It's official! Taco Bell opens in Itaewon on July 11! Hide the children! Once that hot sauce goes up on something, I'm eating it! With a motherfu**ing chalupa!
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Whoa! Took some flak from my previous post! A good friend who works with NK policy took offense at me calling Kaesong a "slave labor camp." OK, I was being a sarcastic ass, but I did change my wording to "slave wages camp." Point is, I respect his opinion, but I'm coming at things from a different angle: I think that the low wages aren't too different from what NGO's and people like me already criticize Nike for, and is why people are sneaking cameras into maquiladora in Mexico, and is what American Apparel likes to brag that is doesn't do as part of its corporate persona. In addition to all that, what bothers me is that the running of the complex is in the government-controlled North, and the never-trustworthy business partner, a chaebeol in the South, with its own set of corporate interests. And at $.20 an hour, no collective bargaining rights, nay, no guarantee that any of the contractual stipulations protecting the NK workers are even being met -- I can't with good conscience be happy about this as a sign of the future of North-South relations.
In fact, it reminds me of what I think will be the first thing to happen if a real unification ever happened: North Korean cheap male labor would replace cheap foreign labor, even as North Korean women are used to bridge the marriage gap, in lieu of browner, less desirable Filipina or Vietnamese women. Watch work visas for NK men come into instant existence, right along with quick marriage visas for NK women. Watch as NK men become a new, gendered underclass even as NK women enter the scene as powerless baby machines who have little social support or recourse when it comes to abuse.
Am I a cynic? No, I don't believe so. I would be a starry-eyed optimist with little knowledge of actual social problems both here and in other countries to believe that NK labor and women wouldn't perfectly "solve" and slip right into an existing socio-economic system that already is desperate for cheap labor and easy-to-marry women -- especially when seen against the rubric of the "minjok," however much the official ideology has started to move away from that idea. It's still going to be seen as "better" to have a NK factory worker or NK woman as wife than a "foreigner."
If we're talking about "first steps" into a new world of North-South relations, this is what I see Kaesong as. And have for as long as it's existed. In the end, it's little more than an extremely advantageous situation for North and South corporate interests, as well as a great flag-waving point for the South, which can and does like to represent itself as a generous big brother these days. Because whenever it comes up, I have to listen to how the south is doing OH-SO-MUCH for the North and what a sign it is of how close North and South are becoming.
Simply put, I don't see Kaesong as a harbinger of things to come vis-a-vis North and South Koreas' relations; I see it portending a far more exploitative relationship that will drive how diplomatic and economic relations will go in the case of any form of reunification. Cheap labor and "better" wives for the South is the future I look to. Which is why I'm very down on the Kaesong situation as anything but a practical business deal made up to look like it has some kind of real meaning for the overall nature of North-South relations. As if it's anything much more than an experiment in making more money, rather than an attempt for the North and South to become better friends.
OK -- that's my response to that point from the last post, which wasn't even a big one. But my friend's anger forced me to clarify myself a bit more as to what I was thinking in my bitter and sarcastic swipe at the Kaesong Complex's raison de etré.
Now, on a totally different note...
The entire point of that post wasn't really to talk about whistleblowers and grand solutions to corruption; more to the point, it was about the moral/ethical slides one has to make in order to live deeply within a foreign society for an extensive amount of time.
In order to adapt somewhere, one needs to make concessions, to make compromises. I do it all the time, I have for a long time. But you also learn which of those many things one cannot change, nor can be found acceptable.
For me, the "second-hand smoke" of injustice cannot be avoided sometimes, so I wonder what it mean to sit idly by while another teacher beats a child, to sit fat and comfortable while espousing opinions about millions of starving North Koreans or even to get the Nobel Pri, to sit by and watch one's corporate masters cynically bilk the government and society out of millions, to be faced with the choice of doing nothing and tacitly participate in corruption while the school pumps up the GPA's of richer students, or even for participating in the very same system and subject that chews many students up and spits them out.
For me, it's about my struggle with many of these issues, and not so much about public, Jerry Springer moralizing, but about choosing not to be sucked onto a slippery slope, into a black hole, or into the bedroom of a bear. Because you should really have a sense of why it's a bad idea to fuck bears. 'Cause in the end, you gonna lose a chunk of yourself. Literally!
I've lived in this society for a long time and have come to understand a lot of things, adapted my behavior to others, and learned to define what I won't allow myself to change.
For example, I will never accept a bribe, especially since they usually require one to do something quite odious, like change a grade, accept something deemed unacceptable, do something harmful to the greater good. That's why you're being bribed, right? And that's an active choice I made.
Some things you just become inured to. When I was first placed in a Korean boy's middle school on Cheju Island in 1994, horrible beatings of students by teachers was an everyday matter. The first time I saw a boy being slapped, punched, and kicked while he was on the ground, I teared up. As violent as people think America is because of highly public (but relatively rare on the everyday level) gun shootings and whatnot, I'd never experienced such levels of violence on a nearly daily level. And the verbal abuse that accompanied this attitude towards discipline was just par for the course.
I began thinking -- what does this do to the group being forced to accept this? What is this doing to me?
The fact that I didn't tear up anymore, or even get interested enough to want to react anymore, meant that something, some part of my humaneness, no matter how small, had died. And that is what saddened me after a year of working in that school. And even into my second year, in a co-ed and much less hard-hitting middle school, another member of my program had a student she knew die as a result of extreme beatings. He was forced to run around the school, and at the end of the lap, was beaten with several blows. Another lap, another beating. No water for several hours. When he was finally sent home in the evening, he died of massive heart failure. A 17-year-old kid. In the end, the parents tried to do something, they were shunned and ostracized, the teacher was moved to an administrative position. Welcome to Korea, foreign teachers.
At that time, before YouTube and there being no foreigners around in this particular institution, our program collectively saw one kind of Korea's dirty little secrets and how they are dealt with. We lived in host families, sat in the teachers' room, went on the school field trips, and saw everything because we were small enough to be ignored. When one friend of mine saw male teachers bringing female high school students into a hotel room and giving them soju and other hard liquors, and reported it to her vice-principal, she was brushed off because she apparently didn't understand that this was a "Korean custom." (Hmm. I wonder if the girls parents would agree.)
Some people out there who come across this blog accuse me of some kind of cultural imperialism because I refuse to budge on certain moral points that I refuse to cross. And that I use these moral boundary lines as the launching points for some criticisms of the culture. What these people usually don't realize is that one doesn't live here, learn the language, successfully make a living, and maintain social relations without doing some serious adaptation to this culture. And having lived here off and on since the early 1990's, back then, before Internet and cable TV, before ubiquitous "air-con" and the days of having to teach class in a winter coat with students competing to sit nearest the gas heater in the center of the class, when I lived in the countryside and the big bookstore only carried 3 copies of international Newsweek that I was rarely quick enough to catch -- Korea was a lot harder to get used to. I put in my time, baby. And I'm as culturally adjusted as I can get. I've given ground on just about every aspect of my life and personality, adapting to the Korean condition.
But on a few things, I won't budge. To some people, me criticizing the mental (and formerly, physical) violence of the school system, or the ubiquitousness of prostitution, turning a blind eye to obvious and clear human rights abuses in the North, or the fact of the massive corruption that continues to eat away at Korea's own values of equality of opportunity -- makes me some kind of cultural imperialist. To me, these are either people who just don't like me and will attack me anyway, or they assume that I haven't thought about the fact that these values are shared by many Koreans themselves. The "right thing to do" is often clear and obvious, actually -- the only thing that makes certain issues huge contestations is the fact that on one side stand people who want to do what everyone agrees is the right thing, and on the other side stand those who simply stand to use their power to exploit others.
To return to my question -- what does living in an environment that forces you to make huge moral concessions to to a person -- this society has huge moral and social problems that one either accepts or fights against. Take corruption, for example. Right now, Samsung is a company whose very structure depends on corruption, whose success often relies on unfairly clearing obstacles and clearing the playing field, whose government connections give it protection even the mafia couldn't touch. And it's been exposed in great detail by a whistleblower whose acts should be commended and praised to the hills. But instead, his name is cursed. And not just by the expected corporate types who obviously want his head on a platter, but by the society in general.
