Saturday, April 07, 2012

The Korean does not know what book you should read

Here is a public service announcement, because the Korean constantly receives this type of question:

From this blog, you will not get an answer for a question like this one:  "I want to learn about XYZ aspect of Korea. Could you please recommend some books on it?"

It is a perfectly legitimate question, but one that the Korean is utterly unequipped to answer. Here is the problem: the Korean never reads any book about Korea in English. He learns about Korea by reading . . . wait for it . . . books and articles written in Korean language, written by Korean people. Unless he wants to learn something specific that involves a non-Korean perspective (e.g. U.S. perspective on Korean War,) there is little reason for him to read about Korea in English. When it comes to learning about Korea, Korean-language sources are always more accurate, more nuanced, more vivid and more contemporary. Given the abundance of excellent books about Korea in Korean language, the Korean simply cannot be bothered to read any book about Korea in English.

In fact, this language issue is something that mildly peeves the Korean, because many of the so-called "experts" on Korea actually cannot speak or read a lick of Korean. If a person who could not understand a word of Spanish claimed herself to be a Latin America specialist, she would be laughed out of the room. Yet that is the situation we have with Korea -- a lot of people who claim to know a lot about Korea cannot even decipher what Koreans are saying. Consequently, a lot of analysis about Korea -- especially if the analysis about a slightly more involved topic -- often miss the mark completely.

Of course, there are extraordinary people who manage to overcome the language barrier by the sheer force of astute on-the-ground observation and personal networking with important players in Korea. (Don Kirk, a veteran journalist who covered nearly every important event in modern South Korean history, comes mind.) But in most cases, the equation works out exactly how one would expect to work out:  if you can't understand Korean, your knowledge about Korea will always be limited, and often erroneous.

All of this is a long way of saying:  don't come here for book recommendation, because you won't find it. Sorry.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

23 comments:

  1. I do imagine TK will give Korean language book recommendations, but probably not on the blog, seeing that its main demographic is English readers.

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    1. Right -- I am happy to give Korean language book recommendations, but usually people who can understand Korean do not need to ask.

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  2. I also would appreciate advice on Korean-language books about history, international relations, and domestic politics. But, there's this complicating issue: buying e-books in Korean for a Kindle. It doesn't look like Korean-language e-books in Kindle format are available. Can you recommend sites, Korean or English, that offer e-books in .pdf format?

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  3. The other problem with Korea books is, while they can give very illuminating looks at periods in Korea's history, the country just changes so damn fast, that even if somebody writes a really really excellent book that perfectly encapsulates Korea's current state... it will be out of date and inaccurate in about two or three years.

    For a better feel for Korea right at the moment... if you're IN Korea (particularly Seoul), attend some of the lectures held by the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, join the group for beers afterwards, and play bug on the wall: you'll hear some of the very most knowledgeable, smart, and well-connected Korea people discussing Korea, in English... for the mere price of the lecture (about 5000 won).

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    1. one more thing: DO NOT TRUST any single English language newspaper (online or paper version) on its own, or any single blog on its own, and listen to state-sponsored English language media (Arirang TV, the Korea.net website) to learn about Korea, about the way you'd listen to a cheerleader evaluate his/her team's chances of winning the big game.

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    2. The RAS website is also informative, if one can't make it to Seoul.

      Which raises the issue of English-based vs. Korean-based material. I'd like to hear more about the poor quality of English-language material from The Korean. The Asian Security blog commented a few weeks ago about nationalistic biases Prof. Kelly picked up on at conferences. That's one problem. What else is wrong?

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  4. Michael Breen's The Koreans is the gold standard in terms of understanding the mentality and history. However, it is a little dated. As far as I know he speaks Korean and has lived there for 25 years.

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    1. The book was written somewhere around 2002, but has a more recent update (at least, the cover on the shelf at Kyobo bookstore says it's been updated) -- if the update was longer ago than 2010, though, the same "books about Korea age in dog years" corollary applies.

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  5. I believe it's also interesting to know what foreigners understand and misunderstand. Of course it's not easy, a good insight is previously required on Korean culture to confront smartly facts and theories, but you can also learn a lot through this about how the world sees Korea and vice-versa.
    Foreigner's thinking may not bring absolute knowledge, only relative knowledge, but I believe it's also valuable.

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  7. I'm not sure if I agree with the premise of this post. For one thing, I think most of the people who write book-length treatises about Korea in English either DO speak Korean (like Andrei Lankov or Bruce Cumings), or have the necessary contacts/experience in the country to write knowledgeably about it anyway. (I'm thinking of the aforementioned Don Kirk or Don Oberdorfer here.)
    Furthermore (and to second Goulip's point), I think you're being a bit condescending when you write, "[I]f you can't understand Korean, your knowledge about Korea will always be limited, and often erroneous." Would you also say that a Korean liquor store owner in Washington, D.C. who doesn't speak English well has "limited, erroneous knowledge" about America? I'd imagine that they would have a far different perspective on America than I do (and that I might not always agree with their perspective), but that their opinions should not simply be dismissed with a mere wave of the hand.

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    1. Would you also say that a Korean liquor store owner in Washington, D.C. who doesn't speak English well has "limited, erroneous knowledge" about America?

      Limited, yeah. I'd rather the term contorted, rather than erroneous, however.

      Language IS culture. They're inseparable. In your example, the liquor store owner's lack of fluency in English affects everything from his understanding of information to his social circles. Culture goes as the mainstream goes, because by definition, the mainstream encompasses the greatest number of people. Since he does not match what is arguably the most essential aspect of being "in," many of his perspectives on America would either be wrong, parochial or skewed. It would also stay that way precisely because of the language barrier.

      This holds even more true for Korea, for obvious reasons.

