Wednesday, November 14, 2018

One Mistake -- K-pop Stars and Public Relations Minefields

I met Choi Siwon at the start of November. Choi, one of the founding members of the K-pop idol group Super Junior is a mega-star. Meeting Choi Siwon would be like meeting one of the members of N'Sync. I don't know who was in N'Sync (really, no idea), but Super Junior has been one of the most prominent boy groups in K-pop since their debut in 2005 under SM Entertainment, the most dominant K-pop star making company. Super Junior is aging out of the traditional K-pop demographic (tween and teen girls), but has managed to stay relevant (if not out compete more recent groups such as label mates EXO or groups from competing companies such as BTS) through a very smartly orchestrated expansion into the Latin American market. Super Junior's most recent album features several Latin artists and the stats on the release have been their best in years.

Choi Siwon is a big deal, both as a key member of Super Junior, and as an actor.
Image result for super junior choi siwon Image result for super junior choi siwon

How did I meet him? There was a conference, specifically on the Future of Korean Studies as a field, held at Stanford. I was invited to participate as a "rising star" in Korean Studies and my expenses were covered. I did not have a chance to speak on a panel devoted to cultural studies, or to hallyu, or something like that because although other panels addressed history, literature, Korean language education, and the social sciences, the panel for popular culture was given to Choi Siwon and Dominque Rodriguez, the head of SME's US branch office (the man who practically actualizes SME's vision for North American and Latin American expansion).

Thursday the conference started and I was no closer to an answer to my inner question "Do I take a photo with Choi Siwon?" than I had been in the weeks since I learned I'd meet him. Why would I hesitate? It's true that my favorite thing Super Junior ever did was a brief foray into trot (in other words, they are not my favorite group), but more specifically, Choi Siwon had shared an anti-LGBT tweet/link. When fans responded he defended himself, saying that because of his Christian belief he believed marriage was between a man and a woman. This exchange (deleted not that long after, but screenshots are always taken these days) had caused me to write off Siwon, and to an extent, Super Junior. There are so many other K-pop groups to like, and only so many hours in the day, I felt no loss at this decision.

Thursday night at our fancy reception (Stanford is fancy) Siwon was seated one table away from me, we were facing the same direction. Turning 90 degrees to my right, there he was, not seven feet away. I didn't ask for a photo. Some others did. I went back to my hotel room, knowing that my students would be impressed if I took a photo with him, but still conflicted. And I hatched the wild plan to make him record a video greeting to my students.
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I didn't use zoom for this photo. Also, honestly, I was taking a photo of Shin Giwook, Stanford Sociologist and the man who made the conference happen giving an address to all of us. (Siwon is on the right, Shin is the man who is standing).

The conference room had space for 150 people, although some chairs were blocked from good view by SBS, which had set up a whole media center-- they're making a documentary on Korean Studies (airing in March 2019). On Thursday and Friday morning about 50 people were in attendance, a little more than the number at our reception the night before. But Stanford had let people register online and Friday afternoon as Siwon's presentation approached the chairs were all spoken for. I was still in my same seat for the entire conference-- 2nd row, center aisle. Mr. Rodriguez spoken, and then Siwon. I have a fair amount to say about what they said and how but I'm trying to make a different point here-- let's table that topic. However, suffice to say that I asked a very tough question, and instead of answering directly Siwon asked me "Saeji 교수님, .." yes, Siwon is that smooth. He knew my name, and used it. And then he sort of ducked my question, even though he had switched to Korean (as he did for all the complex questions). So we had this little exchange in the middle of the conference. He also ducked a question about his stance on LGBT, later in the Q and A. Oh and those many additional attendees? They were fans who had flown in from Boston and Ottawa to breathe the same air as Siwon (and ask some questions of their own).
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Siwon, Dom Rodriguez and Dafna Zur (Stanford, literature).
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Shin Giwook and Siwon after the conference posing for a photo with a lot of fans. Dom Rodriguez is next to Shin Giwook.

When the conference ended as Siwon was exiting (through a gaggle of excited girls) I jumped into the elevator (as the people around him tried to block me, and he said it was okay) and in the 1 floor elevator ride I told him he needed to record the video greeting to my students. And the elevator opened and despite people trying to rush him to his 'schedule' I directed him to stand in the nice light and told them it'd take 30 seconds. Success.

Siwon says, "Hello. Today, luckily I was able to spend a good time with Professor Saeji. Study han'gukhak, study Korean Studies hard. And please love Choi Siwon, Super Junior and many SM artists."

I kind of flew down the stairs, still not believing I had been that gutsy. I mean, the man sucked all the air out of the room, and I was less than an arm's length from him.