In the distorted version of Confucianism that this society follows, a notion of morality is not at the center. It is not the fulcrum around which things find balance. Morality is secondary -- the maintenance of social rules, the sanctity of the hierarchy, of relative social positions -- this is priority number one. This is why I say that Korea is not really a "Confucian society" in the sense that a full set of Confucian-based moral values dictate how things go; no, for post-Chosun Korean society, it is a merely a rulebook mostly designed to maintain a rigid social structure.
And traditional Korean society only cares about whether or not one violates the rules, not with what moral/ethical values the rules are designed to preserve or actively foster.
That's Korean style. Take the typical Korean ajussi. He simply wants respect and deference because he is older, might have a higher place in the hierarchy, has put in his time as a junior for a long time. And those junior to him are supposed to defer and kowtow. But what is he supposed to do? In the typical Korean way, you da younger, you da bitch. Period.
But traditionally, the Ajussi the Older also has an obligation. He is obligated to stand as a living example of virtuous behavior for the Youngers; he is supposed to use his power to help deserving Youngers advance in life; the Older has a moral obligation to earn the respect he is given. Contrary to common Korean social practice, the Older does not deserve automatic respect, especially when the Older has clearly stepped outside of agreed-upon social/legal bounds. Hence, the Confucian justification for standing up to unjust rulers, resisting social oppression, etc. Because that's in there.
So, am I supposed to respect a drunk ajussi cursing at me on the subway? Or an administrator who is altering the rules to take bribes? Or, closer to home -- a supervisor in my school who wants to change my grades after the fact, which tacitly involves me in their bribe-taking and the unfair altering of the life paths and life-chances of dozens of students? Or how about just sitting and listening to the screams of a middle school boy being kicked in the face and chest? By doing nothing, I am tacitly participating in his abuse. That's the only way to cut it. And why I teared up -- by following the accepted social rules that gave this teacher the right to be a monster, I was, even though it was to the tiniest extent possible, becoming a monster, too. Because he was a student, and I was a teacher who did nothing.
For all those who sit on the sidelines, criticize those who criticize Korean society -- you all have the luxury of truly being outsiders. This is obviously the case. Because my social criticisms aren't rooted in some abstract, America-based objection to the way things are in Korea because of the ways I think they should be in my own country -- I'm not that fucking stupid. But I've been here long enough to see bright-eyed, eager children chewed up by the system and become the sad and cynical teachers who abused them; I've seen kids beaten within an inch of their lives and known of one who was literally murdered by the teachers who are supposed to love and nurture them; I've been forced to sit and accept a policy that would make me an accomplice in such huge corruption that I could scarcely feign moral innocence, even if I didn't stand to get any of the money; when you're deep enough within the system, you don't have the luxury of choosing whether or not to take a position, or to be on one side of the fence or the other. You're already there, and you make the choice whether you sit on your ass or standing up for what you believe in. For those who think it's wrong to do anything, you're deluding yourselves.
Or, you're "fucking the bear," as a good friend put it, in jest. Like the anthropologist so invested in simply following the ways of the natives that even recording their sense of morality becomes secondary to the simple and superficial aping of their "ways," or the animal behavior scientist who lives with gorillas (or, more comically, bears) and studies their ways, lives among the animals, forgets to be human -- and starts "fucking the bears."
That cracked us both up at the bar, but my friend was dead serious. You learn to survive here, then truly adapt, and then -- you truly become inured to things here to the extent that things that should bother you, and which even bother a good percentage of the people here, don't anymore. Because you've become used to it, because you're dependent on some aspect of it, and maybe you've even become a party to some of the thing you once found morally detestable.
Because you've been "fucking the bears."
The point is, if you're part of the society, if you've developed meaningful human ties here, if you do work that emotionally and materially affects others -- how the hell can you feign non-involvement? Or on the flip side, assert the fiction that you either aren't or shouldn't "get involved?" I mean, anyone here teaching English, for example, is part of the same soul-crushing system that we criticize. And don't say you're not -- you fucking get paid to teach this Language of Power. I get paid to teach in it. We've all been been fucking the bear since we got here; or at least, we've been doing a slow dance and copping a feel.
My point is that standing up for what is right isn't that hard to do, isn't that complex, isn't as fraught with issues of "cultural imperialism" or power dynamics or "problematics" as you would think. Because if you've done your due-diligence here, if you've put in your time, if you've figured yourself out vis-a-vis the many, but superficial cultural differences you observe -- you know that refusing to participate in a bribery scheme, or watching your boss openly and crassly put his hands repeatedly all over the new girl's thighs, or not stepping in to tell the Korean teacher kicking a student in the face, "That's ENOUGH!" isn't some cultural faux pas.
People use the word "culture" like its some magical invocation, as though, once named, it becomes a thing of religious significance, as though it's some kind of blasphemy to "interfere." But it's not that fucking complex. In fact, once you've figured out how things generally work here, it's not hard to figure out what's culture and what's just plain wrong.
I guess you could say whipping "nigger" slaves in the South was "culture." I mean, it's what people did, right? Not educating women was "culture" in Chosun Korea, especially amongst the yangban, which makes Mary Scranton an ethnocentric bitch, right? Fucking Underwoods, too. Establishing universities and shit, trying to educate women and people from the lower classes. How dare they?
Or calling the South the Uncle Tom, money grubbing hypocrite that it is for so wanting cheap North Korean labor and economic concessions from the North that it actually downplays or even bans reporting on clear human right violations in North Korea because that might piss them off.
Or disturb relations enough to mess up things for the Kaesong slave wages camp, oops, I mean "industrial complex." I mean, they DO make $42 a month for 52-hour work weeks. That's $.20 per hour! My bad.
Again, there's nothing wrong with standing up for what's right, even (and especially) in another place. And if a lot of people agree with you, or are already standing up for something, and you're part of the society, too -- you can't act like you're not involved.
So, power to the whistleblowers who take a baseball bat and chainsaw to the machine of corruption and abuse of power. These people, in the end, make our lives better, even if it hurts. And it doesn't matter whether you're an American or Korean or whatever. If you live here, you are an insider enough to know right from wrong. You didn't leave that cognitive power at the Incheon immigration desk.
And finally, to the Daewon Foriegn Language High School principal and administration with whom I last worked in 2005, with whom I did not cooperate when they tried to use my US History grades (which had the largest weight in the GPA at the time) as monetary leverage to adjust class rankings, after which I was harrassed by the Korean teachers to the point where even students were coming to warn me of the things other teachers were saying in their classes about me, actively encouraging students to file complaints about me, for simply asking to be left out of their corruption scheme -- BOOYAH!
Now accused criminal, former Daewon FLHS Principal Choi Won-ho
You got caught! Principal Choi, remember when you said you were "going to get me" and "destroy my life" in our last conversation? Well, karma's a bitch, ain't it? Who done gone and got got? You were and are an evil man, and you simply got what you deserved. And I continue to be eminently proud of the fact that I'd rather turn down a $100-per-hour teaching job there than continue to work with you and your mostly-evil administration. And now, you can't sue me for defamation any more than you can The Korea Times, because I'm just asserting I saw the same corruption as documented in a national newspaper. And this issue definitely lies in the realm of "the public interest."
And if anyone wants to talk to me about what I saw there, I'd be MORE than happy to cooperate.
And this post is gonna live on in Google FOREVER. And hey, Won-ho, I'm not even publishing your face -- it's on The Korea Times' server! Whoo hoo! I love it!
Still gonna "destroy me," Won-ho?
I guess it's really true that sometimes the universe simply does unfold as it should.
At the time of this essay's original writing, I had asked a representative of the Lumiere Building that was to raze the area and become another huge eyesore just what was to happen to the venerated little alley of restaurants; he replied that the street would be preserved as a food court in exactly the same place. I laughed at that. But the even more ironic thing that he was right -- it is a little food court, with restaurants, just as he said, with a little sign that says "Pimatgol" at the front. But it's corporate crap, surrounded by a new religion of glass and steel, and really nothing more than a homage to what was originally there.
Which is utterly ludicrous.
Not that everything old is better than everything new. That's just dumb curmudgeonry. What bothers me is that the other way of thinking -- that everything "modern" is better, that new is better than everything old -- dominates. Suits in City Hall do get scared that rich white people will see certain Korean things as old or "backwards" and change their plane tickets in disgust to go back and yell to the hills how bad a country Korea is.
