NCC-1492 and The Good Ship Daehan

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Who's Complaining in Korea

This is part three in a series. You may wish to read the above links. If you don’t:

Part 1 discussed reasons why so many expatriates complain about Korea. Part 2 seemed to rush off onto a tangent mostly focused on Iksan, a small city where I lived for a couple of years when I first arrived in Korea, and the unevenness of its development. I ended discussing a landfill crisis there, and describing how young locals were all dressed in their usual stunning finery, promenading serenely past barricades of trash bags blocking the sidewalk. Then, with promises to return soon and finish the line of thought, I wrote:

In the meantime, consider this: why was it that in Iksan, the most (pleasantly, at the time!) backwater place I have lived in Korea, young people were so incredibly concerned with fashion, and dressing up? Why did young men almost invariably wear suits to class, or else very fashionable designer clothing? Why was the rate of infection of “Princess Disease” — the condition which people used to describe young women who were obsessed with their looks, trying to be pretty, and coaxing boyfriends to buy them something — so very high in Iksan? And what was going through those people’s minds as they gingerly treaded the well-worn paths past those garbage barricades, dodging Bongo trucks and nihilistic, suicidal Chinese food delivery scooter-boys as they went? What were they thinking?

I’ll get to the answer of that by the end of this post, I swear to you. But first, I want to take a little side trip, and then a much bigger interstellar voyage, with you.

Paul Park’s Celestis

First, the side-trip: anyone who’s studying the Korean fascination with/adoption of foreign culture, cargo-cults of consumption and self-modification (James, I’m sure you count in that group) would probably enjoy the novel I’m reading now. It’s a book called Celestis, by Paul Park. It’s unfortunately out of print — one of the best SF books of the year it came out, nominated for a Nebula Award for that year, but out of print! However, it’s easy to get second-hand from various shops like Abebooks. Paul was a teacher of mine at the Clarion West workshop, and he is a brilliant teacher — he ran an amazing first week — but he’s also a brilliant writer. This novel is basically art, as well as excruciatingly engrossing, and painful, and beautiful, and lots of things are just very alien. Heck, if you don’t believe me, check out the blurbs by people like John Crowley and Kim Stanley Robinson on the cover, and Terry Bisson and Michael Swanwick inside. Oh, yeah, right, you can’t since the book is on my desk.

Well, here’s the back matter — the summary of the book on the back cover:

Paul Park has written an extraordinary, challenging, and disturbing novel about a human colony on a distant alien world, the planet Celestis. The native humanoid population is subjugated by the human colonists, but many of the Aboriginals undergo medical procedures involving surgery and drugs to make them look and think more like humans. As support from home wanes, the “improved” Aboriginals launch a rebellion against the colonists. Simon, a political functionary from Earth, and Katherine, the altered daughter of a successful native merchant, are taken hostage by the rebels. Simon falls in love with Katherine, but, cut off from a supply of the medication she needs to maintain her humanlike state, her suppressed alien nature begins to reemerge. As she discovers her true self, hidden vistas of expanded alien perception are revealed in a stunning exploration of the limits of humanity.

At the beginning of the novel, the (already humanoid) aliens are taking handfuls of pills daily so that they can look and think like earthlings. They have things like plastic jawbones inserted into their faces in order to have a more human appearance, so that humans can stand to sit an talk to them. At one point, one of the aliens — Katherine, still in her quasi-human state — muses on how the two greatest gifts humanity has given Celestis are European classical music and Christianity (well, it is a British/American space colony; Simon is a British man of, I believe, Indian background), and yet the human colonists themselves don’t appreciate either very much at all. Here is a moment that just screams with how I think a lot of Westerners feel when they encounter those things that strike them as “alien” in Korea. Simon and his driver have stopped by the side of the road after hitting a dog, and a native (alien) approaches them, on pages 31-32:

He was less than five feet tall. Smaller than Simon’s driver, and different, too. Aboriginal servants in Shreveport and the Territory usually underwent some surgery, paid for by their families or their employers, to make their faces tolerable. Something to give expression to their blank features. Just pieces of plastic bone under the skin, hints of brow lines and noses and cheekbones and chins, and they would learn to move them in vague approximations of smiles and frowns. Otherwise communication was too difficult, to disconcerting.

But this man on the railroad track was untouched, raw. He stood hunched over, his back and shoulders round, his arms long, his hands practically fingerless–thick and clumsy. Yet he was the shape of a human being, and for that reason he was difficult, almost painful, to look at closely. Simon’s eyes seemed to want to change him, to fill in details, stretch him up straight, straighten his limbs, put his small bald head into proportion. Automatically they did so, and it was only through a conscious effort of will that Simon could look at him clearly, examine him as the man came closer, for he was approaching on his short legswith graceful, mincing steps. His face was meaningless, that’s all–pale and unformed, full of small wrinkles and ridges that went nowhere and made no pattern. And in the middle of it a lipless hole. A toothless mouth, and above it, two amber eyes.

There seemed nothing threatening about him. He was not strong or fast. His movements seemed tentative, unsure. Yet Simon stepped backward along the railway track and put his hand up as the Aboriginal got close, as if to ward off an attack.

