Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Random: Two Bots in Conversation

Somebody put two chatbots (computers that are programmed to chat online and attempt to simulate a human's chat responses) into a conversation with each other.

It's awesome -- it almost hangs together, but not quite. Kind of like listening to a four-year-old tell jokes.

Monday, 29 August 2011

What did that Korean Call Me? 니가 and "ni***r" - a PSA.

[updated/added text in [brackets and italics]]

Yes. I used a word in the title there that I never use in real life. One of only about two I never use. Maybe I'm throwing a rock at a hornet's nest, but I hope not. I'm not an expert on this specific set of race issues, and would never pretend to be one.

But this video came to my attention through The Marmot's Hole.  Korean article. And I think it's good to have this topic google-able, so I'm throwing this out there. The Metropolitician says his piece.
Views from Burndog, I'm No Picasso (who suggests 니가 is altogether too familiar for strangers on a bus), David Wills, and Eve (who doesn't seem to like me).

[update: a late addition is The Bobster, whose satire of the whole thing hit exactly the right note.]

In the video, a (probably, from the accent and mannerisms) American with (probably) African ethnic background is shouting at an old Korean guy.

According to the Marmot's Hole's initial summary of the article, the old guy says he said

"니가 여기 앉아" to the man, which means "you sit here" - he was offering him a seat.

But phonetically, it sounds like this: "nigga, yogi anjah"

Which [by some accounts] led to the scene you can see at the bottom of the Korean article. Or here.

The accuracy of this initial account is being questioned now... but the potential confusion still stands, so this post still stands.

Here's the PSA part:

Folks... in Korean, "niga" (니가) means "you" - "니" (ni) means you, and "가" is a tag that indicates "you" are the subject of this sentence.

When you hear the word "니가" it's not necessarily somebody trying to insult anyone, or trying to sound like a gangster. Many of the Koreans I hear swear are tossing out a word they don't really understand, but heard in a movie, just to see what happens (as when middle school students say "fuck you" or flip the middle finger at foreigners,  kind of the way I used to poke at cats with a stick). People are not necessarily trying to be as insulting as the fella in this video took them to be doing. (not to say Koreans are always not trying to make racist insults, but...)

Here's a song that one of my African-American Korea friends thought was a racist blunder by a Korean popstar.  It isn't, any more than Clint Eastwood was trying to insult the Hmong kid when he gave it a pat on the head in Gran Torino. The song is "Champion" by Psy.

It's common to hear people talk about Korea's racism problem, and it is common to encounter people trying out words whose meaning they don't fully understand... but those aren't always direct attempts to insult, or start trouble, the way it would be if somebody in North America approached this guy and called him that word on the bus [if that's how the incident unfolded]. Maybe this guy was having a bad day, maybe it was the third time that day something had happened to him that he attributed to racism in Korea, and maybe he was right about some or all of them. But if The Marmot's account is correct, this one was a misunderstanding that's now getting play on Korea's internet, and is now reinforcing some negative stereotypes Koreans have of African-Americans, and others with African ethnic background. And that's too bad.

 It serves us expats in Korea well to offer up the benefit of the doubt where we can.

So here's the takeaway: Ni-ga --- not necessarily intended to be an insult.

[added August 30] I'm aware there's a lot more going on here that I'm not really qualified to comment on, either through personal experience or through careful study -- I don't want to be the guy pictured below...

but I think my readers are sharp enough to know I'm not using the word in the title to insult or marginalize anyone, and to see that I haven't spoken on behalf of anyone who didn't ask me to speak of their experiences.

[Update:] Please check the updates below the original post at The Marmot's Hole, for more (still foggy) details on the bus incident.

[Update August 30 Afternoon] The fellow on the bus speaks.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Learning Korean in Korea

Well, when I was with ATEK, one of the things I wanted to do was create an useful guide to Korea.

But that didn't happen.

So if you go to the top of my page and click where it says "Expat Life" you can see a (still in progress) page with some of the links I think are most useful to somebody trying to get themselves sorted in Korea.

One section I like is my "places to learn Korean" link list.

Learn Korean
Hangul (writing system)
Comparative reviews of "Study Korean" books
Learn Korean Online
Korean Class 101's Youtube Channel
Sogang's online Korean Course comes highly recommended
Recommended by I'm No Picasso: Learn Korean Now
Recommended by Roboseyo: Korean Class 101
More complete list of learning Korean resources

For the rest... if you run/know about a page you think deserves a link on my page, send me an e-mail at roboseyo at gmail, or put a link in the comment.

To the guy who's been getting his comments deleted: no. Links on where people can find an Indian wife (prefaced by a paragraph of shit-talking about western and Korean women) don't qualify.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

10 Magazine Reboot

10 Magazine has been providing one of the best events calendars out there, and they're trying to reinvent their website so that users can submit their own events, which is really useful. Especially if there's a curator to be sure that "Dylan's birthday party" doesn't quite make it in (that's what facebook groups are for)...

to pay for reinventing their website, and making it more useful for you, the readers, they're trying to raise $3000. I like 10 Magazine: they're good people, and between 10 and Groove Magazine, we're on our way to defying Bethell's Law, which makes me happy.

Bethell's Law:
the foreign community in Korea has always been much too fragmented, transient and diverse to broadly support any publications that fail to hew closely and safely to the proverbial lowest common denominator. That is as true today as it was a hundred years ago, if not more so.
 So... go forth. Support. They're two thirds of the way to their goal as of this writing, and you can get stuff if you help out.

Korea's Got Talent and Korea's Susan Boyle

So, Korea's Susan Boyle (I think he's Korea's Paul Potts) got second place in "Korea's got talent" (hat tip: I Am Koream)

Here's his emotionally manipulative original viral thingy:

He was beaten by this amazing popper: Ju Min Jeong.
I'm very impressed by her, frankly.

Congratulations to both.
However, Choi Sang-bong has his own English wikipedia page. Ju Min-jeong doesn't. As of this writing. So who's the real winner?