How about this as a new tourism slogan for the city?
Authroritative male voiceover: "New York? Tokyo? London? LA?"
Rapid-fire montage of nightlife visuals, with clinking glasses and neon lights and a hot chick laughing over a cocktail, city taxis speeding by at low angles, dancing in a club, singing in a noraebang, ending with a group happily stumbling back into their 5-star hotel lobby.Sultry female voiceover: "Korea, Smashing." Cue slogan.
Tell me that wouldn't increase tourism ten-fold.
PASSIONS OF THE NIGHT
At night, the streets and spaces of Seoul becomes quite a different kind of "playground," one which remains comfortably out-of-sight and out-of-mind for many of this city's early sleepers. After night falls, and especially after around midnight, balloons go up, neon signs on portable trucks are lit, while men in dark suits with red faces stumble about laughing and joking loudly, streaming into places that cater to the darker, more elemental desires of the human psyche.
Seoul nights are marked by drink, song, and the press of flesh for sale. For better or worse, Seoul – as is true with most urban areas of Korea – switches into a new economy driven mostly by the consumption of carnal desires. Some economists might call this a part of the "shadow economy" while a political scientist could call this a part of the "informal" economy or nodes of control. Some might even call them the "play spaces" of an older economy, one that many people would like to be rid of, preferably without having to look it in the eye, or confront the large role that this shadow lifestyle has taken in Korean life.
By the end of this chapter, most readers will be more than ready to think about moving out of "the passions of the night" and back into the warm, reassuring sunlight of the day, where reality tends to be more comfortable, where it tends to resemble the world your parents and the schools worked so hard to present a certain kind of world. It is the world that most people think of themselves as inhabiting, the overt, obvious world that is easy to acknowledge, easy to see, easy to explain.
But there is another world, one harder to see, and much easier to want to ignore. What is perfectly obvious to the outsider – me, the American whose culture is relatively quite conservative about sex and liquor – is often something to which everyday Koreans are often completely, willingly oblivious. To ordinary Korean people who don't tend to walk around thinking about "Korea" all the time, these are the bars, night clubs, barber shops, room salons, "business" and "미인" clubs, and red light districts; there are also the connected businesses that support the main industries of night life, as seen in the many all-night restaurants, street stands, convenience stores, and the huge clusters of "love motels" that charge by the hour, situated around any large university or other area where people are out at night.
One might think a foreigner to be the last person to know something about the innermost circle of Seoul's "Hell," but one thing that many Koreans haven't thought about is that fact that it is the foreigner's very separateness, that allows him or her to often be the unlikely observer, chronicler, and holder of secrets.
In addition, it is easier for a foreigner who speaks Korean to enter sensitive social situations, or deal with people who otherwise might not trust talking to a fellow Korean, especially when it involves something about which general society might judge them harshly or negatively. The homeless man, whom I accidentally bumped into and entered into conversation with, assented to pose in this photograph after I simply treated him – probably for the first time in a long time – as just a normal person.
He started confiding in me and talking about no end of things in his life, not simply because he was "crazy," but because I think he saw me as outside of the world he knew. I also found it easier to talk to him, since in my own culture and society, I don't recall ever having had a conversation with a homeless person beyond forced smiles and feeling extremely guilty about wanting to end the conversation as quickly as possible. I also found more difficult to emphathize with the angry elderly lady who was following the man around, yelling and chastising him. She was indignant that he was "lazy" and living off of the discarded waste of others here, at this first "Hi Seoul Festival," where I saw many homeless people wandering about, finding large amounts of uneaten food in the trash cans. Here, I simply asked the man if I could take his picture – he gave me permission and seemed to warm up to me simply because I treated him as a human being.
This is one reason anthropologists are more effective outside of their own cultures and why, as I mentioned previously, they are encouraged to leave their own cultures to do their field work. In some ways, as an outsider, access to the inside is difficult; but in certain other, more important ways, access to the true, inner core of a culture, where the dirty secrets lie, is actually far easier.
The most problematic and perhaps deeply embarrassing parts of any culture are usually kept wrapped tightly beneath layers of social taboo and willful ignorance of that subject. In America, the pain related to the subject of race is difficult to talk about frankly, so many aspects of it are as controversial as they are taboo. This is one reason that in America, race is a favorite topic of comedians and movie comedies; many Americans are, deep inside, quite uncomfortable about the subject, so it is often as source of embarrassed laughter and shocked expressions when certain obvious things are pointed out that everyone thinks about, but which most people find too embarrassing to say aloud.
The Korean media was abuzz with the issue of sex work from around 2004, when the Special Anti-Prositution Law went into effect and Korean society was witness to the protests of sex workers in front of the National Assembly; it is only now that the noise of postured indignance and moralizing has settled back down into the normal, willful ignorance of the subject. It was just after that that the Korea Herald asked me to do a photo story on the aftereffects of the law; I was surprised at what I found, as well as surprised at how little Korean people actually knew about what one could argue is one of the key social problems of modern society, albeit a problem that masks itself very well. I think that the reason it flies under the radar of many Koreans in everyday life is not because it isn't there, but rather because it is so pervasive that one can't continue to be struck by it all the time. Humans are socially adaptive animals; the socially distasteful idea of sex work in society is like a bad smell you come across when stuck in a room you can't leave – you simply adapt and soon cease to notice the smell at all.
This is not to say that most Korean people are not aware of the fact of sex work in Korean society, but rather that people tend to not want to recognize the social pervasiveness and ubiquitiousness of what is undeniably a social institution, as well as a major part of the national economy. Both are undeniable facts, obvious to anyone who has been keeping up with the government's own conservative statistics, or who keeps an observant eye opens when walking down just about any street in any town in Korea; from barber shop to room salon to business club to sauna to "sports massage" parlor to neighborhood hostess bar to out-and-out red light district, it is hard to find a street where sex itself, or value-added sexual services, are not offered in some form. But even if one is able to deal with the reality and enormity of the industry, most people are still in denial that a lot of men and women are involved in a thriving, sex-based economy.
The three common "vices" go great together.
Most people, understandably, find it hard to personalize the stories they see in the newspapers or on television, and do not want to consider the fact that it is may be their daughter or sister, or perhaps their mother, aunt, or even grandmother might have been involved in this industry at one time in their lives. What makes this fact obvious is the way sex workers are treated by the Korean media: we generally only hear about the extreme cases, in which women are hapless victims, who don't resemble "anyone I know." They are simply "pitiful" or alternatively fallen women, in need of help and sympathy in the former case, or derision and contempt on the other. These extreme representations avoid the fact that many of these women are largely somewhere in between the tragic cases, and that many of the women are motivated by the same emotions and material concerns that any drive you, me, or anyone else.
These are women making a living, and in the views of every single woman interviewed for the photo essay I originally published in the Korea Herald, they don't think of their work as fundamentally different from the way you or I makes money to put food on the table or pay their bills. That is one common view that all women spoken to in relation to this piece made, which they claimed was echoed by everyone else they know. One common reaction I received was one of great hostility and suspicion, especially when I introduced myself as a "reporter" for a newspaper; they were largely quite angry with the way the Korean media has dealt with this issue, which made my initial interviews quite hard to carry out, and this story nearly impossible to photograph.
There are so many different kinds of sex work, and accordingly, various kinds of sex workers, in Korean society. My first and most useful informant was, surprisingly, a woman who owns a bar in Itaewon's infamous "hooker hill," which would be the easy and expected place for the foreign photographer such as myself to start a story such as this. Ms. X, as I shall call her, was helpful because she had the most perspective on the issue, both in terms of the fact that she was in her late 20's, as well as because there were specific reasons why she did not want to enter the much larger and more lucrative Korean-oriented sex industry.
Ms. X described sex work in Korea as being of two main types: that having to do with "entertainment," with sex as an option for the girl to make extra money (most bars or hostess positions), or as a straight sex-for-money relationship, such as is found in a typical red-light district. Ms. X had worked in the American-style "entertainment" end as a "juicy girl" for most of her 20's, earning money from customers by making 50% on every 20,000 won drink a male customer bought her. "Juicy" bars are generally only found in places such as Itaewon, which caters to foreigners.
