When my family moved to Korea, in 1985, it was still a developing country. The only mitigating factor was that we would be living not just in Gangnam but in the Apgujeong neighborhood—the most elite district—and in the Hyundai Apartments—the most elite residence. For us, it was rent-free, thrown in as part of my father’s hiring package. He was the beneficiary of a desperate plan by the Korean government to reverse the brain drain it suffered from the 1950s onward, following the Korean War. In those days, anyone with any gumption fled to the United States for graduate school. Somewhat stupidly, the Korean government made sure that only the best and brightest of its students were granted exit visas. My parents and anyone else seeking to get their PhD in the United States had to sit for a difficult exam; if you failed, you couldn’t leave the country, regardless of whether the U.S. embassy granted you permission to enter the United States.
For some reason, Korea’s leaders were certain that people like my parents would want to return to the rubbly, corrupt mess that was Korea after getting their U.S. degrees; they didn’t anticipate just how many of those students would make the United States their home.
Thus in the 1970s and 1980s, the Korean government lured people like my father—an economist—back to Korea with the promise of titles, carte blanche to run their own research institutes or labs, free apartments, servants, and chauffeurs.
For the most part, however, my family’s transition to South Korea didn’t go quite as expected. We did get the maid, as promised, but she had never seen a vacuum cleaner before and was so afraid of the noise she refused to use ours. Obviously, the South Korea that was master of cutting-edge technology had not yet come into being. The Hyundai Apartments were the poshest in the city, but they comprised hundreds of identical beige buildings. The view out our window was monotonous; it looked like something from the Eastern Bloc. The elevator was frequently out of order and sometimes I had to walk up to our apartment on the tenth floor. Brownouts and water shutoffs were common occurrences.
Korean technology was famously terrible in those days. The fact that the world has forgotten this is a testament to how successful Korea’s national branding strategy has been. Among the expat community, the Korean electronics company Samsung used to be referred to as Samsuck. I would stand at a huge distance when using one of its microwave ovens because I was afraid they were leaking radiation.
Moving from the United States to the third world meant being stripped of many comforts; on the other hand, only by moving from an American suburb to a poor, grimy city could I ever have appreciated the excitement of being a pretend street urchin.
My mother had forbidden my sisters and me to eat street food, but we did it anyway: roasted chestnuts and sweet potatoes, always cooked over a large tin with holes punctured in the lid and a piece of coal inside. Even now, the smell of burnt sugar makes me think of bobki biscuits, made from a mixture of caramelized sugar and baking soda, sold on the street by old ladies with short, tightly permed hair.
I wouldn’t describe the biscuits as tasty; cooked baking soda is bitter and its astringent properties make your mouth pucker. But I think the sensory shock was half the enjoyment; the other half was watching it being made: It was like watching a blacksmith make bullets, or a dealer prepare heroin. The women would melt the white powdery mixture in a metal ladle held over a huge piece of burning coal. When the powder melted it would froth quickly and turn brown. This would be poured into a flat, circular mold with some sort of imprinted design in the middle—a bird or a star. Once the mixture hardened, we’d take the paper-thin wafer straight from the mold and eat it while it was still hot. For some reason, it was really important to maintain the integrity of the design embossed in the middle of the biscuit; if it broke, there would be audible moans of disappointment. In recent years, these biscuit women have all but disappeared.
Seoul had supermarkets of course, but in those days, the street food merchants played a much more prominent role, scattered chaotically on the sidewalks all over the city. I loved it; I felt as if I were living in a medieval city, or at least what I imagined a medieval city would look like, based on Monty Python sketches. (Especially Pythonesque were Seoul’s many roasted silkworm larvae stands; I could never get my head around those.)
Every summer, a woman would put up a trampoline in an abandoned lot near my house, and for 200 won (around 15 cents), one could jump on it for half an hour. Standing by the trampoline was what she did all day; sole proprietor, sole employee.
These kinds of mini-enterprises, like the trampoline, prolonged the precious, Elysian period of childhood in a way that I did not see in the United States, where kids started hanging out at the mall and acted like teenyboppers from age nine or ten.
Childhood friendships in Korea were devoted and physical; it was common for same-sex platonic friends to walk the street holding hands or with their arms around each other’s waists. My friends were astonished that it was not like that everywhere. In the sixth grade, a classmate asked me, “Is it true that in America, people call you a ‘homo’ if you hold hands with your friends?” I had to say yes.
I have not witnessed this kind of physicality among friends except maybe in the Arab world. As South Korea got richer, I saw a decline in same-sex hand-holding among children. I don’t have a good explanation except for some platitudes about how wealth destroys intimacy. Or kids just got too cool to be so demonstrative.
My real Proustian madeleine, though, is mothballs.
The odor of mothballs always make me think of Seoul’s toilets, because when I arrived in Seoul, mothballs were hung in public bathrooms as a deodorizer. Nowadays, many Seoul toilets are electronic and have self-cleaning features as well as nozzles that squirt water and rinse and blow-dry. Individual stalls also sometimes have buttons you can press to play light music so people don’t have to hear how you’ve chosen to spend your time in the stall. Those toilet bowls are cleaner than the tables of some restaurants. But back in 1985, oh my god.
