Tag Archives: culture

I Finally Wrote About Gangnam Style

14 Nov

Not really.

For as much as hack writers want to make Gangnam Style out to be some brilliant piece of Korean cultural marketing, or a cliche about the rise of a international-looking, tech-savvy Korean youth, it is still just a song:

The song choice is not really the interesting part of the video.  Popular Korean singers have frequently done laidback acoustic covers of manufactured pop hits over the past few years.  It is the girls in the video that are interesting, especially as the video captures a certain difficult, yet wholly special time in their lives, one which they perhaps enjoy, but do not understand the magnitude of the enjoyment until later, when it has long passed.

High school in Korea is unbelievably stressful.  There is immense pressure to study and to perform, not just from one’s parents, but from every aspect of society.  For your average Korean city kid, there is not a moment of the day that is not structured in some capacity.  So to take the time to hang out on a street corner in your school uniform, playing music because you like it, is an unbelievably free act, though simple.  Everything conspires to keep the young Korean miserable, and yet a level of innocence is still there, in spite of it, flowering in the enjoyment of the moment, while a society thinking only of the future flows past on the street around them.

Their fate as Korean girls, though, is perhaps the more melancholy aspect.  They are, right now, being pushed to get into university, to study something practical, to find a good career.  Dress nice, look pretty, to get a good husband.   Maybe their parents are understanding; maybe they will encourage their daughters to study music or the arts.  But that music and art must lead to success — it must conform to norms in order to provide respectability and wealth — they must do their art for a big company.

And thus it is not art at all.  There is no truth, overt, implicit, or revealed, in that kind of practice.

Those girls may want to busk into their adult years, but it will become more difficult.  Even if they do not pursue it as a vocation, seeking to master its art, they will almost certainly have no encouragement for it as a pastime.  They must study, pursue guys, get married, have kids, go to the coffee klatsch to complain about husbands and coupons, take the kids to hagwon, encourage them to succeed.  Those are not abhorrent things, but leave no time, nor spontaneity for something like busking.

The moment in the video, then, is a moment of beauty even more stunning because of its such short life and looming end.  We regard and honor artists who have long lifetimes of work, like Faulkner or Dickens, revering the long and disciplined consistency of art. But we are haunted by the short, intense flame of creation cut short before its time to mature and settle.  For it is not craft that drives the youngest creators, but simply an uncorking of a spirit within, letting it flow out.

True, the song is only Gangnam Style.  But it meant enough to them to try to do it this way, against all those pressures I mentioned.  The missed lyrics, the interspersed laughing, the uncomposed nature of the girls’ performance show that the song, whatever it is, is the vehicle for something greater, that uncorked spirit.  The girls are too, and will be for only a short time.  The spirit may find another vessel, or it may not.

That is why we may be haunted, for truth can only live by our own living, by our own choices.


Existential Geese

26 Jan

“Why is it that so many foreigners want to learn Korean?”

My girlfriend’s question struck me as a tad silly.  I mean, it’s her damn country, shouldn’t we be learning her language?

“Well, many of them are interested in living here,” I said.  “Not just for a short period or for study, but actually residing here for a long time.”

“Why?”  She was incredulous.

Indeed, why?

Ironically, the answer was right in front of me, between the pages of the magazines that lay on the coffee shop table.  You see, go into just about any chain coffee shop in Korea and you’ll find well thumbed stacks of magazines showcasing the best that money can buy.  For pure material indulgence, there’s Luxury and Muine, for your international hipster fashions there’s Cracker, but those are only worthwhile for showcasing Koreans’ avarice for anything foreign, without regard for taste, worth, or restraint.  The real evidence for my argument lay in magazines like M25 and, most of all, The Bling.

Thumb through the pages of the latter magazine in particular and you’ll see loads of pictures from the hottest clubs and the latest DJs spinning in Seoul and perhaps a couple of other places around the peninsula, as well as a spotlight on some other Asian venue.  Many of those in the photos could have been modeling for the other magazines: Muine if you’re an upmarket-oriented 된장녀 looking to hook the whisky-swilling sugar daddy at the corner booth or Cracker if you’re a bobbing and weaving student in over-priced vintage clothes and tattoos of ligament-wrapped skeletons.  But there are a lot of young, especially Western, foreigners in those pictures.  A lot.  All are partying it up and clearly loving the attention the photographers are lavishing upon them.

