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An Affair with Korea: Memories of South Korea in the 1960s

By Vincent S.R. Brandt

Seattle: University

of Washington Press.

It is a distinct pleasure to have the opportunity to alert one and all to this important memoir of a bygone era in Korea by such a discerning and compassionate observer as Vincent Brandt. And having myself spent a total of over a year in that country between 1951 and 2000, I can readily attest to the astuteness of its accounting. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must note that I have known Brandt at least casually for some 40 years.)

Following 11 years with the State Department’s Foreign Service, two years of which were served at our embassy in Pusan and then Seoul during the Korean War of 1950-1953, Brandt decided to pursue graduate studies in cultural anthropology at Harvard. He could already speak Korean reasonably well, and he based his doctoral thesis on what could be gleaned from living for almost a year (March 1966 to January 1967) in Sokp’o, a small (some 900 individuals in 110 or so households) traditional fishing and farming village on a peninsula jutting out into the Yellow Sea (about 40 miles southwest of Seoul as the crow flies). That community study culminated in his scholarly monograph, "A Korean Village: Between Farm and Sea" (Harvard University Press, 1971).

The present work, on the other hand, now at last recounts for everyone the human side of his year of research in Sokp’o. That is to say, we can now vicariously experience Brandt’s personal life there, presenting his more informal observations, insights, triumphs and tribulations in that then truly isolated and impoverished pre-industrial village situated some two hours by foot from any road and without electricity or telephone. Brandt’s text is enhanced by two maps, 26 photographs and a scattering of quotations from his daily diary of the time.

The village farmers grew primarily rice and barley plus lesser amounts of various vegetables, the fishermen went out to sea in the village’s 13 junk-rigged boats without engines to catch such fish as corvina, eel, skate and croaker, and the women gathered octopi, oysters, and other shellfish at low tide. Many of the younger inhabitants wanted to leave for greener pastures (generally urban ones).

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We learn of the incredible importance to the village inhabitants of that time both of their sense of continuity with the past and of their kinship (family) relationships. It is fascinating to become intimately acquainted with their then dutifully respected code of ethics, allegiance to ancient authority, Confucian ritual, absolute filial piety, cordiality, generosity, cooperation, "human-heartedness", and desire for educational opportunities beyond the locally available sixth grade (although that desire usually unrequited). However, those traits in no way prevented the continuing consumption by everyone (including Brandt) of sufficient quantities of alcoholic beverages to float a Queen Mary or two, or of a rather casual approach to sanitation and trash disposal.

As Sokp’o’s first foreign visitor, Brandt was, to begin with, treated with suspicion (assumed to be either an American spy or else seeking mineral deposits), but was reasonably soon accepted despite the widely assumed absurdity of his claim to be interested in studying village life. Indeed, he was in time accorded the elevated rank of "Teacher" in a society transfixed with each and every individual’s precise social status. We also learn that although the formal reasons for Brandt in choosing this venue for his studies was to investigate village customs, value system, social structure and attitudinal differences between traditional farmers (presumably careful and conservative) and fishermen (presumably bold risk takers), they were in no small part further motivated by his love of adventure, the sea, sailing and seafood.

One of the pleasures for me in reading Brandt’s beautifully written memories is that they reawakened some of my own increasingly hazy remembrances of my own time in Korea during 1951-1952 as a Marine Corps officer, at the same time finally providing explanations for some of the more curious ones. However, I do recall a few things not mentioned by Brandt. For example, one could recognize the proximity of a rural village well before seeing and reaching it by its all-pervasive odor. And I too spent most of my time outdoors, often washed in and occasionally drank the ambient water, and now and then ate the local food. Although apparently unlike Brandt’s seemingly charmed life, I became infected with intestinal worms, got the equivalent of athlete’s foot of my ears and contracted malaria -- but both of us did share the discomfort of becoming hosts for lice.

On the other hand, the remembrances of my more recent brief return visits in 1991 and 2000 were quite comparable to Brandt’s, both of us having been all but overwhelmed by the degree of new construction, industrialization, environmental degradation, pollution and sundry other indications of modernization that has occurred during recent decades throughout both urban and rural South Korea. As an aside, I might mention that one of my vivid memories from 1991 was the absolutely incessant use of cell phones by everyone of all ages everywhere. Thus even waitresses were on their cell phone while taking one’s orders.

Brandt’s first return to Sokp’o in a quarter of a century (in September 1992) was a poignant experience for him, finding -- as he did -- a bustling thoroughly modern and much more affluent village, however, one that had lost most of its human-heartedness, sense of community, and various other of its once admirable social aspirations.

So in conclusion, I can recommend this highly readable memoir without hesitation to anyone who would like to become immersed in the daily life of a pre-modern far-eastern society at a time when it was still largely pursuing its slow-paced ancient ways of life -- and being able to do so through the eyes of a most engaging, perceptive and sympathetic witness. Moreover, the book really should become must reading for any budding scholar considering a career in cultural anthropology.

Arthur H. Westing writes from Putney.

For Love of Books is a column written by readers of notable books which may be found in local libraries and bookstores.