Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles Paperback – 3 Jun 2004
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About the Author
Simon Winchester was born and educated in England, has lived in Africa, India and Asia, and now divides his time between the US and Scotland. Having reported from almost everywhere during an award-winning twenty-year career as a Guardian foreign correspondent, he is currently the Asia-Pacific editor for Conde Nast Traveler and contributes to a number of American magazines, as well as to the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator and the BBC.
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Top Customer Reviews
Winchester also seems to have a bit of a bad boy side when it comes to women, in particular it would seem Asian women, I personally found it more amusing than offensive, However I can see that some readers may find his attitude sexist and well almost colonial in outlook.
Overall not a and book.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The first problem with this book is that for a book that is supposed to be about Korea, he spends an awful lot of time with foreigners in Korea. In fact, you'll learn more about Irish missionaries and American soldiers than you will about Koreans. I would say that about 50 percent of the people he encounters in this book are not Korean. To make matters worse, the Koreans he does encounter are a weird lot (probably due to the fact that he is hanging around American bases rather than where descent family people would go). Of the Koreans he encounters, nearly half of them are prostitutes. From Winchester's account, you might believe that Korea is crawling with prostitutes. This is surprising due to the fact that Korea is a quite conservative country. My only guess is that Mr. Winchester went out of his way looking for prostitutes. So, instead of the land of miracles promised in the subtitle, you get the land of seedy red light districts.
As if this weren't bad enough, Mr. Winchester has a very sexist attitude. Of the Korean women he met that weren't prostitutes, he always adds the adjective pretty or attractive, as if he were sizing up every woman he met for a romantic encounter. In fact, he tells us that many of them threw themselves upon him. Well, good for him, but I don't want to waste my time on reading about it. None of the Koreans he mentions seem to have any personality (as described by Winchester). There's no sense that he is meeting actual people.
The final thing that I found really unpleasant was the way he kept belittling Korean customs and culture, and in the same breath complains about the loss of traditional Korean culture. In one sentence, he trumpets the glories of Kendal Mint Cakes and derides kimchi as a stink that makes him sick. He complains about sleeping on the floor, yet he'll shed tears when he sees a modern bed. He even complains that in the country-side people have electricy and TVs, as if he expected Korea to be preserved as a medieval theme park for his viewing pleasure.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. Don't bother with this horrible book. You can find better.
The basis of the book is the author's decision to follow in the footsteps of a group of Dutch sailors who were shipwrecked off the Korean coast in 1633. And I really do mean in their footsteps: he walks all the way from the southern coast to the edge of the North Korean border (he would have gone further, but the American border guards threatened to break his legs). He describes the places and people along the way, but digresses to explain Korean history, culture, politics and language in a way that's far removed from the dusty old history book.
His journey begins on Cheju Island, off the southern coast, where thousands of Koreans go for their holidays. It's here that he meets Father Patrick McGlinchey (one of the McGlincheys of Cheju, presumably), who explains how a group of Irish missionaries raise sheep and knit Aran sweaters, which I think is an inventive way of converting folk to Christianity. They've been here since the 1950s and feel quite at home - apparently, if you screw up your eyes until they're almost closed, Cheju looks just like Connemara
Reaching the mainland, the author continues his trek, and finds drivers and bus passengers waving, smiling at him, offering him lifts, food and cans of fruit juice, just like they would in Glasgow. To us, the South Koreans would appear to be the most hospitable people on earth, but they themselves feel that Western influences are tainting their traditional ways. So much so that one observer expresses the view that, while North Korea is an ugly way to run a country, its people have retained their sense of respect for each other and resisted the Coca-Cola-nisation embraced by the South. Even so, the author's encounters with ordinary South Koreans are among the most charming and moving parts of his journey.
Inevitably, the subject of dog-eating raises its snout, and having sampled some, Winchester professes it to be "...very strong, very rich and with a background flavour of kidney". But it soon becomes clear that Koreans don't eat their four legged friends for any other reason than to improve their libido. In short, forget Viagra, try Fido.
For much the same reason, ginseng is big in Korea, but it also has huge cultural and economic importance. The author's visit to the town of Puyo offers the chance to see a factory where all the country's ginseng is made, processed and packed - and from where thousands of tons of the stuff are exported all over the world. The author's verdict on the taste of ginseng extract: "...the faintest hint of drying paint ...a freshly baked Victoria sponge cake, cooked in a pine wood on a spring afternoon...." Could be we've discovered the next Gilly Goolden.
