Thursday, January 29, 2015

Six "It's the __ of Korea" that drive me crazy.

This is the essence of a list I presented on TBS Main Street, on TBS English Radio, where I do a weekly countdown at 10:30 every Thursday morning. It's fun, and this is a topic I love to rant about.

You’ve probably heard, at some point, the phrase “Korea’s Something” or “The Something of Korea” —for example calling Apgujeong “Korea’s Beverly Hills," which basically fits. Rich people. Italian cars. Plastic surgery. OK. There are definitely some apt comparisons out there. But there are also some that don't fit, or that seem to force the puzzle piece.

Hey, did you hear Quentin Tarantino compared Bong Joon-ho to Steven Spielberg? Well now we have to call him the Korean Spielberg. And I sigh inside with a deep sad sigh. Hyorin does a cover of "Halo" so now she has to be Korea's Beyonce. You know, until Ailee throws her hat in the ring. And then you get places specifically named after more famous places in other parts of the world.

And you start feeling like you're watching this video.

I was once told this mostly happens when Koreans are trying to describe korean stuff to foreigners who might not know about them, by someone who got defensive as I complained too much about this tendency. As I do. But for whatever it's worth, here are the "Korea's X" that have caused the biggest head-shakes, facepalms and jaw-drops for me.

1. Korea’s Madonna.

MTV Awards, Like A Virgin - 1984.

This one goes all the way back to 1987, when Kim Wan Sun pretty clearly referenced Madonna's performance for this performance, also at an awards show.

Um Jung-hwa has also been called Korea's Madonna. Her dancing and outfits raised eyebrows the way Madonna played her sex appeal in the 80s and 90s, and she also went from singing to acting, and managed her public image very skilfully.

Lee Hyori and S.E.S.'s Bada have also been called Korea's Madonna, and Ask A Korean! makes a plausible case for JYP being Korea's Madonna in terms of his impact on pop music.

But here's what you have to do to earn a comparison with Madonna:

1. Have Jo Yong-pil or Kim Geon-mo level popularity and success.
2. Be a fashion icon.
3. Be sexy as hell, and push boundaries for what a woman is allowed to do on stage, in terms of using her sex appeal, and push them again and again and again, without ever going too far.
4. Keep doing that for 15 years.
5. Have half a dozen completely unforgettable moments and/or performances, even after your relevance as a popstar is mostly faded.
6. Age into a mentor for younger performers.

Has there been a Korean artist who pushed the line on sex appeal, who was a fashion leader, who managed her image with superhuman savvy, and became a mentor for younger artists, while also being one of the most popular artists of her time for an entire generation? Lee Hyori wasn't controversial enough. Uhm Jung hwa wasn't controversial for long enough, and too much of her legacy is in her acting, which really isn't Madonna. Kim Wan sun didn't have the staying power. How much of Bada's cultural impact came from her solo career, and was she ever controversial?

Ladies and gentlemen there is no Korean Madonna, and it does the aforementioned artists a disservice to compare them to Madonna. There is also no Korean Beyonce. Just simmer down now.

2. Korea’s Opera: Pansori

Just listen to this.

Now listen to this.

Pansori was called Korean opera during a campaign to establish that Korean culture was just as refined and awesome as the best "high culture" of the west (Opera). There’s a certain type of person who believes that because Western countries were powerful at a certain time, the way to establish non-European cultures as worthwhile or world-class is by comparing them to Western culture. These people like using the word “advanced” and they don’t realise that by insisting on comparing Korean arts and sciences to western standards, they’re automatically putting the West in the superior position.

This means at a certain time in Korea’s nation building project, people were spending a lot of energy showing that before being colonized, Korea was on its way to developing a European style market economy, emphasising that Koreans invented the movable type printing press, and so forth, and these people shoved Pansori forward as Korea’s opera. I guess because both include performances that can be long, both sometimes retell old folk tales, both require vocal training, and kids these days don't listen to much of either.

But, seriously, go listen to those clips again. The comparison makes no sense to anyone with ears. I’m in total awe of the way Pansori singers can do anything they want with their voices. But Opera it ain’t. That doesn’t diminish Korea’s cultural heritage in any way.

Korean opera exists. It does. But it's being performed by Jo Sumi, not by Ahn Suk Seon.

3. Korea’s Olivia Hussey

Olivia Hussey is an Argentenian actress who was a real beauty in the 60s and 70s. She is best known for starring as Juliet in Franco Zefirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” a film made in 1968.

She was gorgeous in the day.

Here in Korea, beauty Han Ga-in, the actor/model (or model/actor), had a breakout role in the film "Once Upon A Time in High School" (말죽거리 잔혹사)-- a 2004 film set in 1978 (back when Olivia Hussey was a big deal). A character compliments Han Ga-in's character by telling her she resembles Olivia Hussey. Fair enough. It fit the time period.

Resemblance? I'll let the reader decide.

But it fails as a comparison. Because almost nobody knows who Olivia Hussey is anymore. The first time I'd ever heard her name was when I asked some students which Korean actors I should know about, and one identified Han Ga-in as Korea's Olivia Hussey, and I looked Olivia Hussey up.

So... if you told me that Taylor Swift is America's Lee Nan-young, it wouldn't mean anything to me until I looked up Lee Nan-young, or you explained it to me. And any comparison that obscures rather than enlightening has missed its point, in conversations like this.