Two holes near the juncture of its neck: its ears. It clamped its padded palms over them and squatted down, and turned away its faceback toward the town. Was it responding to him? Or perhaps to something else…

There’s a lot to unpack there, about Simon’s eyes wanting to reformulate the alien, change it into proportions that Simon’s mind expects and wants. That puts me in mind of something Sonagi mentioned recently as part of this larger discussion, about the confirmation bias — people seeing what they expect, and discarding contrary evidence without even noticing it.

Baek Ji Young Plastic Surgery Images

And, too, the practice among the Aboriginals of altering their bodies to be more similar to the human colonists — plastic surgery, it deserves pointing out. Especially the focus on facial structures, on acceptability to humans, but also on how their own standards get warped. (They think in terms of the “beauty” of a humanized alien, their aesthetics are shaped by their own acceptance of — or, in the rebels’ case, their anxious refusal to accept — the aesthetics of their human conquerors. The use of drugs — medication — to essentially humanize their thought processes is very interesting, not because I find it particularly believable in a literal sense, but because of how fascinating it is in the sense of what it opens up once you remove those drugs from the picture. Foreign media being, really, the cultural equivalent of such drugs, in terms of their impact on cultures.

Which is to say, as you walk down the street and look at young Koreans, and think about how much of their mannerisms, styles, and appearance are cribbed from someone else’s youth culture, and then try to imagine what they would be wearing and stylizing themselves like — if styling their hair and clothes at all, or even walking down the street together — it’s kind of mind-blowing. Take one deeply transformative and “normalizing” (to us) force out of the equation, and things get very weird.

(But then, that’s true of most cultures in the world… what would young Saskatonians, or Moscovites, or Ivioriens, be wearing in 2008 if America had magically disappeared off the face of the earth in 1908? What music would they be singing? I’ve long been researching and thinking about an alternate history in a world where Europe and the European presence abroad sort of imploded about a hundred and fifty years ago. A sort of Rudyard Kipling’s-worst-nightmare scenario. It’s very hard work figuring out stuff like clothing and fashion and language and so on.)

I do think, though, that there’s been some change in the rate and acceptance of biomodification between women of this generation:


… and this generation:

why zen bar used to be even cooler

… and I’m not just saying that because those older women look like older women, either.

(Though, riffing on the Paul Park book, can you imagine what would happen if suddenly Korean wives and girlfriends of foreigners across the country suddenly metamorphosed into country ajummas, like, overnight? No more English, no more T-shirts with funny, cute slogans, suddenly wearing a visor-brimmed hat and being very picky about the cooking? I imagine a mass exodus would ensue in Korea!)

I think a great deal of this would be applicable to a different discussion — one that in this comment on an earlier post in this series, Sonagi has reminded me of, and which I’d long considered writing as a kind of Korean-expat reworking of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks — exploring identities and relationships between natives and foreigners in Korea collectively. This, too, is probably an important part of the dynamic being discussed. But even leaving that aside, we can run with the difficulty just in seeing things as they are that Simon encounters.

To explore that a little more, I’d like to use a rather different, although related, science-fiction metaphor.


Let’s imagine there are two basically agrarian nations — we’ll call them the Colombs and the Josaan, living on a planet full of almost nothing but peasant farmers and a little cottage industry here and there — weavers, midwives, apothecaries, physicians, scholars, but no engineers, no manufacture. The planet is relatively mineral-poor enough that the locals can’t build things from iron, there’s no petroleum in the ground even if they thought up what to do with it, but they do okay with bone and wood and coal and whatever. They’re hanging around, farming, having the odd peasant revolt, dealing with life under the rule of some monarch or other, and then, suddenly, one day, the motherships appear in the sky. The peasants in both nations basically freak out, and finally, the king in one nation — it happens to be the Colombs — strikes up a kind of friendship with the aliens.The aliens tell him about, you know, space, planets, and so on. They tell him, “Hey, guess what! There’s this planet out there, called Planet Modernity, that’s massive, it’s full of resources, it’s a funky place! You and your people would be really happy there! Y’all should get on over there!”

So the king says, “Okay, but how?”And the aliens like him so much, they gift him with a generation-ship big enough to hold his whole nation. They say, “Well, the ship kinda runs like this, and you need to do that to keep it going, and by the way, you’re going to be long dead when this ship arrives, but in the long run, man, things are gonna be excellent for your people.” So the king announces to his people, hey, folks, we’re on our way. Pack up whatever you’re unwilling to give up, because we’re never coming back!” and then the Colombs all pile into the ship with their assorted goats and chicken-like creatures, and they take off. The king wonders about whether to bring along the Josaan, too — they’re not natural enemies or anything — but the ship is a little crowded as it is, so in the end, they just leave the Josaan behind, except for a few brave souls who happened to be in Colomb Territory, or who were invited along, or passed themselves off just to get a glimpse of utopia, hoping they could come back someday, maybe, perhaps.

