After 20 years, a love for little green and brown things

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After 20 years, a love for little green and brown things

"Korea is not easy to love and it is not easy to understand," said Michael Breen, managing director of Merit/Burson-Marsteller, a public relations firm. When he first came here in 1982, like so many people new to the peninsula, he was hit by culture shock. He felt strange sharing dishes in restaurants and often could not figure out what he was eating, like doenjangjjigae. "What's in there? What is this? There is a little green thing and a little brown thing," he recalled when he first saw bean paste soup.

But by 1998, Mr. Breen knew enough to write "The Koreans." In this anecdotal memoir, which is full of his personal insights and experiences during his stay in Korea, he writes, "I have grown to love this food so much and the socializing that goes with it that in Britain I have withdrawal symptoms." He describes Korean food as "the best food in the world, after fish and chips."

In a recent lecture organized by the Royal Asiatic Society, Mr. Breen spoke of the problems of international perceptions of Korea and said Korea should have a new identity to emphasize its vigor.

Breen was given the "Honorary Citizen of Seoul" award by the Seoul Metropolitan Government in 2001, an award that more often goes to missionaries.

The 49-year-old British citizen came to Korea as a free-lance journalist. After 12 years of experience as a foreign correspondent for The Guardian, The Times of London and the Washington Times, he joined the PR firm, and now he works as a consultant for Korean and Western companies.

He says past historical events have put South Korea into a negative light, and the daily barrage of bad news in the media only makes things worse.

"What I am saying is corruption. It's every day. Why? The laws are in place but the enforcement is not in many cases. The enforcement is not objective," he says. He added that other misunderstandings might arise from small cultural differences, like how Koreans often laugh when embarrassed, not because they are making fun of someone.

He believes, however, that Korea is dynamic and it will transform its image over time. With the coming presidential election, he says Korea will enter a new era. "From the next president, you will see the authoritarian power getting weaker. That will be very interesting. Whoever he is, I think the presidency will never be as strong again." Although he would not mention any presidential hopefuls by name, he thinks that whoever wins will be a step in the right direction.

He spoke approvingly of how the government tackled a recent image problem - eating dog meat. During the Olympics in 1988, the government became nervous and they closed down all the restaurants that served dog. "But this time," he says, "they say, 'We eat dogs, you eat rabbits. What's the problem?'"

"Even the animal rights groups in Europe will say that that is the real issue. The real issue is not Koreans eating dogs," he says. He noticed that a lot of foreign journalists have shifted from writing about the dog-eating story negatively after they understood the issue, and a lot of them even tried eating dog themselves.

Despite believing that Korean culture is now the "coolest thing in Asia," Mr. Breen thinks the government should not capitalize on the current Korean wave throughout Asia.

"The whole idea of promoting Korean culture is bureaucratic and nationalistic," he says. "I don't think you need to promote culture. I think it naturally develops."

by Patrick Fok

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