For your soundtrack needs, hit play on the clip below, and start reading.
Mahna Mahna, by The Muppets (1976 version)
I'm heading into dangerous, controversial waters here. . .
There is a cultural phenomenon here in South Korea that partly comes from being sandwiched between China and Japan, two countries which have given Korea a great deal of historical grief. It just plain rankles here, that China and Japan continue to have more influence than Korea in geopolitics -- more people, more money, etc.. Due to this, Korea has the national equivalent of "Short Man Syndrome."
This phenomenon is not unique to Korea, of course: walk up to any Canadian and say, "But honestly, Canada's basically the 51st state, right?" and you might get a response something like this:
Try telling an All-Black rugby-player from New Zealand you like his Aussie accent, or mutter "Ireland is part of the UK, right?" to a leprechaun, and you'll be farting four-leaf clovers for a month, either way. Ask anybody whose teacher once said to them, "You know your older brother always handed in his homework on time..." people like to be known for who they are, and not just for who's nearby.
Add on top of this inferiority complex, a deep, intense (and, yeah, rightful) pride in Korea's current situation, having clawed out of abject post-Korean-War poverty, and developed into one of the richest nations in the world. Then, raise that to the power by which nationalism was programmed into school-aged Koreans during Korea's industrial revolution in the '60s '70s and '80s (as a way of unifying the people, suppressing dissent, and getting everyone to buck up and build infrastructure and industry without complaining, the way they needed to do, to [html nerd joke] [cliche] rise from the ashes of the Korean War [/cliche] [/html nerd joke]), and you have a fierce national pride that likes to show itself around.
You can see this here in Korea, in the large number of what The Joshing Gnome calls "Kimchi Boosters"; I'm debating whether to use that phrase, or coin my own: "Kimcheerleaders". These are the folks who will tell you that Kimchi cures SARS, that the Japanese language came from Korea (possibly, partially true), that Korea invented the printing press (partially true, though its effect was not as revolutionary here as Gutenberg's movable type printing press in Europe), that Korean is the most scientific language in the world (their lettering system is; the language itself is as messy and goofy as any living language composed of more than 1's and 0's).
This can be exploited: my strategy for getting a new class of students to like me goes as follows:
1. Explain I've lived here a long time.
2. Show enough knowledge of Korea's culture and history to prove my interest in them.
3. Compliment Korean food, hospitality, culture, language, etc., until everybody's smiling. It's really just that easy, as long as you play by the rules.
Now I have nothing against a healthy degree of national pride, and sometimes, the warm, deep pride some Koreans have in their country, the affection and ownership people feel for their culture and compatriots can be touching. At other times, it comes across as a bit needy -- you know the girl who walks around asking people, "Do you think I'm pretty?"
(bad language alert: Eliza Skinner as Amy, the platonic ideal of the needy girl)
But you know, every country is guilty of varying degrees of boosterism. In this post about sexy music videos starring underage girls, among many other things, esteemed K-blogger Gord Sellar mentions a "standard, near-universal conviction among Koreans that a positive image of Korea must be presented to the world" that makes a serious discussion about any Korean social issue nearly impossible, "as soon as it involves even one Westerner."
Now I don't mind being positive, but I refuse to be a sycophant just to get what I want (other than in the classroom), and so, when it goes too far, it is time for a reckoning. And Korea Herald, it is time you got yours.
There's something called "Hallyu" (what? Haven't you heard of it?) that is a source of oodles of national pride these days in the Republic of Korea. Basically, Korean pop music, TV Soap Operas, and some movies, have become quite popular in much of Asia and a handful of other places, because of high production values, more conservative/less racy content than what you'd find on American soap operas (love triangles, rather than wanton infidelity; life-threatening diseases, rather than gay romances; domineering mothers-in-law, rather than date-rape), and a closer similarity between Korean cultural values and other Asian cultural values, that makes it easier for other Asians to relate to Korean soaps than to American ones.
Awesome, right? It's great! Well, heck, yeah! But here's the thing. Because of that inferiority complex, the moment the Hallyu starts gaining recognition, that aforementioned tendency to be loud and proud kicks in.