First-worlders have the luxury of not having to think about waste elimination very much. But for a third-worlder, poop is a big preoccupation. To the average American, a toilet is a place to enter and exit without being traumatized; there are extractor fans to erase odors; toilets flush all evidence of one’s activities, and blue bleach tablets kept in the septic tank save users from having to see the real color of their pee in the bowl. There is soap and hot water and hand dryers or paper towels so that one can emerge even cleaner than when one entered. A toilet should be like a waiter at a good restaurant: if it’s doing its job properly, one shouldn’t notice it’s there.
So imagine my surprise upon arriving in Seoul to discover that the majority of the toilets were the squatting kind, where you had to stand with your legs spread wide, and void over a basin in the floor with no water in it. It was not always flushable.
Then there was the annual school poop collection.
As in many developing nations, some of the basic health procedures in South Korea were handled at the public schools. We all got our inoculations from the school nurse, for example. We’d line up in order of student number, which was determined at the beginning of the year by height. The nurse used the same needle for all the students, disinfecting between each injection by running the needle through the flame of a candle.
Along the same lines, schoolwide tests for intestinal parasites were conducted too. The teacher would distribute white envelopes the size of a credit card. Then the teacher would remind us, “Please write your name on the envelope before you put your poop in, because you’ll find it difficult to write on it afterward.”
The next day at school, the samples would be collected in a big bag. Invariably, some students would not have their sample, and the teacher would hit them on the head or the arm. The students would always say as they were getting thwacked, “But I didn’t poop yesterday, teacher!” and then everyone would laugh.
Supposedly the samples were sent to some national lab to be inspected for parasites; the lab would then send deworming pills to the affected students. I don’t think my school had any cases of parasites during my time there; at that point, parasites were ceasing to become a serious problem. While far from ideal, South Korea’s health conditions by 1985 were far better than they had been just a few years prior.
It might seem somewhat tyrannical to make millions of schoolchildren defecate on command, but it’s obvious that disease eradication works only if everyone gets treatment—not just a select few volunteers. Perhaps as a result of these methods, Korea has rid itself of parasites and nearly every other health problem that plagues underdeveloped nations.1
My middle school happened to be the testing ground for a number of educational experiments in those days, so it was a good vantage point from which to witness the rapid changes in Korea. We were among the first schools to ban school uniforms, which were seen as an imprisoning holdover from the period of Japanese colonial rule, which lasted from 1910 to 1945. In practice, though, the liberal dress code had so many restrictions that they might as well have reinstated the uniform. We weren’t allowed to wear clothes with any non-Korean lettering on them. We also weren’t allowed to perm our hair (although in retrospect, they were just trying to save us from ourselves). If you had naturally wavy hair, you literally had to have a doctor’s note to prove it.
Even North Korea exercised less hair totalitarianism. According to some leaked North Korean barbershop posters, the late Kim Jong-il permitted perms as one of the eighteen accepted hairstyles for women. (Based on photos of North Korean government officials, the perm seems to be almost mandatory for men.)
My school was one of the early adopters of co-education post-elementary school. Most kids I knew in Seoul thought I was lucky to be in a co-ed school. I didn’t.
For one thing, girls had to take home economics and boys took engineering. I loved home ec, but we did learn some pretty weird lessons. My eighth-grade home ec teacher told us, “If you want to start out right with a marriage, always cook the food your husband likes, not the food you like. Your children will naturally develop the same tastes as your husband.”
Gender was still an indicator of destiny. Starting from tenth grade, South Korean students had to study another foreign language in addition to English. Excellent idea. But at many high schools, they would only let boys take German and girls take French. No boys allowed in French class and no girls allowed in German class. No exceptions.
But Korea has made giant strides in leveling the playing field for women. Until as recently as 1991, South Korean women were not permitted to be the head of the household, meaning they could not make legal decisions on behalf of the family. In the event of a divorce, a wife was not entitled to an equal division of property and children were automatically granted to the father’s custody.
Just two decades later, in December 2012, South Korea elected its first female president, Park Geun-hye.
How does a national mind-set alter so drastically within the space of three decades? It’s not just that Korea became wealthy; oil-rich Arab nations are swimming in money, but they haven’t advanced much socially. In some instances, they’ve regressed, thanks to the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism. China is becoming frighteningly influential on the global finance scene, but its vastness, huge population, and warring ethnic factions make it difficult for the government to effect rapid, centralized nationwide changes. Part of Korea’s plan all along was to achieve what many other newly rich nations couldn’t—to transform the country from the inside out; socially, culturally, and mentally. Has it worked? Well, something’s different all right. For one thing, the emergence of irony.
Copyright © 2014 by Euny Hong
Euny Hong is a journalist and author with international experience in web, print, and television news. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal Europe, International Herald Tribune, New Republic, Boston Globe, and The Forward. She is the author of one previous book, the novel Kept: A Comedy of Sex and Manners. She is fluent in English, French, German, and Korean.