Thursday, April 24, 2008

I CRIE out for more! (what is a KimCheerleader?)

OK now.
For your soundtrack needs, hit play on the clip below, and start reading.

Mahna Mahna, by The Muppets (1976 version)

I'm heading into dangerous, controversial waters here. . .

There is a cultural phenomenon here in South Korea that partly comes from being sandwiched between China and Japan, two countries which have given Korea a great deal of historical grief. It just plain rankles here, that China and Japan continue to have more influence than Korea in geopolitics -- more people, more money, etc.. Due to this, Korea has the national equivalent of "Short Man Syndrome."

This phenomenon is not unique to Korea, of course: walk up to any Canadian and say, "But honestly, Canada's basically the 51st state, right?" and you might get a response something like this:

Try telling an All-Black rugby-player from New Zealand you like his Aussie accent, or mutter "Ireland is part of the UK, right?" to a leprechaun, and you'll be farting four-leaf clovers for a month, either way. Ask anybody whose teacher once said to them, "You know your older brother always handed in his homework on time..." people like to be known for who they are, and not just for who's nearby.

Add on top of this inferiority complex, a deep, intense (and, yeah, rightful) pride in Korea's current situation, having clawed out of abject post-Korean-War poverty, and developed into one of the richest nations in the world. Then, raise that to the power by which nationalism was programmed into school-aged Koreans during Korea's industrial revolution in the '60s '70s and '80s (as a way of unifying the people, suppressing dissent, and getting everyone to buck up and build infrastructure and industry without complaining, the way they needed to do, to [html nerd joke] [cliche] rise from the ashes of the Korean War [/cliche] [/html nerd joke]), and you have a fierce national pride that likes to show itself around.

You can see this here in Korea, in the large number of what The Joshing Gnome calls "Kimchi Boosters"; I'm debating whether to use that phrase, or coin my own: "Kimcheerleaders". These are the folks who will tell you that Kimchi cures SARS, that the Japanese language came from Korea (possibly, partially true), that Korea invented the printing press (partially true, though its effect was not as revolutionary here as Gutenberg's movable type printing press in Europe), that Korean is the most scientific language in the world (their lettering system is; the language itself is as messy and goofy as any living language composed of more than 1's and 0's).

This can be exploited: my strategy for getting a new class of students to like me goes as follows:

1. Explain I've lived here a long time.
2. Show enough knowledge of Korea's culture and history to prove my interest in them.
3. Compliment Korean food, hospitality, culture, language, etc., until everybody's smiling. It's really just that easy, as long as you play by the rules.

Now I have nothing against a healthy degree of national pride, and sometimes, the warm, deep pride some Koreans have in their country, the affection and ownership people feel for their culture and compatriots can be touching. At other times, it comes across as a bit needy -- you know the girl who walks around asking people, "Do you think I'm pretty?"

(bad language alert: Eliza Skinner as Amy, the platonic ideal of the needy girl)

But you know, every country is guilty of varying degrees of boosterism. In this post about sexy music videos starring underage girls, among many other things, esteemed K-blogger Gord Sellar mentions a "standard, near-universal conviction among Koreans that a positive image of Korea must be presented to the world" that makes a serious discussion about any Korean social issue nearly impossible, "as soon as it involves even one Westerner."

Now I don't mind being positive, but I refuse to be a sycophant just to get what I want (other than in the classroom), and so, when it goes too far, it is time for a reckoning. And Korea Herald, it is time you got yours.

There's something called "Hallyu" (what? Haven't you heard of it?) that is a source of oodles of national pride these days in the Republic of Korea. Basically, Korean pop music, TV Soap Operas, and some movies, have become quite popular in much of Asia and a handful of other places, because of high production values, more conservative/less racy content than what you'd find on American soap operas (love triangles, rather than wanton infidelity; life-threatening diseases, rather than gay romances; domineering mothers-in-law, rather than date-rape), and a closer similarity between Korean cultural values and other Asian cultural values, that makes it easier for other Asians to relate to Korean soaps than to American ones.

Awesome, right? It's great! Well, heck, yeah! But here's the thing. Because of that inferiority complex, the moment the Hallyu starts gaining recognition, that aforementioned tendency to be loud and proud kicks in.

Why am I writing about this? Any non-Canuck who's spent time around a Canuck has heard their Canadian friend drop a "He/She's Canadian, eh?" into a conversation about the likes of Feist, Jim Carrey, Neil Young, Michael J. Fox, or Steve Nash -- but here's the difference. [Most] Canadians don't twist a conversation around to the topic of basketball, just to bring up the fact Steve Nash is Canadian; we don't say things like "Godfather II, eh? Speaking of sequels, have you seen the Back To The Future trilogy?" just in order to squeeze in an exultant, "Michael J. Fox is Canadian! HAH!"

