When going home means leaving a home behind (Cable from Korea #15)

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And so, the end is here. This will be the last ‘Cable from Korea’. Tomorrow I leave this country for the UK. Friday was my last day at work. I intend to live elsewhere for the foreseeable future.

I am sure that this is the right decision but that doesn’t make it an easy one. The very thing I feel the need to move beyond – the rather cloistered existence of an Anglophone expat in Korea – could easily be seen as a blessing I am mad to forsake. What’s so bad about a well-paid job, that takes care of my housing, gives me lots of holidays, plenty of free time, (usually) low stress days at work, an inbuilt community of fellow expats, and many of the world’s best sites a short-haul flight away?

More than that, however, Korea now has a special place in my heart. That’s partly due to the people I’ve met here – both locals and expats – of which more later. But beyond that, this country is a remarkable one. I obviously admire it at a macro level. It shook off colonialism, civil war, invasion and military rule to become a prosperous, culturally-dynamic democracy. But that’s not what has really kindled my affection for it. No, that’s things like being able to hike to temples in the mountains. Or visit its myriad cafes. And leave my laptop and wallet on the table in one of them for hours, knowing that Koreans are so law abiding, I can rely on it being there when I return. Oh and the plentiful public transport that’s basically never late. Or how about the numerous idiosyncratic festivals? And of course, the food. I’ve been spoilt by it. I’m no so accustomed to being able to have delicious barbeque, bulgogi, bibimbap, bingsu, mandu, ramen, jap chae bap, tempura or soup pretty much whenever I want, that I’m not sure how I’ll cope without them. In short, while Britain may be my home, Korea (and for that matter Vietnam) also feel like home. And being away from them feels like a wrench.

So, may I take this opportunity to ask you to pray or keep in your thoughts – whichever seems more right to you – a place that has become very dear to me. As you will be aware if you have seen any news lately, the peace and stability that South Koreans have worked so hard to build, is threatened by reckless manoeuvring in both Washington and Pyeongyang. More mundanely, now it has achieved its aspiration to be a wealthy exemplar of modernity and civility, it must decide what it aspires to be next. Oh and in the near future they have a show to put on: the Winter Olympics are coming to town. Please wish the Koreans well in all these endeavours.

As I already mentioned, the larger part of what makes any place special are individuals. And I would like to take the opportunity to publicly thank some people I met during my time in Korea. Under no circumstance, could I possibly thank everyone, I owe debts to. And I am writing this quickly, whilst in quite an emotional state, so am liable to have missed some people who really deserve a mention. Nonetheless, I thought it better to mention some people and risk missing others, than to not thank anyone. If your name should be here and is not, please rest assured I know what you did for me and that it is but a momentary lapse. With that said may I thank the following people:

  • My colleagues at Jeungsan elementary school, and Beomeo and Bogwang Middle Schools, as well as my co-teachers for the Interview English program. Thank you for the patience and tolerance you showed someone who doesn’t understand your language or how things are done in your country.
  • The students who took risks to improve their English. Especially those in my Interview English classes. Every time you did, you made teaching English seem worthwhile again.
  • The congregation at AIM, especially the Basic U fellowship group, and even more especially Kimberlie, Storm, Leanri, Chris and Dianna. I often had a rather semi-detached relationship with the church. But even as I put myself half-in and half-out, you made me feel 100% welcome.
  • Everyone at Socrates Café. Not only was debating and discussing philosophy with you, fun and informative, it was also just the mental workout I often needed after a week of (frequently) dry drilling simple phrases into students for hours on end. Stay reflective guys!
  • Wendy for providing a comfortable and welcoming space for foreigners like me. The paninis, shakes and dandelion tea were definitely a bonus too!
  • Aakansha, we didn’t get to spend anything like as much time together as I’d hoped, but I will forever be grateful for the time we did have. Stay yourself always.
  • Jenna Kang at KLIFF. Thank you for not only helping me with my Korean – which was definitely useful – but also convincing me that I could make progress with a language – even one as difficult as Korean – and that my putting effort into learning languages is not in vain.
  • Every non-Korean speaker in Korea must on a semi-regular basis turn to someone who does know the language for help. In my case that usually meant Hannah or Justyna. Thank you both for responding to my requests with such patience and being so generous with your time.
  • Everyone who went to Thursday Evening Bible Study. Your fellowship was invaluable, your very different perspectives were educational, and your friendship remains priceless.
  • Most of all, to my family during a time I was thousands of miles from my actual family: all my friends in and around Yangsan. Lauren, Ksenia, Tricia, Chris, Justyna, Bella, Jennifer, and, above everyone else on this list, the big sister I never had, Aaren. I miss you all already and can’t wait for the day I will see you again. I long for it be soon.

It was without a shadow of a doubt, worth moving half way round the world to meet you guys!

The meaning of Moon: 8 thoughts on the progressive victory in Korea (Cable from Korea #12)

Whilst much of the world moves to the right South Korea goes left. Here’s what I think that means.

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Apology 1: I wrote this in a hurry to ensure you could read it whilst it was still topical. As a result there will be more grammatical errors, and fewer references and hyperlinks than I would usually aspire to.

Apology 2: While I live in Korea, I do not speak Korean and good writing about Korean politics in English is sparse. So please treat this post as a collection of intuitions rather than anything more definitive.

A quick note of background

On Monday, South Korea held a presidential election. This was unexpectedly early because the previous holder, the conservative Park Gueyn Hee, was impeached as the result of a bizarre corruption scandal involving her soliciting bribes on behalf of her shamen. Against this backdrop, it is probably unsurprising that a liberal won. A former human rights lawyer and presidential chief of staff Moon Jae-in received more than 40% of the vote comfortably defeating his divided opposition.

Some observations and speculations

1. Everyone seems to be voting just at the moment

Last Thursday, there were local elections across most of the UK, on Sunday there was a presidential election in France, and then yesterday there was one in South Korea. That’s three consequential sets of elections in less than a week.

And it’s not stopping. A week on Thursday Iran will also vote for a president. Britain and France will follow up the votes they just had with parliamentary votes next month. Later in the year, Germany will have to decide whether to keep Angela Merkel or replace her with the SPD’s Martin Schulz, and even China will come as close to electing its leaders as it ever does, when the 19th Central Committee meets to select the members of the politburo.

