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I feel obligated to post about a music video from Korea that has become a viral hit in the United States, having even received a few e-mails to do so. Especially since I posted a pretty harsh reaction to what has been up to now hailed as Korean pop's greatest apparent success on the big American stage, the Girls' Generation debut on David Letterman, I feel especially obligated to follow up with a reaction here.
Actually, since I'm in dissertation-writing mode these days, and crunching aspects of Korean popular culture through a theoretical lens, particularly with the film Sopyonje and the national nostalgia for traditional culture that it both sparked and personified, I'm going to simply preface this by lifting wholesale a section that I wrote for my dissertation prospectus, which I tell people now actually begin quote predicted” the popular obsession with Korean mass cultural products.. Now, I'm stopping myself on the for head all the more because that little prediction came true. I still remember talking with another Berkeley graduate student colleague in the driveway of my Oakland house for a couple hours one night, a woman who was in the department of ethnomusicology and has gone to literally write the book about Korean popular musical forms. we were talking about different aspects of how cool Korean music was, and I actually threw into the conversation my opinion about how Korean American identity had defined itself a the "vanguard" of of a way of being Asian-American, one that had suddenly been imbued with a new kind of swagger, a new kind of “cool.” This formed the kernel of a paper prospectus I prepared for the Association of Asian American studies (AAAS) yearly conference, and I was accepted on a panel, but being a poor graduate student, ended up not going and missing a pretty good opportunity to stake my flag in the sand well before anyone was talking about Korean pop culture as being cool outside of Korea. I still remember my idea that Korean pop music or film being met with suspicion and doubt, and my original reasons for believing that Korean popular cultural products could find purchase overseas still remains unchanged, centering around the idea that Korean cultural products will either flop or fly based on their own inherent merit, as well as on context and timing. let me just cut-and-paste here to get this post moving:
As anyone who has lived through the years of identity politics of the 1990s knows, the influence of what I call “iconic multiculturalism,” which overwhelmingly defined culture in its most reductionist forms – food, fan dances, linguistic ability, Africa pendants, and other icons - set the stage for a generation of Asian Americans, many of them Korean Americans and others who are the legacy of their parents’ arrival in the large wave of the late 60s and early 70s. This was the heyday of reductionist Afrocentrism, arguments about so-called PC terminology, essentialist assertions of inherent cultural difference, and the multicultural debates which were the reaction to these signs of fracture within the understanding of what it means to be “American.”
Korean Americans remain a telling example, and are indeed the vanguard of a new Asian American culture, as Korea itself suddenly asserted not only a mass popular culture which Korean Americans suddenly found quite acceptable to their American palates, but also a new desire to preserve and define Korean identity itself. This was and is a desire shared by young Korean Americans hoping to define a “culture” and identity for the first time as individuals and a young ethnic group. It is no coincidence that at the same time, across an ocean of distance and culture, both Koreans and Korean Americans of this generation are engaging the same issues of culture and identity against a seeming torrent of rapid change, disconnection, and a feeling of cultural loss.
At the time, I was quite interested in the then recent phenomenon of Seo Taiji and the Boys' having brought the then new genre of so-called “gangster rap" to South Korea. ground zero of this was a track on their 4th album, entitled Come Back Home." what had impressed me about that particular song was just how adept the group was at not nearly mimicking and aping the stylings of the group Cypress Hill, but at really somehow making that new style truly something of their own, at the same time making Korean rap and the language itself somehow gel naturally into something so good and organic that one can't blame Korean middle school kids around that time for not thinking that they had made it up themselves. even to this day, if you play a Cypress Hill track before listening to the Korean hit song "Come Back Home," it's surprising how much the staccato Spanglish and Ebonics fit well with the Korean language, not to mention the specific high-pitched vocal tones of the lead rappers in both groups, along with the secondary rappers in both groups, both possessed of wilder, more forceful baritone delivery.
My argument at the time revolved around the idea, painfully obvious to me as someone who thinks about institutions, social structures, and the power of forces larger than any individual's power to control, was the fact that South Korea is, and has been for long time, a cultural colony of the United States. Once you can accept this pretty obvious fact and get over unnecessary attachments to national pride, you might be able to buy into what I call the “apt pupil” model of South Korean cultural production. It pretty much goes like this: pretty much every genre of popular music today in South Korea is simply the Korean analogue to the very same genres that are popular in the United States. You can see this going all the way back to the 1980s and before, since when disco and the "new wave" were popular in the US, they were popular back here in Korea. When glam rock and heavy metal were popular in the US, Korean stylings of the same genres were popular in Korea, along with the appropriate haircuts and dress. When rap was busy bursting onto the scene in the American mainstream, it was also starting to enjoy some popularity in Korea, commensurate with the extent to which MTV and most white people started liking it. That's why the 1st rapper most young Koreans ( who actually would you be so young anymore, actually) can remember is MC Hammer, since he became popular here, and as we all know in the US, was the 1st commercially successful-like-a-locomotive act in the US -- remember Hammer pants? I actually bought a CD of MC Hammer's “The Funky Headhunter" in a little music store on Cheju Island. around the time of this album, and MC Hammer's descent into embarrassing obscurity, is when Seo Taiji burst onto the scene with their single " come back home." and when it did, school children across the nation went absolutely bonkers. I really did feel it was like the Beatles' debut on American television. but it wasn't an invasion, but rather the 1st in a long line of Korean groups who would do the Seoul-LA shuffle, successfully learning the style of a popular group in the United States that had previously been hitherto unknown in Korea, perfectly adapting their style to the Korean language and culture, then debuting back home and single-handedly starting a mini revolution within their field. at the time, it occurred to me that the track in question was so good that it could be released back home in the United States, and indeed, most of the Americans I knew at the time really grooved on that song, even mostly forgiving what was obvious to most of us, that they had essentially stolen the style of our much loved, hard smoking Cypress Hill. in fact, I'm told that even Cypress Hill forgave them once they heard the track, Since it was just that damn good.
it goes like this. South Korea, as an “apt pupil” and cultural colony of the United States, is very good at not just mimicking and reproducing the form, as Japan had, but the Korean tendency is to adapt it to the Korean style, for mass Korean consumption. Then, once it bounces back across the Pacific, and Korean-Americans listen to it, it becomes cool enough to bump in the system of ones lowered Acura, or it can attract viewers outside of the target group, such as I found with African-American guys in the Bay Area who actually tuned into Korean cable television and watched the music videos, simply because they were cool enough to watch. simply put, to the outside American eye, these cultural products are familiar, at the same time they are inevitably exotic, as rap music videos that have all the right elements, such as booty shaking girls, swaggering rappers, and such, except they are Korean people doing it in Korean, which in itself can define a certain level of spectacle. so, South Korea is the perfect foil against which to bounce cultural products back at their originators, remain familiar enough to be palatable, yet adding enough difference to be exotic and new.
