean dream was no longer viable, for most Koreans anyway.  They remind me of my parents and their post-Depression and post-WWII experience of change, except that they are my age, not my parents'.  Then the US and its instruments forced financialization on the Korean and other Asian economies, and the Korean Miracle staggered.  Even if it didn't quite fail, it still hasn't recovered.

Some changes have been positive: the shortening of the work week, more opportunities for women, and the like.  Young women, like their counterparts around the world, are less willing to marry than their mothers and grandmothers were, partly for economic reasons but also for "cultural" ones: they're not interested in being subordinate anymore, to husbands or to mothers-in-law.  In this respect they're like many Trump voters, right down to their soft spot for fascism and war.

I know the Korea Dispatch blogger must have been aware of much of this, if I judge by his recommended readings.  And things have changed further since he wrote that last post in 2009.  "Allowing the walls of certainty to come crashing down" is not just what it means to be a San Franciscan, it's also what it means to be a Korean.