Friday, February 26, 2010

KIm Yuna (김 연아) - sit back and soak it in

Sit back, dear readers, and enjoy what you are seeing: Kim Yuna, right now, is Tiger Woods in 2001, Michael Jordan in 1991, Wayne Gretzky in 1985, Babe Ruth in 1927. She's good. She's real good. She just treated her competition about the way a zamboni treats an ice rink: she steamed it, soaked it, flattened it, and moved on without taking names, and we get to watch~!

I've written about Kim Yuna before, and probably will again. I'm mad about this lady.

First of all, as a sportwriter once wrote about Tiger Woods: "You will never be as good at anything, as Tiger Woods is at golfing" - you will never be as good at anything you do, as Kim Yuna is at figure skating right now.

Yuna Kim
The Korean internet is crashing right now, because everybody wants to watch Kim Yuna's skating video. Do you know how hard it is to make the Korean internet crash? (Not hard, if you mean Korean web browsers [IE6, baby!]... but I mean the Korean INTERNET) is not responding to my requests for anything Yuna. So I want to give you a video clip, but the clip won't play, because 50 000 000 other people are trying to watch it right now.

I did, however, get to watch it on TV, live. It'll be replayed a lot, but seeing fresh, that first time, with everything still up in the air, was a thrill. And dear readers, Kim Yuna NAILED THE HELL out of that program. I watched a few other skaters before her, and it was like watching a different sport entirely-- except Asada, who is also amazing. Her movements were so clean, her jumps were technically perfect. So Yuna rocks.

(I missed the performance of Joannie Rochette, the bronze medalist, and a Canadian. Good for her, especially after losing her mother this week. Sorry Canada, but this time I'm rooting for Yuna... and here's why)

Dear readers, Korea needs Kim Yuna. Actually... Korea doesn't need Kim Yuna. Korea has other heroes and such. But young Korean women need Kim Yuna. In particular, young Korean girls need Kim Yuna, because here is a woman who is famous for being really excellent at something, for working hard at something spectacular and beautiful, and achieving it. The heroes Korean girls have to work with are pretty slim pickings. There's the girl who was tortured to death for protesting Japanese colonialism. (with the hate Japan subtext) there's the woman who was an amazing accomplished poet, painter, and thinker... whose image has been manipulated into that of a good mother and dutiful wife (with the mother/wife/get in the kitchen subtext). There are a few more modern female heroes who are getting in the mix - I'm fond of Yi Soyeon, the first Korean in space, and a female, but she's been mostly out of the public eye since then.

But here's where Yuna shines:

First, she's AS cute and charming as the pop starlets that everybody idolizes , and that young girls want to be like (unfortunately, this is still a requirement for Korean female role models: Ye Soyeon and gold medal powerlifter Jang Miran are cool, but not conventionally beautiful, and I doubt a lot of little girls say they want to be like them when they grow up, and I bet parents would discourage their daughters from becoming powerlifters). The Wondergirls, Girls Generation, and the like, are cute, charming, whatever, but the fact is, they're famous more for shaking their lovely asses (and singing and making asian poses at cameras) than anything else. Yuna's telegenic enough to totally run with that crowd.

But then on top of that, she set a goal, to be the best in the world at something, and NAILED it. She did what she had to do, including living in Canada and sequestering herself from her own fans, withdrawing from competitions to focus on Olympic gold... and then when the day arrived, she didn't just rise to the occasion, she vaulted 23 points ahead of her nearest competitor (who also set personal bests), and 15 points ahead of her own personal best. She looks cute making heart fingers... but she's also got the eye of the tiger, as surely as Michael Jordan did.

And she's been chasing excellence, not fame, not beauty, not a rich heir boyfriend, not praise for her domestic skills, and she did it. Really did it. And every little girl in Korea should dream of becoming excellent at something, and stopping at nothing to reach her goal, and that would be great.

So today's a happy day for Korea. And for me. Watching her long program (short one too) approached the sublime, and the mounting jubilation of the people around me as she nailed jump after jump, heightened the experience that much more. It's a great day for Korea.

That's all for now. Way to go Yuna.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Volunteer... or attend. Wild Women's Performing Arts Festival

Just got this message on facebook.
Here's a bit of info about the Wild Women's Performing Arts Festival from the facebook event page (click the link to visit that facebook event page):

The Wild Women's Performing Arts Festival is a very unique forum for women performers to join together and raise awareness about gender issues in Korea and around the world. Through aural and visual performances from female poets, musicians, storytellers and dancers, the event addresses the issue of gender equality in a way that Korean and English speakers alike can benefit from.
You should go!

Let the Ballot-box Stuffing Begin!

