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What Do Interracial Couples, Obama, and Oprah Have in Common?

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PhD, LMFT

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What Do Interracial Couples, Obama, and Oprah Have in Common?

How often have you heard people say that racism doesn’t exist, or that race no longer matters—“Just look at Oprah.”  Interracial couples, a group experiencing a major growth spurt in the past decade, are frequently pointed to as evidence that racial borders or barriers no longer exist, or don’t matter.

The discourse that U.S. society is colorblind, or evolving in that direction, has become increasingly popular in recent years. Colorblind discourse is rooted in the belief that a persistent refusal to see differences in race, ethnicity, or color is: (1) humanistic (i.e., “we humans are all alike”; “there’s only one race—the human race”), and (2) socially and politically correct (i.e., one reduces the risk of being called racist if one does not see or acknowledge the importance of skin color in how people experience the world).

A colorblind stance dispatches the problem of race in one fell swoop, effectively taking those with race–based power and privilege “off the hook.”  Elaine Pinderhughes (1989) writes that this stance “protects those holding it from awareness of their ignorance of others and the necessity of exerting the energy and effort to understand and bridge the differences” (44). Perhaps it is not surprising that many white people believe that the U.S. has already become a truly color-blind nation, with national polling demonstrating that a majority of whites now believe discrimination against racial minorities no longer exists (Twine & Gallagher 2008). But can race be erased so easily?

Parallels exist between the meanings and interpretations made of the increasing rates of interracial couples in the U.S. and a major milestone in the American political scene. On November 5th, 2008, The New York Times stated, “Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States, sweeping away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease as the country chose him as its first black chief executive.” Post (2009) summed up the discourse around Barack Obama’s election in the following way: “This narrative is all about race even as it makes various claims about the diminished significance of race: the prospect of racial healing, the ability of a new generation of Americans to transcend their own identity, and the emergence of a post-racial society”.

Much like the hullabaloo made over the increasing frequency and visibility of interracial couples and multiracial peoples, Obama’s election was accompanied by passionate, and premature, proclamations that racism was at an end in the U.S. After the November 2008 election, almost half of white voters (48%) and three-quarters of black voters (74%) said they expected to see race relations improve during Obama’s presidency. Voters were less effusive a year later, with a plurality of whites (45%) reporting that Obama’s election had made no difference to race relations, and 15% reporting it has made race relations worse (Pew Research Center 2010).

Taking the election of a black—black and white, in fact—chief executive as evidence that racial tension and inequality had been successfully dispatched was a quantum leap, with such an interpretation implying that no further work needed to be done in the quest for equality. The embracing of the notion of a “post-racial” U.S. in popular culture and mass media does not allow space for either acknowledgement of, or critical reflection on, racism as an ongoing phenomenon.

My question: In the age of Obama, are interracial couples and their children now blessed to live in a post-racial era where racial boundaries will simply vanish?  According to the narratives shared by my research participants, the answer is a definite “no”; perhaps, one day, it might become a “yes”.

The more pundits declare the arrival of a post-racial society, the clearer it becomes that we’re not there yet. After President Obama’s State of the Union address in January 2010, commentator Chris Matthews quipped that he “forgot he was black.” Asked to explain his comment, Matthews stated that he had meant it as a compliment to President Obama for rendering race a “non-issue”. Matthews went on to assert that Obama is “post-racial”, rendering racial debate no longer relevant.

Obama’s election, just like the rise in interracial couples, continues to be used as a trope by some to support colorblind discourse. And while Matthews insisted he meant well (i.e., a case of overt, unintentional racism), and had not intended to be offensive (i.e., “it’s not my fault if you’re offended”), others wasted no time fanning the flames of racist political discourse and disinformation following Obama’s election.

The perception of Obama’s “otherness” has actually intensified since his election (New York Times, August 19, 2010), partially due to a macro-aggressive campaign. The Pew Research Center (2010) conducted a poll that found that 18% of Americans believed two years into Obama’s presidency that he was Muslim, up from 11% after his inauguration, and 27% Americans doubted he was born in the US, and, therefore, saw his election as suspect. Protest signs seen in recent years include “Obama’s Plan: White Slavery” and posters portraying the President as Hitler, an African “witch doctor”, and the arch-villain The Joker from the Batman comics and films.

In fact, the number of racially offensive images of President Obama and his wife proliferated so rapidly that Google began running an apology associated with the image search results (Blow 2009).  The fact of President Obama does not allow us to rewrite history and remove race as a powerful organizing principle in U.S. society or even as a factor in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Voting results in battleground states broke down clearly along racial lines. In the South Carolina primary, Obama won 78% of the black vote, but only 24% of the white vote (National Public Radio, January 28, 2008). Innuendos that Obama had been born in Kenya and was secretly a Muslim would never have gained currency if white persons had not experienced him as “Other”.

Vast material disparities remain between blacks and whites. The median black worker earns about $600/week, approximately 80% of the median income of white workers. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that black men are imprisoned at 6.6 times the rate of white men, with nearly 1 in 20 black men incarcerated. The unemployment rate for blacks is nearly twice that of whites across demographic categories (New York Times, November 9, 2009). The catastrophe that was, and is, Hurricane Katrina is yet another reminder that skin color and poverty remain markers of not only who can thrive, but who can survive (Agathangelou 2010).