2. The curious failure of anti-establishment politicians

The wave of populism that is supposedly destroying all before was only weakly discernible in last week’s trifecta of elections. Yes, Macron was running outside France’s traditional party structure, Theresa May’s platform centres on implementing Brexit, and Moon’s victory was powered by the massive anti-system outrage engendered by his predecessor’s scandals. However, none of them is that much of an outsider. Macron was the finance minister in the government he just deposed. May is the most small c-conservative of Conservative politicians and deeply wedded to the party as an institution. She seems to be using Brexit primarily as an opportunity to bolster it. South Koreans were given the chance to vote for some clearly anti-system candidates: a radical mayor who touted himself as the Korean Bernie Sanders, a businessman running for a new insurgent party, and a far-left labour activist who spent much of the eighties on the run from a military dictatorship. Instead they went for Moon-Jae In, who by more or less any definition is the ultimate machine politician.* He was the Democratic Party candidate in the last presidential election, when he narrowly lost to the now impeached Park Guen Hye. Before that he was chief of staff to a previous president. All of three of these politicians use populist energy, however, none of them really represents it.

3. Korean election graphics are amazing

4. Both the UK and South Korea are cursed with zombie parties

Jason Cowley, editor of Britain’s left-wing New Statesman magazine, as a zombie party because it ‘is too weak to win and too strong to die.’ It can neither win power but it won’t give way for another centre-left force that might. The local elections seemed to confirm that pattern as Labour lost seats but not enough to collapse, and make way for a less inert political force.

I wonder if the Korean right now has a similar problem. The impeachment of a conservative president owing to her abusing her office in order to get bribes for her shamen (no really that’s what happened. I’m not exaggerating I swear!), seemed to have broken South Korean conservatism. It split into three rival parties. Their supporters seemed to abandon them for Ahn Cheol-soo, a centrist representing a party mostly composed of former liberals, who nonetheless said hawkish things about North Korea. Polls showed that for a while this combination of borrowed conservative support and his own base put Ahn level with Moon. By contrast, the combined rating of all three of the conservative parties struggled to break 10%.

However, it didn’t last. Some combination of lacklustre debate performances, conservatives noticing he wasn’t all that conservative, and Trump saying stupid things that tarred South Korean hawks by association, dissipated this surge and Anh came third.

In second place was Hong Jun-Pyo, standing for the same conservative party that just lost the presidency. He managed to rally older voters in the conservative strongholds in the South-East of the country, with furious attacks on both Moon and Ahn’s supposed leftism and North Korean sympathies. It repulsed most of the country but attracted enough of it to kibosh the chances of centrists and more forward looking conservatives. Unless that pattern is broken, Korea may also have a zombie party on its hands.

5. The regional divides in Korean politics are amazingly stark

The major division in Korean politics is not class, ethnicity or religion but province. The east of the country votes conservative, the west liberal. And it is a stark split. In the liberal pastion of Jeolla, Hong got barely 2% of the vote. To put that in context, when Tony Blair demolished the Conservative Party in 1997, they still managed to get almost a fifth of the vote in Scotland and around a tenth in Liverpool.

[N.B. lest you think this just a political thing, I live in the east of the country and have heard westerners described as gangsters and peasants]

6. The North Korean situation may now be even trickier to handle

I’ve been astonished how little of the coverage of the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program has mentioned that there were elections in South Korea, let alone considered how they might alter the dynamics of the situation.

To my mind that’s an especially grave error because it is on those subjects on which we should have the most reservations about Moon. He appears to wish to take a more conciliatory approach to inter-Korean relations and that involves risks.

During Moon’s tenure as presidential chief of staff, South Korea tried to buy off Pyongyang. Kim Jong-Il’s government took the money and the aid, whilst continuing to abuse human rights, develop nuclear weapons and threaten its neighbours. While a full scale resumption of this policy is unlikely, Moon has suggested re-opening a jointly operated industrial complex in the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas. That would likely breach UN sanctions on Pyongyang. That would make it almost impossible to criticise China for its lapses in sanctions enforcement.

Moon has also indicated an openness to withdrawing the ROK’s agreement to the placement of an American missile defence system in the country. That is doubly regrettable. Firstly, and most directly, that system would provide both the US and South Korea with a measure of protection from the North’s nascent ICMB program. Secondly, China has objected to the system on the grounds that its radar could potentially detect Chinese missile launches. It has responded in the manner of a petulant bully, and orchestrated an unofficial but very blatant campaign of economic intimidation: Chinese tourists have been discouraged from visiting Korea, K-Pop acts have been blocked from performing in China, and Korean shopping malls in China have suddenly been slapped with huge fines for supposed health and safety violations. This generated a backlash with Korean public opinion of Beijing suddenly turning very negative. If the system remains then this might teach China that it needs to treat its neighbours with more respect. If it goes then that will appear to vindicate its high-handed behaviour.

This would all be difficult to handle with an ordinary American president. With the current amateurish and unpredictable administration, that difficulty is magnified even further. I am not sure how well the current international system can handle friction between hawks in Washington and doves in Seoul.

7. Why has left/right politics in Korea not been replaced by a globalist/nativist battle?

Across much of the developed (and some of the developing) world, we’ve seen debates over the appropriate size of the state and extent of redistribution take a back seat to questions of how open countries should be to outsiders. Macron and Le Penn getting into the final round of the French presidential elections, whilst neither the socialist nor the conservative candidates did, provides a very clean example of this trend. It is, however, also visible in Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum.

This has not, as far as I can see, happened in South Korea. The presidential race centred on jobs, corruption, the role of huge family run conglomerates in the economy, and tensions with the North.

I am not really sure why this is but I might suggest the following as hypothesises:

a) There is relatively little immigration here (for the time being)

b) Korea is (for the time being) a substantial exporter of manufactured goods. That means globalisation is (for the time being) not associated with a loss of blue collar jobs, in fact quite the opposite.

c) That the main security concern is not terrorism but a nuclear armed and notionally communist rouge state, lends South Korean politics a decidedly cold war air. That might explain why it is still in a twentieth-century configuration.

d) The nativist/globalist split maps onto a graduate/non-graduate divide. In Korea, university education is as widespread as high school is in many western countries. That may mean the social underpinning for this ideological clash aren’t there.

8. Young people won!

Let us end on a positive not. Of late young people have seemed to be losing out economically and politically. And Korea is an especially hard place to be young. Kids here generally wind up on a brutal treadmill of exams and exam prep. That puts them under huge pressure, whilst leaving them little time for hobbies.

So, it is heartening to see their chosen candidate win despite South Korea being one of the oldest societies on earth.

Young people, not just students and graduates but also secondary schoolers, were central to the protests that brought about Park’s impeachment. When I teach high schoolers, it is striking quite how many of them will mention politics.

For more information on this I would recommend Korea Expose’s reporting on ‘the Sewol Generation’, a cohort whose formative political experience was a tragic ferry accident in which hundreds of teenagers drowned while adults on the ship’s crew, the coast guard and, ultimately, the conservative government did nothing to rescue them. It appears to have conditioned them to be less deferential to middle aged and elderly politicians. Moon’s victory marks their emergence as a political force and I am fascinated to see what they will achieve in the future.