Now perhaps the photographers, because of their focus on capturing foreigners on film, distort the actual number of foreigners present relative to their numbers in the general population of Korea.  But, in a certain sense, the numbers themselves, or the perception of the numbers, is irrelevant.  Regardless of actually how many foreigners like myself there are clubbing it every weekend in Hongdae, Gangnam, or Sinchon, their very centralness to the reporting on the club scene is indicative of how they perceive themselves, which is inextricably linked to what Koreans expect of a good club.

Koreans value greatly the blue-chip credibility of foreign endorsement; I don’t think I need to write any long exposition on that subject.  Thus it makes sense that Korean media would want to emphasize the presence of foreigners at an event, for it makes a strong appeal to the 20s and 30s Korean globally-conscious set.  Yet that also makes foreigners think that this is their scene, that they are an integral part of it, that it exists in part for them.  I don’t know how many expats here actually read The Bling or similar publications, so it’s hard to gauge how much the magazines themselves influence foreigner perceptions.  But the act of the photographers seeking out foreigners themselves in the clubs, to take their picture in sexy poses or wielding a bottle of Jaegermeister like a stick grenade, makes it clear that they are valued.  Adjacent Koreans jump in and throw up a two-fingered peace sign or perhaps copy their foreign photo buddy and give the camera The Shocker.  It doesn’t even matter if the photo makes copy in the magazine — the very act of capturing the subject creates a (false) sense of worth.

That feeling of being up on a pedestal combines with the effects of absorbing aspects of Korean culture, whether one intends to or not.  Even most intransigent foreign transients who are not interested in assimilating end up appreciating some parts of Korea — bulgogi barbecue, K-pop, whatever.  I hear foreigners all the time spice up their own language with Korean — it’s not because they are really multilingual and can’t divide the two tongues in their brain, but rather because they think it’s cute or endearing, like it makes them a part of a club without having the pay the dues.  But they do pay dues, whether they realize it or not.  Many of them succumb to the Korean notion that there is only the top or the bottom, that there is no acceptable middle ground.  I noticed this when my girlfriend either spoke constantly of being ‘rich’ or ‘poor.’  There was no idea of being satisified with a middle-class stature.  That’s just a stopping point on your way up or down.  Many foreigners end up adopting, even if only slightly, this Korean habit of viewing everything as a win-lose, zero-sum game through osmosis totally unaware.  They start thinking, “I’ve got to be on top.  I’ve got to be at the best clubs, on the best days of the month.  I’ve got to look the best, have the best time, and hook up with the best people at the end of the night.”  They feel the need to establish themselves in the hierarchy of foreigners here, as the ones who have figured out this strange land, mastered it, made it their own.

Oh, is this what you mean by 'experiencing a rich culture'?

That effort is nothing short of pathetic.  It mimics the Korean trait of exalting the place at the top of the pyramid, but in a different fashion.  Koreans climb the pyramid to finding prestige and security within their own hierarchical society, for those are advantages easily passed on to one’s family or social hangers-on, thereby further increasing one’s worth and especially material well-being in old age.  But foreigners exist outside that hierarchy.  Despite the constant grumblings and rantings by long-term expats, Korea is not going to become an open-to-all, multicultural society, where everyone from anywhere can lounge about in a paradise of Western values.  Nor should it.  So foreigners, cut out of following the normal avenues, must gauge themselves by a totally different standard.

That standard is a combination of both the expat society, existing in large part parallel to Korean society, as well as the society which each expat left in their home country.  Air travel and digital communications has transformed not only the ability for people to go anywhere or experience anything from a distance, but also enabled them to do so without actually giving up anything about where they came from.  You can live in Korea and, through Facebook, Skype, your RSS blogfeed, etc, continue to participate in your own culture almost as if nothing had happened.  So, for a foreigner here, if you can’t join Korean society, you’ll just judge yourself in comparison to a) other foreigners here and b) your own culture and relations in your homeland.

Thus you go out to the clubs, pushing yourself to get a more ‘authentic’ ‘Korean’ club experience than those other foreign schmucks you work with.  And you imagine you are at the top when some skinny Korean dude with a V-neck undershirt, a Mets cap, and gauged earrings, brandishing a Nikon for the club’s PR department, seeks you out and snaps pictures of you grinding on some random Australian chick in red pleather go-go boots.

