Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Kim Jong-ho: One Perfect Song

I don't know that much about Kim Jong-ho, but in the process of researching all that old Korean music for a shin joong-hyun documentary that I'll feature in an upcoming post... I just happened upon one of those songs that's simply perfect, where it all comes together:

The song is 보고싶은 마음 from the 1974 album 이름 모를 소녀, or "Nameless Girl."  I haven't been able to find an English translation of the lyrics, and have too much pride to put google translate crap on my blog, but not enough time to attempt a translation of my own, so... no lyrics. I know almost nothing about Kim Jong-ho, except that his album pops up on a collection I have, and manages to stay on the right side of all those balances Korean sentimental songs struggle to balance out, and this album has at least two really lovely songs on it. Listen to this perfect song. I hear a bit of downbeat Beck, a bit of Portishead, and other than that... just straight-up musical goodness. Just listen to the interplay between the violin and the bass. That is all.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

While We're on the Topic of Macademias... and Elites Being Jerks Bingo

While Macademia nuts are all the buzz right now in Korea, because of this story, I don't have all that much to add. You can read more at reuters. The New York Times, The Guardian, or almost anywhere.

My "privileged class/asshole behavior" bingo card is getting pretty full:
privileged class going berzerk? check
public overreaction driven by social media? check
big company doing damage control? check
internet shaming bad behavior by a woman?  check
walk of shame press conference? check
public resignation that is probably a sham until things blow over? check

the only two boxes that remain unchecked yet are these:
the hospital gown/wheelchair combo
netizens moaning that this will damage Korea's global image...

But then, I haven't been paying THAT much attention, so maybe I've missed it.

But while everyone is talking about macademia nuts...
here is my favorite use of the word, ever, and I feel like I just have to add this to the overall discourse.

And if you have any suggestions for more boxes to add to my "Korean elites being assholes bingo" card, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Some Old Korean Rock.

Yes, I have heard the complaint that some kinds of Korean music do nothing artistically -- they just take foreign music and put it in the mouth of somebody Korean.

I think the conversation is much more complex than that -- the act of mediation has a lot of different things in play -- why are they choosing this song or this style instead of another, and why does some stuff catch on, and other stuff not? I had a student tell me about her abiding love for U2, which surprised me, because U2 is almost never the foreign band mentioned when you ask your Korean friend who loves foreign music, to name a few bands they like. I've never heard a Korean pick a U2 song in a noraebang. Not to mention, you can just put on a record... so why do we want our singers to bang out live versions of songs, if accuracy is the issue? It's not. There's simply more going on. And even if imitation is the only thing that's going on, well so what? Anybody impressed with the cover is very likely to look up the original, and might even accidentally come across some great music, thanks to a shitty cover.

Those covers don't always work. Some covers do strike me as utterly unnecessary because they've done very little with the original except add a new color scheme, dance moves, or a different vocal style. But then, that doesn't only happen across cultures (original). And when it doesn't work, we can get rude and dismissive.

But then you come across Shin Joong-hyun's cover of In-a Gadda Da Vida (original by Iron Butterfly)... and I'm willing to forgive a lot of derivative works if every once in a while, something this magical comes across.

Play it through. Play it loud. Or don't bother. But... bother. It's worth it.

And ultimately... I have no problem with the idea of adapting things for a target audience. Why the heck wouldn't you? Italian food is so successful worldwide because pasta is easy, and sauces are infinitely flexible, and thus infinitely adaptable to available ingredients and local taste. And yes, there will be someone somewhere sniffing about authenticity, and they should just go to Naples. Ditto for music. You've got to use the available ingredients, and suit things to local taste. As long as royalties are being paid... all the power to ya!

The Pearl Sisters

Their live version of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody To Love" made them famous.

Another thing I like about Korean music is the way certain songs keep coming up. There's kind of a repertory, and if you listen to enough music, you'll start recognizing them. Not all of them are even Korean songs anymore - somebody always wants to drop Nella Fantasia or "The Susan Boyle song" into the mix.

For example, any female who wants to show off her pipes chooses this one. (Kim Chuja is the original singer.)

It's an emotional rail spike, and it's effective as hell when a woman with a lower range pours her heart into it.

(If she wants to show off her pipes and her English, she picks Mariah Carey's Hero, or Let it Go.)

You can find dozens of versions of it, from darn near everyone. Here. Get started. It's viral video bait in Korea -- right up there with Nella Fantasia (aka Gabriel's Oboe)

I've been listening to more Shin Joong-hyun again lately, and I've heard him revisit songs with different artists and different arrangements a bunch of times, and I love how he brings out a different side each time. Numerous songs appear multiple times in his 8 disk anthology, which was generously shared with me by a reader. (Thanks, Adam.) It manages to highlight both his songwriting (to write a song that glows under so many different lights) and his musicianship (taking a song we know, and still surprising us).

He's done this song (떠나야 할 그사람 - The Man Who Must Leave) a bunch of different times, and each one is interesting. It started with the Pearl Sisters, one of his first proteges, and from there everybody did it, including Shin himself. My favorite might be this version by 김선 (listed as by Kim Chu-Ja by shazam, but that's a boy's voice). And more recently, In-Sooni took it in a totally different direction.

Another one is 봄비 or "Spring Rain" - which has been done by a swack of people, (Park In-Soo, Jang Sa-ik... but there's another song floating around with the same name, by the way) and has a very distinctive "na na" ending that you'll remember if you've heard it. This is another of those songs that makes everybody feel that happy kind of sad.

Shin's own version of this song is the saddest, in my opinion. As he got older, his voice just oozed some kind of disappointment. Fittingly.

Some people might argue that this kind of recurrence of songs is a minus in Korean music, but I have to disagree. First of all, the cult of the singer-songwriter is a culture and even a genre-specific phenomenon coming out of western (mostly white) rock and roll, where Rolling Stone writers got swept up in The Beatles, who made it a selling point on their artistic originality that they wrote their own songs. Now there's something really admirable about a great songwriter -- Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen are two of the artists that find their ways back on my playlist more than almost any other -- but it's also silly to take points away from someone just because the song's not an original. In jazz music, it's fine to sing the standards, and even preferred if the alternative would be a great singer or musician doing crappy songs, because they're limiting themselves to their own bad songwriting. In classical music, you're pretty much required to perform other people's compositions, and nobody rages on Glenn Gould for doing all those Bach cover albums.

If you take points away from Aretha Franklin for not having written "Respect" (she didn't) or Jimi Hendrix for not writing "All Along The Watchtower," then in my opinion, you're kind of missing the point. Learning someone wrote their own songs is great while I'm scanning the bio, and I often do prefer the original version once I find it, but as soon as I press play, it's about the music, not the origin story. In his "50 Greatest K-pop artists" series (which you should be following, by the way), The Korean talks about the role Kim Kwang Seok played in helping to develop the repertory of Korean songs, and that's important work, developing a sense of heritage from which future artists can draw inspiration. While the originality of some artists is great and praiseworthy, it's not the be-all and end-all for a great musical experience, even if your songwriter was some Swedish ringer. Furthermore, sometimes a well-placed cover demonstrates a sense of history, a sense of heritage and respect for the pioneers, that deepens an artist's repertoire, even as it honors what came before.

So while I don't like every new cover of an old song, and while I in fact think that "Hallelujah" has been wrecked (but not irreparably) by too many crappy reality talent show audition covers, I think it's great when artists nod to their past, and bring us a new look at a song we already know.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

News Rundown: Sewol Standoff, Dog Meat, That Pub, and Depression

A few news items have been blazing across my Facebook wall, and I'd like to weigh in briefly on a few of them. I'll be as concise as I can.

