Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Where have all the singa gone?

Singa (싱아)
Nakai ex Mori [싱아]

Had I not read Park Wan-suh's book, I wouldn't even know that any singa (싱아) had ever existed, but I also now wonder where the singa have all gone.

Last night, I had a chance to ask Park Wan-suh herself. Purely for the accident of my having been randomly chosen to review the English manuscript of her novel Who Ate Up All Those Singa?, I was invited to a private dinner along with the translators Yu Young-nan and Stephen J. Epstein.

I'd met Stephen before, as readers of my blog may recall, but Yu Young-nan was a new face for me. She, in fact, writing to Stephen last Friday, is the person who invited me:
If Jeffrey would like to join us on Monday night, that would be great. I can change our reservation easily. Please let me know.
At least, I think that this "Jeffrey" was me. Usually, I insist on my being the person "Jeffery," but I wasn't about to draw fine syllabic distinctions between "Jeff-rey" and "Jeff-er-y" when such might get me dis-invited:
Sorry, we were looking for a 'Jeffrey'...
For one evening, therefore, I went as "Jeffrey," pretending to be someone whom I'm not -- not too difficult, actually, since I've already spent years pretending to be something of a scholar.

And in my work as a something-of-a-scholar, I'm expected to write scholarly book reviews, such as my recent review of Park's Singa book for the Daesan Foundation:
The work is eminently readable, which I attribute to both the genius of the original author, Park Wan-suh, and the talent of the two gifted translators, Yu Young-nan and Stephen Epstein. I believe that this literary work can find a ready readership among native speakers of English. The story is very interesting.
For this hard work, I received my restaurant invitation from Young-nan:
Thanks for writing such a glowing review on Singa, which I received this morning. I'd be happy to meet you on Monday at a subway station and go to the restaurant with you.
I'll have to write more "glowing" reviews if they so easily get me dinner invitations with eminent translators and writers. But having never seen each other, Young-nan and I needed some means of recognizing who we were, so I wrote:
I'll be wearing a Muslim-appearing cap, standing about 6 feet tall, and looking very foreign.
Young-nan replied:
Look for a woman in her 50s with short gray hair.
Despite how that sounds, Young-nan looked as her name implies: Young. Youthful, slender, and energetic, she greeted me at the Gwangnaru Station, and together we hailed a taxi and rode to a prearranged spot in the Seoul suburb of Guri, where Park Wan-suh and her daughter picked us up and drove us to the restaurant near the Han River.

On the way there, I asked Young-nan how she and Stephen had gotten to know each other, and she told me that she had sought him out after reading his positive review for her translation of Park Wan-suh's novel The Naked Tree.

Incidently, if you click that link to Stephen's review, you discover that Park Wan-seo is not the only variant of Park Wan-suh's transliterated name, for The Naked Tree gives its author as Pak Wan-sô. So if you start Googling for Park, you'll need to use three different spellings. Or just go with the Korean: 박완서.

Anyway, after we had arrived and were heading along the path leading up to the riverside restaurant, I looked about at the various grasses and other plants and asked Park Wan-suh:
"Is there any singa growing here?"

"No," she told me, "I haven't seen any singa in South Korea. Around Gaeseong, there were lots of singa, but in my 50 years here in the South, I've never found any singa."
The singa stayed on my mind, even after we had sat down at the table to eat. Perhaps noticing my abstracted look during the mostly Korean discussion, Young-nan asked:
"Are you following the conversation?"

"Uh..." I hesitated, "well, actually, I was still thinking about the singa."
They laughed at my obsession.
"Since it's all missing here in South Korea," I explained, "I can't imagine what singa looks like."
So, Park explained that it has a long stalk and that one can chew that part, which tastes both sweet and sour. I tried to imagine that and wondered if it would do well as part of a salad.

At that point, Stephen arrived, along with his wife and baby daughter, and the conversation veered away from the captivating topic of the mysteriously missing singa and toward the very present but equally mysterious and captivating baby, Sonia Sylvia.

Or Sylvia Sonia. I'm not certain of which. Stephen had assured us that his daughter could speak English:
[There will be five] English speakers ... if you include Sonia, who's "daaaa" (= "cat") is definitely English.
But she remained silent about her name, refusing to tell me whether she goes by Sonia Sylvia or Sylvia Sonia. She also feigned ignorance of the singa, which remained missing even from the general conversation.

I didn't give up, though, but kept searching through the night long after the dinner was over, and as you can see from the image above, I finally -- long time passing -- found a bit of singa...

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At 11:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jef-furry, for the virtual evocation of my very dear friend, Stephen, the pleasure of conversation during restaurant meals with whom is one of the fondest memories of my many years in Seoul. Even more special was the blog-depiction (speaking of the DNA Bank in Korea) of Sonia, whom I have yet to non-virtually meet. Hard to believe Stephen didn't give you an account of the etymological considerations behind his bi-protolingual loin-fruit's names... must have been one of his rare lapses of conversational and didactic energy.

