On December 13, 2010, I participated in a relay interview on Korea Business Centeral. This was an interesting experience for me as the entire process was done online. The original interview can be found on the KBC web site. I have reprinted it here.
Vince Rubino: I have heard you have a bit of experience in Asia, stretching back to the 1980’s, can you tell us a little about your history here?
Emanuel Pastreich: Well there is a lot I could say about myself and Asia. I started at Yale in 1983 and was intrigued by China because I went to Lowell High School in San Francisco. That high school was about 75% Asian, so I was sometimes the only Caucasian in the classe. When I arrived at Yale, I got it in my head that in some future age Americans would have to read and write Chinese because the world will have changing radically. I wanted to get it right. So I tried to teach myself Chinese day and night.
I went to Taiwan for my junior year, and then after graduating I moved on to Japan where I eventually received my MA from University of Tokyo before returning to the US in 1992. What is perhaps unusual about my work in Taiwan and Japan is that I did all my classes and papers in Chinese and Japanese respectively. I wrote a 250 page MA thesis in Japanese, for example. It was required, but of course I chose to enter a program that required me to write such a thesis. Doing my work in the original language was very important to me. And I recommend that anyone who takes Asia seriously should enter a degree program that requires him to write in the native language.
Vincent Rubino: You recently published a book here in Korea, isn’t that right?
Emanuel Pastreich: I have two books coming out from Seoul National University Press next month.
Vincent Rubino: Tell us about the two books.
Emanuel Pastreich: One is a collection of translations of novels of the 18th century Korean novelist Bak Jiweon and the other is a study of Chinese vernacular novels and their impact in Japan in the 18th and 19th centuries. Both works are based on my previous work as a professor of comparative Asian literature while at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Vincent Rubino: What language are these particular works published in?
Emanuel Pastreich: Both books are in English. Seoul National University is making a serious effort to enter English language publishing these days. I write in Korean as well, but primarily articles.
Vincent Rubino: Speaking of Korean, what is it that brought you to Korea?
Emanuel Pastreich: Originally, I was writing a dissertation on Chinese and Japanese novels and came to feel that I had to understand something about the Korean tradition in literature to do my research accurately. But once I started to look at Korean literature, it became clear that I had to learn to speak Korean fluently. So I came here in 1995 and threw myself into language study, and learning about Korea. Along the way, I came to appreciate many aspects of Korea, especially the friendships I made here. That led me to take Korea even more more seriously. But in fact when I started as an assistant professor at University of Illinois, I was a professor Japanese literature. I came back to Korea in 1007 after ten years in the US. This is my first time working in Korea: a different experience
Vincent Rubino: Indeed! What a very deep experience you have had here.
Emanuel Pastreich: Well, the truth is that know much less about Korea and how it works than many members of KBC. My main advantage is that I can speak and read pretty technical Korean. That is a skill that can make all the difference in some contexts. Being able to sit down and answer, in Korean, 15 e-mails rapidly makes a big difference. But it can be misleading. I don’t necessarily know Korea better than experts who have worked on Korea for years, I just know the language.
Vincent Rubino: What are your main projects these days?
Emanuel Pastreich: These days I consider technology convergence to be my serious effort, with a continuing interest in the question of “the future of the research institute.” For fun I have my Daejeon T Shirt and coffee mug. But both of those efforts are part of a larger effort to engage in Korea and the world at multiple levels. Right now I am working with Daejeon Metropolitan City and Gwangju Metropolitan City, and giving talks at the research institutes.
Vincent Rubino: I have noticed you have something of a philosophical bent as well, Emanuel!
Emanuel Pastreich: Interesting point. Yes, I think I am a rather odd person in that respect. I both want to be involved in the details of policy and thinking about what the best way to deal with problems right now is. At the same time, I also want to sit back and watch with detachment the evolution of civilization and technology over time. After all, whatever exciting projects we engage in now, our work is like building sand castles on the beach. Most efforts cannot last forever against the tides of change. But maybe in the future, some people will remember the castles we built and try to build them again at later dates. Sand castles keep emerging throughout history. Whatever our plan is, it is based on the efforts of those who came before us.