And Korea's Susan Boyle joins the list of "Korea's X" things, along with... (these are from Brian in Jeollanamdo)

Korea's Madonna - Uhm Jung-hwa
*Korea's Madonna - Gwangyang's own Chae-yeon
Korea's Madonna - Bada
Korea's Usher - Rain
Korea's Justin Timberlake - Rain
Korea's Beyonce - Gwangyang's own Kim Ok-bin
Korea's Michael Jackson - Seo Taiji
Korea's Angelina Jolie - Kim Hye-soo
Korea's Naples - Tongyeong
Korea's Hawaii - Jeju
Korea's Manhattan - Yeouido
Korea's Grand Canyon - Bulyeongsa Valley (LMFAO, thanks Michael).
Korean Alps - mountains in Gangwon-do
Korea's 9/11 - The Namdaemun arson 
Korea's Bangalore - Daejeon 
Korean Harry Potter - Woochi
Korea's Lady Gaga - CL
Korea's Moses Red Sea Miracle - Jindo Sea-Parting Festival
Korea's Gandhi - Cho Man-sik
Korea's Mariah Carey - Lena Park
Korea's Barbie Doll - Han Chae-young

And let's not forget:

Korea's Susan Boyle - Choi Sang-bong.
Korea's times square - uh... Yeongdeungpo Times Square
Korea's NYC Central Park - Ttukseom Seoul Forest
Korea's Seine/Thames River (another) (Han river)
Korean Opera - pansoori
Korean Pizza - Jeon
Korea's Manhattan - Yeouido
Korea's Hawaii - Jeju Island

Additions from readers and contacts:
Korea's Silicon Valley - Daejeon
but upon googling "Korea's silicon valley" it turns out
Korea's Silicon Valley - is ALSO Bundang
Korea's Naples - Tongyeong - confirmed by another person.
Korea's Grand Canyon - Buleyongsa

Korea's butthole - Gumi (this one might have been a joke, though ㅋㅋㅋ)

I know there are many more... please tell me who/what/where I've missed in the comments. Bonus points for links.

As you may have gathered, I'm not a huge fan of comparing everything in Korea to something more famous somewhere else. It just makes Dream Forest look like a pale imitation, to compare it to somewhere more famous, and maybe better, from somewhere else.

However, I'll also say this: I went to Toronto's Eaton Center while I was in Canada this summer, and there are at least four shopping centers in Seoul alone that smack that mall like a chubby bunny.

Star City - Keondae
Yeongdeungpo Times Square - Yeongdeungpo
Enter 6 - Wangshimni
Lotte World + Lotte Adventure - Jamsil
And the mother of them all: Coex - Samseong

and once it gets going and the areas around it fill with apartments and the mall fills with shops, Garden 5 in Songpa will beat out Eaton Center, too. Unless Eaton Center had a jimjilbang I missed.

So Eaton Center Toronto, you are henceforward to be known as Toronto's Korea's Times Square. Or Toronto's Korea's Mall of America. You choose.

Maybe Choi Sung Bong will get his own star on Korea's Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

Monday, 22 August 2011


This is the sound of August in Korea.

Simon and Martina sum up my feelings about the cicadas pretty well.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Korea Herald... and Roboseyo... on Dog Meat

Korea Herald ran an article about eating Dog Meat in Korea -- a topic that received a lot of world attention in 1988 around the Olympics, at which time Seoul carefully squirreled away dog restaurants, in 2002 around the World Cup, at which time the response was more along the lines of "Respect our culture." It will happen again in 2018, when the Winter Games comes to Pyeongchang, and what the response is, is anybody's guess.

The Korean, of Ask A Korean! wrote in support of dog meat, and has brought the ire of every PETA person who finds his blog down upon his head. 197 comments in response, as of this writing.

I read up a little on dog meat while preparing for my essays about the Olympics, because the issue came up as one of the arenas where Korea wanted to put a positive image of itself onto the world stage. Not exhaustively, but a little.

"Animal Rights vs. Cultural Rights: Exploring the Dog Meat Debate in South Korea from a World Polity Perspective" (Minjoo Oh & Jeffrey Jackson, Journal of Intercultural Studies Vol. 32.1 Feb. 2011) gave an interesting history of dog meat controversies in Korea, and explores the tensions that occur when groups proclaiming universal values (and possibly wearing their colonial arrogance on their chests) come across local groups with other ideas. If you'd like to read it, contact me, and I'll get your hands on a copy.

Some of the things it's got me thinking about:
1. Rhetoric from leaders has little meaning when it is not internalized by the locals. (See also: multiculturalism, globalization).

2. Rhetoric from international bodies and discussion of global norms has little effect if it does not resonate with something in the locals.

3. Formally adopting a policy is not the same as actually having it done in practice. (See also: maternity leave in Korea)

4. Don't underestimate nationalism and cultural exceptionalism.

5. Trying to take something away sometimes makes people hold onto it tighter.

6. As nations enter global community, there needs to remain space for local particularities, and dialogues about where those lines are drawn never end.

7. Sometimes, the way to clear space for local particularities is to announce global norms as window dressing... and then not enforce/implement it.

8. Shame tactics can provoke a backlash. Especially in the context of discussions about modernism, and in discussions between more and less developed countries, or more and less recently developed countries.

According to some of my reading, interestingly, partly because it's faced international opposition, eating dog has become seen (by some Koreans) as one way to celebrate their Koreanness -- because some furriners want to take it away, it suddenly gets chunked into the same category as pansoori, Arirang, and Other Heritages In Danger Of Vanishing. The article I mentioned above states that after the '88 Olympics, more Koreans had neutral or positive feelings toward eating dog, and more ate dog, than they did before some furriners tried to make them stop doing it.

Once again:
Eating dog is more popular now than it was before facing opposition from NGOs and such in 1988.

The Korea Herald piece presents two sides: pro and con. Stephen "Why Aren't You Respect The Korea Culture?" Bant argues against eating dogs, and Ann "I Used The Family Photographer Who Hasnt Bought New Equipment Or Backgrounds Since 1978" Yong-geun argues for it.

On the "Dogs are friends, not food" side, Bant comes across, frankly, as a little high-handed: a selection of words from his piece that demonstrate his attitude: "evolved" "uncivilized" "ignorant peasants." His posture comes across, in spots, as being one of the enlightened, bringing truth to the savages. Where his tone comes across that way, it rubs me the wrong way.

Then, in his last few paragraphs, he goes so far as to question the manhood of those who eat dogs. Directly after suggesting that those who don't eat dog meat don't need stamina supplements, he says,

"But dog eaters suffer other inadequacies. They say that in summer they cannot do without dog meat for energy. Well, perhaps if they exercised a litle, it would boost that flaccid physical condition of theirs." [emphasis added]

And that, sirs and madams, is called a cheap shot.

