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[Kim Seong-kon] Going back to childhood, innocence and purity

Recently, in the United States, there has been a campaign to return to the innocence and purity of our adolescence in order to solve social problems such as racial prejudice and ideological antagonism. During childhood, indeed, we are so pure-hearted that we hardly have prejudices against others. As we walk into adulthood, however, we gradually become racially biased and ideologically prejudiced. 

Lamenting racial prejudice in America, Leslie Fiedler delineates the sad transition from innocent childhood to tarnished adulthood.

“In each generation we play out the impossible mythos, and we live to see our children play it,” Fiedler continues, “the white boy and the black we can discover wrestling affectionately on any American sidewalk, along which they will walk in adulthood, eyes averted from each other, unwilling to touch even by accident.”

A few weeks ago, a Japanese novelist, Shimada Masahiko, came to Korea to participate in the Seoul International Forum for Literature. At the farewell party, he confessed that his friendships with Korean colleagues made him so comfortable that he felt like he had returned to his high school days. The prominent Japanese writer correctly perceived the essence of Korean friendships; our sense of friendship still lingers in puberty; it may be a little emotional, and yet it is so pure and unvarnished that it often transcends conventional etiquette and personal interests. Perhaps that is why in Korea there is a saying, “High school friends are the best friends in life.” Indeed, Koreans seldom forget their high school friends, and thus high school alumni associations are one of the most active, influential organizations in Korea.

I have always thought that we Koreans still remain juvenile and thus should grow up and act like full-fledged adults. Our politicians, in particular, frequently disappoint us by brawling like a bunch of emotional teenagers. But now I have realized that becoming an adult is not always good, for it entails internalizing all sorts of prejudices an adult may develop. If so, the Korean adolescent mentality, which is a bit childish, but pure and untainted nonetheless, can be a cultural icon that we can export to the world.

The enormous popularity of K-pop in France demonstrates the attractiveness of Korea’s adolescence. Korean pop group members indeed look like adolescent boys and girls who never grow up, just like Peter Pan. Take the famous female Korean group, “Girls’ Generation,” for example. They not only look like adolescents, but their songs and dance routines seem to signal that they are girls who remain young forever. Another pop group that has received much love in Paris is called “Super Junior.” When asked why Korean pop groups are so popular in France by a reporter, a French woman replied that, “French singers are not young and their songs are difficult, but Korean songs and singers are quite the opposite.”

When Cliff Richard came to Korea in 1969 and performed on stage, he made Korean youth wild with enthusiasm; young high school girls sang his songs in unison and wept with overflowing emotions. And when New Kids on the Block performed in Seoul in 1992, Korean youngsters once again frantically welcomed them, rushing the stage to join them in singing and dancing. During the commotion one was killed and about 100 were wounded. Recently, Korean news channels showed French fans bursting into tears while watching Korean pop groups perform in Paris. It surely is encouraging to see that Korean singers can reach out and touch the hearts of European audiences.

Today Korean television dramas and movies are also quite popular not only in East and Southeastern Asia, but also in Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq and Jordan, and not to mention Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. I once heard a Japanese fan of the Korean drama, “Winter Sonata,” telling a TV reporter, “Korean dramas make me feel younger whenever I watch them. I feel like I am young forever, someone who can fall in love once again.”

If Korean cultural products have such positive effects, we should export our youth culture all over the world. It seems that Korea is getting younger and younger as time goes on. In contrast, America used to be the country of perennial youth. Since 9/11, however, people say that America has begun to grow old at last, rapidly losing its perpetual youth and innocence, and stumbling into the world of experience and prejudice.

In order to become an adult, however, you have to pay the price. Once again, Fiedler reveals what the price is: “The dream recedes; the immaculate passion and the astonishing reconciliation become a memory, and less, a regret, at last the unrecognized motifs of a child’s book.”

The American campaigners urge us to return to our childhood to retrieve our long lost innocence. But we Koreans do not need to go back to our childhood, for we are still in our adolescence. That may be an advantage for a while. Some day, we, too, should become an adult, putting an end to innocence. Until then, we should maximize our youth and youth culture. 

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is president of the Association of Korean University Presses. ― Ed.
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