Friday, May 28, 2010

Weddings, K-Pop, Korean Food & Purity: Who Owns a Culture? Part 1

Korean Cultural Change - to older Koreans

During a discussion class, an older fella who attended my class got onto his hobby horse. This isn't a rare occurence, but he was riding one of the tropes that just irks me: the classic line, "Korea is losing its culture because of America." Sigh.

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this topic... I recommend reading The Joshing Gnome's description of"cultural junk dna" - bad/useless stuff spreads from one culture to another, swept along with the good stuff: "Korea got democracy and spam at the same time, after all."

Maybe (probably) i'm missing a lot of the nuances in the arguments these (usually) guys make, but regardless, there are a few things I'd like to ask/tell them.

1. I don't want to hear what you have to say about Korea losing its culture if you're not ready to discuss the contributions of rapid growth, industrialization, a shift in ideology (not just capitalism and free enterprise, but also race-based nationalism, which could only have been invented and propagated by Koreans, for Koreans), and mass-urbanization. It's intellectually lazy to pull the America card when Korean cultural change comes up, and think it covers everything.

2. All cultures are always changing.  If a culture stops changing, it's dead.  Absent interest in Shakespeare, Mozart, Hanbok, or Korean court cuisine, preservation attempts will fail: if nobody's picking up the mantle, it means the culture has found a new way of defining itself, not that the culture is losing itself.  A culture can't lose itself: how a group of people lives, and what they do, that's their culture.  It might not look the same as the way their grandparents lived and did things, but that's true everywhere in the world.

It might make my old ajosshi feel comfortable to believe that he has a handle on koreas true culture, while those young kids are losing it... but he's just wrong.  When his parents were his age, they felt the same way about him, and when he was 20, he liked stuff that was new and exciting, stuff that his parents didn't recognize as their own culture.  Twenty years later, those same artists are no longer the adventurers, but the fuddy-duddies.

The Beatles were new and exciting in 1962; hell, they were controversial! Now they're old hat.  Paul McCartney is a KNIGHT, for goodness' sake!  Mozart was also a rockstar in his day - he did the same thing with the piano - a relatively new instrument at the time - that George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards did with the guitar.  Young people, who grow up and become the establishment, set the arc culture follows, and young people generally seek out stuff that's fun, exciting, and different than what came before.  Those kids' grandparents don't have to like it, but they don't really have much say.

So Captain Fogey complains, because the culture's moving in a direction he didn't set (the way it did when he was 20).  He can complain about it, but the stuff Korea's creative people are using, doing, creating and creating and creating, has more energy and power than the influence of those who only consume, and way more than those who only complain about what others create and consume.  Consumers can encourage some stuff above other, and they might cause some outdated stuff to fade into obscurity slower than others, by going to reunion concerts, but if they aren't going the way the wind is blowing, they'll end up irrelevant.  

To draw a parallel in my own culture, how about the song in the youtube clip below: maybe it's uncomfortable to some of us; my grandmother would call it outright blasphemy: the sample in the background of this song is "her" music...but now it's "their" music, and if grandma can either accept it, or go back to her archives, and recognize that's what she's doing.  If Busdriver is what it takes for kids to learn about Vivaldi, if Clockwork Orange gets somebody into Beethoven's 9th, if a White Stripes reference gets my kids interested in Citizen Kane... great!

...this too?  Sure!

(Not that I'm never a purist, though: this song offends me, because Pachelbel's Canon has a really special, important meaning in my family.  Someone else is free to like it, but it bugs me.)

3. The people of a culture NEED to accept something for it to be incorporated.  You can't foist parts of a culture onto another culture -- it has to resonate with the locals, or it won't stick.  Maybe McDonalds had a good marketing strategy, maybe it didn't, but McD's, Quiznos, Taco Bell, and Tim Horton's have to be accepted by the locals, to catch on.  Koreans WANTED McDonalds.  And some western products don't catch on here, too (or there'd be as many Subway Sandwich shops here as there are in the US; this proves that America CAN'T 'spoil' Korean culture without Koreans accepting the product that's been introduced.  Some cultural artifacts catch on better here than back home: Queen is way bigger here than back home; so is Abba, Mariah Carey, and "My Heart Will Go On."  Meanwhile, very few here know about Creed, Travis Tritt, or even U2.  Wilco? The Flaming Lips? Bwahaha.

It's asinine for my student to deny Koreans have their own agency (power to make their own choices) in the process of choosing which aspects of a culture catch on here.  Koreans like blockbuster movies, or they wouldn't go to them.  It's hypocritical, and just stupid, for Captain Fogey to blame America for the fact Korean young people WANT to drink Starbucks.