Bant also mentions that dogs are companions. And implies that using dogs as companions is a sign that a society is developed. I didn't realize that was the measure. I thought there was something about industrialization and access to education and medical technology and growth of civil society in there, too, but I've been wrong before. Using dogs as pets strikes me as a very culturally specific measure to choose as the barometer of a developed society -- I might as soon (and as arbitrarily) choose really good maple syrup as the measure of an advanced society... but I'd be showing my bias-cards then, wouldn't I? Do Indians look at Americans with envy, because Americans have pet dogs, and all they ever managed was big, unwieldy cows? Or do they see Westerners as savages, for coddling dogs, when they've discovered a far more bovine animal to revere?

In the bio, it explains that the writer is a vegan. And that matters.

On the pro-dog meat side, Ann Yong-geun plays the cultural relativity card, suggests that not all dogs are friends, and asks that people not force their opinions on others. Some of his points - like the one that Koreans only eat dogs that are specially bred for eating, are patently wrong or contradicted in his article -- almost every student over 40 with whom I've had this conversation, had a pet dog, or knows of a family who had a pet dog, that was stolen and eaten by a neighbor. This was also answered by Stephen in his article. Ann also points out that animal shelters in the West euthanize dogs regularly, and points out that if animal shelters destroy dogs anyway, why not make some use of the carcass, and eat a dog that's already dead, maybe even turn a profit from cooking it after it's been destroyed, rather than having to also pay for disposing of it the body. A fair point... but didn't he just say only specially raised breeds of dogs were supposed to be eaten?

Most interesting, he suggests that housing a dog in a human's home is an unnatural state for a dog, and they should be left to live wild; that keeping dogs as pets is just as unnatural and cruel as confining it to eat it.

Then he veers of into fishy territory, suggesting that Westerners don't eat dogs because it's in the bible. I got nothing to say about that, except that I suppose it's fair that both articles unravel toward the end, one with cheap shots, and the other with tangential borderline-nonsense.

Anyway, interesting pair of articles.

My own thoughts:

1. Korea is trapped in a bind. The dog meat industry here is terribly unregulated [update: it's fairer to say underregulated], which means that there's little to no control over the conditions in which dogs are raised and slaughtered, which in turn means that for all we know, many dogs continue to be raised and slaughtered in really viciously disgusting conditions (according to legend, slaughtering a dog by beating it to death produces the most delicious meat). The problem is, when the government tries to regulate dog meat, which would put them in a position to remove cruelty from the farming and serving of dog, animal rights people and humane society people, start raising a stink about banning it entirely. This meets resistance from people who believe them furriners (or them arrogant youngsters who need to get off my lawn, or just some ignorant people who have never tried it and should keep their nose out of it,) are trying to take away an important Korean traditional thing. That debate attracts negative international attention (which Korean leaders and image-sculptors hate). Better not to talk about it than to risk having all that dirty laundry run up a flagpole for everyone to see.  (see also: prostitution, suicide, abortion)

2. Stephen Bant is a vegan, so he's allowed to tell us that we shouldn't eat dog. He would probably argue just as passionately why we shouldn't eat chicken, pork, beef, ostrich, giraffe, or gorilla. His position is consistent.

But if you eat pig, you can't say it's wrong to eat dog. Pigs are remarkably smart: the intelligence argument doesn't fly. Some keep pigs as pets, too. If you eat any living thing (with the possible exception of wild game), you don't have a leg to stand on, saying that it's wrong to eat dog, but OK to eat chicken, ostrich, pig, cow, kangaroo, alligator, shrimp, oysters, turducken, or any other critter. Choosing which animals are wrong to kill and/or eat on the basis of cuteness is inconsistent and hypocritical: don't tell me it's wrong to cull cute baby seals because it's cruel, but it's OK to exterminate scabby rats on Manhattan Island.

I'm sympathetic to vegetarians for two moral reasons - I used to do summer work on farms, and it's really hard to raise meat in a way that's cost-effective and affordable, without being a little horrible. There's a reason many livestock farmers' kids grow up to be vegetarians. Particularly industrial chicken farming is so horrific, nobody should eat that shit. I'm sparing you links to photos and videos... but just google it. If the comment discussion gets interesting, I'm sure somebody will be considerate enough to include links in the comments to pages where you can see pictures and video from industrial farms. It's awful, and will make you sad for days.

I'm also sympathetic because in terms of efficiently using the world's resources to feed the world's humans, livestock a terrible choice. Growing beans and nuts to provide humans with protein, and making it into tofu and stuff, uses so much less of the world's resources, it's ridiculous. You know how many humans could be fed, on the grain it takes to raise a beef cow to slaughtering size? You know how much corn could be grown with the water it takes to raise a cow to adulthood?

3. Until it became a "thing NGO's and other furriners who don't understand our culture want to take away from us" because of these big public mega-events, eating dog meat was probably on its way to being a generational thing, like bbundaegi, which is slowly fading out of favor with the younguns - mostly old people, in mostly old neighborhoods, eat dog meat, particularly since it was pushed to the margins in '88 and (especially these days) young people mostly think of dogs only as pets. My wife is one of that generation: she, and people younger than her, are generally more interested to be seen in the newest belgian waffle, hand-drip coffee, gourmet hamburger, snazzy tapas place, than sitting on the floor in a dirty old neighborhood, in a shop in a back alley with fake wood floors and teal tables, surrounded by old men eating dog.

Even though dog consumption has increased since the '88 Olympics, I'd be interested to know how many of the people under 35 who eat dog, do it only with other people under age 35 -- I'd wager that the overwhelming majority of young people eating dog are doing it because they've been brought along by someone of that older generation.

4. Me, I'm torn, really torn, about dog meat. While I was traveling in China, I saw a dog market that made me sad enough that I won't eat more dog myself, and have eaten much less of other large animals, too. My wife wouldn't let me eat dog, anyway - not while she's around - because she's an avid dog-lover.

I'm mostly frustrated by that catch-22 I mentioned in "my own thoughts, part 1" -- the industry's sketchy because it's unregulated, and it's unregulated because trying to make it legal is politically risky, and any attempt to bring the industry above board and clean it up is going to result in loud movements to ban it entirely instead, attracting negative attention.

