Old Korea and New Korea
On my first night in Korea, I went drinking with my new Korean-Australian friends outside a chicken shop in Suwon. I was the only white person in the group and they began my Korean education. This was one of the benefits of the TaLK program; it was full of gyopos and if you made friends with them, they got you up to speed on Korea really quickly. (Comparatively, the EPIK inductees seemed to take forever to learn anything about Korea.)
At one point one of my new friends – a guy who had lived in Korea until he was twelve – looked around at the neon and the taxis and convenience stores around us, and as we munched on chicken and drank beer and soju in the warm August evening, he said, “I kind of miss Old Korea.”
“What’s Old Korea?” I asked. He shrugged (it is a difficult question to answer quickly). All I can remember of what he said was, “You’ll see more of it, probably, when you get to your school.”
TaLK, of course, specialises in rural placements. He was right; I did see more of it there.
Strangely, I have never heard anyone use the expression Old Korea since then. Perhaps there is a Korean term for it, but I don’t know it. I say “strangely” because the concept has stayed with me ever since, and after two-plus years in Korea, I still think about it constantly, and I believe it is the key to understanding almost everything about Korea. It is the thing that continues to fascinate me most about the country. Perhaps there is a Korean equivalent for the term – I am sure there must be – and my Korean-Australian friend, who spoke Korean for his first twelve years, was simply translating something in his head.
So – Old Korea. What is it? As everyone knows (or should know) the economic development of Korea has been extraordinary:
Gross domestic product per capita:
But did you ever think about what those numbers mean to a society?
A Korean who is 60 today had their childhood during the Korean War and the brutal poverty that followed. Anyone who is over 30 can remember life under a dictatorship. The current teenagers and twenty-somethings, with their smart clothes and smartphones, towering above their nutrition-deprived grandparents, know a life that is completely different to that which existed when their parents and grandparents came of age. The expression “generation gap” as applied to Western countries is completely insignificant when compared to Korea.
Those kids are New Korea. Their grandparents are Old Korea. And Old Korea hasn’t gone – it’s still here, all over the place. It exists, literally, side-by-side with New Korea.
In Daegu, as you walk from the Main Stage towards Daegu station, you are walking along the fashionable High Street of New Korea. Expensive brand-name shops, K-pop from every store, cute girls in platform shoes and short skirts trying to tempt you into cosmetics shops.
But, as you approach the station, if you turn right, you will find yourself immediately in Old Korea. There is no transition; it happens as you turn the corner. The demographic changes instantly – there are older, shorter people. Black market stalls and shops. Trot music. (It was here, while trying to show this experience to my parents, that we stumbled upon a trot dancing competition. My mother was dragged on stage, enthusiastically took part, and won a box of ramen noodles. It was pretty memorable.)
The best way I can explain the difference between Old and New Korea is a couple of lists, which should give you a sensory impression:
Old Korea: Old people. Peasants bent at the waist; old people pulling carts of cardboard around the streets. Markets. Ancient tractors crawling along the side of the road. Minbaks. Rest-stops and bus terminals. Corrugated iron roofs and cinderblock walls. Jjimjilbangs. Meat dogs roped in tiny kennels. Herbal medicine. Rice fields.
New Korea: LCD screens. Neon. Cell phones. K-pop. Lotteria. KTX trains. Fashion. Cute stuff. Plastic surgery. Gangnam. Samsung Everland. High rise apartments. Coffee shops (not including the old school da bangs that are hard to find these days, which are definitely Old Korea). Appliances that play chirping tunes when you turn them on. Konglish.
The two worlds, though existing side-by-side, interact less than you might expect. An anecdote: once during my first year here, I and another English teacher had dinner with a mutual Korean friend. I had just discovered that in the dark recesses of Gumi market there were a series of grimy alleys with tiny restaurants. I really wanted to try eating there. I told my English teacher friend about it, and she was equally keen. It would be an “experience” (the tourist’s favourite word).
Well, our Korean friend, a young schoolteacher, gamely came along with us, but she was clearly horrified by the whole thing. She looked as if she was concerned that at any time she might step in something foul. To my foreigner friend and I, it was an exotic, interesting experience, but to our Korean friend it was low-class, poor. It was Korea’s past, and she wanted nothing to do with it. She told us that she’d never eaten at a place like that before. (As it turned out, she was right. The food was horrible and we immediately went to Mr Pizza afterwards.)
I’ve been wanting to write about the differences between New and Old Korea for a while, but haven’t been able to find a linking concept, or something more I wanted to say about it other than noting the differences between the two, suggesting that the differences are significant, and pointing out the (obvious) historical causes of it.
I still don’t have much, but maybe this: the longer I stay in Korea, the more time I spend in Old Korea. I have this new job at a tiny country school, which is something I sought out, and the community there is pure Old Korea. The town is full of old men and women bent over at right angles from weeding rice fields and a lack of calcium. Old people sit on wooden sheltered platforms, seemingly just to gather there.
I like Old Korea. I like its low prices and its courtly courtesy and the way it can be beautiful in its ugliness; a sort of elegant decay. But no matter how uneasy is my status as a waegukin in New Korea, I do have a role there, and a place. As an English teacher I am a part of New Korea. I might seek out the old school coffee shops with the one dollar instant coffee, I might buy from markets and get a kick out of hearing trot music playing at an intercity bus terminal, but I am a visitor there, a tourist. Old Korea is rooted in poverty and it is slipping away. One day there won’t be old men and women to sort Korea’s trash, drag away its cardboard, and sell vegetables grown from tiny plots while squatting on the side of the street. Then there will only be New Korea, and I think Korea will be a less interesting place, although it would be wrong to wish those low-paying, difficult jobs to stay around for the purposes of providing me with local color**A reader has drawn my attention to some additional connotations of the phrase “local color” in the context of Korea. Had I been aware of these, I probably wouldn’t have used this phrase here. You can read the comment here..