Saturday, April 26, 2014

Sewol Ferry, Safety Awareness and Citing Culture: A Rundown

You have heard, no doubt, about the Korean Sewol Ferry disaster still in progress off Korea's southwest coast. The death toll keeps climbing, and the window for living survivors closed days ago. Part of the families', and public anger is due to the fact much of the pivotal first hours were wasted by slow or disorganized responses. The rescue and salvage reports are one heartbreak after another.

Prayers and heartfelt condolences to the families, and to everybody touched by loss in this tragedy.

Some links for reading:
This Chosun Ilbo article lists  the many things that went wrong.
And this Joongang editorial gives a pretty good glimpse of how emotionally distraught the public mood is, and how Koreans have been excoriating their own society because of this tragedy.
That the (normally tight-lipped) president herself has laid a judgment on the crew that bailed out too early, calling their desertion of duty "like an act of murder" (the Guardian didn't like that) gives you a sense of just how hot public emotion is running regarding this.
The tragedy has even impacted the Korean economy.
The official main cause of the capsize has now been announced.
Andrew Salmon's latest piece for Forbes, discussing first world hardware/infrastructure vs. not-yet-first-world software/norms and practices, and his first piece, about Korean leadership, has a great closing paragraph. His piece in South China Morning Post, where he was the first to mention a culture of obedience, not so much.

For more of my own views, a podcast I'm involved in just covered the issue.

There were some heroes. But not enough.

Prayers and heartfelt condolences to the families, and to everybody touched by loss in this tragedy.

Unlike previous events like the Daegu subway fire or the Namdaemun Arson, this one doesn't begin with an unwell person planning an act of malice. This is the convergence of an aggregation of small human errors that, each one on its own, could have been untangled, but with an unhappy convergence, the knot just got too big. One too many corners cut. One too many excuses made, shortcuts taken, standards glossed over, regulations hand-waved, and suddenly we're expecting about 300 dead, many of them high school students. And the fact it was children on a class trip really brought it close to home, because every Korean adult went on class trips like this in school.

Koreans have been very hard on themselves as a country... so much so, that I'd suggest readers take any editorial they've read with a grain of salt, as many of them have put more weight on the emotive side than the analytical. I've heard from a few people the sentiment that "we've just been pretending to be an advanced nation all this time" -- somebody told me there's a Korean saying that a wooden water bucket is only as deep as the shortest piece of wood, equivalent to the English "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link" - meaning that shortcomings in some areas undermine all the advancement Korea has made in other areas. So do us all a favor, readers, and don't take lines like "We’re like Stone Age cavemen waving smartphones in the air. Look at us!" completely at face value, or pull them out next time you're trying to prove a point about Korea. These are emotionally charged times, and some people have right lost their perspective. That's allowed. No need to be a jerk about it.


There's a lot of public anger for failures at every level -- from crew, to captain, to the company, to safety inspectors, to government emergency response protocols and organizations, and the media has made an even bigger mess of things, rushing a number of false stories to press, only to be embarrassed when those text messages, and that diver giving interviews, turned out to be fakes.

And the online commentary has run the full gamut, from sharp and pointed, to vague, mushy and half-baked. And, of course, somebody brought in the cultural explanation.

The Korea Times here mentions two outlets -- CNN and Time, that suggested Korea's Confucian heritage would make the students more likely to follow the orders to stay below deck until it was too late to save themselves. Financial Times also critiques the cultural argument.

In the remainder of this post, I'm going to run down some links where you can read up different views of different cultural arguments. In my next post, I'm going to get a bit more general, in discussing why the cultural argument has problems, what they are, and how to avoid them. Click on the links in this one to read various positions on something that's now being hotly discussed in various places.

