Monday, April 13

The Epic of Korea

A not so politically correct Ethnography  of 1950 Korea.

Korea is a land of gooks ; the Korean is a gook. He is incomprehensible because his thought processes are different, his philosophy not of the earth but of the air. He belongs to another  world. But just when we think that we can never understand the  Korean, the light of comprehension shows in his dark eyes and in  his ready smile and laughter, and we call him gook with foolish  tenderness. Almost unwittingly we find ourselves so fond of him  that we want to shelter him from all harm. 


The Korean woman is the earthly reflection of heavenly  feminine beauty. Her lustrous black hair is simply parted  in the middle and neatly tucked up in back. Her complexion is  that of the wax cherry: the translucent skin is the color of  ancient ivory; the cheeks are almost crimson. Unlike the highly  cosmeticized Japanese woman, the Korean woman has a natural  color which would be debased through the use of artificial  appliances. The Korean woman, when referred to as belonging  to the yellow race, tartly replies to the American, "Am I not as  white as you?" And it must be admitted that the contrasting  black hair and ivory skin create an effect of whiteness not found  in most Americans. The cheekbones are slightly elevated and the  eyes slightly almond-shaped, but not to the extent found in either  Chinese or Japanese women. The face is well molded. There  is little of the suggestion of the full moon found in the face of  the Chinese, and the forehead is not so broad as in the Japanese  face. The teeth are extremely well formed, not large like those  of the Chinese woman or protuberant like those of the Japanese  woman. Although the eyes are almost black, they are not coquettish like those of the Chinese woman or brazen like those of the  Japanese woman. The general expression of the face is that of  quiet dignity.   The Korean woman, like all Asiatics, is small, but she is much  better proportioned than other Asiatics. Unlike the Japanese, in  whom the torso is normal in size, the hips larger than normal,  and the rest of the body diminutive, the contours of the Korean  woman are superbly regular. Her body is almost rigidly erect,  largely because of the burdens she has borne on her head. Unlike  the breasts of the Japanese woman, those of the Korean  woman are well developed and sometimes even bulging. But, with  a kind of winding-sheet, she binds her breasts, outward and  downward, to her body. And the Korean woman, although very  modest, has no squeamishness or childishly sensual attitude toward  the various parts of her body. They were created with her soul  and are to be treated with dignity, not laughed at by people with  a sudden awareness that the human body has members. By way  of example, a young American officer said to a barmaid in Seoul  in his broken Japanese, Anata wa, chichi ga arimasen ka? ("But  haven't you any breasts?") The barmaid, a very pretty young  woman, said, "Yes." With complete aplomb, she reached into her  tunic, opened her red flannel undershirt, unwound her winding-sheet, and produced a white-gold orb, which she held in the palm  of her hand and said, "See!" Even amid American guffaws she  retained her native impassibility. Only complete chastity such as  most Korean women possess can produce such perfect self-composure.
The dress of the Korean woman is like the Korean woman:  both have a simple elegance. Until she is sixty-five, when she  begins to wear a little cap, she wears no headdress except occasionally a scarf over her perfumed hair. Her outer garment,  worn seldom, is a long cloak with sleeves. Her upper garment, of  silk or cotton, is much like a man's vest, of the same cut and  length, the two sides being ordinarily tied together at the throat  with a bow. The skirt, bell-shaped, wide and shirred, reaches  the ankles. A thin cincture is often placed about the waist. Sometimes the upper garment violently contrasts with the lower  garment, one being yellow and the other red. Often one is an  offshade of the other, the upper garment being white-gold in  color, for example, and the skirt being green-gold. On the tiny  feet, flexible rubber shoes are worn, not unlike the overshoes of  the American woman which cover only the soles of the shoes.  The hose, the length of which only husbands know, are of white  cotton. When she walks her halting but nervous gait, a series  of miniature skips, her feet are like two sable snails alternately  peeping out of albino shells and hastily withdrawing themselves.  Her whole body is like an ancient beeswax candle on a Buddhist  altar, yellowing but upright and regal.
The Korean woman has little of the sprightly humor of the  Chinese woman. Her reason for being is to make the men of her  family happy, and no man can say that the reason is not a good  one. Occasionally she joins a conversation with men and sometimes she even titters embarrassedly, but usually she is not  animated. She can, however, like the Korean man, rouse herself  to resolute activity and become an obstinate partisan, especially  in politics. She is a blend of humility and pride ; she is like amber  ashes suddenly emitting a spirited flame.
The blend of Ainu, Mongol, Manchu, and Malay in the  Korean man, as in the Korean woman, has produced a handsome  human animal. He is quite tall and broad-shouldered and lithe.  But his face is not placid like that of the Korean woman. It  usually bears an expression of puzzlement, which is often mistaken for incomprehensibleness. Given equal opportunities, however, the Korean is at least as intelligent as other Asiatics or as  Europeans or Americans. The Korean man is, however, an  enigma. He is splendid company convivially, for he can be gay  and humorous; but he can be aroused easily to a bull-like fury  that will admit no limits to his arena. He can be the most gentle  of men but the dirtiest of fighters.
