Monday, September 24, 2012

Things You Gotta Do: Ride the Korean Wave

Most of my readers, unsurprisingly, come from the United States. A lot of my friends from college, high school, and ever elementary school have told me that they read and enjoy my blog on a regular basis. I am curious, however, if what I present gives an accurate portrayal of just what life here in Korea is like. Korean culture is a difficult thing to describe. It is, in my opinion, one of the least well-known Asian cultures, even though it's global influence in the realms of science and technology are close to those of the juggernauts China and Japan.

Everyone know where this is...

But few people know where this is...

So why, exactly, is this and is Korea doing anything to increase knowledge of their country and culture?

Why Don't Westerners Know About Korea?

This is actually SUPER difficult to really pinpoint and answer to. However, I feel like it might be partly due to something I've observed while living here. Specifically, the fact that, no matter where I go, about 70% of the people I see give me one of these as I walk by:

Now just imagine this muppet's breath smelling like cigarettes and soju and you have what a night ride on the subway is typically like for me.

I've talked about this before, but it's still true. A lot of Koreans are just totally bewildered to see a non-Korean in their midst. This is a super homogenous society and they seem to like keeping things that way. There's a lot of horror stories about children with mixed-race backgrounds in Korea. Koreans, by and large, aren't anxious to let the outside world in, so why would the outside world be interested about what's inside? It's like when you think you're being all mysterious with a guy but all he's thinking is "this girl must be boring as shit if she doesn't want to tell me anything about herself."

It really has nothing to do with what Korea is putting out there. KPop is formulaically designed to be popular in the global market, but Korean, as a language, is not terribly accessible because the culture itself isn't accessible. Americans are totally down for pop stars singing in Spanish because, well, we're used to hearing Spanish. We are not used to hearing anything in Korean. I was shocked when I went home to find out how few people knew that Korean isn't a tonal language (as in the pitch of your voice doesn't change the meaning of the word like in Chinese and every other Asian language other than Japanese and Korean).

Korea, also, has not been stable for that long. The Korean War (well, the extra fighting bad times of it, at least) was only 59 years ago and South Korea didn't start booming until about the 1970s. Before the Korean War the peninsula had been occupied by Japan and China like, a lot, so that is probably why you never hear about Korea's ties to Western trade and industry. People haven't had long to learn about how different Korea is from China and Japan. Korean culture is a bit of mixture of Chinese and Japanese culture but Koreans have made that culture almost unrecognizable from their neighbors. There are recognizable basics but past those it's very, very different.

HALLYU: The Korean Wave

So, if you ask Koreans if they want the world to know about their culture the response will be an overwhelming YES! Koreans call this the "Korean Wave" and nothing, in their minds, proves that the Korean Wave is a real thing more than PSY:

I will never tire of looking up gifs from this music video.
The thing that Koreans don't realize is that westerners just love the video because it's hilarious. They don't really spend the time looking up what they hell the word "Gangnam" means (for reference, Gangnam is the super affluent part of Seoul, where plastic surgery and designer everything is the norm). The entire video is actually a lampooning of the ridiculousness of Korean materialism. This video is, however, and amazing representation of Korea to the outside world.

When you say "Korea" to the common westerner all they picture is North Korea or the images from their high school textbook of the Korean war. People don't know how drastically modernized Korea is. I've been to Tokyo and I can tell you, without hesitation, that Seoul is a far more modern city. Koreans don't understand just how little the outside world knows about their home. Every society in the world, to an extent, ignores the rest of the world. It's just easier to stick to what is familiar. So Koreans see that their culture is immensely popular with their own people and just assume that it is at least moderately popular in the rest of the world.

I do think that the Korean Wave is happening, I just don't think it's picked up as much steam as many Koreans assume that it has. Yes, people know who PSY is, or they at least know "that guy from the horsey-dance video," but if you say "Korean Food, "KPop," "KDramas," or, God forbid, "Korean Culture" to most people they'll give you one of these:

I mean, I can only do so much to try and convince you that Korean food is amazing, even though it is some of the least appetizing looking food ever created.

Looks like the Korean answer to "Hot Ham Water"
I can only tell you so many times that KPop is super fun and addictive, even though a lot of the time it sounds like American pop music if we only fed the singers Pixie Sticks and Mountain Dew and the singers all look like they've had rainbow enemas.

I have yet to fully explore the world of KDramas because reading subtitles is HARD!

Doesn't help when the subtitles are a little... off

I mean, Korea isn't on American TV. There are no late night channels dedicated to Korean shows or music like there are with Japanese and Chinese exports. To learn about Korea you have to put in some work (like continuing to read my blog ^_^).

Korea is a country worth knowing about. I am positive that for the rest of my life if people ask me where they should travel my first answer will be Korea. I have fallen hopelessly in love with this country. I'm still proud to be an American and I'm not trying to fully assimilate myself to the Korean collective, but I can't imagine a country more worth the effort it takes to get to know it and appreciate it, flaws and all.

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