the reason I beat up on girls generation is because they are an example of something that isn't very familiar, or perhaps too familiar as something reminiscent of musical stylings and groups that have long gone to the wayside in American popular culture, not to mention being off code enough to be off-putting.
to me, it's perfectly obvious why the recent viral success of Psy's music video happened. First of all, it's a catchy tune constructive from the samples of songs that have already been popular in the United States, namely that "No Satisfaction" video, combined with the signature instrumental segue from"Pump Up the Jam."
and the song exists within the new genre of the electro-house craze so popular in clubs today. LMFAO is just as popular in the clubs in Seoul as they are anywhere else in the United States, and in fact just finished touring here. hey, they were in a frickin'n Super Bowl halftime show.
so, Psy makes a catchy tune along these same lines, adding his particular style of self-effacing goofiness as that silly horse dance. and frankly, it's a cute little dance to watch skinny Korean girls doing in formation.
So, when American kids see hot Korean chicks dancing this pretty goofy dance while a dorky looking Korean guy, who by any rights, shouldn't be getting checks as hot as in this video, sings a pretty catchy tune in Korean, one that sounds like something they would really get into in the local club, it has elements of both this familiar and the exotic, combined in just the right way and in the right amounts to make a video, shot with high production values, that people want to watch again and again, enough to become the new YouTube sensation.
but here's what it's not:
it's not the " recognition of Korean culture" that some pundits over here wanted to be.
it's not part of any “Korean wave” apparently sweeping through the United States.
it's simply the result of a perfect storm of factors resulting in a particular cultural product that found popularity in the venue for which it was particularly well-suited -- youTube. And that's it.
A lot of other vested interests are seeing this through their own glasses and filters, but the success of this recent video isn't any mystery, but continues to happen along the same general lines that any other notable pop-culture successes from Korea have followed. Here, just insert Old Boy or The Host into this model and it works just as well.
I went to the park this weekend and had a fight with an ajumma.
But that's actually beside the point of this post. What I really want to talk about is the concept of “micro-aggression.” I recently gave a talk, as I usually do every year, at the Fulbright ETA orientation program about “being different in Korea." I brought up the topic of micro aggression in terms of Korea supposedly being a “Confucian culture” by popular description only, but not in fact. I describe Korea's continuing the tradition of the show of Confucianism, but which can be described in reality as a hierarchical system that shares more in common with vestiges of Japanese colonial rule than a pure Confucian social system based on a give and take between elders who stand as moral examples and juniors who follow their lead. I'll illustrate that point with the story I'm about to tell.
I put together outdoor frisbee time with some friends and acquaintances who were interested in doing a little bit more activity or exercise time in on the weekend. We were meeting at the Han River Park, right outside the subway station exit. There was little Family Mart set up right outside the exit with an advertisement for a “Family Mart Café.” So I figured I would kill the better part of an hour weeding in the air-conditioned comfort of the café, since I was buying a drink anyway. I asked guy at the counter where the café was, since I didn't see any chairs inside the store. He told me to go behind his store, where the café would be. So, I bought my milk and went behind the store, out the back door, as he told me. I then sat down to do some Facebook and the cool air and relax in the chair while waiting.
I had a strange feeling of déjà vu, since the last time I came to the Han River was with my friend Ann, then visiting Korea. I could swear this was the same café that had been, at that point, a little restaurant where many people had beer and a bite to eat after an evening of walking along the river. I actually went over to the counter simply to make that little piece of small talk, to ask the question of whether this little café had been a restaurant around 2 summers ago, and to say that I think I had been there before, but it appeared that the management had changed. The lady simply replied, while frying up her chicken for a table full of students nearby, that she had owned the place for the last 2 years and she didn't know what this building had been before. Satisfied with that answer, I just want to sit back down and wait for one of my party to show up. 2 friends came, at which point we chatted for a bit, then went outside to buy some slushees, before coming back inside to cool off before going off to play frisbee.
At this point, the lady with whom I had just exchanged pleasant words a few minutes ago starts yelling at me about not being allowed to bring in outside food or beverages, and what kind of person does that, anyway? Obviously, I was a bit surprised, and then I look up and pay attention to the large sign written in very cartoony letters saying that “outside food and beverages are not permitted on the premises.” One reason I hadn't seen that sign was because it was written in such cutesy and flowery font that I hadn't bothered to try to decipher it, since reading in Korean written in balloony and flowery script isn't my forte, so I hadn't noticed the sign, since I didn't want to make the mental effort, as I often don't, when faced with useless visual chatter, such as advertisements or handwritten menus, which I probably assumed that sign to be when I originally entered the place. Another reason I probably hadn't taken heed of this warning, besides not having actually read it, is because I had asked the guy at the counter of the convenience store where their café was, and he had pointed me in this direction. I had assumed that this was a café where one could order something in the convenience store and then take a seat in the café. There are some of these combinations between café and convenient store around town, namely in the University areas, and also in the Buy the Way convenience store chain, which proudly advertises their convenience store and café combination franchises, where you can order something in the store and sit in the café section, although reading through the magazines before buying them was definitely a no-no, for obvious reasons.
So, having entered the café with the understanding from the convenience store guy that this was where I should go to drink the beverage I had purchased, I was pretty surprised to be suddenly yelled at. So, I simply explained that the convenience store guy had told me to come here, after me having asked where the Family Mart café was. I felt like the whole thing was just a big misunderstanding, and I certainly wasn't trying to be a freeloader, because I understand perfectly well that the owner would not appreciate people coming in and sitting down without ordering stuff in there coffee shop sitting on an expensive piece of real estate. But thinking about the sign again, I reasoned that I wasn't the 1st person to make this mistake or have this assumption, since otherwise why would they bother to make a sign? So I simply explained to the lady that I had actually asked him had been directed here, and hadn't done this on purpose. I also asked her to lower her voice, since I didn't think it was necessary to go, nor did I appreciate her nasty way of handling the situation. My perspective was that I was simply a customer who had made a mistake, and not someone who had called her out of her name, so the vitriol was completely unnecessary. I was doing this in mind most polite Korean, saying that Ihad obviously just made a mistake, and that it wasn't necessary to yell or put each other into a bad mood. (It makes much more sense in Korean.)
It was at this point that a young man, probably around the age of 23 or 24, jumped in to the conversation. So, despite the fact that he wasn't involved in any of this, he decides to admonish me, stopping me in midsentence, saying that this is Korea and I should just apologize and admit my mistake, instead of trying to "start trouble." Obviously, I got irritated at this kid, whose name should have been Bennett, cause he wasn't in it, who was trying to admonish me for simply trying to explain what happened and save some face, since this lady had called me out in the middle of the entire café, yelling at me like I was a six-year-old child.