The Korean-style "entertainment" establishment that is not to Ms. X's liking generally involves drinking prodigious amounts of alcohol with male customers who tend to come in large groups. In most room salons, "mi-in clubs," business clubs, etc., the women don't have a choice as to which customers to take, and according to Ms. X, tend to be far more demanding and disrespectful of their hostesses, as Korean men tend to drink far more than American men in their socializing, on top of the fact that Korean men tend to come in groups, whereas men come either singly or in pairs. In both cases, women make their only money from the actual premises based on the drinks they encourage their clients to have. but in the Korean-style case, drinking/hostessing establishments give the workers a flat fee for the group, usually in the range of 30-50,000 won, whereas in places catering to foreigners, the money is a 50/50 split for every drink purchased, with no upper limit. So the woman working for a Korean place is saddled with the burden of constantly drinking large amounts of real alcohol and having to make her money from "the second stop" - going somewhere to have sex with the customer for usually a couple to a few hundred thousand won.
The Koreans-oriented room salon girl, in order to make any decent money, needs try to stay sober while as a rule convincing the customer to go out for sex after drinks, whereas the foreigners-oriented "juicy girl" makes the most money drinking "special" (read "non-alcoholic") cocktails while encouraging their clients to spend their cash on buying as many drinks as possible. Sexual services, if the "juicy girl" actually wants to offer any (some, she tells me, do not ever or often leave the bar), are occasional and usually involve a returning customer, or a customer who has spent an inordinate amount of money on drinks.
Of course, there are places that offer straight sex and really only use the bar as a front, but most of the money in Itaewon is made on drinks, drinks, drinks, with sex as an option if the girl is willing and the price is worth it. In the Korean case, the game involves trying to imbibe as little alchohol as possible while trying to not appear to be doing so, even as you encourage the client to drink more. But there is no direct financial incentive to drink more, or even to get the client to do so, after having received a flat fee for the group, and the real money is made by leaving with the customer, in which case all of that money is the hostesses' to keep. Ms. X is a "juicy girl" who saved her money and bought out the owner of the bar, so she keeps all of her drink tab, since she is the owner and operator. She has another female friend working for her during the days, of whose cut Ms. X keeps an unspecified amount.
But what of straight sex-for-money? What of the many and much more typical red-light districts that are exclusively for Korean men? I spoke with Ms. Y, who is in her early 20's, lives in a small town in the southern part of the peninsula, and was frank about her reasons for entering into the more direct style of sex work, the red-light districts found in almost any medium-sized Korean city as well as all over Seoul – Cheongnyangni, Miari, Yongsan, Yeongdeungpo.
My talk with her was brief, not to mention expensive. Her room, which she said is typical of many and any others these days, was surprisingly spacious and clean, albeit suggestively red. I had about 15 minutes to talk, since that's about all the time I'd get as a customer. I decided to get right to the point and broach the big question of how people generally got into this kind of work – was she in debt, were there cases she knew of women trapped in debt bondage, or perhaps even women being kidnapped from the countryside? Her reply was a dismissive laugh, whereafter she chided at how ridiculous a notion that was. Perhaps such things were true in the 70's or 80's, and you heard about such cases sometimes in newspapers, but there are so many women wanting to work in red-light districts that there was no need for such ruthless recruiting.
A panoramic photo-stitch of Ms. Y's room.
Contrary to what many people want to think, there is such a high supply of women wanting to do this work, with the competition to attract and keep the best girls so strong, that women scarcely needed to be coerced. In fact, her room and all the furniture in it was completely free and part of a package deal, such that women could walk in off the street, not pay a dime, and start earning money for herself and the house. The way she described it, supply was so abundant that it was in everyone's best interests to aggressively recruit with clean, fully-furnished rooms.
Ms. Y laughed off the "Special Anti-Prostitution Law" for what I already thought it was – a show for the media and the public, after which it was back to business as usual. Brief talks with a few other women confirmed that the crackdown had scared a few girls away and briefly kept recruitment down, but it was apparent that it was business as usual in the major red-light districts around Seoul.
Ms. Y explained that most working girls lived and worked in their rooms, with a day off once a week. Girls came for all kinds of reasons, from supporting family members back home, to paying off personal debts, to wanting to gather capital for starting their own businesses, or for no particular reason other than make a lot more money than they could otherwise. "That doesn't happen anymore" she said, snickering as if even suggesting such a thing was utterly ridiculous. "There are so many girls wanting to come to do this work - why would you have to force them?"
The sign warns customers to "Watch your head."
She continued to emphasize the ludicrousness of the notion that anyone was forced into this sort of work anymore, before proceeding to explain her own circumstances. In her case, her mother had become hospitalized, so she had made the decision to come to Seoul and earn the money to cover the ongoing bills. She had been allowed by the house to adjust her schedule to three weeks on and one week off to travel back home, so she lamented the fact that she had no rest days for that long stretch of time. In the end, she seemed to be implying with her answers, as well as through her expressions and demeanor, that it had been a financial choice, albeit one inevitably influenced by circumstance and the social reality that she was able to easily make more money through sex than any other kind of labor, but she did not equate this with not having had a choice.
This brought me to think once again about the issue of supply, which is positively staggering. The Korean government's own late 2002 estimate places one million women engaged in sex work at any one time, which is almost unbeleiveable until one remembers that it would take a high number to support an industry that was 4.4% of the GDP, which is more than is constituted by forestry, fishing, and agriculture combined (those three industries make up 4.1% of the GDP). And this is a conservative estimate, based on the of formal places of prostitution that can be tracked, in terms of numbers of workers and estimated revenue; other, less trackable forms of informal prostitution are still nearly impossible to quantify.
An old-fashioned "Phone-in rooms" are where men go to small rooms to receive calls and female "freelancers" call in to meet the men. Such stickers are not obvious, but often plastered all around neighborhood telephone poles and bus stop signs.
When one realizes that these statistics easily translate into something from 1 out of 10 or even 1 out of 6 adult Korean women having worked in the sex industry at the present moment – and this goes without mentioning the number of women who might have worked at any point in their lives – the social implications of these estimates simple take the breath away.
What seems apparent in this whole public discourse about sex work and its treatment as a "social problem" with a clear and concrete solution – public crackdown and a "zero tolerance" policy – is just how unrealistic and ignorant of history it is. Obviously, sex work has become as important a part of the economy as any other "legitimate" one; more important than even that, it is an integral part of everyday culture as well.
Unfortunately, the Korean media treats the issue as they do any other – superficially, and represented through atypical and extreme examples that work better to spice up the story than convey a more realistic slice of reality. Political groups use the issue – and the women – as alternatively whipping boys or sad sob stories that further their own agendas. What is really being ignored is the very culture that legitimates sex work as a part of everyday life, or the use of the female body to sell everything from bread to even toothpaste – as something that has been completely normalized.
Whether sex work is "good" or "bad" is not the crux of concern here, but it would seem that this is the only truly interesting aspect of the matter, and is the only worthy question of consideration for anyone truly concerned about this issue. What does the fact that there are more sex workers than schoolteachers mean for society? What should one make of the fact that it is easier to gain employment as a sex worker through a neighborhood jobs circular than it is to get a job in McDonald's? What of the fact that, anecdotally at least, some significant amount of the capital that goes into starting "legitimate" businesses in Korea can actually be traced back to a women working on her back? This leads us to the big question: How does this affect men's views towards women in general?
"Marry a Vietnamese virgin" proclaims this banner, common on street corners and residential areas throughout Korea.
What these questions speak to – as well as the several people interviewed for this article – is the fact the "social problem" approach to this issue becomes an exercise in futility when we, as a society, simply morally condemn all sex workers, or the industry itself, or even the police forces and government agencies that protect and regulate this trade in sex for money. The problem is deeply structural – it is not a matter of mere morality, or one of passing new laws, or having temporarily enforced, zero-tolerance crackdowns. In order to deal with this deeply-rooted structural problem – one that is also a major underpinning of both the economy and culture itself – it is most useful to contextualize this issue – or the cases of the girls with whom I spoke for this piece – within a much larger picture. One must see the problems as they are linked together, rather than simply scrutinize the smaller parts of the equation.