Now, the ship — which we’ll call the NCC-1492 (a few generations before the NCC-1701) — moves at a hell of a clip, it’s a significant proportion of lightspeed, but it still takes a few hundred years to get to Planet Modernity. Nobody would call it slow, at the time, but still, whole generations are going to live and die on the ship. The first generation or two are going to be scarred, of course, by the disjunction: where’s all that land to till? The good greenness? They’ll long for sunrises and sunsets that won’t ever come in their lifetimes again. Wars break out among them, mutinies and dangers and all the madness that happens in any civilization. But in time, their society will adapt — and, at a much slower rate, and painfully, but just as surely, their culture will change. It will transform over time to a culture of spacefarers, people comfortable with space, who’re hip with that.

Barred Spiral Galaxy NGC 1300 — pic for June 28 2008 |

Living in space is not really what humans were designed for. Hell, the shift to agrarian life was tough, but at least people could live in small groups, without too much need for specialization; they had some specialized knowledge, but it was often widely-shared, and relatively easily learned. Without huge amounts of technical knowledge upon which their very survival depended, and living in an ecosystem that they were designed to live in, life was easy. But space, space wasn’t like that. As the generations passed, one after another, they had to change themselves immensely in order to survive. They implanted machinery into their brains, interfacing directly with the ship’s systems. They specialized to a degree thatwas unimagined in their old society. The ship, along the way, experienced several disastrous, damaging incidents, some of them caused by the passengers — the inmates, they might be called, in the early years — and some of them environmental.

But in time, the people on NCC-1492 adapted themsleves to survive, and to get pretty good at surviving. They reconstructed the ship — whilst still en route —  in ways that sometimes was worse, sometimes better. They changed themselves, and sometimes they were changed by the ship itself, so that when they arrive at Planet Modernity, the Colomb no longer recognizably human, according to the standards of the old King of Colomb who started them out on this voyage. They’re like Lobsters, gooey human insides with the hard bits extruded out into exoskeletons (yeah, I’m ripping off this book by Bruce Sterling here); they’re adapted to life in space. They’ve gone and altered their DNA, and while the farmers in the other nation, back home, would probably be shocked to see what they’ve become, to these spacefarers, the definition of humanity has changed. Lobster is normal; the people they were back in the days under King Whatshisname were, well… something else.

The Colomb, in their spare time — of which there is, random emergencies and adjustments aside, a lot of — they trawl through the ship’s vast, patchy data archives of the early days, watching those… ancients doing their thing. Goats and chickens and soil. They thank heavens for arbeiter drones that take care of the agriculture now. They wouldn’t say those ancient people, who called themselves “The Colomb,”  weren’t human, but a planet of farmers is not what comes to mind when they define the word, “humanity.” Their sense of the universals have been retuned, altered, changed. In fact, two-thirds of the way out to Planet Modernity, they figure out how to digitize themselves, and start backing up their brains and bodies in case of emergency. More and more of them exist, teeming in the halls and habitable zones of the ship, ready to pour out into the world to which they’re headed.

And they’ve figured out that the way they’ve modified themselves, it’s all for the good, because Planet Modernity? It’s not a planet, actually. It’s more like a Dyson Swarm — a collection of habitats, solar energy collectors, and whatever else gets thrown into the mix, all in a jumbled mass swarming orbit around a sun, soaking up all that wonderful energy — working its way to becoming a semi-diffuse Matrioshka brain network that’s just starting to link up into a closed set of shells on one of the hottest suns yet detected in the galactic neighborhood. The aliens who sold the ancient Colomb on this Planet Modernity business did it knowing that a bunch of primitive farmers really wouldn’t understand a Dyson Swarm, let alone a Matrioshka Brain, so they them told stories of a wonderful, utopian planet where their dreams would come true. Dreams that they simply were not yet equipped to dream, but, along the way, had noticed through spectrographic readings exactly what they were headed towards, dreamed those new dreams, and — some of them a little anxiously — fell in love with the future they’d been given.

Orderly Dyson Swarm

Meanwhile, back on the homeworld…

Several centuries have passed, and the Josaan are, relatively speaking, at the same point that they and the Colomb were when the Colomb took off — a few more innovations, a few differences in culture, but essentially, they’re at the same basic tech-level as before. They have spread out, taken the continent that the Colomb left uninhabited, but living in what is increasingly, to many of them, looking like poverty. There is a famine underway — the third of the current King’s ruling era. Life is tough, on the homeworld, but then, it always has been.


And then, suddenly they, too, like the Colomb, are approached by aliens.

Well, actually, an alien ship — different bunch of aliens, maybe, or a different faction, it doesn’t matter —  crash-landed on their planet. It was a missionary ship, sent by aliens to convert them all to some Omega-Point worshipping cult — and a surprising number of Josaan actually converted to the cult, despite the crash-landing, and a secret slavery project was outed, proceeded anyway, but after a generation or so, the Josaan — by then a little more familiar with the alien’s tech, did something amazing and bizarre. They got one of the surviving aliens to explain how the ship worked, and guess what? This ship is a substantial improvement over the one that the Colomb used. It moves faster than light, and that means, if they leave now, the Josaan can get to Planet Modernity at just about the same time as the Colomb, give or take a few decades. The aliens who own the ship, they’re a funny bunch: some of them offer warnings about Planet Modernity — “It’s not what you think it is!” but others nod and say, “Oh, yes, there were a few Josaan who went along, they spoke highly of Planet Modernity.” They even have holos to back it up.