4. And finally, I wish I could just read minds to see what these guys' image of an ideal Korea is like. I always suspect it looks more like the idyllic and very fictional Dongmakgeol than any actual place. If they refuse to acknowledge that Choseon dynasty had its own problems corruptions and evils, or that Korea's modern culture has a lot of good going for it, then I'm debating nostalgia (read: wasting my breath). I wish people wouldn't bring intractable opinions to discussion class, because it's discussion class, not screed class.  Koreans have more wealth freedom and opportunity now than ever before, and I wish they'd admit that, not because I think western culture and prosperity/"advancement" are inextricable, but because they're being dishonest or lazy if they don't acknowledge the baby while they curse the bathwater.

So that's what I'd say to the guy in my class... if it were my policy to engage in these discussions.

That said, I'm being harsh on this guy: not to buy into the "he's had a hard life" claptrap, but Korea has changed so damn much, so insanely quickly, that emotionally, I can't blame Ajosshi covey for taking this purist attitude toward all these weird new changes that make his (former?) home into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable place, barely recognizable as home.

I wrote about this before, in my "On Ugly English Teachers" series, and sorry to quote myself, but here's here's why I feel like this generation deserves a little understanding:

[Instead of] a military aggressor/villain trying outright to outlaw the Korean Language ...there's this wacky Western Culture, and rather than hammering iron spikes in's causing young people to tan, [etc.]... and it's seeded the whole country with...apartment blocks... brand-name shops, and people aren't learning to respect their elders like they used to, and... they're being forced to learn English ... on pain of stunted career opportunities, and finally one morning they wake up and don't recognize the country where they were born. Can you imagine anything lonelier than finding yourself a stranger in the only land you know, anything colder than being called anachronistic and outdated in the place you grew up, at an age when you'd expected to be growing old with honor and respect?
In the face of all the change that's happened in Korea, maybe we can forgive them for retreating into what's familiar.  Folks in our home countries do, too.  Hell, Rolling Stone's album reviewers still spot four free stars to any artist who they liked when they were 24, and James Taylor and Mick Jagger are still thanking them for giving them full-page reviews, three decades after either of them were relevant.

Here's part two of the series: When Cultures Move Abroad


Chris in South Korea said...

The smaller the animal, the more aggressively they fight when backed into a corner. It might be a bad analogy, but quite a few ajosshis might be feeling like that. Their world is no more, except perhaps in parts of downtown (Tapgol Park) where the community gets together. They aren't getting any younger either...

While I do see more than a few older people becoming aggressive at hanging on to their version of 'culture', I see more than a few young people dismissing them as irrelevant, out of touch, or otherwise not worth listening to. Perhaps, out of politeness, a younger person might give an older person their seat - more often than not, however, that younger person puts in her headphones and rocks to her own beat.

Unknown said...

Nicely written!

"Wilco? The Flaming Lips? Bwahaha."

After living in Japan for 6 years, then moving to Korea, I was surprised at how unhip Korean music taste was (early 2000s). In fact, faced with a menu in Seoul that was like, Chuck Mangione and Cheap Trick, I used to fly back to Tokyo for Billy Bragg, Ben Harper......

SJ said...

Excellent article. I always viewed their complaints as being in the same category as those who look back up previous eras of their own histories with longing. Korea society is rapidly changing, but it's the same sort of insecurities you see in any rapidly changing society from old Russians lamenting the disappearance of the communist empire to older Americans complaining about "kids these days with their rap music." Then, amplify those feels by the same factor with which Korean society has changed; in some ways, one could almost parallel the changes Korea is experiencing these past decade or so with the same sort of social revolution the West experienced in the late 1950s and 1960s.

As a personal anecdote, my parents left Korea back in the early 1970s, and they're always surprised by how much Korean society has changed so much. In some ways, it depresses them how so much of the "politeness" has disappeared. Yet at the same time, they agree that as a net whole, Korea as a whole is in a much better place now than it was then.

One final thought... for me personally, I think the one thing I lament the most about the loss of traditional Korean culture is not because of change itself, but because other nations who have undergone similar transitions appear to have done a better job in integrating many of their traditions with modern civilization. The example that I've heard a few times is Japan which seems to have done a much better job of preserving and adapting traditions of their culture from the arts to crafts with Western influences; in comparison, it sometimes feels like Korea didn't do as good of a job, losing some of its uniqueness in the process. I understand that there are many factors playing into this (Japanese colonization weakening traditional Korean institutions, civil war, etc.) and the rationale, but I guess deep down, my gut feels like Korea lost more in the transition than it needed to (or more cynically, threw out the "good" while preserving the "bad").