Ten Magazine has a survey asking people to vote for their favorite blogs. I've been nominated. I don't know if the winner wins anything except bragging rights... however, in the absence of the Golden Klogs (they might yet appear... might, if Hub of Sparkle goes back online and I can access it again with my computer), I strongly encourage all my readers to follow the link, and vote for Popular Gusts. I did.

Ahh Sports Nationalism

First off: I hate NBC. Not for any other reason but this: they don't like to share. Due to the clutchy grabby way they protect their content (any clip from any NBC show gets pulled from YouTube, etc.), the NBC Olympics page will only play in the USA, so I can't even see it on their (advertising heavy, showing an extremely limited selection of their programs) durn website.
What sucks the most is that two of the greatest online clip-generating bits of TV programming out there -- Olympic coverage, and Saturday Night Live, are both owned by NBC, so the only way I can see Kim Yuna's Olympic performance is on TV, and the only way I can see "the more cowbell skit" is by downloading it illegally. So here's me biting my digital thumb at NBC.
(source: the DiCaprio Romeo and Juilet)

I haven't been able to watch Kim Yuna's amazing skate with Korean announcers yet... so I can't report whether they absolutely lose their shit the way they did for Park Tae-hwan.

Anybody got a link?

On the bright side, I deleted the time-waster that caused this February to be one of my lightest posting months in a long, long time.

Look forward to more Roboseyo soon.


What am I supposed to do with this?

Teaching is good these days. I'm coaching my discussion class students in ways to ask the kinds of questions that lead to more interesting conversations, and it's been quite rewarding so far.

Sometimes I ask my students to e-mail their homework to me, but today I got an e-mail from a student listing all the obligations filling up his free time... "But I'm doing my homework for you so you won't be angry, even though I'm tired." Then he included the assignment, and closed with, "I'm so tired I can't see straight. I guess life isn't always a bed of roses"

Now, because of some aspects of my upbringing, I'm very very sensitive to even a hint of a guilt-trip being lain, and frankly, the only way to demotivate me to do something faster is whining... but was this guy trying to make me feel guilty for giving him homework?

Never had that before. At least not from my adult students.

Friday, February 19, 2010


been feeling pissy and sick and blue lately, readers. new semester got me down, I guess. wedding planning's happening, that's good; students are good; been gathering materials for my discussion classes into something coherent and valuable for myself, and for my whole department. All these things are satisfying.

but I'm feeling pissy and blue. I've tried to write posts for Roboseyo, but every time they turn into gripe-fests, and I hate them.

So here's a happy song.
I hope it makes you happy.

One thing I hope will turn things around for next week: Do Make Say Think is playing in Seoul on Sunday. You should go. If you like this kind of music.

That's all for now.

The problem with branding Korea... (warning: devolves into a rant)

Bliss-out soundtrack: Cymbals Eat Guitars (pretty solid CD: Why There are Mountains - best played loud) - the song is Share. Let it build, play it loud.

A commentator in The Korea Times contributes an excellent, level-headed piece in response to a Japanese journalist talking smack about Bibimbap, and the huge, snitty reaction it drew. It reiterates some of the points I made in my post "In Which Roboseyo Advises Seoul City Not to Get in a Snit About Lonely Planet", and it discusses nationalism, patriotism, and the way that to many Koreans, those two words are one and the same. He zeroes in on one comment made by the Japanese journalist, even as he backed off, that Koreans "lacked the spirit of tolerating criticism" - now I talked about this before on my old "Why Are Koreans Hyper-sensitive to Criticsms from Non-Koreans? superpost (The Korean's take on it's worth a read, too). However, that's all retreads, and I don't like going there too often anymore, lest I become the "complaining expat guy"

However, he then looks at Korea's branding through the lens of Korean hyper-sensitivity, and that's interesting to me.

You see, something's been bugging me about all this branding talk, and it's been bubbling up for a while.

It is obvious to any observer that over the last few years, Korea has become increasingly concerned about the way the world views them. This is not limited to the country nationally, but also in other areas:

When the world university rankings come out, there's a great deal of celebration or hair-pulling on where Korea's top university lands -- now that Seoul National's cracked the top fifty, some people in important places are really, really happy, and it was commemorated by news articles and stuff. (Congrats, by the way, I guess)...

But it's starting to bug me, this focus on what other people say... there are these gaps, see, and they're starting to niggle. There are gaps between what is true about Korea, what the Kimcheerleaders say about Korea, what foreigners say about Korea, and, most distressingly to Korea, what Korea would have foreigners say about Korea.