 

 

*Most people would consider that an insult, so let me clarify that I don’t.

When politics happens all at once (Cable from Korea #10)

So, what on earth is happening in Korea at the moment?

Rather a lot! Indeed, developments in Korean politics seem to have conspired to happen all at once!

There are three major strands to recent events.

  • Kim Jong-Nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s Supreme Leader, was assassinated in Kuala Lumpur airport. The Malaysian authorities have indicated that he was killed with VX nerve gas and North Korean agents appear to have been responsible. Malaysian nationals in North Korea have been barrred from leaving until Pyongyang is sure that everyone accused by of the murder by the Malaysians is returned ‘safely’.
  • North Korea’s nuclear program continues to agitate its neighbours. Last week it test fired four ballistic missiles. Its capabilities are developing such that, within the near future it will likely be able to target the continental US. Predictably, Washington does not like this. Just a few hours after the latest test, it announced it was accelerating its deployment to South Korea of an anti-missile system known as THAAD. That in turn has upset China, which fears that THAAD’s radar will allow the US to peer into its territory. Beijing has responded by going after Chinese companies doing business in China, and squeezing the number of Chinese tourists going to South Korea.
  • South Korea’s Supreme Court removed the country’s President, Park Geun-hye, from office for “acts that violated the Constitution and laws”, namely encouraging Samsung to pay money into charities controlled by her friend, and purported shaman, in exchange for instructing a government pension fund to vote in favour of allowing two parts of the conglomerate to merge. The news of her final downfall was met by protests both in support and opposition, the latter of which turned violent and resulted in protestors dying.

What connects all this?

I’m hesitant to say anything does. They are distinct phenomenon.

It is tempting for outsiders, to see all South Korean politics through the lense of relations with the North. But domestic factors are at least as important, and Park’s downfall was basically a South Korean affair: her corruption was exposed by other South Koreans, and produced an outcry not only because it was intrinsically objectionable, but also because Koreans had grown frustrated with declining economic opportunities.

Even though it happened thousands of miles away, Kim’s assassination was also basically about domestic politics. It was an act of dynastic housekeeping, that removed a potential rival to Kim Jong-Un, who by the law of primogeniture should have been Supreme Leader.

That said, these developments will feed into each other.

Malaysia is one of the few countries with which the North enjoyed something approaching a normal relationship. Then it used a WMD to kill someone on its territory, and is now holding its citizens hostage to escape the blowback of that decision. Which is the kind of behaviour that leaves you so isolated that you become convinced that you need to build nuclear weapons to survive.

[See also: Setting of a large bomb at one of your ally’s most important monuments]

The South Korean response to that program will probably change along with its president. Park and her conservative party not only agreed to the deployment of THAAD but also tougher sanctions and the closure of a South Korean run industrial park in North Korea. It seems highly likely that her successor will come from a left-wing party and progressive Koreans have traditionally been more sceptical of the American alliance and more willing to gamble on outreach to the North. For example, the front runner in the presidential election, Democratic Party leader Moon Jae-in, has indicated that he would ask the American’s to remove THAAD from Korea.

What should I watch for now?

Principally, who becomes the next South Korean president. New elections need to happen within two months. As former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has ruled himself out as a candidate, it seems doubtful that the conservatives have anyone who can stop Moon. Plus, it appears that the right will be divided between pro- and anti-Park parties. It is therefore quite likely that the main obstacle to Moon’s ascension will come in his own party’s primary. If Ahn Hee-jung, a centrist governor who is more equivocal on THAAD, bests him then expect relief in Washington and disappointment in Beijing.

Pyongyang would probably also favour a liberal government in Seoul. So, it will be interesting to see if they act to avoid undermining Moon’s chances. For example, there are indications that the North is preparing for another nuclear test. If it carries it out before the election, then that would indicate that the North either isn’t interested in the party politics of the South, sees its interests differently from how we do, or that the timings of tests are driven by technical rather than strategic considerations.

If Moon or another left-winger wins then relations with Washington are potentially tricky. Trump has previously indicated that he has doubts about the value of the US-ROK alliance. He’s since rode back from that position and its clear that people like his Defence Secretary, James Mattiss, do think that working with Seoul is to America’s benefit. However, I fear that a new left-wing South Korean president might appear ‘insolent’ to Trump, which might bring his petulance to the fore, and could trigger an anti-US backlash in South Korea.

A victory for Moon or another progressive candidate would go against what appears to be the global trend for left leaning parties to struggle. Indeed, combine a Moon victory with Hilary Clinton winning the popular vote in the US, Macron becoming French president, Geert Wilders struggling in the Dutch elections and the Democratic Party retaining power in Italy – all of which seem plausible – then the very existence of the trend would look dubious.

That said the anti-Park movement has been a very populist one, drawing on opposition to the political power of large corporations, so the observation that we are in an age of populism seems vindicated by these events.

Indeed, the often voiced populist demand for politicians and corporate execs to be locked up for their misdemeanours may well come to pass in Korea. Park no longer enjoys presidential immunity, so I would expect charges to be brought against her. Many of her associates have already been indicted. Perhaps more importantly will be the trial of Jay Y. Lee, the head of Samsung. The conglomerate is the third largest company in the world by revenue, which is a huge deal in a medium-sized economy like South Korea’s, but given the global reach of Samsung’s activities would matter well beyond the Korean peninsula.

 

Cable from Korea #7: The fall of the house of Park

The ‘shaman’ scandal that brought down President Park Geun-hye illustrates many of the weaknesses of Korean society but also the vitality of its democracy.

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Teddy Crosshttps://www.flickr.com/photos/tkazec/30021968224/

The competition for strangest political story of 2016 is a tough: Donald Trump is now leader of the free world, the Prime Minister of India decided to nullify the value of close to 90% of the Rupee notes in circulation and the leader of the famously Catholic Philippines is now a guy who called Pope Francis a ‘son of a whore’.  However, the ‘prize’ probably goes to South Korean president Park Geun-Hye being impeached for abusing her office to benefit her shaman.

Ms Park gave this shaman, a woman by the name of Choi Soon-Sil, access to classified briefing materials including, it appears, some relating to North Korea. In addition, Choi ran charitable foundations and leveraged her connection to the president to get donations from a succession of large Korean companies including Samsung and Hyundai. Choi then embezzled from these foundations. In response to the discovery of these improprieties, the Korean parliament impeached her and as of Friday the prime minister has taken over as acting president. The Constitutional Court could still reinstate her but that seems unlikely.