It took me several days to finish thinking through my experience. To realize that I was impressed by Siwon. That he had changed my opinion of him by being self-possessed, articulate (in English and Korean), funny, and seemingly genuine. And then I started to feel bad. I had judged this young man, just sort of put him on the 'bad' list based on a single two part social media interaction-- sharing the link, standing by the anti-gay marriage sentiments of the link. I literally wrote and published an academic article [link] with several really great former students and TAs about SHINee Jonghyun's suicide (although there is no way to know how much online criticism impacted Jonghyun's decision to take his own life, it was undoubtedly a factor). I know that idol stars' tiny missteps are blown up into giant controversies. I know (and lecture to my students) that many idols have poor educations-- they begin training as early teens, debut in their mid to late teens, and are kept constantly busy to such a degree that exhaustion and stress-related injuries are common. They don't have time to learn even the things that ordinary Koreans know. They are memorizing choreography instead of going to classes. They are learning new songs instead of listening to the Korean equivalent of NPR, CBC, or some smart podcast. They are body-building instead of reading up on social issues or hanging out with diverse friends. I also know (and teach my students) about various Korean positions on various hot button social issues-- I can talk to you for quite a while about homophobia in Korea, and I am well acquainted with the ways the Protestant evangelicals in Korea weaponize Christianity against sexual minorities. If those are the ideas you're exposed to, and you're too busy to learn more on your own, should it be surprising you think that way? And somehow, despite knowing all the ways that idols are held to insanely high standards, and all the reasons why Siwon might not know better than to be against marriage equality (or even, *gasp* that he has a right to have his own opinion even if it does antagonize part of his fan base), I had judged this man. Really, a young man, with very little life experience aside from an all-consuming entertainment career. Siwon is not much older than my students.

And my students do say some darn uninformed things and I figure 'I'm going to move this student in the right direction by educating them,' I don't write them off. I separate their half-formed ideas, their poorly-thought through opinions from them as humans. I have a student right now who has expressed some MRA (Men's Rights Activist) ideas, but I think he's a super sweet young man, and he's hardly the first MRA-influenced Korean man I've met (in fact, MRA thought is convincing to young Korean men for the same reasons that the Yemeni refugees in Korea are getting the cold shoulder-- Koreans feel so panicked, so squeezed, so under pressure living in 'Hell Joseon' that they can easily feel there isn't enough to go around to share equally with women, or to be gracious and welcoming to the refugees).

And Siwon was smart, gracious, and sincere. He held himself well, and acted, so far as I could see, with grace and kindness. But as a celebrity anything he does (or his dog does when his dad is walking it) can become a controversy in moments. That his boss, his contract, his obligation to his group mates, his fame, his chance to star in dramas or appear in ad campaigns all keep him in such tight control that one wonders how much actual life he is able to enjoy. When I was his age I could still say dumb things without the world knowing b/c it wasn't on Twitter. And even now I can say dumb things and I'm just a person, really not very important at all (and I do say dumb things, my foot fits very well in my mouth, I'm afraid). I didn't let Siwon make a single mistake, even though I wasn't online writing nasty comments, I was still part of the problem. That was a very sobering, even humiliating realization.

Right now BTS is in the wringer for a series of conflated incidents that happened on different days in different places and for different reasons-- another bunch of boys in a public relations minefield. And I want to excuse them (why them and not Siwon? because I like their music, because they're so young, because I want to believe in fairy tales?). In my mind BTS are boys who put on the clothes they were told to wear, and months later find concerts cancelled as people curse them online. Boys that will bear the brunt of the anger, even if each of the separate incidents that has created this kerfuffle may not have been their mistake at all.

Related imageImage result for bts h bomb shirt
BTS leader RM wearing a Nazi hat from a 2015 photoshoot, posing at a Holocaust memorial, and the same shirt that member Jimin wore in the spring to set off the current controversy.

Will this one mistake by BTS (or three dating back to 2015) be enough to derail BTS's burgeoning popularity? This certainly is not helping. BTS was partially able to attract Western audiences for their social consciousness and actually holding (trendy) social positions (unlike most K-pop groups) as indicated by their work with UNICEF, famously culminating in their UN speech earlier this fall. The Nazi hat and H-bomb t-shirt (to Koreans the H-Bomb mushroom cloud is a symbol of freedom from the brutal Japanese occupation) have been written off as the responsibility of the agency and stylists, not the idols, but for those outside the Korea-sphere this shifting of responsibility is unlikely to work, especially since it runs counter to BTS's appeal that they are a different type of idol group (not controlled, not a formula).

Seeing online vitriol directed at BTS (and feeling my mama bear instincts activated) I realized that Siwon's mistake had pushed my own buttons-- by motivating my worries that idol's voices are too loud and youth too impressionable, while my Korean friends who don't fit the hetero-normative paradigm experience indignities, even danger in a society with no legal protections and a lot of prejudice (nor did it relieve my frustrations with the co-opting of Jesus for hate, or my annoyance with the unsavory behavior of evangelical Koreans in general). BTS's mistake felt like this one time when I was working and I was told to do X, and X was really a bad idea, but because I was told to do X, I just did it without stopping to question if it was a good idea, or what my own knowledge told me about the situation (X meant I got a truck stuck in a river and we had to winch it out, but the engine was not okay with the dunking, just in case you were wondering).

