Unwelcome Guests in 1950s Korea

Cover art of The Guest.
Cover art of The Guest.

Hwang Sok-yong is a prolific South Korean author. He published The Guest in 2005, and I think it met with negative reviews amongst the Korean population. I guess they didn’t like the fact that this book portrays both North Koreans and South Koreans, both Christians and communists (which were the conflicting political forces during the Korean War), in a sympathetic light.

The book is about the Korean War. More specifically, it focuses on a guy named Ryu Yosop who lives in America in the present times. He gets a chance to go back and visit his hometown in North Korea through a special tourist program, and so travels back to his homeland, where he begins confronting the memories of the war during the mid-20th century and the ghosts of his past.

Literally. There are ghosts in this story. They pop out every once in a while to tell us their history and stuff.

As the book progresses, we get to hear all sides of the story. We hear why a Christian man thought he was doing the right thing in killing the communists, because the communists were devils trying to take away their land. We hear why a communist man thought he was justified in taking rich people’s lands, because those lands should rightly be distributed to the poor farmers who actually till it. We hear a guy in a neutral position who points out that everybody in the war was guilty, whether Christian or communist.

“Suddenly slamming his thick palm down on the table, Uncle Some shouted, ‘Show me one soul who wasn’t to blame!'”

I thought the book did a good job at presenting all sides of the stories with equal weight. Today’s society is pretty opposed to communism as a whole; the South Korean society still bears a lot of hate for communism because the bloody conflict happened within the last 50 years. The author tries reeeeeeaaaaaally hard to make sure the speaker representing the communist party doesn’t get “defeated” by the other voices in the story.

It’s a meaningful work. Not meant to offer a definitive solution, but working towards it, primarily by stimulating mutual communication between the parties. Where there is communication, there will be understanding, and when individuals begin to understand, there may be a potential for reconciliation. I think that’s the idea being conveyed.

As a literary work, the book doesn’t make it easy for you. The beginning is slow and a bit boring. The narrative perspective shifts back and forth between multiple people without any transition, warning, or identification. You have to struggle a bit to figure out which “I” is speaking now. Is it the Christian? The Communist? The protagonist? Maybe in a way, this is another one of Hwang’s strategies: make it hard to distinguish between each speaker, so that their identities begin to blend. Maybe they aren’t so different after all – just human beings, who all experienced hardship, misunderstanding, and ideological passion.

P.S. while the use of Biblical passages and Christian doctrines had a significant role in the book and the ideological war, I’d just like to point out that much of the Christian beliefs are misunderstood by the characters in this novel. Communists are not Satan’s minions; Christians are not meant to go out and kill political opponents in the name of God.

1 Corinthians 13 declares: “And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” This is the real truth. There is no meaning outside love, no matter how many times people shout the name of Jesus. The fact that Christians were identified as one side of the Korean War is an unfortunate truth, but I hope this does not cause anyone to misunderstand the real truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which greatly differs from the beliefs of Hwang Sok-yong’s characters.

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W is for Wintry Days

Wintry, blustery days…remain a stranger to the shores of southern California. We never see snow, we never see ice, we never see crystallized car windshields.

Winter everywhere else:

road-winter

Winter in California:

lagunainnatlagunaviewfromro

In other words, we’re a mess after a winter storm.

extreme-weather-socal

This past week, our lapse back into colder temperatures of 60-something degrees Fahrenheit had us all busting out the boots and coats. Well, at least I was. In honor of this unusual bout of cold weather, I’d like to take some time to consider what winter really means.

Wintry Days
A Short Poem about Winter (Obviously)

When breezes become biting gales
In every city far and near,
Nipping every reddened ear,
Tripping every tumbling leaf –
Reddened hues are cooled in white –
Yellow mold is hid from sight –
Dancing motes of short-lived snow
Awaken from their cloud abodes
Yearning for that winter bed
Soft upon the ground

Suppose this were to happen
On a LA winter morn, –
Californian sunshine rays would sooner
Attack with eyes ablaze! –
Little flecks of snow will all be razed.