Now, for the rest of this post, I'm going to use "Korea" as a noun meaning "Korean tourism and branding decision-makers, and those who wish Korea to be well thought-of worldwide" - here I would include the people I call Kimcheerleaders, VANK and the like-minded, and Korean tourism. I certainly don't mean all Koreans, or you, specifically, my dear Korean reader. Bear with me. So... back to these gaps.

Asadal Thought wrote something about improving Korea as a tourist destination that touches on this, and basically points out that any time people are told what to think, human nature being the contrary thing it is, we resist. Being told kimchi is good and healthy predisposes me to look for faults, like being told before a blind date, "You're gonna love this girl: she's PERFECT for you!" by someone who doesn't really know me. There are about three people on the planet I'd trust to make that judgement. The point Lee makes is this: the way that Koreans don't notice they come across as hyper-nationalists, is very off-putting to outsiders, and it undermines whatever good they're trying to do for Korea's image.

I got a link to a blog from an e-mail from VANK - they send me e-mails ever since I won that nifty MP3 player. Now I don't want to pick on VANK too much (one reason why I'm not linking the blog where I got this screenshot)... but the way they use the word "correctly" is a perfect example of the way Koreans don't realize their approach to national promotion (clumsy, heavy-handed, and worst of all: humorless) undermines what they're trying to accomplish.

Humorless. I said it. Would a Korean tourism ad ever make fun of its own image? (warning: this video has bad language and bikinis)

So that's the first thing about this whole branding mess. We don't like to be told. We just don't. If Korea wants to be known as a hub of something, the way to do it is to quietly go about becoming a hub of it, until people start noticing, and telling others about it. If Seoul proclaims itself the fashion hub of Asia, I immediately object: "What about Tokyo and Hong Kong?" in the same way I look for the bulges when somebody asks "does this skirt make my butt look fat?"
Instead, to be a world fashion hub, if Korea quietly goes about cultivating a more interesting fashion scene than Tokyo or Hong Kong, they won't NEED to tell people: other people will be saying it for them.

The next problem:

This is the thing that gets me. See, the inherent problem with the idea of branding is that it's superficial. It's a surface thing -- it's even more superficial than that, in fact -- it's not just the surface, it's what people say about the surface. If Korea really wants to be a world class country, I wish they'd STOP worrying about branding, and work on the systematic flaws that branding is attempting to cover up. Yah seriously. Branding is a short cut - a flashy substitute for real progress, like painting over cracks in a foundation.

Dear my family: bad language ahead. Skip this paragraph if it offends your sensibilities. I'm feeling crappy today.

Does Korea really want to be a world class country? Who gives a good goddamn if it's "Korea Sparkling" "Korea, Be Inspired" or "Korea Plese Coming Here Spend Tourist Dolla Buddy OK?" or "Korea... Aww just fuck it." If Korea really wants to be a world class country, work on the people and the institutions that form the foundation of the society; the rest will follow, naturally enough. Take that branding money and give it to a taskforce dedicated to getting Korea out of the world's bottom twenty-five in the Gender Gap Index... I bet some of the women being held down in secretarial positions, or forced to quit their jobs after having a baby, have some great ideas about promoting Korea! Build a social safety net that takes care of seniors, rather than just shuffling around garbage collectors and street food vendors from place to place, so that they're out of tourists' way. Korea focusing on branding and foreigners' image of it is EXACTLY the same as the student who can't hold a conversation, but regularly tops 900 on his TOEIC test. EXACTLY the same problem. Brand Korea is the kid whose SAT got him a spot at Harvard University, but who dropped out because his education never prepared him to do anything EXCEPT nail the shit out of that SAT test. And it doesn't matter if Korea hosts the next three world cups, the next six olympics, the next twelve years of OECD, G-7, G-20 and whatever else summits, and relocates the UN Headquarters to Sejong City, if the people of Korea still work like ants through joyless workdays, and say nothing while foreigners and women and countryfolk and the poor and seniors and single mothers are systematically shat on, and big businesses go hand in pocket with the government to keep everyone feeling dehumanized, so that we think a new cellphone will fix that dull ache in our stomachs that we hate living as ants.

Build lifelong learners, not test aces! Build conversant English speakers, not TOEIC champions! Develop a great university with an awesome educational atmosphere, don't just pour money into the areas that are measured for the annual university rankings, Seoul National University! Take care of corruption, racism, gender discrimination, injustice, foster civic mindedness, and human dignity and respect, and enjoyment of life for KOREA's OWN PEOPLE, and the rest of that stuff will follow. THAT'S what this country needs.


I wrote more about the idea of metrics and measures as validation, to the expense of intrinsic qualities, in the "Five things I'd change" piece I wrote back when I was in a kinder mood, and nobody read my blog.