In other words, I am now embarrassed both that I condemned Siwon so easily, and that my instinct is to leap to BTS's defense when really they know the importance of the title 'idol,' and they have created a socially aware hype that is part of the problem (greater expectations=greater disappointment). Being an idol is not easy, being a young person with social media at one's fingertips is not easy, and learning to extend the same compassion I give to my students to even a celebrity who was a total stranger until the conference is not easy. I'm going to work on that last one and hope the idols and young people of the world work out the other two to be a little more self-aware, and a little more empathetic. 

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Musing on Representation, Stereotypes, and "Crazy Rich Asians"

I thought that I wouldn't have anything to say about "Crazy Rich Asians" that hadn't already been written here and there, including in intellectual online/offline magazines. I am sure that academic articles addressing the film are already in the works. So this is just a tiny little blip of a contribution to a much larger discussion. I decided to write because after watching the film last night my husband and I got into a debate about representation, stereotypes, and what "Crazy Rich Asians" offers to Hollywood/world filmic history. Not so much a debate as almost an argument which he ended with "we don't need to talk about this anymore, it doesn't matter." In other words we did not come to any common understanding.

As all of you know by now, "Crazy Rich Asians" is a movie based on a book, and it is indeed very Asian. The non-Asian characters in the movie are bit parts, supporting characters, and almost all of them are employees of the Asian characters (and few get any speaking lines). In the same sort of way that black audiences rejoiced to see "Black Panther," there are a lot of Asians around the world who have whole-heartedly thrown their support behind "Crazy Rich Asians," not that they don't acknowledge the problematic issues/characters in the movie. As one of my friends explained after she watched the film:
For most people the film is really about representation of Asia in mainstream Hollywood in a non-stereotypical way that doesn't pander to white audiences. It's the opposite of the white washing of characters that saw blond and blue-eyed Emma Stone playing a character who is supposed to be Hawai'ian and Vietnamese (and even retained the family name Ng in "Aloha"), or Scarlett Johansson in "Ghost in the Shell." Both my former student above, and the former student who wrote the screen shot just below are of Asian heritage, but grew up in the US and Canada.
This former student's post accompanied evidence of attendance at the movie theatre with family and friends in the form of three photographs. Like the first post, more than 100 people responded with Facebook likes and loves.

After we saw the film (I didn't tell K what we were going to go watch before we got to the theatre) K was completely confused why I had even wanted to watch it.

  • It does not relate to Korea
  • There were no action, fantasy, or sci-fi elements 
  • And if he was pressed he might have even mentioned that the main character, Rachel Chu, was not the type of strong female lead I usually like, even if she was a college professor.

So I started talking to him about how "Joy Luck Club" had been the last film, 25 years ago, to come out of Hollywood with an essentially all Asian cast, but no martial arts. And K disagreed, so I had to re-emphasize that I was talking about Hollywood films. Then I realized that I had to explain the stereotypes of Asians in popular American media, when there are Asians in the media at all. "The men wear glasses, they are good at math, they are skinny and don't have a girlfriend" I tried to explain to him. K disagreed, scoffing. "Since when! Good at math?!" He seriously did not notice stereotypes of Asians in American media. To K, clearly, the representation of Asian masculinity (suave, desirable, well built) demonstrated by the actor Henry Golding (who plays the leading man, Nick Young) was normal. Just in case you need (want) a visual reminder, I'm talking about:
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Photo source:

The stereotypes didn't bother my husband because he didn't even notice they existed. He didn't consume Hollywood media with a specific awareness of "this is mainstream American media, and the only media that would have been in most American homes before this current transnational media age." K didn't watch much media as a child in a nomad/pastoralist family (no electricity, duh), but after he entered middle school (Maqu had the closest middle school, but that was still much too far to go back and forth often so he lived at school), he had access to various types of media, generally the few channels that would come in-- all Chinese state TV. This meant that his entire early media consumption was at least 95% Asian (usually Chinese) made. If it wasn't in Chinese, it was dubbed into Chinese, not subtitled (little is dubbed into Tibetan, Tibetans either follow along on the visuals or learn Chinese, and little media is produced in Tibetan). All the media, all the time, was Asian faces. When he did begin (as things opened up) to see a wider selection of foreign, even Hollywood productions, then the assumption was that America is a country of white people (and some black), so of course there aren't a lot of Asians in the media. K didn't, and others around him didn't feel a frustration with a lack of representation in American media because Hollywood productions were a special treat from a not Asian country. As things have changed (opened up) he has had access to bootlegged DVDs of movies from everywhere at low cost, and around China there are now over 3,000 TV channels.