Of course, I understood her point as a business owner being irritated by the occasional freeloading customer trying to get some free AC and a seat, but as an innocent party, I was simply trying to explain that what she thought was happening wasn't what had happened, and she had caused me to lose face by calling me out in the middle of a café, on top of yelling at me like I had no sense. But that wasn't the real problem here.
I wasn't really that thing with the ladies to begin with, but more geared. At this sudden chiding in public. More than trying to win the conversation, or fish for an apology, I was just trying to end the encounter by explaining myself. And I am a 40-year-old in Korea. After a certain point, and especially after leaving one's 20s, you just get used to a certain level of play treatment by both those younger than you and adults in your age range. But what really chaps my hide with this. Was when you started saying how, as a foreigner coming to Korea, I needed to respect Korean ways of doing things and blah blah blah, at which point I got hot and told him to mind his own business, and it occurred to me that he was violating his own little chiding, by talking to me as if I'm not actually probably 15 years older than him and a professional--a professor, which is important in the Korean scheme of things, which is what he was ostensibly talking about. What occurred to me was that had I been a Korean professor, 40 years of age, he wouldn't have dared open his snide little trap in my general direction. What was really going on here was that he was disciplining me for being a "bad foreigner" and for daring to speak out against a venerated Korean. So, I sarcastically asked him if he was some anthropology professor or something, and who he was to tell me how to behave in Korea. I then continued by saying that I have lived here for 12 years and I didn't need his little lecture. At which point, he replied in English, with a sarcastic “whatever.” If he was really about the Confucianism, he should've figured that now was about time to shut the hell up. I was obviously a lot older than this kid, and it wasn't his business in the first place, a fact that I communicated to him again. Surely, it would be difficult to argue that shooting “whatever” at me in Korean would or could PM line with much vaunted, ancient, Confucian ways. Basically, it comes down to the fact that this was a punk kid irritated at watching a foreigner act “out of place.”
So, instead of switching to English and tell him his kid to go fuck his mother, since he would've understood that, but also expected that, I pulled the main trick I have learned. Korea when arguing, which is to say and deep insult in a sarcastic manner, placing the other person in the position of having caused you to lose face, which in turn causes them to lose face. (쳬면) composing myself so that my voice was shaking in anger, and calling upon my best Korean, I indignantly asked, “even though I'm a dirty foreigner, I'm still a human being, and entitled to be angry if someone starts yelling at me enough to hurt my feelings. Stop turning this into a foreigner/Korean issue, and stay out of it.This is a conversation between me and the lady, not you. We're just 2 people talking. Even though I'm a foreigner, am I not allowed to be irritated and say what I want to say?" At that point, kids just maintained his “whatever” stance of being dismissive and rude.
Now, my mom, who is Korean, for even came to Korea, warned me not to let Koreans take advantage of me or walk over me, even though I had to learn the culture. That's a great piece of advice for anyone living here. Sure, we have to respect the culture, but one also has to respect oneself.. People who confuse letting individuals walk all over them and turning that into a conversation about ” respecting the culture” are headed for some serious trouble.
THe trick here is that while you should course “respect the culture,” you have to remember that you are human being living in and the society full of social roles and social rules. None of us are automatons. We are all human, although non-Koreans are humans raised in a different cultural milieu, but no matter where we are from, people don't relate to each other by observing abstract social rules and mechanically following them for the sake of doing so. That's like arguing that languages, with their different vocabularies and grammars, can only be used in a certain way, to say certain things. But humans use language in creative ways, and often creatively break the rules in order to accomplish certain goals and for specific effect. If life, or languages, weren't meant for rules to be broken or even change when necessary, there would be no evolution, no progressive synthesis. Apparently, the kid in question was extremely bothered by watching a non-Korean arguing with a Korean. Him that was obviously foremost in his mind, and no matter the content of the argument, the rationale he used to justify his position was that a younger person should not overly express irritation or show anger to an elder person under any circumstances. What made his hypocrisy obvious was the fact that he was being so flagrantly and unapologetically rude to me in telling me to basically shut up. Obviously,his own rationale for being angry with me disagreeing with the older lady didn't apply to himself, who was being actively rude to an older man, namely me. This is what makes the whole exchange ridiculous, in that he was violating the very rule he was telling me to adhere to.
That's what qualifies this as a micro-aggression in my mind. In his mind, me being a foreigner somehow places him, as a Korean, higher on the hierarchy than me. Him being Korean allows him to somehow feel justified in calling me out, in calling me out and away he would never dream of doing to an older Korean man, arrogating himself to the level of actually trying to lecture me as if he had the authority to do so.
Let's break it down.
What were some of the social rules I broke? -- I spoke up against a person who was older than me.
What was the social rules broken by the older lady, the way I saw it? --As a customer, even one who was breaking a rule of the establishment, it's expected that, in a business related to the service industry, patrons should be given a certain basic respect. --Fellow adults in Korea generally treat each other with and speak to one another with a certain basic level of civility. Even if the patron is in the wrong, like not dumping the ice out of the glass before putting it in the bin, you don't yell and put on a show as if this were one's house. What I would expect in this situation is for someone from the establishment to politely approach me and say, “excuse me, but we don't allow the consumption of outside food or beverages in this café.” If I became irate and indignant at that point, I would be an asshole.
What were the social rules that I broke, from the rude kid's point of view? -- Foreigners should follow proscribed rules without question or deviation. Otherwise, they are being "disrespectful" of "Korean culture."
It goes without saying, at this point, that there are different sets of rules here applying to different people. Rules are meant to be broken, as the old adage goes, and there is indeed a time and a place for just about anything. In living my own life and navigating the complexities that that brings, I have come up with my own set of rules to follow, one of which is:
--Never cross a Korean ajumma.
So, I've violated my own rule that day, because I generally find it not worth my time to disagree with or go against the will of an ajumma. But life is complex, and getting called out like that would have pissed off most normal people, especially if one truly made an innocent mistake. And in the Confucian set of rules, what happens when the elder person is in the wrong? Most Koreans would answer is simply be quiet and accept it. But, I am an American, through and through. So, although I have learned to accept this way of thinking, and in order to maintain social harmony in Korean organizations, not to mention my job in many situations, I have bitten my tongue many a time, even and especially when the elder was acting straight crazy. But the thing about life is that there are exceptions, and times when rules need to be broken. My personal sense of self-worth, combined with my sense of entitlement as a customer combined to make me stand up and say, “hey, this is a little much. Your behavior right now is a little inappropriate.”
And that's the problem with so-called “Korean culture.” When it becomes reified as this concrete, unchangeable thing, and inviolate set of rules, were not talking about real life or real people anymore. No matter where you go, in any society, there are social rules and often, the stricter they are, the more creatively people try to break them.