(Lee Nan-young was a big deal in her day as well)

4. Korea’s Manhattan

Now, to call something Korea’s manhattan, here’s what I want: I want it to be the beating heart of the city. I want it to be the place where most of a city’s culture, art, commerce, and tourism happen. I want it to be the place where you can find the must-see places, attend the events, and also where all the really meaningful history happened. If an island met all those conditions, I’d think about calling it Mexico’s Manhattan, or Greece’s Manhattan, or Japan’s Manhattan.

Korea’s manhattan, of course, is Yeouido. While it does hold Korea’s national assembly, one of the city’s most famous buildings (the 63 Building), and a few TV stations, I have a big problem with calling it Korea’s Manhattan. Because here is what it looked like as recently as 1952: (source -courtesy of Popular Gusts)

Here is Manhattan Island in 1952: (source)

Yeouido didn't have a bridge to it until 1970. Manhattan Island had bridges to it before the Revolutionary War. If you can't be bothered to even build a bridge to it until 1970, Yeouido is clearly not the beating heart of Seoul. In fact, according to wikipedia, the name Yeouido means “Useless” and it was used as nothing but a pasture for sheep and goats until an airport was built on it in 1924.

I like Yeouido well enough. The IFC mall is a good place to go see a movie, and the park is nice when it’s not crowded to the gills. But if there’s an area that’s the beating heart of Seoul, it’s Jongno/Myeongdong/Gwanghwamun/City Hall — THAT’s where the culture, the history, the shopping and the political power all converge, if anywhere. Yeouido is sometimes called Korea’s Wall Street, which might be closer to the mark, but Korea’s Manhattan, it just really ain’t. So stop pissing on my leg and telling me it's raining.

5. Korean Pizza

In what world is this:
and this:

in any way at all similar to this:
It isn't, that's what. A few shared ingredients (like flour) and a flat disc-shape is it for similarities. The recipe, the preparation method, the way of consuming it, the toppings and sides, are all utterly different. This stands beside "Korean Opera" as one of the biggest misnomers, and one of the worst bits of expectation management out there, for introducing Korean culture. If you have to compare it to a western food, my favorite description of Jeon is "a savory pancake" (with green onion and sometimes seafood in it) -- which sets a diner's expectations about where they should be. But calling it Korean pizza... it's just inaccurate and misleading. And dumb. So stop!

6. Korea’s Machu Piccu

Of all the Something’s of Korea on the list, Korea’s Machu Piccu has got to be the biggest reach of them all.

Taegukdo or Gamcheon-dong, in Busan, is a pretty hillside village of colorful houses. It was founded by a group of religious refugees during the Korean war. Since then, blank walls have been painted with murals, and empty houses have been converted to cafes and galleries. It has a nice view of Busan Harbor, according to the write-up. Here is a picture.
Can you believe it's even prettier at night?
from flickr

It looks like a lovely place to wander around and get lost in winding back alleys, which is one of my favorite things to do, so I'd actually really like to go there!

But it’s been described as The Korean Machu Piccu on the official Korean tourism website. (They also describe it as Korea's Santorini, which is at least closer to the mark.) It's not just the official tourism website, either.

Now, here is Machu Piccu: (source)

The only. fucking. thing. the two have in common are walls, and slopes. That's bloody it. Whatever they were smoking when they came up with Gamcheon-dong as Korea's Machu Piccu, I would very much like to try some!

Machu Piccu is abandoned, it was built in the 1400s, and is 2400 meters above sea level (triple the height of Bukhansan's peak). Machu Piccu is a UNESCO world heritage site, a Wonder Of The World, and a relic of the very peak achievements of a lost civilization. Gamcheondong is a pretty hillside that had a good idea for how to stave off the redeveloper's bulldozer, but still probably doesn't even appear in most visitors' top five lists of "things to do while visiting Busan" (unless it was recently featured in one of those comedy shows where famous people tour local attractions.) I wish the citizens of Gamcheondong good luck, and I actually do hope to visit there some day, but I haven't come across a single "Korea's X" comparison more misleading than this one.

And that’s the problem with every one of these comparisons: by making a comparison, I immediately start thinking about ways that the Korean version isn’t as good, is smaller or less impressive, or just plain different, than the original, and that sets the Korean one up for failure. It’s the very worst kind of expectation management, because it makes me expect that the thing I’m going to see will be better than it actually is, and it’s an unfair burden to put on a charming place like Gamcheondong, a perfectly nice business district like Yeouido, or an artist like Uhm Junghwa, who’s perfectly respectable in her own right. We don't need to call Song Gang-ho Korea's Tom Hanks, or Baekdusan Korea's Everest, for them to be awesome. In fact, it makes them less awesome when we do!

For more on Korea's X, I always go back to this Dokdo Is Ours bit... and a thingy from Brian in Jeollanam-do that seems to have been removed from public access, unfortunately.

So, readers: in the comments, what are your favorite/least favorite "___ of Korea"?

Please share!

PS: from somebody's facebook comment:

Update 2: Commenters mentioned the most disappointing comparison of all: that Jeju Island is Korea's Hawaii. I like Jeju Island, don't get me wrong. And in that people go there on vacation, and it's an island, they have... two points of similarity. But... no. No no no no no. Every person who's mentioned going to Jeju Island after being told it's Korea's Hawaii has also reported it being a bitter disappointment.

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