So after a few years of deliberation, the Josaan king and his advisors agree: let’s do it. Let’s see what Planet Modernity offers us. The Josaan repaint the new name of the ship — which is now theirs — onto the side. The Good Ship Daehan, they call it. They eagerly pile into the ship, hoping for better than what the planet offered them, and a few — the supposedly cleverest of the lot, the ones with a facility for foreign tongues — hack the controls, and get the ship flying, sort of. It swoops, it bangs into random asteroids, and a couple of break out on The Good Ship Daehan, too — the king is removed from the throne at some point, aliens take over briefly, and then the ship passes through an interstellar warzone, after which the missing king is replaced by a group of warriors led by a warrior chief — but life goes on, and the ship hurtles at breakneck speed towards Planet Modernity.

There’s a significant difference, though. The Good Ship Daehan is not a generation ship. This baby is FTL — faster than light. Once the pilot hits the button, that ship is going tostreak across space at an incredible rate, warping spacetime, shoving the gravity brane up its own wormhole and lashing itself to the retrograde wave pulse (or substitute whatever technobabble you like), so that in a couple of generations — a short forty or sixty years — this society is going to arrive at Planet Modernity. Their language will still be (essentially) the same language that was spoken when it was mostly farmers huddling with pigs and chickens in the hallways of the massive ship. The culture will not have changed significantly — except, of course, the massive shock of millions of people finding themselves in a single, densely-populated ship instead of in a network of farming villages, and that everyone will have adapted, in a hurry, to the exigencies of living on a spaceship.

And then the ship arrives. Bang: here’s Planet Modernity. And the older Josaan — many of whom remember tilling the sweet earth back on the homeworld, remember the scent of dung in the yard and the lowing of beasts in the fields, remember sunrise and sunset and having to go outdoors to take a dump — mostly go, “What? Where’s the planet?”The younglings, they’re not quite the same as the Lobsters that the Colomb became — a lot of them have experimented with brain-machine interfaces, and biomodification doesn’t freak them out, and among them is a strong, growing sense that the oldsters simply don’t get it. They aren’t even too uncomfortable with the idea of living out their days inside The Good Ship Daehan, since it’s all they’ve ever known. In fact, a few of them had spent time hanging out with the ship’s computer, and it had clued them in — as much as possible, for the children of farmers, which is much more than you might think — as to what Planet Modernity will actually look like.

The Good Ship Daehan arrives at Planet Modernity only a little while after the NCC-1492. (They might have arrived sooner, maybe even at the same time as NCC-1492, but those intergalactic wars have a way of throwing ships off the course.) Imagine their shock, though, to see what the Colomb have become. What are these Lobster things? They don’t even remember who they are — they don’t even use the word Colomb anymore! They’re so thoroughly deformed!

This, of course, is what the oldsters are thinking. The younglings are more mixed in their opinion. Some of them are horrified — even more when the first Josaan-Lobster intermarriage occurs, and when they see more and more young Josaan heading off in shuttles. Those who head out think differently, and embrace the Josaan’s adaptations to space, to Planet Modernity: they come back increasingly Lobster-like, with new languages implanted in their brains, the faintest hints of exoskeletal extrusions along their bodies. Sometimes, the adaptations are actually functional, and sometimes superficial. Trade ensues, and exchange, and soon, The Good Ship Daehan becomes a part of the networked Dyson Swarm, a network that is slowly knitting itself together into a single solid shell, a Matrioshka brain titled Planet Postmodernity. Planet Postmodernity actually exists, now, in its nonexistence — the network is there, yet it is incomplete. So everyone smiles and just calls it Planet Modernity, because as the various species living in orbit here all learned on their slower trips out, the terminology will sort itself out, given enough time.

RUR scene with robots

Lobsters visit The Good Ship Daehan, as well — some as tourists, some on trade missions, some as missionaries, and others following their Josaan lovers back home. The Good Ship Daehan invites more Colomb — they haven’t gotten used to calling people “Lobsters” and don’t quite “get” what it means to be a Lobster, anyway — and here is what the Lobsters find: the ship is a strange combination of things that look like they’re straight out of historical media archives — stuff from the earliest vids on record, even — and things that are utterly common here in the nonplanet called — still, by all — Planet Modernity.  Pigs and chickens cluck and wallow not a kilometer from the Stringpuller Drive, and the guy whose job it is to monitor activity on the gravity brane during orbital adjustments goes home to his mom, whom he has just convinced to stop raising pigs near the habitable compound because she’s getting too frail to handle it. The Lobsters can’t believe it. The weird foods these people eat. The smell of the farm animals. The funny clothes, and tha strange combination of Planet Modernity dialect and ancient Josaan, with its odd concepts so vaguely familiar, and yet so alien.