In fact, it's this vivid turn of phrase that was one of the reasons I enjoyed the book so much. The Korean desire to kill and eat almost anything that moves means that "...except for the odd weasel or mouse, Korean forest floors are like vast empty ballrooms, dark and quite silent." But, before you're provoked to send a strong memo to the Korean branch of Friends of the Earth, you should know that there is one part of the peninsula where wildlife is flourishing - and it's not where you would expect. Inside the Demilitarised Zone that separates North and South Korea, no shots may be fired, allowing animals like the Korean wildcat and the little Korean bear (awww!) to wander in safety, at least from human prey. As the author observes: "It is an ironic counterpoint to the awfulness of war that so much that is beautiful and rare flourishes where human anger is greatest, and yet in those places where peace has translated into commerce, so much loveliness has vanished clear away."
This book first appeared in 1988, and Simon Winchester ends his journey at the North Korean border. But the preface to the 2004 edition follows him as he eventually ventures into the frozen North. In some ways, this is the best part of all. The North Korean capital, he claims, is much easier to navigate than Seoul mainly because in Pyongyang "...there is nothing there." There's also a revolting encounter with a North Korean cappuccino whose foam on top turns out to be a whisked eggwhite.
From a standing start, I can now say my knowledge of Korea has increased by a hundred thousand per cent, and although I might never get there, this book was the next best thing to experiencing the heart and Seoul of Korea.
Most Koreans have the surname of either Kim, Park or Lee, and engaged couples with the same surname must prove they are not from the same clan before being permitted to marry.
Korean is linguistically closer to Hungarian or Finnish than it is to Chinese;
Confusingly, the Korean word for yes is "nay"
To Koreans, you're already 1 year old from the moment you're born - which means your 42-year old reviewer would be 43 (or 143, after a hard day at work).
Though the author said he loved Korea, what stands out page after page is the superiority complex he displayed for the land and the people. He mocked their age-old customs and current undertakings and gave proud accounts of his own bad behavior during his travel. The air of arrogance and condescension exudes from every single line. I am not a Korean, but even I am offended. The author obviously fails to understand that not everybody regards Kendal Mint Cake the best thing since sliced bread.
I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed Winchester's book, finding it entertaining, informative, and quite fair and balanced. He is very much a man of the world and a fine writer with the resultant ability to put things in their proper perspective. How anyone could read this book and come to the conclusion that he hates Korea or Koreans frankly amazes me. I recently read and reviewed The Voices of Heaven by Korean native Maija Rhee Devine and the impression I get is that Winchester actually likes Korea a good deal more than Devine does. And he did not spend an inordinate amount of his time with U.S. military people and among the sordid element of Korean society. He spent more time with Catholic priests and Buddhist monks and nuns. The U.S. air bases at Kunsan and Pyeontaek happened to be on his chosen route, the route that the first Westerners to encounter Korea took to Seoul, and his visit to the DMZ necessarily entailed associating with U.S. military people.
I also did not find his method of interspersing historical and social observations among his own daily accounts of his experience the least bit off-putting. It's a very good way to hold the reader's attention, and it's one of the reasons that I would assign the book to my students if I ever taught another course in Korean culture. The technique might be called "the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down."
Concerning his various encounters with Korean females, one must consider that he was a charming, not-bad-looking tall man in the prime of his life walking alone. This glorious male-female thing, like the spice of the food, the seasons of the year, and the political emotions, is something else that seems more intense in Korea. That's one of the reasons, I believe, that their romantic dramas are so popular now throughout East Asia. And if Winchester comments on numerous occasions on the attractiveness of the Korean women he meets, I don't think he is being sexist; he's being objective to my mind.
The book is now remarkably dated not because of the great economic changes that have taken place since the year leading up to the Seoul Olympics when Winchester made his trek, but because of South Korea's wonderful political transformation. Reading the book is a good reminder of what a short time ago it was that the country was a military dictatorship ruled by the unenlightened, corrupt though thankfully rather weak despot Chun Doo Hwan. Now I think South Korea has passed the United States on the democracy scale. They have come to grips with the bad things in their recent past much more honestly, I believe, than we have in the United States. While they have become freer and more open, we have been moving rapidly in the opposite direction, particularly since 9/11.
Finally, I do agree with one of the reviewers that Winchester probably isn't completely truthful when it comes to his sexual encounters. But then, who is? I also get the impression that he is not the sort of writer who would let the truth get in the way of a good story. When it concerns something as inconsequential as one person's experience as opposed to important history, who really cares? He is in the best English tradition, after all, when it comes to shading the truth, if, in fact, he did it from time to time. In the two World Wars of the 20th century, the Germans had it all over them when it came to military organization and weaponry,Blood, Tears, and Folly: An Objective Look at World War ll but no one has ever been in the class of the English when it comes to propaganda. Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44 (Brassey's Intelligence & National Security Library) Remember, it was Winston Churchill who said, "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." Winchester, I gather, has taken Churchill to heart, and not just in times of war.