Sewol Ferry Law, Riot Police Overkill and Overreaching

The National assembly is deadlocked, as the ruling party and the opposition party cannot agree to the conditions for a special investigation into the Sewol Ferry disaster, and the opposition party are boycotting participation in any other parliamentary actions while waiting for the leading party to capitulate to their demands. Read up here. And here. And this one is my favorite. This longer piece at The Marmot's Hole looks into the motivations of the political players.

At the same time, the Gwanghwamun area, which I regularly travel through and around in my weekly schedule, is also deadlocked, with police buses and riot troops turning broad roadways into traffic bottlenecks. In my opinion, the number of police sent out there is overkill by a magnitude of order. There look to be 10 police for every one protestor I've seen. On the other hand... perhaps that mad overkill is what dissuades larger crowds from bothering to show up... and I can remember back to 2008 and 2009, when protesters would overrun police barriers and block traffic all weekend in Gwanghwamun, just because they could, misguidedly thinking that snarling the entire downtown would gain sympathy, rather than turning every driver against their cause... and well, at least the police keep one lane open.

I'm annoyed by both situations, because both dumb deadlocks are based on one side presuming that the other side will go nuclear - protestors getting violent and destroying police buses and attacking police, and politicians headhunting the president at every opportunity - given the tiniest shred of leeway. The problem, in both cases, is that in the past both protestors and opposition politicians have done exactly that, given any opportunity, so while I really hate all this recalcitrance and stubbornness, I see where it's coming from, and while I really hope the Sewol families get justice, and a full accounting for what went wrong, and they don't seem to be getting that from the ruling party, it's a shame they have to align with the political left, who come across (as usual) as if they're in it more for the damage they can inflict on the ruling party than out of any actual concern for the families devastated in this tragedy. I knew this Sewol thing would get politicised eventually, but I'm disgusted by how it's happened.

I keep going back and forth, like Louis CK.

On the one side... when a party acts as if it's hiding wrongdoing (perhaps simply out of habit), after a while people start guessing it's because there is some serious wrongdoing just waiting for the right rock to be overturned.

On the other side, it makes sense that they are acting defensively, trying to pre-emptively prevent the investigative committee from turning into a presidential head-hunting team, because the progressive party goes after the president whenever they can. Given their track record for overreaching, they've given the conservatives no reason to expect they won't do it again. Nor me.

Part of the story hinges on the formation, and composition, of a "fact finding committee" -- and the formation of special committees has always been fraught in South Korea, where everyone suspects everyone has an agenda, and/or has something to hide. The sordid track record of politicising Truth and Reconciliation Commissions is a good place to start for the way grievances never seem to get resolved in South Korea, especially when they involve powerful people.

It's a mess. It's a quagmire. It's the reason Korean people don't have faith in their government. It's the reason Korean people latch onto newcomers who promise to "change the way politics is done" -- as if it could be done, when every politician except that one person has something to lose in the case of actual change. Koreans seem to expect the worst of their politicians, yet Korean politicians have repeatedly lived down, and then sunk below that expectation.

Could the president have done something to make the Sewol tragedy unfold differently than it did? Probably, but not on the day it happened. There are heads that richly deserve to roll, and people who did get away with stuff. Who have covered up their shame more cleverly and subtly than the Sewol captain, and who'll probably get away with it. Shit is still happening that shows that actual concern for safety hasn't been impressed on the rank and file, those to whom we trust our safety (Saemangeum seawall workers were out having dinner instead of warning boats not to approach the seawall while the gate was open).

Dog meat: On the way out

I wrote about dog meat a few times before. Here. And here, with ruminations on the nature of online debate.

A recent article in Yahoo Finance, of all places, discusses the closing of a famous dog meat restaurant -- where presidents themselves ate -- and the slow decline of dog meat consumption, in the absence of young people eating it. The comment I put on my Facebook page was this:

Dog meat is a generational thing, and if foreign lobby groups had ignored it in 1988, causing certain people to cling to "our culture" mainly because "dem furriners" were telling them not to, and screw them! I believe dog meat would probably already be nearly extinct.  
Humanity and cruelty aside, it's economics that will do dog dishes in, and there just isn't a future in the market for it, when nearly every consumer is grey-haired. It'll go the way of bbundaegi (which is also slowly vanishing, with much less fanfare, because foreign lobby groups never convinced a group of Koreans it's part of "their" culture).
An academic paper I came across while researching the '88 olympics, discovered these outcomes from global pressure to ban dog meat in Korea during the buildup to the olympics:
The goal of this paper has been to assess the world polity perspective for one empirical case: the debate surrounding dog meat consumption in South Korea. In this case, global cultural scripts rejecting dog meat consumption did not translate directly or in a predictable fashion to conforming Korea’s practices into the world system. In this case, integration of world cultural norms has transformed existing cultural practices into something not quite resembling what came before (traditional dog meat eating practices) nor what the adherents of the world polity perspective might predict (the abolition of dog meat). Rather, dog meat eating practices have transformed into a more widespread cultural activity legitimised by greater protections against animal cruelty and greater awareness of the role of dog meat consumption within the discourse of South Korean national pride.
*Minjoo Oh & Jeffrey Jackson (2011) "Animal Rights vs. Cultural Rights: Exploring the Dog Meat Debate in South Korea from a World Polity Perspective." Journal of Intercultural Studies. 32.1, 31-56.

That is to say, by trying to ban dog meat, global animal rights groups created a backlash, causing a practice that had been dying out anyways on its own, to be practiced and cherished as a site for practicing and celebrating cultural identity. That cultural pride association had become strong enough by 2002 (World Cup) that anti-dog lobbyers were met with resistance that used the language of respect for cultural uniqueness. If international animal rights folks had said nothing in 1986-7, I think dog meat would probably have died away on its own before 2000, lacking any wind in its sagging sails.

I said in previous posts -- meat is meat, and I have trouble accepting arguments that it's OK to eat one critter, but not another, and I've always argued that Korean society will age out of dog meat in its own sweet time. Interesting to see I'm being proven right.

The Pub Thing

The offensive sign in the pub, and the outraged response, has been beaten into the ground on Facebook, and was blogged about at Asia PunditsAdam R Carr's blog (which tries to sniff through the (in?)sincerity of the proprietors' initial responses and denials), and Korea Observer, who attended the "apology" night, where the owner got too drunk to apologize (yikes!). A surprising number of people have come out on Facebook to defend or pooh-pooh outrage over an action that is indefensible in any way.

Mostly this summary was an excuse to share this
funny image from the Dokdo is Ours post.
For the record, the signs were only up at the location for about an hour, but the same article by Korea Observer that mentions that fact, seems also to give us a clue as to the real motivations for putting up the sign: a group of bar patrons from ... um... a country that would be excluded if all Africans were banned... who were bothering females in the club. Even Dokdo Is Ours (hey hey!) got in on the feeding frenzy, ending with a joke about the way so many people have trouble naming more than a handful of countries in Africa, and talking about Africa as if it were a single, undifferentiated country.

If I were the bar owner, I'd close down for a week and re-open under a new name. But honestly, given now many people attending bars in Itaewon either aren't tuned into expat facebook activism anyway, and how short expat memory is because of high turnover, not to mention how many people drinking in Itaewon aren't even foreigners anymore these days, I doubt a Facebook activist run boycott (if anybody bothered to organise one) would even have a serious effect. The location probably matters more than whether the proprietors are or aren't racist, but next time we suggest a sign saying "the management reserves the right to refuse service to any customer at any time" instead of "No Africans because... um... Ebola, I guess."