In fact, the Josaan being such new arrivals, even though they’re essentially the same species as the Lobsters, there’s nobody more different or alien than a young Lobster and an elderly Josaan. But the younger Josaan — with time, they’re so Lobster-like you can even find a few who you’d mistake for a Lobster. You find a few who indeed are Lobsters, living on Lobster habitats. When they visit The Good Ship Daehan, the Josaan smile, recognizing the trace of Josaan heritage, and speak to them in the old tongue, and often are uncomprehended. Time passes, and the young arebusy studying the Dyson Swarm, some of them emigrating out, others focusing on how to interact with the outsiders. It becomes a craze, this sort of study, and it is only then, slowly, that people begin to realize what got jettisoned along the way. The youngest Josaan, the ones who are hip to the Lobster gospel, feel it first, as a sort of unnameable absence deep within themselves.

At the same time, there’s a growing conviction, among some of them, that Planet Modernity isn’t really about what’s outside the ship anyway; it’s a state of mind, and that some of the oldsters, for all their worship of The Omega Point — a growing faith upon the ship, supplanting the animist gods they believed in — some of these old people will never, ever reach Planet Modernity. Even so, the younger generation still remember tales of things like grassy meadows and sunrise and dancing — dancing is hard to do with no gravity — and even they can’t help but dream of a planetary existence, despite knowing what they know. But the pigs, and the chickens, and the dung scent in the air, they want none of that. That was left behind on the homeworld, and there it should stay, as far as most of the young Josaan are concerned.

And the difficulties grow, between those who will never really reach Planet Modernity, and those who are already there. But what can the young Josaan do? Jettison their parents and grandparents out into hard  vacuum? No. They live with them, they struggle, and, yes, they talk among themselves. They wonder — not eagerly, but quietly, nervously — what the ship will be like when the last person ever to touch the soil on the homeworld is gone. Even with the life-extension treatments the Lobsters have sold them, the day will come eventually.

And yes, the Josaan complain among themselves, but most Lobsters never know. The Lobsters don’t learn their language, but the wisest among them guess it, and Lobsters with Josaan lovers hear the rants from time to time: “The old categorical systems! The old tribal chiefs!” The Lobsters have their own complaints, those few who live aboard The Good Ship Daehan, but most of the complaining is, of course, among the Josaan themselves.


This little fable, I hope, tells most of what I want to say, but first, the caveats: it’s not a perfect analogy. There little of Japan, of colonialism, of significant cultural differences and how they shape the reception of techologies, and it posits the idea we’re all now at Planet Modernity, or at least, as close as we individually are going to get… when, in fact, I’m more comfortable with the idea we’re all still hurtling toward Planet Modernity, all of us still stuck in a historical backwater en route, or that least that at least this is how our grandkids will see us, when they bother to look back over their shoulders at all.There’s cutesy space travel, and all the rest, but my point here is this: The West had hundreds of years (several hundred, at least) to adjust culturally — not just socially, as in, in life circumstances, but also in terms of the structures within the culture, which change much more slowly — to the kinds of transformations it underwent becoming a modern (or postmodern) society. Korea has not. As I wrote in some comment at The Joshing Gnome:

Personally, I’m thinking cultures transition at the speed of death, meaning, much more slowly than at the pace of social change. Societies change very rapidly, but cultures never keep with this. Enter Alvin Toffler and the cheesball-brillliant Future Shock.

As The Korean noted in his post, which I explored in my last installment in this series,

A cursory look at Seoul shows a fantastically futuristic city. People carry around crazy technological gizmos. Internet works at blinding speed. Everywhere you go there are flat screen panels showing some type of moving images, just like the visions of future that we used to have through sci-fi movies of yesteryear.

One cannot help but feel a little bit like Homer Simpson as he was marveling at the dancing fountain/toilet in his hotel room in Japan: “They are YEARS ahead of us!” Upon seeing this spectacle, it is only reasonable to expect Korea to be a fully modern country, and its citizens to behave in a fully modern way.

But this outlook cannot be more misleading. And this is really the point that anyone who wishes to understand modern Korea must know – Korea has only become this way in the last 15 years. All the people who were born and raised in the pre-modern era are not only alive, but they are the people who are in their 50s and 60s, leading the whole country and educating the next generation.

And the next generation, it has to be said, is not completely on board with that. They’re in the uneasy position that the Josaan are in up there in my little fable, having arrived in orbit at Planet Modernity, and yet, er, not quite having arrived, and surrounded by people who, for all intents and purposes, are lost somewhere halfway between the homeworld and the new one.

An anecdote, and one I advise any EFL teachers who haven’t experienced, to do next time they get a chance: I asked a group of young adults to critically discuss some aspect of Korean society in their presentations one semester. The most interesting discussion of all was by a young woman who was commuting to school on the subway. She said it was about two hours on the subway each way to get to and from school, which, you know, is almost like something out of a nightmare, as far as I’m concerned.

Anyway, she talked about techniques for getting a seat, and then, finally, launched into a long rant about ajummas and their behaviour on the subway. This was something that got the whole class talking. Apparently, the most universal sentiment among my students in debate class that semester was that ajummas on the subway are about the most annoying people on earth. Despite occasional quips that, “Well, I’ll be an ajumma too, someday, so I’ll behave the same way when I am!” there was a strong sense that none of the women in the class actually wanted to become like that at all. The men moaned and complained about ajummas, the women did. I don’t think they would have done so, though, if an older Korean had numbered among the students. I don’t think the discussion would have come up at all, at least, not unless there was an extremely brave soul.