Blogger Waegukin, who actually works with Korean high school students, does a handy dismantling of the idea Korean students would be obedient past the point of self-preservation, saying,
"We’ll never know exactly what happened to the students on the boat: what choices they made and what they tried to do. But one thing I am certain about: they died as thinking individuals, with individual dreams for the future, doing their best to survive and help their friends. To suggest otherwise is grotesque." 
Jakob Dorof, at Vice Magazine, of all places, launches another successful rebuttal... by actually knowing more about Confucianism than "uh... something about hierarchies." He gets a block quote, too (my emphasis in bold):
In truth, however, the catch-all of “South Korean culture,” or even neo-Confucian obedience in particular, fails to account for what happened on Wednesday. The problem with such arguments is their suggestion not only that the Sewol crew and harbor officials were blinded from moral responsibility by cultural programming, but also that the hundreds of students and others left on the ship were socially hardwired automatons who, though cognizant of their ability to escape, felt too inhibited by a respect for their elders to move. This is excessively reductive, for one, but falls apart altogether when you consider that many of the people who stayed onboard were in fact elders of the crew. Furthermore, if Confucian doctrine were the be-all and end-all under these circumstances, then what of li—a fundamental Confucian precept that encourages those beneath an authority to disregard orders if they seem irrational or unjust?
His article also goes into specific detail about what was happening when, with a timeline of events, and then he puts his finger on something much more plausible, and the one that's been much discussed in local media: "The real problem, at all levels, seems to be protocol—or rather, the absence of one." The Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and Choe Sang-hun's piece in the New York Times all devote significant column space to the problem of poor awareness, training, and adherence to safety protocols in South Korea, as does the local paper of note, the Chosun Ilbo. I can't find back the article that mentions the fact that... in every other case except the one where the captain and crew panic and bail, the best way to survive an accident like this is to follow instructions from people are trained for dealing with them. The problem is that in this case, that trust was misplaced. The people who were supposed to be able to assess the situation accurately and choose the actions that minimize loss of life failed. And why they failed is the conversation that needs to happen. I would be horrified if the next time there's a ferry mishap in Korea, dozens of passengers panic and jump overboard in life jackets, or unnecessarily commandeer life boats because they don't trust the crew telling them that in most cases, staying on the boat is the safest thing to do.* (see update below) This Joongang article discusses the flipside of that "obey authority" canard: that seniors are supposed to take care of their juniors... a duty at which those responsible for the students - from the crew right up to the government - failed. This blog post agrees, asserting that more Confucianism, not less, would have helped the situation.

That's a bit of reading for you to try, if you want to have a handle on the "culture of obedience" thing.

The other place culture is being discussed, which I think is a bit more on point, is in the realm of adherence, awareness, and education about safety.

Strangely, some of the ones I think are on point make similar points to some of the ones I don't like... but the way they make them is different, and that matters. Burndog, on all those little rule-breakings that go on all the time: "there seem to be so many occasions here where people don’t give a fuck about laws or rules, and I think that that turning a blind eye, if it happens enough, can lead to the sort of tragedies that happen in Korea". Adeel on cultural reactions to national tragedies:
The explanatory power of culture is not as great as we think, and I'm not even discussing cultural differences that are really just myths or far reaches. Korean honorifics and hierarchy don't cause plane crashes. The Afghan tradition of hospitality doesn't explain why the Taliban protected Osama bin Laden. The Spanish fondness for siestas didn't cause last year's train crash that killed 79 people. Rugged American individualism doesn't explain the 2007 bridge collapse that killed 13 people.
This one's just a fragmented mess. What does China have to do with anything? Smudgem has some anecdotes about safety awareness and training. Which is (not really) culture. The Marmot and his commenters have contributed over 800 comments on Sewol blog posts on that site.

So... even in a case where Korean commentators and foreign ones alike have decided that culture is on the table for discussion, we've got a variety of views on what aspect of culture is relevant to the discussion here, and we've got people discussing it in anecdotes and uselessly broad strokes, as well as ones that draw clear and plausible lines from cultural contexts to observable phenomena.

People are going to talk about culture. And that's allowed. Let's talk for a bit about talking about culture. This post is getting long... so I'll do it in a follow-up post.

Prayers and heartfelt condolences to the families, and to everybody touched by loss in this tragedy.

*Update: It seems, with the collision between subway cars on May 2nd, exactly what I predicted here came to pass: told to wait in the subway cars for rescue, passengers instead forced the door open and made their way out. The sudden influx of upset civilians didn't exacerbate the situation in this case... but it could have.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Beautiful Rivers and Mountains 아름다운 강산 - Shin Joong Hyun 신중현

A friend on Facebook recently asked a group I belong to for suggestions on niche Korea blog topics that aren't being filled right now, and I suggested he take older Korean music -- rock and pop stuff -- and make a blog dedicated to making the modern history of Korean music more accessible to English readers. Since G'Old Korea Vinyl stopped updating, that seems to be one gap crying to be filled. Matt from Popular Gusts does too, but not nearly often enough. [Update] and we can't forget The Korean's long-running countdown of the fifty most influential Korean music artists.

If I'm wrong, and you know just the website I should be following, please tell me in the comments, of course!

So a few weeks ago, I saw this on TV. (Warning: if you only click on one video in this post, don't let it be this one.)

It's actor and singer Im Chang Jung, whom I first recognized from raunchy sex comedy "Sex Is Zero," the Korean equivalent to "American Pie" where he played Korean iteration of the Jason Biggs character - the one who gets humiliated a lot. He does well enough as a singer that he got the final performance of an episode of 불후의 명곡 ("Immortal Song" is how the show title's translated. Here is the Show's Facebook Page). "Immortal Song" is a show where they call in one of the great artists from Korea's past, and ask young, up-and-coming artists, less-established bands, and sometimes stars or idols singing solo (not with their superstar groups), to do versions of that artist's songs, and the artist gets to give them a score and choose a winner.

Lee Sang Mi was judging this time, and one of her old favorites, it appears, was a cover of Shin Joong Hyun's "Beautiful Rivers and Mountains" (see her do it live, here) Im Chang Jung did a version of that song (아름다운 강산). My wife said "Oh, that's a Shin Joong Hyun song" to me, and the story came back to me from my Korean Pop Culture class.

I've known about Shin Joong Hyun for a while. I even wrote about him a few times on the blog: Here and most recently here. Shin is known as "The Godfather of Korean Rock." He cut his teeth performing as Jackie Shin on US army bases. Read his interview by Mark James Russell here. Popular Gusts talks about him here here and a few other places. His song Mi-in is discussed here. I talked with a few friends about this song on Facebook a while ago, and want to thank Matt and Gregory and everyone whose contributions there led to this post. During the late 60s and 70s, he was like the Prince of the 80s and the Jimi Hendrix of the 60s combined for Korea: he was doing new things with the guitar, and combining genres and sounds from abroad in wildly interesting ways (Hendrix) and meanwhile, when he wasn't recording his own music, he was writing songs and producing music for many of the other best artists of the era (80s Prince). Korean rock music of the time was really, really interesting.

And then Yushin happened. Longtime dictator Park Chung Hee shifted his dictatorship into high gear with the Yushin constitution, where he declared a state of national emergency... because he didn't have total power yet, and needed it, I guess. His moral vision of the country excluded decadent rock and roll, and music got regulated more and more strictly. The very fun movie Go Go 70s explores the police persecution of artists (trailer).  Artists of the time were required to have a "건전가요" - one "wholesome song" on each album, a song that encouraged people to work hard, or save money, or be somehow virtuous, which painted an idyllic postcard image of Korea. Flowers in my basket, going to the market and stuff. The Korean wiki suggests these as representative examples: 아 대한민국 시장에 가면 어허야 둥기둥기. President Park had enough invested in this moral vision of his, he actually even wrote a "wholesome song" himself. Here it is, with a HUGE thanks to The Korean, who slipped me the link on Facebook.

UPDATE: More on this song - including an English translation of another patriotic song also written by Park Chung-Hee is at Popular Gusts now.

There are lyrics under the video box if you can read Korean. I haven't been able to find a translation of them - they're all geographical names (think This Land is Your Land), strength and sweat and pride and ancestors and greatness - but just listen to that military aesthetic.

According to the interview by Mark Russell linked above, in 1972, Shin got the call from the President's office: the president wanted him to write a song in praise of the dictator. He refused.

Instead, he wrote the song "Beautiful Rivers and Mountains" -- or 아름다운 강산. Now, I really want you to listen to the song right above this. Then immediately after, listen to the song right below. The lyrics are in the "about" section under this version of the song.

This is the 1972 version from the Shin Joong-hyun Anthology. The version he wrote and recorded just after being asked to glorify the president in song. (If you only click on one video in this post, let it be this one.)

So... the president asks you to sing a song praising the president. The style he would prefer, if the video above is any indication, would be a terse, military march. President Park was also known to admire sentimental ballads.

Instead, you go into the studio, and write a huge, shambling, sweeping, psychedelic song that builds and builds and builds to a wild cry of passion, with lyrics like this (these aren't all the lyrics - as translated on the youtube link above):
Opening lines: Blue Sky / White clouds / A thread of wind rises / To fill my heart...
In this beautiful place, you're here and I'm here...
Hold my hand, let's go and see, run and see that wilderness...
Into this world, we were born. This beautiful place. This proud place we will live.
Today I'll go to meet you... time will pass, we will live together, then fade and fall.
Spring and summer go, Fall and winter come. (at 3:58:) Beautiful rivers and mountains!
(4:05-4:30) Your heart, my heart, You and me, Us Forever We are all, all in endless harmony.

It is a sweeping, gorgeous tribute to the beauty of Korea, and Shin's pride in his country, it contains time, seasons, mortality, harmony -- this is Shin's love of his land, with a loose, sloppy song structure, no chorus, few repeats, just a love poem sung straight through, all draped in shambling psychedelic, fuzzy, decadent rock sounds, ending with an extended musical washout as "we are all in endless harmony" disappears into the endlessness of great music.

There you go, Mr. President.

So instead of singing a tribute to the President, Shin pointedly, and passionately, sings about the beauty of the land. NOT the beauty of the government, the leader, or a vision of greatness for the people. No exhortations to respect your teacher or work hard. The rivers and mountains. He places all the politics and ambitions and dreams of the people under a giant sky of washing guitar, and sings that they will fade and fall, but the land, the beautiful land, will outlast them all.

To me, knowing the story of it, the song screams, "I love this country, Mr. President. Not you." Not only is it a pitched act of defiance, it also might be the best song he ever made.