Don't like what I said? That's fine. I don't even agree with everything I said. Disagree with my points, but don't tell me I'm not allowed to have an opinion. Or go read this article, if you'd rather have your Roboseyo topped with sugar. Today, I can't be bothered. I'm tired and cranky and hungry. And think about this, the conclusion of Lee's original article:
Here, avoiding criticism is not an option. Joining globalization means Koreans now live in a goldfish bowl. People who live in a goldfish bowl cannot escape publicity, both good and bad. Bibimbap was on the spot because it gained publicity as well.

After all, Koreans don't have to view the ability of foreigners to criticize some aspects of Korea itself as inherently antithetical to the national interest.

and on that note, have a great weekend. :)

that was cathartic.

What Soccer Hooligans Do in the Offseason

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Looking to talk with...

Hey readers. I want to write about something on my blog, but in order to be fair, I need to get a point of view from a few readers. Specifically, to balance out the point of view of an ethnic non-Korean living in Korea, I need to talk with some ethnic Koreans who have grown up in Korea, and who hang out with foreigners from time to time. If that's you, please write me an e-mail at roboseyo at gmail dot com. Please don't be shy... especially, don't be shy if you worry about your English ability when you talk with foreigners... if that's you, you're exactly the person I want to talk to.

If you're really close friends, or maybe married to a born-and-raised, Korea Korean (as much as I love my Kyopo readers, I'm looking for a different perspective this time), and you'd like to help me out with accessing a wider variety of views from that group, please send me a note as well.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Korean Multiculturalism: Putting Them Furriners In Their Place

I usually don't like linking The Korea Times, for reasons I've delved into before... but Jongno district is giving a group of Filipinos the bum rush, and it sucks.

"Little Manila Faces Closure" describes a Sunday marketplace set up by Filipinos in Hyehwa, near the Filipino Catholic Church - it's a tradition in Filipino culture to go to church on Sunday, and then head out to the markets to hang out, buy provisions for the week, and meet their friends. I haven't been lucky enough to see it happen in Hyehwa on some sunday, but when I was traveling in Hong Kong, I saw exactly that with the Filipino migrant workers there, and the filipino market was awesome - it had this awesome, joyful, busy-but-never-frantic energy.

Well, Seoul City wants to boot the market, because it has been the subject of a few complaints about noise or disorder, and relocate it to the Nakwon-dong neighborhood (near insadong), where Seoul plans to build a "Multicultural Street" (whatever that means - can I open a hot dog/hamburger/steak stand?) in March. The complaints the district office cited were all of the type that, a representative of the market says, "The problems that they raised can be resolved by talking to the vendors. They are willing to cooperate." Meanwhile, it's illogical and frankly insulting to ask people to walk forty minutes to their own market (which is a once-a week thing, not a daily thing that would be given a place at a multicultural market anyway). Even more so, given that one of the complaints was that pedestrians were blocking traffic... so we ought make them block traffic along a five kilometer walk, rather than just from the church to the nearby market? And this makes sense how?

Now, before we even get into the whole "relocation = giving them the shaft in slow motion" thing (cf: the vendors who used to work in the area that had to be cleared for the Chunggyecheon, who were relocated to Dongdaemun Stadium, wrecking the flea market that used to be there, and then turned out again when Dongdaemun Stadium got redeveloped into the new design plaza... were they even provided with another alternate location this time? Or were they just told to piss off?), why on earth is Seoul trying to gut one of the few really multicultural events that has already, spontaneously developed in one of its downtown areas? Why not promote it and support it? Oh - because it wasn't City Hall's idea, that's why. And they want to build a waterfall. It better be a f***ing great waterfall.

On the other hand, when Seoul seems to be in open war with its own, Korean heritage - razing old buildings, gutting the lovely City Hall building, and the like, maybe it's comforting to know they don't discriminate - they shit on everybody's heritage, not just their own, in the name of development.

No. No, it's not comforting at all.

And why should my English readers care about a bunch of Filipinos? Well, first, we have more in common with them than you think, and second, who's to say how long it'll be before some ambitious politician/developer team sends a very profitable proposal across the desk of the municipal government, to redevelop that other dirty old neighborhood full of red-brick buildings from Korea's embarrassing poor past (those red brick buildings are '80s and early '90s artifacts), full of noisy and unsafe apartments, to raze it and replace it with luxury condos that will be seven to twenty times more expensive, and way out of the range of the people living there now, and somebody stamps approval on the Haebangchon redevelopment plan?