The title of this series is, “Who’s Complaining in Korea?” that’s my response to Roboseyo’s question about why expats complain so much online. The fact is, Koreans complain — online and offline alike — too, and one of the sad facts is that many expats here don’t seem to be aware of it. They seem to imagine that Koreans are, in general, quite happy-go-lucky with the fact that there are tons of nonfunctional systems here, that development is askew, that all kinds of annoyances surround them. Sadly, many people seem not to consider doing what The Korean invites them to do, in the title of his blog: Ask A Korean.

My experience with Lime is that, in fact, we happen to find a lot of the same things annoying. The lack of a decent political candidate in the last election; the disrepair of so many fundamental systems here; the way so many people behave inconsiderately in public — these things bug her too. They probably make me batty in a way that strikes her a bit over the top, at times, of course, because I didn’t grow up with it. But they bug her too.

There are differences in what bothers us, of course. When I walk into a bathroom where the stink is horrible, I usually walk right back out unless it’s an emergency. That’s the sort of thing Lime, and I think many Koreans, can take in stride… at least to a certain point. The inconsideration, the petty corruption that bangs you in the face time and time again, the constant interjections of a few racists, the general degree of sexism — it’s getting better, but has a long way to go — and so on bug us both, but for her, its the way things are, and you kind of just have to accept it and move on as best you can… just as I do with the bullshit that I revile in Western society.

But honestly, if you listen to Koreans, they’re all around you, and they’re complaining about all kinds of things too — many of them the very same issues you’re all worked up about, many of them with information you don’t have, or perspectives you’ve not yet encountered. Probably it helps if you speak (or read) Korean well — I’m not that good, but even I can pick out a constant, low-level degree of critical discussion, of complaint, of downright ranting sometimes.

(For example, here’s Lime criticizing the lack of what we might call an “argument culture” or “culture of discussion” or even just a “space for debate” among the protesters and how alarming it is to see authoritarian tendencies manifes. She also talks about debating with me. I’m the mackerel [“고등어”] in her post. She’s far from the only person to have observed, criticized, and attacked this aspect of the protests, either — indeed, her favorite reported in 시사인 (SisaIn) very strongly criticized it in print. But of course, we didn’t hear much about that in the English blogosphere.)

It’s a very common occurrence that Lime, arriving home from study, logs on to catch up with the news and minutes later is ranting to me about the f*cking useless cops who didn’t pursue a case against this criminal child-abducter, or about that f*cking moron gang of politicians who have gone and made Korea look backwards by feeling up statues of nude women in the States, or whatever. She’s not some raging, angry person — she’s actually very optimistic, quite positive in her thinking, but even she has muttered darkly about some future social collapse in Korea, or another economic crisis being brought on by morons in the upper echelon.

The anglophone internet, by the way, is full of rants. Definitions aside, the word brings up almost 42 million hits on Google. I don’t know how many “rants” there are on the Korean internet, of course — but I suspect they take a slightly different form given the architecture of the net in Korea. That is, they’re likely to be concentrated in comments, not in posts on websites, and, I think, they’re likely to surface as en masse criticisms of things. The upwelling of anti-Lee Myung Bak sentiment that manifested as protests here? The sudden surge in anti-Protestant sentiment during the Korean hostage crisis the other year? These, to me, are excellent examples of a kind of snowball effect that maybe doesn’t quite catch on so much in the English blogosphere — where we’re much more into writing long blog posts like this one that show our insight and individual knowledge — but a hint of which can, ironically, be glimpsed at Marmot’s Hole, in the comment sections there. Multiply that by millions, and you see what kind of complaining exists out there. But not just the irrational, kneejerk idiocies — also, the level heads, the calmer comentators, and so on.

But looking at blogs written by expats in Korea is not really the way to get your finger on the pulse of Korean society. It tells us more about the expats than Koreans — and that’s fine, for what it is, but you know, sooner or later you have people claiming absurdities as gospel truth. If indeed it can be done online — and I think online is one place where certain aspects of mass culture only emerge, though it’s not the whole picture — then it’s in the Korean-language cafés on sites like Daum and Naver, I think, where people wrangle and wrestle with one another over what bothers the, what they care about, and also the limits of what they can say and do about it in public.

The Dog Poop Girl episode?

(By the way, why does the Wikipedia article credit Anonymous — yes, the same group who protested Scientology in Guy Fawkes masks earlier this year — with outing Dog Poop Girl’s identity? Is Anonymous active in Korea? Might these be the same people who donned Fawkes masks at the Candlelight Protestscaptured on video by Roboseyo here — a few weeks ago? Now that would indeed be interesting. I doubt it, but you never know…)

What foreigners see is psychotic Korean netizens acting en masse, witch-hunting someone who didn’t do something so bad as to justify having her life ruined. And in their (ostensibly) infinite wisdom, they dispense the judgement that Korean netizens are assholes and idiots and —

[… watch this massive leap in illogic…]

— that this just proves, they’ll tell you, proves, that the whole of Korean society is medieval, fascist, illogical, backwards; still capable of the most nasty, brutish groupthink.