W

V is for Vendetta

V_for_vendettax

I read the graphic novel V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd last year, and it really tempted me to re-try the American graphic novel genre. The amount of literary sophistication and social criticism is insane. I haven’t ever watched the movie, which is the version most people seem to have encountered first, but that does not stop me from praising this thing – it’s one of the few works that I liked even when I did not like any of the characters in the story.

I mean, the guy in the mask? He always recites iambic pentameter and Shakespeare and stuff, and has a weird thing for masks and stupid riddle games. Plus, his name is V. It’s one letter. Not exactly conventional.

The girl that follows him around, Evey, is kind of annoying in her constant denial of reality.

The bad guys, whose names I forget, were somewhat instrumental in the plotline, but really they simply give a face to the invisible enemy that V is really fighting against. In other words, V considers them small fry, and we do too.

The above statements represent my honest, purely emotional reaction to the characters in this graphic novel. However, they also represent a very, very, VERY simplified and unfair judgment of every single one of them.

v-for-vendetta-1

V is masterful, in both design and in his constancy. He never wavers, never makes a mistake, and is singular in his purpose, and yet his superhuman invincibility and strength does not become a cliche like Superman. It instead functions as a way to identify him not as a person, but as an idea. The narrator states this almost directly – that it is pointless to find out whose face hides behind the mask of V. The mask itself, and the ideal it represents, is the true identity of this vigilante terrorist / anti-hero.

Evey represents the weak, helpless, conformist, emotional, human side in all of us. She bends to social pressure and is willing to follow false doctrines even when she knows they are wrong, because that is the easy way out. As she follows V around, she has no idea what’s really happening and does not understand what V is trying to do. I think she gets so frustrating and annoying because readers recognize this vulnerable, deplorable, foolish side of her in themselves. After all, none of us identify with V. With a lack of characters to identify with, the plot forces us to identify with a character we probably wouldn’t want to empathize with otherwise.

The work confronts us, reflects and refracts us, and attempts to glimpse at those dark corners of society and the human heart – in graphic novel form.

It may be time to re-evaluate that much-abused genre, yes?


V

S is for Slaps

For almost 2 decades now, Korean dramas have been on a Hallyu boom. Korea has been crazy about it for a pretty long time now; Americans are starting to discover this whole new TV genre. These shows are relatively short (comparing to 10 trillion seasons of Lost or the ever-behind seasons of Game of Thrones) and tend to follow a similar pattern.

Boy meets girl.

Boy/girl falls in love with girl/boy.

But there’s an obstacle. Usually at least 5. Often involving (but not limited to): health issues, social class, wealth, cranky parents/in-laws, family problems, personal grudges, mistaken identities, love triangles/rectangles/pentagons, or general personality and/or compatibility issues.

In any case, unless the drama defines itself as a sad, tragic love story, the main couple gets together and everyone is happy. Yay.

My friends recently showed me a video that had come on the radar recently – a scene from a Korean drama in which a man gets vehemently slapped on the face by a middle-aged woman. Her weapon of choice is a head of kimchi cabbage…you can watch this 15 second scene here.

That is some powerful kimchi slapping right there. It got me thinking.

How unrealistic are these K-dramas, really?

I think at the most basic level, scenes like this prove that Korean dramas represent quite a misrepresentation of society at large. Koreans do not go around slapping men with bright-red pickled cabbage. Even if the dude deserves it.

In fact, we probably don’t go around slapping people as often as these dramas suggest. I think it’s safe to say that every single drama – every single romantic comedy K-drama – includes a slapping scene. Why!? What inspires the idea that in a highly emotional state, a woman will just up and slap the face of the person standing in front of them?

