- First Impressions*
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"What is your first impression of Korea?" "What does Korean sound like to you?" This was my first visit to Korea. When people began asking me such questions within ten minutes of my arrival at Incheon International Airport, I realized that Koreans are similar to Turks. Like Turks, they are very curious about what other people think of them. Like Turks, they are grappling with issues of national identity and nationalism, but these concerns are not as intense, dangerous, or destructive in Korea as they are in Turkey. Korea's economic miracle over the past twenty years has reduced anxieties about identity, and Koreans generally seem happier and have a more positive and open outlook on life. Speaking to world-renowned writers at the Seoul International Forum for Literature, Korean intellectuals and literary scholars expressed disappointment about how little-known their work is outside of Korea and asked what can be done about this. During these discussions Koreans openly displayed their pride by stating such facts as "our country's gross national product ranks twelfth in the world." The feeling of [End Page 391] joy shared by Koreans when the world validates their country's achievements was also apparent when Korean medical researcher Hwang Woo Suk successfully reproduced stem cells that may one day help patients suffering from incurable diseases. When President Bush expressed reservations about Hwang's research on human cloning, Koreans were united in support of science and pride for their country. In response to President Bush's negative remarks, the Korean government and its citizens supported and encouraged Dr. Hwang.†
Another topic mentioned during the forum was the issue of Japan apologizing to Korea. Japan's brutality toward Koreans and Chinese during World War II is understandably difficult to forget. Atrocities such as forcing Korean women to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers are still remembered by Koreans, and the international community knows that in recent years tension has been building between the two nations. Japanese writer Oe Kenzaburo, one of the participants in the forum, believes that Japan, as a democratic country, has a duty to apologize for its past crimes. However, his benign, cordial tone changed when he talked about Japan's ultranationalists and conservative politicians. It was clear that he disagreed with the nationalists' contention that Japan had not committed a crime, and even if it had, should not apologize. It seemed to me that Korea and Japan discuss their past in a more flexible and humanistic way than Turkey and the Middle East address theirs. The reason Korea has become more tolerant and confident in looking at its history may be linked to the extraordinary wealth it has enjoyed in recent years. In Seoul I saw magnificent buildings unlike any I have seen elsewhere in the [End Page 392] world (they were built with a great sense of style), wondrous hotel lobbies (some of the world's most beautiful elevators are in Seoul), and bookstores. I met many people who spoke about the affluence and economic growth of Korea-some spoke happily about working twelve hours a day; women complained about being lonely because they don't see their husbands enough; and some talked about enjoying Saturday afternoons walking through crowded bookstores. Although I saw homeless people lining up to be fed at soup kitchens on the same blocks where name-brand department stores line the wide, luxurious streets of Seoul, the gap between rich and poor in Korea is definitely not as great as in Turkey.
As I have witnessed at many of these kinds of seminars, writers who were invited to the Seoul International Forum for Literature-world-famous writers whose books are sold in huge bookstores-ate breakfast in the hotel cafeteria by themselves, looking depressed and lonely. I am well known around the world for writing postmodern and experimental novels. I recently chatted over coffee with Robert Coover, one of the writers I respect and admire. But the topic of our conversation wasn't postmodernism. Instead we talked about the time when Coover was serving in...