Yeah, right.

Such claims make me want to research how much online references to words like “camel jockey” and “sand nigger” (let alone “bomb them back to the stone age”) increased in late 2001. How is it that opposition to gay marriage — the way people live in their private homes — is still a political issue in most “advanced” Western democracies? Oh, yes, Western society is also, definitely, still capable of nasty, brutish groupthink. We have medieval nuts, fascists, backwards pigs in our ranks too, over here on the Lobste-habitats. We just don’t define our whole society based on its dumbest, loudest members. Some of us, however, do indeed do this when looking at Korean society… with disconcerting regularity.

But Anglophones who look around will also see a debate about these things, online, and similarly, despite the way Koreans seem to prefer to avoid disagreement and debate online — or maybe in fact because of that, see my discussion of Lawrence Lessig’s sense of this (and the following debate in the comments section) here — there is a great deal of contentiousness in the Korean internet, and not just among cybermobs who — yes, exist, and who, yes, sometimes do outrageously attack people (sometimes including a few unfortunate foreigners).

Well, yes, and as I said above, The Good Ship Daehan‘s inmates haven’t all arrived at Planet Modernity, no matter how deep in orbit they are. For that matter, nor have all of the inhabitants of the NCC-1492. In both ships, there are a saddening number of people who’re just sort of lost, somewhere along the way, mentally, but physically, they’re in orbit. And this can have catastrophic effects, in the short term, on the small scale.

I’m not saying that what happened to Bevers or Brian happened because of what they did: the reaction was over the top, the behaviour is shocking. But when a mob of frustrated, antisocial Josaan blow an unfortunate Lobster or two out of airlocks, though, that’s not really grounds to expel the whole of The Good Ship Daehan from the Dyson Swarm… especially if the Lobsters walked into discussions knowing that they were pushing the hot buttons of the very groups most likely to do so. If you don’t know that you’re risking the ire of Vank or Korean netizens when you discuss Korean politics online by now, then you’re not paying enough attention.

Yes, on the NCC-1492, we have free speech; many of us think — and our laws state — that anyone can become a Lobster and a full member of the Dysonswarm polity, Colomb or Josaan or mixed-blood or cybernetic retooled hivemind emulation upload… or member of any of thousands more species who’ve intergrated, whatever and whoever you might happen be. Yes, yes, but on The Good Ship Daehan, these people just arrived from the homeworld, and their rules arent quite ours, even if they’re, yes, part of the Dysonswarm. Their own rules say that nobody should be shoved into airlocks and vented out into space, but until recently, most Josaan never had met a Lobster, or anything else except another Josaan.

But anyway, a lot of that is tangential to my point, which is one that, now that I think of it, James at The Grand Narrative made a long time ago, in other words, though I can’t find the post where he said it, but essentially, that foreigners aren’t the only ones who are discussing the problems with the educational system here, with the police force, with politicians, with just about any topic that is annoying or concerning us expats. At least — the problems that intelligent expats with a little sympathy for Koreans, who care what the people around them are facing now and will be facing in the future.

The somewhat more inane complaints and mockery — a recent example being Seoul Podcast’s downright rude, and utterly uncreative crack in the form of a mock-ad “The Jun Ji-hyun Home for Beautiful Women with Scant T&A” — because we all have to talk about Koreans’ women’s bodies negatively, since women have such healthy body images here, don’t they! and wouldn’t it be better if they were obese like us North Americans! — probably have their parallels as well, in the rudeness of Korean websites where boys bash photos of girls. Well, there is crassness and stupidity in every society. There are jerks on The Good Ship Daehan, just as there are throughout the DysonSwarm.

But the thing that a lot of people on both sides don’t realize is that others are watching, and translating what they see — though, sadly on both sides, mostly the most sensationalist garbage.

And that, meanwhile, in relative ignorance of one another, many people of realitively good will, of concern and compassion and serious consideration, live out their lives unaware of the other, all the while talking about the problems they both see, not hearing the other discussion in the room next door.

It puts me in mind of the line from Rilke that Hugh McLennan took and named a novel after — Two Solitudes — a line that for McLennan expressed the tensions between French and English identities in the novel’s protagonist:

And this more human love (which will fulfill itself with infinite consideration and gentleness, and kindness and clarity in binding and releasing) will resemble what we are now preparing painfully and with great struggle: the love that consists in this: the two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.

We Lobsters (or proto-Lobsters, perhaps) will never be anything like French Canada, never so much to protect and border and greet the Josaan the way the two solitudes in Canada can — and on a human level often do — meet and nurture one another. But we could protect, and  border, and greet much more than we do now; we could connect more to that wider, more enlightened portion of Josaan society, and since it is their society, my dear Lobsters, we have nobody to blame but ourselves for not doing so, for not listening to those wiser and most thoughtful of their kind. Discomforts are inevitable, but we have only ourselves to blame for how poorly we understand that those discomforts are shared, and that bright, bright people on both sides are discussing the same things.