They're different in many ways, but the prostitution industry suffers the same dilemma - in both cases, leaders don't have either the will or the resources to eliminate the industry entirely, but neither do they have the courage to own up to its existence, and try to bring it above board, so it hangs around on the margins, where people who beat dogs to death can get away with it, and where gangsters who do all kinds of horrible human trafficky things to women, can get away with that.  

For the record, I think it's a much higher priority to clean up the prostitution industry than the dog meat industry, but until Korea's leadership is willing to either snuff the dog trade out, or legislate it appropriately, it will continue to exist in this shadowy area, until the generation that consumes most dog meat dies of old age, and it becomes impossible to find, not because international groups have foisted imperial values on innocent Koreans, but because those who prepare it, and those who eat it, have died of old age, and the young ones who would take it up, are interested rather in belgian waffles, hand drip coffees, and Indonesian, Thai, Swedish, Middle-Eastern, or whatever other kind of food has become the newest way to show off one's sophistication.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Time to tell the World... Due Date: October

Time to tell the world...

Wifeoseyo and I are expecting a little one, in late October.

So... yay us. I played this really close to my chest for quite a while, but it's time to share it with the world. After all, you can't really look at my wife without noticing.

*actual babyseyo may not appear exactly as shown

That's all for now.

Love: roboseyo

Saturday, 13 August 2011

I owe an Apology to Mike Yates and TJ

I've owed you two this post for a while.

In 2009, I wrote an angry blog post in which I called Mike Yates and T.J., two guys heavily involved with discussions about ATEK at the beginning, trolls. At the time, I didn't know them at all.

Since then, I have gotten to know these guys, through some email and through their commenting and other actions. First, they acquitted themselves admirably in explaining their views on ATEK.  During my time with ATEK, I saw them give that organization numerous chances, despite their initial opposition.  Secondly, I saw them put a ton of time and work into building the AFEK community, of which I am a member. AFEK is a great place, in part thanks to the combined efforts of all the members there (and anyone can now become a member and join discussions in AFEK's open forums), but in large part, due to the efforts of Mike Yates and T.J., thanks to whose efforts, those AFEK members have a place to meet. They have done these things in ways that demonstrated conviction and integrity.

I'm not for or against people, other than Kim Jong-il, perhaps, whom I'm against: I'm for community, and anyone who's working on building it. And Mike and T.J. have proven themselves, without a doubt, to be community builders. I respect that. A hell of a lot.

So I apologize for calling you guys trolls, that was a shitty thing to do, and it's patently untrue. I apologize for lumping you in with people who were there to watch the car wreck, or for other reasons, and thanks for the community building work you've done since then.

You can learn more about AFEK at the Midnight Runner podcast, at Chris in South Korea, at The Three Wise Monkeys, or at the AFEK page itself.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Clearinghouse: Links

Some very readable and worthwhile links that I want to share, but don't have time to write up at length:

Discussion of Expat misbehavior in Georgia. It touches on the way lack of accountability plays a role in people acting overseas in ways they wouldn't act in their home communities. Somebody sent me this link... I think of facebook... a long time ago.

Ants on the March - I really want to visit this neighbourhood. And ones like it. Any of my readers know more about "daldongnae"?

This article at the Diplomat, which I've added to my sidebar, suggests that while Western English teachers sure do raise a stink, the racism they face in Korea pales beside the treatment given to South Asians. I find myself agreeing. Matt from Popular Gusts discusses this article.

Matt also has a great write-up about more cartoon depictions of English teachers... plus other stuff. He's doing so much great work documenting the media campaign to scapegoat English teachers.

Nils Footman talks about one of the new web services that is part of bringing an end to Korea's internet monoculture.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Going through old Photos...

And finding gems like this.

and this

and this (spotted first by a buddy)

Gwangyang may have reached a threshold in buzzword density here.

I don't know how I feel about the new uses being given to the word "Virus" in Korea. Any word that's used in a Kpop song or TV show title (Beethoven Virus) is at risk of spinning off with a wild, new, farfetched meaning.


Ordinary poster... or is it?
Gaah! Look at her freaky photoshoppy wrist!


Friday, 5 August 2011

Expat Hell and Blogs Bullied into Silence, discussed at Bobster's House

A writer whom I respect a lot, The Bobster, wrote a piece a little while ago called "The Curious Case of Jake, In Korea" (Part 1, and Part 2)

Jake shut down his former blog, "The Prestige," and at the time, I wrote a half-baked post about netizen bullies and defensive nationalists, making the unfounded assumption that it had been netizen bullies that shut him down. I later took that post down (something I almost never do). Because it was half-baked, and simply incorrect.

The Bobster interviewed Jake, and in part two, added some great thoughts about the myth of anonymity on the internet,  and the fact we own what we write on the internet, anonymously or otherwise. I'll be honest, and say that as a guy who writes under his real name, who has a family in Korea, sometimes I wonder how far I ought to venture into controversial territory... but then again, even if I don't aim for controversy, you never know when somebody will misunderstand a joke or an idiom, or just decide they don't like something about me. That's why, look around, and you'll notice I never put the name of my school or my current workplace on the blog, and have put a grand total of two or three pictures up where my wife's face can be discerned... because it would bother me a lot if my blog garnered any kind of unwanted attention for my wife.

You don't know this, but I did once have netizen who didn't like some comments I made on another page, publish the location and time where s/he or one of his/her friends had spotted me in public. They took it down a few hours later, before I could grab a screenshot, but yeah. That happened.

Anyway, my favorite line in Bobster's write-up:
"Steering clear of controversy because the topics don’t move you is different from avoiding them because we are afraid evil people will jump at us from the shadows. Most of the time there is nothing there in the dark, or what is there is, is very small and doesn’t want to do more than say boo."

I'm sad that so far, Bobster's two-part piece has garnered only one comment altogether, and I'd be really happy to see a lively discussion there. So, brace yourself, Bobster.

So go, read. Begin with part one. and then read part two.

Article on South Korea's problems Integrating Non-Them's

Faustino John Lim, whom I've worked with on the consultative committee I'm a part of at the Canadian Embassy, has published a very interesting article in The Diplomat's "New Leaders Forum" about South Korea's challenges integrating migrant workers, multicultural kids, and North Koreans, and warns of the formation of a racialized underclass.

