Thursday, January 14, 2010

In Which Roboseyo Exhorts Seoul City Not To Get in A Snit About Lonely Planet

So Lonely Planet says that Seoul is the third most hated city. Similar statements have been made before, and then as well, Seoul city got all worked up...

Now, first of all, the idea that an institution is within its rights to "correct" people for their opinion, getting upset and responding with "are not, either!" the way Seoul City has, especially when it comes to something like travel preferences, is just silly... yet it happens. And then it happens again. And a similar pattern occurs in other areas. . . not least Korea Times' infamous "Setting The Record Straight" (ps: note the absence of comments below said article)- which is basically the same attitude in a totally different arena. (speaking of which... since publishing that correction (of its readers), The Korea Times has demonstrated an admirable change of direction.... not. yep. I made a 'not' joke.)

For the record, Seoul City's response makes more sense, and more valid points, than the KT's.

Now, as far as the deeper, cultural-level workings of this kind of reaction, I'm probably out of my depth, but we've seen this "let's correct his/her opinion" attitude before: KT's unapology, Brian in JND's 2008 cyber-bullying incident, Seoul City's previous head-buttings with Lonely Planet, and, uh, VANK. Korea's hyper-polarized political scene demonstrate that there IS a healthy bit of disagreement allowed in Korean society... but then this "Let's correct" thing pops up, too... often enough for me to want to start investigating it, looking for a sociological source. So, if anyone wants to give me a grant, I'll get on it.

A few guesses, though: this "let's correct his opinion" thing might simply be traces of Korea's quite recent authoritarian history, in which the people in power right now grew up in a time when those in power COULD say "are not, either" and quash their critics' dissent... but that doesn't work anymore, and the sooner they figure that out, the sooner they will stop appearing arrogant and snippy and hypersensitive, the sooner they will stop taking outdated approaches to modern challenges. I wrote at very great length on the way Koreans get defensive about criticism way back in 2008, and might recommend you read that.

But here's what I want to focus on right now:

Getting all worked up because Lonely Planet says that Seoul Sucks is just not what a world class city does. Sorry, dude. If somebody in a major magazine, or a travel guide, says "Paris has dog crap all over the sidewalks, and the citizens are rude" (commonly-known stereotypes), Paris city hall doesn't go to the press nitpicking those claims, questioning the methods of the survey which discovered tourists don't like stepping in dog crap or getting shite service at a cafe. Why not? Because they're motherf***ing PARIS, that's why. And because they're motherf***ing PARIS, they either figure the travel writers can say what they like, because all press is good press, or they try to improve the complaints they can, if they care to, but I'm SURE they don't write 160 pages of promotional material and send it to the publishing company that called their city... whatever they called it. When Seoul announces itself as a world design capital or a mecca of whatever or a business hub or whatever else, but then feels the need to strike back at a travel guide that said something they don't like, they undermine their attempt to be taken seriously. They'd do better combing the criticisms for ways to improve, and then moving on... or ignoring it, because it's just the internet. Better still: say nothing, and let other people jump to their defense, which makes it look like Seoul is taking the high road, while still further increasing the amount of Seoul-related discussion that's occurring here and there.

Defensiveness. There are myriad reasons Korean companies, netizens, or individuals might get defensive, possibly stemming individually from the frustration of being crapped on by the level above them in a deeply hierarchical culture, in organizations that are frustrated that many people in the world still think Samsung is Japanese, nationally from the frustration of being sandwiched between China and Japan, two richer neighbors which have left a larger imprint in the consciousness of the world... and we end up with people who can't abide someone who whispers that D-wars sucked (that's changed... even the kimcheerleaders who originally supported it smile with embarrassment, or feign amnesia, like the Beef Mamas who are buying American beef, and can't quite remember where they brought their kids in strollers last spring.

And you know, sometimes, singling something out to say it sucks, is a higher form of praise than anything else. There are thousands of dumber songs written than Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, but the people writing these top ten and top five lists know that tagging the Beatles will get them more viral headlines, and a stronger reaction. But saying the beatles suck, or one of their songs suck, or their name sucks, is just a tribute to what a deep impact the band has made... if people are taking cheap shots at Seoul, maybe that means Seoul has officially entered the pantheon of world-class cities! It's been validated as a big, easy, well-known target. Don't you get it, Seoul City? That's GOOD! The New York Times put Seoul on ITS list of places to visit this year (though it didn't clarify whether this year means 2010 or 2010 to 2012) --

If Korea wants to actually have the place in world culture it claims to aspire toward, it's gonna have to get used to these kinds of cheap shots. People aren't going to see Ninja Assassin because Rain is Korean. They'll either see it because it's a good movie, or ignore it because it's a bad movie. Right now, Korea's trying to have its cake and eat it too- it wants to be a world media force, but it also ONLY wants people to use approved phrases when talking about it. That just ain't gonna happen.
When Korea figures out that if Wonder Girls gets a bad review in a rock magazine, that's better than being ignored, I'll get to stop writing blog posts like this. If Rain gets mocked on the Colbert report, that's GOOD - he's becoming more famous! Anybody who doesn't get that, well, it seems to me that they're concerned less with whether Korean culture is actually rising to prominence, and more with... something else (possibly what Gord Sellar once wonderfully described as the standard, near-universal conviction among Koreans that a positive image of Korea must be presented to the world). Eventually Korea will have to let go -- it'll have to realize that the country's big enough, and significant enough a presence, that they will no longer be able to strictly control its perception and its promotion. Creating an authenticity badge for Korean restaurants abroad will accomplish nothing, because people will eat the food if it's good, and they don't care if some stuffed shirt from Seoul approves of it. Eventually, if a teenager from Des Moines blogs that The Wondergirls Suck, Korea will be confident enough in its position that thousands of fourteen year olds WON'T feel compelled to tell that teenager to kill herself. Until then, this all-fired defensiveness just screams "Inferiority Complex" to everyone but the kimcheerleaders who are too red-in-the-face to notice.


DSW said...

I found it amusing how typically off the mark the article was in defense of Korea. Firstly, they attacked Lonely Planet as the AUTHOR of the article, when it expressly says (even before the addition of the advanced disclaimer) that these are the thoughts of readers, rather than an official line.

Secondly, the reporter ( talks endlessly about how Seoul was not designed after Moscow, which the comment never claimed it was.

Thirdly, foolsdie questioned the accuracy of the Lonely Planet survey (as though the KT ever cared about accuracy) and then cited a presumably non-existent survey in its own defense.

JIW said...

If I were Seoul I would take this as a hint. Figure out why people desired not to come here and fix that.

But something tells me that kind of wisdom will come after the rage.

Stephanie said...

Well said, Rob. That total lack of understanding of the actual perception and subsequent freak-out at perceived perception just makes it worse. And taints the actual perception in the long run. The "Hey guys, what about me!?!?" thing is the biggest detriment to achieving what they want so desperately. You become Paris or Tokyo by not giving a crap what anyone else thinks.