Some Koreans do. Not all -- many, maybe even most Koreans are rational about their nationalism, but the ones who aren't. . . well, clear the room, bud!

Stephen Colbert encountered the Kimcheerleaders: Time Magazine runs an annual online poll for "Who is the most influential person of the year?" You may have heard of Stephen Colbert. Having heard of someone would probably be an important requirement for being the most influential person in the world, yah? Well, turns out, a few Korean netizens heard about this Time online poll, and decided that Korean Hallyu popstar Rain should top the list, and started a ballot-box stuffing campaign that led to this exchange:

(which stirred up outrage among those same Korean netizens. . . what did you expect, goofballs?)

(Rain [or 비 - Bi, the Korean word for rain] himself: handsome, isn't he? Sure he is, but all my readers back in Canada and USA who don't have Korean roots or friends read Stephen Colbert's name and went "Oh, him," and then read the phrase "Hallyu popstar Rain" above and went, "Who?")

(update: call me a hater if you want, and nothing against Korea, but THIS does not happen to the world's most influential person.)

(soundtrack time: Feist. She's Canadian, eh?)


Korea's pleased with itself about Hallyu, as it well should be, I suppose. Hallyulluyah! But this self-congratulation sometimes goes too far.

The Korea Herald, which fancies itself a legitimate news source, has been publishing a running series about the Korean Wave as it appears in various countries around the world. Here is their article about Spain, and it deserves, quite frankly, to be mocked. I don't hate Korea, I don't hate Hallyu, and I don't even have a problem with a series of full-page articles about Hallyu in a major English language newspaper (Korea Herald calls itself "The Nation's #1 English Newspaper").

But here's the thing: there is no hallyu in Spain! The first ten or so installments in the series covered countries where the Korean Wave was a true cultural phenomenon: in Japan, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc., the Korean Wave merited full write-ups.

Now, we're on installment #32: Spain. I'm gonna write that number out for emphasis: THIRTY TWO.

The headline shows almost everything you really need to know about both the Korea Herald, AND the Korean Wave in Spain: Spain discovers Korea and crys out for more [sic]

Some choice snippets from the article:

. . .the majority of Spaniards may still have difficulty finding Korea on the world map. High-level visits from the King of Spain, politicians and members of parliament to Korea usually get little attention in the national media.

Meanwhile, Korean companies chose not to label their products as "Made in Korea," instead veiling them among well-known Japanese products in Spain.

Weak sauce, boys. Weak sauce.
In 2000, President Kim Dae-joong visited North Korea for the first time since the separation of the two Koreas. This historic news appeared in Spanish newspapers, which helped make Korea more familiar to Spain.

This is the best you can do? Why is this series still going? Keep grasping at straws. . .
The year 1999 was the year of letting go of Korea's inefficient traditions and actively seeking ways forward. However, there were negative consequences such as higher suicide and divorce rates, which nobody could ever thought of in a traditional, Confucius society [sic]. Women became more independent in all aspects, and new ways to choose partners for marriage were put in place following the changes in the familial values.
And this has to do with the Korean wave in Spain how?
Between 2004 and 2007, more than 13 Korean movies arrived in Spain, including "Memories of Murder," "Run Dim," "Two Sisters," "Samaritan Girl," and "The Host." During these four years, the percentage of Korean movies shown in theaters went up by 400 percent.
From 3 to 13. Wow, let me sit down before I get washed away. (sarcasm over) How did they do? Were they all unqualified smash hits, because if they weren't, why are you doing write-ups about the Korean wave in countries where there is none?
[Both Korean and Spanish movies] often tell love stories accompanied by violence and sorrow, but always end happily and humorously. Also, [Korean movies] indirectly show Korean culinary habits that are quite different from that of Spain. Besides the different food, what is more interesting to the Spaniards is how the food is displayed in a table based on a combination of colors, size and portion. There is no single way to eat Korean food. People can enjoy the liberty of choosing what they want to eat and how much they want to eat.
I know I only watch foreign movies to learn how other cultures eat. Don't you? Wait! Wait! There's a straw over there! Get it! Quick!
What can be done to insure the success of the Korean Wave in the future?. . . Given the fact that Korea is so little known in Spain, it may be more effective to target more traditional, historical Korean values and images than to make it modern, since this tends to fail to impress upon the viewers with a particular, rememberable [sic] image.