Why am I writing about this? Any non-Canuck who's spent time around a Canuck has heard their Canadian friend drop a "He/She's Canadian, eh?" into a conversation about the likes of Feist, Jim Carrey, Neil Young, Michael J. Fox, or Steve Nash -- but here's the difference. [Most] Canadians don't twist a conversation around to the topic of basketball, just to bring up the fact Steve Nash is Canadian; we don't say things like "Godfather II, eh? Speaking of sequels, have you seen the Back To The Future trilogy?" just in order to squeeze in an exultant, "Michael J. Fox is Canadian! HAH!"
Some Koreans do. Not all -- many, maybe even most Koreans are rational about their nationalism, but the ones who aren't. . . well, clear the room, bud!
Stephen Colbert encountered the Kimcheerleaders: Time Magazine runs an annual online poll for "Who is the most influential person of the year?" You may have heard of Stephen Colbert. Having heard of someone would probably be an important requirement for being the most influential person in the world, yah? Well, turns out, a few Korean netizens heard about this Time online poll, and decided that Korean Hallyu popstar Rain should top the list, and started a ballot-box stuffing campaign that led to this exchange:
(which stirred up outrage among those same Korean netizens. . . what did you expect, goofballs?)
(Rain [or 비 - Bi, the Korean word for rain] himself: handsome, isn't he? Sure he is, but all my readers back in Canada and USA who don't have Korean roots or friends read Stephen Colbert's name and went "Oh, him," and then read the phrase "Hallyu popstar Rain" above and went, "Who?")
(update: call me a hater if you want, and nothing against Korea, but THIS does not happen to the world's most influential person.)
(soundtrack time: Feist. She's Canadian, eh?)
Korea's pleased with itself about Hallyu, as it well should be, I suppose. Hallyulluyah! But this self-congratulation sometimes goes too far.
The Korea Herald, which fancies itself a legitimate news source, has been publishing a running series about the Korean Wave as it appears in various countries around the world. Here is their article about Spain, and it deserves, quite frankly, to be mocked. I don't hate Korea, I don't hate Hallyu, and I don't even have a problem with a series of full-page articles about Hallyu in a major English language newspaper (Korea Herald calls itself "The Nation's #1 English Newspaper").
But here's the thing: there is no hallyu in Spain! The first ten or so installments in the series covered countries where the Korean Wave was a true cultural phenomenon: in Japan, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc., the Korean Wave merited full write-ups.
Now, we're on installment #32: Spain. I'm gonna write that number out for emphasis: THIRTY TWO.
The headline shows almost everything you really need to know about both the Korea Herald, AND the Korean Wave in Spain: Spain discovers Korea and crys out for more [sic]
Some choice snippets from the article:
. . .the majority of Spaniards may still have difficulty finding Korea on the world map. High-level visits from the King of Spain, politicians and members of parliament to Korea usually get little attention in the national media.
Meanwhile, Korean companies chose not to label their products as "Made in Korea," instead veiling them among well-known Japanese products in Spain.
Weak sauce, boys. Weak sauce.
In 2000, President Kim Dae-joong visited North Korea for the first time since the separation of the two Koreas. This historic news appeared in Spanish newspapers, which helped make Korea more familiar to Spain.
This is the best you can do? Why is this series still going? Keep grasping at straws. . .
The year 1999 was the year of letting go of Korea's inefficient traditions and actively seeking ways forward. However, there were negative consequences such as higher suicide and divorce rates, which nobody could ever thought of in a traditional, Confucius society [sic]. Women became more independent in all aspects, and new ways to choose partners for marriage were put in place following the changes in the familial values.And this has to do with the Korean wave in Spain how?
Between 2004 and 2007, more than 13 Korean movies arrived in Spain, including "Memories of Murder," "Run Dim," "Two Sisters," "Samaritan Girl," and "The Host." During these four years, the percentage of Korean movies shown in theaters went up by 400 percent.From 3 to 13. Wow, let me sit down before I get washed away. (sarcasm over) How did they do? Were they all unqualified smash hits, because if they weren't, why are you doing write-ups about the Korean wave in countries where there is none?