But the picture is only complete (and, in circuitous fashion, I return to my initial point) when you make these habits a qualitative judgement upon the culture across the ocean that you never really left.  You say, “Oh, I’m so glad I didn’t get stuck in Atlanta/Auckland/Hamburg/Lyon/Manchester/Melbourne.  Seoul is just so happening . . . like, even more than Tokyo.  It’s a great lifestyle.”

Lifestyle.  That’s all that it comes down to.  Not a better life, mind you — we’re not talking about Sierra Leone refugees finding some haven where people won’t chop off their hands; Korea actually admits very, very few people into political asylum — but a lifestyle.  Tens of thousands of people moving across the globe not in search of liberty, freedom of conscience, or religious practice, but for their own personal indulgence.  There is no deprivation for these foreigners who come from developed countries.  They could find a club in Atlanta or Melbourne, but choose not to.  The club, party, dining scene is ‘better’ here and they have travelled far to get it.  They ensconce themselves in it, think they have found authenticity in what is virtually the same as what they left, and, through their perceived mastery of a new life, establish themselves as superior to all their friends back at home who must toil on, ‘stuck’ in their hometown and all its terrible deprivation.

Thus the foreigner across from us cuts his hair like a Korean, dresses like a Korean, and studies the Korean language, because he thinks that all this is his, that he can enter into it.  For, coming from a Western country, he operates under the illusion of equality, that all things are open to him because, well, they should be.  He thinks that skin color, facial structure, blood, culture, history, language are all malleable constructs, that he can transcend them.  He thinks that this land can be his, that he has a right to be here because he chooses to be here, as though the choice was his all along, a pure act of will on his part.

He and his kind are not colonialist, though many of their attitudes are unconsciously the White Man’s Burden mashed several times through a progressivist strainer.  Rather, they are merely existential geese.  They flit about, migrating from one little spot to another, honking to each other about which pond is bigger or better, never remaining but always thinking that wherever they touch down is theirs, claimed by nothing more than frantically paddling feet and nasally squawks.

The Golden Age of Korean Boosterism

8 Jul

By now, word has gone ’round the world – Korea will host the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. It is indeed an honor and an acknowledgement of Korea’s new role in the world. The Seoul Olympics in 1988 were that of a very different Korea – an emerging industrial workshop that had only barely moved beyond the pale of a military dictator. The Olympic Korea of 2018 will be a very different one.

But despite Korea’s success, despite whatever merits it might have as an Olympic venue, the securing of the 2018 bid cannot be seen outside the lens of the immense tide of boosterism that has defined much of Korea to the rest of the world. The Korean Olympic bid effort was indeed a massive marketing campaign and well played in many ways. The charisma of gold medalist Kim Yuna may have been been a deciding factor, as may have the fact that no Winter Olympics has been held in Asia since Nagano in 1998. But many countries make a concerted propaganda effort to snag an Olympic bid for themselves. Others, especially the European countries who have the longest tradition of and most invested in winter sports, undoubtedly have more experience at this than Korea.

What we must realize is that the Pyeongchang bid was never a completely independent campaign. It was an intrinsic part of the rest of the Korean booster efforts. The manufactured buzz and excitement over the G20 last year, the Korean F1 Grand Prix in a country with no racing legacy, the efforts to brand makgeolli and ddeokbokki as signature Korean foodstuffs, to promote every region of Korea as a shining opportunity for both investment and tourism – all are one and the same. They are a concerted effort to sell not just Korean products or services to the world, but to sell Korea to the world. It is an attempt to establish the blue-chip credibility of the country itself. And what better way than for the world to come to your shores and be awed at your ability to put on a spectacle as complex and dazzling as the Olympics? That is why the Pyeongchang bid was never a separate effort, but actually the pinnacle, the jewel in the crown, of Korean boosterism.

