Now, the last time I talked about Korean culture, I crossed
On "Lee Hyori Gets It" we argued a bit about the one blood thing, and I'd like to address a few points raised there.
First, I've figured out why one of my commenters and I have been disagreeing so strongly, and it's a simple reason: our definitions of culture are different. One of my favorite topics to bring into my old conversation classes was this handout of four opinions, each suggesting a different view on the cultural changes that have come through Korea lately.
For this series, and in general, as I stated in part two: I'm talking about popular culture: culture as a living, organic thing, Korean culture as a description of what and how Koreans produce and consume, not as a set of rules for what and how Koreans SHOULD produce or consume, in order to be "authentic" -- the definition of culture that defines Korea's culture only, or primarily by looking at the past? That's for archivists and historians. I'm not talking about Goguryeo, Lee Sunshin, or what kind of kimchi they ate in Gwangju in 2000 BC. I'm talking about what Korean young people have on their mp3 players, and where they choose to meet their friends.
If the opinion you agree with the most on this handout is #1, we probably aren't going to agree on most points... because our definitions of "culture" are fundamentally different.
How Korean is Korea is Korea Losing Its Culture
Personally, I hold with #3 mostly: culture is a way of describing what people actually do, not outlining what they must do to be "real" Koreans. Young ladies dying their hair pink is Korean culture, because young Korean ladies are doing it. Yeah, I cast a wide net... but the net must be cast wide to catch the really interesting and powerful stuff, which always starts on the fringes before it goes mainstream.
Second: To those who would suggest that Korean culture is under attack, and that this is cause for alarm... basically, chill out.
Is Korean culture under attack? Here are the instances where it seems that idea comes up (let me know if I'm missing something):
(Korean culture club)
1. Items, artifacts, or pieces of Korean heritage have been plundered or claimed by others. China claims Goguryeo; France took a bunch of historical Korean documents; Dokdo is OURS, dammit!
2. Foreign elements are invading Korean culture and making Korean culture some weird mix of foreign cultures that is no longer really Korean. Young ladies are dying their hair pink, Korean singers are imitating American hip-hop, and everybody's wearing blue jeans and mini-skirts and FUBU.
3. People are criticizing or saying bad things about Korea, or Korean cultural items, artifacts, or producers. Stephen Colbert is making fun of Rain, movie critics are crapping on "The Last Godfather."
4. Korean cultural things are being taken into other countries and changed, so that they are no longer authentically Korean.
1. Honestly, historical periods and historical artifacts aren't really my area of specialty, or knowledge. I don't know the details of Goguryeo, or how China is allegedly "stealing" Goguryeo, or trying to erase it from the history books. Honestly, I'm not a historian, and I'm not very interested in it, either, because history is dead, unless it's affecting the present. History is relevant to historians, but other than when historians and demagogues get together to have some textbook protests outside the Japanese or Chinese embassy, it doesn't have much influence on culture the way I defined it above: nobody rearranges the playlist on their ipods, or changes their TV viewing or internet surfing habits, because of it. If they did, I'd be interested in it again. I hope France and Japan return those books and documents, but if they don't, the Hallyu doesn't magically vanish: culture doesn't begin and end in a bunch of historical documents, and in my opinion, the greatest relevance that old history has is in explaining phenomena that still happens now. Korea's heritage is not the sum total of Korea's culture, as defined above. Korea's heritage may well be under attack... a lot of people say it is... but Korea's culture is in no danger at all. In fact, Korea is now exporting its culture all across Asia, in Hallyu films, dramas, and more recently, music. For the rest, heritage is outside the scope of this series, and outside the scope of my interest, frankly.
2. Foreign elements are invading Korea. I addressed this at more length in another post, and I'd like to refer you to that. Basically: complaints about cultural change are usually either coming out of historians who have a backward-looking (past-focused) view of what culture should be, or it's generational, coming from older people who remember how things used to be. This often boils down to the fact as people age, they miss being the ones who set the culture's agenda, the way they did when they were younger (and their parents complained about them not respecting 'the old way' in the same way they now complain about their kids). The problem with this one is simply: when do you draw the line of "this is authentic Korea, and this isn't" -- spicy peppers are from the New World, so if we really go back and get historical, spicy food CAN'T be part of Korean culture, because it hasn't been - CAN'T have been part of Korean culture for the entire (5000 year) history of Korea. Defining "authentic Korea" is just as slippery and problematic as defining Korean culture in all its iterations right now, and "authentic" Korea from the past is either an idealized version of the past (go watch "Welcome to Dongmakgeol), or an idealized version of what one's grandparents remember, even though at that time, culture was changing, fluid, unstable, and affected by other countries' influence too. All cultures are always changing, just because grandpa doesn't remember it that way doesn't mean it wasn't true back then, too.