What is unique about this situation, and what causes me to believe that “multiculturalism” as a policy won't work here in Korea, at least until this is parsed out in a meaningful way to people on the ground, is that interactions between those who were considered insiders and outsiders to the culture are regulated seen as things to be regulated and controlled by the insiders, and on the insiders' terms only.
So, when Korean “multiculturalism” is represented on television and in feel-good news stories, it invariably involves a foreigner conforming to Korean social rules and customs. You see stories of Vietnamese mail order brides learning how to cook Korean food for their husbands, blonde, white women wearing Korean traditional dress on major national holidays on television, or foreigners doing the monkey dance and wowing the audience by *GASP speaking fluent Korean, which is apparently amazing enough of an act to land them on television. Patterns of representation such as this set the terms of how multiculturalism will be done here, and the implied message, the unspoken role norm, is that the “good foreigner” follows the Korean way of doing things, no matter what, without thinking or room for adjustment according to the logic of the situation. Using this overarching logic of foreigner versus Korean,, the only way the Korean can be seen as out of line is if something is done to cause the nation to lose face. Had the older Korean lady started yelling and cursing and made a show of pushing me out the front door, instead of that appearing as overboard on a fellow human being, or a mere patron, they can only be considered wrong if the older lady is seen as embarrassing “Korea” by treating the visiting foreigner rudely.
You see how this works, and why this bothers me so much??
No matter what, in the mind of this kid, the only thing that matters is that I'm a foreigner. Whether or not, as a patron, I'm right isn't really what he's concerned about. The very rule he sees as inviolate as it applies to me is the one he himself is violating at that very moment.
That's what's been bothering me lately, as my Korean has continued to improve to the point where I can have quite complex and intricate conversation more easily. I realize that no matter what I actually say, I am not being viewed as a person speaking Korean who happens to be from another land, or even a real human being, since the fanatical obsession with English in this society often turns even the simplest conversation into a speaking and listening comprehension test. Often, I'm having what appears to me to be a conversation, but to my Korean counterpart is obviously nothing more than an ongoing test or challenge of one's language ability. It's a grammar game next first and conversation as an afterthought. The content of the conversation itself is just filler.
I really wonder how it is for someone who looks like me but is Korean, born and bred in this country, but who walks around being greeted in English, although that person doesn't speak that language any better than the average Korean speaking to him or her, and being treated as a perpetual visitor or outsider.. And in the same situation as in the coffee shop, that guy would feel compelled to apologize to my brown Korean doppelgänger only if he added, " actually, I'm Korean, not a foreigner."
Anyway, to wrap this story and post up, after playing frisbee for little while, we went to buy more slushees, and I thought to buy one for the lady as I went in to give her one by way of a gesture of reconciliation. I learned a long time ago that conflict followed by resolution and reconciliation is often the best medicine for situations such as this in Korea. this is a place where maintenance of social harmony is paramount, and no matter the reason for making waves, setting things back into equilibrium between all parties is seen a lofty as a worthy goal.
As I did so, the older lady apologized to me for our " misunderstanding," at which point I gave my own obligatory apology for causing so much trouble, since she had made the 1st gesture, since and I would be doubly rude by simply accepting publicly that she was in the wrong and gloating, or continuing to push the point. I had done good by coming into reconcile, and she had made her own gesture of being the 1st to apologize, even as I said, " no, no, I should have not made the mistake, it was all just a misunderstanding, etc."
I wish that kid had been there, since he would have seen that yes, people do sometimes get irritated at each other in society, and that yes, this particular dirty foreigner knows how to comport oneself very well in Korea, thank you.
You little punk. 이 사가지 없는 놈아.
I apologize to those who ask for care for being lax about posting. While it is true that I had a massive stroke, a bleed out from my right basal ganglia, I've experienced a near total recovery after having lost the use of my left side initially. that was a pretty damn scary experience, one that moved me to finally get off my asked and get back into the gym and control my diet, and I'm happy to report that I'm down to 117 kg as of today, from above 130 kg just before the stroke.
But I don't want to recount all that here. For those who are interested, you can see a pretty good chronicle of the entire experience on my Facebook profile, which is at www.Facebook.com/Metropolitician. apparently, you can follow Facebook profiles now like a twitter account, so we don't have to be full on friends. Just follow my updates.
In actuality, there are 2 reasons I'm posting here again. One is that because of the stroke, which left my typing for shit because my left hand is just not what it used to be, I purchased the full version of Dragon dictate for the Mac, but not to blog again, but tofinally finish my dissertation by this fall, and it has come to be an indispensable tool. It's accuracy is simply amazing. I can't recommend these voice recognition programs enough. The other real reason I'm back at it right now is because I finally paid my TypePad bill, which had gone late partially because I was in the hospital for a few months, partially because I really wasn't thinking about blogging while I was trying to get my left side to move again, and partially because I finally got some cash into my American account to pay my bill.
But the motivation that did exist for blogging here again is that I do have some loyal readers, which are recent e-mail reminded me, since a very friendly and worried reader sent me an e-mail expressing his worry at my sudden disappearance, since he had heard about the stroke through the grapevine.
I am here to officially say that I am okay and nearly totally recovered, and now on the road to getting my life truly back on track. Evidence of this is my recent improvement in health, getting around to doing things I kept meaning to do years ago, namely working out and watching my diet, and part of this new motivation includes the completion of the dissertation and doctoral degree I should have finished out years ago. So, you'll see occasional posts here, but most of my energy and efforts are going to go into the dissertation. I'm toying with the idea of posting chunks of it or entire chapters as posts, to sort of get a conversation going and my juices flowing.
I also now live in Haebangchon, which is significantly cheaper than where I lived before, and is the place where I will live in my fortress of solitude, without working, as I live off of my insurance settlement and finish the dissertation once and for all. So, the new humbled and healthy Metropolitician plans to hit the job market with PhD in hand sometime next year, and move on into life with more academic projects, which I should have been doing for a long time. This doesn't mean my photography projects are at and and, nor has my interest in the subject abated. I'm just going to take it easy for a while, teach my classes in the subject on the side, and use the next Seoul Fashion Week as a reward for a dissertation well completed. By the time October rolls around, I plan to be either finished or in the last stages of wrapping it up.
That PhD, I do declare here, will be as much of a present to my mother as it will be for me. it's time to finish things up and move on. This stroke was, surprisingly enough, a wake-up call on a lot of levels. I'm going to use it positively, since that's really the only way to do things, and see it as a benefit, not a detriment to my life.
So in sum, I am recovering, healthy, and getting back on the road to more academic pursuits. It's nice to see you all here.
