Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Korea # 17: Cosmetic surgery and The Beautiful in Korea

So many of the young women I saw in an upscale section of Seoul my last night were stunningly beautiful.  Asian women have always appealed to me but this was well beyond the beautiful women of Jeonju.  Perfect skin and mouths, small pert chins and noses and luminous eyes, always great eyes.  And thin bodies with long legs exposed in shorts or short dresses and amplified by platform shoes, as always.

Could this be what I suspect it is, the cumulative effect of plastic surgery?


The previous afternoon I made my way to the new Gangnam Tourist Center in the upscale district after which the “Gangman Style” of K-pop music is named.  The center was built to help attract to Seoul, first, people who love Korean Wave music and style and want to experience it for themselves; and, second, to accelerate the already exploding “medical tourism,” particularly for cosmetic surgery.


The two purposes of the center are not unrelated: the goal of surgery would seem to be to look like music and film stars.  Are the doctors above the chorus line?

On the second floor you can dress up like a K-pop star, pretend you’re singing with a band and watch and buy videos.  On the first floor you can explore which part of yourself you want altered.  (No one paid the least attention to me on either floor, for obvious reasons.)

Put on these clothes....and go on this stage....


In the neighborhood I met an attractive young Laotian, an anthropologist, who teaches at a community college in Hong Kong and one of six students she brought here to study “the
consumer society in Seoul.”   She had sent each of her students into a cosmetic surgery clinics the day before, asking for an evaluation.  All were told they needed help, although the one male was said his appearance was okay “unless you want to be a celebrity.”  All said they left frightened.

The walls of the subway are full of invitations to look slimmer in some places, fuller in others.  The faces, which include the two above, run toward those I saw in the streets.


Seoul is the leading source of cosmetic surgery in Asia.   A 2009 survey said one in five women in Soeul had had plastic surgery and the numbers will certainly be higher next year as more doctors, nurses and investors enter the field.  Korea has the highest percentage of those with plastic surgery in the world.

Korea is experiencing a flight of doctors and nurses to the United States; the association of Korean doctors in the United States has about 20,000 members already.  But for this specialty, they’re staying in Korea or coming home.  There are four hundred cosmetic clinics in Seoul.

You can see in this photo why plastic surgery can be attractive.  This is a double jaw surgery which alters both the upper and lower jaws. It can be painful and have higher complaint rates.


But looking through booklets and brochures collected at the tourist center I saw lots before and after pictures which invited the question, what was the purpose?  To my eyes, the young women often looked as attractive before as after.  So some ideal has taken hold and that’s what most young women want to attain.  To repeat an earlier comment, my anthropology professor only advised his 16 year old high-achievement daughter at least to wait until she is older, not to give up the idea entirely.

Pictures of Audrey Hepburn show up frequently in Seoul, like in a neighborhood coffee shop.  Someone is the new Audrey Hepburn and a lot of Asian women must have that look.  Indeed, Hepburn’s small features, great eyes and slim figure predicted today’s version of herself, an Asian look or a hybrid with Western features.  Actresses in Taiwan are said have had plastic surgery to look more like Korean stars.

I saw several women looking like this....


Women interviewed after surgery said they felt better about themselves, more interesting to other people and that they are more likely to successful in life.  Research in the U. S. confirms that attractive people are more likely to get ahead. 

Round, open eyes apparently cost $1,500 to $2,000.  A new, smaller nose  costs$3-4,000.

Whether this is surgery to gain a more “Western” look is debated but it certainly imitates previous surgery and the look of movie stars.

 Of the women I saw on my last night, the proportion of those with surgery would have to have been well above one in five because I was in a young, affluent area.  It is a little sad to see so many fail to appreciate their features and natural beauty.  Parents are often of a similar mind but Geoffrey Cain, writing in GlobalPost.com, quotes a young woman who said, "To be Korean is to get plastic surgery.  You must do it or people will think you are weird."

Coming home on the plane I enjoyed walking up and down the aisles for a long time, looking closely at Korean faces I would not see 
again in homogenous Idaho.  You can safely look at people sleeping or in repose.  Such attractive people in the fullest sense.  An 11 year old sitting next to me, on a church-related trip to NYC and Washington, could not have been smarter or more natural and enjoyable.
A few thoughts about racial stereotypes, including my own.....

I grew up with war movies in which the Japanese Zero fighter pilot was always the same bad guy.  Literally, the same actor, movie after movie.  Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be a experienced as lesser tragedies because of our own racism, on top of the war itself.   (By the way, 25 percent of the dead in those bombings were Koreans who had been conscripted to serve in Japan.)   Then came the Korean and Vietnam wars.  We may have had allies and friends but also acquired brutal new enemies.  