The best and most evocative account of this truly bizarre scandal comes from Ask a Korean. I’d seriously recommend you go away and read it. It’s one of the best pieces of political writing I’ve seen this year. It captures not only the strange details of the case – like Choi’s personal trainer being appointed as presidential aide – bust also why a Korean public rather inured to accusations of corruption by their politicians have turned on Park so decisively. In addition, it shows real empathy for Ms Park.

At the root of her present predicament is that she lost a parent to an assassin’s bullet not once but twice.

Her father is probably the most divisive figure in modern Korean history. He became leader of South Korea shortly after the horror of the invasion by the North. His rule lasted for almost two decades. At the beginning the country was devastated by war, vulnerable to another invasion and poorer than the average sub-Saharan country. By the end, its economy had pulled ahead of the North’s and it was well on the way to becoming the modern affluent country it is today. However, the elder Park was also a military strongman responsible for many human rights abuses. He was eventually killed by his own intelligence chief whilst contemplating an even more intense crackdown on democratic activity.

However, it is the slaying of Park’s mother five years prior to these events that is most directly relevant to her relationship with Choi Soon Sil. A North Korean sympathiser attempted to kill General Park whilst he gave a speech to commemorate Korea’s Independence Day but he botched the attack and having been wounded by the president’s security team, began shooting wildly. One of these shots struck and killed Park’s mother.  It is at this point that Choi’s family enters the story. Her father might (generously) be described as a ‘religious entrepreneur’. He approached the distraught Park telling her that he was able to communicate with her mother. This seems to have led to Park becoming emotionally dependent on him and then when he passed away on his daughter. Given this situation it is hard not to see Park as a victim as well as perpetrator, and the Chois as vultures feeding off Park’s pain for their personal gain.

However, notwithstanding her personal tragedy, she’s clearly done more than enough to justify her impeachment and has few defenders. I live in the region that is the bastion of her conservative Saenuri party. Despite this few of my Korean friends and acquaintances have been willing to speak in her defence and none has been prepared to do so with any enthusiasm. The far more common response has been a mixture of fury and, when forced to discuss it with a foreigner, acute embarrassment.

Which is no small matter in Korea. I am wary of pseudo-anthological generalisations about national cultures, but I do feel comfortable asserting that Korean society places a real premium on maintaining ‘face’ and a deep sense of shame generally results when this is not possible. This seems to apply not only to individuals but also to the nation as a whole, which apparently requires a large amount of validation by the rest of the world. The government spends large sums of money promoting its culture abroad. The global success of K-pop and K-drama is both a source of great pride and the product of deliberate marketing by both private and public sectors. Within the country itself, one of the pre-eminent measures of one’s social standing is your aptitude for English. For example, even businesses that have few, if any, non-Korean customers still plaster their store fronts with English signs to demonstrate their sophistication. One result of this is that billions of dollars are spent on English education, much of which goes on bringing foreigners like me over from the west to teach in the country to share our cultural capital with young Koreans.

In this climate, it is considered to Ms Park’s considerable discredit that she has exposed so many of the flaws of Korean society to global attention. For weeks now, the world’s media has been interrogating the high levels of political corruption, the prevalence of pseudo-Christian cults, and the overweening power of a few huge conglomerates and their intermeshing with the government. Even the national fixation on educational credentials has been noticed, because the roots of Ms Choi’s unmasking lay in her attempts to get her unqualified daughter into an elite university demonstrating, as Ask a Korean says that “If there is one thing that Koreans [care about] more than their lives, it is their (and their children’s) college degree.” This worldwide airing of their dirty linen has clearly been painful for Koreans. The disposition they frequently adopt when talking about the scandal is to stare down at the floor or table, put their hands to their temple as if trying to hide their face, and repeat the mantra: “shameful, so shameful”.

If the antics of Ms Park and Ms Choi have not exactly been a great advert for South Korea, the crisis they’ve begat has paradoxically demonstrated the durability and maturity of its democracy. A few months ago, even eminent and sensible western publications were publishing pieces with headlines like: Is South Korea Regressing Into a Dictatorship?and to note that “President Park Geun-hye is squelching protests, suing journalists, and jailing opposition politicians.” Events have obviously shown this to be a misplaced fear. But it is not simply that the scandal came along and stopped dead a shift to authoritarianism. Rather the response has shown such a shift was always high unlikely. The Korean public is clearly willing to fight for good government. The anti-Park protests that made her impeachment an inevitability were enormous, at their peak including over two million people or almost 5% of the Korean population. Not only were they peaceful but so well organised and disciplined that the protesters arranged to clean up their own litter.

Media and prosecutors sometimes assumed to be supine and unwilling to challenge the country’s elites have swung into action. Many Saenuri law makers have acted in both the nation’s and their own interests by backing the impeachment. A major political convulsion appears to have passed without a major impact on the day to day running of government or lasting damage to financial markets. More broadly, the decline in support for democratic values seen amongst western electorates, appears to not to have affected their Korean counterparts.

So not only is Ms Park’s presidency over but so is the system of government her family name represents. Korea still faces real challenges, most obviously from North Korea, but also an aging population, a disaffected youth and economic model that has probably outlived its usefulness. South Korea will need to make tough decisions about its future. But I’m confident it will make them democratically.

‘Choigate’ may have been lurid, it may have been painful for Korea and it may have served as a showcase for many of its worse aspects, but the nation has dealt with this once in a generation crisis like a mature democracy should. Which leads me to believe that democracy is in better shape in South Korea than it is in the bulk of the West.

 

 

*I don’t know if former Korean presidents retain their titles like American ones do. Under the circumstances, I am disinclined to grant Ms Park an honorific unless I am sure she deserves it.

Hanoi ought to ban cars not motorbikes

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A number of reputable news organisations are reporting that Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, is proposing banning motorbikes from its city centre. I’m hesitant to venture an opinion because a) these reports are not especially detailed and b) while I did live in Hanoi for a while it’s a complicated and rapidly changing city that I only partially understand. Nonetheless, I’m wary of the idea.

The BBC reports that:

The local government wants streets to be motorbike-free by 2025 as part of efforts to tackle congestion, the Thanh Nien News website says. The Vietnamese capital has notoriously chaotic roads, with around five million motorbikes vying for space alongside half a million cars.

That situation is forecast to get worse in years to come: the authorities estimate that by 2020 there will be seven million motorbikes, and the number of cars will double. “This means the traffic situation in Hanoi will become extremely complicated in the next four to five years, so we really need a timely solution to this,” says mayor Nguyen Duc Chung.

