Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Weddings, K-Pop, Korean Food & Purity: Who Owns a Culture? Part 3

Janelle Monae, an African-American, stole this song from the white, British composer Charlie Chaplin, and white, british lyricists John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, who originally had their song stolen from white brits by Nat King Cole.

See how ridiculous it starts to get when we talk about people stealing cultures?  It's just a great song, isn't it?

So the final point on the topic is the question, what happens here in Korea, when expats living here see something that vaguely resembles their culture back home, but it's been changed in unexpected ways.  It's analogous to the question of what Koreans do, or ought to do, when they see artifacts from their culture being co-opted by other cultures - Hollywood remakes (my sassy girl), Japanese repackagings (kimuchi) and even Korean-engineered revisions aimed at a new audience (Wondergirls).  I step into a Korean wedding hall, and I see an aisle, candles, a white gown, I hear Mendelssohn's march, and a bouquet being tossed... yet it's all two steps sideways from the weddings I saw back home.

This can be quite off-putting, even to me, and I've been here relatively forever.

The topic is interesting because familiar touchstones take on different meanings, or are used differently, in different cultures.  Not all of these differences are obvious, or jarring - more people here use Starbucks’ for studying than back home, and it’s firmly entrenched in youth culture (the older folks just can’t stomach six bucks for a coffee: it’s 100 won at the gogijip!)  The absence of middle-aged Starbucks-goers, particularly older males, and especially groups of them, barely hints at the way Starbucks occupies a different place in culture here than back home, and I didn’t notice that until five old men parked at a table near me in a starbucks once, and started the usual “loud ajosshi table” routine that one usually finds in a BBQ meat house, and I realized it was the first time I’d ever seen a group of older men in a Starbucks.  Back in Canada, that's a lot more common.

A few more: library means "place to study" here, where back home, it was "place to get books and then leave"; non-Korean restaurants serve a dish of sweet pickles with the meal, almost down to the last one (a friend of girlfriendoseyo once went to a little restaurant in Tuscany, and asked where the pickles were).  Other differences affect our lives more - any foreigner can point out to you the bars in their neighborhood which DON'T require you to buy side dishes with your drink (more and more these days).  Korean girls can have skirts right up to their uteruses (uteri?) and it's OK, but cleavage brands them “that kind of girl”; in America, it's vice versa.

(illustration from ROKetship: you should check out this comic!)
(click for full post)

These kinds of differences may go unnoticed to some, but feed homesickness in others.  More to the point, our participation in many of these bits of "sideways culture" is often optional.  We can ignore the ever-so-slightly different way Starbucks is used in by Koreans in Korea, and use it the way we did back home.  WE don't have to study in Starbucks or eat the pickle side dishes or wear short skirts according to Korean norms unless we want to.  My Canadian coworker kept wearing her low necklines (nearly caused a riot when she went jogging around her neighborhood); we flock to the anju-free bars, and turn our noses up at the sweet pickles.  No problem.

(soundtrack: Rakim - When I B on tha Mic - what do you do about Korean hip hop artists who have never listened to Rakim?)

Then it hits us in a way we can’t avoid it, or when we've built up expectations about what would happen or how things would go, and we're in what Brian described as the uncanny valley, not experiencing the usual things, or having the usual feelings connected to a Christmas, or a Wedding, as we've come to expect them.

A more trivial example: in Korea, pizza and sandwiches aren't meals (how could they be? There's no rice!). Girlfriendoseyo didn't find sandwiches or other western foods satisfying at mealtimes for about the first year we dated, until she had sandwiches from Jenny's Bread rather than Joe Sandwich, and a Wolfhound Burger, rather than a Lotteria Bulgogi Burger. When we go to Joe Sandwich expecting a healthy lunch, we're walking in with the wrong expectations. No wonder it's weird and disappointing.

Instead, if you go into a Joe sandwich (as most Koreans do) expecting a sweet, nutritionally void snack that'll tide you over till your next rice meal, strawberry jam on the potato salad sandwich, sweet radish and shredded cabbage on Isaac toast, and all on white wonderbread, make sense. If you think that pizza’s considered something of a snack, then the weird ingredients (sweet potato and mayonnaise and fake crab legs) makes more sense - piling weird stuff on snacks is normal.  Just think of banana splits and (for another western thing given a funny spin in Korea) belgian waffles!  I submit that the way many Koreans think about a Mr. Pizza (for women) pizza might have more in common with the way they think about a belgian waffle, or the way North Americans think about a banana split, than with the way, say, a Manhattanite about the pizza she's having for dinner.

