Monday, 1 August 2011

Koreans USE Arirang... but OWN It?: Part One: The Stakes

This article is heading into TL/DNR territory, so I'll break it into a few parts, and publish it over a few days. Here's part one.

A great old blog friend of mine, The Korean, of Ask A Korean! (with a festive exclamation mark) has responded to my post "Nobody Owns Arirang,with his own explanation of why Arirang belongs to Korea, period. He disagrees with me. However, I'm thrilled with how he disagrees with me: with a thoughtful, well-explained post laying out his view and responding to points I've made, not just in that post itself, but drawing context from other of my writings on the topic of cultural ownership. I'd like to respond in kind.

Kimchi Mamas has also weighed in with a very simple but well-stated post, the most important point being this: "In regard to whether or not Arirang is Korean, I don't even know why this is a question. It seems to be more about whether a national entity can claim to own a culture..." and at the same time, somebody commenting on my original post seems to want me to explain my meaning better, though she/he has done so in the language of internet window-lickers: personal insults. I don't mind people calling me ignorant, if they throw me a rope and fill me in on what I've missed. Absent that... I've been given nothing to convince me I'm not dealing with a troll, frankly. So rather than engage there, I'll add a little more here about what I meant.

First: let's not forget the title of the post was "Nobody owns Arirang" I'm not saying that Korea doesn't own Arirang or implying that if anybody had the right to claim it, it would be China, not Korea. 

Second, let's remember that a provocative blog post title generates interesting responses, as this has.

But let's be clearer.

The Korean and I agree that a big part of what's really going on here is connected to China's Northeast project: ongoing attempts to build a case for China's historical right to regions and peoples' in that area, with a somewhat predictable endgame... but this Korea Herald article detailing Korea's response to China's claim lays bare the real stakes: “The fact that ‘Arirang’ is sung by ethnic Koreans in Yanbian proves that region (of China) is a property of Korean culture.” (says Culture Minister Choung Byoung-gug).

So... we're back to 백두산은 우리땅!  (Baekdu Mountain is our [Korean] land), and we're back to calling a spade a spade, rather than having a landclaim dispute by proxy, with UNESCO playing the kid passing notes between the frenemies bickering in math class.

The upshot of this is might be South Korea's own Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, though late to the game, deciding to collect all the old forms of Arirang, and add them to UNESCO's world heritage list next year... it'd be good for Arirang for it to be recorded in some way.*

* Sidenote on that:
though I hope that it doesn't lead to a "canon" version of Arirang which then makes Arirang inflexible, and unchangeable according to the times and needs of Korean people, as it was for most of its history. Because fixing a piece of culture so that it can't change anymore is the first step on its path to becoming a dead artifact that is irrelevant to people's ordinary lives, rather than a living, changing tool for people to express or understand themselves.

It should also be made clear, before we go farther, that China designated a regional variation of Arirang (sourceas a Chinese cultural heritage, not the entire body of Arirang.

And a commenter on Asia's Finest discussion forum points out that China's motivations for this could just as well be to validate and acknowledge the distinct minority group composed of ethnic Koreans in Yanbian, lest they feel marginalized as China celebrates all its other ethnic minorities in state-sponsored propaganda. This is echoed in the Korea Times editorial circulated by Yonhap News

First point: Vested Interests

As an ethnic Korean who makes his home away from Korea, discussing Korean culture with an ethnic notKorean making his home in Korea, when we enter discussions of Korean culture and cultural change, we have almost exactly opposite interests in the issue. I'm not comfortable speaking on The Korean's behalf (other than on April 1st), so I'll give my own example.
Because I live away from Canada, and have formed much of my self-identity through my interactions with Korean culture, it becomes important to me to use certain aspects of my Canadian roots and upbringing like anchors to my "Canadian-ness." Some aspects include things I expect to see or do when I come back to Canada: I've drunk much better coffee in my life, but when I arrive in Canada, I make a beeline for the nearest Tim Hortons and order a fresh Tim Hortons coffee. Medium. Two sugar. Because that's what Canadians do: Canadians drink Tim Hortons coffee! And I'm Canadian! SEE? 

this guy is clearly more Canadian than I am. (source)

I'm fairly choosy about what I select to represent my "Canadianness," but once I pick a few things, I invest a lot in them, so if I came back to Canada one summer, and I discovered that Tims had replaced their special Tims coffee with a set of boutique beans, and I said "Medium, two sugar" and the drive-through person asked, "Will that be Ethiopia Sidamo, Mexico Coatepec, or Indonesia Sumatra?" part of what makes me feel Canadian would be gone (even if every other Canadian loved Tim Hortons' new improved coffee menu.) When Tim Hortons stopped carrying fancies a part of my childhood disappeared (I'm not the only one who misses those artificial oil-stuffed monstrosities, it seems): the "wedge" saw me through a very difficult summer once.

An ethnic Korean living in Canada, who felt a little marginalized that this presumably representative Canadian donut shop was so culturally specific, might be pleased to see samosas, burritos or kimbap rolls next to the timbits in a Tim Hortons. But that would hurt my soul, not because I have anything against kimbaps burritos, samosas or those who eat/identify with them, but because Tim Hortons isn't supposed to change from how it was when I was seven and I went there with my mom, dammit! Or another of the reference points for my diminishing "Canadian-ness" will be lost. 