Racial issues are very much still with us. And Keith Bardwell, a Louisiana justice of the peace, refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple out of concern for any children that the couple might have. Bardwell commented, “I’m not a racist. I just don’t believe in mixing the races that way.” So, post-racial is a ways off, and resistance and prejudice continue to be daily experiences for interracial couples and persons of color. How couples strategically respond to these acts of racism says a lot about their negotiation style, identities both as individual partners and as a couple system, and what can and cannot be talked about in this intimate context. More on this later.

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Kyle D. Killian, Ph.D., LMFT is a licensed couple and family therapist and clinical supervisor. He is the author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy: Crossing Racial Borders from Columbia University Press. Connect with him at academia.edu (click), or via Linkedin at Kyle Killian.

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References

Agathangelou, A. M. 2010. Bodies of desire, terror and the war in Eurasia: Impolite disruptions of (neo) liberal internationalism, neoconservatism and the ‘new’  imperium.  Millennium: Journal of International Studies 38: 693-722.

Blow, C.M.  2009. Black in the age of Obama. New York Times, December 5. Retrieved January 19 2010 at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/05/opinion/05blow.html

Pew Research Center. (2010). Blacks upbeat about Black progress, prospects: A Year After Obama’s Election. Retrieved April 24, 2010 at http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1459/year-after-obama-election-black-public-opinion

Pew Research Center. 2010b. Growing number of Americans say Obama is a Muslim. Retrieved August 19, 2010 at http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1701/poll-obama-muslim

Pinderhughes, E.  (1989). Understanding Race, Ethnicity, and Power. New York: Free Press.

Twine, F. W. & Charles Gallagher. (2008). The future of whiteness: A map of the third wave. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 31, 4-24.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2010).  Economic News Release, Table 2.  Accessed April 27, 2010 at http://www.bls.gov/news.release/wkyeng.t02.htm

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A walk far from home, a Norwegian on the Baekdudaegan

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A walk far from home, a Norwegian on the Baekdudaegan

I am a long way from home, standing at the summit of Cheonwangbong (1915m), the highest mountain on the mainland of South Korea. Home is Oslo, the capital of Norway, and I have travelled far to get to the starting point of the Baekdudaegan. The mythical ridge that forms the watershed and the spiritual backbone of Korea and home to the long-distance trail of the same name. With no skills in the Korean language, I have a daunting task ahead of me.

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For the next seven weeks, I will walk about 735 kilometres across South Korea to the pass of Jinburyeong. From there I can go no further, but the mountain ridge however, does not care for human borders. The White Head Great Ridge runs unbroken through the Korean Peninsula, all the way up to the sacred mountain of Baekdusan (2744m), situated at the border between North Korea and China. The Baekdudaegan is a spiritual heritage for the Koreans; so spiritual that according to legend, the Japanese drove spikes into the ridge to destroy its spirit under their invasions of Korea.

tarjei-photo-10Clouds surrounds the Heavenly King Peak. Guided by the ropes and fences of Jirisan National Park, I take the first steps on a journey that will lead me to the heart of the Korean people. I spend the first night on the trail at the Seseok shelter. I pay 8.000 won and in return, I receive a small space on a hard wooden platform. The night is hot and the dormitory is vibrant with snoring, sleepless in Jirisan. The clouds however, does not sleep through the night, they move on, leaving behind a ridge of emerald beauty the morning after. My adventure is off to a beautiful start.

The first days on the trail, is a hard lesson in Korean topography. The mountains here are not extremely high, but they are always undulating and are at times exceedingly steep. It is as the lifeforce, called gi, from Baekdusan flows like waves through Korea, and the trail negotiates them head on. One week of walking and I am already wondering if I am going to make it to the finish line, stumbling tired up to the summit of Baegunsan. The morning after, I crawl out of my tent to a beautiful sunrise. With thin layer of clouds floating like ethereal rivers through the valleys below, and in the horizon the mighty peak of Cheonwangbong. That is the spirit of Baekdudaegan and the price of beauty, for the Baekdudaegan will reward you for your hardship.

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Nights on the trail is mostly spent in my tent or at what the Koreans call minbak, which most closely translates as homestay, but my most haunting nights are spent in a jeongja. These are pavilions, often very ornamented, which you are allowed to sleep in once other visitors has left. After walking for two days through the beauty of Deogyusan National Park, I arrive at Bbaejae, where I sleep in the breath of clean air under the protective roof of the jeongja there. Only to be awakened up at two o’clock in the middle of the night by a bus loading off a huge group of hikers, the Bone Pass is soon teeming with headlights and voices in the dark.

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Such is often the way Koreans hike in the mountains, I meet them in both small and large groups, hiking or sitting down eating large quantities of food. Each time trying to get the formal greeting of ‘annyŏng haseyo’ pronounced correct. The meeting with the Koreans on the trail also gives me huge reasons to practice saying thanks correctly, ‘kamsahamnida’. For the hospitability I meet on the trail is a source of constant wonder. Often I am invited to sit down with them, where they eagerly share their food and drink with me, even though we do not speak each other’s languages. Other times I receive small gifts like apples and grapes, to the occasional chocolate bar pushed shyly into my hand.