Of course, he was on the president's shit list then. His albums and songs started getting banned, and finally in 1975 they pinned marijuana possession on him, and arrested him. His songs were banned from being played until President Park's assassination in 1979.

I just can't get over this song. As I listen to the song again and again, each time it gets more powerful to me. Be careful about listening to it repeatedly on headphones in public spaces, I guess. This Starbucks got really dusty. The section at the end - the "Your heart, my heart, you and me, us forever..." - is a cry of passion. The version with the most beautiful climax might be this, by Kim Jung-mi, who infuses it with so much longing, but the way the original spirals off into the sky at the end has the sweep and scale the others lose when they shorten it. It's a beautiful song that reminds us what is used to mean to say something was "epic" -- before the bros seeped all meaning out of the word by overusing it.

If Park Chung-hee's song got an embed, Kim Jung-Mi's version deserves one, too. If you only click on two videos in this post, let this be the second one:

After the ban on him was lifted, though, music tastes had changed. From Mark Russell's interview:
Shin says, with a soft, matter-of-fact bitterness. “It was completely physical, with no spirit, no mentality, no humanity. That trend has carried over all the way to today, so people are deaf to real music. They don’t know because they are never exposed to it.”
Here's the 1980 version he recorded with "Music Power." The meandering intro is gone. The bass is higher in the mix, the rhythm is more driving. It's a disco song now. A disco song.

I mean... it still kind of rocks, but the synth (rather than rock organ) is a big letdown for me.
The horn section at 3:10 becomes the "hook" in the cover version at the beginning of this post. He's also repeating lines now, rather than letting the song end with a musical meditation.

To me, this sounds like he's trying to make a pop song, rather than trying to make a great song. And it's better than most disco songs you'll ever hear, but it's still a gelded version of that original, which sounds like it's coming down from the top of a mountain. The call at the end after the cry, 아름다운 강산, the climax of the song, where the lyrics come faster, before ending with the musical breakdown - the "Your heart my heart, run together" just after 5:00 here, has none of the emotional impact from the original.

And the sad thing is, the disco version? That's the one that got grabbed, and popularized... as if to prove, to twist the knife on Shin's assessment that "people are deaf to real music." We heard it up above, sung by Im Chang Jung and Lee Seon Hee, whose version is here, and whose version the other singers are referencing. She has a powerhouse of a voice, but the song includes a synthesizer making ocean noises, and '80s power chords. You can almost hear the feathered hair and shoulder pads. And oh. Did I mention? In case you didn't click, the version on Immortal Song at the beginning of the post has a rap solo added. As if the point hadn't already been made. (Apologies to any JYP disciples who think every song is better with a rap solo... I disagree.) And just to make that point really hurt... here is Orange Caramel's version. In case, along with rap solos, you think aegyo is another thing that makes every song better.

Again, I disagree.

And that's the legacy of the song. A defiant cry to heaven, turned into a disco standard. I'm not sure what to make of that, except to just go back and listen to the original again.

In 2006: Shin did a "Last concert" (Covered here by Mark Russell)

That horn "hook" in the 1980 version sounds way better as a power guitar riff, in my opinion. But the song is all the way down to 5 minutes. Now, for a "greatest hits concert," I guess maybe he doesn't have the energy to keep calling out to the skies, especially when the public has chosen the disco version anyway... but I can't help but feel wistful and sad that this is what's come of the song.

I think the gelding of this song is symbolic of what happened to all of Korean music when President Park clamped down on Rock Music. Korea could have been the heartland (or hub, if you will) of an Asian rock scene that might have done all kinds of interesting things we'll never know, because by the time the censors loosened their grip, public tastes were no longer with the innovators. That is a tragedy if you care about Korean music, and I do.

But you know what? You can still listen to the original, so it's not a total loss, I guess.

My man, Shin Joong Hyun

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Un-Rustling of Jimmies, or Roboseyo Your Five Tips Are So Mean!

I'd like to thank The Marmot, and also The Big Hominid, for writing up my Five Tips post. I got a few defensive reactions to as well: some people seem to have been reading it as "Five Ways Roboseyo Thinks He's Smarter Than Other Bloggers, And You In Particular" or "Five Ways Lifers Are Looking Down Their Noses At Noobs" or "Five Hints To Shut Down Your Blog, Asshole" --As Marmot's Hole commenter Briere says, "But in my opinion what Rob has done is give a big 'shut it' to others who want to express an opinion. It is elitist to try keep others out of the conversation, and that is what a list like Rob's attempts to do." So a few sentences are in order.

First, I do think that the piece was written with the appropriate caveats and explanations that a careful, or even just moderately un-rushed reading would make my intentions clear... but in case anybody skimmed it and decided I was telling people, or them in particular to "Shut it," let's start with the point that every person has the right to write out their opinions and experiences of living in Korea, and anybody who tries to invalidate their experience should go piss up a rope.

But when people are taking their lived experience of Korea, and trying to go a bit deeper, to understand something within a larger context than their own daily lives, or when people are trying to write authoritatively about Korea - for example, foreign correspondents, or when locals read stuff that's written English, and get confused or upset that this is what "foreigners" seem to think about Korea... then I think these principles are useful for sifting through everybody who's positioning themselves as authorities or experts on Korea, to figure out who backs it up, and who, despite ponderous tones, is actually only speaking for themselves (not that there's anything wrong with that).

This is relevant because someone who doesn't know the terrain sometimes accidentally shows their ass, like the time The Diplomat used satire blog Dokdo Is Ours as a source for an article about Korea's information economy (on page 2), and a few guidelines would have helped them. Or when those defensive nationalist netizen brigades take a personal experience of Korea, and decide it makes a person deserving of an online campaign, or the exposure of their personal data, leading to physical threats against their person. Or simply when someone is looking for more knowledge about Korea, but go to the wrong source, and end up in a "blind leading the blind" bind, getting mired in the Dave's/Bitter Expat echo chamber. It's a shame when someone doesn't spot the phoneys, ends up getting misled, and has their learning process slowed by getting sidetracked on such rabbit trails.

I don't think anybody needs to stop writing, but I do think that it greatly increases the credibility of those posing as knowledgeable, when their writing demonstrates a clear understanding of the limits of their expertise. And the writing I respect the most chooses topics where the limitations of their own knowledge are not hindrances to the points they are trying to make or at least where they cop to the gaps, and leave those spots as questions and suggestions rather than definitive statements.

When I wrote this list, then, here were the people I was imagining would find it useful:

  • foreign correspondents still getting to know the area
  • Koreans or other "Korea defenders" thinking about starting a netizen backlash to "correct" someone's "wrong opinion"of Korea
  • people unsure where to turn to increase their knowledge about Korea
  • readers (usually Korean) upset that these are the opinions foreigners are forming about Korea
  • people wishing to avoid common pitfalls, while trying to start writing more seriously about Korea

Is there a place for people writing about Korea, who don't actually know a whole ton? Absolutely. I will defend their right to write as they please, and wish them luck: go back and read the first three years of my blog posting (they're all still up there, in cringe-inducing glory). It'd sure be hypocritical for me to say other writers don't have the right to throw themselves into the online discourse meat grinder if they wish to... and hopefully it'll inspire their curiosity, and they'll have some interesting, knowledgeable, and patient, so patient, commenters and correspondents to show up and point them toward more knowledge and better sources, the way I was lucky to have.

So... are the five tips hard and fast rules? Nope. And which of the five tips (or others one could add) are more or less relevant will change for different topics - language is more important in talking about local culture and trends than it is in talking about foreign policy or security, for example, and having Korean language ability, or Korean ethnicity, doesn't automatically make someone an expert any more than marrying a Korean or living here for a long time does, though each of those gives someone access to certain kinds of knowledge about Korea, that might be useful for writing about certain topics. At best, let's hope they're a reminder to think critically about whatever one reads, wherever one finds it, and think carefully about the source of an opinion or argument before deciding to let it rustle one's jimmies.

To hammer that home, I'll give The Big Hominid the final word: I think he read my article exactly as it was meant to be read, and the thoughtfulness of his response demonstrates that well, wrapping up with this:
Don't take Roboseyo's post too literally; instead, when you're reading something about Korea, adopt what we in religious studies call a hermeneutic of suspicion—what normal folks call taking that with a grain of salt. That hermeneutic of suspicion is, I think, what Rob is driving at.

Friday, April 11, 2014

5 Signs the Author of the Article you're Reading Doesn't Actually Know Much about Korea

Lately, every Thursday at 10:30am, on TBS radio, (101.3 in Seoul), I've been doing a list-based segment. I've had some fun, and done a variety of topics, and perhaps I'll post some of them on the blog... but today's got a really good response, and I've been asked to re-post it on my blog, for anyone who's having trouble accessing it from the TBS website, or prefers text.

The topic: 5 signs the Author of the Article You're Reading Doesn't Actually Know Much About Korea

You know how it is: whenever global or OECD rankings come out, whenever a Korean hits the global stage, whenever something's written about Korea in a prestigious magazine, or bidding opens for another major global event... it becomes clear that in general, Koreans in high places (and perhaps many ordinary folks as well) really really do care what non-Koreans think about Korea. I've written about this before... perhaps my most memorable (to me) being "In Which Roboseyo Exhorts Seoul City Not To Get In A Snit About Lonely Planet." One result of this abiding interest is the occasional case where some article, blog post, or other bit of writing gets far more attention than it deserves, through social media, netizen backlash, anxiety that someone Doesn't Like Korea, or whatnot. At times, people taking a blog more seriously than it deserves have waged online and even offline harassment campaigns, and shut down blogs and even chased people out of the country.