Ah... and almost forgot to thank you for that parting evocation of Pete Seeger... himself a blessing to the planet that almost compensates for whatever flora have disappeared from it.

One has one's own memories of sumptuous meals earned by writing positive reviews... and good friendships too. Wishing you many of the same,

David Kosofsky
Athens, Georgia

At 4:30 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, David Kosofsky, for the comment.

I suppose that I am furry -- but not hirsuite enough on top to suit my furry fancy.

On Sonia's name, actually, I think that Stephen did explain that ... but about 6 months ago at our first meeting, in which he mentioned that Sonia is named for his Aunt Sylvia, and he may have even added the crucial information, too, but -- alas -- the details of this world so often fade away before the splendor of alcohol-induced epiphanies.

Not that I was soused, which I avoid, but I recall Andre Lankov ordering that little Russian water known as vodka...

Anyway, Sonia was delightful, a joy to play with since I didn't have to bear any of the weighty responsibilities of parenthood. Recalling those, however, I babysat long enough for David and his wife to finish eating.

So, I endulged myself in games of peekaboo and the like, eliciting tiny baby laughter.

I hope that you have the chance to meet her before she grows beyond such delights.

Speaking of which, if you're ever again in Seoul, shoot me a note, and we'll meet for a meal and a drink.

Your name is very familiar, but maybe only because it appears as the middle name of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (or is she your sister?). Still, you spent so many years in Seoul and (I see from Googling) wrote enough articles for Korean newspapers that I may have encountered your name before...

At any rate, thanks again for visiting. I'm especially glad that you liked the Pete Seeger link -- a sort of post scriptum connection that I hoped somebody would notice between singa missing and flowers gone.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Look for a woman in her 50s with short gray hair."

I find natural gray hair very attractive and cannot understand why graying Koreans, naturally endowed with striking salt and pepper hair, continue to bathe their heads in black ink until they're septegenerians. The strong contrast of jet black hair harshly ages a furrowed visage.

In China, I worked with an American woman in her mid-thirties, whose head was 70% gray. A Korean interpreter thought that was the color she was born with, for she had never seen premature gray on a young person.

My own head is about 20%; I expect to have a full mane of silvery white hair by the time I reach that milestone you celebrated recently.

You have a head of shimmering moonbeams, too, as I recall from a photo posted in previous entry.

At 6:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Moonbeams? Being a hillbilly, I prefer to think of it as moonshine...

Anyway, I asked my wife about your question, and she classified the hair-dyeing with plastic surgery, which Koreans also undergo -- more than any other national group, I suppose. She said that the famous Korean respect for the aged has declined, that everybody wants to look young, and that those who let their hair go grey suffer discrimination in society, e.g., they lose jobs to younger people.

I asked her if the men dye their hair so as to be seen as having more "ki" and thus being healthy and even having that urgently sought-after 'stamina' that so many Korean men talk about. She said no. (But I still wonder...)

Some people keep their black hair till death. I think that a lot of American Indians kept their natural black hair.

My grandmother told me of visiting her Aunt Mary Black (if I recall her name correctly), a full-blooded Cherokee who lived in the Sylamore Hills of the Ozarks, near the White River above Batesville, Arkansas, and Aunt Mary, who was in her 70s or 80s at the time, did not have a single strand of grey hair on her head.

That would have been way back before the First World War, when my grandmother was just a child.

At any rate, I've not benefitted from my part-Cherokee blood on this. Just a male-pattern head of greyed, thinning hair...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your wife's explanation makes sense although with regard to plastic surgery, I would say that botox and other wrinkle-eradicating treatments are just as popular here in the US as they are in Korea. Americans are more comfortable with gray hair than Koreans, but neither desires a lined face.

At 9:52 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yeah, America is stuck on a Youth Culture, too, but I've never minded getting older and wrinkled ... though I would have liked to keep my hair.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Your name is very familiar, but maybe only because it appears as the middle name of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (or is she your sister?).

As is so often the case, the truth lies in between the parentheses. But for the Korean virtual public I refer to Eve as "...the contemporary writer to whom I feel most closely akin."


David Kosofsky
Athens, Georgia

At 4:05 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"Obsessions are the most durable form of intellectual capital."

- Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

That describes me and my blog. Thanks for directing me to your "akin" again -- first, inadvertently, then advertently.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, and I thought you were just being stylishly multicultural with that Muslim skullcap. It certainly is more attractive than *ugh* hairplugs.

At 5:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

More attractive ... and less desperate.

Jeffery Hodges

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