But for K Asians in media are not limited in their roles to a few stereotypes, nor are they far down the cast list. Asians are represented--in Asian media. For K, for other Tibetans, or for Koreans, Chinese, and Malaysians like Henry Golding there is a wealth of Asian content to pick from. If you want to see Asians represented, you can.

On a related note I wonder if the international success of Hong Kong Film, Japanese anime, or Korean dramas even delayed the inevitable creation of a film like "Crazy Rich Asians"? In today's internet connected world any Canadian or American teenager, the younger version of my former students, has access to all of that Asian media as well. Which of course is not to dismiss the importance of the film to American (and Canadian) viewers. I sincerely hope it signals a turning point in Western media representation of Asians and preconceptions about the commercial viability of Asians in major roles as the film heads for three weeks in a row at the top of the box office, including through the Labor Day long weekend.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Preparing to Leave for Korea

Wahoo, I'm going to Korea!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It's time for my summer Korea trip, which is a wonderful thing, time I spend the whole year looking forward to. Or time I spend the whole year trying not to fight with my husband about, since he'd really rather I never went to Korea again (to be fair, yes, he goes to Tibet every year for more than a couple months, but they're his family/closest friends/his culture and he doesn't get how much of Korea is that for me).

Korea is where I feel most at home. It's not that my hometown isn't amazing (it is) nor that I haven't lived in a lot of other great places (seriously, Vancouver is great and really I'd return to live again in most of the places I've called home). But Korea is home. When I breathe the air in Korea into my lungs my heart sings. It makes me tear up to think I will be there in hours (I don't leave until Tuesday afternoon... but... I'm counting).

It's hard to explain it. But I think it's because I grew up in Korea. Not really growing, because I was a full sized person when I went to Korea (I moved there in 1996, and I probably stopped growing around 1986), but I figured out who I was, who I wanted to be, how I wanted to live in Korea. I think it was the first place in my life where I realized I could make my life. Before I went to Korea I was so influenced by other people's ideas. What was cool (which of course depended on who was around me), what was not cool (same). I'm not saying that my values have changed (I don't think they have, although I am more conservative, I think this is more like settling into me, rather than becoming ... I don't know what). It's just that before Korea I was surrounded by so many influences. In Korea, especially after I separated from the man I went to Korea with (one year later), I was finally able to just be an anonymous person walking down the street, living my way. Decide if I was doing something because of other people and social pressure, or if it was what I wanted. Of course I was obvious when I walked down the street, as I was fairly tall obvious foreigner living in a city with few foreigners. But as long as I did my job fairly competently, I could just be me. No one knew enough about me, or pinned me down into a box enough that I couldn't make my own reality.

There were assumptions, because I was a foreigner.

  • I can't use chopsticks (are you kidding me).
  • I can't eat spicy food (very false-- I don't consider Korean food spicy, I've only eaten one dish in all of Korea that was really spicy-- 고성 비빔 우동  in case you were curious).
  • I'm Christian (nope).
  • I only know English (even when I first arrived in Korea it irritated me that people assumed I wouldn't know Korean and why do they never think I might speak German or Hungarian?). 

But you know, that's not much. It's not like growing up on a tiny island where you never have a chance to reinvent yourself for new audiences because everyone knows everything already. Or going to two tiny colleges. Or working in an incestuous (okay, not quite) group of activists in Seattle.

In Korea I could finally figure out who I was. What I wanted to be. I was challenged everyday to figure out how to live in a foreign culture, from the first bits (how to cook with new ingredients) onward. I learned the language. I learned how to present myself. I learned how to get along in a collective society (not to truly become a collectivist because I'm a freaking contrarian, but just how to blend in enough in contact with people who weren't friends.)

So I prepare to go to Korea and it's like the universe aligns with me. Everything is so easy. People act the way I expect them to. The world works. I call my taxi driver through Skype and he immediately knows who I am-- "Are you coming back or leaving? Do you have your bike with you again?" My friends and former students are reaching out on FB and by email "When do you have time?" My schedule starts to fill up. My mouth waters for Korean food. My legs itch to speed along the Han River at 5:30 in the morning. My heart swells and I break into involuntary smiles as I think of the people I'll see-- people I've known for 10, 15, 20 years. I anticipate surprising a friend I've known since two months after I first arrived in Korea. I think about seeing the kids of people I met when they were in middle school.

I'm going home.

My baby brother and my former student/friend's dad in 2002

World Cup Fever!