Sure, it probably happens occasionally, but not at every drop of the hat. Not every time a guy dumps a girl (or vice versa). Not every time a girl loses out in a love triangle. Getting physical represents a violation of social propriety which most people are not willing to cross – you gotta be really pissed to do that. I personally have never seen anyone around me get slapped. Though my experience doesn’t quite speak for the whole, I like to think it makes a fair apology for mankind.

We have a bit more self-control over our bodily limbs than TV dramas give us credit for.

What other K-drama cliches and tropes can you accuse of being larger-than-life?

P.S. I really like Korean dramas. This is not a hate post, just an observation.


S

R is for Realism

Recently, one of my literature classes has been doing a series of survey lectures on the development of Realism and Modernism in Korean literature. It’s pretty much the same thing that happened in Europe and America. Only that blossomed in the Korean language and occurred about 5 decades late. I thought these literary movements were interesting modes of thought to consider, especially from the perspective of a writer still trying to develop her own style.

SO, to give the super-simplified, over-simplified, simply simple explanation:

Realism: works meant to depict life and people as they are. The words on the page should try as much as possible to directly reflect the subject of the work. In the Korean context, Realism commonly became associated with authors who wrote with a political or social agenda in mind.

Original still life painting by Toni Grote. Pic source: dailypainters.com
Original still life painting by Toni Grote. Pic source: dailypainters.com

Modernism: works not meant to depict life and people as they are. Experimental, ambiguous, arbitrary, all over the place, sometimes dipping into techniques like stream-of-consciousness. In the Korean context, Modernist writers rallied around the idea of “art for art’s sake,” or pure art.

Rene Magritte's famous painting that reads: "This is not a pipe." Pic source: collections.lacma.org
Rene Magritte’s famous painting that reads: “This is not a pipe.” Pic source: collections.lacma.org

These both represent pretty loose definitions. I can see a lot of writers falling into both categories at one time or another; the ambiguous nature of Modernism (my professor described Modernism as only defined by what it is “not”) lends itself to a pretty fluid group of writers, who can get by with just about any style while slapping “modernism” onto it as a decorative badge.

I think, for the most part, my writing tends to be more realistic – perhaps that can be attributed to my educational background. Sure, I use similes, allegories, and metaphors as much as the next person, but for the most part I write what I mean in no uncertain terms. That’s probably true for most people who learn to write in the academia as well. We learn to write concisely, clearly, directly. I’ve known some hippie artistic writers scoff at that; for them, only stuff closer to Modernism can be considered art.

If it’s a poem that nobody can make head nor tails of, chances are some people are willing to dub that a masterpiece.

I don’t think that’s necessarily true, though. Call me conservative, but Realism is also art. You write, you depict something, you express it in a new way. It took effort to produce such work. It might be bad art, it might be crappy art, but it’s art.

It’s my hope that I can develop my writing style while keeping both ends of this spectrum in mind. Not getting bogged down in literal details, but not falling into the abstract worlds which, despite some very interesting results, tend to lose the average reader rather quickly. Maybe there’s some happy medium that can be achieved; maybe it has already been achieved among the hundreds and thousands of contemporary writers being published today.

Do you have any books or authors to recommend, who might be experimenting with the pendulum of Modernist and Realist within their own masterpieces?


R

P is for Power

“…and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.”

– 1 Corinthians 2:4-5

This weekend I had a chance to see some prominent judges and lawyers (you know, the kinds that get up and talk at the Supreme Court and 1st Court of Appeals and all that stuff) hold a mock trial about an issue with the ObamaCare program that’s been a hot topic recently. Honestly, it was super impressive. Shots were fired; they ethos, logos, and pathos’d their arguments to death; no ground given or taken. It was like, war, but with words.

I suppose people would call that a debate or argument 🙂

In any case, these were people who hold political and legal power in this world. The outcomes of their decisions can shape the government and even history – even if in minor ways, eventually they can have huge consequences.

Yet what exactly can 30 minutes of arguing a case do for a soul damned to eternity in hell?

Is anything worth something when faced with that question?