What can we do about it?  Not a whole lot, except file away in our memories the places that do serve sandwiches and pizzas and hamburgers the way we like them, in the way that's familiar, and share that information with our homesick friends, and for the rest, suck it up and recognize that we're the ones who chose to come here.  Also, for the sheer sake of diplomacy, when we can't avoid going to Joe Sandwich (with Korean friends, coworkers or somesuch), not to get on a high horse about it.  JS is perfectly suitable to Korean taste, and their market is Korean diners.  Me and my preference for New York style deli products doesn't really figure into it, and I'm out of line to presume I do.

And here's the next big kicker: if we accept that, as I said before, nobody owns a culture, then we might need to take a different approach to the wedding hall wedding in Korea.

As I said before, this is not an attempt to invalidate the gut “That was different. That was weird/uncomfortable/awkward/awful” reaction we might have to Korean Christmas, Pizza, or Wedding Halls.  I don't want to be ignorant or disrespectful of Korean culture... but the disoriented feeling of seeing similar elements used to create an entirely different whole stirs a gut reaction of "they're doing it wrong."  But it's only a gut reaction.

My intellectual reaction is different, or at least can be different, from my gut reaction: it might range from “my culture: they’re doing it wrong!” to “given the socioeconomic situation of the late ’90s, one might consider the Korean wedding hall wedding as analogous to...”

Brian, and Jason and I aren’t wrong to find these renderings of weddings, foods and language weird: the whole point of gut reactions is that we can't control them.  But after that, let’s acknowledge that we are not the primary audience for these things, and that, because nobody owns a culture, we have no claim on those things anyway.  And Korea isn't the only one to steal cultures.  Elvis Presley stole rock'n'roll from African Americans, just as surely as K-pop stole hip-hop (see the Metropolitician's writings on "Black music without black people").  It won't take long for anybody who gives a damn about these things to learn the original roots: the if some Canadian has "Kimuchi" and likes it, and wants to learn more about it, several articles on the very first page of google results on "kimuchi," including the wikipedia entry, frames the discussion about Japanese and Korean Kimchi, and the barest of investigations into rock music will lead us up the family tree from those white "thieves" Keith Richards, Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton and George Harrison, to Chuck Berry, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and the other non-white originators.  It doesn't mean Jack White doesn't rock, that the genre he plays has roots that originate with musicians of a different color.  (For the record: when that "culture stealing" involved plagiarism and failure to pay royalties, yeah, it DID suck.)

The funniest part of "Dreamgirls":

It would have been nice, yeah, if the black artists had gotten credit for their creations, in those days.  These days, it's a lot easier for fans of Korean Balladeu to learn about R&B music.  That's good.

Koreans, in Korea, holding a wedding for other Koreans, are free to have their weddings however they like.  (Youtube classic: Wedding Hall Dancing Girls)

If that's what floats their boat...

Ditto for making music marketed to the homecrowd.  Wondergirls better have their grammar straight, if they’re selling to Americans (or maybe not, but they've got to be making native speakers' errors, not ESL speakers' errors), but who really cares if Kara or 2NE1 mangles English?  It’s just a hook, anyway: whatever sells is right for the market, so I say “If you wanna pretty have a many pretty!” to them, but woe betide if they try to conquer America that way.  Brian in Jeollanamdo think it's ridiculous... but who asked him?

Until Jewelry's bad English bugs Koreans, they don't have a problem, and while Jason wasn't the main audience for that wedding, the fact that KOREANS find wedding hall weddings trite and tawdry, and find the behavior of some guests unacceptable, means that this country’s eventually got to fix this important ceremony that's somehow been rendered unpleasant for everyone except those for whom the length of the guest list might amount to a cynical cash grab.  But the will and the energy to change it will come from Koreans, and, as Korea begins to accept its new diversity, the expats deeply entrenched in the culture, who can speak the language, who demonstrate a lot of knowledge of the culture and the context, not from the short-term transient foreigners who do their "drive-by criticisms" (in English) and don't stay out their first year.

Next: let’s acknowledge that everything I’ve said here about weddings comes from a bit of a false posture.  I’ve drawn a clear line between Korean culture and Western culture, for the sake of this discussion, when things like fusion food and photography exhibitions by returned adoptees, and media produced by long-term expats fall into gray areas.  Me?  I want to say “Yes, embrace it: it’s ALL Korean culture now!” but there are many who would say it ISN’T Korean culture.  This is the danger of viewing cultures in monolithic terms: Matt from Popular Gusts sent me an awesome article about owning cultures: it's academic, but you should read it if you care about this topic.

