During the last half of October, I stayed in Madrid to practice the Spanish that I had learned in high school and university. Instead of going to a school, I tried self-study and practice while walking around Madrid. Markets and bookstores were particularly good places because they forced me to use Spanish. The visit helped me recover some Spanish, particularly reading, but fluency will require a more intensive effort.
On my second day in Madrid, I visited the Prado, one of the world’s most famous art museums, to see its iconic paintings. During the long visit, I found myself standing near Korean tour groups who were looking at the same iconic paintings. Members of the group looked carefully at the paintings as the guide talked about the artist and the work. And then they quietly moved to the next stop.
As I stood with Korean tourists looking at Diego Velazquez’s “Las Meninas,” I thought of the many city walks in Seoul that I had joined or, in some cases, had led. The walks had a studiousness about them. People were engaged; they wanted to learn about what they were seeing. The Korean tourists in the Prado had that same studiousness and engagement.
The age range of Korean tourist groups in the Prado was wide, but the majority were in their 40s and 50s. The same age group also dominated walks in Seoul that I took. This group, known as the “4050 Generation,” came of age during the heady 1980s and 1990s. These two decades saw Korea move from being a dictatorship with a developing economy to a democracy with a developed economy.
One of the constants of the 1980s and 1990s was education. The “4050 Generation” was the first in Korean history to attend university in large numbers and the first generation to achieve near-universal high school graduation. Most in this generation continued learning, either privately or in their workplace.
Because of its higher level of education and interest in learning, the 4050 Generation supported the boom in book publishing following democratization in 1987 and continues to be the largest group of book buyers and readers. Now, as their children have grown older, they have the time and money to travel and, like the tourists in the Prado, they are eager to turn those opportunities into learning experiences. As they do, they will continue to expand their consumption of culture.
A few days after visiting the Prado, I went to La Central, one of the largest bookstores in Madrid. As I made my way through the store, I noticed only a few books about Korea. In the history section there was a book about the Korean War and about North Korea, but both were translations from English. In the literature section there was a Spanish translation of one of Han Kang’s novels, but nothing else. There were no books on Korea elsewhere in the store.
By contrast, the store had books in various fields on China and Japan, many of them by Spanish-language authors. The history section, for example, had a good selection of books on Chinese history, and the literature section had translations from several authors with Murakami Haruki dominating. As the paucity of books on Korea became clear, I began to wonder how people in Spain might get information on Korea.
A few Metro stops away, the Centro Cultural Coreano en Espana (Korean Cultural Center in Spain) sponsors cultural events and exhibitions. It also runs a library where people can check out books, CDs and DVDs. For people in the Madrid area who are interested in Korea, this is a precious resource.
The Korean Cultural Center in Spain is part of a network of 32 cultural centers in 27 countries run by the Korean Culture and Information Service. Since 2008, the government has opened 20 new cultural centers, and the one in Madrid opened in 2011 as part of that effort. The current government has proposed to increase the budget for cultural centers, which is a good sign.
The Korean government can build only so many cultural centers, and cultural centers can only do so much because their reach is limited. The Korean tourists I saw in the Prado can choose from a range of books on Spain and an even wider range of books on Europe. One goal of the promoting-Korea project should be to expand efforts to publish books on or related to Korea in widely used languages other than English.Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.