The city’s transport authority wants to reduce the number of individual vehicles and boost public transport instead, and its chairman wants the number of buses to double. Construction of a new urban rail system is already under way.

I can’t quite imagine that. Motorbikes so suffuse my memories of Hanoi that I can’t really imagine it without them. It’s basically impossible to go anywhere in the city without seeing them: they are on every road and every pavement. From a distance most shops and restaurants appear to be motorbike showrooms because virtually all their customers arrive on bikes that then get parked outside. There are of course also masses of actual motorbike shops.

I actually rather liked this aspect of the city. While I had a pedal bike rather than a scooter, I appreciated the impact their near universal ownership had on the transport ecosystem of the city. It meant you were allowed to take bikes more or less everywhere and everywhere provided parking for them. There’s also a less tangible aspect to my affection for Hanoi’s bike culture. For reasons that will become apparent there are many reasons that many people disagree but for me bikes are a key part of what gives Hanoi the bustle I so enjoyed.

Of course, if banning bikes really would contribute to improving quality of life then my sentimental attachment to them would count for naught. And the case that it would hinges on a legitimate issue: air quality. The pollution in Hanoi is not at the level of industrial towns in China or India. It forms a thin haze not a thick smog. Nonetheless, it still kills thousands of people a year. Surprisingly, even though they burn less fuel than cars, motorbikes actually emit more of the micro-particulates that cause lung damage. This is apparently a legacy of the fact that governments have tended to regulate them less carefully than cars. Getting people off bikes and scooters and onto public transport (and potentially back onto pedal bikes) might therefore improve air quality.

My fear, however, is that the slack will be taken up instead by cars. Vietnam’s very rapid economic growth is rapidly expanding the number of families who can afford them. Unless that growth falters in a pretty remarkable way, it seems likely that the number of cars on Hanoi’s street will rise inexorably. By contrast, the ability of public transport systems to expand fast enough to match the growth of the city’s population is a much more open question. The opening of the city’s metro is already significantly behind schedule.

Replacing scooters with cars might improve air quality but it is likely to worsen everything else. I’d be especially worried about congestion. Bikes are well suited to Hanoi’s narrow, crowded and often chaotic streets. Even on roads that are packed solid with scooters, their drivers will generally still be able to manoeuvre around each other. Cars can’t. So if you get caught in a traffic jam in Hanoi, after a lot of stopping, starting and waiting, you usually catch up to a car or lorry that was constricting the flow of traffic. Once you get ahead of it you’ll generally find the road a lot clearer. So more cars would be bound to lead to more congestion. That would not only be a hassle for the city’s residents and a drag on business activity but it would also create air pollution problems of its own.

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Not only do cars take up space when they are being used but also when they are not. If the number of cars grows, so will the space that needs to be given over to parking. That means turning over land that could be used for housing, businesses or amenities to the storage of metal boxes. Scooters by contrast are small enough to be stowed in hallways or on patios. Indeed, because they are such a part of Hanoian life such spaces are usually already provided.

Banning scooters but not cars would also have the unfortunate impact of essentially rationing the ability to drive in central Hanoi by income. While many more Vietnamese can afford cars than before, it will be a long while still until everyone can. For some of those who can’t, using a push bike may be an option. But the temperature can hit 40°C in summer and many people use their motorbikes to carry passengers or luggage. So for many Hanoians that won’t be a substitute.

My inclination is therefore that motorbikes still have a constructive role to play in Hanoi’s transport system. Adding railway lines and buses is clearly a good idea. But getting them to the scale where they can replace scooters will take a long time. Longer, I suspect than the cities authorities are allowing themselves. By contrast, cars seem likely to add nothing but congestion. Many cities around the world are trying to wean themselves off reliance on cars. Hanoi is in a position where it can avoid getting addicted in the first place.

Cable from Korea #5: the march of the Catholics

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Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul

Since 1980, the growth of Korean Christianity has been driven by Catholics rather than Protestants. Why?

The growth of Korean Christianity is one of those facts that is used to give succour to members of declining western church. Like many churches in Asia its expansion has been explosive. In 1900 1% of Koreans were Christian, today 29% are. And we all know who these new Christians are right? Evangelical protestants often worshiping in megachurches. When foreign journalists – and indeed foreign bloggers – want to write about Korean Christianity they usually go to Yoido Free Gospel Church in Seoul, which purportedly has the world’s largest congregation.

This protestant-centric story is not inaccurate but it is out of date. Pew Research notes that:

Since the 1980s, however, the share of South Korea’s population belonging to Protestant denominations and churches has remained relatively unchanged at slightly less than 1-in-5. Catholics have grown as a share of the population, from 5% in 1985 to 11% as of 2005, according to the South Korean census. The growth of Catholics has occurred across all age groups, among men and women and across all education levels.

So if you look at a snapshot of Korean Christianity in the present, it’s fair to note that Protestants comfortably outnumber Catholics. If, however, you are interested in its expansion, it is Catholics you need to consider because for thirty years now they are the ones who’ve been doing the growing.

Part of the reasons may be political. Andrei Lankov, a Russian professor based in Seoul, wrote that:

…in the 1960s when Catholicism came to be associated with the ideas of progressive change and the introduction of modern political ideologies. In the 1960s, South Korea’s Catholic church hierarchy began to drift leftward. This was a time when South Korea was run by a military dictatorship – remarkably efficient at managing the economy but also quite ruthless and brutal in dealing with political dissent and the country’s labour movement. The Catholic Church firmly positioned itself on the side of the pro-democracy resistance. A special role was played by Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, who in 1968 became the archbishop of Seoul.

Under the leadership of Cardinal Kim, the Catholic church took a remarkably active leadership role, always ready to criticise the government and its perceived brutal use of force against government opponents. Outraged, the KCIA, the South Korean political police, arrested Bishop Daniel Chi Hak-sun, one of Cardinal Kim’s lieutenants and an outspoken critic of the military rule, but had to release him soon, bowing to pressure from local Catholics groups and from overseas.

………………………………………………………

When military rule finally came to an end in 1987 and Korea at long last became a democracy, the Catholic church was widely credited for its role in this seismic change. Needless to say, such perceptions significantly boosted its popularity: Church leaders were seen as relevant, dedicated and ready to risk their life and freedom for a great cause. Indeed, while Catholic churches across the globe face increasing difficulties and dwindling numbers of believers, the Korean church is thriving. In the mid-1990s the Catholics constituted merely 6 percent of the total population, but in twenty years the number nearly doubled, reaching 10 percent.