For Paul, and for me, and for every other believer of the singular saving power of Christ, the answer is no. Paul believed his own words useless; his own wisdom, pretty much garbage. He tosses it away like a ragged piece of half-used tissue and proceeds to preach the gospel with complete reliance on the Holy Spirit’s guidance. What does that look like? Probably simple. Short. To the point. Quoting the Bible at all times. Inwardly praying for God’s wisdom at all times. Careful to make sure not to say anything heretical – here also, cross-checking with the Bible helps.

Because the Bible is the only book in the world that provides the readers with any real, life-changing, eternity-building power.


P

p.s. I admit that my posts have been rather inconsistent, and the gaps between each post have been getting wider. If the moderators would like to remove me from the challenge list, please feel free to do so. I will, however, continue trying to post as much as possible under the challenge until April comes to a close. Thank you!

I is for “Interesting”

Someone once pointed out to me that the word “interesting” has quickly become obsolete in the everyday English conversation. In other words, it means nothing. This really should not be.

“Hey, guys! Guess what? So today I went to the mall and there was this super big sale going on at this one store and I got 3 shirts and 1 pair of jeans but I’m not sure if I should have also gotten a jacket which was 30% off…”

“Wow, that’s great!”

“Yeah, and while I was shopping, there were some really cute crewnecks, but those weren’t on sale for some reason. I was really bummed out!”

“That’s interesting.”

“I know, right? And then in the next aisle…”

You are bored with this conversation. I am bored with this conversation. The one saying “that’s interesting” is probably bored too. It’s easy to tell. Although when we say something is “interesting” it literally means – “this thing is of interest to me; it is worth considering” – we don’t really mean to say that. A better translation is: “oh, that’s nice. I don’t really care, but I’ll interject this phrase to keep you talking.”

Of course, there are times when the speaker really does take interest in the subject. I’m not disqualifying that possibility. But more often than not, “interesting” manifests as a default exclamation for the uninterested listener.

A sad story indeed, when the conversation between people descends into such apathy and boredom. The relationship formed between people is precious and valuable, and the time spent with someone you know deserves to be treasured as a one-of-a-kind, unique experience. It’s kind of like how people like to travel to new place to see new stuff and learn new things; each person carries a distinct set of experiences and traits to be explored. God created all men equal, and unique, and special – everyone has something interesting to bring to the table.

I have been called by God to love others as He loved me. So has every other believer. At the most basic, human level, this should look like a friendly and encouraging conversation.

Listening to my friend, or that stranger who suddenly wants to talk to me in the McDonald’s line, may be one of the many ways I can demonstrate Christ’s love for His people – “I’m interesting in what you have to say, because, like me, you are also one who was made to be loved by God.” If I approach every small talk and meetup in this way, who knows how far the influence of Christ’s love will reach.


I

C is for Christ

It’s a day late, but I couldn’t bring myself to skip to the letter “D” when Easter presents such a great opportunity to blog about Christ my Lord and Savior!

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  -John 3:16

Can we just….take a moment to wonder at that?

How much love is the love of an almighty God, who made everything, and is hence the creator of love itself?

How much worth is placed in an only son? How much do parents love their only child? What a precious, irreplaceable treasure, for whom many mothers and fathers throughout history have gladly given their lives. It is that much more unfathomable that God would give up his only son because He loves us. Some say that for God, sending Jesus to earth was not a “sacrifice.” That is ridiculous. The verse says God “gave up” his only son. He did not send Jesus off as if he were going on vacation. The parting was painful, the sacrifice great, but His love and mercy for us was all the greater.

When I say “us,” that means “whoever believes in Him.” That means, basically anyone who turns to Christ! We only need to believe that Christ has the power to erase all our sins and make us guiltless before God, and it will actually be done. Was there ever any gift so precious that was given so freely? If someone just gave me a billion dollars in straight cash, along with a nice pension house by the beach and a humongous library to go with that, I’d remember what they did for me for the rest of my life, and always be grateful. If the “everlasting life” has been offered in the same way, then I should be thanking God every moment that I breathe.