The thing about Korea's diversifying population, that Seoul City has missed, is that people are going to form their own communities, and do the things they always did, and they're going to do it where they live, where they go to church, where they shop... and you can't tell a whole population where they have to live, or shop. You can't sequester or ghettoize them. It's good to build Seoul Global Centers in the areas where foreigners live - Ichondong, Banpodong, and the like, to make help available... but trying to require foreigners to stay in the places prescribed for them is the opposite of becoming a really cosmopolitan city. The way to become a city truly acclimatized to the new global environment is to let them furraners do what they do, where they do it, so that everybody else gets used to Seoul no longer being only for Koreans.

Rant over.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Swinging With the 2S2 Crew

Chris in South Korea has taken on the job of planning the next 2S2 Event, on Saturday, February 13th. It's going to involve a swing dancing lesson in Sinsa (near Apkujeong), a meetup in the afternoon (usual place), and then still more swing dancing in the evening.

Swing Dancing is one of the greatest ways I've found to hang out and have a good time... go as a couple, or go as a single... and guys, every single time I've ever gone swing dancing, the male/female ratio has been, uh, favorable. Hope to see y'all there!

Friday, February 05, 2010

Tribute to Brian, and I Wish I Could Take Back the Angriest Blogger Tag

Soundtrack for the post: Wish You Were Here - Pink Floyd

Brian Deutsch is on his way out of Korea. I've known this for a while; Brian and I have met a few times, and even worked together on some stuff. Brian even contributed one of the most useful posts ever on Roboseyo: what to do with a three day weekend in Jeollanamdo - a post which I promised to answer in kind, with advice on a three day weekend in Seoul... but then forgot to do. (Actually, I haven't forgotten: it's almost finished!)

The Korea Times even wrote up a piece on Brian leaving... given Brian's commentary on The Times' reporting, I read it carefully, looking for a hints of "Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead!" in the tone. Given the controversy he courted at times - particularly during the Coreana Nazi ad, the summer of 2008, when netizens went after his job, and recently, calling out the IFriendly misfire for its bad English - and the sheer relevance of his posting, to expat life in Korea, some kind of send-off was certainly deserved. Brian was my personal choice for most relevant, and most topical K-blog of 2009 - the only other contender, in my opinion, is Popular Gusts - especially since the once excellent Korea Beat turned into one part of "Asian Correspondent" - which was probably good for the makers of the site, but which dilutes the once very straightforward, Korea-focused content of the site. While Brian made some statements of regret about the time it took to maintain his blog, and what it's done for the name Brian Deutsch, at least in Korea, I think I can safely say that every blog reader and writer in Korea is very grateful for his work. I'll write him a letter of reference any time he wants. His blog has been extensive, well-written, amazingly prolific, and on the point timely. It's been an impressive run, and his absence will certainly leave a void in the K-blogosphere.

Brian and I have hung out a few times: he's a good guy, nice, kind-spirited, soft-spoken, and his manners are WAY better than mine. Just to prove we really did hang out, here's a picture from the last time we hung out together: I didn't get permission to post this picture, but I hope he doesn't mind. His fiance is also super-awesome, charming and funny, and they're really cute together. Girlfriendoseyo took to them immediately, and gets a gubby happy face every time I mention them.

There's one thing I'd like to say, for the record, about the title of the KT article: "'Angriest Blogger' Leaving Korea"

There aren't a whole lot of regrets, or things I wish I could take back, during the time I've run blogoseyo. For the most part, I'm happy to take the missteps in stride - I've fired off half-cocked a few times, I've failed to fact-check a few times, I've blundered in blogger courtesy before, and mistook a few trolls for real people, but most of it, I'll leave at "You live, you learn".

One of the things I WOULD take back, given the chance, would be the Golden Klog category "Angriest K-Blogger" - The Hub of Sparkle is still showing security warnings, so I can't link it, but I think, looking back, that it was an unfair category in the first place, and worse still, that it unfairly saddled Brian with a reductionist label. I invented the category on a whim, and didn't really think about how the nominees would like being tagged that way. Sure, maybe his critical posts were strongly written; they were also some of his most popular, and frequently referenced posts, but they were also not the bulk of his output, by any stretch. The regional information, and the festival news were other areas Brian put in more effort than the criticism, and his criticism always had a reason, an explanation, and almost always suggested a solution, which is more than I can say for many of the other contenders for "Angriest Blogger" - who are usually harsh, petty, overblown, and prone to generalize specific cases in a way that Brian didn't. He never lost perspective, even when mad netizens were trying to have his job.

A relevant article titled "Easy = True" that just showed up on "" makes the case that simple, snappy bits of information are taken to be more true than more complex explanations, expressions, or ideas. That's why a snappy neologism like "kimcheerleader" catches on: it's more fun to say than "Defensive Korean nationalist" "Korea booster" or "Korean ultra-nationalist". All advertising is built on that principle, and so is OJ's freedom (If the glove don't fit, you must acquit). I regret that "Angriest Blogger" was such an easy catchphrase, too contagious to fade into the background, and became the label by which Brian was known for the last year, even as he toned down the rage., because it mischaracterized a good guy, and a great blogger.