On the other hand a New York Times report on Pope Francis visiting Korea, suggested culture and the travails of the protestant churches also play a role:

While the Catholic Church has been flexible in embracing Koreans’ centuries-old Confucian-based rituals of worshiping ancestors, a widely cited survey by the Christian Ethics Movement of Korea last year found Koreans complaining about Protestant churches’ “exclusive attitude toward other faiths.” A leading Protestant preacher in recent years outraged people by declaring from the pulpit: “Buddhist monks are wasting their time. They should convert to Jesus.”

People have also watched some of South Korea’s Protestant megachurches — among the largest in the world — degenerating into internal squabbling as pastors attempted to bequeath their churches to their sons, triggering factional strife.

I don’t yet know enough to say whether some all, some or none of these explanations are right. But I’m curious to investigate. There can be few other major denominations in rich countries that have doubled in size recently.

Cables from Korea #4: my brush with North Korea

 

2016-02-26 11.27.02.jpgGenerally, the end of the Cold War has made many international borders considerably less dramatic. There was a time when going between East and West Berlin, or Mainland China and Hong Kong meant facing the risk you’d be shot. I’ve done both journeys on the metro without any special paperwork. The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean peninsula is an exception.

It is generally a mistake to see the frozen conflict between the Koreas as an extension of the Cold War. Rather than being the Stalinist holdover North Korea is often assumed to be, it makes sense to see it as a replica of Imperial Japan: a totalitarian state obsessed with racial purity and built around a hereditary figurehead who is treated as divine. Nonetheless, when you go the border who really do feel like you’ve stumbled into the Bridge of Spies. There are guard towers, razor wire fences and even a Checkpoint Charlie.

As you might imagine the experience of visiting the nascent battlefields of a potential third world war can be both disturbing and surreal. The most obvious and brutal irony is that the 250 km long Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that splits the Korean peninsula is enveloped by three of the largest armies in the world. A fact you are aware of throughout the trip. Our coach was regularly sandwiched between trucks packed with gun wielding soldiers. Our passports were probably checked half a dozen times. Where you can take photos is severely restricted, apparently for fear North Korean spies get hold of them. Many of the roads were lined with heavy blocks and ‘Czech hedgehogs’ that make them impassable for tanks. On a similar theme, the American soldier who accompanied us for part of the trip told us that some of the bridges we were driving over were rigged with C4, so they could be destroyed if that proved necessary to prevent the North Koreans crossing them.

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Offsetting all of this is the strange fact that the DMZ is in effect the world’s largest bird sanctuary. Humans stay out, so wildlife gets the chance to thrive. I’m no birdwatcher but I nonetheless managed to spot some impressive eagle and cranes.

The most disturbing fact about it all is that it’s less than hour’s drive from Seoul. Indeed the anti-fence that keeps out North Korean infiltrators begins before the city ends. That one of the largest, richest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world is 30km from a totalitarian nightmare is not only a brutal irony but makes you fear for what would happen if there ever is a war.

During the day my group saw a number of things:

  • One of the tunnels the North Koreans dug to try and get under the DMZ;
  • The Bridge of No Return over which the prisoner exchanges at the end of the war were conducted;
  • The Dora observatory from which you can – using binoculars – see into North Korea and the Kaesong industrial complex that was mothballed followed the recent nuclear tests; and
  • And final South Korean stop on the dormant Seoul-Pyongyang rail line.
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Note the contradiction between the two boards.

However, the most evocative place was the Joint Security Area (JSA). As its name implies the rival militaries generally have to stay out of the DMZ. But in the JSA they come face-to-face. Literally so; the American and South Korean soldiers based there have to wear sunglasses because this stops them making eye contact with their North Korean counterparts and thereby reduces the number of fights that break out.

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The conference rooms at the JSA. The building in the background is North Korean. If you look closely you can see a North Korean soldier in the doorway.

From a tourist’s point of view, this is your opportunity to actually see North Koreans. While you are kept a fair distance away, you can nonetheless spot North Korean soldiers standing sentry in front of their base. According to the GI showing us around, while American and South Korean soldiers are rotated every few hours, the North Koreans have to stand guard for 24 hours at a time without a break; a small but telling example of the disregard with which the system treats the individuals within it.

At the JSA there are a couple of conference lines which span the border line. They exist to allow the two sides to hold meetings. But they also give tourists a chance to go ‘into’ North Korea. That’s of course true in only the most technical sense. A South Korean soldier enters the room before you do and locks the door from the inside. They then stand guard to prevent you from trying to get through into North Korea properly. Nonetheless, for a moment you are north of the border line and therefore in territory that is in some sense North Korean.

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North of the border line

As artificial experience as this clearly is, it’s nonetheless humbling. Talking about ‘the line between freedom and tyranny’ seems uncomfortably George W. Bush like to me. But in Korea such a line is very real and in the JSA you can not only see it but actually cross it.

Cable from Korea #1: the world’s largest church

A 150,000 people attend this one church in Seoul. This morning, I was one of them.

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Three years ago, I wrote a post about the Yoido Full Church, which is probably the largest church in the world. I quoted the Economist reporting that:

It looks somewhat unprepossessing—a brownish blob surrounded by office buildings—but Yoido boasts 830,000 members, a number it says is rising by 3,000 a month. One in 20 people in greater Seoul is a member.

Each of the seven Sunday services at Yoido is a logistical challenge: apart from the 12,000 people in the main sanctuary, another 20,000 follow the service on television in overflow chapels scattered around neighbouring buildings. Some 38,000 children go to Sunday school during the day. As one service begins and the next ends, around 60,000 comers and goers are ushered by white-jacketed traffic directors. If you want to attend one of the two services starring the church’s founder, David Cho, you need to be an hour early or you won’t get in.

I wrote about it because I was doing a series on Pentecostalism of which Yoido is a rather spectacular example. It was not somewhere I anticipated ever visiting. But this morning I did.

The author of that Economist piece was not exaggerating as far as the logistics go. The manager at my hostel told me she avoids driving near the church on Sunday mornings because the traffic is so bad. Despite the challenges posed by its size, Yoido makes a compelling argument for economies of scale. It is a very slick operation. I arrived and was immediately greeted by one of their team of ushers specifically tasked with greeting foreigners, I was then passed along a conveyor belt of team members to a special section for worshipers from overseas and invited to a special post-service meeting for non-Koreans. Most impressively, I was given a headset so I could listen to a simultaneous translation of the service.

The church itself is a about the size of a concert hall. Indeed both its scale and design, reminded me of the Barbican Centre. The comparison seemed apt as it has its own orchestra and a choir of professional quality singers that’s larger than most congregations. It’s not the best church music I’ve heard. It lacked the richness and otherworldliness of say an English Cathedral Choir. But that’s delivered to a couple of hundred people at a time. This needed to reach thousands upon thousands of people and be good. And that consistency extended to the other aspects of the service, which were engaging even in translation.

