From the moment I was born, I’ve wanted to write a 20,000-word tribute to Barbra Streisand, but this is not it, unfortunately. I’m still not ready. Instead, I want to talk about how we routinely distort, embellish or simply erase much the past, so what’s preserved and presented is not so embarrassing.
It’s a universal impulse. Photos are carefully chosen or touched up, personal accounts are self-exculpating if not glorifying, too many histories are cartoony tomes, and lifelong assholes are eulogized.
I know a man in his 60’s who was exposed as having a five-year-old bastard with a much younger woman. Before his wife could finalize their divorce, the geriatric Priapus dropped dead, however, so his obituary simply stated that he was a “loving father and faithful husband who would be deeply missed by his grieving wife, daughters and grandchildren.”
At Unz Review, the American Pravda series has called bullshit on the dogmatic versions of World War II, the Holocaust, JFK’s assassination, 9/11 and other key events. It has forced us to see beyond the clichés about Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler and John McCain, etc. Though the “moon landings” are not scrutinized here, others at Unz have raised a huge red flag on the gold tinfoil-wrapped mother of all achievements.
What a joke it is to display that farcical lander at the Smithsonian. I’ve seen it many times. Go look for yourself.
Since historians have so often lied, it is imperative that we reexamine the past endlessly, and when there’s a law against it, such as the case with the Holocaust, we can be sure the official falsehood can’t withstand inquiry, so must be defended by force.
At least no one is defending Jankiel Wiernik and Vasily Grossman for claiming that an SS man, Josef Hirtreiter, could tear a child in half with his bare hands.
Grossman, “This creature specialized in the killing of children. Evidently endowed with unusual strength, it would suddenly snatch a child out of the crowd, swing him or her about like a cudgel and then either smash their head against the ground or simply tear them in half. When I first heard about this creature—supposedly human, supposedly born of a woman—I could not believe the unthinkable things I was told. But when I heard these stories repeated by eyewitnesses, when I realized that these witnesses saw them as mere details, entirely in keeping with everything else about the hellish regime of Treblinka, then I came to believe that what I had heard was true.”
Yes, as true as Elie Wiesel’s infants being tossed into the air as targets for machine guns, his hanged boy writhing for more than half an hour because he was too light for the rope, and a dying boy playing Beethoven, on his last night on earth, for the dead and dying. As has been pointed out in an Alexander Cockburn article, permanently featured at Unz, there’s no way the violin strings could have survived the maddening cold during that 30-mile march through the snow, assuming there was even a violin, but hey, Wiesel was a guy who claimed to have read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in a nonexistent Yiddish translation.
Shameless liars and fabulists aside, even honest accounts are necessary selective, thus unavoidably subjective.
In a recent Unz article, Guillaume Durocher explains, “Any historian’s work is only as good as his criteria for accepting documents and other data as valid, his criteria for highlighting or accepting this or that fact from the huge mass of historical data, and his inferences.” So even the best and most enlightening history is woefully incomplete. That’s why we must keep investigating.
Can it be that it was all so simple then? Or has time rewritten every line? As soon as it’s written, said or even thought, Barbra, it’s been revised or hedged, if not doctored. Oh, how I love you!
See, even that blunt headed declaration is not exactly how I really feel about Barbra, but we can do it all again, and again, as in refining each remembrance, description and definition, so as to inch closer to a truer understanding of anything, for as painful as it is to remember, the worst is to memorialize bullshit, and it’s positively evil to make others revere the same, so let’s comb through every inch of that cursed earth for bone fragments or bullshit, whatever turns up. What’s your objection?
Lordy, and I began this doodle aiming only to retrieve lost trivia, as in the way we really were. Here in Busan, I see an English “academy,” or hagwon, nearly every block, but the English on people’s clothing and shop signs are often ridiculous. For example, there’s a chain of clothing stores called “WELL MADE,” so far so good, but here’s its slogan, as stated in bold on each façade, “FOR OUR WORK AND LIFE BALANCE WITH INDIAN.”
For such a large chain, with stores everywhere, you’d think they must have at least one English proficient employee who could say, “Wait a second here, this doesn’t make any sense.”
There are so many other weird examples, and even the names of English academies can be off, such as “ADVANCE ENGLISH” or “UNIQUE ENGLISH.” No one should learn basic English to become like James Joyce of Finnegans Wake.
The English literature on Japan is quite vast, but not so with Korea. There is one book, though, that delves into the strange world of English teaching here. In No Couches in Korea, Kevin M. Maher tells us:
We were left to fend for ourselves—we had no program, few resources, an owner who couldn’t speak English, and a director who didn’t care. We taught however we wanted. If a teacher was sex-minded, he steered his respective classes into sexual topics. Students that liked that, would take their course. If a teacher were politicized or religious, they would gear their lessons in that direction. Years later, I would see every kind of teacher in all sorts of different situations. They used the classroom as a venue to teach and argue for their personal values or causes. Other teachers always brought board games to every class. Their discussion would be generated around that game.