Good luck in the future, Brian; we'll miss you here in Kblogland; eventually someone will take over as the go-to news source, but until then, the K-blogs will be a little less fun, and a little less interesting than they were from 2007-2009.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Link-Dump Rundown

Chris Backe and Shannon Heit have more on helping with Haiti Fundraisers. Some happen today: be quick! 10 Magazine has more.

Wonder Girls, thanks to ballot-box stuffing, won a top video award. Wonder Girls have also won top spots through write-in votes, on polls about the best NFL Player of all time, Longest River in Brazil, Top Bollywood Star, and Best Ocean Named The Pacific Ocean.

Foreign English Tutors haven't been caught, or punished for it, but we're still evil. Thanks, Kang Shin-who, for your series on illegal english tutors.. Stafford says you're dumb. Tell all your friends: if a guy from the Korea Times named Kang Shin-who wants to talk to you, say no. His record of misquoting, making stuff up, inflating stuff, and casting people in a false, negative light, is pretty long by now. Here's a start.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Misuda, Isaac Durst, and the Cosbyfication of Foreigners in the Korean Media

We've talked about this a lot on the blogs, and Girlfriendoseyo and I have had some interesting conversations about it, too: bald-face fact - Korea's media portrayal of foreigners and foreign cultures emphatically reveals that when it comes to trying to portray and understand foreigners living in Korea, and foreigners in general, Korea just really, really doesn't get it, expects us to be things we aren't, imposes stereotypes on us that are far removed from how most of us really are, and so forth. I've seen black people once on a Korean TV show... now, granted I don't watch a lot of Korean television... but in fifteen seconds of screen time, they first frightened the protagonist, then walked by her as if she'd been worried for nothing, and then ran up behind her and stole her purse.

A lot more ink/pixels have been spilled on this topic than I've dug up here (go ahead and put the link to your blog on the topic in my comments), but for a sampler: the Misuda girls prattle on about their cellphones and Korean boyfriends, sometimes taking breaks to bad-mouth foreign men. Ms. Parker in Korea has written about Korean television programming that makes foreigners look like fools, and that French guy from Tamna is the prettiest, most harmless white person the cute oyster-diving girl with big eyes could ever meet, but not typical of white people. (photo source)

(then again, I suppose this...)
Tamna The Island
is better than this:)

Is there another way to look at it, where we're not just snorting with disdain? I think so. There might be a way of recognizing that Misuda is a good thing, even if we sometimes think it's ridiculous. Maybe we can even forgive Isaac Durst.

Here's my crack at it. I think it's helpful to compare Korea's uneasy movement towards a diverse society, and that same cultural quantum shift, as it occured in American race relations a generation or two ago.
(Parenthetical statement) Now that I've put my neck out: a disclosure/disclaimer:

1. I haven't studied race and media in America in detail; excuse me, or correct me, if I miss the nuances. I also know the Korean and American experiences of race relations and media don't line up exactly. We could rattle off the ways they're different, but that's about a 500 word rabbit trail that'll derail my argument. I'm not an idiot, and I know it's not a clean analogy, and there are a lot of factors - particularly power dynamics - that make this a different case.

2. I'm engaged to a Korean lady, and will probably live in Korea for much of my adult life, so I have a vested interest in looking as optimistically as possible at these issues. Because this is the bed I'm going to lie in, while I try to be honest, I also try to be hopeful and generous. Call me an apologist, a sellout or (substitute ruder word for same) if you like; you're welcome to go drink the haterade at Dave's instead.

3. Foreigners living in Korea, and our response/reaction to how we're portrayed in Korea's media, and the way it affects Koreans' perception of us, is only one small subset of a whole barrel of issues and influences and factors that comprise a rapidly changing Korea interacting with a rapidly changing, globalizing world. The issues are much bigger, and more complex, than just how Isaac Durst influences Korean students' (and parents' and hogwan owners') expectations of their Kindergarten teacher.
When I see foreigners portrayed in the Korean media, two things come to mind. Sammy Davis Jr., and The Cosby Show.