Initially the proceedings appeared more mellow than I was expecting. There were traditional hymns rather than worship songs. And while the preaching was on the more interactive end of the scale – there were a lot of things we were supposed to call out – it was also more dignified than many evangelical services I’d been to before. But I’d misread what was happening. I’m used to churches that are literally and figuratively amateurish: the people running them generally don’t have the skills or the resources to produce an emotional reaction on cue. The team at Yoido do. They could therefore let a state of fervour gradually develop. And by the end, prayers were accompanied by much of the congregation rocking backwards and forwards.

In the world but of Korea

Yoido is unmistakably Korean in ways that go beyond the obvious. The narrative it tells us about faith is very tied up with the country’s recent history. Indeed Yoidi itself, a church that dragged itself from a tent outside a US army camp to a being a feature of one of the world’s great cities,  functions as a good metaphor for that history. And the apocalyptic and Manichean overtones of evangelical theology take on a new resonance when you are twenty miles from the DMZ. My impression based on an admittedly short stay so far is that South Koreans think about their belligerent northern neighbours less than outsiders imagine. But Yoidi really does major on the topic: prayers about or for the country were said no less than four times. When Christians in most countries worry that militant atheists are attempting to destroy their way of life that’s merely paranoia but in Korea it’s indisputably true and that seems to have seeped into the character of at least some of its Christianity.

Despite its emphatic Koreaness, Yoido is probably the most cosmopolitan church I’ve ever attended. As I’ve mentioned already, there are impressive efforts to welcome worshipers from overseas. It also seems to put a lot of emphasis on overseas evangelism: the church apparently has over 700 missions abroad at the current moment. And the congregation was regaled with tales of how its pastors were spreading the gospel around the world. It is presumably with the intention to assist them in that endeavour that the church runs English classes. Most remarkably the sermon at the service I attended was delivered in English by the National Director of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches. The world’s largest church apparently takes the world as its diocese.

My reservations

As impressed as I was by Yoido, I concluded that even if I lived in Seoul I would be unlikely to attend it regularly. I couldn’t warm to its bombast nor to the didactic nature of its message. I also have a particular aversion to faith healing, which featured prominently in the service. I fear that a) it risks putting people off seeking proper medical help, b) puts a decidedly un-protestant emphasis on the need for someone to act as an intermediary between god and ordinary Christians, and c) insults God by suggesting he lets people suffer illness until somebody casts the right spell. My prejudices about it weren’t helped by a video we were shown this morning of a previously lame woman in the Cote D’Ivoire miraculously walking without crutches after being prayed for by one of the church’s pastors. The problem is that she didn’t walk so much as stagger forward weakly for two or three paces in exactly the way you’d imagine someone would if they believed they’d been cured but hadn’t. And even to someone poorly versed in Korean politics the way the church steers it congregation towards supporting conservative candidates was pretty blatant. President Park Geun-Hye was prayed for by name. It was specifically flagged up that one of her party’s representatives in the National Assembly was in attendance this morning. And the congregations attention was drawn to an apparently troubling piece of legislation before the National Assembly.*

Lessons for the endangered species known as the western protestant

However, what I’ve been mulling the most since I left was something rather different: the age of the congregation. The reason for this is to do with something called the ‘secularisation hypothesis’. Essentially this says that as societies modernise that they will tend to become less religious. This has been given credence by falling church attendance in Europe and North America. But a big growth in church membership in the developing world has more than offset this, suggesting that maybe secularisation is basically a western phenomenon. Booming churches in Korea seemed like an example of this. But I recently read Daniel Tudor’s Korea: the Impossible Country, which briefly notes that young Koreans are actually less likely to attend church than their parents. Yoidi would seem to support this. The people in attendance were not as geriatric as those at a typical western church. Nonetheless, they clearly skewed towards the upper end of middle aged. That might indicate that the secularisation hypothesis needs modifying rather than discarding. Maybe it is that the disruptions and uncertainties of industrialisation and urbanisation drive people into church – the Victorian era was after all a highpoint of church attendance in the UK – and when these abate so does churchgoing. If that’s what is happening in Korea then it may well be that in a few decades time the booming churches in China, Nigeria and the like will start shrinking.

It is tempting as it is for stale churches in the West to look at places like Yoido and see a model they should emulate. But that’s probably not going to work. Christians in Europe and North America probably need to find their own solutions rather than trying to assemble flatpack models from other parts of the world.

 

*In the interests of transparency, I should note that my headset began glitching at the point this was discussed. I still think I caught the general gist but not what the actual legislation was.

Selling tea to the Indians

It is often assumed that Britain acquired its love of tea from India. In fact, it was the other way round.

Some stereotypes are true. Brits do indeed love tea. We drink three times as many cups of it as we do coffee. But even our enthusiasm for tea is outweighed by that of the Indians. They drink nearly nine times as much.

It’s therefore surprising that this infatuation has a rather short vintage. In Curry: a biography (which I reviewed here), the historian Lizzie Collingham observes that:

When the interpreter for the Chinese Embassy of Cheng Ho visited Bengal in 1406, he was surprised to note that the Bengalis offered betel nuts to their guests rather than tea. Coffee had been introduced into India by the Arabs, Persians and central Asians who found employment under the Mughals….For the most part, however, the … habit was confined to wealthy Muslims and did not spread to the rest of the population. As the chaplain Edward Terry noticed, Indians preferred water: ‘That most antient and innocent Drink of the World, Water, is the most common drink of East-India; it is far more pleasant and sweet than our water; and must needs be so, because in all hot Countries it is more rarified, better digested, and freed from its rawness by the heat of the Sunm and therefore in those parts of it is more desired of all that come thither.’ In northern India the villagers also drank buttermilk, a by-product of the Indian way of making ghee, by churning yoghurt (as opposed to the European method of churning cream). If they wanted something stronger, they drank arrack or toddy.

By contrast, tea has been popular in Britain since the late seventeenth century. The nation imported so much of it from China that the effects became macroeconomically destabilising. This led to efforts to wipe out the trade imbalance by selling the Chinese opium, a venture that culminated in the Chinese defeat in the Opium Wars – the injustice of which still colours Chinese views of the west today.

Another way of trying to solve this problem was to shift tea cultivation from China to British controlled India. And throughout the nineteenth century India became a more and more important tea grower. Collingham explains that between 1870 and 1900, China went from supplying 90% of the tea drunk in Britain to just 10%. The gap was filled very largely by India and Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka). This fostered such a close link between tea and India in the British mind that Thomas Lipton actually employed an Indian to stand in front of cafes as a form of advertisement.