"The Archaeology of the Ethnically Homogeneous Nation-State and Multiculturalism in Korea"

The money quote's on pg 28:
Another crucial problem with the current discourse on multiculturalism lies with the understanding of the concept of culture itself. Still firmly rooted in the idea of national culture, many advocates of multiculturalism in Korea are not prepared to see diversity within a culture, nor are they prepared to recognize an individual except as a member of a clear and distinct, homogeneous cultural or ethnic group. Without the ability to accept that what is now called Korean culture may simply be an outcome of ongoing compromises, competitions, negotiations, and contradictions between different cultures, you end up with the rigid notion that cultures always have to be defined according to their respective boundaries and closures.
Basically, it says that MOST discussion of culture in Korea falls victim to this tendency to see culture as set, essential, and clearly separated from other cultures, and that even those who support multiculturalism in Korea see it as a bunch of separate, clearly distinct cultures moving alongside each other, not as a bunch of factors mixing in, to make a big old unstable, complex mess of influences and balances, where borders between things are not clear.

These sharply delineated cultural lines need to be (will be/are being) fuzzied up a bit, though there will always be purists who reject the changes; in the same way, there will remain people who insist on correct usage of the word “whom” long after everybody else has stopped using it: language is another area that never stops changing, but which many people want to force into conceptions of “correct” and “incorrect."  I am firmly of the descriptive, not the prescriptive school of grammar, and culture.

Pumashock sings SNSD, and possibly improving it... who's stealing from whom now?

So am I suggesting we pull up all our stakes in different cultural elements, throw up our hands and say "I don't know anything, and nobody can know anything!"?  If we do, what do we have left?  Is every position built on quicksand, and can we never judge anything again?

There's got to be a way to look at a thing, accept our initial reaction, then think about the thing,  the reasons for my reaction, understand the context, the reasons for the differences, and my own reflex stance.  Holding all that in mind, there's got to be space to apply critical analysis to it, if a little more humbly than before.

Non-Koreans should be allowed to do this about Korean culture, and Koreans should be allowed to do this about non-Korean culture... And to have a valid voice in these discussions shouldn't depend on identity or culture, but on how much one knows about the context of the thing or phenomenon being discussed.

So it still benefits me to study Korean culture, and Korean history, and especially Korean language, to have a valid voice in these discussions.  While I'll learn how complex the issues are, I don't think I must end at a point where I throw up my hands, unable to say anything.

My opinion should not be dismissed out of hand just because I'm not born-and-raised Korean, but if it's half-baked or rooted in ignorance?  Dismiss away.  And if I'm judging according to my own mores, values and upbringing, rather than framing the issues in terms of the values and priorities of the prevailing culture, I won't get much farther than the local foreigner bar.  If I plan on getting farther than the local foreigner bar, it's not a bad starting point to recognize how much I don't know, and own up to what I don't know, instead of posing as if I know more than I do (like this guy, and a few others I know who aren't fictional), and blindly defending all things Korean is just as stupid as blindly attacking, absent the effort to learn more and better understand the context.

Kiwi Strawberry Toast.  Can't remember where I found this, but if it ain't Korean food, and if it ain't Western food, what is it?  (other than Kiwi Strawberry Toast) -this odd concoction brought to you by Brian in Jeollanamdo

Not that I have to like EVERYTHING produced by the culture.

One last thing to say about ownership, I just have to throw this out there.  Regarding food: though it's not the only place this can be observed: and apologies to my friends Zenkimchi Joe, Fatman Seoul, dan gray...(actually no apologies to him, because he's my nemesis: up yours, dan gray!) and the others.  We don't own Korean culture, either. I'm guilty myself of saying fusion food isn't REAL Korean food, but again, I'm wrong to declare myself the arbiter of real and phony Korean food.  I need to cool it on how Koreans treat Canadian culture...but I'm in the same position regarding Koreans producing their OWN culture.  If young people like putting mayonnaise on stuff and saying it's fusion food, who am I to tell them they're wrong?  I'm obviously not the audience for such foods, and it's arrogant to think that I should be given special consideration when I'm not their audience.  Ditto for mangled English in pop songs, strange fashion, and a whole host of other things.

And also this.

