This weekend I flew to Korea. I am pretty fortunate to be in a profession and a place where, on a weekend, I can just fly to a foreign country. I’m learning that I find East Asian countries much less familiar than European ones. I grew up in a culture that descends directly from the social and intellectual legacy of Western Europe. When I lived in Spain there were many characteristics of the place and the people that seemed strange to me, but for which I had a frame of reference from literature, history, or religion. At the very least, I had a vague cultural memory of those places. Here, in spite of the obvious Western capitalism, industry, and entertainment, I sense a great divide in perspective. I can’t explain what exactly it is, since I know next to nothing about Japan and Korea. I am willing to concede that much of what I feel probably springs from my imagination.
I didn’t actually spend much time in Korea. The area we visited was clearly for the benefit of Americans, and was culturally ‘modified’ from the rest of the country. We landed at Osan Airbase, just south of Seoul. Alongside the north side of the runway was a line of revetments (thick concrete walls surrounding equipment or structures, meant to protect them from explosive blast and fragmentation) and Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries. On the other side of the runway were concrete bunkers for fighters, designed to shield alert fighter aircraft from bomb and artillery damage. It was an immediate reminder that the Republic of Korea — South Korea — is still at war with the People’s Republic of Korea — North Korea — and the current cessation of hostilities is an armistice (not a truce) that has been in effect since the 1950s. It also reminded uncomfortably of North Korea’s extensive artillery that supposedly can send hundreds of thousands of shells an hour to Seoul and environs if combat breaks out again. But away from the runway, on the part of the base where we actually stayed, the nice quarters, large gym, and American restaurants bore testament to the protection of a strong military.
That evening we walked out of the gate to what can only be described as a bazaar. Tiny shops lined narrow streets, themselves crowded with street merchants and food kiosks. Nearly everything there is fantastically cheap, from jewelry to custom suits to dive bars and strip clubs. It is all clearly for the benefit of the many Americans stationed on base, and it catered well to my imperialist sensibilities. The shopkeepers, waitresses, and hosts were all so eager to please–So must British colonists have felt when they browsed for oddities in the markets of Cairo and New Delhi a hundred and fifty years before. Such men might have written home to their families (as I write now) in smug tones, relating stories of the “funny people” and exotic merchandise available halfway across the world. Of course it is dangerous to fall into this trap, since in reality Korea is as developed as America, with a powerful and diverse economy and global influence. But the ‘colonial mindset’ was certainly seductive.
One nice thing about my trip north (we stopped back in Iwakuni for the second night) was the weather. Both days and nights were archetypically early autumn, with the sun pleasantly warm, the leaves just about to start turning, and the nights brisk and invigorating. That said, there is something just different about the weather in Asia–there is a thick haze in the air nearly all the time. It isn’t pollution (I asked), and I’ve heard a theory that fine dust from the Gobi desert in Mongolia is carried up into the higher altitudes by strong winds and becomes the haze. Whatever it is, it washes out the light to bleak effect, and it makes those stylized oriental paintings I have seen seem much less stylized and more photographic. The sun is often indeed a burnished red orb instead of a fierce bright light, and the mountains are shrouded and vaguely threatening in the thick air.
Another feature to Japan and Korea is the way civilization huddles in the valley of their mountainous landscape. Looking down from above, there are none of the crop circles and exact squares of the American agriculture, nor the sprawl of small and large American cities. The farm fields fit together like a jigsaw, and urban areas are tight clusters filling river valleys. It looks efficient but crowded; in fact, despite the many concrete apartment buildings or office buildings, the landscape looks somewhat medieval.
The highlight of the trip, surprisingly, was the final flight on Sunday afternoon from Iwakuni to Okinawa. There are always many layers of clouds in the sky here, often extending (without thunderstorms) up to 30,000 feet and higher. We were flying south with the sun setting to our right, and it shone red and very distant. Off to our left huge cloud formations were lit up pink and orange; the lower clouds immediately off to our right were delicately outlined in fire. It was very beautiful and quiet in the darkling sky, and I conceived dimly why ancient societies placed their deities in the sky. Words like glory and majesty floated in my mind as I watched the scenery pass my canopy. My pilot and I remarked on how fortunate we were to have seen such a sight.
It was an interesting weekend. The flights were excellent training (always a source of satisfaction), the night in Korea was very entertaining, and there was much for me to consider. Often, focused on my profession, I am isolated from my surroundings. Yet it seems after all that there is some benefit to new experiences.