Friday, January 14, 2011

Who Owns A Culture: What do you Mean When you Say Korean Culture is Under Attack?

(all images from the first page of google image results for "Korean culture")

Now, the last time I talked about Korean culture, I crossed swords comments with a commenter...

On "Lee Hyori Gets It" we argued a bit about the one blood thing, and I'd like to address a few points raised there.

First, I've figured out why one of my commenters and I have been disagreeing so strongly, and it's a simple reason: our definitions of culture are different.  One of my favorite topics to bring into my old conversation classes was this handout of four opinions, each suggesting a different view on the cultural changes that have come through Korea lately.

For this series, and in general, as I stated in part two: I'm talking about popular culture: culture as a living, organic thing, Korean culture as a description of what and how Koreans produce and consume, not as a set of rules for what and how Koreans SHOULD produce or consume, in order to be "authentic" -- the definition of culture that defines Korea's culture only, or primarily by looking at the past?  That's for archivists and historians.  I'm not talking about Goguryeo, Lee Sunshin, or what kind of kimchi they ate in Gwangju in 2000 BC.  I'm talking about what Korean young people have on their mp3 players, and where they choose to meet their friends.

If the opinion you agree with the most on this handout is #1, we probably aren't going to agree on most points... because our definitions of "culture" are fundamentally different.
How Korean is Korea is Korea Losing Its Culture

Personally, I hold with #3 mostly: culture is a way of describing what people actually do, not outlining what they must do to be "real" Koreans.  Young ladies dying their hair pink is Korean culture, because young Korean ladies are doing it.  Yeah, I cast a wide net... but the net must be cast wide to catch the really interesting and powerful stuff, which always starts on the fringes before it goes mainstream.

Second:  To those who would suggest that Korean culture is under attack, and that this is cause for alarm... basically, chill out.

Is Korean culture under attack?  Here are the instances where it seems that idea comes up (let me know if I'm missing something):
(Korean culture club)

1. Items, artifacts, or pieces of Korean heritage have been plundered or claimed by others.  China claims Goguryeo; France took a bunch of historical Korean documents; Dokdo is OURS, dammit!

2. Foreign elements are invading Korean culture and making Korean culture some weird mix of foreign cultures that is no longer really Korean.  Young ladies are dying their hair pink, Korean singers are imitating American hip-hop, and everybody's wearing blue jeans and mini-skirts and FUBU.

3. People are criticizing or saying bad things about Korea, or Korean cultural items, artifacts, or producers.  Stephen Colbert is making fun of Rain, movie critics are crapping on "The Last Godfather."

4. Korean cultural things are being taken into other countries and changed, so that they are no longer authentically Korean.

Briefly, then:

1. Honestly, historical periods and historical artifacts aren't really my area of specialty, or knowledge.  I don't know the details of Goguryeo, or how China is allegedly "stealing" Goguryeo, or trying to erase it from the history books.  Honestly, I'm not a historian, and I'm not very interested in it, either, because history is dead, unless it's affecting the present.  History is relevant to historians, but other than when historians and demagogues get together to have some textbook protests outside the Japanese or Chinese embassy, it doesn't have much influence on culture the way I defined it above: nobody rearranges the playlist on their ipods, or changes their TV viewing or internet surfing habits, because of it.  If they did, I'd be interested in it again.  I hope France and Japan return those books and documents, but if they don't, the Hallyu doesn't magically vanish: culture doesn't begin and end in a bunch of historical documents, and in my opinion, the greatest relevance that old history has is in explaining phenomena that still happens now. Korea's heritage is not the sum total of Korea's culture, as defined above.  Korea's heritage may well be under attack... a lot of people say it is... but Korea's culture is in no danger at all.  In fact, Korea is now exporting its culture all across Asia, in Hallyu films, dramas, and more recently, music. For the rest, heritage is outside the scope of this series, and outside the scope of my interest, frankly.


2. Foreign elements are invading Korea. I addressed this at more length in another post, and I'd like to refer you to that.  Basically: complaints about cultural change are usually either coming out of historians who have a backward-looking (past-focused) view of what culture should be, or it's generational, coming from older people who remember how things used to be.  This often boils down to the fact as people age, they miss being the ones who set the culture's agenda, the way they did when they were younger (and their parents complained about them not respecting 'the old way' in the same way they now complain about their kids).  The problem with this one is simply: when do you draw the line of "this is authentic Korea, and this isn't" -- spicy peppers are from the New World, so if we really go back and get historical, spicy food CAN'T be part of Korean culture, because it hasn't been - CAN'T have been part of Korean culture for the entire (5000 year) history of Korea.  Defining "authentic Korea" is just as slippery and problematic as defining Korean culture in all its iterations right now, and "authentic" Korea from the past is either an idealized version of the past (go watch "Welcome to Dongmakgeol), or an idealized version of what one's grandparents remember, even though at that time, culture was changing, fluid, unstable, and affected by other countries' influence too.  All cultures are always changing, just because grandpa doesn't remember it that way doesn't mean it wasn't true back then, too.

3. Critics are saying bad things about Korea.  I discuss this one more in my post "In Which Roboseyo Exhorts Seoul City Not to Get in a Snit About Lonely Planet"  Basically... haters gotta hate, and playas gotta play, and haters gonna hate playas, and when haters hate the playas, that doesn't make the playa stop being a playa: it's actually a validation that the playa's a true playa.  Celebrities know that ANY buzz is good buzz, ANY publicity is good publicity, and Seoul getting named in a list of "Five worst cities" is better than Seoul being ignored.  The biggest players are targets most often, and criticism is actually validation.  If Roger Ebert rips a movie to shreds, it means he at least admired it enough to consider it deserving of an 800 word evisceration: he could have just ignored it, and that would be a real problem, because it would mean the movie wasn't bad, but irrelevant.  Stephen Colbert made fun of Rain... and Rain became more famous.  Wanting Korea to be more famous, but wanting to control HOW people talk about Korea, is wanting to have one's cake and eat it too, and it smacks of inferiority crisis, and the people who crashed Stephen Colbert's website miss the point.

(image - they sing in English. Are they Korean culture or American culture? What about Far East Movement?)

4. Korean things are being stolen and altered, so that they are no longer Korean.  I covered this at length in the last post (a long time ago) in this series, basically coming to the point that nobody owns a culture.  People can produce and consume artifacts in a culture, but nobody can own it.  Historians and archivists can lay a claim on a heritage, and maybe even define it, if they narrow their definition enough, but living culture - culture as it is, and is becoming, is far too slippery and unstable to define, much less to claim.  If Japan is exporting Kimuchi, that means that somebody likes Kimuchi, or it wouldn't be selling.  If Koreans don't like that Japan is exporting Kimuchi, complaining does nothing.  Writing hundreds of e-mails a day "correcting" people doesn't help much either.  What would help is exporting a kimchi that people want to buy more than kimuchi.  Buyers don't care who's right and who's wrong, or who originally invented.  They care about which one fits their personal taste better, or which is cheaper, or which is available at their local supermarket.  Koreans didn't invent cars, cellphones, or TVs, but make some of the world's best of each.  Is America bitching that Korea stole their inventions?  Nah.  (They're worried that foreign students and workforces are outperforming America in some arenas, but upset about stealing inventions? No.  Did India complain when Korea registered Seokguram Grotto as a Unesco World Heritage Site, because the Buddha is from India?  Not that I know of.  Nobody owns the Buddha, cars, cellphones, or rock music.)

As cultural claims go, cultural materials don't observe national borders.  Korea pissed off the Chinese and Taiwanese on a few internet comment boards by trying to register Dragon Boat Racing as a Korean traditional heritage.  [update: this assertion has been well-corrected by Gomushin Girl in the comments]  Korea has a enough of a reputation for claiming that not-Korean things are Korean, that they were even at the butt of a joke about it during the 2008 Olympics.

In the end, there are two sides: there's the emotional side, and the intellectual side, to the issue of cultural ownership and authenticity.  When I brought the article above into my discussion classes, I was startled at how visceral the resentment was, that Japan had tried to steal kimchi from Korea.  It's just a food, right?  Korea's stolen stuff from other cultures and made it their own (read the Metropolitician's take on "Black culture without black people")
(image from the post linked above)

but, again, as when people criticize stuff about Korea, I've got to say that in the big picture of Korea's ascent to becoming a cultural force, the fact people are stealing things from Korean culture (cf: south-asian imitation K-pop groups) doesn't mean Korea needs to get up in arms about copyright infringement (USA didn't get huffy about Korean hembeogeos, did they?  Why would they? The popularity of hembeogeos here is proof positive of USA's cultural reach.)  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: it means Korean culture is having the kind of influence all those promoters and boosters and kimcheerleaders dreamed it would have.

Awesome!  No, Kogi tacos aren't authentic Korean food: stuff always gets changed in translation... but then, given how slippery and changeable culture is, how could we expect anything else?

So, now that we're back up to speed, I'll be finishing off this series by talking about what should be done with the situation where expats living in Korea come across artifacts of their own home cultures, reinterpreted by Koreans, for Korea.


JIW said...

I like that you are going to talk about what we should do when we face this. Instead of just throwing more problem facing factoids out there, leaving us riled up and no where to go.

Deb said...

Roboseyo - once again, you are always wrong about everything ever. Always. Ever.
And I love you.

refresh_daemon said...

I think I second your larger point regarding culture and ownership. There does need to be some level of discussion regarding authenticity and appropriation, because there are some complex issues entangled within, but on the larger point, I agree.

Charles Montgomery said...

Refresh-daeomon is correct that a discussion regarding authenticity is required - if only to decide what NOT to let in. While there are some aspects of Korean culture that don't make sense to me, there are also some really good things.

Seen any teen pregnancies around here lately? ^^

The discussion of what is Korean culture and what should (both existing now and possible to import) be in culture is at the heart of future life in Korea.

Your point that the reflexive defenders are a bit silly is a good one. Among other things, if you play the globalization game and reap its benefits (as Korea has done) you will have to deal with the effects, both good and bad.

The reflexive defenders seem to (very roughly) have some discernable demographics

1) Older
2) Less educated/smart. This really came clear to me when I moved from my Uni in Daejeon to my Uni in Seoul - when I worked with better students I got much less reflex and much more thinking it through.
3) "White Knights" (so to speak) from abroad - angry or bitter Kyopo who seem alienated from the country the currently live in and cling to some romanticized notion of Korea
4)Groups that are economically threatened by the international community (e.g. beef farmers)

Obviously, a lot of broad strokes in those characterizations, and they are somewhat closer to anecdote than science, but that's what I've observed....

Gomushin Girl said...

Ok, a moment to go slightly off topic and tell you that you're totally, utterly wrong:
That People's Daily article is complete BS, and you should know it, Rob. Have you ever heard about a Dragon Boat Festival here? No? That's because the festival in question isn't some Korean appropriation of the Chinese Dragon Boat celebrations at all - it's the Gangneung Dano Festival. Basically, it shares a name (well . . . only if you read the Chinese characters) and a date.* The World Heritage listing doesn't mean that all Dano/Duan Wu festivals belong to Korea, along with things like dragon boats (which aren't part of the Korean version at all.)
Similarly, China has a listing for the Korean farmer's dance - as performed by the Korean ethnic minority in China. It's not saying that farmer's dances are Chinese, really. It says that the ethnically Korean Chinese citizens in one area have a tradition which is worthy of appreciation and preservation.

*actually, it didn't even originally share these. Until the Joseon dynasty, the date wasn't nailed down and it was known by the totally indigenous name of 수릿날.

Anonymous said...

You're twisting yourself into a pretzel to make a very basic point: cultures can be examined on the axis of popular vs. traditional (sociologists used to say "high vs. low" but that's not very PC these days). Popular culture by definition is malleable and constantly changing due to exchanges with other cultures. Traditional aspects of a culture are, again by definition, older, more codified, and more established as normative (i.e., the way "should" be).

IMO, Koreans are getting more comfortable with the changing nature of culture now that Hallyu is happening (although not nearly to the extent that the Korean media makes it out). And given the Japanese occupation, when they were forced to stop speaking Korean and had to adopt Japanese names, what you find defensive I find a perfectly natural coping mechanism (although maybe it's now outdated).

And it's fading now, which I think is great. But I can't lose any sleep over a Korean person who honestly finds things about their history and culture worth preserving as "authentic" and/or "pure."

I had a philly cheese steak last weekend in Daegu that was far from the perfection of an actual Cheez-whiz laden one you could get in Philadelphia. On the one hand I was a little disappointed because the real thing is better. On the other hand, it was pretty good. So be it. It would have been silly to complain about the experience.

This Is Me Posting said...

People need to stop linking to or promoting The Marmot's Hole. I can feel my IQ dropping every time I go on that site. The amount of stupid there is utterly mind numbing.

Anonymous said...

"Seen any teen pregnancies around here lately?"

I have some friends back home in America who adopted a Korean baby who was born to an unwed Korean teenager. It's not at all uncommon.

Maybe it's less prevalent than in other countries (which I agree is a good thing), but this is kind of a ludicrous statement.

Roboseyo said...

foreigner joy: the advice I have to offer, coming out soon in the next post, might not be what you want to hear, but I'll have a little.

Deb: Am not, either. Love you too, my sister.

R_D: getting into discussions of authenticity and appropriation ARE complex and interesting discussions, but they're primarily backwards looking, and the domain of historians. They're also way beyond my area of knowledge. Past-focused discussion of culture is important, but it's not a discussion I'm really equipped, or interested to deal with.

Charles: your idea about "white knights" from abroad is interesting: the dutch-canadian community I grew up in sometimes clung to some dutch traditions and ways more strongly than people in the Netherlands did, because ti was their way of having a distinct identity. I don't know how many of them tried to go into other forums to "defend" dutch culture, but the idea of the Kyopo "white knight" is interesting. From what I've heard, most of the netizens who bullied bloggers like Lousy Korea, An Idiot's Tale, and Youseok's blogs into nonexistence had IP addresses outside Korea.

GG: thanks for your correction. While I should have looked more carefully into the dragon boat thing, the fact that Korea has similar boat races seems to reinforce the point that nobody owns a culture.

Wet Casements: I think you're right that Koreans are becoming more comfortable with cultural flux. I also agree with you that it's a good an noble cause for people to work to preserve aspects of Korea's heritage: I'm arguing that they're silly and arrogant to presume that means they're arbiters of all Korean culture, and get to say that "Miss-A isn't Korean culture, because one of the members is Chinese".. "because I said so."

Charles/Wet Casements: the low rate of teen pregnancy has little meaning when abortion and international adoption are so common, I suppose.

chiam said...

At the end of each and every day, each and every culture changes. Cultures that embrace that change prosper; cultures that don't die off.

Roboseyo said...

I totally agree with you, Chiam.

refresh_daemon said...

Roboseyo: I have to disagree that discussion of authenticity and appropriation are necessarily the matter of historians, especially as discussions are related popular culture, rather than traditional culture. This is because appropriation is something that is happening *now* and the question is relevant as to whether any person ought to accept what is happening or reject it. New cultural elements, whether native or imported are showing up constantly within the context of a single culture and some of them take root and others fail--so a question arises as to why the greater culture accepts some and rejects others. It also shows that the greater culture is capable of choosing which new cultural element is desirable for whatever reason.

Because these things are things that are happening right now, it remains important to discuss matters of authenticity and appropriation as then the greater culture can accept or reject new cultural elements as they arise, or, given the organic nature of acceptance or rejection, at least look deep within the present culture to understand what's going on when a cultural element is accepted or rejected.

When external cultural elements are adopted, there remains a matter of who adopts that cultural element and for what purpose. One example would be the importation of hip-hop into Korean pop music, which was done on two separate fronts: one was the commercial importation of hip hop music into the mainstream k-pop scene, grafting the music onto kpop acts, vs. kyopos from abroad and native hip hop fans who are authentically involved in the culture introducing and developing a hip-hop scene locally. Why this is important is that determining authenticity/appropriation helps us to understand the point and purpose of cultural development and what it says about the greater culture that adopts them, as it adopts them. As new trends pop up in Seoul, thinking of matters of authenticity and appropriation (where relevant) gives us one more metric to evaluate these new trends in the context of the living culture as it is.

I hope that made some sense. As someone who was once prepping to go into sociology, it stings a little to have my focus of study be considered the domain of a historian (God bless their little backwards looking souls).

Roboseyo said...


I might change my mind about this tomorrow, but in discussing popular culture, I think the word "authenticity" is a red herring - because it requires drawing a line at an arbitrary point in the past (my grandpa's living memory is pretty arbitrary, but the stories my grandpa told me about "real" canada are most often the starting point for hte preconceptions I might develop in judging one thing to be "real" canadian and another thing not to be - and living memory is often the benchmark for making those judgements of authenticity, because grandpa's sitting on his patio complaining about the younguns)

Sure, there are reasons some things get appropriated, and others don't: U2 was just as big in Canada as ABBA, yet here in Korea, everybody knows ABBA, and surprisingly few people know who U2 is. In Korea, everybody loves the Beatles' songs "Let it Be" and "I Will" when back in Canada, "I Will" belongs on the second tier, and there are other songs on the top tier with "Let It Be" - Come Together and Blackbird, etc., that many of my Korean friends don't recognize, or don't know as well as "I Will". I have no idea why Starbucks caught on here, but Quiznos hasn't. Or McDonalds yes and Wendy's no. Those ARE interesting discussions. Some of them are as simple as "That song was in a TV commercial" or "McDonalds researched the culture more before starting to market to Koreans; Wendy's didn't." But yes, they're fascinating issues.

A discussion of who adopts an external influence, and for what purpose, and how it catches on, is a great discussion... but I don't know how "authenticity" comes into it, except as someone's attempt to privilege their read on a culture over others' read on it.

And I suppose, at first glance, I'd say the same thing about discussing the authenticity of cultural items that make their way over here: if Country music makes it to Korea, it'll probably come here by way of Shania Twain and Taylor Swift, even though "real" country fans back in America probably scoff at those two artists before hunkering back down on their Neko Case and Uncle Tupelo, or their Willie Nelson and their Johnny Cash and their Gran Parsons, but calling Shania inauthentic country mostly just distracts from the discussion of why she makes it here and others don't.

Ditto for hip-hop and RnB - if it comes to Korea by way of Kanye West (or Kyopo Kpop stars who listened to Kanye) instead of coming here by way of Rakim and 2 Live Crew... disparaging the entry point as "inauthentic" distracts from, and adds a layer of arrogance to, a discussion of what's going on in Korean tastes.

I think.

refresh_daemon said...

Robo: I get the feeling we have different definitions of authenticity (or at least applications of authenticity) going on, since I'm not at all in disagreement with what you're saying, except that when you speak of authenticity as something dealing with the past. I'm not interested in whether X practitioner like Shania Twain is "real country music" or not. But when I write about matters of authenticity, I'm concerned with matters of appropriation--as in, is a new cultural element an organic growth, copy or development. So whether a Korean hip-hopper is drawing his influence from MC Hammer or from Grandmaster Flash isn't what I'm concerned with, but rather *who* the K-hip-hopper is and why this particular K-hip-hopper is adopting hip hop.

Authenticity, in my case, is concerned with *who* is "authoring" new cultural elements and why that person or group of people is/are doing so.

Discussions of authenticity can include how Korean political forces possibly co-opted a fear reaction to American beef possibly containing prions from Mad Cow disease to essentially develop a new cultural element where American beef is no longer acceptable.

In that sense, any discussion of appropriation is necessarily a discussion of authenticity. Again, when I write about it, it's not about some regard to authentic traditional culture, but rather authenticity to the immediate source of the cultural element and particular concern with who is doing it and why.

In that sense, since cultural movers, authentic or no, are capable of pushing and developing new cultural elements, I think it's useful to deal with the authenticity of that cultural element, (practically) whether to reinforce or develop a counter-movement, or (theoretically) at the very least understand what it says about the adopters and the greater culture within which an act of cultural adoption or appropriation is happening.

Iwazaru said...

Rob, you might think about copy editing your handouts before you give them to students (unless it's a correction exercise) and before you post them on the Internet. I would suggest at least looking at 1 and 4.