You can hear more of my thoughts on that issue at the Cafe Seoul Podcast -- some of my blogging energy has been going into the Cafe Seoul Podcast lately, and I am rather pleased with it. It's put together by my friend Eugene, and a couple of other pals, and our last few episodes have all made me happy. Maybe they will make you happy, too.

Here's the Ebola Pub episode. IBlug won't embed for some reason, so you'll just have to click on the link.

You can also search "Cafe Seoul Podcast" on iTunes, or click here.

Robin Williams and Depression

I, like everyone else of my generation, was staggered by the unexpected passing of Robin Williams: we were raised on his movies. There were conversations about which Robin Williams movies we loved (Hook, Aladdin, Good Will Hunting, The Fisher King, Dead Poets' Society, are my top five), the ones we not-quite-loved (Death To Smoochy, What Dreams May Come, and Jakob the Liar were two of the movies that taught me that even actors I like can make bad movies), and who can forget his appearance on Whose Line Is It Anyway, topped only by Richard Simmons' "Possibly The Best Five Minutes On The Internet", or his stand-up.

And the conversation veered into discussions of suicide. Cracked had the subtly titled "Why Funny People Kill Themselves", and my sister-in-law wrote this beautiful bit on her blog, which I'm copying but not linking, because I didn't ask permission, and if she wants my readers on her blog, she can put the link in the comments. Perhaps she doesn't.

Cancer, and diabetes, and kidney disease, and strokes, and fatal heart attacks, and Alzheimers are all horrible illnesses.  But you know what happens at the end of them?
The person dies OF the disease. 
We say, "Shirley died OF cancer,"  "James kidneys failed him," "Bonnie had a horrible stroke."  The disease killed them, got them, attacked them.  The disease was not associated at all with WHO they were, quite the opposite in fact, the disease got them.     
I don't know why it is that this isn't the case in with mental illness.  We likely won't speak of Robin Williams "dying of depression," or being the victim of "brain failure." Forever his death will be tainted with the tag "suicide," and in that, just so many complicated and avoided issues.  
...When people commit suicide, they are sick.  End of story.  They are sick like any dying person laying in a hospital bed, only they are likely getting far less comfort, love, and compassion in the hours leading to their passing. 
They die OF something.  They do not choose to die.  The disease has killed them, at least any shred left of who they once were. 
Similar sentiments here. Fact is, depression and mental illness still face a stigma other diseases don't. Nobody goes into the cancer ward saying "Why don't you just... not have cancer any more?" and if they did they've be acknowledged without debate as an ignorant asshole. But people do that for depression. "I'm getting tired of you and all this leukaemia shit. Snap out of it!" Said no-one, ever. "You know, maybe a little exercise is what you need for that liver failure." "Some volunteering might help put your muscular dystrophy in perspective." "I think you're just having tuberculosis for attention." So... it's terribly sad we've lost another hero of my childhood, particularly for his family and the people around him. Hopefully it will start more conversations about mental health, which will have positive outcomes in the end. But if that happens, to be clear, it doesn't mean it was worth it that even one more person, famous or not, lost the battle with depression. Every life lost is a deep tragedy.

Lest we miss an opportunity to share this information, you may have heard suicide is a pretty serious social problem in Korea. Here are some Korean suicide resources: http://www.counsel24.com/  http://www.suicide.org/hotlines/international/south-korea-suicide-hotlines.html and some other international suicide help lines. http://www.reddit.com/r/SWResources/comments/17gu7g/hotline_numbers/ Share others you know about in the comments.

Those are a few of the things floating across my brain-dar these days. Hope it was interesting for you to read, and that the thoughts are mostly well-formed, rather than half-baked.

That is all for now.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

You'll Never Guess the Top Five Things That Happened After K-blogs Got Too Self-Referential

Ouroboros. Source
This might be the worst K-blog list infection since that CNNgo troll article prompted a spat of countdowns (links to others at beginning of post)

Lists are the thing again. And posts about bloggers who make lists. And lists about bloggers who make posts about bloggers who make lists. And this is a post about a list about a post about lists. If others write similar posts, we could make a list of posts about bloggers who write posts about bloggers who make lists. And then the K-blogosphere will crawl up its own butt, die of auto-rhetorical asphyxiation, and probably not be mourned.


Image belongs to this guy. Buy one!

However, when even a scholar like Cedarbough, over at her blog Footnotes, has made a top 10 list of how to Korea correctly, I guess my memo must have just been lost in the mail. And so, in obligatory clickbait fashion, lest they take away my K-blogger card, here are the topics we've seen so far. In list form, of course.

1. Perhaps Paul Ajosshi got it started with his "6 Dangers That Await You at the Boryeong Mud Fest" - a cautionary listicle that totally neglects the looming threat of a zombie apocalypse. (By the way, don't you love the word listicle? It sounds just similar enough to the word "Testicle" that it not only conveys that something is an article that is a list, but makes people go "uh... kinda ew." As listicles do.

What I imagine when I hear the word "Listicle"

2. Following Paul, Charles Montgomery wrote "Top 10 Newbie Mistakes in Korea" the most useful of which is #2, that if you're an HBC expat hipster... you're not actually rebelling when you dress the way everybody else in HBC dresses, and hang out in the same dives. On the other hand... Charles is hardly breaking new ground in making fun of hipsters, which even Mike Myers did, way back when he was still really really funny.

(So I Married An Axe Murderer (1993): people have been making fun of hipsters since before the latest batch of hagwon teachers were born.)

I wish they would get off your lawn, too, Charles!

3. William George answered Charles with "Noobs, You're Doing Fine"

I don't think we'd realized listicular circlejerkititis was the thing infecting the K-blogs yet with Mr. George's "Don't listen to the grumpy guy" response. But then, the ball was just getting rolling.

4. Epidemic status was reached when Sweet Pickles and Corn published "10 Things In Korea that I'll Never Ever Do" including things like "I'll never go on a temple stay" (fair enough). Mostly, I think he must be doing well here, if the worst thing he can think of to do here is overpaying shitty foreign food (10th on the list). Somewhere out there, perhaps on one of those blogs that got cancelled, there's a person who could make a much more sordid list with a much better grasp of "How Expats Hit Bottom In Far-Off Lands".

5. Cedarbough weighed in with 10 things to do if you live in Korea -- one of the better lists I've read, and wish I'd written myself. I especially like 4, 5, and 6, and I can only hope she'll follow up #3 - "Read Real Books About Korea" with a second top ten (or 15, or 80) suggestions of places to start.

6. Burndog takes the piss out of everyone who writes a list, or grumbles about those writing lists, with "10 things I'll Never Write a List About in Korea Something Something Noob"

7. Finally, Dom and Hyo have, in cartoon form (squee) "9 Different Types of Expats You Will Come Across in Korea" -- a list I like, because it seems to be written neither to vent unhappy expat rage, nor to ingratiate themselves to an imagined Korean audience. However, they missed the "know-it-all" of whom I am one.

Now that I've done a list about lists, let's include it in a list of your favorite conglomerations of lists, like Cracked cannibalizing itself, until we have a list of the best lists about lists about collections of lists. And put each item of the list on a separate page, to squeeze out extra clicks. Ads in the sidebar, all hail google ads revenue!

Pertinent to all this listification is the fact that every week, I go on TBS radio and present a list myself, in a segment titled (by my predecessor in the spot) "The Lone Ranker" - I do little countdowns about whatever topic I like that week, ranging from heavy stuff like "6 ways Sports Mega Events Helped Create The World We Live In Today" to frippery such as "The Five Most Annoying Things About Spring" (both actual topics I've done). I may start turning more of my topics into posts for ze blog (especially given how sparse posting has been lately.

Stay cool my loyal readers.

And now, here is a video of Kim Jong-un dancing, that went viral in China.

Looking silly is the worst thing possible for North Korea (hence the report that a Seth Rogen movie will be considered an act of war) - no nation has ever screamed louder "Take me seriously" in all its policies and actions, than North Korea. I guess if you can't walk softly and carry a big stick, the next best thing is to wave your wet noodle as threateningly and loudly as you can in everyone's faces.

Put your list in the comments if I forgot yours!

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Culturalism - You Keep Using That Word 2: Some Q and A on Culturalism

I'm just going to assume that readers have all read part 1 of this series: What is Actual Culturalism? I'm tackling the idea of "culturalism" - which The Korean discussed, but has also been discussed by others in social sciences and policy discussions for a while. This comment points out that it isn't really taught as a method or framework in anthropology. Which is good to know. Thanks, commenter Nora!

So what are some other concepts related to culturalism?

Last post, we talked about Culturalism and Multiculturalism as it plays into policy discussions - particularly in Europe. Here in Kblogland, most people talking about culturalism are going on The Korean's definition, which mostly resembles the one used in Europe, but applying it to the area of cultural engagement rather than public policy. He defines it these two ways:
Culturalism is the unwarranted impulse to explain people's behavior with a "cultural difference", whether real or imagined. Because the culturalist impulse always attempts to explain more with culture than warranted, the "cultural difference" used in a cultural explanation is more often imagined than real. (source)
and as
...the impulse to explain minority people's behavior with a "cultural difference", real or imagined. (source)
Along those lines, here are some other rhetorical and philosophical concepts that The Korean and others might find useful in discussing "Culturalism". Rather than long descriptions here, I strongly encourage you to read the explanations I link. I also glossed over this in my previous post, "problems with citing culture"

  • Fundamental Attribution Error - we tend to over-emphasize internal causes, and under-emphasize external (systemic or sometimes even random) causes of a phenomenon.
  • Cultural Determinism - we tend to believe that culture determines our behavior...probably more than it actually does.
  • Essentialism - we tend to think that there are certain traits that are fixed and unchangeable for certain groups - "Women are all like this" "Koreans are all this way" "White men all do this"
  • Orientalism - a type of essentialism that focuses on other groups and cultures. When we look at certain cultures, we tend to make them out to be so different from us that we could never understand them (implied: so we may as well not try) - they will always be exotic, strange, and inscrutable to "us." Any time somebody uses the word "exotic," watch for this attitude.

Culturalism as The Korean defines it is bits of the four above in one, intellectually sloppy modge-podge, with a little ecological fallacy thrown in for flavor. And I say "intellectually sloppy" because people over-using culture to explain things are being sloppy, not because The Korean has been sloppy in describing it.

Meanwhile, commenter Dylan suggests we read more about Communitarianism -- which is another concept used by human rights scholars in discussing the ways people organize into communities.

So, is culturalism racism?

Not necessarily.

For one, racism has been discredited - the variety within members of each racial group is so great, that the variety from one racial group to another fades to insignificance. And we've all heard racism deniers tell us that "race is a social construct, therefore it doesn't exist"... As if social constructs don't exist. But society is also a social construct, so as people living in societies, we still have to talk about race sometimes.

Abstraction confuses me.
Culture has the benefit of being recognized by everyone as a social construct from the get-go, so at least we don't have deniers herp-derping that it does not exist because humans made it up (unlike all the other things humans made up, that DO exist, like the language they're using to make that argument). Anyone who's agreed to talk about culture has already agreed to talk about social constructs, so that's at least nice.

And race is hardware -- your pigment and bone structure are in your dna, and unchangeable, but culture is software - programmed patterns of behavior which can be changed. Culture is changing all the time. That's a crucial difference.

Strictly speaking then, culturalism isn't the same as racism.

Lemme tell you 'bout race, butthead...
However, if you take a person in the habit of lazy or sloppy thinking, and give them a phenomenon they don't understand, the same sloppiness that might have caused their 1955 self to explain it with race, might today cause them to explain it with culture.

It's all about culture, butthead!
Racism has been discredited, but while intellectual laziness is still in style, even most bigots generally realize you're not "supposed" to be openly racist anymore. So culturalism isn't the same as racism, but they are used in the same way by lazy thinkers and bigots. They are born of the same desire to generalize about those who are different, both are worsened by the same lack of curiosity and unwillingness to admit the variety and humanity of others, and both lead to the same kinds of sweeping and ignorant statements. And those are ample grounds for The Korean to call culturalism "racism of the 21st century"

So is culture off the table entirely?

No. Because it's human made, and learned, culture is changeable, and changing all the time. This means that, as long as we discuss it in terms that don't overestimate its usefulness as an analytical tool (which is easy to do), yeah, it's fair game for discussion, but even kept in perspective, it's still easy to get it wrong when talking about culture, because when talking about culture, you're also talking about the way a bunch of people live, and those people deserve to be approached with respect, and in a way that recognizes their humanity, intelligence, free will, and so forth. And there are lots of ways to talk about culture that does not do those things. Be respectful, and don't be a dick.

Beep boop beep boop! Why am I not surprised the politically correct police have shown up to stop me from expressing my free speech?

OK. I'm going to write a whole extra unplanned post in this series to talk about this, because the more I think about it, the weirder it is to me that somehow political correctness has been framed as a bad thing... so if you're champing at the bit to start arguing about that, kindly hold your horses and save it for the comments under a future post.

Coming up next at Roboseyo: some ways to talk about culture without coming across as a shit. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Culturalism - You Keep Using That Word 1: What is Actual Culturalism?

Last summer, when The Korean from Ask a Korean! wrote his bit about Malcolm Gladwell, the Asiana crash, and culturalism -- a tour de force piece that managed to get Malcolm Gladwell himself over to The Korean's site to answer criticisms, one of my friends who's in Anthropology got very frustrated with the whole thing.

Because before The Korean started using the word "culturalism" with the meaning he gave it (in this post)... it was kind of already an actual thing.

It happens from time to time that academic terms get co-opted, or re-"coined" or re-conceptualized by someone who isn't part of the conversation where it first came up (for example, Soft Power has suffered a lot of meaning creep since being co-opted by China's "Peaceful Rise" narrative, and now it can mean anything from all non-military nation-to-nation bullying, to nation branding) or a word gets so much baggage piled onto it in the public imagination, that it's hard to use it academically anymore. (For an example, look at The Metropolitician's attempt to re-explain racism in such a way that it's possible to discuss it again without knee-jerk defensiveness.)

And here's a definition of culturalism, as per Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt, who are the two names that come up a lot when you search it on Google Scholar and stuff: 
Culturalism is the idea that individuals are determined by their culture, that these cultures form closed, organic wholes, and that the individual is unable to leave his or her own culture but rather can only realise him or herself within it. [One type of] Culturalism also maintains that cultures have a claim to special rights and protections – even if at the same time they violate individual rights.
Basically, to develop public policy, or understand social structures, as a bureaucrat or anthropologist might want to do, one must decide how to group together the subjects of your study, and class, income, age, region, education -- these can all be useful. But if you decide culture is more important than all these other groupings, that, in its broadest definition, is culturalism.

Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt back away from the definition above by separating culturalism into two kinds: hard and soft. (explanation in this summary)

Hard culturalism is the one above -- where culture is constructed as the be-all and end-all, and cultural lines are imagined to be rigid and impassable. I can't define myself outside of the culture I was raised in. Taken far enough, Hard Culturalism is the basis of arguments that cultural groups should be allowed to put their community's laws above the laws of the land they live in, or that anybody unwilling to assimilate into their host country should be sent "back where they came from." This is where Eriksen and Stjernfelt's critique lies. Hard culturalism becomes politicized, and they describe it in places as an ideology, arguing that individual and human rights should always come before cultural rights.

And where exactly to draw those lines between respecting a cultural or religious group, and ensuring the human rights of members of that group? Does a doctor violate one's religious rights by saying, "I respect your religion, but I'm still giving your child a blood transfusion!" What if it's not the child, but the parent?

Soft culturalism, according to Eriksen and Stjernfelt, aren't incompatible with a modern cosmopolitan society. In soft culturalism, we can find our identity or self-expression in a culture, but the standards and norms of a culture don't supersede the values of a modern secular society -- human rights, rule of law, etc..

To over-simplify, Eriksen and Stjernfelt would probably say that you should be allowed to wear a cross or a hijab in school as a symbol of your identity (soft culturalism), but would reject a domestic abuse defense that "where I'm from, it's normal for parents to hit their kids," and oppose Muslim communities in Europe following Sharia law.

If you take Eriksen and Stjernfelt's definition of culturalism above: "that individuals are determined by their culture, that they have no free will to influence the course of their lives," I don't think The Korean would take issue with it. The difference is how each applies it: E&S explain how putting people into overly rigid groups leads to problematic policies and "culture wars," and The Korean explains how that same conception of culture causes problems in cross-cultural personal experiences and judgments, where it results in "Racism of the 21st Century."

It's just too bad they're giving different meanings to the same word, as they discuss two different, but interesting and important ideas.

If you're interested in Eriksen and Stjernfelt's concept of culturalism, here's more reading material:
This excellent article by Milan Vukomanovic hits most of the important points.
This is another good summary be Eriksen and Stjernfelt themselves.
This article, and the six recorded interviews below it expand on the key issues.
This article about the Anders Breivik verdict (that Norwegian mass-murderer) also talks about the tension between culture and human rights.
And if anyone wants to send me a gift copy of Eriksen and Stjernfelt's book, "The Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism" I'd be thrilled.

Culturalism's place in the history of ideas is kind of mixed: one of the earlier cases of culture being used as a level of analysis was among colonizing countries, which used academic rhetoric to justify colonizing civilizations they had deemed "primitive," in order to "civilize" them. (cf: The White Man's Burden). Culturalism is usually not used in quite such a patronizing way these days. Arguably.

Culturalism is also a required prerequisite to multiculturalism: you can't construct a policy of respecting cultural differences, if you don't first imagine that cultural groupings exist, and are important enough to warrant specific policies and programs.

So while I have to take issue with The Korean using the term "Culturalism" because that's already a thing, the thing that he wishes to describe with his term is something very much worthy of discussion, and I'll talk about that in an upcoming post.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Psy's Hangover Hite Ad, or The Problem With Trying Too Hard

Psy. Yes, that Psy, has a new video out.
And Gangnam Style just passed 2 billion views. Good lord.

I like Psy, don't get me wrong, but I'm not so hot on his new video, Hangover, which you can watch here.

A few weird things happened with the utterly unexpected success of Gangnam Style. We must begin with the fact that Gangnam Style isn't prototypical K-pop. It's not the model the studios tried to promote, or thought would be successful overseas, and that's obvious if you look at which artists got overseas promotion (Wonder Girls, SNSD, Big Bang, Rain) and which didn't (Psy). When Gangnam Style hit the big time, suddenly, the videos of other artists trying to break into the US market also became more brightly colored videos and chock-full of silly non-sequiturs: non-sequiturs that somehow felt like they'd been developed by a marketing team trying to be sure they were random enough. And if there's one thing Katy t3h PeNgU1N oF d00m teaches us, it's that forced randomness is a cringeworthy as a skateboard injury video.

In my opinion, the worst of these "the next Gangnam Style" (there will never be another exactly like it) was Crayon Pop's utterly unnecessary "Global Version" of their catchy song "Bar Bar Bar" (see here) - which I mentioned in a previous blog about Kpop trying to go international (Kim sisters). It's the same as their original, which was great in its own right, except they raised the bass in the mix and added ham-handed references to Gangnam Style in the video: abandoned amusement park, playground, subway station, handheld fans, people doing yoga outdoors, someone lying between another person's feet in an elevator, and ending with a big lineup of people in different uniforms plus, just to make sure everybody knows we're from Korea... a traditional-style pagoda.

The original Crayon Pop video, which I still love:

Psy's video doesn't quite suffer from the same problem of trying too hard to match Gangnam Style - the song's too slow-paced for that, to begin with. This video just seems... lost. You know when you're standing in a supermarket, and take half a step toward the produce department, then half a step towards breads, and half a step towards cereals, before deciding you need to re-check your shopping list, and end up expending a lot of energy to turn in a clumsy, pointless circle? That's what this video is doing for me.

The video looks to be a night on the town with Psy and Snoop Dogg. They tour some common locations for a night of Korean drinking (which is a bit odd when the song's named "Hangover" but whatever). For the record, I think it would have been very fun to go out and drink with Psy and Snoop Dogg for a night, and a night on the town with Psy might be the awesomest introduction to drinking culture in Korea that it is possible to have. Yet I feel really "meh" about the video.

Here are my gut reactions to the video as I watch, augmented by an after-the-fact edit.

0.11 - Snoop's entrance is pretty funny.
I don't like autotune. Never have.

0:30 Taepyongso? Seriously? (This is what a taepyongso sounds like) - it is also the aural equivalent of Hanbok or Kimchi -- the go-to indicator that This Is Uniquely Korean. The reek of Korean cultural promotion is officially on this video. Let's see if it wrecks the thing.

0:38 - Memo to all K-pop choreographers: there are other ways to make female dancers look sexy than making them twerk, or do the Bend and Snap. Learn at least two more each.

Waveya needs to hire a choreographer, and if you're a Kpop choreographer and every single dance move you've put into the routine is in this video, you need to get better at your job.

Oh... and he's holding a saxophone, but that is absolutely a taepyongso. It's like they're embarrassed that they took culture ministry money to make this video. (If they did. I bet they did.)

0:40 - by the way... the Taepyongso (태평소) might be the absolute last sound I want to hear when I'm hung over.

0:43 - Beer shots. A lot of them. An impressive setup, in fact. Product placement perhaps? Eat Your Kimchi says yes. And they're right.

0:59 - Drinking the hangover remedies and eating drunk food. It's fun watching Snopp Dogg eat Korean drunk food, I admit.

1:18 - Soaking in the jimjilbang (or Korean sauna) - also a venerable Korean hangover ritual. I've done it myself, and like that it was included... even though 1. Psy already did the sauna thing in Gangnam Style and 2. The stuff people do for a hangover and for a night of drinking are getting awfully mixed up here.

At least they're introducing an aspect of Korean culture that is actually practiced by many ordinary Koreans. I doubt they'd have gotten Snoop Dogg to wear a hanbok or try playing a janggu, though.

Then again, the video isn't finished yet. There may still be a K-food party in store.

1:24 - motorbike and flying paper. Reference to Gangnam style?

(after what I said earlier, better google "Snoop Dogg in Hanbok" just to be sure...)

Oh shit.

source - from a 2013 store opening - Getty Images. Kill me now.
Better google "Snoop Dogg playing janggu", too, just in case...

Phew! Nothing.

1:29 - Bend and snap.

1:40 - Rolling across the face shot. I am jealous of Snoop Dogg for getting to have Psy as his guide and gateway to Korean drinking culture.

1:48 - Ladies joined their table. The kinds of ladies you might bump into at your average purveyor of soju bombs. Fun-looking, not supermodel-y. This "portraying an actual night of drinking in Korea" thing might be going somewhere...

2:05 - but of course there are some supermodel-y dancers there too. Doing the same four dance moves as before. After this video, which is the logical conclusion and apex of Kpop 섹시댄스 choreography, where the world got to watch 400 boys become men at the same time, more of the same just seems so hollow and unnecessary. Bring something new to the table!

2:30 - Drunkovision is making the not-supermodel-looing women look sexy. A beer goggles joke? Shit, I don't think I can like this video anymore. I shouldn't have gotten my hopes up when those women joined the table. How cool would it have been for those two women to become characters in the video, and not just props for a throwaway joke?

2:55 aaaand they're trying to hump them.

Also 2:55 - G-Dragon's random appearance is the best thing about the video so far. I like what he does with the microphone.

3:25 - the spinny-ride, while drunk OR hung over, seems like a really terrible idea.

3:30 - I think it would have been really fun to hang out with Psy. I'm not convinced it's a great topic for a music video though.

3:35 - Pool hall. Complete with washed out, ugly flourescent lights and jajangmyeon.

4:00 - I bet that woman behind Psy in a Bruce Lee outfit (sigh) is famous. Too bad she's so obscured by fur (welcome to 1988) and movie star sunglasses I'm not sure who she is.

4:18 - hite D and chamiseul. Make sure the labels face the camera, boys!

4:20 - they blanked out an "f" word. A song about drinking is worried about an f-bomb. I don't think the moral police are going to give this one a pass, anyway. He didn't even get away with kicking a traffic cone in the last one. Unless the traditional instrument distracts the censors.

4:30 - End. I like the bar fight and mayhem.

For science, or whatever, here is my favorite "street fight mayhem" scene in Korean pop culture so far. If you know a better one, please link it in the comments.

To sum up, then:

Good points: G-Dragon - far and away the high point. The impressive table of soju bombs, the fact this is probably what Psy actually does when he goes out drinking for a night, and if not, what many office workers definitely do.

Bad points: Just not a very good song. Heavy handed traditional instrument that didn't add much to the song... and adds that awkwardness of referencing traditional culture in a song and video about drinking too much, which probably isn't the image of Korea those cultural promotion folks have in mind. Bad bad bad, boring boring boring choreography. The beer goggles thing really bugged me. And, you know, the pervasive Hite and Chamiseul product placements. (Will Psy be passing off ad jingles as singles next?)

All in all, it seems to me like Psy is now trying to please people (cultural export-y people, ad sponsors) in this video, in the songwriting, in the arrangement, and it's hurting him. He isn't a representative K-pop artist, and never will be, and asking him to represent Korea or Kpop to the world will give you a Psy with his hands tied behind his back, which is not Psy at all. The greatest thing about Psy is that he was always fun, mostly because he never took himself too seriously. But now, there are people who do take him seriously, and as long as he's encumbered by that burden, I don't think we're going to see the Psy we love, or the one that both wowed and cracked us up in Gangnam Style, or wore a goofy muscle shirt for most of the "Right Now" video, which might be my favorite Psy moment.

Maybe the Psy we have now can get more famous people into his videos, but those videos lack the manic energy, the self-deprecation, and the fun that make everybody love Gangnam Style in the first place.

Come back, silly Psy!

Eat Your Kimchi do a good job of explaining how accurately Psy portrays Korean drinking culture (on the nose). And Korea's drinking culture is, depending on who you ask and how bad their last hangover/drunken mistake was, either the greatest thing about living in Korea, or a national embarrassment. I've wavered between those two assessments myself.

And here is "Right Now" - all that is good about Psy, portrayed in the most fun light possible... or put another way, the exact opposite of this video:

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Amazing George Takei in Seoul, and the Pride Parade Is a Go

[UPDATE]: You can now listen to Mr. Takei's interview on TBS Radio's program "Inside Out," here on their program podcast. Here is the link.

Here is the embed.

[End Update]

Last week Thursday, I was going into the TBS Radio studio for a weekly segment, and as I came out of the elevator, an entourage poured out of an adjoining recording studio. A somewhat older Asian man walked past me, and then I did a double take, and may have murmured "oh myyyy" under my breath.

I had just accidentally nearly bumped into the one and only George Takei, known for playing Sulu in the original Star Trek television series, and more recently for balancing humor with social consciousness better than anyone else on social media.

That's right. THIS guy.

You should follow him on Facebook. Even if you don't, you probably actually do without realizing it, because that hilarious image or video your friend put on their facebook wall has about a 20% chance of having been re-posted from his FB page.

Mr. Takei came to Seoul to promote the play "Allegiance" - a Broadway show about the Japanese Internment Camps that USA ran during World War II, and where Mr. Takei was imprisoned when he was young. He is also holding talks and meetings around Korea and Japan about LGTB issues, in a tour organized by the US State Department organized the tour. You can learn more at the Korea Times.

Walter Foreman had just finished interviewing him when I bumped into him, and was kind enough to introduce me to Mr. Takei and snap this picture.
Probably my favorite "Rob With A Celebrity" picture.
Our encounter was quite brief - he was on his way to the elevator, but he was very nice, and I almost didn't say anything dumb.

However, I am sorry to say that in the three days since both shaking Mr. Takei's hand and squeezing his shoulder, I have not developed any magic powers, my jokes are not intrinsically funnier, my phrases have not started turning more beautifully, and my voice has not deepened in the slightest. Maybe I should have done a selfie.

Whether coincidental or not, the timing of Mr. Takei visit is actually great, though perhaps coincidental, because the weekend of June 7th is the 15th annual Seoul Gay Pride Parade, and this year the question of whether the parade would actually happen has been a bit in the air: a lot of events and festivals have been cancelled since the Sewol Ferry Disaster in mid-April. The parade had been approved, but then approval was withdrawn "because of the ferry disaster" - but event organizers told Korea Realtime, the Wall Street Journal's Korea blog, that "that the authorities appear to have bowed to pressure from some Christian groups that oppose the event and giving civil rights for sexual minorities. The district-office spokesman denied the protests played a part in the cancelation." (see full write-up here)

The WSJ blog mentions Christian lobby groups who have a bit of history: Here is Human Rights Watch's write-up about the re-wording of the anti-discrimination bill, putting the finger squarely on Christian lobbyists. Christian lobbyists also got a 2012 Lady Gaga concert slapped with an 18+ age restriction (protesters in Indonesia got her concert there cancelled entirely).

Personally, I feel that every time Christians take the side that is against loving a group of people that's marginalized, they're missing the point of their faith, and showing an ignorance of how Christ actually lived his life. If you disagree with me that the main purpose of faith is about learning how to love people, and to improve ourselves and become more human through the love we practice, well we're probably not going to see eye to eye.

The state of Queer Korea is still very much a work in progress, unfortunately. Things have come a long way since the early 2000s, when even open-minded sophisticates would sometimes tell you there were no gays in Korea... but the disappointing 2007 anti-discrimination bill, and the fact it seems people can still get their ears bent by the anti-gay lobby, is disappointing. You can read more about changing public opinion on gays here, also at Korea Real Time. If Mr. Takei takes some time to talk about this, well, that'd be swell.

Perhaps even with a brilliant Youtube video like this:

I wrote about the "It Gets Better" project - a beautiful movement against anti-gay bullying - in 2010.

Queer Korea is slowly slowly getting more "out," and I certainly hope that society here in general, as is happening in other places (at dreadfully uneven speeds), eventually comes around to the position that people can love whomever they want, dress however they want, and perform whichever gender role they want, as proudly or discreetly as they choose, and those around them should pretty much mind their own damn business and respect their choices. We're not there yet, but we're slowly getting closer.

So head out to the pride parade on the 7th. Here's the info. Show support and solidarity, no matter which way you personally swing, dress, present, and so forth. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Press Freedom: KBS Walkout and the Steady Decline of Press Freedom in Korea

So on Facebook tonight, from a handful of friends, the word was that KBS only aired 20 minutes of news during the 9pm broadcast, and then finished the hour off with marine wildlife.
Photo from a Facebook friend: turtles gettin' busy
The Korea Times reported that KBS reporters have walked off the job as a way of demanding the resignation of the CEO, who is accused of trying to influence programming to be more friendly to the president, and to appoint people friendly to the president to important positions in the organization. More here.

The Sewol Tragedy once again plays into this series of events: the public accounting for poor media coverage of the disaster and rescue started days ago, with apologies and self-reflection. One aspect of that has been, again, suppressing or massaging stories in order to make sure the President appears in a positive light.

Related, on May 1st, Reporters Without Borders released its 2014 World Press Freedom Index, which reports on the media environment of the previous year. Visit it here. Read The Press Freedom Index's methodology here. (PDF) South Korea ranked 57th in the world, seven places down from last year.

Korea's press freedom index rankings have been on a steady decline for a while. Here are the results since 2002: The first column is the year. The second column is South Korea's ranking in the world, and the third is Korea's score. A 0.00 score means a perfectly free press, and a 100 score means a total lack of press freedom. The scoring system was re-calibrated in 2013, when Reporters Without Borders started tracking incidents of censorship, and other countable items, themselves, instead of through the word of their contacts (hence the big jump from '12 to '13).

Year     Rank      Score
2002     39          10.50
2003     49          9.17
2004     48          11.13
2005     34          7.5
2006     31          7.75
2007     39          12.13
2008     47          9
2009     69          15.67 (low point due to the 2008 beef protests and government response)
2010     42          13.33
'11-12   44          12.67
2013     50          24.48
2014     57          25.66

The high point for Korea's press freedom was 2006, meaning that in 2005, South Korean media faced less censorship and manipulation than any other year. Since then, with a blip in 2010 (after a low point in 2009), the slide has been fairly steady, dropping between 2 and 8 places per year. These drops were not large enough in any one year to attract special mention in any of Reporters Without Borders' global summary reports, but dropping 26 places from 2006 to 2014... bothers me.

Freedom House, which also reports on press freedom worldwide, downgraded South Korea's rating from "Free" to "Partly Free" in 2011, again due to government intervention in media coverage -- presidential appointments to important media outlet positions, again. (More on the 2014 report here) (Freedom House's 2013 report on South Korea here. Nice and concise.)

In 2011, Frank LaRue, special rapporteur to the UN, also reported on freedom of expression in South Korea. His final UN repot, however, mentions South Korea in specific only a handful of times: this Amnesty International report puts those points all in one place.

The National Security Act - read Amnesty International's report  -- was written in 1948, and has a kind of a cold war "Blank Check" feel to it, with some vague wording about "anti-state activity" that can cover just about anything, in case the KCIA ever needs to trump up some charges. Read up.

Now, I get it, that as recently as the 1980s, South Korea had extremely limited press freedom, and robust and vigorous institutions don't just install themselves overnight-especially institutions with as many moving parts as a free press, and especially installed right on top of a non-free, censored and manipulated press. And being really healthy for a while doesn't mean a long-free press can't suddenly take a nosedive (even the USA, our self-proclaimed model democracy, has had some embarrassing drops). On the other hand, the fact that South Korea's not only backsliding, but steadily backsliding over an extended period, bugs me a lot, and I find it cynical and spurious that the fangless North Korean threat is still being invoked in order to block that website, delete that tweet, and hound that reporter. The antidote for speech you don't like is more speech, not censorship, and a robust democracy is confident enough in itself that it can bear the existence of a fringe movement without flipping the f-stop out.

I and a few friends have been working on a podcast lately called the Cafe Seoul Podcast, and our latest episode was inspired by Korea's slide in press freedom rankings, but the KBS walkout seems like a good time to share it.

Here is the podcast episode. In it, I interview John Power, who has worked as a reporter for a few of Korea's English language outlets. In case you aren't interested in the other stuff (awesome as it is), the interview starts at 33:40.

The darn thing won't embed, so here's the link.

The interview was edited a bit for length, so here is the raw cut of the full interview... because especially when the topic is free speech, I feel like listeners deserve to hear all the questions and answers.

And here's the link for this one.

And here it is on SoundCloud.

And here are the questions I asked John Power, and the times you can skip to, to find them:
2:00 - "Tell us about yourself"
2:30 - "Why is press freedom vital for a healthy democracy?"
3:18 - "Freedom house reports press freedom worldwide is on the decline, and other countries in Asia are dropping or ranked lowly on press freedom indexes; what's going on, and do you think the conditions in other countries affect what happens in Korea?"
6:00 - "Who are some of the players that are affecting press freedom in Korea for the better or for the worse?"
9:20 - [Bearing in mind cases like Na Gom-su-da and the blogger Minerva cases] "Can you explain for our readers what a chilling effect?"
10:30 - "In your opinion, what are steps that cold be taken to get Korea climbing instead of dropping in these press freedom indexes?"
14:50 - "In response to what some see as the corporatization of Korean (and world) media, some have pointed to social media and citizen journalism as the antidote… what are your thoughts on this?
17:35 - "Who do you trust more to handle Korea’s media responsibly: the chaebol, the government, “citizen journalists” or who?"
18:45 - Other Cafe Seoul cast members join.
20:40 - The National Security Act is still invoked because "There are North Korean spies out there" - is that a big enough threat to be concerned about, and censor, media?
24:00 - Differences between the way Korea is reported on in English, and in Korean.
26:15 - Have you ever had a story you worked on censored? Have you ever self-censored?

Friday, May 09, 2014

Elegy for the Sewol Tragedy: Waiting For A Miracle. Some personal thoughts

Read KimchiBytes.
Read The Secret Map's fictional "letter from Sewol"
Read Brother Anthony and Korean poet Ko-Un's creative effort: art and grief go together well.
Photos taken at the City Hall and Cheonggyecheon Plaza memorials for the Sewol Ferry victims.

The character 왜 means "Why"
Why why why why why?
Analysis aside, here are some personal thoughts:

If you're connected to Korea, you've probably spotted this image. On social media, everyone had this image or a yellow ribbon like it as their online profile photos.
The Korea Herald explains that the yellow ribbon campaign commemorated, and as time went by, mourned the victims of the April 16 Sewol Ferry disaster. The text says "하나의 작은 움직임이 큰기적을," translated by The Herald as "one small movement, big miracles." The ribbon pictured first turned up on April 21st, but there were no such miracles after the rescues made on the first day. We are still waiting.

As the mourning continues, I notice something I have always admired about Koreans:  in times of great joy or crisis, the entire nation galvanizes. South Korea is usually fractured and polarized: north/south, Gyeongsan/Jeolla, political and class and generational fault lines all regularly explode into public antipathy. Yet World Cup Fever still carries everyone away, the figure skating hero captures our eyes and dreams, and then she is no longer Yuna Kim, but "Our Yuna." It becomes "Our team." There is also "Korea's singer" "Korea's little sister" and Korea's representative X in diverse fields. When a Korean does well abroad they are suddenly everyone's brother, sister, uncle, aunt. The same spirit brings Korea together in times of grief and crisis. People pulled gold teeth out of their mouths, and gave up heirloom gold, to help out during the 1997 Financial crisis. Why? Because it's "Our" country, and "Our" crisis. Much of the language at the Sewol memorial in City Hall is familial, or collective.
At the City Hall Plaza memorial.
Those yellow ribbon images again.
This heart was made of yellow paper boats, hand-folded.
And all of Korea grieves now, because these are "Our" children, taken away through entirely preventable causes. "We" failed to protect them. "We" let scofflaws and crooks willfully put lives at risk over a profit margin, and it is already too late for "our" lost children.