So I go back to an early question on this blog:  why Korea? Perhaps a subconscious reason was to overcome my own history and become comfortable with one-third of the world's people I had not lived among and to become more comfortable with and excited for.  Coming home, it very much feels like that happened.  I greatly enjoyed the Korean people and cheer for them. 



Sunday, July 28, 2013

Korea #16 The 60th Anniversary of the Korean War

662 words, reading time three minutes

This last weekend was the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.  It is called "the forgotten war" in the U. S. and many South Koreans seem uninterested in it.  The war is remembered quite differently in the South, in the North and in the 21 countries who came to Korea's rescue in l950.

  South Korea has many museums and memorials commemorating the war and its heroes.  Jets flew over the major battlefields on this day.  However it seems that South Korea “celebrated” the event by having fun. 

I started the anniversary day in Busan, site of the  "Pusan Perimeter."   North Korea invaded with such superior force and resistance was so woeful that all but the 10 percent of the country around Pusan had been capture.  U. S. blew up the bridges leading into Pusan."  Busan was also where the South Korea government punished thousands of postal workers for striking, one of many acts of resistance against the right wing government.

These are pictures were taken outside the Busan Train Station on the day of the anniversary.  Elsewhere in the city, 400,000 were out on the beaches.

As a boy growing up I enjoyed “playing war,” as all kids did following World War II.  We dug foxholes at “the dump” at the back of our ten acres, shot each other and played dead.  I collected toy military planes and soldiers and can see them still in my mind.  My first political awakening took place in junior high school in l951.  I defended President Truman for firing General Douglas MacArthur for insubordination, defying the Constitution and waging war badly, the first of many unpopular positions I would take, as it turned out.  Then came the prospect I would be drafted for the next war and my decision to join the ROTC, thinking I'd have a little longer to live as an officer. 

There are many to reasons to “forget” the Korean War.  Truman and Stalin cynically divided up the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel at Potsdam without any participation from Koreans.  This set up everything that has followed.  The U. S. mis-administered South Korea in many ways from l945 to l948 and supported the right-wing government of Syngman Rhee who massacred a large number of his own people for allegedly being sympathetic to the communists.  The United States failed to warn Russia, China and North Korea that it would defend the south against invasion. 


The war consisted of an intense year in which the north invaded the south, occupying all but 10 percent of the country whose forces were locked down around Pusan.  Then a counterattack by a United Nation’s authorized force (Russia was boycotting the UN when the vote was taken because it had seated Chang KaiChek instead of the communists so the Security Council could vote to take up arms).  The UN forces broke out of “The Pusan Perimeter.”  They then rapidly pushed the north back to its northern border on the Yalu River.  The Chinese sent hundreds of thousands of troops into Korea, driving the UN forces back to roughly the original 38th parallel.  It was deep winter and brutally cold.  David Halberstam book "The Coldest War" told of the blunders and bad decisions on both sides and the tragedy of the biggest retreat in American history.  Everyone suffered.  Some North Koreans and Chinese starved; some refused to return home after the war.

Of the America's POW, 43 percent died in prisons.  Koreans on both sides were eating bark for food toward the end.

This intense first year was followed by two years of stalemate which left many more died.  I remember the “Battle of Pork Chop Hill” which was particularly bloody, heroic and fruitless, for example.  Eventually, an armistice was signed on July 25, l953—an armistice which has never resulted in a permanent solution and which North Korea renounced earlier this year as being of no effect.  

Pusan (called Busan in Korean) was also the placewhen the anniversary began last Friday.  South Korean government forces brutally repressed a strike of railroad workers in l948, one of several acts against leftist elements.  

I ended the day in Seoul, going north on Korea's "bullet train" which hit 180 MPH.

During the first year of the war, control of Seoul changed four times.  Its population of 1.2 million was reduced to 200,000 and the city lay in ruin.  It is hard to believe.  Today greater Seoul has 26 million people and it is prosperous beyond all imagining 60 year ago. 

North Korea killed everyone they could find in the south who might constitute an intelligencia or serve as leaders in the future.  Some estimate that number at 500,000.  Korea began life as an independent country with many of its best potential leaders dead.


North Korea invited anyone who would come to celebrate a great victory over the United States, as it has done many times.  There was a big military parade and probably tens of thousands of synchronize dancers, for which it is become famous.  This same week North Korea again walked out of talks to reopen a special business and manufacturing center on the border which has provided thousands of badly needed jobs for the North particularly.

However the vice president of China went to North Korea last week and, according to press reports, received assurances that North Korea will return to talks to make the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free.  To the extent this is true, the 60th Anniversary of a terrible war might have one promising outcome. 


The weekend was touching for stories that appeared in Korean papers about aid the country has given over 60 years to countries which came to its aid.  Sixteen countries sent combatants and five non-compatants.  Of 23,000 Phillipinos who service, less than 100 are alive today.  Similar ratios in Ethiopia and Columbia.  Yet some these veterans or their families were in Seoul for the celebration.  Those who hadn't been back were excited and proud to see what had become of the poor country they defended.  "Ethiopia was better off than Korea back then," said one veteran.  The same story from other countries. 

