A couple sits across from me on the Daegu subway, playing on their mobile phones. The woman' s clothes are typical Korean weekend-wear; sneakers, jeans, a green sweatshirt with an English slogan not quite suited to clothing (in this case, "Creative Director Style," with a picture of a telephone). She has an orange scarf, a black baseball cap ( "Helmet Game "), and a brown leather shoulderbag. Altogether, the outfit is quite average. However, the boyfriend beside her, without a hint of self-consciousness, is wearing the same thing. Exactly the same thing. The same sneakers, same jeans, same telephone shirt and " Helmet Game" hat, same scarf, and as icing on my this-sure-isn't-Canada cake, the same brown leather purse.
Now I think Korean fashion is altogether quite exciting. The painful high heels, the unapologetic use of rhinestones, the aforementioned English slogans; I think it works. Even the men with their purses are fine by me. But in a country with an anything-goes fashion sense, the one trend I can't quite digest is the one displayed here on the subway; the Couple Clothes phenomenon.
Rest assured, this subway sighting was no rarity. Every weekend in every Korean city, couples shop, dine, see movies, get coffees, all in matching outfits. I had to ask some Koreans about this trend. After all, back in Canada, no one dresses alike except twins or siblings, often under the hand of a zealous Mum during family photo sittings. But the feedback is unanimous. According to Koreans, this trend is "so cute!" Period. In a culture where couples rarely kiss or show affection in public, matching outfits are a non-offensive demonstration of a couple's commitment.
But the eye-rolling cynic in me isn't convinced. "You don't think it's too much? Maybe, a little too cute? " I ask my Korean friends. I try to imagine my couple friends in Canada, joining me for lunch in matching outfits. Even the mental image makes me shiver with discomfort. But the Koreans just smile at my skepticism. "They want to show the world they love each other. You don 't think that 's sweet?"
When I get off the subway, my couple-clothed seatmates stand up too, staring into each others ' eyes through similar thick-framed eyeglasses. The man gallantly takes his girlfriend 's purse, so that he 's now carrying two identical handbags on his shoulder. I admit, they are sweet with each other. Maybe this trend is like the rhinestones. Or the strange English slogans. Or the white leather boots I bought in a Korean mall and quickly regretted. While cute couples are universal, perhaps couple clothing is a concept that only works in Korea.
When I was a student on backpacking trips to Europe, drinking Fanta was a tiny ritual that fit my budget nicely. While most Europeans probably grew up on the stuff, my first tastes of Fanta were during these epiphanous first tastes of travel. I drank it while picnicking along the Seine, exploring Dover castle, watching canalboats in Amsterdam.
Of course, on these trips, I drank other things too. Loads, if I recall correctly. But amidst beers and wines and coffees, Fanta was the newest to my palette. Though the drink is as ubiquitous as juice on every continent, it is virtually unknown in my native Canada.
Tastes are often associated with memory. It's why we crave our mothers' cooking when we're sick. It's why everyone loves birthday cake. For me, Fanta evokes that giddy far-from-home feling, of backpacks and passports and guidebooks. It represents the amiable broken-English chats with absolutely anyone who will chat back. It represents eating cheap picnic lunches on the steps of pricey museums to balance out the funds for the day. For me, Fanta represents adventure; a symbol of the world beyond Canada, of flying away from the familiar and into the throes of the unknown.
Of course, I've gotten older. I've traveled further than Western Europe, and I've lost a bit of tolerance for shabby hostels and cocky gap-year Australians. But wherever I go, I always track down Fanta in these new destinations, and for tradition's sake, I always make sure to imbibe.
I was traveling with a friend in China when I became briefly enamoured with green apple Fanta; a local flavour that was as new to my palette as peking duck. M friend and I had travelled and consumed Fanta together on three continents so far, and had spent many a long bus ride singing the drink's praises. On one ambling walk through Beijing, we cooked up the idea of a Fanta-finding website. People could research the local Fanta flavours of travel destinations around the world. Had this site existed (and not just in the imaginary realm), we would have known that China also sells beetroot and orange-mint Fantas, and that an intriguing toffee-flavoured variety was sold in Taiwan, mere kilometres away.
Fanta flavours, after all, can give us a glimpse into the local palette. Who but the most popular fruits and flavours get idolized into soft drink form? Plum and lychee Fantas are sold in Japan. A handful of Scandinavian countries sell elderflower Fanta; Mexico boasts a tamarind-flavoured option; Grenada sells banana Fanta, and lucky Romanians can sip a seasonal cinnamon-rum Christmas Fanta.
In Thailand, two regional Fantas are so locally-targeted, their names don't translate. Simply, they are "green soda," based on a popular Thai jelly, and "red soda," flavoured like the homegrown sala fruit. Visitors to Thailand will see open bottles of the drink on Buddhist altars outside people's homes. Of course, this is not a worship of Fanta itself, but a gesture of Buddhist faith. The red soda variety is a known favourite of the King of Thailand, and bottles of the drink are now used in religious offerings as a nod to His Majesty.
It's local facts like these which have me happily maintaining my Fanta-drinking tradition. While the new flavours are exciting to try, my taste for Fanta is as symbolic as it is literal. To drink Fanta is to drink abroad, and for me, these travels can be as addictive as any sugary indulgence.
The fake innocence rules in Japan. And it has become a must on the national identity cocktail. Characters with sweet and childish features, impossible drawings and messages more likely to the ones that are about to start their adult life, splash this asiatic country everyday´s life. The sociologists scratch their heads while they design new theories. In order to explain the invasive movement of an style which has been limitated by Otaku´s culture.
The japanese society is living now a moment of discontent, and economy is to blame. Furthermore, its culture´s been progressively affected by the impossibility of accepting a social present unimaginable years ago. “Cuteness” has arised then, as another exportable fact of a culture really stuck on traditional ways.
In this “Cuteness invasion” there is a bunch of teenagers, half women half girls, that consume loads of j-pop, otaku products and clothes. Waiting at the malls doors, they slightly fix their eyes in trendy things while murmuring “kawaii” (how cute!). Keep this funny word in mind, as every wannabe and trendy western mag is using it.
In the 90s Takashi Murakami started his own Kawaii crusader. This japanese artist (yep, the one designing Louise Vuitton bags and fascinating the Americans) decided to create a Pop´s Dream for himself on a Warhol´s way. His creations are cute and somehow weird. He´s been working with traditional technics while keeping and eye on marketing and futuristic creatures. The japanese subculture mixed at last with the old ways. Following his idol, he created “Kaikai Kiki” (first started as Hiropon Factory). A massive “atelier” for young japanese artists and market cute supplies. In the meantime, he fixed as well the settings of a new style: “ the superflat” (clean, with a good quality and of course… flat).
It happens sometimes that the pupil overcomes the master. And there we have Aya Takano, a new target in the visual arts worldwide. This japanese pop artist born in 1.976 is conquering the arty spectrum with her subversive femenine vision and her science fiction moto. She´s been influenced by otaku culture, shiny and futuristic worlds, “girl´s photography”, japanese images and Italian Quattrocento. Her teenagers live in onanist bubbles. These heroines are always painted in ink and acrylics to get a soft and dreamy look. Her works appear to be simple but they hide a pretty virtuosism taken from her comic author side. In fact in her country she is better known for her comic works, whereas in old Europe she is considered an artist.
Untitled (Aya Takano, 2.002)
It is funny how she takes some bits from artists like Hokusai or traditional styles like “Ukiyo-e” (pictures of the floating world). Toulouse Lautrec, Van Gogh and loads of other renown artists focused on this bizarre technics. So what´s wrong with a XXIth girl artist working on them?
Uh! Yes! I can´t help it… art critics I´m pointing at you!
In the late 50s a telephone box was located in Mojave Dessert. It was really isolated, about 15 miles from the nearest highway. Miners had it just in case something happened. Weird. Loads of films, short stories and songs are related to this dusty piece of land. So it was about time someone noticed the decrepit phone box. In the 90s it became a pilgrimage place. During years loads of people phoned there and talked to strangers about the weather, about their lives or miseries. It doesn´t exist anymore.
Being creative involves fascination for little but powerful universes as the Mojave´s telephone box. “Appropriationism” say the art writers.
At the very beginning of the year I went to Paris with one purpose in mind: follow the traces left on the city by the French artist Sophie Calle. I was working on her artworks for my PhD so I got really excited about the fact of poking around her new stuff.
Calle was ruminating for some time about Mojave´s mistery phone. So she decided to create with a little help of her friend F.Gehry a telephone box in the middle of a bridge on a dessert area of Paris. She is the only one knowing the telephone number and she calls five times a week in order to try to speak to strangers.This will last two more years…
Critics are still roaring. This installation belongs to a Public Art Project to promote a new tram on a quite abandoned area of Paris. Money, money. Who is going to be wandering around the phone box at night? And what about mornings, when everybody is supposed to be working?
When I got of the train all I could see was a bright isolated shape in the middle of one of the ugliest bridges I´ve ever seen. Getting closer I got dissapointed because of the colours and materials. Once there I phewww… It was fantastic. Lots of messages, stickers, telephone numbers… The project was alive. And furthermore, people (from around the world) were absolutely respectful with the artist´s ways. So their words had the resonance of Calle´s and their anonimity, a little bit of her voyeuristic nuances.
“Le téléphone” is a lively sculpture. Nobody knows what are all the registered conversations about. Maybe she´s not even calling. Who Knows. Madmoiselle Calle is slick as hell and tricky. I should close this post in a different way. But I prefer to leave it like it is now. This was just an excuse to talk a little bit about Calle and to show the pics I took there.
I had been in Korea for six weeks on the morning the sirens went off. I had just stepped out of the shower, and the sound rang through me like a punch to the stomach.
I scurried around the apartment in a blur, pulling on clothes. As I pulled my shoes on, I pondered the chances of a misunderstanding. Maybe the noise was simply a neighbour's new ringtone. Maybe the siren noises were a sound test before a Korean boyband took the stage at an outdoor concert. Outside my apartment building on a Tuesday morning. It could happen, right?
Regardless, I had no clue what to do. I wasn’t just worried, but in a foreign country, I was completely helpless. And this was a new feeling.
When I arrived in Korea to teach English, I had been pretty confident that I would take to the lifestyle. I had been determined, as every newcomer must be, to explore and be educated in these new surroundings.
But six weeks in, my routine was carved out. True, I still didn't know much of the city's geography, I couldn't identify half the vegetables in my daily rice roll, and 99% of the Korean language remained a mystery. But I could navigate the subway, sing along to Korea's current #1 pop song, and remember my students' names. And this seemed fine; fantastically comfortable. Sometimes, I even had the audacity to be bored.
But that morning as I left my apartment, something was wrong. My 6-lane street, which normally bustles day and night with traffic, was empty. And I mean last-woman-in-the-world empty. The street vendors weren't crowded with hungry students. There were no businessmen sipping energy drinks outside the 7-Elevens. No one was outside the hospital in wheelchairs and crutches, smoking cigarettes. Empty.
I assumed, as anyone would during a South Korean air raid, that the north was attacking. That the nuclear bombs were on their way. That everyone I knew had cleverly evacuated and forgotten to send me a text message. In retrospect, this may have been a dramatic assumption, but my imagination was shaped by North American paranoia. At that moment, nuclear attack was the logical conclusion. My only thought was to run to work, where perhaps they had fashioned a bomb shelter out of the spare classroom.
In the elevator, I clutched my cellphone and scripted the goodbye phone call I would soon make to my parents. I was torn between falsely assuring (“I'm sure I can hop a plane out of here – I'll call once I'm back in the western hemisphere!”), or straight-up hysterical (“thank you for believing in me!”).
I dashed down the hallway and into the school, the wail of sirens still creeping in through the open windows. Inside, our receptionist was making photocopies. Calmly. Huh?
Still gripping my phone, I burst into the head teacher's office. He was at his desk, writing something in his dayplanner. Calmly. Huh? He looked up as I wheezed out questions.
He simply nodded and smiled, as though deciding that my panic was endearing.
“It is....” he paused to search his mind for the English word. I held my breath. “...a drill. Emergency drill. Practice.”
After I caught my breath, I took note of the lessons learned from that stressful morning.
1) Koreans are damn good at drills. How did they clear the streets so quickly? Never again will I moan through a fire drill because I can’t take the elevator.
2) Though I’ve established a routine here, that doesn’t make Korea any more familiar or predictable.
Though I can sense a new grey hair or two from the stress, that panic was a nice wake-up call. When I see Koreans playing on their cellphones, holding hands with their boyfriends, sipping their Starbucks, it’s easy to forget that the culture is foreign from my own. When there’s so much to learn, settling for a routine is like wading the shallowest end of the expat experience. And why travel halfway around the world just to settle? At the very least, I’ll come out with more stories like this one.