The world has thus been sold Korea. But this begs the question, what sort of product has Korea become? To convince a modern consumer to buy a product, the package and marketing must be slick and focused, all of the negative aspects hidden or minimized in appearance. Only the benefits must be emphasized and in particular the moment of thrill and excitement, of ecstasy when that product is finally taken and a new world or self revealed. To look at Korean boosterism is to see exactly that. Before I came to Korea, I had an image of the country as a land of traditional hanok houses on every corner, of exquisite and serene natural purity everywhere, and of traditional culture permeating everything.  I’d gotten those images from what little I could gather on TV or from tourism websites or any other normal form of marketing.  When I first arrived in Korea, I thought that I’d taken the wrong plane.  Those images may convey tiny corners of this country, but the truth is actually glaringly ugly.

Yet boosterism is how Korean government and business bring awareness and money to their country. Does it work well? Perhaps. What they haven’t considered is people’s reaction when the image does not match up to reality. In the consumer world, this usually means ditching whatever product failed to satisfy you and going in search of another one. So while Korea is prepared to do anything and everything to snag an ever-larger portion of the world’s pocketbook, what it doesn’t realize is the eventual backlash that will come. And this will have an even more damaging effect because Korea has not made its products an expression of itself, but its very self a product in order to sell goods.

The way this attitude perverts attitudes of Korean culture is palpable. Consider these two videos about the Korean music group 2NE1:

2NE1 was explicitly started as a music group to defy all of the other cookie-cutter, cutesy Korean girl groups out there. Their objective was not to appear coy, submissive, or aegyo (애교) as has been traditionally expected of Korean women. They were aggressive, assertive, independent women. Even though they were a contrived effort by an entertainment company, their music nonetheless stirred real reaction. When I have mentioned 2NE1 in a positive light, I’ve seen men make faces of disgust and pass them off with, “But they’re so ugly.” I also have heard women speak very positively about the quasi-feminist attitudes in the songs. 2NE1 has achieved some impact on Korea culture and their domestic success indicates that they could accomplish more.

But it should be evident from the videos that however grand and noble the intentions of their managers were in the beginning, they have been cast aside in favor of pure success. The very fact that Will.I.Am from the Black-Eyed Peas will produce their album, not for the sake of making a good album, but to specifically tap the world market, shows that international recognition is their new god. And if as a group 2NE1 is supposed to be for Korean women above all else, giving them an alternative model in popular culture, then why in the world is 2NE1 promoting a dance contest on iTunes, one which is for the whole world?  Are Korean women their focus or the world music charts?  I don’t think that this is the group members’ doing, but that of their entertainment company. What is clear, though, is that Koreans are increasingly prepared to sacrifice any sort of healthy cultural evolution to jump on the bandwagon of international recognition.

The very fact that Korea feels this desire to be recognized by the rest of the world indicates a deep-seated insecurity with itself. It is a far cry from the days of the Hermit Kingdom or even earlier days of Joseon, when Korea was content to be itself, keep outsiders beyond their borders, and manage its own affairs. Korea historically was never a conquering nor exploring power, concerned with what others were doing or new places. It looked inward and was content to know and evolve in its own way.

Perhaps it was the Japanese occupation, perhaps the Korean war, perhaps the long struggle with poverty. Whatever the cause, something made Korea believe that looking inward was no way to survive in a harsh world of trade and violent neighbors. It decided to move forward as quickly as possible, doing whatever it took in order that the nation might be strengthened. To look at Korea today is to see that it has achieved that goal in many ways. Yet when one ceases to look inward, one becomes concerned with outward appearances, with the approval of others. Thus, in the Korean mind of today, it is not enough for the world to buy Korean products so that the country might be rich. Only if those consumers know that a product is Korean, is an expression of being Korean, is only great because it is Korean, can the producers be satisfied. The reflection upon the body politic is a reflection upon the self.

Yet what happens when the aforementioned backlash comes? It will not appear merely as a rejection of an inferior product; it will be a rejection of Korean culture, of Koreanness. And what will Koreans do when the world does eventually leave them for something new? They will have prostituted their culture for the favor of outsiders, and when those outsiders are gone, what will they have left for themselves?

Koreans may think that with riches they have escaped their tragic past and are entering a new and better era. Yet that is not true. Tragedy is not an external event that befalls us. It is an internal flaw, which, given the right opportunity, turns into our undoing. Pyeongchang 2018 may represent the Golden Age of Korean Boosterism, but, like any golden age, its success obscures the truth about our very nature.