I am most taken by Moore’s Law these days and how it drives the changes we see around us.
Vincent Rubino: How does Moore’s Law apply to your work in Korea?
Emanuel Pastreich: Well, we see vast range of technologies emerging in Korea. People once looked down on Korean research institutes because they lacked “basic research.” Suddenly we are finding that research institutes around the world are moving from basic research towards commercialization, and even towards marketing. This puts Korea in a strong position.
The reason for the shifts in R&D can be attributed to financial limitations, or market forces, but I think there is something beneath the surface going on. Moore’s law states that the number of circuits you can place on a microprocessor doubles every two years. Moore’s Law has held for 50 years.The result is that you can do more computer calculations, hold more memory, for less and less cost. As a result, the primary issue is no longer producing technology. We are producing more technology than we know what to do with. The question then becomes how can we can apply that technology. And as that task also becomes easier and easier over time, we will find ourselves working more and more on how to market the technologies we produce. I would go out on a limb and say that Moore’s law will eventually make patents relatively unimportant.
Vincent Rubino: Wow! That is a bold statement.
Emanuel Pastreich: moreover, Moore’s law is a primary force driving the Korean economy. Drive out to Asan and take a look at Samsung Electronics’ new display fabrication plants. You will find that the generation 8 plant is at full production. Next to it is the generation 9 factory: almost completed and ready to go on line in three months. Next to that is generation 10: half built. Next to the generation 10 plant is the site of the future generation 11 plant: a hole in the ground. There is an ineluctable drive to create the next generation of technology. Market forces? Maybe, but I personally think there is something else at work here. The relentless drive of Moore’s law to produce new technologies lies beneath the surface. And Korea is ground zero in this new order
Vincent Rubino: This is a titillating idea, Emanuel. You are definitely onto something here.
Emanuel Pastreich: In terms of my work in Korea, I first worked as advisor to the governor of Chungnam Province. Then I started to advise the Daejeon Metropolitan City on FDI and internationalization (which I still do). I have conducted five research projects with three research institutes, helped found the Daejeon Environment Forum and now I am working on a possible convergence forum. And I write articles. One representative article is “To Take the Lead Globally, Korea Must Build the Ferrari of hand-held Devices” http://www.biztechreport.com/story/722-take-lead-globally-korea-mus….
Vincent Rubino: I have not caught up on all my reading yet, Emanuel. I think YOU are an example of Moore’s law, writing articles faster than I can read them.
Emanuel Pastreich. Well we are all driven by Moore’s Law. I am writing an article on that very issue.
Vincent Rubino: I look forward to reading more.
Emanuel Pastreich: Korea is fascinating because Koreans do so many things so well, but have some unexpected blind spots. They are excellent at engineering devices, but have great trouble figuring out how to make good use of people. That is why I find the work so interesting here.
Vincent Rubino: On that note, as I final question, what advice or recommendations would you have for a foreigner who is FOB (fresh off the boat) here in Korea?
Emanuel Pastreich: Well, I think you should expect to go through several sets of friends as you become more familiar with Korea. That is a reality. You cannot expect to have profound friendships immediately. But you meet a greater variety of people at the beginning, which is also good.
I find Korea more difficult than Japan on a day to day basis. Things just don’t work the way I want them to. But when I sit down and think about it, in fact I have many, many more Korean friends than Japanese friends, even though I lived in Japan for more than six years and spent almost all my time with Japanese people. You need to think about how to take advantage of your own skills in your work here. For example, I find that as an American, I am better at horizontal networking than Koreans. I use that skill to introduce Koreans to other Koreans. That gives me value for them. Here is a simple thing you can do. Offer to make and English language Facebook entry for a Korean friend you want to work with. It doesn’t take long, but it establishes a relationship. It is symbolic and valuable act. Try to remember the names of the family members of Koreans you meet. And always remember, you may feel as if Koreans are unfeeling to you, but in fact if you were a foreigner living in your own country who spoke little or no English, you might feel pretty alienated too. That last point is important keep in mind to avoid the destructive “everything is done wrong in Korea” syndrome.
Vincent Rubino: Very wise and helpful advice, Emanuel. Thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview.