Monday, May 31, 2010

Weddings, K-Pop, Korean Food & Purity: Who Owns a Culture? Part 2

Korean Cultural Change Abroad

Soundtrack time:

Lemon Tree, by Fool's Garden, covered by Park Hye Gyeong.  Is it Korean culture (Korean remake/words) or German culture (Fool's Garden is a German band), or Irish/Dutch/Norwegian culture (three of the countries, along with Germany, where the song hit Number 1)?

I've decided to make part 2 of the series about Korean opinions on cultural change abroad, and then to talk about Western views on Korean handling of Western culture last, so that we shift from the Korean view to the Western view more smoothly, and to provide a context for the reactions westerners in Korea have to Korean adaptations to Western culture.  The similarities might be interesting.

Click to read more.

By the way, just to be clear: in this series I'm talking about popular culture, not traditional culture; traditional culture is for scholars and archivists to decide; I'm more interested and concerned with how ordinary people interact with their world, accept and reject things as part of, or not part of, their worlds.  Somebody out there is rebuilding a piano exactly the way they were built when Mozart wrote his music.  Good for him/her.  I'm more interested with how many people have Mozart on their iPods, and why.  K then...

There's an interesting dynamic going on right now in the Korean food circles: you see, what all these ddeokbokki/toppokki, Drunken rice/makgeolli/maggoli/mc-koolie discussions, efforts by the ministry of culture and tourism to standardize Korean menus and recipes, and to certify Korean food chefs in the "proper" preparation of Korean food with the "right" ingredients (and it's a hotly contested issue, believe me; especially because if Korean food catches on the way Thai food or Japanese food did, there's gobs and gobs of money to be made).

Now, the Korean ministry has one vision of what Korean food will look like as an international phenomenon.

Korean chefs in Korea, creating fabulous fusion foods (not the crappy "Let's make something that resembles a foreign food, put sugar on mayonnaise on it" fusion food chefs, but REAL fusion food chefs like Edward Kwon and Chef Kim from Starchef) have a different vision of the future of Korean food.

Fatman Seoul has another.  Seoul Eats has another.  Zenkimchi has another. 

The guy running the Kogi taco truck in LA has another... and looking at all this talk and all the silly moves on one side, and the criticism thereof by bloggers, it occurred to me...

The Kogi Taco Truck guy doesn't give a flying rat's willie about any of that.  He's making money, by making food that people like.

And good for him, and bullocks to the Korean Ministries who would tell him it's not "real" Korean food: he's making money!

There's a restaurant somewhere in New York where a cook is making Korean food as closely as possible to how it's made in Korea.  There's another making Korean food the way Koreans think Westerners like Korean food, after making a few guesses, and a lot of artificial sweeteners (cf: Insadong).  There's another one where the cook is making Korean food the way westerners like it, as he/she discovered after blind taste tests and interviews and research.  There's another one who's making good food inspired by Korean food, but the level of actual resemblance to Korean food is debatable. There's a Japanese restaurant in New York with bibimbap on the menu.

Some of those restaurants will survive, some won't.  Here's where consumers have the power: they vote with their feet and their checkbooks on what does and what doesn't qualify as Korean food... to them.  Scholars are free to disagree, purists can stand outside the restaurant with a sign saying the food ain't authentic...but nobody will care, because it's good.  The Korean Tourism Organization, and The Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries don't decide where people eat.  People do.

And some of what sticks won't be what The Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries wants westerners to identify with Korea.  Some of it will be "poor" food, like budaejigae, the pronunciation or spelling of some foods will get mangled (Kogi tacos?  But that doesn't follow McKune Reischauer transliteration rules OR revised romanization rules! Quick, do something!), ingredients will change because authentic ingredients are too hard/expensive to grow/import, non-Koreans will become Korean food chefs, and invent crazy new dishes with weird ingredients, and The Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries won't be able to do a darn thing about the fact people from all kinds of countries that AREN'T KOREA (gasp!) will be making money preparing and selling Korean food.  Will people get a "wrong impression of Korean food" or the "Korean brand"?  Dunno.  If the food's good, can it hurt Korea's overseas reputation?

(Answer to that question: when the most famous Korean in the world right now is Kim Jong-il, in a world where Girlfriendoseyo was asked "North or South?" when she said she was Korean to a local while traveling in Spain, no, it can't hurt.)

In one of my discussion classes, I brought in a simplified version of one of either Zenkimchi Joe or Andrew Salmon's articles about Korean food globalization.  One of the things that really amazed me was how, in every class, almost every group brought up Japanese "kim-u-chi" - it seems that some Japanese people liked Kimchi, made a Japanese version of it, and sold it in Japan, and also in other countries.  Read up on it here. Savvy of them to get around to marketing it before Korea managed...

The surprising thing to me was how my Korean students were upset about this, over a decade after Japan tried to register kimuchi as a Japanese food at the Atlanta Olympics.  They felt like Japan had "stolen" Kimchi, and there was some anxiety that people in other countries now thought Japanese-style Kimchi was the authentic kind.  And that idea: "OUR" food stuck in my head.  I mulled it over for a while, and had this realization:

1. Nobody owns a culture.  Nobody CAN own a culture.  In fact, thinking of a culture as if it could be wrapped up in a box and stored in an archive doesn't work.  It leads to focusing on the past, and focusing on some kind of "essential" past runs the danger of turning into that ugly, defensive kind of fundamentalism that's setting Evangelical Christianity and Muslim Fundamentalism at odds with the rest of the world.  See also North Korea.

2. The idea of a culture is way too slippery to talk about it as if it were you could wrap it in a box and own it, or teach it to someone.  Even WHEN a culture has certain artifacts that help preserve it - The King James Bible, the works of William Shakespeare, the Koran, the George Washington Myth and the Declaration of Independence, or the Dangun/King Sejong/Lee Sunshin trifecta as anchors, those draw an outline so broad and fuzzy that the details have to be filled in, and every group of people living within that fuzzy outline, fills in the details differently.  Especially these days, when Star Trek Role Play Foot Fetish Fan Fic Expats in Korea has their own Facebook page, the slate is almost completely blank for how a particular self-identifying group fills in the details.  Culture can be observed or described, one can participate in it, one can create artifacts for it (media, objects), but one cannot own culture.

3. It doesn't matter who invented it, or where.  It matters who practices/consumes it, and where.  The Buddha was Indian, but most Buddhists are in SouthEast Asia and East Asia; India has more Hindus, as far as I know.  Confucius was Chinese, but Korea took Confucianism to a whole other level.  Jesus and the apostles were Jewish, but Europe used Christianity as the anchor for their culture for centuries.

More modern examples:  Starcraft wasn't invented in Korea, but Koreans have dominated the game competitively so long, and so completely, that it's now inextricably connected with Korea.  Elvis stole rock and roll songs from a bunch of black artists, but he sang rock music on such a big stage that it was considered a new genre.  Soccer/Football, Cricket, and Rugby are so popular in so many places around the world that it really doesn't matter who invented them anymore (as much as that probably rankles the British).  You don't have to be Japanese to learn Jujitsu: many prefer the Brazilian form.    Jajangmyeon is Korean food, because Koreans eat more of it than Chinese, and it's different in China, in the same way Japanese Curry is Japanese food, not Indian food.  Isaac Toast is Korean food, even if Koreans tell you it's a Western food, because you can't find Isaac Toast in Canada, or England, as far as I know.  Tell me if I'm wrong.

Ever drank Chilean or Californian or Australian wine?  Shall we revoke their permission to make it, because they ain't France or Italy?  Did France invent wine, for that matter?  Somebody told me Marco Polo brought noodles to Italy from China, and tomatoes were first discovered in the New World, so are we going to tell Italy that Italian food isn't?  Cocoa beans are from South America, so shall we tell Belgium that Belgian chocolates aren't?  That American beer isn't real beer?  (Oops.  Bad example.)  Anyway, this idea of authenticity gets problematic if you go back farther than the generation that's currently complaining that people are losing their original culture.

So you know what, Korea?  You can get all upset about Japan stealing Kimchi... but almost nobody cares except Koreans.  Do you really want to steal Kimuchi back?  Then make better kimchi than the Japanese can, and export it more efficiently, or cheaply, and everybody'll forget about kimuchi.  That's all it takes.  Korea stole Starcraft from the USA, and The West stole the scientific method from the Arabs (who stole it from the Greeks, who invented everything).  Complaining about it is like that old guy telling that Korean girl with dyed-blonde hair and blue contact-lenses she's a traitor to her country, because her description of Korean style is different from his: that old guy's loud, and annoying, and even if he's right, every time he repeats himself, people listen less.

Fact is, the idea of culture is getting slippery, especially now that I can download the Tao Te Ching, the Koran, the writings of Confucius, Nietzsche, Kant, and J.S. Mill, Hamlet, the Baghavad Gita, Fela Kuti's, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's, and The Beatles' discographies, every episode of Winter Sonata and Daejanggeum, and seasons 3-6 of The Simpsons onto my computer in less than a week.  I'm defining my world by the information I can access from anywhere on earth, instead of defining my world through the advice I got from my father and mother, who got their advice from their fathers and mothers, and information travels as fast as I can type it and hit send, where it used to travel only as fast as a horse could ride, and a scribe could copy.  And everything's touching everything else.  Sometimes in really weird ways:

(warning: very bad language)

warning: more very bad language, plus: BEATLES!

Another funny bit of odd cultural mixing: a Muppet Mash-up of a George Clooney remake of a Rat Pack classic.

And this isn't only happening in Korea, and Korea's certainly not the only place with anxiety about losing its culture.  The only difference from one place to another is what exactly is supposed to be threatening "the old ways" of "our true culture" and how.

Depending on who you ask, it's...
tree huggers
climate change/the climate change alarmists
lack of respect for elders
perverts and murderers
the gun lobby
the police state
the terrorists
the communists
leftist pinkos
corrupt politicians
corrupt lobbyists
corrupt you name it
fundamentalist rednecks
the muslims
the blacks
the hispanics
the southeast asians
the illegal immigrants
the intelligentsia
the english teachers
the bleeding heart liberals
big oil
big tobacco
big banks
the IMF
loss of family values
loss of neighborhood community spirit
... and the list goes on.

And as life speeds up, and information moves faster, everybody who can't keep up (read: most of us) feel like we're mario running on one of those platforms that crumbles under our feet if we stand on it for too long.

But nobody owns culture, and if people try to own it, to hold onto it, they become archivists, removing themselves from the really interesting, weird, kind of scary discussions of what's still ongoing.  There's nothing wrong with that, but it'd help if they recognized what they were doing, and that their definition of culture has changed from "culture is a tool to explore the world" into "culture is a tool to reinforce my ideas and areas of comfort."  That's true for any culture, including Koreans watching their culture go abroad and be reinterpreted, and (stay tuned for the next installment,) Westerners observing fragments of their culture re-imagined by Koreans.

Here's Part 2.5 of the series: a side note on why Wedding Halls have caught on
Here's part 3 of the series: stuff from the West, redone in Korea.


Unknown said...

Nice article, definitely one of your better ones (well I say that because besides your horrid youtube videos that I refuse to watch I agreed with most of what you wrote in this article).

Roboseyo said...

How do you know they're horrid if you refused to watch them? They do a good job of making the point that nothing is sacred anymore in culture though, don't they?

The Seoul Searcher said...

I've had a very long long discussion with The Korean from ask a Korean about this very subject. I asked him why there is so little authentic ethnic food in Korea, when there is so much of it in the U.S. He then chastised me saying that I didn't know what authentic Korean food tasted like. We went back and forth debating what the definition of authentic was until finally we were able to understand each other's definitions and end the discussion. It just goes to show that everyone will have a different idea of what authentic is, and different types of food purporting to be Korean food will be popular among different groups of people.

That aside, in your own article you discredit Korean chefs who's approach to fusion food is "Let's make something that resembles a foreign food, put sugar on mayonnaise on it", while saying that the Kogi truck guy is a pioneer. Can we not apply the same logic to mayonaise and sugar, that they are simply making food that people want?

So you'll not accept the food made by the mayonaise and sugar guys as representative of whatever food they are trying to make (and for good reason). Likewise, some Koreans will not accept that the Kogi truck is Korean food (also for good reason).

As far as the Kimchi Kimuchi debate, I've heard people talk about it again and again and again. Few will argue that Koreans should be the only ones allowed to make kimchi, as Korea gets most of its kimchi from China. The problem is with the spelling. By registering it as an official food of the olympics, the spelling KIMUCHI in some ways became standard. There's a problem with that because it's romanization of katakanization of hangul. Why not romanize directly from hangul?

Bluebird said...

of course people can own cultures. Would you say that the French foie gras is an essential part of japanese culture?? How about Shepard pie? Totally wrong.

Kimchi is korean food. Japan is way better at advertising their stuff (that's why sushi and other japanese products sell well) but that doesn't mean they should take other people's stuff and sell it off as their own.

You're being totally disrespectful to the Koreans by telling them to advertise their stuff better and make better Kimchi. We do, in fact, make better Kimchi than the Japanese b/c we know how to make it and make it well. Japan dulls things down a notch so their adaption to the Korean food usually makes them taste sweeter and less spicy. But is that the authentic taste? Of course not. There are over 100 different kinds of kimchi. Japan can't even make half of them or know anything about them. People just think of kimchi as this cabbage that has a load of spicy red pepper paste in it, but there's more than that.

The Kogi example you showed is something that's often called as fusion food. It's not korean, but it's incorporating the South American food with the Korean's way of cooking the dish.. but it's still not a Korean food at all.

I personally don't get why Japan always market stuff in a way that they incorporate other country's cultures, sell it off as their own and just pretend nothing will happen b/c it just tastes better and everybody will like it.

Kimchi is Korean food, no doubt about that. Japan should mention in their gyukaku restaurants and in other places that kimchi is a korean dish and USE THE PROPER SPELLING KIMCHI instead of the Kimuchi, the japanese way of pronouncing the korean word (in a very inaccurate way actually)

Roboseyo said...

Seoul Searcher: you're right that I shouldn't discredit mayonnaise fusion food, given my descriptive (rather than prescriptive) approach to culture. I don't like it, I don't think it's very creative, and I can't understand why people like it, but you're right, that according to my definition, it IS part of Korean fusion food culture. It's not the interesting part, or the part that will get chefs around the world excited about Korean food, but it's popular with the young folks.

I wouldn't say foie gras is an essential part of Japanese culture, but if a restaurant or company owned by Japanese started producing an altered form of foie gras, spelled it differently, and some French people started saying they aren't allowed to, because it's French food, I'd say they're in the wrong.

Fusion food IS part of a culture. Koreans eat fusion food; what Koreans do IS Korean culture. Fusion food is Korean culture. So is Isaac toast. Kogi tacos, to split hairs, isn't Korean food, either, because it's American fusion food: Koreans in Korea don't eat Kogi tacos (though it might be part of Koreatown culture, for all I know).

What does "authentic" taste mean, who's the arbiter of that, and what does it matter, if Americans PREFER the toned down kimuchi version (cf: Mild Salsa Sauce)? Maybe I shouldn't have said "make better kimchi" - I should have said "Make Kimchi Americans like more." If we're talking about exporting Korean food culture to America, it doesn't matter what Koreans like: it matters what Americans like. 100 kinds of kimchi are great in Korea, for Koreans, but if Korean food promoters want Korean food to go overseas, Korea needs to be OK with Korean food being adapted, maybe simplified, and changed to fit the market. You can't have your cake and eat it too.

