Saturday, July 07, 2007

Origin of the Species

Korean Mother set off on her first trip outside South Korea yesterday morning, necessitating an early outing for us to see her off. Ironically, her trip is ultimately to North Korea, but since that part of the peninsula is in a different time-zone - specifically, the 1950s - there isn't much in the way of travel over the militarised border necessitating entry via the back door otherwise known as China. There is an element of convenience to this though since her specific destination is to Baekdusan (Baekdu Mountain), which straddles the North's border with their larger neighbour.

It's a long way to go to see a mountain, even one as geographically impressive as a large volcanic one with a crater lake, but it does have a particular significance - in legend it's the birthplace of the Korean nation. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the sometimes fiery local temperament. One gets the impression under the circumstances that for Koreans visiting Baekdusan is not so much a trip as a pilgrimage, and the mere mention of going is enough to friends and relatives - no further explanation is required.

Given the incessant and entirely tiresome geographical name-calling and underlying border squabbles which go on in this part of the world, it's not entirely surprising that Baekdusan itself remains the subject of such disputes although this may be placed in the context of wider issue of Goguryeo,
an increasingly controversial subject which probably at the very least has the North Korean leadership lying awake at night fearing for the future, especially in the context of their 1961 Treaty of Friendship with the their northern friends. If I live in Korea long enough maybe I won't need to go to China, because China will...

Closer to home, Korean Mother's trip proved an object lesson in social politics when my wife joked with her mother about how much money she would need to give to her considering the largely non-commercial nature of the destination. Obviously a mistake. Once they reach adulthood and have an income of their own Korean children are expected to give gift money to their parents on occasions such as the New Year and when they are travelling, amongst others. This is really a necessity, not a choice. Another problem was that because my wife has missed out on several years of Korean inflation she didn't immediately know how much to give for 'travel money' and had to consult with friends, discovering the amount was higher than she expected. We did eventually get to the bank on Thursday evening and get some cash to stick in a special envelope.

Korean Mother attributed this breach in etiquette to my wife having possibly spent too long in the West - where, in the UK at least, there's no ingrained obligation to give money in this way on such occasions. Now it was my turn to get touchy, because it felt like all that was missing from that statement was the word "decadent". One day my Korean may be good enough for me to say "sorry I corrupted your daughter". But fortunately, not today.

Korean keywords: 어머니, 북한, 중국, 여행, 정치,

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