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Official Unofficial List of the Best Korean Popular Music (Loosely Defined) of 2017

So, I got the idea that there is no one more qualified than me to make a list of the best Korean pop and other (not traditional) music released in 2017. I mean, I pay attention, right? I spend hours per week staying up to date in order to teach my students. And I told myself to make the list and then see how many it was. I mean, who says it has to be Top 10 or Top 50? It could be Top 37! [Ironically it was top 99 and then I realized that I'd forgotten something I love and now it's actually 100]. The problem is, I love music. I'm picky and opinionated, but I'm also just really super into music and music videos. So I like the video concept here, the dance there, the melody for that other song, the rap on yet another... it never ceases.

I started out by re-listening (while grading coursework) to the playlists I made in 2017. Of course some songs never made it onto a playlist, or I may have been concentrating and never heard the song as it went past me. But just that listening took a long time. Then at the end I realized that I was missing representation from some groups or singers I really like and then I actually went back to their releases for the year and found which was the best and decided if it made the list. So this project actually took almost three weeks.

So welcome to a REALLY long list. The entire list is also accompanied by a YouTube playlist (of course). But you could just read down here and watch things you aren't familiar with. The further down the list you go, the more music you'll be unfamiliar with, because I start with the major hit groups and solo acts. That is because the list has mainstream K-pop at the top, and we get into the Independent music, even some underground music, further down the list.

The section headings are also links that take you directly to that place in the list, in case you want to scroll past one group, but listen to all of another section.


[Apologies for saying something really obvious if you already know about K-pop] In K-pop we have a type of pop star called an "idol" that is characterized by being recruited (often very young), trained, and extensively managed. They are placed in groups, assigned artistic concepts or personality types, and given choreography and lyrics to memorize. Although some idols grow to be artists who may write songs or play instruments, the category of idol more or less sticks with them, even as they mature and sometimes become more creative. These are the biggest and most popular acts-- they're backed by a huge artistic apparatus -- particularly if they are managed by one of the biggest companies (the top three companies can essentially guarantee success to any act they debut). They are created for tweens and teens, and as they age, their audience ages, too. After they become a source of international soft cultural power for Korea, older people got more interested in the K-pop world, too. Some videos may hit 5 million views within a week, with fans from allover the world.


Block B "Shall We Dance"
Oh yes, we've got a mishmash of cultural elements in true bricoleur K-pop style, some soft-appropriation (soft as in they're just going for an aesthetic without being particularly offensive), but the song is fun, the hook is catchy, and I guess I'll miss the boys when they enlist.

BAP "Honeymoon
I actually really like this song, it hits all the right points for me-- the "wooo-hooo" background is particularly pleasing. Nothing here is that original, but I still feel it may be BAP's best song yet. The video I'm less interested in, but I like the sound a lot. But "Wake Me Upa BAP release from March was also quite excellent, not quite enough to get on the playlist, but enough to get a mention here!

Black 6ix "Please"
To me this is a stereotype of a new hopeful boy group -- the song evokes early B2ST.  

BTS is particularly hot right now, and with their reliably good releases it is not hard to see why. They even get two songs on the list because Come Back Home sounds absolutely fabulous even if some fans complained because they couldn't see enough of the handsome faces of the boys. However, this song is just a remake-- BTS and Seo Taiji collaborated to do a twenty-fifth anniversary reboot of this song. The sad thing is that before this song many so-called fans didn't know who Seo Taiji was. Just the leader of the first K-pop group that created the model of K-pop we still see today... (this is the original Come Back Home).

This is the first of my top ten for the year selections. Why does this song get the honors and not a song by a group I like more? Because I am honestly able to listen to this song on a loop for a ridiculously long time. I like the Alice in Wonderland acid trip video and the music feels like a warm summer day.

Winner "Really Really
This is Winner's best release to date.

GOT7 "Never Ever
Like Winner, Got7 seems to finally be living up to my expectations.

Seventeen "Don't Wanna Cry"
This group might be my favorite boy group right now (since I believe Big Bang is essentially over). On the other hand, I am enjoying BTS a ton, I just don't think they need more fans. They've got a lot of backers right now. Seventeen, though, also has some very interesting stuff they're trying, I particularly like the idea of having the three subgroups who focus on dance, hip-hop, and performance. (Trauma by the Hip-hop sub group is the best of those releases, not quite good enough for this list, though).

Wanna One "Energetic

EPIK HIGH "Bincha" feat. Oh Hyuk 
I am a sucker for one of the rare songs with some meaningful lyrics. Plus Epik High seems to only get better with age, if less "idol" than ever. Oh Hyuk's songs with his group, Hyukoh are listed below.


Just in case you are not familiar with the K-pop world, we have gender dimorphism in K-pop in a big way. Women are definitely required/encouraged to act either girly (or aegyo, an affected cuteness which is totally socially acceptable) or sexy. The idea that you wouldn't call a physically mature woman a girl has yet to hit the K-pop world, and in fact many young women debut when they are as young as fifteen or sixteen, so these are "girl groups" -- this becomes a bit awkward when they are in their late thirties like the first group (a comeback of a group that debuted in 1997), or even in their later twenties.