Caveat: I'm well aware that there are three fingers pointed back at me for a bunch of these. Watcha gonna do?
from here (updated)

So, here are five times to take an English article about Korea with a grain of salt... or a progressively larger one. People trying to learn about Korea should think twice about using an article as a source, and people wanting to defend Korea should think maybe not worry so much about the writer's wrong opinion and respond with "who cares?" instead when...

1. Their main source of authority is marrying a Korean or teaching English in Korea for a while. 

If the topic is "courtship in Korea" or "the hogwan where I work"... buckle in and enjoy a personal story that doesn't have any larger meaning. If the author is making sweeping generalizations, without providing evidence of being up to date and informed in the news, policies, and public discussions about the issue, other than in a really vague "I heard on Dave's that..." sort of way, well, maybe don't bother getting worked up about it, and click the "ignore" button in your head.

Teaching at a hogwan doesn’t make a person an expert in Korean educational policy, and it doesn’t mean they know a single thing about public education. And having beers with a public school teacher to trade stories is not necessarily enough to balance out that weak spot. Same for talking with one's spouse and their friends, unless one's spouse or some of their friends are informed and keep up to date on these issues, and makes statements about them starting with "Well here are the main stakeholders in the issue and what they want..." rather than "Koreans don't like this." When I asked my wife, "What do Koreans think about this?" back when I used to do such things, she used to answer "I don't know. Go find out." This is the best answer.

The caveat of course is that there are trained journalists and excellent researchers who just happen to be working as English teachers and/or married to Koreans... but they'll be pointing to their sources, not to their spouses.

2. All their quotes are from English teachers or bloggers.

In these first two, I am clearly throwing my own under the bus... 

found here

If a foreign correspondent or random writer doesn't know a lot about Korea, or lacks the tools to interview the Koreans knowledgable in an area, here's the first thing to do: a google, and a search of Facebook groups and pages. They'll come across some blogs, and a forum like Dave's ESL or Facebook's Every Expat In Korea, where all the bitter lifers and English teachers who haven't learned the better places to make connections go to vent and preach outdated Korea knowledge to newbies and invent new racist terms.
"Dang. Ricetard didn't catch on! Let's try something new!" Source

For someone who doesn’t know the terrain, it’s not always easy to separate people who REALLY know what’s going on, from people who are good at writing as if they know what is going on. And both bloggers and Facebook blowhards LOVE to act like they know more than they really do. I should know: I am both a blogger AND a Facebook blowhard. To choose to open a blog at all, you need to have a reasonably high opinion of your own views... or you wouldn't project them across the internet... and take someone with a reasonably high opinion of their own views, whose blog isn't getting as popular as quickly as they'd like, and send them an e-mail from the Washington Post... if they're anything like I was in my starting-out blog phase, they'll be so flattered at being asked for a quote, they'll provide one without ever thinking about whether they're actually qualified to do so. I used to. I am still a sucker for ego strokes, ear scratches, and shiny things. I am actually a cat.

A persistent reporter or writer will eventually track down the kinds of people — policy makers, researchers, or other experts or sources who have more reliable answers. And to be fair, some bloggers and English teachers are great researchers, and would give well-sourced replies.  But someone only using sources like blogs, easy-to-find youtube channels, and English teachers… may just not have looked very hard, so factor that in when evaluating their writing. 

3. They use Han, Jung, Confucianism, Nunchi, Chaemyon, and other “Magic words” to explain Korean culture

Examples (added in 2019). Example. Example. Example. Example. Malcolm Gladwell explained all of Korean culture in a doozy of a chapter in his book. There are too many examples to list. 

People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction. (source)
That's a quote from Flannery O'Connor's book Mystery and Manners. She's an author I studied as an undergrad. I love the image of a string on a bag of chicken feed -- once you find the right string to pull, the whole bag comes open effortlessly. There are people who think that invoking "Confucianism" does the same thing: like a skeleton key, all Korea's secrets are magically laid out, just by saying (as pretentiously as possible) Confucianism!

One of my favorite sayings is "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” and this is where a lot of amateur analysts get stuck when they want to write about Korea, but they don’t ACTUALLY know a lot about Korea. Things like Confucianism, or Korea's rapid economic growth, or troubled democratization, or the colonial experience, or any word that a pretentious friend might be likely to intone in a low voice, "There is no translation for this word" runs the risk of being taken, and applied to way more situations than they're actually relevant, or given way more explanatory power (or mystery) than they deserve. Inside the expat echo chamber, and among "I must make sure my expat friends get a VERY specific image of Korea" Koreans, there is great danger of their over-and-mis-use.