At the end of their lives, seeing what Korea has become made them proud and excited to have fought for its freedom.

We don't know much about Korea's foreign aid but what we now know is that it has been of long duration in most of those 21 countries.  The Ethiopians, for example, had been in Korea for training in the electronics industry and many of them intended to stay (being descendants of the Korean fighters).  Korea, like Japan, will need immigrant to sustain its economy over time.




Saturday, July 27, 2013

Japan #3: Kyoto by Bike. At the Heian Temple at Sundown

Kyoto has hundreds of Buddhist and Shinto shrines and they are among the great treasures of the world.  But they are spread out from hell to breakfast and while I walked and used the bus and subway system to visit a few of them in my first two days there, it is very hot in Kyoto and I became a bit frustrated and “templed out,” as one travel writer put it.

So I rented a bike from the hostel, all day and well into the night for $5.  A few blocks away I got on the greenbelt along the river and took off through the riverside neighborhoods, into a market and, at day’s end, happened upon the glorious Heian Temple. 

Several shallow canals run through the city...

A children's slide, Japanese park style...

A street in Gion, the long time entertainment zone and geisha enclave in times past.

I’ll spare you pictures of the fish and vegetables which are sold from the 126 shops in the covered market.  These were mostly foods processed in some way, the freshest vegetables being in an unheralded spot nearby.  I did find that you can buy candy in the form of rocks or legos.

And others that look like a button and beads kit...


I ran into martial arts contestants ….

saw a remarkable number of women in traditional attire…

and walked through the beautiful trees in the Imperial Palace Park.

At a neighborhood temple I started seeing objects in this beautiful orange.

These are prayer requests, I think, on wooden cards and strips of paper.

Then I came upon this same color at the modern art museum.

 Finally I found out where the color apparently comes from.  As the sun was going down I came upon the Heian Shrine.

The many buildings of the shrine were only built in l885, to commemorate the 1,100 anniversary of Kyoto becoming Japan’s capital.  The buildings are smaller replicas of the first imperial palace completed in 794.  Most of the temples in Japan and Korea have burned or been destroyed once or more and been rebuilt, so this is not unusual. 
 The entry gate...
the entry gate seen with the sunken garden of a university library.

Attendants wear the shrine colors.

I do not know the history or meaning of the color orange but it is unusually warm and joyful. 

I turned in for the night satisfied with having salvaged a good feeling about Kyoto thanks to a bicycle (and despite blowing a tire and having to limp home).   Orange bridge, my red bicycle. 

Japan #2: Design Standards and the Piece Hostel

Where are we in these three pictures?



You may have guessed by the third slide that we're at McDonalds.  These are the first three panels you see coming up to the food court level at the in Osaka, Japan, airport.    Left to its traditional presentation, McDonald’s wouldn’t have a chance against two dozen little restaurants in the food area, all dressed up in a bright, clean, minimalist aesthetic.  So McDonald's adapts.

Here are couple photos from a sit-down restaurant chosen by a couple I met at our hostel.  They chose it because the price was right (see pancakes below).  The clean blond wood and attractive graphics are pleasing but not unusual.  It is expected, required.


Japan, as you know, has been a leading influence in design and graphics for a very long time.  Frank Lloyd Wright drew extensively from it and designed a hotel in Tokyo.  Temples may have been elaborate but 600 years ago a Buddhist monk introduced simplicity in one’s living space as an expression of inner simplicity and calm.  Eliminate the inessential. It caught on and has influenced Japan and the world ever since.

A related influence that I have tried to keep in mind coming here was “the sacredness of ordinary things.”  It comes from something which stuck in my memory about bowls, sandals, rice mats in a rural Japan…the worn, ordinary things that populate daily life and have a history.  I haven’t been around old bowls, sandals and rice mats but simplicity and ordinary things have emerged in Japanese and Korean art and design. 

Japan has half the population of the United States on one-thirtieth the land.  Its people must live in small spaces as a matter of necessity, Korean only a little less so.  It has a unique appreciation of space.

Which brings us to my residence for four days in Kyoto, the Piece Hostel (I think a play on words).  Here is an example of Japanese form following function in a small space.

I chose a hostel first for economy but second to meet and learn from other travelers, the virtue of hostels from their first days of popularity in Europe.  Piece turned out to be true to its early reputation.

The hostel was opened in April by a young architect turned investor named Nobu.  It’s a newly-built, four-story block of concrete two minutes from the massive meeting place of all trains and buses coming into Kyoto, Kyoto Station, with its warren of hundreds of underground shops.  Think of Kyoto Station as Penn Station times ten.     