C

B is for Bible

Today I had the amazing opportunity to attend a 2-hour lesson on how to study the Bible, sponsored by Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA. The class is titled “Cutting It Straight.” At first, this curious title did not seem to mean much, but they actually took it from a verse in the New Testament:

“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.”   -2 Timothy 2:15-17 (NASB)

To “accurately handle” something was a verb used in the carpentry business back in Biblical days, and described the action of working with precision and straight measurements – hence, cutting it straight. If we are believers of God’s Word, we are commanded here in this passage to work hard to study God’s work accurately, so as “not to be ashamed.”

So, the entire class gave step-by-step instructions on what we can do to study His Word with precision! I wanted give a summary list of it here, for anyone out there interested in diving deep into the truth of God’s Word. The basic methodology is literal interpretation – we won’t get all obscure and fancy with the symbols, metaphors, and crazy 4th-dimension stuff here. Just the Bible, what it’s saying, and how to apply it, pure and simple.

  1. Prepare your heart to study the Word through prayer, confession, and a reminder to self that we study the Bible to be sanctified and transformed in Christ – not necessarily to become Bible nerds. (1 Corinthians 2:11-14)
  2. Pick a passage.
  3. Read the passage.
  4. Study the passage carefully: read it repeatedly, observe what is being said at face value, and check the context of the passage. Based on all of these, make some comprehensive conclusions within the passage about what the main point might be.
  5. Research historical context. You may need outside sources for this.
  6. Analyze! Find key words, synonyms, antonyms, repetition of words or phrases, etc. Try to narrow down these discoveries to words that you previously deemed important to the overall message of the passage (back in #2)
  7. What’s the structure? Where are the verbs, the subjects and predicates, the objects of the verbs? What conjunctions tie each verb unit together, and do you find subordinate or  coordinate clauses?  (examples of conjuctions: and, or, but, because, so that, which,…)
  8. Look up cross-references (usually available in the margins or footnotes of your Bible) to other passages in the Bible, to gain access to the bigger picture of how this particular passage is working in the larger context of the entire Bible.
  9. Look up commentaries. Some smart people out there wrote down what they found after studying the Bible. After doing your own part in working to unpack the passage, go refer to some of these commentaries to find insights or different viewpoints that you might have missed. Bestcommentary.com may be a good online resource to start with.
  10. Apply what you’ve gleaned to your life. You came, you saw, you conquered. Done, right? NO. It’s not done until your life looks different for it. An encounter with God through the Word should leave us speechless, full of praise, and absolutely enthusiastic to live it out in our lives.

That…was a very general overview.

But it’s still a long list. I definitely set a goal to try to follow this method. It’s a lot of work, but come on. I spend hours upon hours studying for one final exam. How much more time and effort should I be spending to study the eternal, unchanging, all-important truth of God’s Word?

B

A for Avocado

Recently my roommate has been bringing back a whole bunch of avocados from her home. They come in a soft and mashable condition, which only means one thing: eat it soon, or prepare to face the mold!!

Now normally, avocados are delicious, healthy things (will avoid saying “fruit” or “vegetable” for the sake of remaining politically safe) that we all enjoy eating. Getting some for free from your roommate’s parents is especially nice, because they can be pretty pricey…

but ever been under the pressure to finish 7 avocados within the span of 3 days, with only 2 people working on it!?

It’s hard, man.

I mean, we try everything we can think of: eat it raw, make guacamole out of it, put it in our tacos, our pasta, our stir fry (I’m not even sure if this should be legal), and we even tried making avocado fries!! FYI, I don’t recommend that last one. Blergh.

We would have made smoothies too, but we don’t have a blender…..Point being, we tried as many as Cassie Ho from Blogilates:

We still have 1 or 2 left in the fruit basket, but I’m afraid to look. Please, if anyone has a brilliant cooking idea for these mushy, green fruits, let me know!