One of the questions I’m most frequently asked in Korea is, “How old are you?” Korea has very strong roots in Confucianism, therefore seniority based on age is very prevalent not in just people’s relations with one another but also in companies, schools and sports teams. Even if the age difference is only one year, the younger person is expected to respect to their elder through speech, body language and gestures, no matter what. I still find myself in a state of shock when Ahjummas (older Korean women) literally push, shove, and elbow their way through a crowd or step in front of you not just in line, but when you are actually at a ticketing window, despite the fact that you might be midway through a transaction. When taking a look around after witnessing this, however, no one bats an eyelash at how rude those actions may be. It’s just the way it is. You’ll see younger people bowing to their elders and addressing them with certain titles and formal language to distinguish rank. It is also customary to pour drinks for those older than you and to let them eat, sit and stand before you as well. Unfortunately (at least that’s they way I see it) this ranking system plays a very large role in the business world as well–positions, pay and ranking almost always go hand in hand with age, regardless of experience.
Adding to the complexity of Korea’s hierarchical system is the difference between Korean age and Western age. Koreans believe you are born at age one (that’s a really long pregnancy…) and they do not use their birth date to determine when they turn a year older. Instead, everyone turns one year older the first day of the new year, January 1. I have not been in Korea to ring in the new year yet, but I wonder if it feels like one giant birthday party?
I turned 30 not long after arriving in Korea, which means I was actually already 30 in Korean age when I got here and am now 31…I think I’ll stick with Western age. However, I usually get a surprised response when I reveal my age, which I’ll take as a good thing. Upon meeting my co-teacher for the first time after she asked how old I was, she responded, “Oh, wow. Westerners usually look old, but you don’t. You must eat a lot of vegetables.” Yes, I do. And I think the kimchi is now helping out as well.
My very first visit to Seoul included a stop at the newly constructed branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea. I heard there was an installation by Do Ho Suh that would only be up for a few more months, and I could not wait to see it. I was already familiar with his pieces from working at the Seattle Art Museum, which held his first retrospective in 2002. While I did not work there in 2002, I did get to witness the installation he created for SAM in 2011 titled Gate, a multimedia piece based on the gate outside his parent’s home in Seoul and a few pieces in SAM’s beautiful Asian art collection. It blew me away, as I’d never seen anything quite like it before. I was equally blown away by the installation in Seoul called Home within Home within Home within Home within Home, a life-size fabric reproduction of his first residence in the United States and his family’s traditional Korean house hanging in the middle.
Do Ho Suh (서도호) is a Korean artist, mostly known for his sculptures, who now splits his time between New York, Seoul and London. Most of his work is site-specific (or at least context-specific) and often focuses on the idea of personal space and identity. I am most impressed with his architectural pieces in which he uses fabric, creating a delicate space that can be occupied by the viewer. Home within Home within Home within Home within Home is one of them where he beautifully demonstrates time and space and the memory of home with a ghost-like quality. The shear fabric in a calming blue color reveals the past and the present in such a surreal manner, and the transparency forces you to look at the relationship between individuals and the notion of private versus public.
If you ever have a chance to see anything by Do Ho Suh, I strongly encourage you to do so. There are elements of sentimentality to his work that are very thought-provoking and I’m not very good at describing them. I think you will be impressed.
I love cats, and I miss mine dearly (had to leave him behind when I came to Korea), so when I heard there were places called cat cafes in Korea I just had to check it out. You won’t find them in small towns like the one I live in, but nearly all the larger cities have them. I went to one in Myeongdong in Seoul and even though I’d never heard of the concept until I got here, it was pretty close to how I imagined it would be–a coffee shop with cats roaming, playing and napping all over the place. It was awesome.
After taking my shoes off at the door, I paid 8,000 won to enter (just under $7) which included one free coffee drink or tea. Then I sat down and enjoyed my green tea latte while admiring the 22 different cats in the cafe.