Soundtrack: Sammy Davis Jr.: Mr. Bojangles

Sammy Davis Jr. was criticized, even during his time, as a sellout. The act he played for Sinatra and the Rat Pack boys was kind of insulting - he was a token, and the smiling, eager-to-please butt of racist jokes. If an equivalent act went onstage today, there's be a rightful outrage, and Davis knew that was the role he played -- just listen to the words to the song Mr. Bojangles (which you should be listening to, right now)... but frankly, White America needed those pioneers: we COULDN'T have skipped Sammy Davis Jr. and gone straight to Marvin Gaye singing, "Let's Get it On" - it would have been too much to see Marvin Gaye expressing a bold, confident sexuality, if they hadn't gotten their feet wet first with Sammy Davis Jr's Bojangles song and dance. And maybe Sammy Davis Jr.'s persona didn't resemble the actual lives or characters of the African-American people of his time, and maybe they didn't feel that he represented them, but then, at least it wasn't a white guy painting his face black anymore. When we project current sensitivities into the past, we miss what Sammy Davis Jr. meant to his audience at the time, and get upset that he was taking the racist jokes on the chin, rather than, like the people of his time, appreciating that he was the first black performer ever to appear on many of those stages, sometimes in clubs and venues that wouldn't have allowed him to enter the building as an audience member.

(Western Media, let's not forget, isn't innocent of stereotyping)
sorry, Mr Miyagi

The Cosby Show was the same thing, in a different context. It was a little farther along than Sammy Davis, and it's been criticized lately for something that one scholar calls "Enlightened Racism" - basically that by portraying an upwardly mobile African-American family that never dealt with actual race-based issues that existed in America at the time, The Cosby Show presented a post-racial America that didn't actually exist, and allowed white viewers to feel that "If the Cosbys can be successful and respectable, that shows that any African-American family can do the same; if the black family down the street isn't as successful or respectable as the Huxtables, it must be their own fault" - this kind of attitude may have led to complacency in rooting out remaining vestiges or racism and discrimination in America. That was a long sentence.

But there we go projecting modern sensibilities on past times again: I've been accused of being way to optimistic for holding this opinion, but I think that America (and here I mean US and Canada, as we all watched The Cosby Show as loyally) DID still need the Cosby Show, despite, or maybe because of the way it basically took a sitcom about an affluent white American family, and cast it with black actors. No, it wasn't an accurate reflection of how most African American families lived, talked, thought, or acted, but it DID humanize the African-American family that lived down the street, it made them less "other" - heck, it invited them into our living rooms. As inaccurately as it may have portrayed the typical African-American experience, it also said "Not all black families are like the ones you see on the evening news". There was still a long ways to go (still is) but it was another step.

Now, we can watch a show like The Wire, that deal directly with the ugly, institutionalized racism and despair that still afflicts a lot of poor communities, but just like we wouldn't have accepted Marvin Gaye without first getting our feet wet with Sammy Davis Jr., we wouldn't have accepted The Wire without getting our feet wet on The Cosby Show.
Footnote: more about The Huxtable Effect on American culture:Before Obama, there was Bill Cosby
Obama IS Cosby - must-read interview with Sut Jhally, author of "Enlightened Racism"
So back to Isaac Durst, the silly-acting white guy from Korean "edutainment" shows like The Morning Special and EZ English:
(from James: Awesome remix of the Girls' Generation's new song Oh)

(image source: Pai Mei)

You know what? Right now, in the Korean media, we still have one foot planted firmly in Sammy Davis Jr. territory. (Dancing black monkey puts on a cartoonish show/Dancing white monkey puts on a cartoonish show) When Girls Generation dresses like cheerleaders and dyes their hair blonde, and tosses mangled English phrases into their songs, well that isn't as insulting as blackface, and the power dynamic's WAY different (I'm not an idiot, remember?) but it's just as superficial a reading of American culture.

Next thing about Isaac Durst and Misuda: frankly speaking (see what I did there?), Koreans don't look much better on Korean television. Living overseas, we sometimes make the mistake of comparing Korean popular media with the very best our home cultures produce -- after all, THAT'S what we consume while we're overseas. While I'm here, I spend my time looking for the very best our home countries can produce: I'm downloading, or watching online, episodes of The Sopranos, or old seasons of The Simpsons in its prime, or whatever well-written TV Series my friend in Canada liked enough to mention to me in an e-mail, not TYPICAL shows, like Real World, Steaming Pile of Reality, or Two And A Half Men. It's hardly a fair comparison: we've got to compare SNSD with Miley Ray Cyrus, not with freaking Radiohead, and we've got to compare Misuda with Maury, not with 60 Minutes or even Oprah, or we're missing the point.

