Friday, 24 October 2008

Shaking the hand that shook the hand of our Queen!

By Dr Lydia Martens

“Britain's Queen Elizabeth II will visit South Korea on April 19-22 to become the first British head of state ever to visit the Korean Peninsula since Korea and Britain established diplomatic relations in 1883, officials said Monday. A South Korean presidential spokesman said the queen will meet President Kim Dae Jung at the Blue House presidential office April 19. "The British queen's upcoming visit to (South) Korea is expected to provide momentum for friendly and cooperative relations between Britain and Korea to be upgraded to a higher level," the spokesman said. During her stay, the queen will try to visit as many places as possible in an effort to get first-hand experience of the different aspects of South Korean society and help deepen mutual understanding between the British and South Korean peoples, the spokesman said. The queen's itinerary includes visits to Hahoe village, an ancient folk village at Andong, North Kyongsang Province, ...”

What luck that this piece of newspaper reporting could still be found on the internet, as the Queen’s visit to South Korea, which I doubt many Brits will remember, took place in 1999. Not so the Koreans! If Hahoe (pronounce ‘hachway’) village is not solely known in Korea as an important national and historical heritage site, then the visit there by the Queen in 1999 is remembered by many. Following in the globe-trotting shoes of the Queen (albeit without the precious outfits and jewels) I travelled to Korea last week, to participate in the 25th anniversary conference of the Seoul Association for Public Administration (SAPA). The Association is currently debating the need to move towards greater use of qualitative methodologies, and I was invited by the Association’s President, Professor Soon-Bok Soe and the organiser of the methodology sessions, Professor Kwang-Sok Lee, to present a Keynote address to discuss the state of qualitative research in the United Kingdom.

I decided to concentrate on innovations in qualitative research in UK social sciences over the past 15 years, and outlined factors that influence innovative and traditionalising forces in the disposition of individual scholars, drawing group and institutional dimensions into the discussion. Social, economic and cultural change clearly drive new research agendas, which in turn encourage researchers to explore new ways of seeking answers through their research practices. Technological developments join into the mix, offering new tools which may be utilised during the different phases of the research process. These innovative forces are juxtaposed by traditionalising forces which, for instance, connect with scholarly debate on the diverse quality dimensions in qualitative research in its broadest sense. I spent a bit of time outlining the grander innovative initiatives the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) has resourced in the past 15 years, pointing to its support for qualitative data archiving, longitudinal qualitative research, and hypermedia/digitised opportunities. The Keynote address was well received, and conference delegates were keen to discuss the issues with me. During the two-day conference, I also presented a paper on the video methodology adopted in a completed ESRC project Domestic Kitchen Practices and provided a demonstration of NVivo 8; software used by qualitative researchers for project management and data analysis. Dr Se-Kwang Hwang, my former PhD student from Durham University, accompanied me by presenting on the methodological approach of his own research, in which children created videos to illustrate their everyday experiences of what life is like to live with a sibling with autism.

The conference took place at the National University of Gong Ju; one of South Korea’s historical cities, the lore of which was communicated to me by various conference delegates. I did not at all mind listening to the same story more than once. Given our European language focus, I can assure you that my ear took a while to get accustomed to recognising and remembering Korean sounds, names and events, though that thankfully improved as the visit progressed.