[Both Korean and Spanish movies] often tell love stories accompanied by violence and sorrow, but always end happily and humorously. Also, [Korean movies] indirectly show Korean culinary habits that are quite different from that of Spain. Besides the different food, what is more interesting to the Spaniards is how the food is displayed in a table based on a combination of colors, size and portion. There is no single way to eat Korean food. People can enjoy the liberty of choosing what they want to eat and how much they want to eat.I know I only watch foreign movies to learn how other cultures eat. Don't you? Wait! Wait! There's a straw over there! Get it! Quick!
What can be done to insure the success of the Korean Wave in the future?. . . Given the fact that Korea is so little known in Spain, it may be more effective to target more traditional, historical Korean values and images than to make it modern, since this tends to fail to impress upon the viewers with a particular, rememberable [sic] image.
It is necessary to come up with a delicate marketing strategy to reach out to a larger population in the long term. Korean people are known to be peace-loving, integrationists and nationalists. They deserve to be proud of their own country and of escaping from the extreme poverty in the 50s and 60s with hard work and individual motivation. Spain finds all of these factors interesting, once they are exposed to them.
So basically, (you can read the full article write-up here, and if you look carefully, you'll discover my real opinion about it all) Spanish people don't know much about Korea, except newspaper headlines for major historical events, but a few Korean films have appeared there in film festivals, and it Spanish people might become more interested in Korea's culture if they were exposed to it more.
Does that just about cover it?
As I said before, from a newspaper that wants to be taken seriously, this is laughable, friends. Sorry. I don't mind national pride, I don't even mind a little boosterism for fun, but this Hallyu series has gone on too far, like this clip:
Yesterday they had the next installment, number 33, a summary of which might read, "a series of if/then speculations on how the Hallyu could gain a U.S. audience among non-Asian-immigrant Americans, and why Americans would like Korean wave TV soap operas if they watched them."
Korea Herald doesn't allow you to link directly to its articles, so I've imported the text onto pages of my blog: you can read the write-up about the Korean Wave in the US here. It's pretty painful.
Hallyu-wood is an amusement park about the Korean wave. Its site is a jewel of unintentional comedy and overblown rhetoric. (HT to Brian for this link and the clip below. . .)
I just wonder if the Herald's editors realize that these full-page write-ups of made-up speculation and KimCheerleading narcissism have the exact opposite of their intended effect: rather than making me think "Hey! Korean culture is awesome and it's spreading around the world!" writing like this, grasping for international validation where there is nothing but ignorance, instead shines a glaring spotlight on the aforementioned inferiority complex, and ends up portraying Korean culture as a little delusional, narcissistic, self-aggrandizing, and self-important (as well as making the Herald look like nothing better than a propaganda-rag or a tourist brochure, rather than any kind of respectable news-source). Is it really THAT important for outsiders to think you're cool? Will you really not be satisfied until we give you what you want and write in reams of letters to the editor saying, "I never realized Korea was so great until I started reading the Herald!", like the self-esteem case moping around the party saying, "Do you think I'm pretty? God, I'm so fat!" and waiting for someone to say, "No, that's not true. You're beautiful"? Why does it matter so much that outsiders from every country approve of the Korean wave, that a major English newspaper will write a half-year-long series of self-congratulatory pieces that have devolved into near-fictions, speculations, and self-parodies? Will it not stop until there's been a full-page article on all 195 countries in the world? (Week 184: Vatican City: The Pope likes Lee Young-ae!)
is an amusement part dedicated to Hallyu.
As any regular reader of this blog knows, I love Korea, and Korean culture -- if you don't believe me, take a look around. But if your friend has a bit of food stuck in his teeth, making him look silly, you'd tell him, "Hey, bud! There's something in your teeth," right? This kind of rabid boosterism makes Korea look foolish to any outside observer -- such a voracious craving for validation is a sign of insecurity, and friends, Korea IS a major player. . . if it'd only realize it is and start acting like one!
PS: Thanks, Brian, for the link love.