"How successfully South Korea handles its marginalized populations will demonstrate not only its ability to achieve a multicultural society, but also a successful model of modernization."


"Long boastful of its nation's apparent ethnic homogeneity...the spectre of institutional racisim, excluding those not fully 'Korean' from equal opportunities for social and economic advancement, looms."

The article frames the issue well, though it's not quite long enough to propose many straight-up solutions.

But it's DEFINITELY worth a read.

So... Go read!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Koreans USE Arirang... but OWN it?: Part Four: China... and UNESCO Looks like Tools Right Now

This is a several-part response to The Korean's post about Korea's ownership of Arirang. The Korean's post was a response to my post in June, stating provocatively that Nobody Owns Arirang.

Part three of this series.

Some food for thought:
Becoming a Canadian.

Waking up Canadian. It's that easy to become a Canadian. That's what happens when nationality is civic instead of ethnic. Nationality isn't the same as ethnicity OR identity. Nationality's a piece of paper. Identity's a lot more.

These beer commercials are like putting video clips of the 2002 World Cup crowd scenes in a Korean commercial:

But you best not be crossing us canucks:

And, to illustrate the confusion that occurs when one word (Korean) can represent a political body, a culture, or a language, here's some of the confusion that occurs when Jew, the religion, and Jew, the ethnic group, get muddled: Jerry Seinfeld's friend converts to Judaism... and starts telling Jewish jokes, and referring to Jewry as "we."

Sidenote: Questions about China

Before we can be sure China is only trying to co-opt Arirang for the sake of taking over North Korea, Baekdusan, and so forth, here are the questions we need answered:

1. what other cultural heritages of China's many other minority groups has China been registering? Has it been at a similar rate to China's registering of cultural heritages belonging to the Korean Chinese in the Northeast? Faster? Slower?
2. are there landclaim disputes or potential landclaim disputes in any of those other places?
3. are there cultural practices being registered in those other places that belong to people who don't exclusively live in China? (for example, the Hmong in South China and Southeast Asia) and has this action been seen by any of these other groups as attempts to co-opt their culture? Has it been seen by the nations that host populations of any of these other groups as intended toward making claims on their territory?
4. Is China only registering heritage in places where it has, or is suspected of having territorial intentions?

The answers to these questions would take research... and perspective; neither were provided in the least by the coverage of the Arirang registration from Korean news sources, but without answers to these questions, we have no idea what to make of China registering a few local varieties of the Arirang.

If China's not bothering with ethnic groups' heritages in non-contested territories (for example, if they're registering a ton of Tibetan, Uighur and Taiwanese heritage, but no Manchu or Yi at all), then we have reason to get jacked up about the Northeast Project. But if China's registering the heritages of other groups at a proportionally higher rate than the Korean-Chinese, there's a possibility China has dragged its feet on Korean-Chinese heritage out of respect for the unique heritages of North and South Korea, and their kinship with the Yanbian Chinese.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

An answer to the I Am Canadian commercials above: Korean advertisers use lots of banal nationalism too... World Cup references always get the hearts stirring.
I'm not sure how I feel about bringing North Korea's most famous dancer into south Korea... to shill phones.

Finally: UNESCO Kinda Looks Like Tools Right Now

After all that, we're finally at the heart of the matter: why the hell are national governments, with their angles and agendas and political ends, involved in preservation of cultural heritage?

And I'd lay this problem at the foot of UNESCO:

Now I have a friend who used to work for UNESCO Korea, who explained to me that governments  have the power to petition UNESCO to register something as a cultural heritage, but UNESCO has to make a decision for or against inclusion on the Big Unesco Lists.

This benefits UNESCO because it only deals with UN recognized bodies, who are familiar with the protocols of dealing with international organizations, simplifying things. Also, because national governments have interests in promoting some kinds of heritages, I'm not sure, but UNESCO might well be benefiting...richly... from hearing the petitions of different nations requesting registration of different cultural heritages. Especially... energetic petitions as they might receive from Korea and China on this Arirang thing, and other such disputed cultural artifacts.

I don't know if UNESCO benefits the way FIFA's governing body um... benefits richly from hearing countries' world cup bids.... but if it does, that explains a lot.

The problem is by putting the power to register heritage in the hands of national governments, UNESCO has put itself in a position where it can become the tool of national governments wishing to promote certain kinds of national images (possibly at the expense of others) through what they choose to register, and what they choose not to register. This leaves the heritage registration process open to being compromised through all the usual agendas, angles and interests that taint every activity of national political parties.

And heritage is too precious and wonderful a thing to put it into the hands of politicians.

Somebody needs to pull UNESCO's leadership out of Paris, and their heads out of their asses, and bring them over to Asia, and show them how, in these parts, world heritage ownership becomes a battlefield for historical disputes, and the building of claims of ownership of regions, and the source of ridiculous pissing contests. In case they aren't aware of it.

More to the point: Why the hell are national governments involved in registering cultural heritages that predate them, and that transcend and predate more recently drawn borders between nations? That's fishy to me, and it undermines UNESCO's credibility when it allows itself to be the battlefield for another Korea/China cultural dispute.

I think it would be better if UNESCO were dealing directly with the people, the societies and groups and artisans who practice the arts being recorded as heritage. Why should China OR South Korea be involved with registering Arirang? Why isn't there an international body for the preservation of Arirang, one where Chinese-Korean, Japanese-Korean, North Korean, South Korean, and diaspora Korean Arirang singers, recorders, writers, and lovers, can get together, and get excited about Arirang? And why isn't that group, which (hopefully) doesn't give a damn about political nation-state ties, the one helping UNESCO get Arirang registered right as a national cultural heritage?

Cultures and Nation-States are not the same thing... but they are confused far too often. This muddy (and/or lazy) thinking is by absolutely no means limited to Koreans, either, so let's not hear any of that in the comments.

Yeah, nation-state governments have deep pockets. Way deeper than historical/cultural groups. But governments shouldn't be curating museums: they should be providing cultural funding without strings attached, so that museums can find excellent people who are better at curation than civil servants. And governments shouldn't have any part in registering cultural heritage with UNESCO, because it taints the entire process if they do. UNESCO should be collaborating with historians, artisans and preservation groups in their project of cultural preservation. 