Maher taught in Busan in 1996-97, and among his three roommates was a Rush and comic book geek who loudly complained of his sexual frustration and watched TV from six inches away. Everyone shunned him. Still, this insufferable weirdo was also an English teacher because he was, well, a white native speaker of English.
They were crammed into a tiny apartment up a hill in Deokcheon-dong. I’ve been there. Now thoroughly gentrified, it was rather dumpy then. Next to Maher’s daily bus stop was “a monstrous pile of garbage,” and to even get there, he had to walk through South Korea’s largest dogmeat market.
This funky experience inspired some of Maher’s best prose, so it’s more than worth it, “Butcher tables were set up next to the cages. The dog meat had been boiled and skinned, and you could see the entire musculature of their bodies—and the looks of horror frozen on their faces. Little skinless dogs were heaped in stiff piles. Next to them were dog limbs and other body parts sliced into different cuts. A head attached to the breastbone, the rest being cut into separate pieces.”
Also striking is Maher’s description of his very first class, and the 25-year-old had just arrived, without any sleep, after a 15-hour plane ride from Portland, Oregon:
Inside the classroom, there were only twelve students at twelve desks. The other students didn’t leave, however. They peered in as many windows as they could. Each classroom had hallway windows placed at an adult’s eye level, closer to the ceilings. This height disadvantage didn’t faze them, however, as they took turns and lifted their friends to see, or took their initiative and pulled themselves up to hang, watch, and shout. The halls echoed. I thought they might go home shortly if I waited them out, but they did not. Numerous times, I yelled, “Go home!” But interruptions and yelling made whatever teaching I had planned not possible. “You kids have to go home!” But they didn’t understand a word I said, and I didn’t know how to say it in Korean. “I’m trying to teach! You kids have to go!” I closed the windows, but they merely opened them again.
This intense curiosity was irritatingly constant during Maher’s entire stay in Busan, for as a white man, he was freak each time he appeared in public.
Maher recounts another instance:
Our night began with a Korean man who was driving past on his motorcycle. When he saw two white people like myself and Caden standing at this stand and eating Korean food, he turned his head to stare. A few pedestrians were almost hit by him, but it didn’t faze him. He then parked the bike in front of us, threw his legs over one side towards us, and quietly sat on the bike and watched us. We were like escaped zoo animals who had somehow amazingly learned to eat human food. He didn’t budge, and he didn’t feel an ounce of shame by staring as if we were a TV set. He seemed in awe that these non-Asian people existed in physical form on the streets of Pusan.
It wasn’t all bad. A stranger shook Maher’s hand and said, “USA #1,” then, “Welcome to Korea.” Seeing Maher and his friends on the street, a high school girl gave all six of them flowers, starting with the white men, then the white women, with the odd Korean in Maher’s group the last to get one, and only because the girl was prodded.
The old couple who ran Happy Mart always said to Maher, “I love you,” each time he entered their store. A stranger would spend up to 20 minutes to help Maher find an address, or even give Maher his own umbrella, and go without one in the rain.
Though Maher wanted nothing better than to blend in, it wasn’t going to happen because he looked different and couldn’t speak Korean. He wasn’t just from elsewhere, but clearly a transient, waiting for his next plane. In America, too, he had always been anxious to move on, and most intensely from Michigan, his home state, for it represented the ultimate confinement, and not just to a place, but family and history, of any kind. Maher’s Michigan was flattened and had no horizon. As a young man, Maher wanted freedom from it all.
Though Busan is much more cosmopolitan in 2020, foreigners still stand out. In an article from just a month ago, Busan resident Chris Tharpe talks about how he’s treated at Yeonil Market, “Minhee sends me there because the local vendors always give me the white man hook up. We figured out early on that, not only do I enjoy better service, but I often receive 10–20% more of any product than she does. Sure, it’s racism, but the good kind.”
Fluent in Korean, with a Korean wife and having lived in Yeonsan-4-dong for five years, Tharpe has become just a regular neighborhood guy, “most familiar faces bow or greet me out loud as I make my way through the narrow streets on my daily rounds, especially when I’ve got my dogs on leash, which often produce big grins.”
On a recent birthday, a drunk Tharpe fell backwards into his neighbors’ glass door and shattered it. Unhurt, Tharpe made it home, only to pass out, so he and his wife could only go over to apologize the next day, “When she explained what happened, the old couple just shook their heads and laughed, as if this is to be expected on a man’s birthday. We of course offered to pay for the new glass door front, which I assumed would require a big wad of cash. The couple, however, elected to go with the one they had before, a basic, plastic composite that only set us back around 30 bucks.”
