A 2002 World Cup experience left this English journalist enamoured with South Korea. He shares that love in writing.
GROWING up in Manchester, Daniel Tudor thought he knew all about football mania ... until he experienced Red Devils fever in South Korea.
This was in the summer of 2002, when South Korea co-hosted the World Cup with Japan and Tudor, who was then a student at Oxford University, got the chance of a lifetime to attend the matches.
“My Korean friend’s father got tickets and they invited me and some other friends over for the games.”
When he got to the “exotic” land, it was love at first cheer, and his life changed forever, the Seoul-based journalist reminisces.
“There was a Brazil-like carnival on the streets at that time because no one expected Korea to get that far in the tournament. Everyone was in high spirits; on the streets everyone was your friend, your brother or sister.”
As you might have already guessed, the Red Devils here does not refer to Manchester United (although passion for the English football club is high in the republic, thanks to their former national team captain Park Ji-sung’s seven-year stint at United).
Rather, this “Red Devils” is the official fan club of South Korea’s national football team, which rallied thousands onto the streets to show support for their team during the tournament.
Infected with their fiery passion, Tudor relocated to South Korea as soon as he graduated from university the following year.
“Of course, now people are caught up in their work and everyday realities, but for that moment in time, it was pure humanity and pure love for everyone, and in a way it was what led me back to Korea. I wanted to find out more what this country is like,” he says.
Tudor, who was in Kuala Lumpur to promote his book Korea: The Impossible Country recently, claims he did not have an interest in or any inkling of what South Korea was like before his trip.
“It wasn’t as if I grew up with a big interest in Asia. When I came over the first time, I knew nothing about the peninsula other than Kim Jong-il in North Korea.”
Tudor has been in South Korea – give or take a few years when he returned to England to do his Masters at Manchester University – for almost a decade now, but the 32-year-old’s love affair with the “Land of the Morning Calm” has yet to fade.
“Something about Korea just fits with my personality,” muses the former Korea correspondent with The Economist.
It is an intriguing country that is “a bit hard to explain and has a lot of strange things happening but there is an underlying warmth about the people,” he opines.
Yet what amazes him most is how South Korea had remained an unknown entity for so long.
“It is one of the most impressive stories of nation-building of the last century. Fifty years ago, South Korea was an impoverished, war-torn country with no democratic tradition. Now it is an economic powerhouse and model democracy with impressive achievements in popular culture to boot. Why was it not getting any recognition from the world?”
This wonder is what pushed him to write The Impossible Country.
But why “Impossible”?
He reasons in his opening chapter: “Few expected South Korea to survive as a state, let alone graduate to becoming a prosperous and stable model for developing countries the world over.”
South Korea is also impossible in the way that it imposes unattainable targets on its people, he adds. “This is a country that puts too much pressure on its citizens to conform to impossible standards of education, reputation, physical appearance and career progress.”
And crucially, it is a country of paradoxes – where shamans meet Samsung and Western individualism clashes with Confucian collectivism.
“Koreans went through many dictatorships, but their protest culture is strong. They have a very feudalistic hierarchical tradition, yet there is also an innate egalitarianism among the people. You can see it in the way they share food with all the dishes served in the middle of the table during meals.”
It sounds silly, he laughingly adds, but “Korea is very Korean.”
This makes it difficult for outsiders, especially Westerners, to understand it, even more so with the lack of books on contemporary South Korea available.
“Most books are on Korea’s ancient history, the Korean War or North Korea,” he notes.
For many in the West, adds Tudor, their idea of the country is still stuck in the M*A*S*H realm which depicted it as a poor Third World country on telly.
“When I was home in England for Christmas a few years ago, I started telling my parents’ friend about soju (a type of Korean liquor) and how cheap it is at around £1 (RM5.50).
“The friend quickly answered – ‘But it’s probably a lot of money for them, isn’t it?’
“What he didn’t realise is that Korea is now the 13th biggest economy in the world.”
Other common questions he tackles in the book include “Do all Koreans really eat dogs?” and “Is North Korea going to nuke Seoul soon?”
Even in this region, where the spread of Hallyu (Korean Wave) has raised South Korea’s profile somewhat, there are a lot of (often romantic) misconceptions about the country, he says.
“There seems to be more coverage of Korea in the media with the explosion of K-pop and Korean dramas, but people still don’t know much about the country, much less understand the ‘Korean-ness’.”
Intent on correcting these misconceptions, Tudor’s Impossible Country tries to give the big picture by linking today’s South Korea with its industrial, political and cultural successes to the history, traditions and beliefs that form the country’s foundations and character.
Admirably, Tudor leaves no stone unturned in his examination of South Korea’s complex quirks and idiosyncrasies, probing everything from Buddhist ethos to the people’s legendary hard-drinking ways, suicidal tendencies and infatuation with everything American.
He also does not shy away from the tough subjects including chaebol (conglomerate) abuses, dictatorial leaders, specifically Father of Modern Korea (and father of current president Park Guen-hye) former president Park Chung-hee, and the prevailing xenophobic pure-blood ideology in Korean society.
“I was worried of offending the Koreans at first but I hope they understand that I’m looking at Korea from the point of someone who loves the country,” he says.
He stresses that the book is based on research and interviews, not only his own opinions and analysis, “I did not want to be another Westerner telling Asians about Asia.”
There are many things that had to be seen from the South Korean perspective, such as the country’s tension with Japan – you first have to understand its painful past of being bullied by its neighbour. Or that, despite their noisy threats, North Korea is not likely to attack its southern relative yet.
Still there are preconceived notions about South Korea that remain true: for one, its society is still generally sexist despite electing its first woman president recently.
“The fact that the first female president of Korea is the daughter of a revered former president, to me, only reinforces patriarchy,” he adds.
Does he think the country’s miracle bubble will burst soon?
“I don’t think so. Korea is not as big as China but for its size, it can punch above its weight.
“Someone said this to me the other day: traditionally Korea considers itself like a shrimp caught between two whales, a small country caught between two superpowers trying to survive.
“But now, Korea is like a dolphin. It may not be as big as China or the US, but it is quick, agile and smart. And people like dolphins,” he says with a grin.
These are interesting times for South Korea, says Tudor. “Mainly because South Korea changes very fast; something that is an issue now – for example, its negative stance towards multiculturalism – will be different in two, three years. Korea is never static.”
He believes now that it has gone past its manic economic and social development stage, South Korea can afford to focus on its culture and arts.
“You see more people carrying guitars on the streets now, which to me is always a good sign.”
The only thing he wishes, he says, is for the people there to savour their success and be happy.
“If I had a magic wand to change anything about Korea, I’d make Koreans more confident about their country and be happy with their achievements. They deserve it.”
> Korea: The Impossible Country is available at major bookstores.
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