As I prepare to say goodbye to Korea and move to Vietnam for the next year, I thought I’d make a post as a bit of a tribute to Korea. I wrote this a while back to be included in the book I hope to have published about Korea.
Made in Korea
So what’s in a word, in a series of characters that together make a sound? Nothing sometimes. Everything at others. It’s strange to think how a word can mean something so different from one person to the next or from one year to the next. It’s strange how a word defined, its definition immutable, can somehow change, can transform from nothingness and unfamiliarity the first time it’s heard to a living memory the next; from a mere idea as child, an abstraction, a mere combination of phonetic symbols, to something almost tangible later on; from something essentially meaningless to something later almost self-defining. So I ask again, what’s in a word?
When I was a child I inhabited many worlds. I was a dinosaur hunter, a paleontologist, and monster creature collector at times, a race car driver at others, strapped into a plastic car on a magnetized plastic track, moved forward by the power of remote control. I was Voltron, Defender of the Universe. I was a Thunder Cat. I was Optimus Prime, fighting against the Decepticons, protecting the earth. I was G.I. Joe with a Kung Fu grip and a professional baseball player hitting crab-apple home runs into the trees in the backyard. I was a soldier dressed in camouflage roaming the woods behind my house in search of enemies, imagined guns slung over my shoulder, grenades strapped to my waist.
To say the least, as a child I had a vivid imagination, an imagination that relied on familiar words to define and create the images of the worlds I traversed. Words gave meaning to the things in my head. They gave definition and clarity to what I imagined. But not all the words in my head bore meaning, only the ones I had experienced, the ones I knew, the ones that had been demonstrated in some way or another. But many of the words present during my childhood meant nothing to me. Mortgage refinancing. Managerial layoffs. Chapter 11. Tax hikes. Tax cuts. Debt Consolidation. Desert Storm. Evangelism. Salvation. Such things were beyond me, beyond my understanding, beyond my concern. And there were other words as well, words I understood but still meant nothing. And it is three of these words in particular I think about now. Three words that have been present in my life as far back as I can remember, but that have only in the past decade taken on any real meaning. Three little words that have actually shaped my world: Made in Korea.
I have mostly vague memories from my childhood of the things I had back then, clothes and toys and such. But I do remember that etched into the plastic or metal on many of them or sewn into the tags were those three little words, essentially meaningless to me at the time: Made in Korea. My child mind understood the words, knew that the third one represented a country somewhere in world, but that was it. I didn’t know where it was or really what it was. I certainly didn’t think about the life and history and culture the word denotes. Korea was merely an idea. It was abstract. Intangible. Basically unreal. And then time went by and the word began to change.
In high school during American History I my sophomore year, I studied about the Korean War. An American war against the evils of communism fought a million miles away in a place unknown, in some generic place in Asia where my old toys were made. A war I considered to be about America and American troops. A war of relatively little importance. A war Made in Korea.
At the time my friend Anna drove a Hyundai Elantra. A metal flaked forest green wagon. A car we occasionally rode around town in together to the mall or Friendly’s or the movie theatre. A car carelessly she backed into my car once in her own driveway, caving in my driver’s side door and scraping away much of the paint. An indelible imprint of metal on metal from a car that was Made in Korea.
Later on I bought a Samsung DVD player. My first DVD player for my first apartment. I chose it because it was cheap, made by what was then considered the poor man’s Sony. It worked well enough, but I liked it most because it was economical and fit easily into my poor, part-time-job-minimum-wage-hand-to-mouth life of my early 20s. I didn’t choose it because of its make, because of the three little words etched onto the bottom. But they were there: Made in Korea.
During university I worked my way through four different mobile phones. The first was Nokia, the next three were Samsung. Sleek little sliders, my means of communication for several years. My connection to the outside world made in Korea.
One night out in Portland, Oregon with Molly and my friend Justin I went to a Korean restaurant where we drank a bunch of Soju, ate pajeon and bulgoggi, and then went to my apartment to go swimming. There we were joined by some of Molly’s other friends, one of whom was called Aaron and with whom I nearly got into a brawl when he said something I took exception to. Aaron v. Aaron. A Korean engineering student v. an American philosophy student. A near fight Made in Korea.
And once when my VW was in the shop getting its brake and exhaust lines replaced I was given a Hyundai Accent as a loaner for two weeks. It was efficient and comfortable and served its temporary purpose. It was Made in Korea. So too was my friend Molly’s Kia Sportage which I shared with her for two months one winter when I was homeless and getting ready to move overseas to a new future. A future that would be Made in Korea.
And the list goes on.