The best governments can do with culture or heritage is use it for propaganda... and that's a sad use of a cultural heritage. Even sadder than having it co-opted by marketers**. So let's put curation of culture in the hands of those who identify with it, who love it, who would see their precious heritage stay above political posturing or financial interests, and who help it grow, instead of those who would claim to own it, in order to gain politically or financially from it.

**Yes I recognize the irony of saying that after using beer commercials to describe Canadian national identity. But even if Molson Canadian is free to advertise with Canadian images, they shouldn't be the ones contacting UNESCO about heritage registration.

Further reading:
Why Arirang isn't registered.
Why are you telling us Americans don't have a culture, the Korean?
My favorite comment on The Korean's post: Part one, Part two
(best line: Think, for a second, if the French were to claim the Statue of Liberty as a product of French culture - this move would be made even worse if France were rising in its status as a world power, was making similarly political moves around its region, and were a hundred times as big in land, power, and size, and were right next to America.)
UNESCO's website

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Koreans USE Arirang... but OWN It?: Part Three: It's Not Just Genealogies, and What do you Mean by Korean?

This is a several-part response to The Korean's post about Korea's ownership of Arirang. The Korean's post was a response to my post in June, stating provocatively that Nobody Owns Arirang.
Part one of this series.
Part two of this series.

Who can Identify with Arirang... or any Part of Korean Culture?

The Korean started his post off with an impressive story about seeing his name in the volumes of his family history. That's cool. I had a student who told me how his father ran back into his family's burning house, as the North Korean soldiers approached, in order to rescue his family history.  That's impressive too. I had a nine year old kid tell me he was the 28th generation firstborn son in his family tree. Sweetness. But you know what? My grandfather came to Canada with almost nothing, after the Nazi war machine boot-fucked his country so badly that there was nothing for him there, and the Dutch government, unable to provide a job for him (a former civil servant) in the devastated country, sponsored his emigration. When he got to Canada, he found a community of other immigrants who welcomed him, and helped him set up and provide for his five kids, his kids got free public education, and every one of them made it through university, too, and my grandfather literally worked himself to death to get his family established in Canada. And that's impressive too, even if it doesn't take two shelves of old volumes to tell that story.

Other commenters have taken The Korean to task for what they see as him privileging his type of identification with his origins over the ways other countries/heritages/individuals identify with their origins. They are correct, and pooh-poohing my methods of connecting with my heritage and my community because they don't include 2000-year-old books is just as short-sighted as as pooh-poohing those who turn to genealogies for their sense of connection, because long lists of dead guys don't mean anything to anyone but others whose names are in that book. (see Yujin Is Huge for more on that)

And who can say that the swell of pride some Americans feel when they gaze upon the image above, is stronger, or weaker, than the swell of pride The Korean feels to look upon a bookshelf and think "that's my genealogy"? How the hell do we measure that?

Rather, I'd say we're back in the realm of arbitrarily drawn lines: why should history and ancientness matter more than powerful symbols, homeland geography, or family tribulations? Of course somebody with an old history's going to say that matters the most. And people who mine their identity along another vein would say THAT measure is the most valid.  Duh. "This is who I am" is a handle most people grip tightly, once they find it. Some people grip funny things for their handle, but once they grip it, they hold on tight.

While the artifacts or stories that help us create are identities are not always as old as The Korean's, the connections they make and represent are no less meaningful to us. 


genealogies are no longer the only way to feel a connection with Korean culture and heritage. As Korean culture becomes popular outside Korea, and as more non-Koreans make their home in Korea, non-ethnic Koreans are identifying themselves with Korean culture, both at a deep level of engagement, and in far greater numbers than ever before. One of my friends is a blonde-haired blue-eyed young woman who spoke Korean before she even came here, and now works in a Korean company, and has reached near fluent proficiency. Another person I know doesn't look like a Korean at all, but he has fathered Korean citizens, and lived in Korea longer than many of my students have been alive. A blog connection of mine has never visited Korea, but has taught herself to speak Korean by watching Korean dramas. 

In another direction, Koreans are using more, and more diverse aspects of what can be found in Korea to identify their Koreanness than ever before. When women's issues are urgent and rape culture remains rife in Korea, who dares tell the women who organized SlutWalk Korea that it's not relevant to Korea, that their effort to find a voice is not appropriate for Korea (as a journalist implied by asking me if a Slutwalk is appropriate for Korea)? Look at how differently the Korean political Left and the Korean political Right define their nation (a controversy that spills over into history textbooks). There are people who celebrate their Koreanness at StarCraft tournaments as well as Pansori performances, some who do by thanking US soldiers for their predecessors serving in the Korean War, and others by chanting "Yankee Go Home" until they're hoarse. Some young people would say that eating brunch and buying brand-name accessories are the most Korean thing you could possibly do... and really, no doubt historians could find historical precedents for such trend-following and ostentation in old timey Yangbanland as well.

The Korean makes a good point though - one I really like - that while Koreans do use these things to aid their identification with Korea, connection between bits of culture are also accretive (they grow through gradual addition over time) -- that is, generations of Koreans, in significant numbers, over a very long time, choosing the same things as representative of Korean culture, give them a deeper, stronger link with Korean culture than other aspects that are newer, or chosen as identifying reference points for smaller numbers. If (as I said in the last post) culture is like an ecosystem, then these things would be like the groundwater level, the climate, the tree density, and the terrain of the ecosystem: not absolutely unchangable, but more fundamental, and harder to uproot or change, than less fundamental, fixed things, like "rabbit reproduction rate."

I won't argue that, except to add that even those things that have been chosen by many people, over numerous generations, can still undergo radical changes, in order to continue to suit the changing needs of new generations. Arirang has, at different times, according to my background reading (yep, I looked up some scholarship on the history of Arirang for this), included songs satirizing the corrupt Yangban, songs of resistance against invading and oppressive forces, as well as the ever-present "nostalgic love song" motif. Kimchi and a lot of other foods have gotten a lot spicier recently, and all those battered deep-fried Korean street-foods everybody loves, and identifies as Korean food, didn't come about until after the war, when UN Food Aid came in the form of flour, and Koreans didn't know what to do with flour, so they started battering and deep-frying local vegetables like sweet potatoes and peppers.