It is necessary to come up with a delicate marketing strategy to reach out to a larger population in the long term. Korean people are known to be peace-loving, integrationists and nationalists. They deserve to be proud of their own country and of escaping from the extreme poverty in the 50s and 60s with hard work and individual motivation. Spain finds all of these factors interesting, once they are exposed to them.

So basically, (you can read the full article write-up here, and if you look carefully, you'll discover my real opinion about it all) Spanish people don't know much about Korea, except newspaper headlines for major historical events, but a few Korean films have appeared there in film festivals, and it Spanish people might become more interested in Korea's culture if they were exposed to it more.

Does that just about cover it?

As I said before, from a newspaper that wants to be taken seriously, this is laughable, friends. Sorry. I don't mind national pride, I don't even mind a little boosterism for fun, but this Hallyu series has gone on too far, like this clip:

Yesterday they had the next installment, number 33, a summary of which might read, "a series of if/then speculations on how the Hallyu could gain a U.S. audience among non-Asian-immigrant Americans, and why Americans would like Korean wave TV soap operas if they watched them."

Korea Herald doesn't allow you to link directly to its articles, so I've imported the text onto pages of my blog: you can read the write-up about the Korean Wave in the US here. It's pretty painful.

Hallyu-wood is an amusement park about the Korean wave. Its site is a jewel of unintentional comedy and overblown rhetoric. (HT to Brian for this link and the clip below. . .)

I just wonder if the Herald's editors realize that these full-page write-ups of made-up speculation and KimCheerleading narcissism have the exact opposite of their intended effect: rather than making me think "Hey! Korean culture is awesome and it's spreading around the world!" writing like this, grasping for international validation where there is nothing but ignorance, instead shines a glaring spotlight on the aforementioned inferiority complex, and ends up portraying Korean culture as a little delusional, narcissistic, self-aggrandizing, and self-important (as well as making the Herald look like nothing better than a propaganda-rag or a tourist brochure, rather than any kind of respectable news-source). Is it really THAT important for outsiders to think you're cool? Will you really not be satisfied until we give you what you want and write in reams of letters to the editor saying, "I never realized Korea was so great until I started reading the Herald!", like the self-esteem case moping around the party saying, "Do you think I'm pretty? God, I'm so fat!" and waiting for someone to say, "No, that's not true. You're beautiful"? Why does it matter so much that outsiders from every country approve of the Korean wave, that a major English newspaper will write a half-year-long series of self-congratulatory pieces that have devolved into near-fictions, speculations, and self-parodies? Will it not stop until there's been a full-page article on all 195 countries in the world? (Week 184: Vatican City: The Pope likes Lee Young-ae!)


is an amusement part dedicated to Hallyu.
As any regular reader of this blog knows, I love Korea, and Korean culture -- if you don't believe me, take a look around. But if your friend has a bit of food stuck in his teeth, making him look silly, you'd tell him, "Hey, bud! There's something in your teeth," right? This kind of rabid boosterism makes Korea look foolish to any outside observer -- such a voracious craving for validation is a sign of insecurity, and friends, Korea IS a major player. . . if it'd only realize it is and start acting like one!

PS: Thanks, Brian, for the link love.


Brian said...

Spain? Really? Spain? I'm tired of reading about the Korean Wave. Eventually I'll read that one about Hallyu in the US. If it mentions that any trace of Korean pop culture has become popular outside of Korean-American communities, I'll eat my hat.

And no, of course I don't mind if you link to me. In regards to the video, I think Hallyuwood actually looks pretty neat, and I'd probably visit it. Haven't decided if the name sucks or not. Of course it causes people to associate it with "Hollywood"---I found the etymology on the Hallyuwood official site funny, though---and, I mean, what else will they call it? Movie Ville? Culture Town? I think those are already the names of apartment complexes in Bundang.

Anonymous said...

The most famous Canadian export to make it down to South Texas wasn't William Shatner, eh, but some "hosers" named Bob and Doug--not the best models of Canadian evolution though, yet highly enjoyable nonetheless.

I was actually thinking about returning to the Oil Sands above Fort McMurray when I leave South Korea at the end of the Summer, but the extreme cold has me leaning towards a tropical isle instead.

John from Daejeon

Roboseyo said...

I'd probably visit Hallyuwood too, if it were nearby. . . but because I don't have a TV or a friend who's into Hallyu and feeds me the important Names To Know, or lends me the CDs Of Note, I don't have much invested in Hallyu except "That one's hot." "That one's music videos are goofy," and would mostly be lost among unfamiliar names and film clips.

re: etymology: Agreed. Anything other than a direct admission that Hallyuwood is a pun on Hollywood is gonna come across as a goofy bit of doublethink.