For example, one might consider the fact that Korea ranks 63rd out of 70 countries measured in the United Nations' commissioned Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), which is calculated based on the number of women in actual positions of economic or political power. Just to give this statistic some context, the US is ranked 10th, Japan is ranked 44th, Thailand 55th, Russia 57th, and Pakistan 58th. The only other countries that actually managed to score behind Korea were all places in which women's inequality is overtly and sometimes even brutally enforced; in ascending order of GEM rank: Cambodia, where domestic violence is not even legally a criminal offense, comes in right behind Korea at 64th. The United Arab Emirates, where a man can still legally take up to four wives, is 65th, and Turkey, where "honor killings" of women who have had the audacity to be a victim of rape are still often committed by male relatives of actual victim, takes the 66th spot. Sri Lanka follows, with Egypt, Bangladesh, and Yemen bringing up the rear, last out of of the countries measured.
Does this statistic really have absolutely nothing to do with the high rate of state-supported, socially sanctioned sex work in South Korea? Does it have nothing to do with the fact that appearance is still, realistically, the key factor in most women getting jobs, all other factors being equal? In many other developed countries, including the United States, requiring pictures on resumés, or even asking to indicate age, place of birth, ethnic origin, religion, and marital status is illegal and is the grounds for lawsuits if asked for. Is it really surprising that in a country in which the sale and importance of the woman's body plays such a large part of the economy and culture that even the Ministry of Gender Equality has not even addressed this obvious issue?
"Too old," as the handwriting at the top of the note says.
If the sex industry is as much a part of Korean life and the economy as any other, then what seems important to consider are the demands of the sex workers themselves, echoed in the comments of all those interviewed for this piece, to be treated as what they are, for better or for worse – integral parts of the economy and culture. If someone has a bone to pick with the ramifications of this on greater society, it seems wiser to call into question the overall position of women in society, the legal and structural factors that create gender inequality and sex discrimination, as well as the overall societal attitude that so disproportionately values consumption of the female body over any other kind of work that a woman does and can do. If one wants to address this so-called "social problem," the best strategy would seem to involve ceasing to focus on individual cases, and instead squarely address what is a macro-level issue with macro-level solutions that speak directly to the problem of women's overall status in Korean society, as opposed to alternatively demonizing or lionizing the cases of individuals for the sake of news ratings or use as a whipping boy for one's moral agenda.
INTO THE LIGHT?
"Light" is often the metaphor for talking about the future; Korean media campaigns and propaganda slogans often talked about the "bright future" linked with an open heart. I am of two minds about the subject; I believe that the future of Seoul and Korea indeed to be bright, but that with every silver lining, there is a hidden price.
So, what is so bad about moving from living in a golmok to a "playground" or wherever else? There are, of course, the many places where people live, and people have made great effort to combine the seemingly contradictory goals of cramming as many people as possible into a given amount of space, while making it a space humans would actually want to live in. So city planners and apartment engineers build up, seeming to try and reach higher and higher away from the gritty reality of the ground.
Old Seoul overshadowed by the ever-encroaching presence of huge apartment complexes.
But there seems to be a price paid for Koreans' sudden obsession with everything modern, new, and branded with names of seeming wealth, status, and power. As an outsider, as someone who comes from a country that has naturally developed into its industrial and economic power, I see something else that comes with the nouveau riche naming of apartment buildings – "Golden" and "Mansion" and "Palace" and "Tower" and "Castle" can be combined in any way you like, along with specific words that connote feudal status, such as "Noblesse" or "Noble" or "Rich" or "Intelligent." The furniture that Koreans tend to buy seem like a veritable parody of the concept of luxury, a hodge-podge of European baroque gaudiness and a tribute to conspicuous consumption.
<INSERT: Artist's conception of the Tower Palace Apartments.>
The very spaces of the city have come to no longer resemble anything Korean. And perhaps it is too simple to glibly call this "Americanization." I think it's something more, perhaps the first steps to a truly global culture that America and other capitalist democracies came to define first. The future is indeed fun, since I'm told that Starbucks tastes better, movies in a Megabox theater are punchier and more dynamic, the comfortable cars of Hyundai, Daewoo, and now Samsung have smoother rides than the sputtering, manually operated vehicles of old. Maybe this move "forward" is inevitable? But need we do so in this way?
Why do corporate visions of urban spaces and reality have to dominate over others? What about the democratization of the landscape? Is it not tragic that the spaces that come to define the boundaries of all our activities are largely not created by most of the people who occupy them? In democracies, we tend to find it important to participate in the choosing of our political leaders. We expect to have a say in the people we associate with, the freedom to move about and travel, and revel in our freedom to define our private spaces.
But do we ever think about the fact that we have little knowledge of who determines the shape of the majority of the public spaces that define our lives? Do we ever think about the fact forces beyond our control have effectively turned most human interactions into required acts of consumption? When did we give our permission for this? Did we even realize that this happened? Every day, we give our tacit consent by meeting, eating, and conducting business in the "playground" of consumption, while agreeing to live in the ultra-modern, yet lifeless and sterilized utopia of glass and steel, living an automated and electronic life of convenience.
In one essential way, we have become like ants in a colony, placing little stock in the importance of thinking about the meaning of the spaces around us. Much of our feelings of a lack of control and ownership of our own work is summed in the old American quip, "Hey, don't ask me. I just work here, man." In modern, super-fast, high-rise Korea, it may have gone a step further: "Hey, don't ask me – I just live here. I don't make the decisions."
Still, there is a certain saccharine pleasure in the mass consumption even in the corporatized and commercialized atmosphere of urban culture, the tension between the old sensibilities and Korean personality that are the legacy of times spent living in the golmok, which conflicts with the newer attitudes created by a new Korean affluence and obssession with things "luxury" and "comfortable." Within this whirlwind of change, you have both the disappearance of individual choice that comes crashing up against old-fashioned Korean dynamicism that makes Seoul a truly "interesting hell."
This is what will really mark the beginning of the end of the "old Seoul" – the remnants of pre-development Korea that was and is a welcome counterbalance to the ever-encroaching invasion of glass, steel, and plastic. Yet, it is not the materials themselves that spell the doom of everything that makes Korean city culture unique. It is the unquestioning willingness of the city's denizens to knock down all that is old or stained by years of use, or to welcome the corporatized versions of what was once original and individual; the taste of Seoul's food is already becoming notably bland and uninteresting, as the basic ingredients for cooking most foods now tend to come from the same sources, forcing even the most old-fashioned and talented grandmother cooking her favorite recipes to work with the most uninteresting of creative palettes. No matter how talented, even the most inspired artists cannot create well if limited to a few simple colors.
But by the time the taste of dwaenjangjigae/된장찌개 starts to taste the same everywhere you go, it will already be too late. When the clothes we buy are the same as what everyone else's, we lose something. When we all drive the same cars, live in the same apartments, eat the same food, and even spend our free time in exactly the same ways, and even as our own desires are now largely no longer our own but what advertisers and marketers have convinced you to need and want – where does one define the self?
The pieces of Seoul life that have made it unique, like little bits of heaven surrounded by what people have mistakenly called "hell," are going to disappear. When the street food stands either disappear or become chains, the crooked streets so full of character have been paved over by high-rise officetels and apartment buildings, and the open-air markets all become E-Mart outlets for mass consumption – what will define Korean life so specifically from Japanese, French, Canadian, or American life?
Even Korean movies, now hailed as part of the "Korean wave," have lost as much in character as they have gained in production values, creative marketing, and growing star power. I used to find Korean movies quite interesting, daring, and provocative right after the lifting of heavy governement censorship in the late 1990's. Now, as an American, I have little interest in most of them. If I want to watch Hollywood movies, I'll watch Hollywood movies.
But there is something more than just this downside. One cannot deny the sheer, unadulterated fun that defines Seoul life, Seoul nights. There is pleasure, especially as an American, at going to the E-mart or watching movies at massive cineplexes. Watching the overwrought melodrama of Taeggukki play out on the big screen was almost painful to watch; yet, I couldn't help but shed a tear in one scene, despite the fact that I hate all of that director's films. It's slick, pre-packaged claptrap; but it works.
