In the Days When Google was Gobble-dee-gook
I often mention that ten only a few years ago there was little information available on most aspects of Korean culture. Looking back just a few years the changes that have taken place are truly incredible. For those of us who are older, it is easy to forget that access to a whole range of information, all at your fingertips, is a luxury that at one time did not exist and that ‘one time’ was only a couple of years ago; for those who are younger, it is worth pondering the Korean experience before the incredible growth in access to, and compilation of, information – a process still in development.
When I decided to come to Korea in 2000, it certainly wasn’t for a job and the only factor influencing my decision to step on the plane was to discover a country which at the time ranked with exotic and mysterious destinations such as Mongolia and Tibet. Just ten years ago anyone coming to Korea, perhaps more so from Europe than the USA, which has had both a closer relationship with Korea and attracted a substantial number of Korean immigrants, did so blind. Other than the information supplied by your recruiter and the odd book in libraries, access to information or first hand accounts was scant. Those who decide to come to Korea today are able to furnish themselves from the abundance of information available in a range of formats and I suspect many are now lured here not because of the mysterious, but in search of employment. I in no way mean to demean or underplay the reasons people currently come to Korea and it certainly provides a culture shock. But I envy those who arrived here in the early 1990’s or 1980’s at a time when Korea was not the place it was in 2000.
I kept a diary from my first day and reading through its pages it is clear how the internet has become a fundamental resource in both deliberating whether to undertake the experience and in influencing and developing your understanding of Korea. It may even influence the experiences you engage in while on the peninsula. Change has been so rapid, and the resources we now access have become so integral, it is easy not just to take fore-granted its impact, but to even doubt that it was really that difficult to access information in the first place.
Writing in hangul was a major obstacle and you simply couldn’t go into your PC, make a few tweaks and then be able to write in Korean or hanja and besides, in 2000, few teachers had air-conditioning let alone a personal computer with an internet connection. Before laptops and net-books, most of the waygukin you met were in PC bangs where you spent a substantial part of your week. And If you bought a PC you were privileged but still required Microsoft Proofing Tools to enable you to write in Korean or hanja and which cost c£70 a package.
Korean dictionaries, certainly in the UK, were small and difficult to buy. On the eve of my first trip, I went to London’s largest bookshop, Foyles, and discovered the entire range of books on the Korean language amounted to two introductory books, a useless dictionary and the small copy of the NTC Compact Korean English Dictionary. I bought all four depleting them of their entire Korean language collection. The dictionaries used transliterated Korean rather than hangul script. Meanwhile, books devoted to Japanese occupied an entire book case.
I’ve known a number of westerners who arrived in Korea in the late 80’s and whose Korean, many years later, is still rudimentary. It’s easy to criticise such apparent laziness until you remember there was no internet to support your learning or provide lessons, few decent language courses or dictionaries and unless you were in Seoul or one of the big cities, few language classes. After a few years enduring such conditions it becomes a case of, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ As for hanja, I’ve met westerners proficient in Korean who didn’t even know what hanja was. While access to information on the internet existed, certainly around 2000, there was very little compiled on Korea or Korean culture and the ability to write in hanja characters was difficult, costly and dependent on Korean based language packages. Today, though limited for the non Korean speaker, information on hanja is available and if you aren’t interested in trying to learning it, you can very easily research what it comprises.
Once again, in the UK, other than on the Korean war, there were few books on Korean history and finding information on topics such as the Hwa-Rang-Do or one of the Korean dynasties, was difficult. And when you did find such books, usually in academic libraries rather than public ones, they were specialist and somewhat boring for the reader who wanted general information. It has only been in very recent years, by which I mean the last 6 or 7 that such information has appeared and I can remember trawling Google in 2002 or 2003 and finding very little other than specialist academic references to major, Korean historical periods. Exactly the same conditions applied to Korean culture, prominent figures, cooking or geography. Back in the UK I have a small collection of books on Korean culture, history, cooking, hanja and language etc, but all of them were printed and bought in Korea, and ferried back to the UK. So, on returning to Britain in 2002 and 2004, I felt I had to take a part of Korea home with me because there was no way to access ‘Korea’ in the UK. In 1997, when TOPIK, the Korean language proficiency test was introduced for non-Korean speakers, it attracted 2274 people; in 2009, 180.000 people took the exam and test centers now exist globally.