But while India had become a substantial producer of tea, its population didn’t consume all that much of it. No less a figure than Gandhi observed that while some westernised Indians had begun drinking tea in imitation of the British, the practice was sufficiently rare that it could be passed over with only “the briefest notice”.

Collingham attributes the drastic reversal of this position, to the efforts of a trade body called the Indian Tea Association. It sent both European and Indian salesman around the country trying to persuade both consumers and wholesalers to buy more tea. However, these efforts only really gained momentum during World War I. The war resulted in economic hardship for Indians and the Tea Association persuaded factory bosses that providing tea breaks and samples was a way to mollify their workers.

Next, it:

….equipped small contractors with kettles and cups and packets of tea and sent them to work at the major railway junctions in the Punjab, the North-West frontier and Bengal…Although the European instructors took great care to guide the tea vendors in the correct way of making a cup of tea, they often ignored this advice and made tea their own way, with plenty of milk and lots of sugar. This milky, intensely sweet mixture appealed to north Indians who like buttermilk and yoghurt drinks (lassis). It was affordable and went well with the chapattis, spicy dry potatoes and biscuits sold by other station vendors, running alongside the carriage windows as the trains pulled into the station.

Further campaigns took tea into India homes. Then another World War spread its influence even more widely as rural Indians were pulled into army units that were served by tea vans – supplied of course by the Indian Tea Association.

Collingham says of these marketing campaigns:

They were so successful at introducing tea into India that at the end of the twentieth century, the Indian population, which had barely touched a drop of tea in 1900, were drinking almost 70 per cent of their huge of 715,000 tons per year.

Tea is now a normal part of everyday life in India. The tea shop is a feature of every city, town and village. Often they are nothing more than ‘a tarpaulin or piece of bamboo matting stretch over four posts … [with] a table, a couple of rickety benches and a portable stove with the kettle permanently on’. Men gather round, standing or squatting on their haunches, sipping the hot tea. The tiny earthernware cups, in which the drink is served, lie smashed around the stalls. Everybody drinks tea in India nowadays, even the sadhus (holy men), the most orthodox of Brahmins and the very poor, who use it as a way of staving off hunger.

She goes on to suggest that this gradual revolution has had important social impacts. She posits that as a new element in the Indian diet, tea is less enmeshed in traditional taboos. It is therefore possible for people who would be prevented by barriers of caste and religion from eating together to share tea. It has therefore been a factor in the emergence of a more modern and democratic India.

Curry: a biography by Lizzie Collingham (review)

Come for the mouthwatering history. Stay for the meditation on how Britain and India have changed each other.

I’ve made a habit of reading for about twenty minutes before I go to bed. That made Lizzie Collingham’s ‘biography’ of Curry problematic for me. Her descriptions of sauces, samosas and other treats left me trying to sleep whilst uncomfortably hungry. This is a book as rich in flavour as the cuisine it describes.

Yet Collingham is also adept at using culinary anecdotes to evoke bigger stories. Take, for example, the passage below. On the surface it is discussing the discrepancy between Indian and British Indian food. But what it most vividly is communicating is the difficulty of cross cultural communication and that as a result being a migrant often means living in that chasm.

The majority of the population living in the South Asian subcontinent would not have recognised the food served [in British Indian restaurants) as Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi. In the early 1960s Margeret Orr Deas took an Indian friend to a restaurant. He politely remarked that ‘we have very different food in India’ and in the following days worked his way along all the Indian restaurants on Westbourne Grove trying to find something that approximated the food that he was used to at home. Besides the inexperience of the cooks, and the need to take short cuts, there was also the problem of unadventurous British palates. ‘In those days garlic was not liked at all; even coriander was frowned on’. The cooks produced milder, creamier dishes with far less chilli and black pepper than would have been used in India. [The successful restaurateur] Haji Shirajul Islam  commented, ‘Of course the food is not like in [his Bengali home of] Syhlet – there we use all fresh things, fresh spices, that makes a lot of difference, and the meat and fish and everything, all fresh’. He never ate the curries prepared in his own restaurants preferring to cook for himself at home. On the other hand, for a generation of Indians growing up outside India, this food was as authentically Indian as the food they ate in their homes. Haji Shirajul Islam’s son even preferred his father’s restaurant curries. ‘When he goes to the restaurant he eats Madras – hot one…Me I always eat in the house. When I offer him food he eats it, but he says it’s not tasty like restaurant food, because he’s the other way round now’. For generations of British customers, and even second-generation Indians, are Indian food. In comparison, food cooked in an Indian home can seem disappointingly unfamiliar and lacking in restaurant tastes.

The complicated processes by which British and Indian influences are meshed is the book’s driving theme. True, there are a couple of early chapters that deal with period before the arrival of the East India Company’s corporate raiders. But it is with their rise that Curry finds its purpose and momentum.

And it is an important theme. Throughout the entire era of European imperialism, no colonial occupation lasted longer than the British rule of India. That led coloniser and colonised to have an unusually deep influence on each other. In my current home of Vietnam, it is often hard to detect any distinctively Gallic legacy of French rule. By contrast, in India everything from cricket and milky tea to parliamentary democracy show just how strong the British influence. And much to the surprise (and in many cases disgust) of the colonisers the homeland was changed by the colony. The prevalence of Indian food in Britain attests to the movement of millions of migrants from the subcontinent to the UK.

But observing this does not necessarily mean the two countries are converging. As curries have been adjusted for British tastes, so democracy has been adjusted to Indian conditions. The hum drum contests between Labour and the Conservatives would be hard to mistake for the uproarious battles between Congress, the BJP and numerous regional parties. Any Britain beholding Indian democracy must be awed by its scale and heartened by its survival in a society marked by widespread poverty and illiteracy. But they must also be alarmed at the large part violence and corruption still play in the process. As Collingham shows so well, the two nations have not only borrowed from each but adapted. It is not simply that British practices have appeared in India and Indian ones in Britain. Their relationship has involved plenty of creation.

In light of this, it is not surprising that Collingham eventually reaches a nuanced judgement regarding the output of an ‘Indian’ takeaway. She concludes it is not some kind of imposter. Rather she observes that there’s always been an incredible diversity within Indian cuisine. The subcontinent has larger population and landmass than Europe, and accordingly its food varies as much Yorkshire Pudding and Kebab. In the south there are largely vegetarian cuisines built around rice, while in the north meat and wheat play a large part. Given this Collingham suggests we should see British Indian food as one of these cuisines and recognise it an expansion of the world’s great culinary repertoire rather than a subversion of it.

As a Britain living away from my homeland and missing much of its food – and especially its ‘Indian’ food – I heartily agree.