At Keunjae, I arrive to the sound of children laughing; there is a kindergarden from Gimcheon there visiting the educational centre about nature and Korean culture for children at the pass. I meet Mr. Cho Byeongsam, one of the teachers at the kindergarden. We talk about me doing the Baekdudaegan and the temple of Jikjisa. Just two days earlier, I stood atop Mt. Hwangaksan looking down upon the temple grounds, with an urge to climb down to it. Then the amazing thing happens, Mr. Cho is inviting me to Gimcheon with the kindergarden, from where he and his wife, Baek Seung Hee, are driving me to the beautiful temple. What a fantastic twist of fate. Afterwards we eat dinner at a local restaurant nearby the temple, before they drive me back to a motel near Keunjae. Such a tale brought me joy on the walk, and it did not take long before I was looking forward to the next encounter with the Korean people. Just as much as I was looking forward to the next magic moment on the Baekdudaegan.

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I walk through the mesmerizing Songnisan National Park, going through fields of boulders where I have either to push or drag my backpack behind me. The descent from Daeyasan may be the most notorious single section of the Baekdudaegan, where you climb down from the summit on what is called the ‘100-meter rope’. It is a fun ride, but caution should be taken.

Outside the confines of the national parks, I follow the fluttering ribbons for guidance of where the trail goes. It is an interesting aspect of hiking here in Korea that it is the hikers themselves that are marking where the trail goes. Each ribbon carries a personal mark of the hiker, and you find them in almost all the colours of the rainbow. As I progress on the trail, I start to recognize the different ribbons, and wonders who the hiker beyond each ribbon is. Though I have to be careful following the correct ribbons, I look closely for the 백두대간 Hangeul characters denoting the Baekdudaegan. At some ancient fortress walls below Huiyangsan, I follow the wrong ribbons downwards for a long time before I become aware of my mistake, resulting in a strenuous return to the ridge.

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It takes three weeks before I get a taste of bad weather, but when it comes, it comes with a vengeance. I walk the exposed and funky ridge of Mungyeong Saejae between Ihwaryeong and Joryeong in a typhoon. Rain lashes down on me ceaselessly, as I negotiates the trail using ropes up and down huge boulders. I get soaking wet, including my boots, as the water runs down the ropes and onto my arms, and so forth made its way under my raingear. The day after was designated my first rest day.

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The Baekdudaegan is a hard walk and I feel constantly tired, but for all its tribulations, it is a rewarding rollercoaster ride. Walking through the azalea gardens of Sobaeksan National Park, which will bloom pink in the spring. Visiting the mighty temple of Buseoksa. Sitting on top of Seokbyeongsan, watching a verdant wonderland in the setting sun. Waking up early to catch the rise of the morning sun from the summit of Noinbong.

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A thunderclap salutes my entry into Seoraksan National Park with its jagged peaks and towering cliffs on the 43rd day of walking. It is raining and low clouds, with no visibility. It is a haunting walk of mysterious beauty in the beginning; through the clouds, I can see the torn landscape. Another hiker rescues the raincoat of my backpack and we keep company to the shelter of Jungcheong and the summit of Dacheonbong. Arriving at the peak, the weather has lifted and the immense beauty of Seoraksan is unveiled. I stand looking at the famous rock of Ulsanbawi, the dinosaur spine of Gongryong Neungseon, Sokcho and the East Sea. Magic. In the evening, I sit between the spines of the dinosaur and watch the lights from the squid boats out on the sea.

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Then I stumble tired down past the ghost resort below Masanbong. My sore and weary feet aches as the last few steps are taken; I can see the stele at Jinburyeong, the finishing line. I stumble out of the forest, past the last of the fluttering ribbons.

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Turning around, I can look back at 45 beautiful, but hard days on the Baekdudaegan in South Korea. Looking back at great moments in the mountains and nature, but most of all, looking back at the meeting with the Korean people. In the end, I feel that the spiritual backbone is not the ridge itself, but the people that inhabits the land on and around it.

You can read the whole story at:  http://tarjeinskrede.blogspot.no/p/baekdudaegan.html.

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Tarjei Næss Skrede, born in 1976, works as an IT Consultant at Bouvet in Oslo, Norway. He has for a long time been interested in outdoors activities and in recent years, he has grown a big interest in long distance trails. In 2013, he crossed the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean on the GR10, after which he set sight on a far more exotic trail, the Baekdudaegan of South Korea.

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Snow and Winter Scenery in Korea

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Snow and Winter Scenery in Korea

South Korea has four seasons. Winter, typically, lasts from late November until the middle of March. This coincides with the “ski-season” for which South Korea enjoys popularity from many Chinese and Southern Asian enthusiasts.  Winter in the Capital city of Seoul is beautiful when it snows. Taking an afternoon walk nearby its old palaces brings great joy and precious memories.

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Will IKEA succeed in South Korea?

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Will IKEA succeed in South Korea?

It finally happened. On December 18th of last year (2014), IKEA opened its first store in South Korea in the city of Gwangmyeong after years of rumors and long awaited anticipation by local consumers. With a floor space of 59,000 m2 (640,000 sq ft), the store at opening was the largest-to-date for IKEA worldwide. It surpasses the size of any of IKEA store in Sweden, the United States and even mainland China.