Many Koreans who move to the US or Canada describe, to their surprise, that these are boring places to live, in comparison to Korea. With America's overall economic development and relatively high standard of living, with that long-developed stability, comes a lack of surprise, tension, or social danger. Korea is a country whose development happened in fits and starts, partially under self-determined, Japanese, and American regimes, against the backdrop of war and the insecurity that followed it, combined with the conflicts and contradictions caused by a rapid, forced, and often violent development regime. Korea gathered its capital through both hard work and borrowing, through means both moral and immoral; individual sacrifice, lack of freedom of dictatorship, gains offered by the US through the dispatch of troops to Vietnam, capital gained through sex work, the exploitation of labor, as well as countless acts of individual selflessness – both good and bad were part of the development story. Both good and bad manifest themselves even today.
So in all honesty, I cannot say that I don't feel a conflicted relationship with the ease of life here, especially as Korea and the world globalize along increasingly similar lines. And yes, there is obviously real, palpable pleasure in the older ways of playing as well, as found in drinking, dancing, singing, and sexing the night away. There is a "dirty" underside to the clean, polished face of Seoul and Korean life. It is, strangely enough, that dark side that gives the one of light a certain kind of meaning. There is a constant, nearly indescribable tension here, one I had never felt before coming to Korea, marked by the dichotomies of old and modern, dirty and clean, corrupt and pure, light and darkness. That tension is what marks Korea's charm, its irresistable new lure to the outside world.
But there is a sadness, too. There is loss here. As Korea walks away from and becomes more and more of a stranger to its own older way of life – as the cultural memories of the golmok pass out of memory, as Korea becomes more of the 선진국 it has so desperately wanted to be – a certain unique and peculiar aspect of the Korean character is being lost. From the early 1990's to just a little after the now is what I see as the "golden age" of the Korean street, when Korea stands at a fragile balance point between the past and the present, the then and now, un- and over-developed. In a way, it will never be worse and always seems to be getting "better."
Once Korea comes a bit further into the realm of the modern and postmodern, when the rule of law become pervasive and people no longer ignore traffic lights, all wear their seat belts, and don't curse at each other any longer; when the street stands are gone, restaurants are all chains, and we all eat lunch in food courts; when the red light districts are closed, people stop drinking to excess, and the streets are empty after 12 – for many people, Korea will have taken a step closer to being a "heaven," the dream of decades of development. But for all the hard work and feverish effort made to get ahead – without ever asking the question of "why?" – many Koreans will have forgotten all the guilty pleasure of having lived in "hell" along the way.
Back when it seemed unbelievable and everyone guffawed at me, I made a bet with my "Korean Wave and Media" class that I teach at Myongji University that Facebook would inevitably take over the Korean Internet.
Whoa, they said. That's crazy. Nothing can beat Cyworld. Because nothing ever changes on the Internet, right?
Or alternatively, as is always quoted when it comes to new things, "Facebook is not right for Koreans."
Yeah, just as pundits predicted Koreans would NEVER take to pizza because of unfamiliarity with cheese, or eat Western-style cereal with milk, or how YouTube Korea would be humbled and die a quick and dirty death (the Korea Times was yelling this to the hills, but all their links are dead) because some domestic portals had higher resolution at the time. Umm, right. (I think I remember saying something like, "It's the content, stupid!" at the time). From that list given in the Mashable link, MNCast and Pandora.TV are out of commission, and even from the beginning, most of the content on all those portals were videos from YouTube. Something the "pundits" would have gotten had any of the Western reporters actually navigated around any of the Korean sites. It's the content, stupid. And everyone in the world uploaded and uploads to YouTube. Not some idiotically-named site called "Mgoon." Sorry -- that name's just fucking stupid. And all the world's content is on YouTube. Oops!
I also remember very publicly saying back in 2006, when UCC was first rolled out, that it would fail. And booooy, did it ever, so fabulously, FAIL. ("It's the structural and cultural barriers to making diverse and sustainable amounts of content, stupid!" Said that in 2007.) All the "UCC cafes" and UCC-based marketing to sell camcorders and cameras is noticeably absent. That campaign went down here in Korea worse than Sony's Mini-disc format did in America. And that's bad.
My actual bet with my Myongji students was that, by the time Winter 2009 finished (and I made the bet at the end of spring semester 2009, just before summer), most of what I call "domestic Koreans" -- the bulk of everyday, non-overseas connected Koreans who don't have foreign friends, haven't lived abroad, prefer kimchijjigae over cream sauce spaghetti for lunch, and largely use Cyworld -- would at least have heard of Facebook and at least 1/2 of them would have accounts.
At the time, when I started the course, most of my Myongji students hadn't even heard of Facebook, as shows of hands in several classes showed, and using the site to introduce the problem of Korean media and Internet showed. The problem was this: Facebook was (and is) the most accessed site in the world, but the vast majority of Koreans had never even heard of it. This went to show what is a pretty typical Korean pattern: major ideas, trends, and sites that are used in the rest of the world never make it over the barriers put up around the "walled garden" that is the Korean Intranet (which is really what it is), and the major portal sites that all Koreans use (Naver, Daum, Cyworld/Nate) act like the hard industry conglomerates (chaebeols) that dominate the Korean formal economy (Samsung, Hyundai, etc.) Korea always seems cut off from the rest of the world, to an extreme degree, and is always running 3-5 years behind -- in 2006, most "domestic Koreans" had never heard of a "blog" in Korea.
OK, that's summer 2009. Most domestic Koreans hadn't heard of Facebook, and I predicted by winter 2009/10, most students and young people would have, and even have an account. Lo and behold, when I started my new semester in March, when I asked the same question about Facebook, more than half the students raised their hands. And most had accounts, with the question of whether they used them or not being a separate issue.
Now, I know this isn't scientific, and since I was the force that had introduced a good number of students to Facebook in the first place at Myongji (although I doubt 20+ students started any kind of wave there), I couldn't just use that as evidence. But all around me, I noticed my domestic Korean friends -- not my more international crowd of acquantainces from UNESCO Korea, or foreign language high schools, or students from more affluent and international schools such as Yonsei University -- were adding me to Facebook.
Tick. The girl I gave a business card to at the makkoli bar. My Korean aunt. Tick, tick. The girl I had gone on a few dates with some months ago, who works as a civil servant and has no foreign friends. The photographer I had shared the photo pit with in a previous Seoul Fashion Week. Tick, tick, tick. People who were very, very domestic Korean were hearing about Facebook, and it wasn't from me. And all of them were using their names in the Korean script, not English.
Tipping point? Yeah.
It was just like me, back in 2008 or so, and I had signed up for Facebook at some point, had heard of it before that point from some college kids, hadn't thought much of it. But then, somewhere in the late spring/early summer of 2008 EVERYFRICKIN' BODY WHO I KNEW FROM BACK IN THE DAY, IN THEIR 30'S LIKE ME, WAS ADDING ME AS A FRIEND. It was literally like several random add requests a day, from an 8th-grade girlfriend, high school prom date, buddies from my freshman dorm in college, grad school friends -- it was ON, and seemingly instantaneously.
And here we go again. Tick, tick, tick. And then there were other x-factors: the iPhone had come in, and Twitter has already become the de facto standard for instant social messaging. One random reason? Kim Yeon-ah, the champion Korean figure skater, was a twitter, tweeter, a twitterator -- whatever. Best publicity Twitter ever had here, besides being the default standard in the rest of the world and getting mentioned in the news all the time. And now, we had the iPhone.
iPhone, with standard Facebook and Twitter apps around from jump, was something that would help. Even now, I had a domestic Korean contact, a model, try to show me her pics from Cyworld on her Korean "smart" phone. Epic fail. Cyworld -- get your shit together. Oh, too late.
The "tick, tick" of my Facebook-o-meter is really starting to pick up, anyone remotely hip I now meet has an iPhone, wants to "Bump" me, and often tells me to become a "Facebook friend" with them, and many people now make the corny joke/literal translation of FACEBOOK (얼굴 책) in Korean, just like they did with HOT MAIL (뜨거운 메일).
Facebook's here in Korea, and for the same reasons that YouTube took over the market (being the international standard and possessing an international database of users, as opposed to merely being limited to domestic users, and despite refusing to cooperate fully with Korea's real-name system), for the same reason that UCC failed (the paltry amount and types of content could not support the full weight of the service, and like a dying star whose internal energies cannot support its own weight, collapsed), and because Korean sites/sights are so short-sighted (why couldn't Cyworld have simply internationalized its single portal, like Facebook always has, instead of trying to launch its lame-ass Japanese and US versions, while of course adding real functionality) -- Facebook is going to become the de facto standard here.