South Korea is a society that works like other societies. It follows a logic that makes enough sense to enough of the people here that they can generally muddle through. Most phenomena have specific origins that are discoverable by any searcher willing to read books rather than blogs, and those "magic words" are often part of the background, but they're very rarely an adequate explanation on their own. The mistake people make is to put their finger on something like Confucianism and then stop looking. Confucianism is more often the sauce than the actual steak: often part of the mix, but not the meat.

The danger of "magic word" analysis is that it often comes out of orientalism, or leads to it, and thinking of Koreans as some "mysterious unknowable eastern people" is not conducive to careful critical thought, nor helpful in applying one's knowledge of the country to encounters with actual, living Koreans who don't fit the stereotypes.

Confucianism, and all those other "magic word" concepts, are not skeleton keys. They are single pieces of a puzzle, single threads in a web. Trust writers who are looking at the others as well.

4. They refer to Koreans as if all Koreans share the same opinion on issues, or talk about “Korea” as if it were a character in a drama.

"Korea wants..." "Korea always..." Who is this Korea you speak of?  "Koreans are..." "Koreans all...""Koreans can't..." This is called "monolithic thinking" -- as if Korea were a monolith, an undifferentiated hive mind with no diversity of intention or opinion.

Korea is not actually like this:
Koreans: not the borg. Source.
In fact, Korea is sometimes like this:
Source - 2008 beef protests
and this

and this

and this

If Koreans all generally agreed on everything, a vigorous protest culture and a tradition of public dissent would be inconceivable.

Korea's a diverse, divided country. Left and Right, North and South, Southeast, Southwest and Seoul, Gangnam vs. populists, wealthy vs. the rest, Christian and Buddhist, Pro and Anti [you know which countries go here]. There are robust debates in Korean society on almost every topic, and even in areas where you get general consensus (it's very rare to find Koreans think Dokdo doesn't belong to Korea) you'll still find dissent in the details (but some think public demonstrations, boycotts or rude behavior toward Japanese tourists are the best strategy for laying that claim, while others would prefer it be dealt with at the government-to-government level). A lot of these disagreements spill over into street protests. That a writer hasn't located these debates, or can't access them because of language problems, doesn't mean they don't exist. Burndog regularly points out what you might call the "If I haven't seen it, it doesn't exist" error common on blogs and commentary about Korea. 

Writers who say “Korea is” “Korea wants” or “Koreans all…” are usually guilty of lazy thinking: a more careful thinker will write about what specific groups are doing, or want, and how they're disagreeing with other groups, not what "Korea" wants.

5. (And this is the biggie) They don’t know any Korean.

Becoming an authority on Korea without speaking Korean is kind of like being a hearing impaired musician. Yes, Beethoven proved it’s possible… but it’s really really hard and really rare. It’s possible to write a very good piece about Korea, without speaking any Korean — I’ve read some — but it’s much MUCH easier if you CAN. 

Signs that a writer doesn’t know Korean include romanization or name errors — it doesn’t take too long to learn the two main romanization systems, and once you’ve learned them, it’s easy to spot errors. If someone's putting Korean sounds into English letters all helter-skelter, they have seriously put their credibility into doubt — ANYBODY who’s studied Korean beyond taxi level has learned how to romanize correctly, and will. Anyone who uses the wrong part of a Korean person's name as their family name completely discredits themselves - if they call Kim Jong-un "Mr. Un" or "Mr. Jong-un," don't trust their understanding of Korea one whit, because it takes five seconds on Google to learn that Korea puts the family name first, and it should be "Mr. Kim," and they haven't even put in that tiny modicum of effort.

Other signs include using Korean words incorrectly or in the wrong context, or doing what I call “dictionary translations” - where the word they’ve translated IS what you find in the dictionary or google translate, but it’s being used in the wrong way or in the wrong context (usually as if it had exactly the same usage and meaning as it does in English -- the error students make coming the other way when they say 'I was scary when I watched 'The Ring''). These errors show that a writer not only doesn't know Korean, but hasn't even bothered to check that translation with a single Korean speaker. If they have been so lax on doing their due diligence, don't take their writing that seriously.

Another sign of this is ONLY using English language sources — nothing against the English language newspapers and websites, which are getting better every year, but using them means an author receives a filtered version of Korea, not the original they could access if they read Korean. Errors are just more possible if an author is experiencing Korea by proxy, through an extra layer of remove.

And something I've been noticing as I get deeper and deeper into my life in Korea: people who don't bother to work on the language seem to have a pretty hard ceiling on how well they can understand and engage with the country. Once they've bumped up against that ceiling, their investment in the country starts to suffer diminishing returns. I might write about that more in another piece, but for now:

Remember that no one of these signs, totally on its own, is definitive, and as with dear deaf Beethoven, even someone checking all five boxes might write something really good. But in general, checking two, three, four, or all five of these boxes is a pretty good sign that you shouldn't take an article very seriously, and perhaps the article can be taken as one person's view and then forgotten: no need to be forwarded, shared, spread, translated into Korean, or the subject of a netizen backlash. Writing like this speaks for itself, and what it's saying is "not worth your grief."

