Recently I finally killed off the blog I used to keep when I lived in Seoul and transferred all the posts here. You can find them in reverse chronological order here. After moving them over I went on a bit of a wine-fuelled nostalgia trip and read a load of them for the first time in about two years.
Even though I don’t live in Korea any more, I still have several friends who do and keep up with goings-on over there vicariously through them – I find the country rather fascinating.
Reading through my writings of 2010 brought back a lot of good memories, both of the awesome time I had living in (or, just outside) Seoul, and the many peculiarities of South Korea as a country. Looking back the most amusing to me was the omnipresent “Korea invented X” trope, wherein many things that have been demonstrably invented elsewhere are claimed to have been invented first by Korea, often hundreds of years prior to their actual conception.
My first experience of this phenomenon was during a cookery class. We were making sandwiches (hardly haute cuisine, but these were 5-year-olds) and to fill time at the end of the class I asked the students if they knew where sandwiches came from. One of my students, Barbie, enthusiastically threw her hands in the air and yelled “Korea!”
I explained that actually they were invented in England and were named after the Earl of Sandwich. The kids listened while they ate their creations, probably not understanding a word I was saying. Half way through my little speech the Korean coteacher pulled me to one side and, with a concerned look on her face, explained that actually Barbie had it right, sandwiches were from Korea.
After the class I pulled up Wikipedia and showed the Korean teacher the entry for sandwiches. She read it and after a long discussion conceded that sandwiches, actually, were probably not invented by a Korean.
It seems this is not a new part of Korean culture. In this article from The London Express in June 1904, a Korean man explains how they invented the bicycle:
“We had a bicycle once. It was invented by one of our great men about 700 years ago. It had two mechanisms, a going out and a coming home mechanism. But one day the mother of the inventor, in order to test the joys of cycling, stole the machine and rode off on it.
“Unfortunately, however, she did not take the coming home mechanism and since then, Korea has not had a bicycle.”
Elsewhere, this article (in Korean) describes how Korean historians believe a man by the name of Chong Pyon-Gu invented the airplane some 300 years before the Wright Brothers’ first recorded flight in 1903, and used it to battle Japanese troops during the Imjin War.
It’s not just modes of transport Korea is laying claim to either. You remember Jesus? Korean. Here’s a picture that proves it –
Also, according to a book called The History of the Great Korean Empire, the ancient Goguryeo dynasty was actually far larger than is generally accepted. It stretched across Russia to Alaska, and Goguryeon explorers landed on the West Coast of the US and became native Americans.
According to this book the empire stretched to Egypt, and even the southern part of the UK.
There are plenty more examples. Pizza, Chinese culture, the list goes on. This video sums things up tidily –
You could postulate all day on the reasons for this strange cultural plagiarism, although I’m sure it has something to do with Korea’s fierce sense of national pride, combined with decades of more-or-less uninterrupted isolationism. A historian finds flimsy evidence of Korean involvement in the invention of a notably object, and over the years the Seoul echo chamber turns this vague association into ownership.
So when my Korean coteacher asserted that a Korean was responsible for the invention of the sandwich, it was most likely because she’s spent her entire life being told Korea invented this and Korea invented that, and never had the inclination to double-check.