He can knock down a petty pickpocket the man he loathes  most and kick him in the face and ribs and vitals. He can be  the most devoted of husbands and yet be loyal to a number of  concubines. The Korean man has range range that makes him a  dastardly enemy and a devoted friend. With the lack of his  hand he will beat off a leprous urchin, walking about in the  snow clad only in a gunny sack falling to pieces, but he will give  his last gobbet of gelatinous rice to a friend, though he hunger  himself.
The Korean man is an excellent artisan. As a worker in brass  as as a builder of chests, inlaid with mother of pearl, he is  unexcelled. If given a little instruction and the proper tools, he  can turn out a product better than any hand-made product of the  West, and he takes a personal pride in his work, a pride little  known today in the West.   Many young Korean men dress like Occidentals. The men of  the country ordinarily dress in native costume of white. The  upper garment is little more than a vest; the trousers are folded  about the waist, loose at the hips and tight at the ankles. Men  of sixty-five and above wear hats made of horsehair, with a  narrow brim and a high crown. The general appearance is that  of a hat made of wire window screen. The older Korean man  invariably smokes a pipe about a yard long with a diminutive  brass bowl. He uses the bowl for tapping his forehead when he  thinks, for scratching his head or back, or for striking a recalcitrant child on the head by way of reprimand. He often takes his  pipe to a hilltop and whiles away long and happy hours, dilating  his soul in the blended beauty of the physical view and the  spiritual dreams.
The Korean is usually as gentle and as gregarious as the  sheep. He is at his best when attending a wedding or eating  and drinking with a group of friends in a restaurant. In all  the cities of Korea there are numerous excellent native restaurants  in which the Korean can indulge communal instincts and epicureanism. Koreans are not divided into two classes like the Chinese,  the wheat-eater in the north and the rice-eater in the south; nor  are they like the Japanese, whose diet consists mainly of rice and  fish. The Korean is as fond of meat and vegetables and fruits as  is the American. In general, however, his diet is more varied  than that of the American. The conventional meal and the order  of service in one of the many private dining rooms of a native  restaurant, like The Best in the Country in Seoul, is about as  follows: rice wine; egg omelet, containing chestnuts and onion;  dried beef and dried octopus; and roast beef, chicken, pheasant,  and pork. Then a brass vessel, called the shin-so-low, with charcoal burning in the center, is brought in containing hard-boiled  egg, beef, fish, potatoes, carrots, glutinous rice, and noddles, with  the liquid steaming. Then appear potato cake and cold cabbage  pickled with chestnuts and paprika; then crayfish and dried persimmons. After beer and more rice wine and pine nuts, raw  oysters are served. The dessert consists of sugar cakes and  apples, tangerines, and pears. But the last course is usually more  stew in a shin-so-low.
A formal meal in a Korean restaurant or hotel is frequently  attended by men only. On the left of each man a keisang, or  Korean entertainment girl, sits. In addition to belonging to her  union, the keisang must be a graduate of the keisang school, in  which she is taught to serve, to sing and dance, to arrange flowers,  and to make herself generally attractive to men, which she succeeds abundantly in doing. The keisang will eat and drink only  what is given to her by the man she serves. She sits and lolls,  and places dishes, pours, and lights the cigarettes and picks the  teeth of the man she serves, and nibbles and laughs when encouraged to do so. Intermittently she leaves and returns with a  lute and sings a song or dances. Life in Korea is a man's life and  a happy life.
At least once a year a feast is given in each community for all  the men who are more than sixty-five. On this day, dressed in  their white garb and wearing their birdcage hats, they are seated  in long rows on straw placed on the sunny earth outside their  white plaster houses. Each has placed in front of him a small,  low table on which the various courses of the feast are served.  During the feast and after it, all people of the community come  to greet the aged gentlemen, and drink is served abundantly.  Often the old men, warmed by the rice wine, dance in couples the  old native dances. One of the men plays the role of the woman:  with knees bent in front of the body and legs far apart, he shifts  from foot to foot. The partner, standing, dances and gesticulates  about him, the genuflected man turning as he does, always facing  him. When sundown comes, many of the old men are fatigued or  stupefied with drink and are lovingly taken home to sleep and to  dream of the next year's feast. Meanwhile, the soiled white  clothing has been removed, and early the next morning the women  of the family take the clothing to the nearest brook, where they  scrub and beat the dothing with a wooden paddle until it once  again becomes white. 

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