Some of you have missed the point of what I actually said in my initial post on Girls' Generation's appearance on Letterman, and instead, engaged in straw-manning and oversimplifying my argument. Such is the way of the Internet, I guess.
Read this comment here, since it lays out what I actually am saying, not what people think I am saying. Reading comprehension skills, people -- not scanning for keywords. A lot of you are ostensibly English teachers, no?
1) I am not predicting the "demise" of K-pop, nor am I in the dark about it being very popular in China, Taiwan, the Phillipines, Japan. Nor am I ignorant of the fact that it's a vibrant sub-genre in the US. But it ain't what the Korean media is saying, and will remain about where it is, enabled by changing demographics and the easier distribution of music along different parts of the long tail pattern.
2) But music requires talent. Great musicians posses virtuosity. Acts that have jostled people out of where they already were, as in the many examples I cited, possessed virtuosity -- they caused people to sit up, go out and buy the LP, or the CD, or Google them. And you might even find them on iTunes, since a) you know to look, and b) iTunes is one of the aggregators that lets you FIND it. GG just wasn't that good, they dont really have a new sound, especially to the American ears they find great inspiration from.
3) People think only about PUSH, not PULL. As in immigration theory, it's not just that people want to leave their own country, but there has to be a pull that brings them in, as well. Such a theory would apply to cultural trends as well. It's not just that GG wants to enter the American market, or that their boosters really really want them to succeed; the cultural codes, market needs/niches of the receiving culture also matter -- and on this score, I don't see the viewers of Dave being jostled out of their seats enough to care about this random group of kids. This is the same problem I've been positing in ALL attempts to push Korean culture abroad, well before GG's appearance.
4) National blinders lead people to patterns that aren't there. This is a greater example of what I saw in movie theaters in the 1990s. No, this doesn't mean I'm an old fogey. One might call this "perspective": whenever a Samsung logo would accidentally flash across the screen in a Hollywood movie, or "Hyosung" would appear as a sign in the backdrop, the Korean audience would give out a loud "Wooooooo" and would be a-titter for a minute or so. I would roll my eyes; my peers in the States probably wouldn't notice; Koreans would see this as a pattern of "growing recognition/power/penetration/knowledge of Korean culture/brand power/dominance" in the world. In short, the Koreans would see a discrete phenomenon; Americans would just see Peter Parker as Spiderman using a computer.
Such are the problems with seeing huge patterns, making great prognostications, calling the game well before the second inning has even started.
Thus far, to the extent that Korean culture HAS found greater popular purchase and success worldwide, it followed examples of virtuosity -- Old Boy blew 'em away at Cannes and the French got hooked into the gritty, noir style of Korean cinema. Killer dramas in the late 1990s brought a new genre with high production values and Asian cultural values to other countries in Asia. It defined a different aesthetic. Even in Korean music, still, the most purchase ha been found in Asia, and mostly amount the ey young.
And the same is true in the US. GG's performance didn't shake the foundations of music, or even cause much of a stir -- MUSICALLY. That's the point. Everyone is cheering for them because of the import ths has for "Korea" or "Koreans" -- but that isn't pertinent to te matter at hand: those who already know, or be inclined to care, about a Korean girl group with little distinguishing talent appearing on Letterman are the proverbial choir that's already heard the sermon. Those who don't, or who won't be inclined to care, won't be moved enough to do so.
That's all I'm saying.
To be clear -- for singers, virtuosity matters. At least, and especially, in the US. We're not just talking about "Korean culture" in the abstract, but one thing that determines whether or not a singer, let alone an entire genre, will make it -- their singing ability, stage presence, novelty -- all of it.
People here have been calling me an old fogey, saying I'm out of touch. It's a new age, gramps, and the kids won't get off yer lawn.
But in the US, virtuosity leads to glowing reviews, being asked to do a guest performance on an awards show, getting on the cover of Rolling Stone, getting asked to appear on every single other late night show there is, becoming the musical guest on SNL -- oh, and speaking English well enough to not just make it through an interview without embarrassing oneself, which is unfortunately, the bar as it stands now, since that's what everyone would be worried about if one or two of the girls was asked to speak/spar with Dave, but to actually impress, to promote oneself well.
Virtuosity matters, people. This is music we're talking about. Just as the script, cinematography, directing, and acting matters in a film. And no matter the circumstances of how a Korean film might end up getting premiered in NYC, Chicago, and LA -- as Shiri was, and which Koreans were touting as the seminal moment for something at the time, the film sucked. At least by American standards.
And it didn't lead to larger distribution, it didn't lead to getting shown in a Michigan cineplex. I saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the Midwest, after it had been show in the artsy theaters, after the buzz had led it to wider release, then full-on nationwide release, at which point I sat in a Midwest mall cinema, marveling that a Chinese-language, subtitled film that could easily be mistaken for the chop-socky schlock I used to love watching the local stations on Sunday afternoons as a kid -- could somehow be on the big screen. Why did it make it, as a foreign film being watched in an American theater, something most Americans do NOT want to watch, especially with subs?
Because it was just that fucking good.
As the man says to Merv, "You either got it or you don't have it. And she's go it!" Listen to the way she ends the song -- she's got it. It doesn't even matter that this was a cover -- not even a new song. She just sang the living sheeeet out of that song, in a way that kinda blew away the original. She brought a fresh novelty to a song people already knew. Damn.
And people say this is "unfair" to compare the two? Sorry. Dave is as important as Merv Griffin ever was, and Whitney had her people pushing her, just as GG does, and they got to stand in the harsh spotlight, take their shot. That spotlight doesn't accept excuses, explanations, or sympathetic stories. And this is the American market. Justin Bieber's YouTube hits don't mean squat, short of getting him noticed by Usher, and then pushed out further. But like him or loathe him, Bieber's got it. Whitney had it. Girls' Generation? Come on. Did we all really watch the same video?
And to those who say that it's unfair to compare them to Beyonce or Whitney or whomever else? Come on -- somehow, however, GG got into the Big Boy Chair (erm, Big Girl Chair, if you prefer) in the US of A, where the bar is high, where major mf's perform in that spot daily. You step up, perform, take your shot. And from what I saw, on the bar that either Joe Schmoe eating his popcorn and flipping channels has, which is actually the same bar some hip music journalist in her Manhattan apartment has while she watches the show and dismisses them as awkward, derivative, and a little "off" -- they struck out.
That's what you bring to a national telvision debut. You fucking bring IT. You either cause goodbumps or people go "Meh" and forget they ever heard you. Especially in the new media age, where people are bombarded with stuff all the time. You make the host go "Whoa!" and the audience stand up. Or you go home and no one remembers you.
And that's what people are forgetting about here. Even if GG had been good, or special, or offered something truly novel, which they weren't and didn't -- it still doesn't necessarily mean much in some larger sense, i.e. "Korea is..." or "Korean culture is..." or "K-pop has finally..."
If GG had just killed on Letterman, I bet a lot more people would be interested in...da da da dum...Girls' Generation! Whether that would have led more people to suddenly love Korean pop -- BESIDES THOSE WHO ARE ALREADY DEMOGRAPHICALLY INCLINED TO -- is a stretch to assume would happen.
And that's already two steps way past what we actually saw.
I wrote this post about culture codes as they might apply to Korea in 2006, before Clotaire Rapaille's book The Culture Code had even come out, talking about Korea and the iPod, why the codes were suddenly valid enough to make the iPod a hit in Korea. Remember, this is back in the dinosaur ages when most Koreans firmly believed Apple would never sink the unsinkable iRiver market. Ahem.
I repost this as I talk about culture codes now, in 2011, and why I think the Girls' Generation appearance on Letterman won't be the opening of any floodgates, but will be another mere blip on the pop culture radar in the US, a curiosity that will be forgotten, or if remembered, for the wrong reasons.
Roboseyo posted about Girls' Generation's debut on Letterman, the first network appearance of a K-Pop group. The Korean media will lap it up and add to the PR meme machine producing the false impression that "the Korean Wave is conquering the US" or that there is even a "Korean Wave" to begin with, without properly contextualizing what that appearance actually means and what kind of image it will really project -- versus what kind of image KOREANS want to project. And in that difference, dear readers, has always lain the rub.
And detractors, be fair. One might say that this is due to some "haterism," or ring of the accusation that I "hate Korea," but I've been writing about these culture codes for years, specifically in regards to the Wonder Girls and other girl groups, about the appropriateness of Girls' Generation shaking their asses at a historical event with the president in attendance, and all kinds of culture-crunching -- since like 2007, people. It's not a hastily-made glass of Haterade™, nor my overgrown sense of schadenfreude at seeing K-Pop flop (OK, maybe just a little, but only because I think they're doing it the wrong way, and all the time, and I really wish they'd stop), but again -- I wish someone would just think about ANY of the things I always mention.
Sorry -- just playing objective, as if I were Joe Schmoe in Ohio watching them, with no knowledge or predisposition to liking K-Pop.
With the likes of Destiny's Child, Madonna, and all the other great acts that have graced network TV in general and Letterman specifically -- come on, now. I saw Green Day premiere on SNL and was blown away in 1994. I've seen a veritable nobody like Sharon Jones go from YouTube hit to nationwide sensation with her Letterman debut, let's not even get to Justin Bieber.
THAT'S the bar. I know fans are pulling for GG, K-pop people are cutting them slack. But that's the level we're talking and whether or not it's their fault, Joe Schmoe in Ohio is going to be thinking "Why are there so many ppl packed up on that stage?" and/or "Man, those are some babes! They can't really sing, but man, can they shake their asses!" because -- and let's get 100% real here -- they might be "good for a Korean group" but their choreography would have been embarrassing had they been a high school cheerleading squad of blonde chicks from central Ohio. Sure, I think the small stage and its irregular size probably confused things -- but it doesn't matter. That's how they came off.
And the last problem I see is that the culture code doesn't match. There's the question of why so many girls, and the only thing the average American has to compare such a spectacle of a not-so-spectacular singing, not-so-well-dancing gaggle of girls is to what we would call a "revue" of girls, with neon bulb lights on the 42nd Street of old. Or maybe some girls in the strip club.
Seriously -- I'm not trying to be mean -- that's the impression I would have of them were I not a K-Pop fan wanting to cut them slack. And the reaction of Bill and Regis was basically polite confusion, kinda like WTF? I've seen musical groups knock it out the box, and when the greetings come, it's cheerful, genuine, and very friendly -- especially if it's a gaggle of barely-not-teenager girls in hot pants and hooker boots. Don't you think it would have been easier to appear more excited after their performance? Especially for a bunch of hot cuties? But that's not what we saw.
And my last thing is on the culture code of Korean "sexy-but-I'm still-demure" versus American "sexy." That's why the Wonder Girls could never work -- especially when they were younger -- because it's just...umm...weird to see Sohee trussed up like Jodi Foster in Taxi Driver. It's why that Russian underage porno-music duo back in the early 2000's was so controversial, and is the only source of their brief notoriety -- that very controversy. We all knew they sucked (I mean, much worse than GG), and why they were even on stage. Britney Spears -- the message wasn't confused -- even in the first video, "Hit Me Baby One More Time" it was playing on the Lolita image, but it was overtly sexy -- and when she was cute, as in other videos on that same album, she was simply CUTE. And STILL, there was controversy because of her age. But when she came out as sexy, as in "Oops," and she was in that red spacesuit outfit, she was straight up SEXY. Not a coy, "Oh, I'm a sexy girl (but no I'm not, oppa)" or "I'm a little girl (and LOOK like one), but I'm a little sexy for you (ajussi)" -- EWW.
That was the Wonder Girls. GG on stage doing the stripper pole wiggle, then covering up in a coy gesture of shyness -- it comes off as more of a weird tease, and lest we forget -- in terms of the culture code, America is essentially a conservative country. People still bristle at the existence of Hooters, which would be about the tamest way to objectify girls there IS in Korea, and when Britney came out with say, that Rolling Stone cover of her, it was a cultural hand grenade. And she didn't even cross the line that much, meaning that her message wasn't that confused. She was either/or. Not both. Yet, she still caught flak for her age and the Lolita reference.
GG are the highest evolution of singing/dancing 도우미. That figure exists in South Korea at a much higher level than the "gamer babes" at a large convention, or mere "racing girls" across the world. Korea has singing girls to open up bakeries and sell toothpaste in the gorcery stores. The management of GG in specific has admitted that their target market is 40-something males, and their commercial activity shows that. Lee Hyori shakes her ass and sells soju, while GG shakes their ass and sells many other things, from bank accounts to ramen. But mix them codes and you get...
Britney Spears shaking her ass and actually talking about how to shake the beer can to get that foam head going? That'd be just about the end of an American pop icon's career, or at least seen to be the sign OF it. But that's my point. And I've blogged about this a long time before.
The codes for selling shit, drinking ads (Britney might get away with Coke, but not Coor's) -- it's different. Normally, one can say that selling Cass on Korean TV and being a star and hawking Pepsi can't be compared, and you'd be right.
But now, GG is showing up on Letterman. And they're going to be judged by American culture codes, inevitably, not the few sympathetic folks who can actually tell them apart, know their names, and understand the genre in the foreign land they come from. All of whom will probably be Korean or living in Korea. Or an American teenager into Asian music.