SES "Paradise
If you call yourself a K-pop fan and don't know who SES are, I think you don't even know what K-pop is. SES are the prototypical girl group. Here they are, twenty years later, back together. So awesome.

April "Mayday
I may or may not have included this so that my list of girl group releases got longer. But honestly I like the nostalgia and the primary colors. This has so much of what a typical girl group video should have. I could make a checklist of common K-pop elements for a girl group and check of probably everyone of them with this video.

AOA "Excuse Me"
I had to go all the way back to January to find AOA's best song of 2017-- not everyone would agree with my assessment, some people were disappointed by the release, but I liked it, and I still do, and 20 million views can't all be guys watching their butts in short-shorts, can it? No. The retro look and dance here is good, and the song, like all good idol pop, is catchy.

Girl's Day "I'll be Yours
Maybe I just like this video b/c a woman in a giant dress punches men^^ -- certainly I find some of the dance moves uncomfortable at best.

GFRIEND "Fingertip
This is Gfriend's least annoying release in 2017 and one of my former students will kill me if I don't include at least one Gfriend song. So this is here to save my own life.

EXID "Night Rather than Day
I like EXID. And I liked them more when they still had their best vocalist, who is missing from this release, but I still like their sound. If you give me a choice between a girl group that is sexy and a girl group that is girly (as if those should be the only choices, and clearly Mamamoo shows there are other choices), then I'm going to pick the sexy group. Neither sexy nor girly is truly empowered, but at least the sexy ones aren't pretending not to be sexualized (because those girly aegyo groups are just as sexualized but in an icky infantalized Lolita way).

Mamamoo "Aze Gag" with an honorary mention for "Yes I Am"
Now that both 2NE1 and Sistar are history (and Sistar was pretty inconsistent), and Brown Eyed Girls haven't released anything good in about 5 years, Mamamoo are my favorite currently active "girl" group. They're just plain fun.

2NE1 "Goodbye"
I didn't know if I'd include this or not. 2NE1 has been my reliably favorite girl group for years, from their second release ("Lollipop" was annoying). This song is bittersweet, but it has that sound, that 2NE1 sound that I've always liked so much.


BOA "Camo
I have never been the biggest BOA fan, I like her dancing more than her singing, but I really like this song a lot-- it's in her top 5 releases ever, in my opinion.

Hyori "Black" and "Seoul" feat Killagramz   TOP TEN 
I have always loved Hyori, she's fun, increasingly political, and she brings the best of K-pop to the table. I think these are my two favorite songs from her entire career, from her days as one member in the idol group FIN.k.l. until the present. They both belong in the top list. U Go Girl!

Here's the video link to "Seoul," which I marginally prefer over "Black,"even though I think she should call the song "Seoul and Jeju Island" considering how much of Jeju's scenery appears. Honestly though, both could practically make the top ten.

Hyuna "Babe
As much as I dislike the way Hyuna embraces her status as a sexual object, I also like her. She's not exactly a "bad girl" because mainstream K-pop doesn't have bad girls (in interviews and other programs she's totally covered up, innocent as could be, the sex-object thing is depicted as her stage persona and not her real self), but she's fun. She's enjoying herself. This music video with its crappy effects worked in to make it more low brow and approachable, it's hilarious nonsense lyrics (do you not actually know how old you are?), the nasal rapping, the 70s moments... its fun. I like fun.

Seonmi [Sunmi] "Gashina"
This track surprised me -- I hadn't expected something quite so ... fierce? From Seonmi.

IU "Palette" feat. G-Dragon
Actually this might not be IU's best in 2017, she's so prolific though, it is sort of overwhelming to even choose what's the best.  

Jung Yonghwa "That Girl" feat. Loco. 
This is Jung Yonghwa's best work in my opinion, it's fun, it's upbeat, the rap by Loco works smoothly with the parts that Yonghwa sings. In the past Yonghwa's releases have been almost always slower ballads, or what he releases with his group CNBlue, which is also often (rock) ballad type songs.

Taemin "Move (solo performance M/V)"  (M/V # 1, Duo Version M/V)    TOP TEN
I cannot emphasize how many times I watched this video, and the other two official videos. Taemin's dancing is amazing (thanks to the choreography of Koharu Sugawara, the short dark haired woman who appears in the duo version video with him). This comes in as one of my top ten for the year.

Rain "The Best Present (white version M/V)" (the dark version)
This video only makes the list because no one in K-pop can pull of this R&B slow song + athletic dancing thing like Bi, and we should all bow down and worship him for his skills. Note-- this was ONE TAKE.