Apart from the conference, my stay provided an opportunity to take in some of what everyday life is like in Korea. It is striking how ‘high-rise’ Korean society is, and how, even in a historic city like Gong Ju, there are few, if any, older buildings that reiterate this fact. The dominance of rice as the staple food is quite obvious when travelling between cities. All flat and lower lying areas are used for the horticulture of rice, and other staples, like Chinese cabbage, used for the preparation of Kimchi, a vegetable relish eaten at every meal. Coming to Korea in the autumn meant that the rice fields were an appealing golden colour. These agricultural areas are separated by Korea’s hills and mountains, which take up a good proportion of the country’s space, and which are covered in trees and ... electricity pylons. Korea is, after all, a modern society, drawing inspiration in its design of cities and building from the US. Many of these hills also feature some tree-free areas, where the more affluent Koreans have their family tombs. Seen from the vantage point of my motorway observation, it struck me that Korea’s deceased clearly do not always ‘need’ a quiet place to rest, though it is clear that space is of a premium here. Not so ‘everyday’, perhaps, was the festival which was taking place in Gong Ju during the conference. Delegates enjoyed a walk along Gong Ju’s riverside and street scene in the evening, taking in the many different light displays along the way. We were accompanied by the major of the city (dressed in the cream coloured jacket in the picture above) part of the way. The major had been a former colleague of some SAPA members, and they welcomed each other warmly. If I learned anything about social relations in Korea it must surely be that face-to-face interaction is extremely salient for maintaining contact with people in your social network, and this takes up considerable commitment time-wise. This is further demarcated by cultural hierarchies associated with seniority. Knowing how to express deference in the right cultural context to the right people is very important.

But let me return to where I started: the story of Hahoe village and the traditional mask dance. Like the Queen, I was taken there for a visit by Professor Kwang Sok Lee. We parked at the workshop of the master mask maker, Kim Jong-Heung, which is situated along the side of the road and surrounded by brilliantly carved totems. The wood artist was clearly very proud of having met the British Queen in 1999, something illustrated by the various pictures on the wall (see the first picture above). I am uncertain whether it is this fact, or his amazing array of wooden sculptures, that attracts visitors here. The announcement by my Korean companions that I was from the UK was cause for special attention, as I soon discovered, when Kim Jong-Heung warmly shook my hands. Eventually, after pictures were taken and the necessary mask souvenirs purchased, we were sent on our way with a visitor card showing Kim Jong-Heung with the Queen.

Later that day, after we had enjoyed some lunch in one of the small, straw roofed, eating establishments on site (no sight of McDonalds or American style fast food anywhere!), we encountered Kim Jong-Heung again, this time behind one of his masks playing the figure of the monk in Hahoe’s traditional mask dance drama. Performance of the drama has been formalised today by the construction of a special theatre with frequent performances. In past times, the drama would have taken place in the village itself, performed by and for the villagers, and moving between different sites in the village, accompanied by nong-ak dance musicians. Walking through the village of Hahoe itself felt somewhat peculiar, as the tribe of people who originally populated it still live there today. We got the opportunity to visit the home of one of the village families, and observed the vegetable garden (full of spring onions, chillies and sesame seed plants), the kitchen and the courtyard of the extensive buildings, with its array of large earthenware pots containing soya sauce and other, frequently used ingredients for cooking. Two women sat along one side, cleaning fish, without engaging with the visitors. OK, the village and all that comes with it, is now a national heritage site, and visitors pay entrance fees which presumably go to benefit the villagers. Nevertheless! On our return to the car, we were caught once again by Kim Jong-Heung, who insisted that I had a go at wood carving. I hope I did not destroy his early efforts at carving the next totem. On reflection, I must admit that this tourist site visit was entirely relaxing for me! I did not encounter any blasé site staff here and found the interest shown by mask dancers and Kim Jong-Heung, not only towards myself, but also to other visitors, entirely friendly. If more Koreans show the kind of interest in ‘foreigners’ as was exhibited by the 9 year old boy on the bus, who proudly sported his Arsenal football top and told me he loved England and soccer, perhaps the Korean spokesmen who commented on the visit by the Queen in 1999 may be right in suggesting that relationships between Koreans and those from ‘the West’ may stand to improve further in the future. Given we are increasingly living in a globalised world, this is surely a necessity and should be welcomed.

I would like to thank Professor Kwang-Sok Lee and Professor Soon-Bok Soe of the SAPA association for inviting me to participate in the conference, and for giving me an opportunity to develop my insight into and appreciation of, Korean society. I look forward to future communications with the SAPA organisation.

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