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News-to-Date and Unexpected Surprises

150221 ikea-03During the first 2 months after opening its first store in South Korea, a few unexpected surprises took place for IKEA. The biggest surprise was perhaps the issue which has to do with a map that was (is) being sold at IKEA stores worldwide. The body of water (ocean) between Korea and Japan was previously called the “Sea of Corea (Korea),” “the East Sea” and/or the “Gulf of Korea” on ancient maps. Now, the maps which were (are) being sold at IKEA represented this body of water as the “Sea of Japan” – which was received as being inaccurate, culturally insensitive and also ultra-offensive to 99.9% (or let’s just say the greater majority) Korean shoppers during its first few weeks after store opening. To address how and why the “Sea of Korea” became the “Sea of Japan” is a very long story and not the purpose of this article, so we won’t get into it any further today.

Another big surprise was the sheer number of visitors who came to see what was displayed at this IKEA store. On its 35th day of opening its Gwangmyeong store, IKEA Korea welcomed its one-millionth — count 1,000,000 — visitor. Roughly 30,000 to 35,000 individuals had visited the store on weekends and about 20,000 to 25,000 visitors during weekdays. Such crowds caused heavy traffic jams, shortages in parking space and very long waiting lines.

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In addition, three other reports related to IKEA Korea made recent news. The first was a report of visitors hoarding all the pencils. Second was the news report about the city of Gwangmyeong, who had welcomed IKEA to their city with open arms, was now going to penalize IKEA for causing massive traffic jams to deal with their civic complaints. Lastly, there were reports which had suggested that IKEA had over-priced all of their products in South Korea compared with other countries. After an in-depth consumer investigation, however, it turned out that some of their products were more expensive (partially true) and others were less expensive compared with prices in other countries (partially false).

One more aspect of the Gwangmyeong store is the “messiness” of its blankets and linen on display beds. It will take additional resources (additional labor) in South Korea to frequently make-up all the beds in all the showrooms due to unique (unusual) consumer behavior.

Road to Success in South Korea

There are some very unique aspects of the South Korean market to consider for IKEA’s success in South Korea. Here is a list of are just a few of them:

  1. The nature of “cookie-cutter-made” apartments (condos) and studio apartments (a.k.a. Office-Tel): Floor plans for these residential types are highly standardized and virtually the same. How consumers fit (mix-and-match) IKEA’s furniture into these overly standardized floor plans in Korea will be something interesting to watch.
  2. Appealing to “newly-weds” and single professionals: People in South Korea seldom live together before getting married. Getting married means getting a new place to live; and then buying “new” furniture for the entire home. Moveover, an increasingly number of young professionals, who are not yet married but have disposable income, prefer to live alone (not at their parent’s house) in small studio apartments. These apartments need furniture and home accessories.
  3. Becoming the preferred choice for local mom-and-pops (neighborhood) interior designers and carpenters: There are thousands of local carpenters who fix-up homes and apartments in South Korea. All of them have existing local suppliers who are doing business with them. Getting on the list (minds) of these home-interior remodeling stores will be important.
  4. Becoming the preferred choice when replacing “built-in” system kitchens: A typically high-rise apartment (condo) complex in South Korea has anywhere in between 500 to 1,200 residential units. Becoming a first-supplier, by working with construction companies (builders), and electronic-appliances (washer-dryer, gas-range) companies, to a select segment of apartments (condo) complexes could become another consideration for accelerated market penetration. Moreover, buyers of older homes (apartments) often “upgrade” their kitchen to make it feel new. This market for replacing existing system kitchens is also a big segment in South Korea.
  5. Product durability to withstand (survive) frequently moving Koreans: South Korean who do not own homes move around at least 3-10 times before eventually becoming home owners. The question of whether “self-assembled IKEA products” can withstand being moved around so much is something of interest to Korean consumers.
  6. Sitting on the Floor Culture: Traditionally, and even today, people sitting on cleaned floors, especially when gathered together at home, is a prevailing custom in South Korea. Understanding and applying how IKEA products may work best to accommodate this culture and introducing products that will fit with such cultural behavior is also something to consider. For example, other large retailers sell “bamboo” carpets to help consumers accommodate for South Korea’s hot-muggy-summers. Whether IKEA will localize their product line by introducing these “bamboo-style” mats (carpets) will be a point of interest by Korean consumers.

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As with any business, and at the end of the day, IKEA’s success in South Korea will hinge upon how many repeat consumers it can generate in terms of “life-time” buyers and getting good-to-great “word-of-mouth” ratings with reference to customer satisfaction. Although, it’s way too early to tell how business will turn out for IKEA in South Korea, it is certain that their presence will bring about extra-ordinary change to local competitors and many benefits to, and more choices for, end-consumers.

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East Asia’s Currency Unit – the Hidden Story behind Yuan, Won and the Yen

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East Asia’s Currency Unit – the Hidden Story behind Yuan, Won and the Yen

To those who aren’t familiar with Chinese characters, the Chinese Yuan, Korean Won, Japanese Yen and even the Hong Kong Dollar may all seem to be different currency units. This is true when the currency unit is written in English, or Romanized (Latinized).

