Saussurean fruit salad

I am aware of a saying “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.” I have to beg to differ though. For us Koreans, it’s exactly the other way around. In Korea, the line is whether it is from a yearly plant or a perennial tree. Hence a tomato is a vegetable [μ±„μ†Œ]; so is a watermelon. Yet, tomatoes can be served as a dessert.

When I went to Urbino earlier this year, I got acquainted with a boy who used to go out with a Korean girl for quite some time. So the topic of the dinner table in that evening was how wonderfully weird Korean girls could be. Well, I have taken the liberty of adding the word ‘wonderfully’ here πŸ˜› and he was being diplomatic using ‘could be’ there, but you get the subtext anyway. [That’s right; I could even find an online discussion thread on this topic!] Don’t worry. It didn’t bother me at all. Rather, I found it amusing and one particular comment made me literally belly-laugh: “She was the first and only person in my whole life who served me tomatoes with sugar sprinkled over them.”

Why it was so funny for me is – apart from the genuine shock that I could read from his eyes πŸ˜€ – that I knew exactly what he was talking about. Memories flooded back; yes, that was in fact my grandpa’s favourite summer treat too when I was a kid. Then, well, you know me. Anything can set me off into a long train of thoughts. This time, the whole fruit-versus-vegetable debate got me to wonder about how one and the same thing is defined and consumed differently across time and places.

An example: the word ‘politics’ [μ •μΉ˜] in Korea. I know it’s almost universal across societies that the word has negative connotations, deservedly, but what seems unique in the Korean case is that it is unbelievably narrowly defined. Not even professional political activity altogether. The word refers only to a subset of it – specifically the legislative branch. This is why the president displays his “politicophobia” at any opportunity by emphasising that he never knew much of politics before sworn in or that he is not someone who exercises power. This is also why one of the first things the newly appointed prime minister did was to assure the public that he is not interested in (a career in) politics. What do you do then? Hello?

I understand some professions require political neutrality, but it seems that the notion of it is taken too literally and too far. The problem with this kind of framing is that, as a consequence, anyone outside the narrowly defined territory can’t afford to be politically engaged.

Not only as a researcher but also as an ‘insider’, I sort of see where this must have come from. It’s all part of the Confucian ethos. As Armstrong (2007: 3) points out, during the Joseon dynasty (the last monarchy on the Korean peninsula, 1392-1910), “[…] Korea was the most thoroughly ‘Confucianized’ state in Asia, surpassing Japan, Vietnam, and perhaps even China itself in its adherence to Confucian institutions, rituals, and values”. Since then, political aspirations have always been to be frowned upon. Quite simply, they are not an honourable thing. You engage in public life only after many around you run to you, fall on their knees, and insist that you do for greater good. Then you reluctantly take on…

Cho Kuk, a law professor at Seoul National University, has recently published a book with Oh Yeonho of OhmyNews. In the form of a dialogue, the book suggests strategies for liberals to return to power. It has been less than a fortnight since the book came out (I haven’t got hold of a copy yet) but there has been immediate attention drawn to it – not only from the liberal line but also from the most conservative.

The first challenge he is faced with is, unsurprisingly, the label of being a “polifessor” [ν΄λ¦¬νŽ˜μ„œ, μ •μΉ˜μ² μƒˆκ΅μˆ˜]. Coined and popularised in the Korean media, the term refers to a professor who actively engages in political discussion, seeks to connect his/her academic findings to policy work, or goes as far as to take up a senior public post. In fact, at least so far, most criticism is levelled at the fact of him “being political”, not at the content of the book nor anything else. I am sure he was very well aware that this was bound to come, which is why he brought up during the first interview regarding his latest publication Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming America from the Right.

How do I feel about all this myself? Frankly, I have mixed feelings. As he is one of the VERY few people about whom I have actually voiced to others “If he ever decided to run in an election, he would have my vote”, a part of me naturally supports his moves. Then the other part of me goes all nervous as if I were watching him on thin ice. After all, he is – to paraphrase one of my interviewees – “walking into the mud of politics” (2009: 172).

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