Cultures are much less fixed than we think they are, and this is one of the problematic things about nationalism: it tends to take relatively recent developments or definitions, and imagine them as having origins much more ancient than they really are. (one example of a recent idea projected backwards by its followers: Rapture theology) Nationalism also tries to tie cultural practices to national borders, when national borders, as they exist now, are extremely recent developments, and for most of the history of these very old things, they existed in regions, not countries, and spread around freely. It wasn't until the  1900s that humans had the technology or the desire to establish, and guard national borders the way they're guarded now, with stamps in passports and border guards and tariffs and records of what comes in and goes out.

What do you mean by "Korea" anyway?

This seems to be a very common problem in discussions about Korea and Korean culture: many, many who discuss Korean culture etc. fail to distinguish whether they are talking about Korea the political entity (The Republic of Korea) or Korea the culture, or Korea the ethnic group.

As this Youtube Video about the differences between Britain, The UK, The British Isles, The Commonwealth, and The Crown demonstrate, clarity on just what one means, is helpful.


I would absolutely agree that Arirang is connected inextricably with Korean culture. And through that, maybe also with the Korean ethnic group.

But to say Arirang belongs to Korea, we have to ask:

Which meaning of Korean do you mean?

And here 's the sticking point. When The Korean says "Arirang is Korean. Period," (At least in English... I haven't looked into how it shakes out in Korean) here are the people who stand up and shout "Hell, yes!" each with different understandings of what "Korean" means:

  • A South Korean who sings Arirangs that are mostly sad love songs.
  • A North Korean who knows a few versions of Arirang with "Down with USA" themes.
  • A Chinese-Korean.
  • A Japanese-Korean
  • A Kyopo from a Koreatown somewhere in Europe or America (who sings a version that was translated into English, French, German, or Norwegian)
  • A linguist who thinks the word "Korean" refers to the language.
  • An anthropologist who thinks the word "Korean" means "somehow at least vaguely associated with the Korean ethnic group of Northeast China and the Korean Peninsula"
  • A geologist who hasn't looked into it yet, and thinks Arirang is a kind of rock that can only be found on the Korean peninsula. Maybe that special lava rock from Jeju Island...

 And even though it seems pedantic, that's why scholars spend so much time arguing over how one defines words.

Let's go back to the scholar Benedict Anderson, "Imagined Communities" - one of the foundational studies in nationalism and national communities - who describes a nation as "an imagined political community [that is] imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign."

  • A nation is imagined - it doesn't exist until a group of people agree that the things they have in common make them unique. Admit it: national borders are imaginary lines.
  • A nation is a community - it requires a group of people who have come together, and who agree to conceive of themselves as a new unique thing. They imagine kinship with people they've never met, because they share a nation.
  • A nation is inherently limited - every nation has rules for who IS, and who ISN'T a member, and how to become a member (if it's possible to). Yankee fans can't join Red Sox Nation, USA Nation requires paperwork, the Muslim Nation requires the Shahadah, and you can't be a member of Korean Nation unless you're born into it (for now). Though if you tell enough Koreans you like kimchi, you'll be dubbed a "blue eyed Korean"
  • A nation is sovereign - it has its own rules and wants to be independent of other communities or nations. This is where Anderson's definition moves into politics.

Anderson is describing a political nation, but not all nations are sovereign political bodies. There are nations without their own state (like the Metis of Canada, the Kurds of Iraq, and North America's First Nations peoples) nations that never wanted or asked for sovereignty (Red Sox Nation of Major League Baseball, Justin Bieber's 10 million + twitter fans), political bodies that are home to multiple nations (for example, the politically fractured Belgium, which is unable to break a stalemate between its Dutch and French populations, and most of the countries that have had civil wars in the last generation), there are nations that find their home in more than one political nation-state (the Hmong in Southeast Asia, the Bedouin, and Koreans), and there are even other nations located in a few spots having "quarterback controversies" about which one represents the "real" nation - is Tibet's government in exile the real Tibetan government, or is the government that actually administrates Tibet's traditional land? The Wikipedia article says almost as many (2.5 mill) Jamaicans live abroad as live in Jamaica (2.8 mill).

And this is the biggest problem with all this discussion about Korean culture: South Korea is not the exclusive home of the Korean people. North Koreans have a right to Arirang, South Koreans do, and the Korean-Chinese in Yanbian have a right to it. And none of those groups has the right to say "our version of Koreanness is more valid than yours" any more than The Korean has the right to say his family story is more valid than mine, because mine doesn't have books with lists of names of dead people (it actually does), or mine more than his, because none of his ancestors participated in the Dutch resistance during the Nazi occupation.

Those Korean-Chinese in Yanbian even have a right to register their heritage with Unesco, or to ask China to do it for them. And they don't have to ask South Korea's cultural minister for permission first.

Bringing nation-states into a discussion of cultural ownership - particularly in a case like Korea, where Korean people are spread across a handful of states and regions, and others are spread all over the world - is extremely problematic.

The Republic of Korea officially became a sovereign state on August 15, 1948 (sez Wikipedia). It's only 63 years old, and Arirang is possibly thousands... the Republic of Korea has no right to assert ownership of something SO MUCH older than it.

The People's Republic of China was proclaimed on October 1 1949 (sez Wikipedia). It has no right to assert ownership of Arirang, either.

And now we're getting to the heart of the problem.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Koreans USE Arirang... but OWN It?: Part Two: Identify, Use... but Own?

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. This is my (several part) response.
Jang Sa-ik. He's not the most famous Arirang Singer (that's probably Kim Yeong-im), but his version of the classic (most popular version of) Arirang is my favorite.

Second Point: How does One Own a Culture?

While explaining his reasons for saying Korea owns Arirang, period, The Korean, who has clearly read Plato and his critics, has a little fun poking at my assertion that the idea of a culture is too slippery to wrap it in a box and own it. He takes the example of a door, which can be many shapes and vary on many details, but is still a door, and says a culture is unmistakable, particularly in view of how cultural practices are reinforced over time.

First, I'd suggest that discussing something as abstract as a culture as if it were analogous to something as concrete as a door is not very useful. Anybody can walk up to a door, and slap it with their hand, and agree, "This is a door between the hallway and the dining room." How do you slap a culture with your hand? You could slap a cultural icon with your hand, and yes, Simon Cowell's been asking for it, but you can't slap a culture. It's quite a rare door that I'd look at and call a door, while someone else would look at it, and say "I can't see how you think that's a door"... but exactly that happens with culture, when grandpa thinks K-pop isn't real Korean culture, but his granddaughter thinks it is.