However, if only (purely) Chinese characters are used, these seemingly different currency units are all represented by the same (single) character (letter/word) “圓” which is (and has been) a common “currency unit” for all of these East Asian countries.

ca-cur-unt-compositeWhat this means is that there is a greater commonality amongst the East Asian countries (which is not visible to an un-trained eye, or to a person who has never had any training in reading and/or writing Chinese-characters.

Now, if we take a look at this from another angle and with a trained-eye, Yen is way of how Japanese pronounce the Chinese character “圓” which the Japanese have transformed (modified, simplified) into today’s “円” character. Also, the way Koreans pronounce the Chinese character “圓” is Won which also uses the same Chinese character — i.e., same as the Chinese and Japanese — to represent its currency unit.

For your visual inspection (validation), the table below represents six currency units — from East Asia — which all use the “圓” as their non-English-way for currency representation.  Note that every country’s currency leads back to the same Chinese character “unit” of “圓” in its original (native) language.

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If you have worked in, or are currently working in, the Financial Industry, this piece of information may not be new to you – nothing new. However, if you haven’t traveled to all of these East Asian countries, you have just now picked-up an interesting piece of knowledge.  Is this piece of information (knowledge) interesting to you – yes / no?

For a further visual check (validation), below are currency notes — a mix of old and new — from the above listed countries with the same character  “圓” (Won, Yuan, Yen) unit emphasized.

MACAU (澳门)

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SOUTH KOREA (韓國)

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JAPAN (日本)

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MANCHUKUO (a.k.a. Empire of Manchuria, 滿洲)

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 TAIWAN (臺灣)

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CHINA  (中国)

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HONG KONG (香港)

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Can you think of — name — any other “country-currency” in the world that can trace its roots back to the one Chinese character “圓”  when it is written in native (local) language form?

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Understanding Foreign Brands – What’s the meaning of “KIA”?

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Understanding Foreign Brands – What’s the meaning of “KIA”?

When you hear the word KIA, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? It is IKEA (the Swedish furniture company)? Is it tennis? Super Bowl commercials? What about affordable cars with good quality? Or the image of an Asian automotive company? Or even perhaps the name Peter Schreyer — the world famous car designer? For all practical reasons, the answer could be all of above.

But now, what’s the meaning of KIA in the first place? Is it an abbreviation of the Korean Industry Association? Or does it mean, something else, like the “Korean Inventors of Asia”? Well, before we get to the answer and if you care to know, we’ll need to investigate and decipher its original meaning by taking into account the following three-step language layer(s) which involve English, Korean and Chinese characters.

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Now, if we take a closer look at the above, the name KIA is derived from the Korean pronunciation of two Chinese characters — (1) “起” and (2) “亚” — which have the following meaning(s).

  • “起” can take on several meanings, but in this context (a Korean’s context), it typically means to “awake” as in 起床 (get-up out of bed, or to wake-up) or “rise-up (stand)” as in the word 起立拍手 (기립박수 – a standing ovation).
  • “亚 (亞)” is easier because it phonetically represents the first syllable in Asia (亞細亞).

Thus, if we combine (1) and (2) together, a new meaning appears which means “Rise (or rising) in Asia” which also conveys a secondary meaning which is “Visible in Asia” because if you stand-up, you also become visible at the same time. Well, there you have it. Now you know — this is the meaning of KIA.

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Note: According to the English version of Wikipedia, it is mentioned that “ki” in KIA stands for “to come out”. However, in reality (the use of Chinese characters), “ki” (起) represents more than just one meaning. For instance, if one uses Google Translate, “ki” gives out the following eight definitions (i) start or begin, (ii) build, (iii) extract or pull, (iv) get-up or rise, (v) grow or raise, (vi) set-up, (vii) unship and finally (viii) work out. The Korean language has adopted and applied this Chinese character — “ki” (起) — to usually (99.9% of the time) mean only (iv) get-up or rise, and not the other seven meanings in the dictionary. Thus, a person from China who doesn’t have any knowledge over how Chinese characters are used within the Korean language may give you a different answer to the meaning of KIA. If you have a different interpretation, please feel more than welcome to leave a comment (provide insight) in our discussion box below.

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A Winter’s Night – Poem and Photo Gallery

by

EVP & Partner, Stanton Chase Korea

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A Winter’s Night – Poem and Photo Gallery

A Winter’s Night

A Korean Poem by Park, Yong-Rae (1925-1980)

On a sleepless night, snow fell upon my hometown’s garlic-field.

On a sleepless night, moon-light fell upon my hometown’s house-roof-edge.

A home far away that comfortably rests across water ankle-high.

At one corner of my old country-side home’s courtyard shall the wind fall asleep.

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The Battle for Gahoe-dong

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The Battle for Gahoe-dong

In 1987, my wife and I bought a hanok in Seoul’s Gahoe-dong district which has been our home ever since. Living in a hanok brings an understanding of many of the values that were once the foundation of Korean life. Sadly, it also brings an insight into the corruption that characterizes modern Korea.

After six hundred years at the heart of Korean cultural and social life, the traditional beauty of Seoul’s Gahoe-dong district, “the place where beauty gathers,” is being relentlessly destroyed. Gahoe-dong was the last district in Seoul where there were whole streets of traditional Korean houses, hanoks, preserving the ambience of Seoul a century ago. Most of these old homes have now being bulldozed and replaced by modern versions, built mainly of concrete but decorated with traditional architectural elements.