Zico "Artist"
Actually Zico irritates me-- everything about him, including the spelling of his name (there is no Z sound in Korean, so in fact it should be Jiko not Zico). He's a serial cultural appropriator and he does it in the worst way-- like wearing the confederate flag-- but he's a prodigious talent.

Zion T. "The Song
If there is anything this list has proved to myself, it's how much I like some humor with my K-pop. This is Zion-T's (in my opinion) most danceable and humorous release of the year, even though it came way back in January.

PSY "I Luv It
I have to love this video. Just watch it. It's too much fun. But just so you know, the practice of embedding a translation (guiding understanding and making it impossible to view without translation), particularly a translation that does not properly capture the complexity of the video, is evil. No one should do this. Observe how Psy works to advertise travel to Korea-- this embedded product placement is obvious, but really there is PPL in a large amount of mainstream videos. Why did I pick this song for the list instead of "New Face"? Well, Yi Byeongheon (the actor) has an adorable cameo here, as does the Pineapple Pen guy.

San E "I Love Myself" feat. Hwasa of Mamamoo 
San E has always been a more political rapper, but he's still mainstream idol-managed, so one never knows how much of what he raps is "him" and how much of it is a performance.

Jonghyun "Lonely" feat. Taeyeon
Honestly, this song would not have made the cut, even though I was always biased towards Jonghyun out of all the SHINee members (even though I love Taemin's dancing and Minho's eyes) because Jonghyun was an actual artist who wrote this song himself. Now, I don't want to listen to this, because it depresses me to think "what if someone understood what he needed?"


Triple H is non-standard because it is a solo artist working with two members of a larger group under a new name -- Hyuna previously did this as half of the Troublemaker, so perhaps Triple H will release again. And KARD is one of the only idol groups (and the only recent one) that combines men and women in one group.

Triple H "So Fresh
This is one of the most risque K-pop videos ever. This project group (Hyuna, Edawn, Hui) combine murder, a menage a trois, and suicide in one of the most over-the-top K-pop videos of 2017. And it gets stuck in your head like you would not believe. So I am following a song by a man who committed suicide with a K-pop song in which three stars pretend to commit suicide.

KARD "Rumor
This is KARD's best release yet, and I actually found it quite singable (I even made a mild effort to memorize the lyrics).


Yoon Jongshin "4월호- 살아온 자 살아갈 자"    
Yoon releases one song per month, always creative. this is my favorite of 2017 and I thought that at least one of his songs should be represented here. He's a singer, songwriter, radio and TV star, and has his own (minor) K-pop management agency, Mystic89 (they manage among others Uhm Junghwa who appears on this list).

Bak Jaebeom (Jay Park) "Hulk Hogan
It's true that in general I like everything Jaebeom does, even when he's a sexually objectifying ass. (Yes, intentional play on words, since he is obviously obsessed with butts). I don't like the aesthetic of this video, which is, if I am reading it correctly, a sort of nod to the authenticity of Korean independent / formerly underground artists like Keith Ape (not that Jaebeom isn't independent, he is). But I love the sound, the unlikeliness of the subject, and just the basic Jaebeom swagger.

Gallant, Tablo, and Eric Nam "Cave Me In"
I feel guilty, but it's Gallant's voice that has me captivated here. I really appreciate that idols (albeit super non-standard idols like 'Blo) are actually making real music with non-Koreans, not just throwing random foreigners into the background in the video to show how cosmopolitan they are (I have a whole chapter in an edited book written on the topic of foreign dancing bodies in K-pop, in case you didn't realize).


Honestly, all the music below here is basically independent or alternative-- people with no representation, people working in cooperatives of like-minded artists, people who are the cusp of stardom, or who have actually made it, but did not approach it like idols did. So this is a lazily titled section. This section has the more independent music that is not more properly classified as hip-hop focused. The hip-hop/rap is further down the list.

Last summer someone accused me of being biased towards male groups and singers. I am now sure that's wrong.
1) there aren't many women in hip-hop and I do listen to a lot in that category
2) I don't like idol girl groups that much
However, looking at this list, in the solo female categories there are a ton of women, whether in this women-dominated alternative section, or in the idol solo acts. Even many hip-hop songs made it on the list because of the female guest vocalist (often not the rapper).

Stella Jang's "Vanishing Paycheck"  TOP TEN
This is definitely in my top 10 for the year.

Oohyo  "Goodbye" "Dandelion
I think I like "Goodbye" more than "Dandelion" as the relationship seems so evocative, but with "Dandelion" there is a great chorus, and still the same soothing voice. Also the nostalgia-inducing video and the lyrics are pretty cool.

Cherry Coke "Like I Do"
Like the songs above, this is a trippy floaty art piece.

J'Kyun "Soaking"
This song probably makes it on the list because of Cherry Coke's guest vocals and the dance-filled video. This and the track above just need to stay together.

