A love letter to South Korea

CORONAVIRUS be damned, I am in good company. The person whom I want to claim kinship with, however, is on the other side of the world. He is Paulo Coelho, Brazil’s best-selling author of all time.

And what does the writer of The Alchemist and little old me have in common? Our love for Korean entertainment and pop culture.

In an email interview with Yonhap News on Nov 8, Coelho, 73, revealed that he watched a modern Korean classic movie, Old Boy, in 2016 and “It was the reason I fell in love with hallyu (Korean wave).”

Since then, he has watched over 100 Korean films and was curious to find out what Seoul and Busan, cities he has seen on screen, were really like, he added.

I suppose it’s harder for Coelho to visit South Korea from Brazil, but I am one up on him.

I have visited both cities several times, so today, rather than rant against Donald Trump a.k.a. The Sore Loser, rage at the most recent water cut due to pollution in Selangor, rail at the puzzling conditional MCO SOPs that are driving us nuts or admonish our politicians for their shenanigans in and outside Parliament, I am going to write about something that makes me happy sane during these trying times.

This, dear reader, is my love letter to South Korea.

Dear Hankuk (which is how South Koreans refer to their country), bogoshipda (I miss you).

Yes, I miss you so much and I really want to see you.

I have managed to make annual visits in the last several years, but not this year.

When Covid-19 struck in the first quarter of 2020, like many people, I had hoped it would ease by the third quarter and we could start travelling again.

For me, I had in mind a winter holiday, possibly in Busan and Jeju Island, even though it would be a repeat visit to both places.

Why do I keep coming back? Why do you have such a warm place in my heart? How on earth did I fall in love with you?

Movies brought Coelho to you. For me, it was your dramas.

How I used to laugh and roll my eyes at younger colleagues who gushed over K-dramas like Winter Sonata and Jewel in the Palace. My disdain was borne from ignorance.

All that changed when I watched my first two series in late 2013 – Secret Garden and Coffee Prince – and fell down the rabbit hole into your ample lap.

That was the start of a journey of discovery of a country that was long overshadowed by its more glamorous and famous neighbours, China and Japan.

Chinese and Japanese history, culture, food and entertainment were well known to the world.

Malaysia’s Look East policy in the 1980s really helped raise awareness of the admirable ways of the Japanese and popularised their restaurants in the country.

As for you, South Korea, I knew little except that you had good footballers and badminton players.

And that you were caught up in the perpetual Mexican standoff with your northern counterpart.

Your engaging, awesome dramas, movies and reality shows opened my eyes to your amazing culture, food, history, lifestyle and customs.

They piqued my curiosity and made me want to find out more.

That’s how I learned of your sad, yet courageous past.

For centuries, you were repeatedly at the mercy of China as a vassal state.

Later, you suffered as a colony of Japan in the first half of the 20th century and experienced the devastating Korean War. None of this was in my history books.

Movies like A Taxi Driver showed me the 1980 Gwangju Uprising that eventually led to the end of decades of military dictatorship.

Yet, despite all the difficulties, your people developed a rich and complex culture that is uniquely Korean, albeit with Chinese and Japanese influences.

It amazes me that you have forged so far ahead in the last 30-odd years.

You became one of the most wired nations in the world and Samsung catapulted to being a global household name.

Proof of my trust in your technology and products: my family van is Hyundai, and my smart TV, fridge, microwave oven and washing machine are Samsung. (But of late, I have learned that the top choice for white goods among Koreans is actually LG!)

Korean influences have crept into my life straight from watching dramas, like your cuisine which is so inventive, unusual and downright delicious.

I frequently surf for Korean recipes. Two of my favourite instructors are Emily Kim a.k.a. Maangchi and Oh Nino of Nino’s Home.

What’s more, my exercise gurus are from Allblanc TV on YouTube that features nicely buffed half-naked Korean men who have dislodged my old Caucasian instructors like Denise Austin and Kathy Smith.

Music-wise, the majority of my Spotify playlists comprise your drama OSTs and songs by various artistes.

Of course, that includes BTS who are probably your greatest contribution to world happiness.

With the rest of the group’s ARMY, I am waiting excitedly for the release of their new album, BE, on Friday.

Dear Hankuk, much as I love you, you are, of course, not perfect.

You have serious socio-economic issues that include gender discrimination and class privilege.

Even your K-pop industry is riddled with suicides and unhealthy practices.

As for your politicians, you have more than your fair share of corrupt and self-serving ones.

The Economist noted that the past seven heads of state have all been embroiled in scandals with all four of your living ex-presidents convicted of corruption.

But all that doesn’t detract from your amazing accomplishments as a nation that has now been discovered by the rest of the world.

We South-East Asians were among your early fans, way before the West.

Our love affair continues. You are among our favourite holiday destinations, just as many Asean countries are your people’s top choice to visit during winter.

Your president Moon Jae-in saw that strong connection and recognised the importance of Asean back in 2017 with his ground-breaking New Southern Policy built on the people, prosperity and peace pillars.

Moon again reaffirmed and deepened that initiative when he announced his New Southern Policy Plus at the recent virtual Korea-Asean Summit, aimed at forging closer solidarity and cooperation to tackle the pandemic while preparing for a post-Covid-19 era. That is certainly what we need.

My friends and I look longingly to the day we can visit you again and explore your other beautiful attractions. Perhaps Senor Coelho will finally make his trip too.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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