Hi John. thanks for commenting: Canada has exports much more famous than Bob and Doug MacKenzie, though they're the most famousLY Canadian ones, to be sure.

The Americans I know don't habitually say, "Interesting band/book/actor. . . I wonder where he/she's from?" and find out, so they don't realize and/or care whether Daniel Day Lewis is English or American as long as he keeps playing great roles, whether Shakira is Mexican, Colombian, American, or Martian, as long as she does that hot hip-shakey dance. It's a very democratic way to consume taste, because anybody with talent (who sings/speaks in English - quite a caveat, that) can make their buck, though those non-Americans with inferiority complexes might get in a snit if Joe American doesn't know/care that Peter Jennings, the Barenaked Ladies, and Mike Myers were/are Canadian.

Just to get my booster quota out of the way, here is more about Canadians of note than most non-Canadians would ever care to know:

Fort McMurray? I always preferred the Lethbridge area of Alberta (in spring or fall) -- the cowboy trail (Hwy 22) between Lethbridge and Calgary might be the most beautiful drive I've done in my life (and from a guy who's traveled all over the rockies, the Fraser Valley, and up and down Vancouver Island, that's saying something).

Anonymous said...

Last time I was way up North, I was pushed out of a job (because I'm a foreigner from Canada's Southern neighbor) in favor of the big influx of jobless Newfies. There is a lot of animosity between the native Albertans and those coming in from other provinces. What was really funny, was that besides my work ethic, I was a hit over the radio thanks to my nonaccented English speaking skills, and the three people who were hired to replace me all were eventually fired due to incompetence and not being able to make themselves understood over the radio. Tabernac.

Yeah, for all of its faults, anyone can make something of themselves with a hard work and determination in the United States (too bad that in today's world many people are complainers rather than doers). There's a Colombian and Canadian in the biggest racing series (Nascar), baseball is full of Latin American and Japanese players, basketball has players from South America and Europe, tennis has a ton from Russia and Europe, and now soccer has that old dude from England now playing in L.A. Also, Aussie actors are in vogue and are taking Hollywood by storm in both film and television. But even in non-sports and entertainment-related fields, there are a lot of foreigners making it big in the U.S.

And my favorite export from Canada has got to be Degrassi. I grew up on the original, and now the Next Generation is churning out the programming as well. Overall, it is a fantastic series with some great messages.

John from Daejeon

Anonymous said...

I apologize to any "Newfies" that I may have offended, but some of my friends from Newfoundland consider it a source of pride as well. It stuck in my vocabulary, as it was the term always used for people from Newfoundland by pretty much everyone in the Oil Sands where I was working. As is the term, "buddy." Most people referred to me by this name; however, a lot of them were anything but my buddies.

I just talked to an actual buddy in Edmonton who said they just got over 12 inches (30 centimeters) of snow in the last couple of days. I don't think we had that much here in Daejeon all of this past winter combined, but it was definitely colder than last year judging by my very large heating bills.

John from Daejeon

Roboseyo said...

Yeah, my brother worked with a bunch of Newfies on the oil rigs of Alberta back in the day. It's not often I've met an Eastern Canadian I didn't like, and Newfies generally impressed me as warm, steady, funny, and loyal as hell.

The Degrassi reference gave me a big smile, too.

Anonymous said...

Hallyuwood stars like Rain, BoA, Bae Yong-joon, etc. have no problems being recognized in Asia as they already have a huge following. Hollywood is more to the WEST whereas Hallyuwood is to the EAST. Given time, I'm sure Hallyuwood will come full circle.

Anonymous said...

New episodes of Degrassi: The Next Generation are airing each Friday in the U.S. on the cable channel Noggin. I am still watching as well, and this week's topic was very close to my life. False accusations of sexual harassment by students. I had a best friend's life ruined by it. It cost him his job, his family, and eventually, his life.

John from Daejeon

Roboseyo said...

Anonymous: yeah. I know Korean wave stars are well-recognized and loved in Asia -- so the Herald should have written about Hallyu in the countries where they're recognized and loved. Writing about the Korean wave in Spain (where people would say "Boa? Is that some kind of a snake?") makes the herald look silly, and blows the Korean wave out of proportion.

I'm not saying anything bad about the Korean wave in Asia -- it's indisputable that the Korean wave is huge here -- but it's silly to pretend the Korean wave exists where it doesn't (spain). When my girlfriend travelled to spain, they knew so little about korea that they asked her, "Are you from North or South Korea?"

