I have many pictures from my time in Korea, and back then I also hoarded all sorts of other papers, postcards, stamps, tickets, matchbooks and other souvenirs from places that I traveled to, restaurants I visited, trains that I took. I had the wherewithal to combine all of these reminders of a year spent in Korea into a large scrapbook, not long after I returned to the U.S. It is a red album of a size that has been inconvenient ever since it was assembled. The scrapbook doesn’t stand up in any bookcase I’ve owned, and it’s usually too wide to even lay flat without protruding somehow. Yet I carry it from apartment to apartment, stash it on the lower levels of out of the way furniture.
I was, until I got my own website, quite serious about my photo albums. I took great care in their presentation, layout, and assembly. While there is a part of me that wishes I still made these creations, there is another part that is relieved. Because at some point you can have too many photo albums and they become quite heavy when it is time to move. Now I make albums on the web, and that gives me the same satisfaction, though with my limited web design skills it also means that I have less control and artistic input on the final product. Still, I look at the photos I’ve stored online much more often than I do the albums that are physically present in my apartment.
But back to the Korea book. I look at this album now and though all of the images are familiar I feel almost as if I am looking at someone else’s album. I am trying to reconnect with snapshots of memory, but photographs are themselves imperfect memories–they are distillations of memories. Or concentrations.
Anyway, the edges of the light brown construction paper that makes the pages of my Korea book are fading with time, which I suppose makes the images seem even more faraway. The album has a dramatic cover page, on which I affixed a beautiful postcard of some traditional Korean painting. It’s at first glance a swirl of greens and siennas, framed for the card in several shades of green. Underneath the picture is the title, printed in Korean and slightly-off English, Kunlok-kunhak-do (cranes and deers). Underneath that I have written, very neatly (neater than I can write now):
August 1995 – August 1996
The next page (as well as the last two pages of the book) is a random assortment of the aforementioned tickets, matchbook covers and stamps. Included on this page of my scrapbook is a 350 won Seoul subway ticket. Most of the matchbook covers hail from restaurants I must have frequented, but I no longer remember most of them. Some are inscribed all in Korean, so I do not know what they say. There are a few I do remember, and they are mostly in English: Mister Pizza and Doutour Coffee. Ashoka Indian Restaurant has an oversized business card, not just a matchbook cover. I vaguely remember eating at the “ONLY INDIAN RESTAURANT IN SEOUL”, in the Itaewon neighborhood. I know I did not find the note at the bottom of the card –Specialize in Tandoori and Mughlai food. All the meat which we serve in the restaurant is Halal meat. This is not in any way curious or remarkable, though I did not know what Halal meat was then.
The bulk of my scrapbook contains the many photographs I took while in Korea. At the time I carried a Canon Rebel X camera that my dad had given me for graduation just about everywhere I went. Because I did not have much of a social life in Korea I had time to buy books about photography and study them carefully, over and over. Do my photos reflect this? I’m not sure. What is clear is that at the beginning of the year there I was very concerned with documenting everything. As in, “This is where we live,” “this is where we teach,” “this is where we shop.” The photos are rigidly chronological in this part of the book. Later, there are sections of interesting photographs of obscure parts of Seoul.
They are images that intrigued me, more than a catalog of events: a ragged cat sitting in front of a restaurant window full of rotisserie chickens, a poster advertising the hotline to call if you suspected someone of being a North Korean spy.
What did Korea look like? I have been asking myself this question, in order to better write about it. But it is still a hard one for me to answer. Outside of Seoul, I think of Korea as being mostly green and mountainous. Not green like the lush color of spring grass, but green like the darker, more brittle color of pine trees. The light had a yellow quality to it. In the urban areas Korea is busy and dense and multi-colored. It could be beautiful despite the pollution and grime, and the ever-present cement. Buildings scattered over rolling land like blocks. In a way Seoul was just like any other city with a lot of unimaginative architecture, except that the lighted signs marking restaurants and shops read vertically instead of horizontally.
But then there were the oddities. I particularly liked to possess these images, like the photo of the spy poster. Like the photo of a coffee shop/bar in the Myongdong shopping area that I took. The bar is called “Challenger,” as in the space shuttle, the one that exploded in the sky. “Challenger” the bar was on the top floor of a building and had an upside down space shuttle nose jutting out of the wall.
I have photos of the rows of orange cured pig’s heads for sale in the market, of a rock advertising the 38th parallel, of a dog passed out in the sun next to crates full of Hite and OB, the major Korean beers. Of course, the biggest oddity of all is the DMZ, though my pictures from a tour of Panmunjom are flat and, in some ways, uninteresting: rough green vistas, a cement pathway, a row of markers in the ground. You cannot photograph tension, or fear, or unfortunate historical facts.
At the back of the scrapbook, I pasted in farewell cards and letters from my students. These are the strangest of all to me now, because for the most part, I cannot put a face with the names at the bottom of the cards, particularly the adults. One of these is just written on a square white piece of paper, as if it was pulled out of a pad of scrap paper at work. It says:
Thank you very much for you teaching.
couldn’t will not forget you.
I hope we have continuously good friendship.
Kim Jin Hong
One other oddity, pasted into the last pages of my book, is a clipping from the weather section of the Korea Times. It reads:
Partly cloudy skies with slight rain in the morning, and snow in the mountainous areas are forecast across the nation. Gusty winds and yellow dust are expected throughout the nation.
Yellow dust! Korea was subject to blowing sand in the atmosphere from the Gobi Desert, but even after I learned the explanation I could never get used to seeing yellow dust in the weather forecast. There were many other things I could not get used to, but like the proof of the yellow dust, I stored them away, unspoken, in the images in my scrapbook.