Gahoe-Dong is part of Bukchon, “The Northern Village,” a small area that lies between two former royal palaces, the Kyongbok Palace or “Palace of Shining Happiness” and the Ch’angdok Palace or “Palace of Illustrious Virtue.”

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For most of its history, Bukchon was home to many of the nobles and scholars attached to the Royal Court. Old maps show the area had relatively few buildings in a natural, forested landscape that descended from the mountains.

Changing times

During the 1920’s the character of Bukchon began to change. With the Japanese occupation, the role of the aristocracy and yangban diminished. Eventually, the once-privileged residents of Bukchon began to sell their land and move out. This was also a time when the Japanese redeveloped much of Seoul by erecting Japanese-style homes, commercial, and public buildings as part of their assault on Korean culture and values.

While many Koreans were swept along with the wishes of their new, Japanese rulers many also sought ways to resist and preserve the ideas and values they considered important in Korea’s heritage. One of these was a wealthy builder from the Busan area, Chung Sea Kwon (정세권) who owned one of the largest construction companies of his day. Chung felt that if ordinary people could have the opportunity to live in traditional Korean hanoks, it would help preserve Korean values in the face of an increasing pressure to adopt a Japanese way of life.

Chung seized the opportunity to buy up land in Gahoe-dong and elsewhere and began to build small hanoks for ordinary people. Since most Koreans had little money, Chung also provided financial help to buy them. It was Chung who built our own hanok in 1929 and lived in it before selling to the family from whom we bought it in 1987.

All of Chung’s houses were very well built. They were intended to be an expression of uniquely Korean ideas as well as family homes. The idea caught on and Bukchon became a hanok village for ordinary people. However, most of the hanoks Chung built were demolished as part of the Bukchon Plan, despite the fact that the architectural survey that preceded the plan had endorsed their quality and good state of repair.

Korea’s traditional architecture

Hanoks are single-storey buildings based on a framework of interlocking wooden beams that rest on blocks of stone. Other materials used to complete the buildings are also wholly natural such as straw, mulberry paper, and clay. The materials and methods are fundamentally the same as those used to build the royal palaces of the Choson dynasty as well as old Buddhist temples.

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Until recently, the hanoks in Gahoe-Dong had survived the successive waves of re-development and re-building that have transformed most of the Seoul. Yet even here pressures for redevelopment were gaining power. Accordingly, Seoul City came to designate them as Local Cultural Assets on March 17, 1977, in an effort to protect them and preserve the area. The area was also designated as a Korean-style House Preservation District and put under the special care of the City, according to an entry (now removed) on the metropolitan government’s web site

Despite these measures, by 2000 only two streets remained entirely filled with hanoks giving a feel for how the district ­ and much of Seoul ­ had looked years ago. Elsewhere, apartment blocks and modern offices had already encroached, transforming Bukchon into a district where Western-style buildings predominated. About this time, the Metropolitan government began to consider how best to retain the little that remained of the hanok village as part of plans for the continuing restoration of the historic sites of North Seoul.

Towards the end of 2001, the Metropolitan government published detailed plans for the restoration and conservation of Bukchon using public money. The plans were based on a detailed architectural survey of most of the surviving hanoks and aimed to restore the district to its former beauty. The government announced grants and low interest loans to assist hanok owners with this work and set about a variety of related projects including resurfacing roads, improving street lighting, removing utility poles, and providing signage to help tourists and other visitors explore the area.

The Restoration Plan goes badly wrong

From that point on, things went badly wrong. While the original plans can only be praised for their imagination and sensitivity towards the restoration of Korea’s architectural heritage, what happened was the exact opposite. In our own street, for example, ours is now the only surviving traditional hanok.

New buildings that have replaced hanoks have been financed partly via government grants and low interest loans. In one example, an owner was given a government grant of KRW30 million and an interest-free long term loan of KRW20 million for “Hanok Repair and Redecoration.” This money was used to completely demolish a fine hanok and erect a modern two-storey building which was given a general business license to allow it operate under a number of categories, including as a restaurant. Objections eventually prevented the business operating and today the building lies empty.

The new developments potentially bring great profit to speculative developers who purchase the land at prices based on single storey traditional dwellings in order to re-sell it at far higher prices, exploiting loopholes in various regulations and often erecting two-storey buildings.

dkibrn-hse-05f-roofAs a result, Seoul’s last district of original hanoks has been mostly destroyed; government grants to encourage preservation were used for demolition; and ordinary people were denied the chance to realize a fair value of their homes.

Sadly, there was more involved than the destruction of a hanok heritage. While some of the original hanok owners were happy to sell at what seemed a fair market price, others wished to remain in homes where they had lived for many years. These people were submitted to an unremitting campaign of harassment to “persuade” them to sell. This could even involve physical assaults. Worse could follow as the police, prosecutors, courts, and media all failed to fulfil the public duties that a citizen might expect in support of his very basic human rights.