Shall we continue to leave their sages alone to hold court in some forgotten corner of The Good Ship Daehan? Maybe we can offer them something, maybe we cannot. I suspect that some of them have much to offer us. I suspect that, like us, they grow impatient with the mobs, the elderly folk crying out, “Let us return to the Homeworld!” I suspect the ship’s disrepair is a trial to many of them, too. We could understand more, much more. But we cannot do it from so far outside their ship.

Oh, to have language implants. Well, since those aren’t in the cards — we’re all born too soon for that — I suppose I shall have to study instead. I’m reminded of these translators in Greg Egan’s novelDiaspora who, because humans have altered themselves so much — right down to the genetic level, meaning drasic biomodification, neurological recoding, and so on — so that human languages can actually be rather significantly untranslatable between one another. There are these weird, special beings that undergo partial modification, though — shades and gradations closer to the beings they’re translator for, who therefore can straddle the barrier. Messages travel along these frail chains of communication from, say, a group of humans who have taken to the depths of the ocean, or to humans who have returned to tree-dwelling. I may not become fluent — I’m sure I won’t — but I can self-modify just enough to reach out a little better than I currently can or do.

You can do it too. Maybe not with Korea — there are millions of neglected areas of knowledge to go out, to find, to share with the world. It needn’t be the ones that excite me.

And that is a wrap for this series. Next time, I’ll be back to SF in Korea — which I’m planning to focus on a lot more, now that I have those back issues of Fantasia — as well as writing up about this year’s PiFan… especially the rather amazing movie The Housemaid by Kim Ki Young — my god, so much to say about that! — plus more on Gin Lane and Soju-ro. But blogging will be light for a while: I’m trying to get some fiction done in the next ten daysfor the write-a-thon, will be seeing a ton of movies, and I’m going to start studying Korean again. The embarrassment, and the desire to reach out and connect with the best this place has to offer, once again have ouweighed the exhaustion and accreted apathy.

And for that, Roboseyo, I am grateful. Thanks! I learned something reading others’ ideas, and thinking this all through.

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7 thoughts on “NCC-1492 and The Good Ship Daehan

  1. Hi there Gord. I’m sure glad you took time away from your everything else to write these posts. It’s been really good batting about ideas about the topic. I’m still processing a lot of what you said, as well as the Korean’s views, and the other posts and comments. Keep looking for The Korean and my part two in our series: why the hyper-sensitivity (a touchy topic, to say the least) — due this weekend.

    Meanwhile, it’s been good reading this kind of stuff — every time Dokdo comes up in the news (and especially on the editorial pages), I want to leave Korea and not look back, so having this stuff in the mix has helped me keep my perspective. I’m not gonna post on (the rocks that shall not be named), though. That’s the final thing I think about hte complaining — where we fix our gaze determines a lot about what kind of stuff comes up in conversation and online, and, in the end, the person we become. thats a flip way to say it, but I have to go now.

    be seeing you around.

  2. Roboseyo,

    Well, it’s good of you to start the discussion, and I appreciate it, Robo.

    I’ll keep my eyes open for the second installment, though I imagine I’ll have less to say and be listening more. Unless, of course, I can get Lime to blog on the subject, in which case I’ll attempt a translation – making good on what I wrote in this post.

    Flip or not, you’re right that what we fix our gaze on determines what we talk about, and thus who we become. I have one thing to say about Dokdo, but that’s about it.

    I’d rather focus on more useful places to invest my time and mental energies. Like learning about the state of SF here, trying to contribute to it, and trying to bring some of the good stuff happening here (in the written form) out into the Anglophone world.

    Hopefully see you sometime soon!

  3. thanks gord sellar whomever you are for an insightful, articulate and heartening post on living in Korea from a westerner’s perspective. keep up the good fight!

  4. Thanks, Mike — whomever you are! I’m glad the post was heartening, as our corner of the blogosphere needs that. Too bad it’s so long only a few will read it.

    As for keeping up the good fight, I’ll do my best… :)

  5. Excellent work by both the Korean and gordsellar. As an expat who has lived here for 3.5 years now and who is functionally literate in Korean, I find myself appreciating this place more with every new word I learn in Korean.

    No, it’s not perfect but I’ve a tremendous amount of admiration for what the Koreans have done since it’s a stupendous accomplishment. Of course, the fact that my interactions with Koreans have almost uniformly been positive has helped my outlook considerably.

    I found my way here from Marmot’s blog. If he cites you folks again, I’ll be sure to look in. Thanks again for your extremely trenchant and cogent observations on something I live with every day. I will see a different and better Korea due to your work!

  6. The Korean,

    Geez, I didn’t see your comment till now. Hey, I thought Koreans adored seafood! Well, but I guess being something and eating it is different.


    Wow, functionally literate after 3 years. I feel ashamed. Anyway, inspiration to me, I guess. I look forward to recommencing my studies after I finish this blasted paper and present it next month.

    I also envy you having almost uniformly positive interactions. I’ve had a mixture — some very positive, some extremely negative.

    Probably if I took control of my housing situation, that would improve to 95% positive, but it’s expensive in these here parts…

    By the way, I’m only one “folks”… Gord. Nice to meet you. And where do you live, Mac? I assume it isn’t Bucheon, given your uniformly positive experiences? :)

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