Me?  I hate seeing cosmetics shops in Insadong... but if that's the way Koreans want to handle their own culture, and if the Chinese and Japanese tourists who come here to buy cosmetics and name brands bring in more cash than the sleepy tea room with traditional music that used to be there, and which was loved by the westerners (who have their own concept of what "the east" should be like, but who represent a far smaller percentage of Korea's tourism revenues), and if the City Government, elected by Korea's people, thinks that cash inflow is more important than having hanok buildings in their friggin' traditional goods shopping street for tourists... well, I don't have to like it, but I have to acknowledge that this is the way Korean culture, or at least Korean entrepreneurship, is now expressing itself, that a choice was made, for good and for bad, that somebody decided the commerce was more important than the heritage, and not enough people spoke up against it to stop it.

I don't suppose this means I ought to shut up about it, but I AM getting self-important if I appoint myself the guardian of Korean culture, because I like hanok teahouses more than Aritaum cosmetics shops, and I'd best check my motivations.

Being an observer of such these ongoing dialogues about what Korea is, is wildly interesting... if sometimes frustrating.

So I'm still hella mad that pimatgol is being razed, that beautiful old Seoul City Hall is nearly demolished, and that some of the lovely old neighborhoods of Seoul are disappearing... but is that because of my own  concept of what Seoul should be like, and my wish for Asia to be more alien, in order to reinforce my mildly orientalist prejudices about Asia (that's a dangerous path to start: who knows where it ends up), or is it because those things don't fit with the stated goals of Korean people and leaders (or is it actually because those buildings are decrepit old fire-traps that weren't built to last this long anyway)?  There's the crux of it... I think.


Brian said...

The kiwi and strawberry toast was something served at my former school, and I took a picture of it. Not sure why it was taken over as a symbol of "Koreans doing it wrong," or whatever. The standard fruit in mayonaise would do the trick.

chiam said...

These posts of yours about culture really bother me. I wish you'd be FAR MORE specific about what YOUR culture is. I'm from Canada, and you're from Canada, but I can guarentee you that my "Western Culture" is very different from your "Western Culture".

You mention Christmas a lot, and i know from previous posts that it is a time of year that holds special meaning. I agree that Christmas in Korea is lonely (for people who cherish Christmas as a time family gets together), and that Koreans don't "do" Christmas the way you did...but I'm pretty sure I didn't do Christmas the way you did, either.

My Christmas meal is fillet of sole, potato salad, and a mushroom soup made from mushrooms blessed by monks (monestary monks, not temple monks). My family opens presents on Christmas Eve.

Were all the weddings you saw in "the west" the same because they were all Christian weddings? Have you been to a Jewish wedding, a Greek wedding? Or are those not "western"? Are the drive-thru wedding chapels in Vegas not Western, either?

In my humble opinion, If you want your culture posts to be more effective, you should perhaps compare them with YOUR experience instead of writing in a way that presumes that everyone coming from "the western culture" does everything in some sort of "generic western way" or that everyone in Korea does everything in some sort of "generic Korean way".

wetcasements said...

Having been to Starbuck's cafes in Seattle, DC, New York, and Chicago, I can assure you that with the advent of wifi it's pretty common to see people using them as offices and or hang-outs constantly (annoyingly so). And libraries? You never studied in one? Maybe I just love libraries too much, but that's a strange observation.

Your personal anecotes are just that -- personal, and frankly they don't jibe at all with my experiences. Not that they aren't valid, but I'm not really sure what your starting premise is beyond "people have subjective and varied ideas as to what a culture should or shouldn't be." And no, this doesn't mean we have to throw up our hands and give up, but it does mean some subjective insights are better than others (like you mention, learning the language and the history is essential).

So I can't say I disagree as much as I'm not sure what your trying to get at. Then again I appreciate the fact that you're trying to arrive at -- well -- something.

Two book recommendations -- James Clifford's "The Predicament of Culture" and Homi Bhabha's "The Location of Culture" (the latter is quite dense, but worth the slog).

As for Seoul's City Hall, I also think it was a neat looking building. But my father and mother lived in Seoul in the early 1970's and dad once told a Korean colleague that he admired the building as well. His Korean friend got a little angry and informed him that it was not a good building, since the Japanese occupation forces had constructed it. Again, a perfect example of how we, as foreigners, tend to make a lot of unconscious assumptions about Korea that deserve to be examined, if not shot down outright.

ZenKimchi said...