With a little help from friends who are already international, in terms of being open-source and standards unto themselves -- iPhone and Android. Because Samsung is lame and won't be able to compete in terms of the lame OS it has put onto their phones, they're going to do the smart (and only) thing and simply make kickass hardware for Android. And those two standards are going to have up-to-date and varied Facebook apps and options.
Again, leaving Cyworld, a Korean domestic company, alone to battle the full force and power of a platform that is international, has a huge head start in making apps open-source on their own site, as well as battling against the tendency to become the de facto standard on two international phone OS's.
Good fucking luck, Cyworld.
I feel the huge mass of the mainstream starting to quiver and creak, as it starts the slow tip over the other way. And how do you stop the slow-but-massive force of everyone-else-in-the-world, even if you are an island in the stream?
And that's game.
By the end of the year, Koreans will be Facebooking, while Cyworld becomes the new MySpace.
Please drop a line directly to my email about any photo class inquiries and/or go to the site's Facebook event.
The class is divided into four 3-hour sessions, starting June 26th, followed by a 2-week practice period, then continuing with classes on July 17th, 24th, and 31st. My summer schedule is bringing me to the US to photograph a wedding, followed by a series of seminars on the weekend I return. This period, however, will give students a chance to practice the many principles we cover in that class, which I cover in the photo tutorial designed to be homework/review for the course. The sessions break down like this:
The Basics of Exposure (in Studio)
Dealing with the basic operations and functions of your DSLR, explaining each function, button, and doo-hickey. The bulk of the session is likely going to stick around the relationship between aperture and shutter, as well as depth-of-field. Basically everything on your camera has something to do with this relationship.
Session 2: Applied Photography (Outdoor Session in Hongdae)
We go outdoors and apply our head-full-of-theory we learned in the first class, learning fill flash and how to compensate for the finicky flash meters aboard our cameras. On this day, we shoot in all the modes, specifically manual camera as well as manual
Session 3: The Studio (in Studio w/ Model)
After dealing with basic photography techniques as applied on the Hongdae class, the basics of studio flash exposure is the easy part, and helps lock in understanding of aperture and shutter. Also is instrumental in thinking about composition of the photograph, as well as direction of a model.
Session 4: Advanced Flash and Techniques
(Outdoor Session w/Model)
Here, were use advanced flash and lighting techniques with a model outdoors. We also use multiple flashes to simulate the studio, and really lock in all the various aspects of photography we've been looking at for the past few weeks.
The goal of this course is to give a you complete understanding of your DSLR and its functions. Most students actually do gain this level of understanding because photography is not difficult. Explained clearly, you'll be able to vastly improve the quality of your pictures.
All for 175,000 won. A great price!
For more information about payment and directions, click here.
To confirm attendance via the Facebook event, click here.
Somehow, I got invited to be a part of The Presidential Commission for Nation Branding, a group formed by President Lee Myung-bak to solve the basic problem of why so much money and effort are expended in trying to being more tourists to Korea and improving the "nation brand", which according to some "experts" is far below where the country is in terms of other markers of development and stability.
Frankly, I think the Commission was desperate enough to actually put foreigners and people like me on the committee because I think they really are desperate to fix the situation. And they're starting to ask the right people. Me, I made Korea's first podcast, video podcast, and was one of the big bloggers for awhile. I, along with others, have produced other content, such as photographs, that has been published everywhere from Lufthansa Airlines Magazine and CNN, to most of the domestic newspaper and magazine publications, both Korean and not.
They called me because I know how to make content about Korea, and I know how to make it stick. For better or for worse. And I have had a lot to say at Commission meetings, but have been starting to feel frustrated in that nothing much will change and most of the Commission's money and effort will result in minimal change to the way things are done. And here's the first one, which I talk about at length below.
This describes the fundamental problem of searching for the answer only in the places where one is able to look. Put another way, it's like looking for one's keys only under street lamps; away from the street lamp, one can't see at all, so these areas are skipped. But that doesn't mean the keys aren't there. In a very similar way, governments tackle these problems with the only tools they know -- setting up large commissions and bureaucratic processes amongst the most conservative of its ilk, the civil servants and people who wear suits. But what if, as is very likely the case when it comes to something as unpredictable and personal as the formation of a national reputation, the solution does not lie in setting up PR initiatives, advertising campaigns, or coming up with a new tourism slogan?
What if both the problem (and solution) are much smaller in scale, or issues that must be handled with subtlety? For example, one argument I have presented over and over links the rising media vilification of foreign English teachers as drug addicts/criminals/AIDS carriers/child molesters with rising negative attitudes to the same said group of foreigners. Is this a radical assertion? That when a country's mass media relentlessly represents a group of outsiders in a certain way, people begin to actually think about them that way, and even treat them accordingly? In combination with rising anti-Americanism in the public sphere since 2002-3, I assert both a statistical and anecdotal rise in the verbal and physical harassment of foreigners here.
Combine that with the other node of negativity I identify: the hagwon and the exploitative public school. An unregulated industry chock full of shady characters and fly-by-night operations, with even the best in the industry still marked by a cutthroat mercantilism that has helped make the image of the dog-eat-dog Korean education infamous -- many of these same English teachers and instructors' first significant and ongoing contact with Korean society is through the hagwon (or the many schools and other organizations being increasingly run just like them). Many of these foreigners encounter broken contracts, lies about payment, unreasonable teaching and working conditions, poor planning, and even a total lack of curriculum as the norm. Add on top of that the rude treatment, unprofessional attitude, and overall negative atmosphere prevalent in many of them, is it a surprise that many foreigners begin to hate their jobs, their lives, and by extent, Korea?
Let's look at this in terms of numbers. In 1992, the Korean government started a new kind of Fulbright program, in conjunction with the American government. Well before the influx of massive amounts of foreign English teachers in the late 1990's, the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) program was designed to send a few dozen well-trained American teachers to middle and high schools in the countryside. Given an extensive orientation in Korean language and culture, the grantees are supposed to learn about Korea and take that experience back to the US; as the group moved into different fields and career directions, the idea was that this cultural exchange would put a little bit of Korea into the people who would become our nation's doctors, lawyers, and politicians. The ETA program is running strong at just under 100 in-country per year. The number of E-2 visa holders alone each year is 20,000+.
What's the point here? It's that a single assumption can't be both true and not true. If one assumes that the funding and energy spent on the Fulbright ETA program is worth it, one is working with the assumption that it's raison de etre -- a conduit of cultural exchange and a major conduit for a positive image of Korea amongst our nation's elite-to-be -- what does this mean for the 20,000+ English teachers coming in per year?
Given the fact that, anecdotally speaking, the vast majority of English teachers leave this country with a negative image of Korea (to put it lightly), or at least, not a positive one, and that we have picked up on the negative, racist images of foreigners in this country, is it any wonder that they fill much of the Internet with nasty blog posts, tell their friends how horrible Korea was, etcetera?
How does one address the problem of bad hagwons, abusive vice-principals, and a system that basically only sees native teachers as expendable, short-term resources and not as real teachers? This is where the vast majority of negativity on the part of many native speakers comes from, where the rumors and bad reputation gets spread, where the nasty blogging and message boarding comes from, and where Google, as the ultimate content aggregator in the West, tracks it.
How does one deal with this? Here's what the Commission came up with, some of which you might have seen on television or in the street already:
- Public media campaigns to "smile at foreigners?" This doesn't help when the bulk of the mass media is busy vilifying them to the point that harassment is on the rise.
- How about public service commercials encouraging Koreans to be "good global citizens?" Noooo. Because this is mis-identifying the actual source of most foreigners' resentment of Korea and Koreans, if any is assumed to exist. Most people living here, or even visiting, can excuse ajummas who cut in line or pushy crowds as just a part of being in another culture, however annoying this may be. Same with spitting, wearing pajamas in public in Shanghai, or similar things. They're not important, but rather peripheral concerns.
- How about building a team of foreign students as bloggers to talk up Korea? Again, the same institutional response. You're just going to get a lot of obviously Korea-boosterish, badly written blogs by newbies. And the lopsided, tourist-brochurish content that will be written will be minimally helpful, at best, completely useless at worst.