With little space to work with, Nobu cut into the first floor two cubes of glass containing classic white rock and palm trees, two gardens.  Japanese design. Instead of using every square foot, a courtyard and meeting place occupies the back of the lot, shaded by a large tree and enclosed by elegant pines.


A hostel is first of all low cost shelter, which Piece provides in dormitory space but also—which most of us don’t expect—in small private double rooms.  I had my own room simply by paying for two people, about $50 night, in a very expensive city.  Concrete walls, sink, Wi-Fi, flatscreen TV with shower and facilities one floor down.  A great mattress, AC and a thick douvet.  Coming out of a university room in Korea, this was great.

The kitchen area is kept tidy because somehow an ethic has been established.  My double bed with bare concrete walls may not look like much but it was perfectly  adequate.


The hostel works because of a superbly trained, consistently friendly and professional young staff.  In addition to managing the place, they serve as tourist advisors and bartenders of a full bar. 

“Happy hour” lived up to its purpose of introducing people and sharing travel tips.  I ended up at dinner with Stephanie, a Japanese-born Irish citizen, David Moriarity, her traveling companion--both classic piano teachers from near Dublin--and Ross, a friendly Russian-born IT-guy from Rockville, Maryland, interning with Microsoft in NYC.  The next night I met a Frenchman, a South African and a Japanese-Brit.  Hyphinated people traveling the world.

The hostel serves a Japanese breakfast of miso, rice, tea and breads.
There’s a fine library of Japanese art and architecture.  The bar area and living room serve as a meeting and hang-out space and a kitchen and dining rooms are spit-spot (everyone washes their own). 

Dirty clothes?  Pop them in a washer which adds soap automatically and a drier for three bucks.

Where I stay is not a big deal but anyone who offers hospitality and a simple service this well deserves encouragement. 

My previous night in nearby Nara was spent at a tiny, charming older house, Tasuna Guesthouse, an example of traditional hospitality.  I ended up in a four-person bunk room but the single classic-style room there must be one of the great bargains in Japan.  Breakfast and afternoon sushi were excellent.  Thank you, Jucko.
(This fellow came to the guesthouse to experience where his father had lived before World War II.  He carried with him his father's wartime diary including a drawing of his father's plane crashed in a jungle near Singapore, after he volunteered for the air force.  The sense of something shameful about volunteering in that war is entirely absent.)

Another night I ended up in a new Lonely Planet favorite, the Altamont Hotel two blocks from the Pierce in Kyoto.  Quite luxurious and enjoyable.  Guests are issued unisex Japanese pajamas and fed an expensive breakfast. 

My experience says travelers on a limited budget can go to expensive places inexpensively by using the private rooms of hostels, relieved at times by with more luxurious hotels.




Friday, July 26, 2013

Japan #1: The 800 Year Old Men

Fifty million people visit Kyoto every year, according to the city.  That’s 15 times more than visit Yellowstone.  Almost all are Japanese but 100,000 are American.  So you probably know someone who’s been there , you’ve have been there yourself, or know a fair amount about its history and temples.  It is one of the world’s iconic places.

So it seems presumptuous for me to add anything more to billions of words and images that come out of Kyoto each year.  You don’t need to see another temple, such as this one, just because I got there and you didn’t.

You already know about white stone gardens and don’t need another one from me.

I could not show you anything unexpected that hints at what is here, which is splendid with simplicity, that you don't already know. 
You don't need to see a sculpture outside the Kyoto Museum just because it's color is the same as the nearby Heien Temple.

Visiting the nearby city of Nara—which was the capital of Japan for less than a century around 750—on my first day I didn't even take a camera.  So I have no picture of the world’s largest wooden building or of the Buddha 30 meters high or of the two fierce warriors guarding his temple who are 15 meters high.  In fact, pictures are forbidden in many of the buildings.

But I'd like you to meet four 800 year old men—two holy men, one warrior and one impish servant—who reside in the museum of the ancient seven-story pagoda.  They are preserved in wood and bear evidence of their age.  The only way I could introduce them is by taking pictures from a souvenir book with my I-phone.  I hope to substitute better images later but I'd like you to meet them now.  With apologies for quality:

The book I’m lifting them from is in Japanese but I believe they were carved in 1012, making them actually 900 years old.  A half dozen others holy men sit with these, each with different expressions, all the same size and seemingly by the same carver, who surely must have been a wise man himself.   

Images of the Buddha are less approachable.  The Buddha may have a slight smile but he is ineffable and, it seems, removed.  Certainly a Buddha who is 30 meters tall.

But not these men.  Are they not as human and as alive as if living today? 

I’d also like to introduce a young woman who has three faces and three sets of arms.   I hope to add a credible picture of the full statue, which is in bronze and, I think, of an earlier era.  Here is one of her faces.

These are my favorite images from four days in Japan.