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Korea, from Steve Ellison

June 1, 2008 |

I am struggling with circadian desynchronization after returning from Korea. I went with my wife and two teenage children. One place we went was Jeju, a subtropical island south of the Korean mainland. Our flight from Seoul to Jeju (or Cheju)was nearly filled with high school students in uniform on end-of-year school trips. The students cheered and chanted during takeoff and landing. It felt more like being on a school bus than an airplane.

The next day, we saw hundreds of students everywhere we went on Jeju. On Jeju, the students did not wear their uniforms. Nearly all wore T-shirts with English messages on them, many of which were grammatically incorrect or nonsensical, entertaining my teenagers for hours. T-shirt slogans included "This is a REALLY many", "Tink before you walk" (with the emphasis on the word you), and "What's so 411 about hot sand music?"

Back on the mainland a few days later, we saw dozens of old men playing go in a park in Busan. In the countryside, we saw much highway construction.

We rode a bus with a tour group of Korean-Americans. Traditionally, parents of grown children live in their eldest son's household. One man in our tour group felt conflict because he had relocated for a job opportunity, in the process moving away–at age 33–from his widowed mother, who was on the tour with him. Another man in our group, a retired Wall Street banker, predicted a two-year recession for the United States because of excessive debt and said that Korea faced a similar gloomy prognosis.

We spent a few days in Seoul, a city of 13 million. I saw many cranes constructing new high-rise buildings. Late one night I was ready to turn in when I heard noise from outside. I looked out the window and saw hundreds of people parading in the street and blocking traffic. They were shouting and chanting too indistinctly for me to attempt to understand. At some point, they all began singing the national anthem. I later learned that this event was a political protest against allowing beef imports from the U.S. Our tour guide said that the reason many Koreans opposed beef imports was that the U.S. would dump low-quality or unsafe beef in Korea. I had trouble believing that any U.S. exporters using such a strategy would stay in business long in Korea, but I did my best to be a polite guest.

The Korean language is quite interesting. The verb usually occurs last in a Korean sentence. Prepositions and auxiliary verbs are often expressed by appending endings to words. The word order in a complex Korean sentence often seems to me to be nearly the reverse of the English word order. To express "I do not speak well" in Korean, one would use the word order "I well cannot speak". It occurs to me that the study of how communication occurs in different languages might yield some insights for those of us trying to understand the message of the market.


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