Otherwise, both churchgoing Mary Jane Smith in Arkansas or Missy Cool in NYC are going to furrow their brow while watching Letterman and go, "What the hell is this gaggle of Asian chicks in hot pants doing on Letterman?" Or, as the men will tend to react, "Man, did you see that gang of hot Korean chicks shaking their asses on Letterman?" But, alas, that's one of the draws of GG -- unfortunately, there won't be much impression beyond that for most men -- at least, not based on the originality of their act, how well they sing or dance, or anything that will actually generate an interest in Korean music.
Sorry. It's the way Korean producers and cultural content handlers try to package and export culture, and how they don't understand the code. You know what would work better? Let's do a thought experiment.
Suppose, instead of copying and repackaging popular American pop sounds and creating generic bands the size of some smaller countries' armies, the Korean pop music system had 1) variety in its most popular offerings, as well as 2) virtuosity, as in -- yes, displaying actual singers with real talent, who DO exist here, but never make it through the it-must-appeal-to-teenagers-and-be-overtly-saucy-on-television test.
Suppose a fucking SUPER-diva such as Pak Mi Kyoung could actually be 1) a woman, 2) talented, 3) above the age of 30, and 4) allowed to be famous -- suppose her talent and experience and stage presence didn't have a shelf life and were allowed to grow, with her doing pop hits in the 90's and beyond.
Suppose a star like that, with a voice like that, could have been allowed to evolve past the late 90's. Perhaps the Korean market actually allowed for the diversity and virtuosity that briefly produced so many interesting Korean films from the late 90's, when government censorship ended and before Korean cinema was identified, packaged, and constricted into what has been called a "Wave" -- suppose all that had happened.
Eventually, someone, some group from Korea, would end up on Letterman and actually bring something 1) uniquely Korean, yet familiar to connect with, and it was 2) actually good, on the level that Americans will inevitably compare it to, since we're talking abou the likes of Beyonce, Lady Gaga, John Legend, Mos Def, Justin Bieber, and the like.
Let's just suppose we can imagine a world in which the first Korean musical act to perform on Letterman weren't a bunch of barely-distinguishable doumi dancers who lack the very variety and virtuosity that get acts recognized on Letterman, that helps make impressions, that gets people on the map and keeps them there.
Sharon Jones brought a new song in a genre we had thought had naturally died. She and the Dap Kings killed. And they launched onto every late show there was and launched a successful career in the little genre they helped revive.
When we see someone come on Letterman, we want the variety to give us something new, we want the virtuosity that makes us sit up and take notice. The only way Girls' Generation passes the variety test is by virtue of being a group of femme bot-like hot Asian chicks doing a group lap dance on stage -- which is not much of a virtue, to say the least. And in terms of virtuosity, well. Come on. Really?
If you've lived in Seoul long enough, are a native speaker of English, but also have been sufficiently saturated in the sounds and feelings of the Korean language, the names of certain subway stations can start to sound...kinda sexy. Naughty. Even a little dirty.
"Shindaebang." Yeah, muthafucker.
"Beotigogae." Oh, yeeeeeeah. Gimme dat boodie meat.
"Gaebong." Oh, you know why that's nasty.
"Suk-gye." Isn't that illegal in Alabama?
"Wangshimni." Because I like it extra large.
"Daebang." The big bang.
Naebang." Even deeper, baby.
"Namsung." All man, all the time.
"Shinpoong." The "blow" that always feels new.
And finally, "Jeongja." Ewwwwwwwwwww!
The "comfort women" aren't just political tools for the rest of Asia (see the political cartoon below, in which the North Korean (Chinese?) says, "Here are the witnesses for our side..." while the (Japanese) "New Right" asserts, "There was a lot of voluntary prostitution, too!"
Well, yeah, but the story of the so-called "comfort women" isn't so simple. As this issue swirls in the Korean press, which is intently watching this political show going on in the US, there is a lot of nationalist huffing and puffing going on, in terms of demanding apologies and talking about Japanese responsibility.
But you have to look closer, especially when talking about this issue being discussed in South Korea, where the issue of the "comfort women" has been reduced to a simplistic and convenient nationalist foil, as opposed to an issue that speaks to not just Japanese military crimes during WWII, but to the entire period of forced, compressed development at any cost, the lack of participatory democracy in the south under dictatorship, and the political uses of history in South Korean politics and society.
First of all, without mentioning any names, I had extensive and enlightening conversations with two researchers who worked with many of these women for nearly a year apiece, doing deep and meaningful work that considered the personal experiences these elder survivors as not just historical fodder for the proof of how horrible the Japanese were, but critically examined the historical and political discourse that had been created around them.
I used the passive tense on purpose there, because it accurately conveys the lack of agency and choice that goes into how the symbol of Korean comfort women is constructed – as constructed and used by everyone except for them.
The insider example I can give you is that of the criticisms that came out in discussions with a colleague of mine who was working with some of these women about the time when Korean society was buzzing about the fact that 4.1% of South Korea's economy was still made of prostitution as of 2002, and that high and low estimates counted as many as 1 million down to a "mere" 300,000 women working in the sex industry at any one time.
This was an issue I was wrestling with, and I put it to my colleague that I found it unfathomable that none of the comfort women made these connections between militarized sexualized slavery, the South Korean government's use of so-called "kisaeng diplomacy" to gather capital from American GI's and Japanese businessmen, and the continued protection of the system by the Korean government that not only protected and nurtured the system that had been formalized and expanded by the Japanese, but had actively suppressed the historical narratives and witnessing of these women for decades.
In fact, and ironically, it was a Japanese historian who first vaulted the story into the realm of historical fact in Japan, along with many Japanese journalists, at a time when the women in question had little more than their testimony, and the South Korean government had done everything in its power to publicly muzzle this historical narrative lest it interfere with Korean-Japanese relations. (reference and good concrete summary of the issue's evolution)
In fact, South Korean citizens and the rest of the world didn't even find out until 2005 that yes, indeedy, according to secret documents released that year, the South Korean government had taken compensation for individual victims of Japanese imperialism and wartime actions – down to the won for specific kinds of victimization – but had not offered that to a single victim.
That was part of the 1965 Normalization Treaty between the two countries that everyone knew about, but didn't catch wind of the specific, classified details until exactly 40 years later (see here and here and here and here).
During the normalization talks, the government hurried negotiations along in a bid to secure foreign capital needed for economic development, and it used the claims fund to push ahead with large-scale economic projects like the Seoul-Busan expressway and Pohang Iron and Steel. In other words, it sacrificed the compensation of individual victims on the altar of economic development.
Under the circumstances, that was unavoidable and for the benefit of the entire population. But now the government should endeavor to resolve the matter from a different perspective.