Where once there had been a thriving community of ordinary Korean families, there is now a ghost town of empty buildings. An authentic living community has been eradicated. What really happened to the vast budget the Seoul Metropolitan Government allocated to the Bukchon Plan remains one of the unanswered questions of the Lee Myung Bak era.

Not the first time

Gahoe-dong and Bukchon have enjoyed special status as historic districts of cultural importance since 1976. Although this is supposed to ensure the protection the district’s hanoks, hanok numbers have declined each year. All the special plans and projects the metropolitan and local governments have launched have been accompanied by a decline in hanok numbers. Why so? The reason is quite simple, as the Bukchon plan makes evident, the laws and regulations to protect and preserve hanoks are simply not enforced; the protection plans are never implemented and the budgets associated with them are diverted to other activities.

Korea loses contact with its own culture

In every country, there are issues about what should be preserved from the past and what should be discarded. Every country tends to preserve its palaces, castles, and stately homes. In the UK and also in Europe, governments also preserves many more ordinary buildings such as farm buildings, ordinary houses, shops, and public houses. Some are preserved because of their beauty, some because of their construction techniques, some for the insights they provide into social history and the way people once lived. The preservation work involves public money, donations from business, and subscriptions from the general public. There is a broad consensus that this work is just as important as, say, preserving famous works of art because all these manifestations of human skill and creativity help define the culture and traditions of different peoples. It is so sad that these ideas are not well understood in Korea and that important decisions about what, in reality, is done to preserve Korean culture should be left to petty bureaucrats, small construction companies, and speculators.

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In some ways, there are special problems in Korea. During the Japanese occupation, there was a determined attempt to eradicate Korean culture. This was followed by the Korean War which splintered families, destroyed the social order, and caused immense physical destruction. Next came the period of military rule when individual liberties were suppressed as the country started to build a modern economy at breakneck speed. Perhaps it is not surprising that some Koreans have lost touch with their own traditions and culture as a result. Be that as it may, the decisions made by today’s generation will determine whether anything will be left of Korea’s distinctive architectural culture for their grandchildren to enjoy.

The root cause of this is corruption, by no means a problem unique to South Korea. However, within the OECD, South Korea, sadly, is distinguished by ubiquitous, pervasive corruption that has become an integral part of government – from the offices of presidents to provincial and local government. At least, this is the conclusion of Professors Doh Chull Shin and Chong Min Park, based on a research project into the lives of ordinary Korean citizens which they reported in a paper in the Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies in 2005. The story of the Sewol Ferry disaster in 2014 is but one indication that corruption today is just as much a part of government as it was in 2005.

There is an enormous gulf between what city officials publicly proclaim and what they allow to happen. The Bukchon Plan talked of the need to protect, preserve, and restore using authentic techniques and materials. Yet city officials routinely approved wholesale demolition in order to erect new structures, and ignored the basic human rights of residents.

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Surely it is time to halt all the destruction of old buildings in Gahoe-dong, to demolish new buildings with illegal features, and for society as a whole to consider the fate of the district? Is it too much to expect that a country of Korea’s economic power should find the time and the resources to preserve a small window into ordinary life a century ago? Throughout Europe, there are many examples of towns, districts, and buildings of a similar or older age than Gahoe-dong that are rigorously protected and preserved. The lesson from other countries is that such preservation can attract tourism, enhance local culture, and make the modern urban environment a richer, more enjoyable place for all.

David Kilburn

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David Kilburn worked internationally in the advertising industry for many years before becoming a journalist covering business in East Asia. You may connect with him by clicking hereHis web site, www.kahoidong.com  and YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/user/kilburnda/ document what has happened to Gahoe-dong and document cultural events organised in the Kilburn’s hanok to raise awareness of the issues.

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Note: The views, services and/or experiences expressed in this Featured Post are solely those of the contributor.

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Do you know your Country Name in Chinese?

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Do you know your Country Name in Chinese?

Some of us come from Fragrant Blue or Strong Fruit. Maybe you’ve traveled to Meaningful Big Advantage and can’t wait to visit Ink West Brother. Not sure where you’re from? Let’s go on a country name fly-by!

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Translating proper names involves selecting sound-alike Chinese characters to phonetically approximate the country’s official name, a process leading to some entertaining literal meanings. Moreover, Chinese country names have evolved over the years, so what they’re called now may be significantly different from centuries ago. For example, France’s full name is Fǎ lán xī gòng hé guó 法兰西共和国 (the French Republic) though it’s often shortened to Fǎ guó 法国 the Law Kingdom. In the past you could have said you’re from Fó lán xī 佛兰西 which sounds like Buddha Blue West.

Most people know the name China means Middle Kingdom (zhōng 中 =middle, guó 国 = kingdom) since the early Chinese perceived their civilization as the center of the universe. Across the Pacific sits its young friend Měi guó美国 the Beautiful Kingdom (USA), which used to be a part of Yīng guó 英国 the Hero Kingdom (England). It’s not that the Chinese think Americans are exceptionally good looking; the full transliterated name is Měi lì jiān hé zhòng guó 美利坚合众国 literally “beautiful advantage perseverant united people country” hence it becomes Měi guó 美国. About the same as shortening the “United States of America” into just the US.