- How about building another multi-million-dollar government web site designed for foreigners? I bet the head of the commission that this site will get more hits per day than the multi-million-dollar site that won't do well in terms of SEO, won't get tracked well by Google, since their site will link to a million sites that don't link back (a great way to lose what they call "Google juice"), and won't result in any content different from the dozens of other government tourist sites. Several members of the Council strongly indicated that this was a complete waste of time and money.
What were the solutions I and others recommended? Ones that would have cost a fraction of the money they used and would be far more effective? Here's what I thought:
-- "Smile at foreigner" campaigns are ineffective and stupid. In terms of image management of and behavior towards foreigners, which would you rather do -- shoot a squirt gun's worth of "positive" messages upstream, against a near tidal wave, or try to reduce the near-tsunami of negative images at the source, from the mainstream media? My proposal was to consider unregulated hagwons and schools' exploitation as linked to national image -- BECAUSE IT IS -- and a) issue a report declaring the issues linked and national media's vilification of foreigners as not only unprofessional but a "harm to the country" (나라망신), b) form a government agency designed to advocate on the side of foreigners in workplace disputes and also filing formal complaints against the media, which actually keeps the media in check in all other areas, and c) change the laws regarding lawsuits against hagwons/schools filed by a foreigner to be adjudicated within a short period of time. These are all concrete and reasonable recommendations that could work. And the VERY FACT that they are being made would be a huge gesture in and of itself. At the very least, a public report linking media targeting of foreigners and worsening national image would be a huge tool to use against a yellow media that runs out-of-control because no one is standing up to them.
-- Resentment towards Koreans doesn't come from bad manners. It comes from bad relationships. Which leaves a more lasting impression, an ajumma who bumped you, something which you almost expect to happen, or getting screwed in your workplace situation, which one tends to hope won't happen? Which negative traits are going to stick in your craw? A rude, pushy, and inconsiderate ajumma whom you don't even know? Or a deep-rooted hatred and disrespect for your nasty boss, abusive co-worker, or even the entire staff of the hagwon/school? One of these will be brushed off as cultural differences that can be tolerated; the other will result in many people starting to hate Korea to the core.
-- Building a team of newbie bloggers to write boosterish sites about Korean culture? How about supporting the bloggers who ALREADY DO make interesting content about Korea? Why reinvent the wheel? Why forge a new path when a thoroughfare's already there? I estimated that the top 25 foreign bloggers in Korea control most of the internet conversation going on about Korea, through content aggregators such as Google, and/or established communities that form around the blogs. When mainstream media needs English-language information about Korea, the big blogs dominate the field. Why would you ignore them?
-- Don't even get me started on the web site. Millions of dollars wasted. Because THAT'S how big organizations are doomed to try and make big changes: along traditional, bureaucratic lines. Treating existing content producers as professionals or as press, maintaining god lines of communication with them, keeping them in the loop about relevant events -- these are cheap, quick, and effective ways of starting to improve the brand. For the price of pizza and beer once a month, press passes to relevant events, and some kind of public recognition, bloggers would do more for Korea than millions of dollars thrown down the drain in some campaign.
But alas, Institution-Think reared its ugly head. Big, conservative organizations think big. And act accordingly. What if the problem requires, quick, nimble, and innovative solutions? You generally should counter with options that are quick, nimble, and innovative.
But these government orgs, further crippled by being staffed with civil servants, whose #1 goal in life is not to think of things new or risky, but the safest option possible.
Combine the "cover-my-ass" urge of the civil servant with huge, conservative, myopically Korean organizations and you get big, unwieldy, and uncreative solutions -- not nimble and effective ones.
Still, what can one expect? The question posed is created by thousands of individual bloggers and message board posters across the Internet, who can smell spin and PR a mile away, but the Institution-Think solution is to either create a web site (lame) or a team of bloggers who will smell like The Man a mile away. In the end? No results.
My constant recommendation?
Pay attention, do the market research, find out who is already creating positive content about Korea. Do everything possible to support those individuals, organizations, entities. Then study them and emulate them. Know enough about the Institution's inherent limitations to pre-emptively offset them, e.g.institutional conservatism, Korean cultural conservatism, cultural bias as Koreans who are not the target market, etc.
Solution to those several sub-problems? The Institution can set the big goals, but the content production should be actually carried out by interested third-parties such as those who are already producing effective content, or a created third-party that is creatively and editorially independent of the Institution.
For example, recognize that the Institution doesn't "get it" and always "gets it" late. Cases-in-point?
-- B-boy culture. When it was fresh and cool to Koreans, the Establishment was busy calling them anti-social miscreants. A decade later, the suits can't get enough of kayageums played with hip-hop beats, or break dancers getting down with ladies in hanboks. But it's too little, too late. When it was cool, it was, ahem, cool. If a suit likes it, it is by definition, not. Sorry, Institution -- your "b-boy meets fan dancer" videos are cliché. Because you like them.
-- Street food stands. These were always one of the top things foreigners liked about Korea. But did anyone ask the foreigners? No. Until as recently as 2002, the Seoul city government was busy trying to ban and get rid of them, lest good white folk see them and think Koreans were dirty or "backwards." Now they're "cultural treasures." Yeah, city government. It only took you, what -- 10 years to figure that out?
-- Hongdae. For better or for worse, this arts and party neighborhood is fun and its a major part of the night life here. It's a good chunk of all that is interesting in Korea. Too bad the city, until the early 2000's, was spending most of its Institutional energy trying to hinder everything fun about it, from liquor licenses in small clubs, the institutionalization of "Club Night" and just about everything else that made the place fun. Now, it's considered a major jewel in the crown of what makes Seoul hip. Yeah, no thanks the Seoul City Government.
I really could go on and on.
Has the point been made? When it comes to knowing what's up, what foreigners like, how to market to them properly, etc. -- the Institution is the last to know. Why doesn't it recognize that weakness and institutionally account for it? Easy thing to do is to support those who know, and emulate them along the way.
Before you say this site is "anti-Korean" or bashing Korea – read this: "Why Be Critical?" Chances are, if you're simply angry because I am a social critic in Korea but not actually Korean, see if your argument isn't just a kneejerk response that follows these patterns.
Session 1: Just the Basics Dealing with the basic operations and functions of your DSLR, explaining each function, button, and doo-hickey. The bulk of the session is likely going to stick around the relationship between aperture and shutter, as well as depth-of-field. Basically everything on your camera has something to do with this relationship.
Session 2: Composition and Shooting (Shooting Session 1) We'll take those examples and look at them on the big screen, while also answering the concrete questions that will pop up about the stuff we learned before. Then we'll talk about composition and other framing issues, including lens lengths and why some lenses are worth $100 bucks and some are worth $10,000.
Session 3: Flashes and Advanced Exposure (Shooting Session 2) Dealing with flash, in terms of compensating above and below exposure levels (bracketing), as well as other bracketing techniques in general.
Session 4: Final Session/Critiques Keeping it open, determined by the class.
Four 3-hour sessions, as well as shooting sessions, photo discussions, and critiques. An individual photo essay will also be done as part of the ongoing class assignments. Inquire at the email address at the top right of this page.
Here are some key posts, for those of you new to the blog, which are a sampling of some of my thoughts about race and ideology in Korea and in general, my view of what it means to be a true American, my answer to the question of "Why don't you talk about more positive things?", my thoughts on why the Korean media is so unprofessional, thoughts on the Korean education system (here and here), my post about and examples of racism in three countries' media and the difference in the way they're handled, my posts (here and here) channeling my anger about Katrina, my post about being black in Korea and the whole Hines Ward thing (here and here and here), a post directed against the fashionable racism of even so-called "progressive" Asian Americans, my first attempt at online activism – a petition against KBS, and even random posts such as why I love Apple and have used an Apple computer, why I think Korea doesn't like Star Trek but should really love Battlestar Galactica, and I am ashamed to say that I have even blogged about my cats (here and here).
As for my photo book (now in limbo due to editorial differences with the publisher), you can see the representative chapters from the "Seoul Essays" posts below. Note that Chapter 3 remains undone and in limbo on my computer:
Chapter I: On the Surface
Chapter II: Pleasures of the Everyday
Chapter IV: To Hell and Back
I have much, much more, but this is a random yet representative sampling of my work to start with.