See, a culture isn't so much like a door, or a cat (either it's a cat, or at least a type of cat, or it isn't).  A culture is more like an ecosystem: huge, complex, and made up of so many elements interacting with each other, and exhibiting different features in different spots, and, for the most part, fading gradually from one into the other, without sharp demarkations.

So what is a culture? 

A culture is a huge collection of texts (and we'll use texts in the anthropological sense, where a 'text' can be anything - any object, ritual, process, ceremony, method or behavior, that has/can have meaning for people), out of the entire set of which, each participant in the culture assigns differing levels of importance and value on different aspects, according to their life experiences, preferences, etc.. A culture is not genetic: it must be taught (or Kyopos and adoptees would be born able to speak Korean and cook dwenjang). One has to choose for oneself how deeply, and how exactly, one participates in, and identifies with a culture (not all Kyopos or adoptees or born-and-raised Koreans do), and the choices one makes might be controversial to others who identify with the same culture, because they've assigned meanings and levels of importance differently. A culture is also exclusive: it is defined at times by what it isn't, as well as by what it is. The "I Am Canadian" rant/beer commercial is a good example of defining a culture negatively, by outlining the ways Canada isn't like the USA.

There is another useful point to be drawn from The Korean's door thing: there's no way to answer the question "Is the most 'door' of doors - Plato's ideal door, red, white, or brown?" However, we will be closer to a useful definition of a door if we focus not on its exact dimensions, but on the purpose it serves: to keep some things in, and to keep some things out.

This is also true of defining a culture: defining a culture by identifying exactly the set of practices and rituals that unmistakably identify it heads straight into a whole bunch of grey areas where everybody will draw the lines in different places, and (as I said earlier) the surest indicator of what people consider authentic is more often based on what their parents/grandparents remember things being like (while their grandparents tut-tutted that the younguns were losing the old ways)* than the result of study and research. I think it is more useful to define Korean culture by the purpose it serves for those who identify themselves as Korean.

*That being said, The Korean is right that many Koreans choosing to use and identify with one part of culture, over a very long time, does make something more Korean than it would be with a very short history, or having been historically embraced only by a small fringe.

So what is the purpose of Korean (or any) culture?

To create a sense of identification, a sense of community, a sense of shared history and experience, with others who identify themselves as Korean (or any other culture). The idea (from Benedict Anderson) of 'imagined communities' is a useful starting point here, with a few adjustments because we're talking about a culture, not a political nation-state, but the ideas of imagined community, co-identification, and exclusion, are important aspects of defining a culture, as well as a nation, (which was Anderson's project).

So if we say that Koreans identify with Arirang, I would say absolutely. Here are a whole bunch of statements I wholeheartedly agree with:
1. Koreans invented Arirang.
2. Koreans use Arirang.
3. Arirang is overwhelmingly, almost to the point of exclusively, practiced by Koreans.
4. Koreans identify with Arirang as a piece of Korean culture.
5. Arirang is associated with Koreans and Korean culture.
6. Koreans use Arirang, and think of it, as a symbol of Korean culture.
7. Arirang is overwhelmingly, and probably exclusively, identified with Korean culture.
8. These statements are true now, and these statements have also been continuously true for probably the entire history of Arirang, or at least for the entire history of the concept of something called "Korean culture"

"use" "practice" and "identify with" and "associate with" are useful verbs/verb phrases to attach to "culture."

But owning something... and by owning something, I mean making a claim of exclusive use of something - having the right to send a cease and desist letter... I don't think owning is a verb that can be attached to the noun culture, any more than the owner of land on which a forest grows can say that he owns the ecosystem living in the forest - he can tell himself he does, but the bear doesn't hunt on his command, the tree doesn't grow, and the river doesn't flow, according to his wish. At best, he can interact with that ecosystem, at worst he can raze it, and while he might reserve the right to hunt the deer on his land, they don't obey his orders.

And an individual can own a song (that they wrote)... but an entire genre of folk-song? No.

Take "Waltzing Matilda," a folk song that, I'm told (please correct me if I'm wrong*), many Australians identify with at least as strongly as they identify with their national anthem, "Advance Australia Fair" - I'd say it probably holds a similar place in Australian culture as the most popular Arirang (listen to the clip at the top of the post) holds in Korean culture.

An Australian has the right to sing their own version of Waltzing Matilda, and say "this is one of my country's national songs" but an Australian doesn't have the right to tell the Pogues (who did a version) to stop singing Waltzing Matilda, and to me, when it comes to cultural products, that's what ownership means. Aussies are free to hate the Pogues' version, and scream as loudly as they want that they're doing it wrong, throw tomatoes during stage performances, or head to the studio and demonstrate how to do it right, or chant "Screw you guys" between verses whenever they hear the song on the radio... but they don't have the right to send a cease and desist letter.

An email exchange with an Aussie leads me to add the qualifier that Waltzing Matilda probably isn't as deeply or intrinsically tied to Australian national/cultural identity as Arirang. The ties are probably not as strong, not as old, and not for as many people.
If some people in China want to sing Arirang, South Korea's minister of Culture doesn't have the right to tell them to stop. Even if some people in China want to change the words and reinterpret Arirang with a Chinese angle, South Korea doesn't have the right to tell them to stop, and a better response than shouting "You can't sing OUR song!" is to support the Korean artists who are reinterpreting and developing Arirang as a cultural heritage that can still have relevance to Korea's Starcraft, Smartphone generation. 

I'd argue the same about Korean Kimchi and Japanese kimuchi. Would Koreans rather Korea's cultural products were being ignored and dismissed? Nope. Important cultures get their shit stolen... Is India telling Korea and Japan to cut it out with that imitation curry crap? Nope. Is China demanding royalty payments from Italian restaurants for using the noodles China invented? Nope. Is the US Foreign Minister trying to shut down Kraze Burger and Lotteria for getting hamburgers wrong? Nope. Are New Orleans musicians kicking over the music stands of non-Louisianan musicians who have tinges of dixieland in their music? Nope.

And nor should they.

Because people can identify with culture, they can interact with it, engage with it, adapt it, play with it, use it (for all kinds of purposes), teach it, build their identity around it, argue over what is authentic of it, interpret it, judge it, and even study, curate, and archive it. But they can't own it, if owning means having the right to tell others to stop doing any of those things with it. China can't, Korea can't, and I can't.

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.