Wifeseyo's friend's story is an example of what people find frustrating. It's okay to co-opt another culture, but it's not okay to fool people into thinking it's authentic. Most thinking Americans know that Korean tacos aren't authentic Korean food. And most thinking Koreans should know that sweet pickles aren't served with spaghetti in Italy. It's a disservice to promote a foreign cultural practice as "authentic" when it's not, and I'm afraid that's what's done too frequently in Korea. It may have been a good public service to warn Wifeseyo's friend that sweet pickles were as kosher as Konglish before she had that rude experience. The wedding hall experience is jarring because it wasn't some organic mixture of cultures. Korean wedding halls were trying to mimic their notions of western weddings. When Koreans act surprised that westerners don't have smoke machines and strobe lights at their weddings, I think that the surprise comes from their assumption and desire to be authentic. Expats in a country will never change things--well they might have some influence, who knows--but if someone is carrying around the cultural equivalent of the face Louis Vitton and thinks it's genuine, it may be doing them a favor to point it out.

chiam said...

"When Koreans act surprised that westerners don't have smoke machines and strobe lights at their weddings"

Are you surprised that I've been to a wedding in Canada that had a smoke machine and strobe lights?

Gomushin Girl said...

@ Chiam: Yes, people would be surprised. Not astonished, perhaps. It's not completely outside the realm of possibility. But no, it's not normative in Canada, the US, or a good chunk of Europe.
I don't know if they were Koreans getting hitched in Toronto or were Newfoundland's biggest Phantom of the Opera fans. But it says something that most Koreans would consider it normative or at least unremarkable, while most Canadians, Americans, Brits and any random French people we could muster would probably think it was just a little odd.

Roboseyo said...

I find it ironic, Chiam, that you've asked me to be more specific in my descriptions of what I've seen of Canadian culture in one comment, and the very next comment takes me to task because the assertions I DO make are anecdotal and not necessarily true.

There are a few factors playing into the tension you and WetCasements present:

How accurate is my read on my home culture - frankly, it's been five years since I lived in Canada, and at that time, it was only for a six month period, and my focus was on taking care of my sick mother. Before that, it was my college days back in 2002 that I spent significant time in Canada... short of researching and citing statistics on the amount of egg nog purchased in Canada in December, my read on Canadian culture and my definition of what's "authentic" is just as personal and arbitrary as that Korean grandfather complaining that things ain't like the good old days. that's why I really do think the word "authentic" is a red herring in talking about culture (see also the comments in my January 14 post).

The reason I didn't bring it into the articles I've written except in the broadest strokes is because I'm at least aware of that. When I'm talking about the personal impact of cultural differences - the emotional gut reaction side of things - my personal take on Canada is relevant, but when I'm trying to make my scope more general, I'd like to think I can take biography out of it, and try to focus on the sociology.

The fact Canadian culture features weddings with Greek, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Sunni, and Shiite weddings, makes these generalizations just as problematic as the fact Korea has hotel and wedding hall weddings and house weddings and church weddings, and many young Koreans really dislike wedding hall weddings.

Plus, if I get more specific, are you going to just jump on each of the specifics incidences I point out, the way you just did with zenkimchi joe? I know people inside a culture have different ways of doing things. I'm not an idiot, and I know that some people probably eat spaghetti for Christmas dinner. Or maybe peanut butter and banana toast, because that's what they like. Durr. I've just spent several thousand words saying that we shouldn't look at cultures in such narrow terms that somebody can discredit the way another person lives as "inauthentic"

I'm trying to establish a framework for acknowledging cultural differences, and change, and instability, and fringes, that still leaves room to actually make some statements... swapping anecdotes with you about smoke machines doesn't really get me any closer to that.

... but if you go back and reread the actual posts, I think I've adequately covered the fact these generalizations ARE problematic - about two thirds through this post I talk about the dangers of approaching cultures in monolithic terms (hard to avoid in a series this short, but I HAVE acknowledged it's a danger,) and as this blog continues, I'll probably be looking at more specific incidences... but I may well choose to aim for the fringes instead of the mainstream, because it's more fun subverting norms than reinforcing them.

WetCasements: thanks also for the book recommendations.

In other news... since I wrote my post about Butterfingers, arrogant as it was accused of being, I've heard a lot of feedback (not in the comments, but in talking with people who have read the post, and discussed it with people around them) who reported having conversations with the Koreans around them about the fact Koreans are also tired of the shitty restaurant service that was OK in the 1970s, when the REST of Korean culture has changed so much since then.

Roboseyo said...
i love kpop updates