3. Critics are saying bad things about Korea. I discuss this one more in my post "In Which Roboseyo Exhorts Seoul City Not to Get in a Snit About Lonely Planet" Basically... haters gotta hate, and playas gotta play, and haters gonna hate playas, and when haters hate the playas, that doesn't make the playa stop being a playa: it's actually a validation that the playa's a true playa. Celebrities know that ANY buzz is good buzz, ANY publicity is good publicity, and Seoul getting named in a list of "Five worst cities" is better than Seoul being ignored. The biggest players are targets most often, and criticism is actually validation. If Roger Ebert rips a movie to shreds, it means he at least admired it enough to consider it deserving of an 800 word evisceration: he could have just ignored it, and that would be a real problem, because it would mean the movie wasn't bad, but irrelevant. Stephen Colbert made fun of Rain... and Rain became more famous. Wanting Korea to be more famous, but wanting to control HOW people talk about Korea, is wanting to have one's cake and eat it too, and it smacks of inferiority crisis, and the people who crashed Stephen Colbert's website miss the point.
(image - they sing in English. Are they Korean culture or American culture? What about Far East Movement?)
4. Korean things are being stolen and altered, so that they are no longer Korean. I covered this at length in the last post (a long time ago) in this series, basically coming to the point that nobody owns a culture. People can produce and consume artifacts in a culture, but nobody can own it. Historians and archivists can lay a claim on a heritage, and maybe even define it, if they narrow their definition enough, but living culture - culture as it is, and is becoming, is far too slippery and unstable to define, much less to claim. If Japan is exporting Kimuchi, that means that somebody likes Kimuchi, or it wouldn't be selling. If Koreans don't like that Japan is exporting Kimuchi, complaining does nothing. Writing hundreds of e-mails a day "correcting" people doesn't help much either. What would help is exporting a kimchi that people want to buy more than kimuchi. Buyers don't care who's right and who's wrong, or who originally invented. They care about which one fits their personal taste better, or which is cheaper, or which is available at their local supermarket. Koreans didn't invent cars, cellphones, or TVs, but make some of the world's best of each. Is America bitching that Korea stole their inventions? Nah. (They're worried that foreign students and workforces are outperforming America in some arenas, but upset about stealing inventions? No. Did India complain when Korea registered Seokguram Grotto as a Unesco World Heritage Site, because the Buddha is from India? Not that I know of. Nobody owns the Buddha, cars, cellphones, or rock music.)
As cultural claims go, cultural materials don't observe national borders. Korea pissed off the Chinese and Taiwanese on a few internet comment boards by trying to register Dragon Boat Racing as a Korean traditional heritage. [update: this assertion has been well-corrected by Gomushin Girl in the comments] Korea has a enough of a reputation for claiming that not-Korean things are Korean, that they were even at the butt of a joke about it during the 2008 Olympics.
In the end, there are two sides: there's the emotional side, and the intellectual side, to the issue of cultural ownership and authenticity. When I brought the article above into my discussion classes, I was startled at how visceral the resentment was, that Japan had tried to steal kimchi from Korea. It's just a food, right? Korea's stolen stuff from other cultures and made it their own (read the Metropolitician's take on "Black culture without black people")
(image from the post linked above)
but, again, as when people criticize stuff about Korea, I've got to say that in the big picture of Korea's ascent to becoming a cultural force, the fact people are stealing things from Korean culture (cf: south-asian imitation K-pop groups) doesn't mean Korea needs to get up in arms about copyright infringement (USA didn't get huffy about Korean hembeogeos, did they? Why would they? The popularity of hembeogeos here is proof positive of USA's cultural reach.) Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: it means Korean culture is having the kind of influence all those promoters and boosters and kimcheerleaders dreamed it would have.
Awesome! No, Kogi tacos aren't authentic Korean food: stuff always gets changed in translation... but then, given how slippery and changeable culture is, how could we expect anything else?
So, now that we're back up to speed, I'll be finishing off this series by talking about what should be done with the situation where expats living in Korea come across artifacts of their own home cultures, reinterpreted by Koreans, for Korea.