One feeling I've picked up is that these are not isolated cases, either. "We" feel that it could have been any of us. Everybody went on school trips like this. One day my son will. Everybody has boarded a train or a boat not knowing whether it cleared its last inspection with room to spare, or just barely, or only because somebody was hurried, or called in a favor. On the streets, we have all passed the preschool with a plastic slide instead of a fire escape, tut-tutted helmet-less scooter drivers weaving through traffic. In my first year, a fire lit by some kid in my seventh floor hagwon was doused with water carried from the bathroom sink, because the legally required fire extinguishers were locked in the owner's office. In my second year, our seventh-story kindergarten had one day of classes on the second floor while the fire inspector came by, because the seventh floor had a permit for special activities but not regular classes. Our secondary fire escape was a pulley. Just this January, I saw a car tear through a crosswalk at passing lane speed, and had a middle-school girl crossed two steps faster, I would have seen her die. These are anecdata: not much on their own, but Korea's workplace injury and traffic fatality statistics confirm what the smell test suggests: there but for the grace of God go any of us.

This "Graduation class photo" really hit me.
News stories corroborate. Here, Popular Gusts lists some of the incidents that could been wake-up calls. Fake certificates at a nuclear plant. The Daegu subway fire. Sampoong Department Store. Seongsu Bridge. These names are repeated like a shaman's grief ritual. All the low or no-casualty incidents like this (KTX 2013) and this (KTX 2011) appear and disappear on page 6 of the paper. Remember the time Lotte Adventure in Jamsil was shut down? Barely a blip on the public memory radar. And the most recent collision between two subway trains, only a few weeks after this tragedy suggests that those in charge of safety standards are still dropping balls.

At times like this it feels to me like Korea is two different countries at the same time, one built right on top of the other. The first is a corrupt kleptocracy, a country of dirty fire traps, short cuts and sweat shops, held together by guts and profit, run by wealthy wheeler-dealers with well-placed friends, populated with beaten down factory workers, low-wage drones, headlong delivery drivers, and the discarded humans who didn't run fast enough, now collecting recycling material on the street. Buildings with poor foundations, sketchy wiring, bad welding and corners that aren't square, literally or figuratively. Get it done, do it fast, next contract. All of Korea looked this way from the 1950s to the late 80s. Let's call it Grimy Old Korea, and have a moment of silence for Jeon Tae-il, the martyr of Grimy Old Korea, and the patron saint of what came after.

Korean language doesn't always include pronouns.
Literally, it says: "Sorry. Won't forget you."
Spirit of the phrase: "We're sorry. We won't forget you."
People could lay white flowers on the display, and bow.

There is another Korea built over top of Grimy Old Korea. Construction started in the 1990s. This is a Korea where taking a year abroad happens. Where kids grew up with cellphones, and people visit coffee shops and have photo blogs. Its citizens grew up wondering where to find free wi-fi, unlike their grandparents, who grew up wondering if they would eat meat that week. In this Korea people buy organic. They buy new shoes instead of visiting the cobbler near the bus stop. They wrinkle noses at squatter toilets. Let's call the country they live in Shiny New Korea. It has public parks that are no smoking zones. Grimy Old Korea smokes there anyways, though.

At City Hall 
Money is part of it, of course. Living in Shiny New Korea is pay as you go, and Korea is as safe as you can afford it to be, up to a point. Not all rich are part of Shiny New Korea, though. If you've ever had gangsters evict a tenant, or settled a grievance with a lead pipe, you're part of Grimy Old Korea. And not everyone trying to inhabit Shiny New Korea is privileged: the distinction cuts across generation and education and geographical region as well as class. Many would-be Shiny New Citizens are simply concerned parents and grandparents, buying second-hand foreign imports less for the prestige and more for the assurance that German and Swedish inspection codes are less susceptible to greasy palms. They scour blogs and word-of-mouth networks to verify what's good, what's safe, which preschools meet fire codes and run background checks on their teachers, and which restaurants don't disinfect. Those hours spent looking things up are the tribute they pay to ward Grimy Old Korea off another day.

The parents and grandparents with blood, skin, and kin in the game hope public transportation and public buildings are managed and inspected by members of Shiny New Korea, doing their jobs to the letter, and not the other kind. But even if you spare no cost, track the user reviews and get the import with extra airbags, sometimes Grimy Old Korea runs a red light coming the other way, and there's nothing you can do. Grimy Old Korea cannot be shut out entirely, and it can snatch away your kid, your dream, or your health, just like that.

To be fair, Grimy Old Korea had a good run, and accomplished a lot: the vitality, the entrepreneurship, the energy and determination of those same generations that filled the country breakneck quick with fire traps, tombstone apartment blocks and smokestacks, also demanded and achieved, at great human cost, a democracy wherein the Shiny New Citizens are free to complain about the wi-fi. Korea's modern history is knotty, and resists simplifying narratives.

Memorial at Cheonggyecheon Plaza
Academics and technocrats would employ the language of uneven development: advancement always follows the money first, before extending to everyone else. And in a country that developed as quickly as South Korea, it's no surprise that the contrast is sharp. Parts of this country feel like somebody threw a white tablecloth over a table cluttered with takeout. Of course the crystalware is crooked: there's a side dish beneath it! But with countries, you can't just clear and wipe the table before setting out the nicer new dishes. And some of the old dishes are nice, in their fashion.

Shiny New Korea and Grimy Old Korea don't often see eye to eye. Grimy Old Korea sidesteps the accusations of recklessness and ruthlessness with the language of nation building. It takes a tragedy like this for Grimy Old Korea to hang its head, to stop pleading "It's what everybody was doing!" and agree that they all rushed too quick, overlooked too much, and favored filling their own coffers over designing a nation made for its people.

Inside a globe of yellow ribbons:
the white flowers used in Korean funerals
Maybe this tragedy, after so many ignored warnings, will finally be the violent turning of a new leaf. Maybe the shame on one side, and rage on the other, will finally stop settling for band-aid solutions and transmute into real change, real accountability, until Grimy Old Korea is a closed chapter, and public safety is no longer a luxury for the moneyed. That would be a different kind of miracle than we started off hoping for.

There was a promise implicitly made in Grimy Old Korea's heyday, that the nation under construction would be worth the work. That sacrifice and strain would mean future generations enjoy a better nation than the parents inherited. That was the deal. There is a yearning for Korea to be prosperous, but to round that out by also being compassionate, not just toward shareholders, but toward the strangers who live and die, grieve and starve, and still check nervously for Grimy Old Korea barreling toward them at every crosswalk.

I wish that the next generation of leaders, contractors and entrepreneurs would see their neighbors, and moreover their customers, tenants and passengers, as part of the great "We," not just during times of crisis and joy, but all the time. The delivery that we want right now is not the one that buzzed by on a sidewalk motorbike, with a metal takeout box that nearly clipped my son. We'd rather have those in power deliver on that promise made in the 60s and 70s, that one day we will be able to enjoy, in peace and safety, the fruit of the sacrifices and griefs we have been asked to bear for too too long. We've worked so hard and lost so much: why are we still so unhappy? Why do these things still happen?

The takeout delivery always arrives on time, but the delivery that really matters, has been delayed again and again. And with our yellow ribbons waving in the downtown, maybe that is the miracle we are still waiting for.

People could write a note on these papers. So I did.