Japan meanwhile holds that its responsibility for compensation ceased with the settlement of negotiated claims, and our government has left a document acknowledging this. But the Japanese government, instead of insisting that, legally speaking, its responsibility toward Asian countries has evaporated, should reflect on its moral responsibility. That is what a lasting political solution must be based on. (source)
So if the Korean government didn't want – for 40 years – to look history and past actions squarely in the eye, for fear of the political and fiscal implications (without even getting the question of "moral responsibility," which most South Koreans "delink" into irrelevancy), how can it realistically expect the Japanese government to do the same, when Japan's justification for not offering the apologies demanded of them are based in the same document that makes the Korean government itself queasy with financial fear?
This issue is far more complex than just fishing around for a symbolic apology – which would be nice, but misses the point when it elides the question of why those women are sitting in those chairs, still feeling ignored by governments, still feeling used as political tools, all along with the fact that their voices are rarely the ones we hear speaking – it's usually people speaking about them, in their names.
Back to the discussion with my colleague, she pointed out that the "comfort women" in fact DID and DO make those connections, as many moved from being "liberated" from the Japanese to face being socially shunned, so many went into the new voluntary industry springing up around the new occupiers of the peninsula, the Americans, with the full encouragement of the South Korean government.
She said that when the big newspapers come to interview the women, along with the big TV stations, they always talk about "this issue is bigger than just an apology from Japan, but it is about the victimization of women regardless of nationality, as victims of a sex industry that continues from that system to this day" – my words here, but their points.
Funny thing is, the only thing that gets in the papers is, "Japan must apologize."
Well, it makes sense. It's the only part of the discourse that's really politically useful. Who wants to hear that yes, their own government sold actual paid compensations down the river, as well as suppressed this story for decades? Why isn't the South Korean press asking the harder questions around the fact that it is sure is funny that no one was talking about this in South Korea until the late 1980's? Or that a liberal "족발이" – a Jap – is the person that broke the story into the realm of accepted fact as opposed to rumor and hearsay, by linking evidence and eyewitnesses?
Those are the questions no one's really thinking about, even after the 2005 revelations, because the present black-and-white discourse has all the momentum and subtlety of a steam train running down the steep slope of the masculine, nationalist ideology around "national rape" or "disgrace" that ends in 1945, when, if one were to simplistically think of the Korean nation as a woman's body, the only thing that has changed is the nationality of the customer and the type of shackles keeping her strapped to the bed.
Japan, victimizer. Korea, victimized. Simple, huh?
This debate is so idiotically reduced to mindless ravings of perceived national "dishonor" that it becomes difficult to see the forest for the trees. So let me try a new reduction of the issue, equally simplistic, but perhaps useful in its ability to illustrate the issue from another angle:
Men, absolved. Women, screwed (and continuing to be).
If you look at things from a gender perspective, it doesn't look too different as women who are/were working in a system of sexual labor created and/or protected by the state; from a certain perspective, the question of "voluntary" or not isn't as important as the fact that both the Japanese occupation and South Korean "liberation" governments aided, abetted, nurtured, created, protected – whatever verb you want to use – a system in which women had little (economic) to no (militarized) choice as to whether they were going to spread their legs for soldiers, whether they be Japanese, American, and – as they have been increasingly infamous for – Korean soldiers looking to lose their virginity.
I still remember a 1994~1996 story I read in the Chosun Ilbo that clearly stated that 90% of Korean men lost their virginity to prostitutes, many in the infamous and immense Cheongyrangni red light district. That reference was made in pre-web Korea, and I've never been able to find it again, but I am very certain about the 90% figure, because it was mind-boggling to me at the time I read it, and has stuck in my head ever since.
So, if a government is creating and cradling the conditions that preserve an industrialized system of sex slavery, especially in light of the fact that it was created and structurally linked to a previous system of militarized sex slavery – is the national moral indignation over this issue really something one can maintain with a straight face?
At least Japan had the excuse of having been an imperialist, racist empire invading other nations and setting up a system to enslave and fuck foreign women. As the economic and structural inheritors of this system, who did nothing to dismantle it, but rather chose to perpetuate it – what is "Korea's" excuse, if we're going to monolithically blame a singular "Japan?"
Well, we know what it was – economic development at any and all costs, damn the moral implications – full speed ahead!
The problem here is not mere historical amnesia – it's rather one of "historical delinkage." Embedded within the DNA of South Korean ideology itself is the historical/social/psychological inability to see that the economic gains of compressed (and coerced) development came at a huge moral price.
That may sound simple to say, but the extent to which people "delink" in order to not see the Matrix of South Korean ideology come crumbling down is very, very underestimated.
The same reason that Pak Chung Hee tops the charts as favorite president is the same reason that people don't like to look as far back as that period, or into the inception of the country itself, as the roots of any problems. It's just too complicated – it's easier to have a bad guy, and Japan is obvious first choice for the role of Darth Vader.
But the problem is, like when Luke Skywalker faced off when him in the underground cave in Yoda's lair, he won the duel and beheaded his would-be enemy, only to see his own twisted visage in the fragmented faceplate.
I hear Pak Chung Hee spoke some mean Japanese.
"I am your father," indeed.
It's not easy to face the past, nor the fact that one's enemy may in fact be partly oneself. Yeah, Darth Vader's an asshole; and while Japan may not be South Korea's daddy, the sins of many fathers – both Japanese and Korean – must be factored into the way we consider the decades-long silencing of the so-called "comfort women" and their continued sexual cum political exploitation over the several decades.
It's pretty scary to look your enemy in the eye and see yourself reflected back, so it's easier to just keep him hidden behind a scary black mask, in a state of historical obfuscation and simplistic formulations.
But if people want to really do the former "comfort women" any justice before they die, much more attention should be paid to not just the actual perpetrators of their symbolic "rape," but to the many who worked so hard to shield their victimizers from any political repercussions, lest they lost valuable grants and loans that could be used for national development.
And that's what it comes down to – a nation built upon a bed of exploited female labor – both in the bed and in the factory – with the help of military force to break up unions and keep costs down for the export-oriented economy, censorship to stifle dissent, being tortured or "disappeared" if you actually did, sent to Vietnam to fight another country's war for economic grant packages per unit dispatched, or just living under the general feeling of restriction and hardship.
Yes, the nation benefitted materially, but it sacrificed an immeasurable spiritual amount. Most laugh such material/moral equations off in the shadow of shining buildings and bridges, economic hopes and dreams – even when they come tumbling down. Who thinks about the immaterial when one can now buy Prada purses, comfortable cars, and flatscreen TV's? But there is a price.
Stress from the extreme competitiveness, corruption that comes from a modern culture of corner-cutting, or the overall unhappiness of a society that doesn't ask "why" before it says "do."
We shouldn't need Yoda to point this all all. But then again, since no one in the Korean press seems to be, I guess it's as good a start as any.
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.