Note the distinction I drew between traditional culture and pop culture. Traditional culture is the area where "authentic" has meaning; that's not what I'm talking about. Maybe you should also read part one of this series, if you haven't, to have more context for what I'm saying.

K said...

Ok, Doreen. But the next time a Korean orders a hembooguh, I'll tell them that they should use the correct spelling.

The Seoul Searcher said...

@Doreen, I don't think Japan ever tried to market Kimuchi as their own food, suggesting that it isn't Korean. Japanese ALL know that kimchi is Korean. And actually, out of all the kimchi I've bought in Japan in the grocery store, gyukaku's was best... far better than those made by even Korean companies were. (They were probably made sweeter on purpose for Japanese, whereas the gyukaku one was a Japanese attempt to be close to authentic.. ironic...)

As far as pronunciation, that's the only way Japanese can pronounce it based on their own language not having final consonants besides N. Inaccurate or not, that's they way they are gonna say it. Kinchi is the only logical alternative, but that's even worse. I do agree with you that when they write it in English they should go with Kimchi though, and it appears for the most part that they have. I don't live in Japan anymore, but I never found the Kimuchi spelling in English except in poorly written English language articles.

I wouldn't say foie gras is an essential part of Japanese culture, but if a restaurant or company owned by Japanese started producing an altered form of foie gras, spelled it differently, and some French people started saying they aren't allowed to, because it's French food, I'd say they're in the wrong.

Since it is already a French food with an established spelling, they would go with foie gras. I can imagine in katakana it would be フォアグラ (Foagura), but when they go to romanize it, they'll use the established spelling.

Kimchi in 1996 (when the issue originally happened) didn't have a standardized spelling. I've seen Kimchee Gimchee Kimchi,and Gimchi. Japan exports more kimchi than Korea so there is the real possibility that the Kimuchi name could be more prevalent, even though it is less accurate, and hides its true origin. The standard spelling as of 2001 is Kimchi, so the issue is resolved.

Nobody is complaining about pronunciation. If anyone is stupid enough to write Haembeogeo, then you have the right to correct them. Seeing as how it's almost impossible that any Korean export of Haembeogeo will exceed English language versions of the product, that's not at all a good argument.

Brian said...

Doreen, you're being condescending and rude.

Japanese aren't stealing kimchi. Japanese kimuchi is quite different from the Korean variety, to such an extent that you probably could make the argument that they're entirely different side dishes.

As far as writing "kimchi," it's a good point to bring up that Koreans themselves can't agree on a romanization. Sure, I guess "kimchi" is the most common, but there are several different romanization systems in use (including the hybrids). Who knows, in five years they may change it yet again, and "kimchi" will be obsolete. Furthermore, in Japan they're not selling "kimchi," they're selling "kimuchi." As you said, Doreen, and as I reiterated in the previous paragraph, they're different.

@ The Seoul Searcher "The Korean" chastized you for not knowing "authentic" Korean food? lol

Unknown said...

I'm not sure that I am convinced that companies in Japan, which export their food product to America, should be obliged to spell the product any particular way. If this in someway distorts the original homeland of the product, that is an unfortunate consequence of a secondary source becoming the primary exporter. I must agree that the only legitimate option for those Koreans, who take issue with the Japanese spelling, is to export more of the product with the spelling they find more pleasing.
And @ Doreen, how exactly does a country own something as intangible as culture, and what legal rights does that entail?
I don't think it takes much for us to see that modern culture as Roboseyo has defined it is very amalgamated and to state that some political or social entity has any moral or legal right over another, quickly leads to a very complicated situation.
The argument over the naming of some contested or seemingly contested object in English, has cropped up before, the first that comes to mind is the naming of the East Sea/Sea of Japan.

Rebecca said...

Funny that you mentioned Daejanggeum in this article. We downloaded the whole series and loved it -- I even got our library to buy it so I can watch it legally! Now, would their cooking be considered "authentic" Korean cooking?