Meanwhile, there ARE some signs that Korea's media is moving from Sammy Davis Jr. towards The Cosby Show: James Turnbull writes about Bandhobi, a movie about a Bangladeshi guy who befriends a Korean girl. Compared to the century-plus that passed between the Emancipation Proclamation and the civil rights movement, and finally The Cosby Show in America, Korea's way ahead of pace. As far as I know, early American television sure didn't feature a show like Misuda, that asked African-Americans what they thought about the day's topics. It's one of the things that makes Korea a fascinating place to live in, the way it goes so quickly through all the changes that took our home cultures centuries to navigate, and yeah, it's messy - Korean feminism is trying to negotiate second wave feminism and third wave feminism simultaneously, rather than one at a time, the way we did, which leads to a fascinating muddle of labor complaints and sexy dances and birthrate/maternity leave controversies and music videos laden with the question "have they or haven't they been re-claimed?" -- women are dressing like the girl-power symbols of America, without yet fully having claimed the power those women are expressing in their own cultures.

Lee Hyori: U-Go-Gull: is she a symbol of Korean feminism, or is her play at empowerment a sales-boost?

So can we be patient, for the time being, with how foreigners are portrayed on Korean television, and be glad that, while some of the portrayals are stereotyped and negative, some are stereotyped and positive, and every once in a while, we DO get a foreigner in the Korean media who ISN'T a caricature (see Bandobhi and the foreign bride in "Thirst" if you don't believe me) We're still waiting for the Korean equivalent to the Cosby Show - one where the foreign family acts out situations similar enough to Korean families that, while it might not resemble our actual lives, it helps Koreans see the mixed-race family down the street as essentially the same as them, which will make it possible, after that, for truer portrayal of foreigners' lives in Korea. And until that happens, we should be vocal when our image is politically-tinged, or aimed at scaremongering, but we should probably also be patient with the dancing monkeys, as long as everybody involved realizes that's what they are, and take the time to let our Hogwan bosses, and our students, and our students parents, know that Isaac Durst is a TV person, and TV people are different than real people.

Maybe one day we'll be able to celebrate a post-racial Korea, where it really doesn't matter what color you are. Maybe we won't, but most of the foreigners here would be happy if things changed enough here that, even if we don't have any special rights, we could buy our I-phones, take out bank loans, get the job we want, the fair price we deserve, and date whomever we like, without catching any grief above and beyond what Koreans give their own people about those things. Those of us who are marrying Koreans especially want those things for our kids. Whatever kind of media portrayal, or progression of inaccurate portrayals, it takes to reach that point will be worth it, if that's where we arrive. It'll probably take longer than we want it to... but I bet it'll also take shorter than it took for North America to pull its head out of its ass and start treating visible minorities as real people.

Monday, February 01, 2010

More Haiti Relief

Hands for Haiti is another Haiti relief fundraiser happening in Hongdae, on February 12th.

As before: if you know about other Haiti fundraisers in or outside of Seoul, send an email to roboseyo at gmail dot com.

Why Do Expats Complain About Korea? How About This

(ht brian's twitter account)

Hey Korea! If you want your qualified, well-trained, excellent native English teachers to stay in Korea, instead of having them all leave...

Hey Brand Korea! If you want English teachers to go back to their home countries singing all the wonderful virtues of Korea...

Why don't you brief the principals and administrators of your schools that this, to people from most English speaking countries, is absolutely, totally unacceptable treatment of an employee.

For myself as well, I can definitely say that the one thing I hate most, as a teacher, is surprises - preparation is a key to a teacher's success, and springing this kind of last-minute "Why are you late for the class you didn't know you had?" garbage is the kind of stuff that prevents me from delivering a good product to my students. You want qualified teachers doing good work in your classrooms? You want the good ones to like the situation enough to stay on longer and longer? Give them the tools to do so, which means, above anything else, the materials they need, and the time to prepare them.

Some quotes from the ESL Cafe page:

So I was practically on vacation for the past month. I still had to come into work from 9am-5pm every day and I had camps for two hours a day...

Most of the people I asked either didn't know or they told me there definitely weren't classes until the end of February. Or they just told me not to worry.

I got a phone call from my boss, who I asked on Friday, who told me that there were no classes this week, that I need to come in immediately.

I've been here for nearly three years... I've been trying to get them to tell me for the entire time that I want to know when I have class because I like to PREPARE. Why is it so hard to tell me what everyone else already knows?

If I was back home and people acted like this I'd know they were just screwing with me. Since this happens to a lot of people here, I know its not that. Just why? WHY?!

I'm really not going to miss this job when I leave Korea this month.

Another person, same comment thread:
I am leaving. Twenty-seven days. Thank god.

Now, we've all heard before the Dave's ESL Cafe is a little black-hole of Anti-Korean Haterade... but when stuff like this happens, there's nothing to do but deny that it takes two to tango, and if Korea wants to improve the way foreigners talk about Korea, the first thing they need to do is look at the people who deal with foreigners in Korea directly.