If you disagree, or love this post, or have some other points to add, feel free to drop a comment in the box below, and thanks for reading!

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

In Defense of Shin-soo Choo's NYT "BULGOGI?" Ad

This has been bugging me for a couple of weeks now, but after bringing it up (again), my wife suggested I share it on my blog instead.

You've probably heard about Shin-Soo Choo's "Bulgogi" ad in the New York Times. Here's what it looks like: 
It appeared in the international section of the New York Times on March 12th. Along with a bazillion other ads that didn't attract any further comment. But this one... hoo boy.

Sports Illustrated came in a bit bemused by the whole thing, and Adweek called it "random and goofy" in what was mostly a non-article... NPR went to f'ing Twitter to research the article and the linked website (way to do your due diligence, hurf durf. I didn't know crowdsourcing had become legitimate journalism) then Zenkimchi got in on the act, among other things, calling it a ripoff of the "Got Milk?" series and disrespectfully calling it "cultural masturbation"... and inevitably, all the contemptuous and mildly (mildly? hah!) racist bile gushed forth from the usual Korea expat spewholes. I'm not linking them. They don't deserve the traffic. You probably saw this rude parody... it's mean spirited, it misses the point of the ad.

Now, first of all, people are asking why put a Texas player in the New York Times. Well, stupid, if there were a Korean player on the New York Yankees, don't you think they would have recruited him, instead? How do you make an argument like that without getting laughed off your bully pulpit, anyway? And why not advertise in some Texas paper, some said, since Choo actually plays in Texas? Well gee, Einstein, when I go down to the newsstand all the way in Korea (or anywhere in the world) to pick up my international newspaper, I sure have a tough time choosing between the IHT/Joongang (IHT is published by... guess who... The New York F'Ing Times) and the Dallas Morning News/Jeollabukdo Farmer's Journal. Because that sure exists.

So... why the New York Times? Because it's the New York Fucking Times, stupidhat! Winner of 112 Pulitzer Prizes. I can't believe I have to explain these things. The ad was also criticized for using the "Helvetica" font... in order to stand out from the rest of the New York Times which uses Cheltenham and Georgia. It doesn't take much thinking to figure these things out, folks.

There's no mention anywhere of the fact Korean food promotion is getting closer to the mark -- the ad doesn't lead with "Kimchi?" -- a garnish that's an acquired taste, despite being the nexus of a lot of Korean food pride. Instead, it's promoting bulgogi, which is one of the most accessible and instantly likable Korean foods out there. It's suggesting people support their local Korean restaurants -- fist-bump to the local business owners!

But instead of support or encouragement, all the contempt this article has met, has hit, and hurt, in the local media. A few days of backlash, and The Korea Times had this article, suddenly calling Choo a "laughingstock" playing into anxiety about cultural transfer.

Look at the opening and closing sentences of this article: "Speaking from experience, we can tell you that bulgogi is delicious. Call it a Korean version of fajitas if you'd like. It's really great." .... So do Shin-Soo Choo a favor, find a local Korean joint (I suggest Le Bistro Bangkok in Flower Mound, when it's on their menu), and go eat yourself some bulgogi." The MLB Sports Illustrated article also ends with this: "If anyone out there knows any more about Choo’s bulgogi ad, or has some recommendations for a good kalbi place in New York, feel free to drop us a line."

So... wait a minute... the writers of these articles have become interested in going out to eat some bulgogi? Wasn't that the point of the ad? So... couldn't you say that the ad worked? That it achieved its objective, by inspiring these people to, you know, try some bulgogi? And say... hasn't this slew of "what a weird ad" articles given the original free amplification of the original message? If the ad had been a straight-up, run-of-the-mill ad, NPR, Sports Illustrated and Adweek wouldn't have made any comment, and all those extra eyeballs wouldn't have seen it, would they? In light of that, I'd call this ad exponentially successful! So bully for everyone behind it!

Perhaps another day, I'll write up everything that's awesome about these other Korean food promotions:  Wonder Girls: K-Food Party (this is exactly the kind of video that would make my middle-aged uncles [the demographic with lots of money] feel like Korean food is the new hip thing [which would make them want to go try it] - works for me!)

And let's not forget CNBlue's K-Food Song (because... CNBlue! Squeee!)

I mean... come on. CN Blue!

are you gonna make me explain this?

even Jon Stewart loves CN Blue.

so... take your contempt and patronizing and all that hate...
and stuff it! 'cause I'm about to go ballistic!

That's all for today.

Well... it looks like winking Thor (and Jon Stewart, He-man, and Patrick) didn't make it clear enough, so...

and to everyone who thought I was being serious... thanks. You've increased the chance that I'll do another April Fools' prank exponentially.