While traveling around Asia, you might not want to miss Rì běn 日本 Sun Root (Japan), Mǎ lái xī yà 马来西亚Horse Come West Asia (Malaysia) and Xīn jiā pō 新加坡 Newly Added Slope (Singapore)… comma, he said with a straight face.

Europe is home to Meaningful Big Advantage Yì dà lì 意大利 (Italy), the Discipline Kingdom Dé guó 德国 (Germany) and Compare Advantage Time Bǐ lì shí 比利时 (Belgium). Let’s not forget their colorful neighbors, Fragrant Blue Fēn lán 芬兰 (Finland) and Love Blue Ài ěr lán 爱尔兰 (Ireland). Hold on, why not “love green” for Ireland? Well, honestly the lán 兰 just sounds like the character for blue, its real meaning is “orchid.”

Let’s take things up a notch. Angola Ān gē lā 安哥拉 sounds like Safe Brother Pull and Congo Gāng guǒ 刚果 yields Strong Fruit. The country of Mexico Mò xī gē 墨西哥 is our Ink West Brother while Guatemala Wēi dì mǎ lā 危地马拉 is a Dangerous Land Horse Pull. Last but not least, Canada Jiā ná dà 加拿大 is the land of Add Grab Big.

So if you could start with a clean slate, what would you call your country in Chinese?

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Stewart Lee Beck (李渡) is an author and the creator of China Simplified. Connect with him at cn.linkedin.com/in/stewartbeck, or visit his website at www.chinasimplified.com.

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Note: The views, services and/or experiences expressed in this Featured Post are solely those of the contributor. This featured post was first released via www.chinasimplified.com on March 21, 2014.

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South Gate (a.k.a. Namdaemun) of Seoul – Then and Now

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South Gate (a.k.a. Namdaemun) of Seoul – Then and Now

Designed and built with an uninterrupted high-wall stone fortress encircling the entire city, Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) had 8 city entrance gates which opened in the morning and closed at night. Shown below — in this elegant map created between 1846 and 1849 — are the wonderful Eight-Gates of Seoul.

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Because of their complex names, the best way to differentiate and remember all of these gates is to say that there are the North, East, South and West gates which makes four. And then, if you further divide-up these four gates by adding either a Big or Small to each one of them, this renders a total of eight gates – voila.

Although six of the eight gates still remain standing today, outside visitors to Seoul will probably come across only two of these gates which are the South Gate and East Gate – both of which fall under the “Big” Gate category vis-à-vis Small. A photo of the South (Big or Grand) Gate, a.k.a. Namdaemun, was taken circa 1902. Here’s a then-and-now photo of the South Gate in Seoul. Today’s contemporary photo was taken on March 2nd, 2014 from where it says “location” on the above map.

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To give our readers an idea of the uninterrupted stone wall fortress which had surrounded the city of Seoul by visual image, a photo was taken near the very top of Namsan — written as Mongmyeok Mountain in the above 1846 old Seoul map — during the autumn 2014, and is shown below.

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By looking at the photos of Seoul’s city fortresses at the South Gate and on top of Namsam, these high-stone-walls are one-in-design, and about 7 to 8 meters high — approximately 25 feet — encircling the entire capital city with solemn grandeur. If you consider that these gates started their construction in the year 1392 A.D., the city of Seoul from its beginning period (late 14th century) would have a been a spectacular, if not certainly an extraordinary, place (city) to visit compared with other great cities of the world from that era.

♦ Language Footnote – Names to the Eight Gates of Seoul ♦

  1. South Gate, 남대문 (南大門) = Namdaemun, South Big (or Grand) Gate
    • Sungnyemun, 숭례문 (崇禮門), Exalted Ceremonies Gate
  2. East Gate, 동대문 (東大門) = Dongdaemun, East Big (or Grand) Gate
    • Heunginjimun, 흥인지문 (興仁之門), Rising Benevolence Gate
  3. North Gate, 북대문 (北大門) = Bukdaemun, North Big (or Grand) Gate
    • Sukjeongmun, 숙정문 (肅靖門), Rule Solemnly Gate
  4. West Gate, 서대문 (西大門) = Seodaemun, West Big (or Grand) Gate
    • Donuimun, 돈의문 (敦義門), Loyalty Gate
  5. South Small Gate, 남소문 (南小門) = Namsomun
    • Gwanghuimun, 광희문 (光熙門), Bright Light Gate
  6. East Small Gate, 동소문 (東小門) = Dongsomun
    • Hyehwamun, 혜화문 (惠化門), Distribution of Wisdom Gate
  7. North Small Gate, 북소문 (北小門) = Buksomun
    • Changuimun, 창의문 (彰義門), Showing the Correct Thing Gate
  8. West Small Gate, 서소문 (西小門) = Seosomun
    • Souimun, 소의문 (昭義門), Promotion of Justice Gate

♦ Value-Added Insight ♦

Prior to being the Capital city of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Seoul was also the Capital city from where the Baekje Dynasty (18 B.C. – 660 A.D.) was born over 2,000 years ago. During this Baekje (also spelt as Paekche) period, the city’s name was called Wiryeseong.

People have been living in the Greater Seoul Metropolitan area since the Neolithic (7,000 B.C to 2,000 B.C.) Era. One famous archaeological site from this past period of Seoul’s History is the Amsa-Dong Prehistoric Settlement Site.

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