Thinking about the way I feel about changes in the Tim Hortons, one of the Canadian things I chose to identify with to preserve my sense of Canadian-ness, gives me a good framework for guessing at why The Korean is irrationally purist about Korean food. Other factors probably play into The Korean's food purist streak, but the contrast stands:

The mirror image of my Tim Hortons prejudice, applied to Korea, aimed at deeper/more fundamental aspects, and the very heart of the matter:

Quotable passage ahead:

The more Korean society accepts new imaginings of what it means to be Korean, the better chance I, my wife, and our multiracial, multicultural (future) kid(s) have of carving out a meaningful niche in this society, while the more Korean society bends, flexes, and invents/accepts new definitions for itself, the less familiar it will seem to The Korean and other Korean diaspora each time he/they come back for a visit.

All that to say... of course I'm going to argue for cultural lines to be blurry, contingent, indistinct, and drawn in sand, because pushing that sand around is how I carve out a home here. And of course The Korean is going to argue for cultural lines to be stark, fixed, and timeless, so that he can rest assured that he can come home for a visit, and have it still feel like the home he remembers. And I'll focus on the aspects that are contingent and fuzzy (starcraft and Isaac Toast) while he focuses on the aspects that are more timeless (family records and Arirang).

So every time The Korean and I disagree about what Korean culture is and how it's defined, don't think this contrast is the only relevant point, because I don't like dismissing arguments by playing the identity card (as a WASP entering the field of Korean studies, The Identity Card will more often be played at my expense than to my benefit, once it's in play), but it's a bit of context worth considering.

So anyway, bear that in mind while contrasting our views.


wordykorean said...

This post was incredibly insightful; your side note about "fixing a piece of culture so that it can't change anymore" especially resonated with me, and I agree wholeheartedly that steps should be taken to ensure the relevance and vitality of Arirang in the modern day.

There are a few things, though:

At one point in this post you write, "let's not forget the title of the post was 'Nobody owns Arirang' I'm not saying that Korea doesn't own Arirang..." But isn't that essentially what you're saying? If nobody owns Arirang, then Korea doesn't own it...right? Or am I missing something here?

In your "Quotable passage ahead" section, you also make it seem that members of the Korean diaspora are the only ones invested in this issue ("the more Korean society...accepts new definitions of itself, the less familiar it will seem to The Korean and other Korean diaspora"), and are the only ones intent on keeping cultural boundaries "stark, fixed, and timeless". Despite recent efforts to reinvent Korean society (a la the multicultural Western model) and an increased openmindedness in accepting these new definitions, I feel the majority of South Koreans are still intent on maintaining a static and strictly defined idea of what Korean heritage is (and you make an excellent point in your post about distinguishing culture and heritage). The issue of Arirang is one that falls squarely into heritage territory, and is one that South Koreans are affected by just as much as the diaspora.

Rob-o-SE-yo said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, WordyKorean

Nobody Owns/not "Korea DOESN'T Own"... the difference is in emphasis.

IF there are rights to Arirang to be had, Korea holds those rights... (that why I'm not saying "korea doesn't own arirang" but NOBODY owns it)... but I argue here and in coming posts that the idea of owning a culture is the problematic thing (stay posted).

For the second comment... no, diaspora aren't the only ones who like cultural boundaries to be stark, fixed and timeless... but like frogs in a kettle, people living here are in the midst of the stream of small, incremental changes which slowly build up. People living here find the accumulation of changes over a number of years less jarring than someone who hasn't been living here all along, so comes back to Korea to suddenly discover everybody's eating waffles and using smartphones, when nobody did last time they visited in 2008.

One of the most intriguing features of Korea's rapid development is the way Korea managed to undergo radical changes, again and again (Gwangju, the Saemaeul Movement, Colonization, The War, the Finance Crisis, and more) while still holding onto a lot of uniqueness, and holding onto the idea that uniqueness was important.

Turner said...

Some pretty salient points here, but from what I understand, aren't you saying you're the kind of person who prefers his culture static? I'm judging from the Tim Horton's example. If it's difficult enough for you, coming from a multicultural society like Canada, what chance is of Korean society at large learning to deal with that kind of change?

Rob-o-SE-yo said...


thanks for the comment.

the point of pulling the Tim Hortons example into it was to demonstrate the way I have different expectations of a culture I live away from, but identify with (and hold nostalgic feelings toward) than expectations of a culture I currently live in, where my status as a member of the culture is a subject of hot debate, and where many would prefer me to stay marginalized and never to ask or hope to be anything more integrated than a long-term guest.

I prefer my nostalgia static, but a country that wants to call me a foreigner even though I've lived here for nine years, and am approaching conversational in the language, and plan to raise a family here and make it my home? I'd prefer some flux there.

But Tim Hortons isn't allowed to change.

It all depends on where you stand, and what you're looking at, whether I prefer cultures to be static or dynamic.

But no culture is truly static. Except the Amish.

Turner said...

Have you written anything up on the new fingerprinting policy for foreign residents? They implemented the same in Japan when I was livign there had had quite a few permanent residents up in arms.

Rob-o-SE-yo said...

Haven't turner. That's off-topic in this thread, and it's also kind of a non-issue to me, unless the rhetoric around the decision to implement it is of a certain type.