Sounds very familiar and old school to me, somewhat like the South Philly I used to live in, which is also disappearing. South Philly also has a wet market, by the way, one of the last in the USA, but there must be thousands in South Korea. All thriving, each one is the liveliest part of its neighborhood.
Old school, you rub against each other more, buy each other beer, lend money that often isn’t paid back, let a down-and-out buddy sleep on your ratty couch, threaten your best friend with a pool stick or put a few bucks in a jar at your local tavern for someone’s medical emergency. Whatever the aggravations, though, you’re also nourished by this sweet and sour social soup, or you wouldn’t be swimming in it.
More people each day would rather be left alone, however, so they can become even more intimate with their gadgets. At my Busan guesthouse, there’s young man who’s nearly always down in the basement kitchen, playing video games on his laptop. From his fluent English and accent, I’m guessing he’s a Korean-American. Since he’s always engaged with shooting the enemy in some desert setting, we haven’t talked. Several times, I’ve found him sleeping at his table at 4 or 5 in the morning.
Taking the subway in Seoul, Daegu and Busan, I often hear no conversations, because everyone is transfixed by his cellphone, although the very old are more likely to be liberated from the tiny screen. Like everywhere else on earth, Koreans have become more isolated than ever.
In his book, Maher describes an entirely different world:
Once on the bus, there wasn’t anywhere to sit. I had my bag in one hand and my pen and paper in another. Suddenly, I felt a pull on my bag. “Hey,” I yelled. A woman pulled my bag out of my hand and sat it on her lap.
“Korean culture,” Louie explained. “If you are standing, and you have a bag, it is second-nature for a sitting person to grab it from you, and place it on their lap.”
Whenever I saw Koreans carrying large items up the steep steps, complete strangers would grab the other end and help them take their bags up the stairs. Once they reached the top of the stairs, the stranger would depart without saying a word. A few years later when I moved to Seoul, it seemed to have disappeared.
So much has disappeared everywhere, and that’s why every city, town and village needs its own literature to record what’s most unique about it, but that’s exactly what we don’t have right now, for writers everywhere are either ignored or not up to the task of authoritatively and passionately capturing the local.
In art, you have the 17th century Dutch painters of everyday scenes. A rising middle class created a huge demand for pictures, and they wanted depictions of the ordinary, for they had “a deep love of life and interest in one’s environment,” to quote Johan Huizinga. So there you have it. Without this deep love of life and interest in one’s environment, everything fades away, flakes off, crumbles and stinks.
Though buxom females are way overrepresented, and muddy field hands or grunting dock workers are rarely seen, these genre paintings still provide posterity with an incredibly rich portrait of Dutch society from 400 years ago, so that it’s not just more alive than all others from its time, but perhaps even ours. Jacks and Jills have never been more masterfully loved.
In literature, fictional works of a certain bent have also accomplished this, and in English, we can cite Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (which really describes Clyde, Ohio), James Joyce’s Dubliners, Willa Cather’s Great Plains trilogy and Annie Proulx’ Close Range (about rural Wyoming). Please do augment this list, for everyone’s enlightenment.
Since I’m in Korea, I’m reading about Korea, but of course, as an English reader, I only have access to a tiny portion of writing about this place. Still, it’s not nothing, for every effort to understand the past can only enrich the present.
Experiencing present day Korea, it’s hard to believe it was once the Hermit Kingdom. Now, even small towns have English or white models on shop signs and advertisements. Just over a century ago, few Koreans had ever seen a foreigner.
Memories barely flicker in the corners of our alcohol drenched, drug addled and TV numbed minds, Barbra, and that’s we must work much harder to remember, even if it’s too painful, for we can’t simply choose to forget, the way we were. I love you, Barbra.
Let’s close with a fascinating passage from Isabella Bishop. From 1894 to 1897, she made four visits to Korea, just as the country was opening up, and this is how she was received at a village inn:
My room had three paper doors. The unwalled space at once filled up with a crowd of men, women, and children. All the paper was torn off the doors, and a crowd of dirty Mongolian faces took its place. I hung up cambric curtains, but long sticks were produced and my curtains were poked into the middle of the room. The crowd broke in the doors, and filled the small space not occupied by myself and my gear. The women and children sat on my bed in heaps, examined my clothing, took out my hairpins and pulled down my hair, took off my slippers, drew my sleeves up to the elbow and pinched my arms to see if they were of the same flesh and blood as their own; they investigated my few possessions minutely, trying on my hat and gloves, and after being turned out by Wong three times, returned in fuller force […] The pushing and crushing, the odious familiarity, the babel of voices, and the odors of dirty clothing in a temperature of 80°, were intolerable.
But Bishop tolerated it, and we thank her, for leaving us so many memorable sketches of the way we were, just yesterday, so tell me, would we? Could we? Let’s dig and find out.