As I said before, it’s funny how words can change. For most of my life Korea was merely the sound made by a specific succession of letters, a sound that acted essentially as nothing more than a symbol for a place I’d assumed I’d never know, an abstraction of a nation and its culture. But it’s different now.
Today, the word Korea is something much more, something partially self-defining. Example: I mentioned my friend Molly earlier and her Korean friend called Aaron. Molly’s brother’s name is also Aaron, so whenever she speaks to her family about Aaron, there is always confusion about which Aaron she means. So Molly’s parents nicknamed us all. There is Brother Aaron, Korean Aaron, and Engineering Aaron. I didn’t study engineering, the Korean Aaron did. And yet, to Molly and her family, I am Korean Aaron. My only nickname. Made in Korea?
Yes, Korea and ‘Made in Korea’ mean something much different to me now than they did most of my life. They are no longer words etched into plastic or sewn into the tags of my clothes. Instead they are etched into my life itself, representative of a wealth of experience, of a future discovered, and now of much of my past. They aren’t abstract or conceptual anymore, but solidified understandings of real people and real places, of specific memories and specific experiences. The concretization of those words have made them inseparable from the story of my life. And that is why I it made me happy when my parent’s owned a Samsung TV and phones, and an LG washer/dryer. It is why I was happy to live in a townhouse in Australia that had a Samsung TV and washing machine. It is why I care that a Kia is driven around a race track on “Top Gear UK” on a weekly basis and ethnically Korean actors are starring more often in television series and films. It is why a Korean gold medal in the olympics is more appreciable to me than an American one. A certain pride and joy made in Korea, strangely enough.
So I ask again, what’s in a word, in a series of phonemes that together make a particular sound?
It depends on the word I guess. And it depends on when it is used. Sometimes it can in fact be nothing. Later it can be more. Sometimes it can be an unknown harbinger of things to come or retroactively symbolic like the lasting impact of a Korean car crashing into an American car, similar to how Korea unexpectedly crashed into my life and left a mark indelible and impossible to ignore.
So what’s in a word? Everything it seems. From ignorance and nothingness to an actual human life, from an abstract idea to a tangible experience. A lifetime of memories or an unknown future. They’re all there. All of existence. All of reality. That’s what’s in a word, whether we know it or not.
So I’m in Maine now, my home state, a place I’ve only visited four times in the past ten years. I’ve been here about ten days now and it’s been emotional. It’s strange returning “home” after so much time away. It has changed some, but just cosmetically. It remains the same way I remember it. The people are charmingly simple and kind, though not necessarily friendly. Family is family. We might not be overly close any more, but the emotions that come with seeing them are pretty simple and expected: good and comforting to see mom and dad; nostalgic and reminiscent to see grandparents; emotional seeing my sister and nephew again.
Last night I was talking to my parents about the future, about my plans for fall, which apparently will now involve moving to Hanoi, Vietnam. It’s clear talking to them that they wish for me to move back, if not to Maine specifically, at least to the U.S. where I’d be more present. And for the first time I said the words I had never wanted to say to family: I don’t want to live in the U.S. They were hard words to say, but I’ve finally said them and now I’m emotionally preparing to leave already.
It’s often said home is where the heart is, but I think such a statement is far too reductively simplified. Maine feels like home in certain ways and my heart is here. It is with family and the familiarity of the regional culture and the endless pine forests and hundreds of rivers and lakes and the coast. But Maine isn’t home; my life isn’t here. And then there is Korea. My life is in Korea and my heart is with everything it has taught me over the past six years and all the personal growth I’ve undergone there. It is the place I became a man. But I don’t want to go back. So where is home then?
Home isn’t always a simple thing. The heart is often torn and frayed and splayed in too many directions for home to simply be where the heart is. And now as I prepare to head back to Korea in a few weeks for just enough time to pack up all my stuff and move it to Hanoi, I am forced to wonder what exactly everything means. Where is home? Where is my heart? To whom do I belong and to whom am I obligated?
People often say that you can never go home again, which might be true, but I’m beginning to wonder if it’s possible to even find it again once it’s lost. Regardless of the answers or non-answers to such questions, I’m looking forward to Hanoi. I like change and I like new opportunities. If it’s not home that’s fine with me. I’m currently writing this at Cafe Nomad in Norway, Maine, a fitting place to write for a semi-nomad like myself.
One thing about Maine that must be noted, boasted about, and enjoyed is lobster. Last week for dinner we bought four 1.5 pound lobsters for only $36 and steamed them at home for dinner. Most places in the world charge exorbitant prices for lobster, but in Maine the price is, if I can create a new word, “in-orbitant.” Delicious.
Dublin Castle isn’t exactly a castle in the sense that we typically think of the word. In fact, it is more a collection of 18th century administrative buildings. But, regardless of its traditional castle-hood or lack there of, it is quite a lovely spot to visit off Dame Street in Dublin.