John: wow. False accusations. That's pretty much every teacher's worst nightmare. Sorry to hear about that.

gordsellar said...


Your comment on the post linked here was in the comment spam box. I gave you a brief thanks for the link in my comments, but wanted to say that the video you linked about the needy girl is priceless, and exactly what I wanted to say a few weeks ago, about how sometimes, living in Korea is like being on a blind date with someone who only wants to talk about herself and her family (their glories and their sufferings, rarely the in-between stuff) and not only doesn't ask you about yourself, but assumes everything she can about you, when she bothers to consider you at all.

Sometimes. Not all the time. But man, the media, the way some people come at exchanges and discussions, it's...

Yeah. But the whole Canadian inferiority complex parallel, I've been saying it for ages, and it needs to be said more, so good on you. Maybe more Canadians seeing the parallel will start to act less like that, when they see how annoying and kind of sad it is.

Roboseyo said...

I know what you mean about every conversation between (some) Koreans and westerners being taken as a promo-op for their country. . . that may be the topic of a future post, but for now, I'll say, it's like talking to one of those militant mac owners, or a street evangelist who isn't satisfied with the fact I love Jesus, and may even have a church of my own: I have to go to HER church, dammit! "OK. I get it: you love your computer. Can we talk about something else now?"

I think we Canadians only lock elbows and get kneejerkish about it all when somebody from a bigger, stronger country starts saying things that sound condescending or baldly ignorant about our culture. ("you're just the fifty-first state, really"). And who wouldn't?

However, I like to think Canadians have a bit of a gracious sense of humour about it all -- we laughed at South Park singing "Blame Canada," while Korean netizens tried to crash Stephen Colbert's website and flooded him with hate mail.

But it does get tiresome, gord, when my student, yet again, thoughtlessly asks me something like "What's high school like in America" and I answer, "I don't know. What's high school like in Japan?" And yeah, being able to listen to criticism is a virtue, but sometimes it's still a drag to always be expected to do so.

It's natural, to some extent, to defend one's country from being disparaged, as long as it's done with grace, perspective, and the ability to spot, and laugh at, a genuine, good-humoured old piss-take (though I still do wish, for example, that blogger would stop trying to correct my UK spellings for certain words in this comment).

Anyway, thanks for weighing in! Nice to have you stop by.

Anonymous said...

koreans are damn weird man. they're so desperate for attention. always trying to mention how good they think they're country is. Other day some girl twisted my words just so she could mention a shaver was made in korea. WTF man! take it easy.
I feel so sorry for them, they're so insecure


Anonymous said...

Oh my, you're definitely one of THE few bloggers that manage to deliver 'bad' news with humor and clarity and without the condescension.

For some reason, I really like this entry - must be the quirky language words you used..."fancy"...'Halluluyah'...

I could do without the occasional dumb commentors that read about 1/4 of what you say and then validate it with their own "personal anecdotes" though; like the commenter right above me. The things they say are just so racist and narrow-minded you could swear that they're just writing things to stir up the pot....

Anonymous said...

I know this is a really old post but I just wanted to comment and say how much I appreciated it.

I'm Korean but I was born in Australia and lived here ever since. When I was younger, I couldn't deal with Koreans. Well, the stereotypical fighting over the bill etc I couldn't really get away from because I still did have korean culture and manners ingratiated within me, but every time I saw a Korean girl my age I'd run away as fast as possible. And come on, the ones I'd been subjected to wrote Micky Yoochun on their bedboard and had shrines committed to Jaejoong from DBSK. (Except the irony is that I'm not obsessed with kpop more than they are. Ahem.)

But after growing up a bit, and realising that not everything is black and white and there must be a reason for everything, I understand why Koreans and thus Korea is such a country. The overdone nationalism really irked me, but you can't blame them can you? Too fast of a change, really. Same with Japan, I guess. You've got one generation with the sense of working hard after the Korean War and then the next who've had so much Western influence and raging kpop etc. Korea always does everything so quickly; their lifestyle and even celebrities show that. I really do think the best and worst of Korea can be seen in the entertainment industry - the fans and the antifans, the media, love turning into hate and back in a second ...

Now I'm just as annoyingly patriotic as any one of them, and I really do love Korea, but that doesn't make me blind to their faults. I'm interested in doing diplomacy or something with Korea, but I'm scared that everything I say will be shot down because I'm a foreigner. Even if I'm Korean, they can easily turn on me if I point something out negative. I mean, if 2PM's Jaebum scandal taught me anything, it was that. *sigh* I'm hoping it'll work out.

Anyway, thankyou for your endless hilarious and realistic posts. (: