I went back to my wife’s university library to grab more of the Korean History books that are so obsolete as to be primary sources. I stumbled across a few from James Gale, who was one of the earliest Protestant missionaries to Korea and did quite a bit to translate the Korean language.
For a missionary, he has a wonderful sense of humor and his descriptions of being both stared at and asked endless questions (How old are you? How many brothers do you have?) are illustrative of 21st century Korea, let alone the 19th century.
Google Books has several of his books digitized and they are full of Gale’s photography in Korea in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Be sure to check out Korea in Transition (1909), The Vanguard: A Tale of Korea (1904), and my personal favorite Korea Sketches (1898). I have taken a few captions from this last book.
“There is a feeling of loneliness and indescribable depression that comes over one’s soul when being long gazed at as a wild beast. The paper doors and windows are poked full of finger holes and back of each a dark eye takes position and rivets you with unwinking gaze. A single eye without its companion orb or accompanying facial expression to give it meaning exerts an uncanny influence that prompts one to blow out the light by which it sees or turn a stream of water on it.” (taken from here).
I thought that quote summed up certain parts of Korea even now. So much curiosity, so much staring. The following is the litany of questions that visitors receive (slightly updated to include What’s your blood type?) that Gale is growing slightly tired of.
“I always had callers. They would come from earliest dawn and put me through the list of questions that are unconsciously asked of every traveller in the Far East. What is your family name? Where do you reside? Have you come in peace? Are your parents alive? How old are you? How many brothers to you? Have you a son? What have you come to do? Do you know where the people live who have only one eye in their head? Where is the woman’s kingdom? What’s your salary? Can you pull your teeth out when you like or your eyes? Have you medicine that will cure everything?” (taken from here).
For my expat friends in Korea, how different is that from what you hear? Aside from the bit about people who have only one eye in their head (maybe the modern equivalent would be K-Pop stars), how similar are these questions to what you hear each and every day from each and every school group you pass on the street. I have been back in the US for four years now and I still speed up when walking past a school. Either way, it is a surprisingly well-written and non-judgmental book (for the most part).
Google Books, you have won me over. Many thanks for providing not only the books themselves (which were more of a novelty for me at the beginning as I don’t like to read longer texts online), but now you have provided some tools to deconstruct them. The ability to clip parts of text and link specifically to that is priceless. It is how I envision modern scholarship, that critical ability of extrapolating meaning from one source and applying it to another.
All the pictures are taken from the Gale books listed above.