Dublin is also home to some great churches, including these beauties (in order) Christ Church Cathedral, Saint Francis Xavier, Saint John The Baptist, and Saint Augustine Church.
For reasons only a few other people could possibly surmise, I wasn’t much looking forward to my stop off in Dublin. In fact, coming to Dublin frightened me a little, and while in Prague last week I did my best to change flight times, destinations, and dates in order to avoid coming here, but my attempts were to no avail.
The reason I was frightened of coming to Dublin, was that I thought there would be ghosts here, phantoms that would oppress me and shadows I wouldn’t be able to light. And my first night in, after traveling longer than expected from Copenhagen, my fears did in fact seem prescient. However, after a full day of wandering around the city I can say that my fears were all for nothing. The ghosts I expected to encounter aren’t here at all.
Though the ghosts I feared to find here have proven themselves largely absent, there are still ghosts. But they are ghosts of a different kind. They aren’t malicious or oppressive or in any way maleficent. In fact, they have been quite the opposite. The ghosts I have found here have been of a munificent kind. They have calmed me and brought me a peace of mind I haven’t had in weeks, a peace of mind that I didn’t expect to gain for weeks. They have palliated certain pains and brought comfort I couldn’t have expected. They have helped me to feel at ease and hopeful and unafraid of the September to come. They may have fixed me in certain ways.
Unexpectedly, I am happy here in Dublin, a place with more character in a single city block than there is in all of Seoul. It’s a place I had long wanted to visit until the time actually came. And now that I am here I know that the ghosts of Dublin are not to be feared at all, but are to be embraced for all the things they represent.
In downtown Copenhagen near Frederik’s Church is Amalienborg Palace, which is the winter home of the Danish royal family. The palace is made up of four identical facades and an octagonal courtyard and in the middle is a statue of King Frederik. My inner-nerd was quite excited to visit Amalienborg, because I fondly recall the days when I played Sim City 4 obsessively and always loved to build the Amalienborg landmark because it looked great and didn’t do much harm to my city budget. However, the Sim City version and the real version aren’t even comparable, as the real palace is much much more impressive.
A few blocks directly west of Amalienborg is Frederik’s Church, or the Marble Church, a Lutheran church located just west of Amalienborg Palace in Copenhagen. The interior of the church is absolutely beautiful and its dome is the largest in all of Scandinavia.
This morning I woke up to wind and sunshine and thought it a good day to head across the sound to Malmo, Sweden’s 3rd largest city. To tell the truth the thought of beautiful, blonde, bikinied Swedish women at the beach was a temptation I didn’t give much effort to resist. The train from Copenhagen Central Station took about 35 minutes and cost about $15 dollars, though the return trip was a bit more expensive for some reason.
After arriving at Malmo Central, I hired an old, beaten up, brakeless bicycle and headed straight for the beach, which wasn’t hard to find. Malmo actually has four or five distinct beaches and it seems they are all connected by a continuous bicycle/pedestrian road. I pedaled a few kilometers along the bike lanes and visited a couple beaches. Unfortunately, because of the wind, I didn’t stay long because of the amount of sand that as getting kicked up in my eyes and whipping my legs. But I did stay long enough to take a quick dip in the Baltic Sea, which was beautiful, dark blue, and, expectedly, fairly cold.
After heading back into town, I pedaled toward the Turning Torso, which is the tallest building in the Nordic Countries and looks not as oddly out of place as I expected. Much of Malmo appears to be modern, luxury development with a lot of new apartment buildings and shopping centers built along the northern coast of the city.
Back in the older part of the city not far from the train terminal is Lilla Torg, or Small Square. Here there are tons of shops, cafes, and restaurants, and a lot of al fresco dining and sitting about. Many of the buildings in Lilla Torg date back as far as the late 15th century and have been beautifully restored. And located not far is St. Peter’s church, which is also used as a restaurant and concert hall. Lilla Torg is quaint and full of energy and a great place for a lunch on a warm summer day.
Elsewhere in the city are other sites, namely Malmohus Castle and Kallbadhuset (a sauna), but, because of the brakeless bicycle, I was forced to foot out much of the afternoon, which limited my range. Besides that, it was terribly hot today, over 28 degrees, and the sun here is relentless (18 hours a day in summer). Additionally, my transportation pass expired at 4:30pm, so I wanted to get back to Frederiksborg before having to buy a new transport ticket.
Tomorrow will be last day in Copenhagen before moving on to Dublin for the weekend and then on to Portland, Maine to see family. I plan to visit a local park that a Danish friend recommended and then get my laundry washed before heading to the airport. More to come later.