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    2. Yeah, but is a limited insight really worth nothing?
      If first, you can see that it's limited and second, you try to understand how and why it's limited/contorted/whatever, it often raises various interesting issues.
      For example I bet TK learnt a lot, just by seeing the kind of questions we - foreigners, with our limited knowledge - wonder about Korea.
      I believe non-expert opinions shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Only after hearing it you can separate what's garbage/prejudice and what's relevant.

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    3. I think you are comparing apples and oranges. The Russian Lankov is a former student in the DPRK. Cumings is a professional American historian. Kirk, Breen, and Oberdorfer are journalists. There's a wealth of voices in American popular and academic publishing I have not seen just by scanning the stacks in a Korean bookstore. It's notable how South Koreans translate American popular non-fiction about Korea for South Korean audiences. The few Korean books I've read lack any popular touch, and maintain an academic formality. I think there's a reluctance to communicate popularly about controversial political topics, and the field is left open for fiction - which I'm not knocking - and self-help, inspirational, pseudo-scientific crap. Or, maybe me and my Kindle just watch too many websites and TV programs where journalists and popular academics sell their books. I don't see South Korean professors doing the same on ROK TV.

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    4. Goulip,
      Very few things are worth nothing.

      "first, you can see that it's limited and second, you try to understand how and why it's limited/contorted/whatever, it often raises various interesting issues."

      This is only for the benefit of the second and third parties. Neither I nor the Korean in the OP was took problem with that.

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    5. Excuse grammatical error in the last sentence.

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    6. I think the key is remembering that your perspective is limited. It's easy to get the impression that your experience is somehow complete, because it's the complete experience you are having. It is an experience, but trying to make it equivalent to getting the whole picture and knowing everything doesn't work very well. And that's when you tend to come off as erroneous.

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    7. Wow, I'm no Picasso! I love your last comment as a comment on life as a whole! It just seems that your sentiment there is the key to so much: empathy, understanding, truth-seeking. I would love to quote you!

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  8. Correction: Don Oberdorfer is also a professional academic with a long career in journalism.

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  9. Reminds me of a 'asian studies' lectures that I attended with my friend. The particular lecture was about modern China. A full load of horseshit. However, in this case, even 'experts' on chinese culture who actually identify themselves as chinese know jackshit about mainland China and don't speak a word of mandarin or understand a word in simplified chinese. This is actually one of the issues I have about the askachinese blog, because really, he has as much claim to be chinese as people from Taiwan.

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  10. I recommend this autobiography from general Paik Sun Yup:
    From Pusan to Panmunjom: Wartime Memoirs of the Republic of Korea's First Four-Star General (Memories of War)

    Now it's available on kindle. I got the physical book a few years ago and it was a total eye opener for me on the Korean war. I enjoyed every bit of it although some may find parts of the book a bit dry as it talks about maneuvers and other military strategies. However the views/opinions/feelings shared by the general in the book will make the book totally worth reading.

    One thing I recall from the book (actually I may have read it not in this book but in his series of recollections he wrote for a Korean newspaper) is how the ROK army was given 57mm Anti-Tank Guns by US, which in theory should've been able to stop the infamous T-34 tanks used by N Korea. However US army didn't think the Korean terrain suited tank warfare so they thought N Korea would NOT use tanks either (US keeps on making the mistake of using American thought process to predict what the enemy might do). Hence no armor piercing shells (crucial for knocking out tanks) were issued for the 57mm Anti-Tank Gun. Not to mention US not giving any tanks to S Korean army. And it's a well known fact that the presence of hundreds of T-34 tanks and the inability to stop them were what really caused the S Korean army to panic and collapse.

    Anyhow, his autobiography is in English and very much worth reading for anyone interested in Korea and History.

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  11. I think one of the best sources of foreigners' points of view about Korea and in English is our university, HUFS (Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, 한국외국어대학교). We foreign students are oftenly asked to make presentation about some aspects on Korea, that's mostly about culture and society and these two are actually very large groups that include a whole lot of interesting informations about anything. Even if they can't speak the language perfectly, since you cannot even apply to our school if you got no TOPIC test or the proof you graduated level 4 or higher (level 6 is the highest) at their language school, each student DOES have a certain level of skills and knowledge on the language too.
    We are as well asked to write essays on the same topics and there are foreign students from all over the world. Really, the variety of nationalities of HUFS foreign students is impressive.

    So, if you want a good and intellectual foreigner's point of view about Korea, from someone who experienced Korea and learnt their language, the best is asking a foreign university student. In my case, I'm a HUFS students, so I know about my school, but I believe there are also other great universities that accept many foreign students and ask them to write essays and make presentations on Korea. Especially at their language schools, but there they have to write in Korean, so no English sources.

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  12. I think one of the best sources of foreigners' points of view about Korea and in English is our university, HUFS (Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, 한국외국어대학교). We foreign students are oftenly asked to make presentation about some aspects on Korea, that's mostly about culture and society and these two are actually very large groups that include a whole lot of interesting informations about anything. Even if they can't speak the language perfectly, since you cannot even apply to our school if you got no TOPIC test or the proof you graduated level 4 or higher (level 6 is the highest) at their language school, each student DOES have a certain level of skills and knowledge on the language too.
    We are as well asked to write essays on the same topics and there are foreign students from all over the world. Really, the variety of nationalities of HUFS foreign students is impressive.

    So, if you want a good and intellectual foreigner's point of view about Korea, from someone who experienced Korea and learnt their language, the best is asking a foreign university student. In my case, I'm a HUFS students, so I know about my school, but I believe there are also other great universities that accept many foreign students and ask them to write essays and make presentations on Korea. Especially at their language schools, but there they have to write in Korean, so no English sources.

    ReplyDelete

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