Korean related information on the internet was in its infancy; Google, for example, became a registered domain name in 1997 and certainly before 2000 most lay-people researched information from software such as Encarta. In 2000, I was originally going to teach in Illsan, I can remember using the internet to find information on this location and found very little. I have just this moment keyed ‘Illsan’ into Google search and in 14 seconds have access to 1.800.000 written resources and 1200 images. Learning Korean and hanja meant you compiled your own dictionary because the words or characters your learnt weren’t in dictionaries and there were no translation tools such as Babblefish or Google to provide support. Even with hangul, I still keep my own dictionary because western ones, even on the internet, don’t explain words uniquely Korean. As for idioms? Try searching Korea idioms on the internet or the availability of electronic dictionaries which are designed for the English native speaker learning Korean. All resources still being developed.
Resources in their infancy 10 years ago, blogging, vlogging, podcast, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter etc, have since become a fundamental means of sharing experiences and providing first hand information not just about all aspects of Korean culture, but on more specific topics such as life for the foreigner and whether you are vegetarian, teacher or gay, information is readily available. Blogging now provides an immense wealth of information but it is worth remembering that the term ‘blog’ was only coined by Peter Merholz, in 1999. Major blogging software which has helped give rise to the blogging phenomena are recent developments: Blogger emerged in 1999 and WordPress in only in 2003.
Even today, unless you live in London, obtaining Korean foodstuff is still almost an impossibility and online order of Korean foodstuffs is undeveloped. None of this is very surprising given there were very few Korean living in the UK until recently. Between 1998-1992, at a university with one of the most diverse students populations in the UK, there was a total absence of Koreans and Russians. Indeed, I was to meet Mongolian students before I met any from Korea. And, I can recall the very first five Korean I met; the first, a taekwondo instructor in London, in 1979, the second, a taekwondo instructor in Paderborn, Germany, in 1986, the third, a student in a school near New Maldon, London, in 1998, and finally, two Koreans in a hotel in the Philippines, in 1998. I had a fleeting ‘meeting’ with Rhee Ki-ha (now 9th Degree Black Belt, taekwon-do), in 1988 but as a grading taekwon-do student, I was forbidden to talk to him.
Korean Culture – the Korean Wave, Korean football players playing for British football teams, LG, Nong Shim, I-River etc, all arrived on British shores in the years following my first visit and indeed, this Christmas, I was treated to the first Korean cookery program I have see on British television. However, I suspect its genuineness as the recipes included beetroot and English pear (you can easily buy Asian pear in the UK). And neither chopsticks or kimchi featured!
Up until a few years ago, if you arrived in Korea from Britain, you probably knew nothing about Korean society and possibly expected ‘second world’ conditions. Much of what you learnt about Korea occurred through accidentally stumbling across something and you certainly couldn’t learn from a computer screen. Indeed, access to a computer was probably detrimental to your Korean experience, removing you from, rather than immersing you in, Korean culture. Today, a computer can certainly enhance your experience and if you need to know how to: use your Korean washing machine, plan a trip, find a doctor during a holiday or translate a sentence from Korean into Blackfoot, it’s at your fingertips. Day to day life in Korea has been ‘made simple’ by the tomes of information we can now access and only last week I used the internet to help me adjust my ondol heating control. With hundreds of accounts on topics such as soju, the Boryeonng Mud Festival and kimchi, done to death, a blogger is forced to use a range of media formats (vlogging, photographs, podcasts, even cartoons), and driven to be more creative and original in their perspective especially if posting on what are now common, if not mundane subjects.
Link to TOPIK Guide.
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.