Zee Bomb "Walking Last Night"
Another jazzy song with some sweet guitar work.

Seon-u Jeong-a "C A T" feat. IU 
A jazzy offering by Seon-u Jeong-a, another of my favorites. This song just came out, do I like it enough to place it in the top 100, or am I just so happy to have a new song from her?

Choi Ye-geun Band "Adult
Apparently I like some jazzy accents in my music these days. [Edit: I can't believe I didn't watch this video really before today-- and today I finally noticed that this is ONE woman playing all the parts in the band. I had pegged it for a not interesting video and mostly just listened to it before].

Yi Byeonghyeon "Bye Bye Cloud
This whimsical jazzy little number is another that I had forgotten about until I went back to re-listen to everything.

Cifika "Doorgoro
This is not the Cifika song I want to include, but it was released in 2017, and after my friend introduced me to her music I've been so in love with her sound.

Yaeji's "The Drink I'm Sipping On"    TOP TEN
This laid back, trippy, and totally not idol song was such a favorite of mine that I probably started to annoy people as I went around introducing it to everyone. It is another of my top 10 tracks for the year. Bravo to 88 Rising for giving Yaeji so much exposure. This young woman is super talented.

Coco Avenue "Eottae
Yep, this is a duo of two African-American women. But this is K-pop (in a sort of idol pop style), and they sound great (not like EXP Edition and their mangled lyrics). I love this song.

Jessi "Don't Make Me Cry"
I don't want to like this song, because Jessi's performance of self on TV shows really turns me off, but she's got some serious pipes, and there are very few voices like hers in K-pop.

Hyuk-oh "Tomboy" and "WanliTOP TEN (Wanli)
Tomboy made the list just because you need to go watch this awesome video -- the art is very fun, very whimsical.

Hyukoh is actually a four man group fronted by Oh Hyuk. Oh speaks Chinese, in addition to English and Korean, and Wanli is in Chinese with a video that seems to be filmed in China. I love it. It's amazing, quirky, and so different than most Korean music. The video's aesthetics are so amazing to me that I'm sticking it on the top ten.

Captain Rock "I Don't Know" feat Cha Seung-u and Bak Jonghyeon
Just in case you thought Korea didn't make any (punk) rock! Captain Rock is Han Gyeongrok, the bassist for Crying Nut. And the video even has a cyclist! 

Yoon Dohyun "Sparks Fly
This song is beautiful, and Yoon is a giant in the history of Korean music, yet... Korean music is so saturated right now this beautiful song dropped without an outside-Korea trace (inside of Korea it got more traction because people know who Yoon is).

Jazzmal "Ma Home" feat Sato Yukie
This is the most neglected song that has made this list. I love this song. I've shared it on FB repeatedly. But still no one has watched it. I know they aren't cute or young, but surely this shouldn't be so unknown. I know the singer has horrible hair, but I just love his deep voice!

Hey Men "Jelly
Another neglected song-- it's barely been watched at all, even though they actually made a decent video, not just throwing up an image with an audio track.

Primary "~42" feat. Esna and Sam Kim
The video's cute and I like the Korean on the screen to make it easy to sing along.

JK Skull and Tiger JK "Here to Stay
One of the most important points about K-pop is that it's genre flexible. This is your reggae + rap offering of the list. Actually it's a really smooth song, if the video is an annoying mash-up of posturing to demonstrate authenticity.

10cm "Phonecert
Honestly, I over listened to 10cm in 2010, right before they got super big and I'm totally sick of them and feel like their sound hasn't evolved at all, but this is the better of their 2017 releases.

Dauri "Why?" feat. U-il
A sappy breakup song for you, right before the comedy pieces below.


SET "Nalari"   
This song gets onto the list for the dubious honor of being bizarre and trying WAY too hard to be an idol pop song. Don't miss the part where they tell you the blood type of each of the girls on the screen.

Charlie and Shinba "Good Zombie
This is another humorous video, this time indeed we have good (and very misunderstood) zombies. It's fun, it's funny, and it incorporates a ton of intertextual humor. 


Dumbfoundead "Water
I have always liked Dumbfoundead's music. I am not entirely happy with his more commercial turn this year as can be seen in this song, "Hyung" and "Every Last Drop" and "Rocketman" -- I still think he's really talented, though, and I wish him the best with his BornCtzn label.

Bizzy "What up Hyung?" feat. YDG
If you listen to this song with only one ear attuned to it, you'll think you're listening to Tiger JK. All in the family, right?

Sway D "올라가" feat Superbee and Gortexx
This is a clever, visually captivating video, and none of your friends have seen it.

Goretexx, Han Yohan, Black Nut "Silky Bois

Behwy and Yang Sehyeong "Manse!"
I wanted a Behwy song on this list, because I really admire his skills, but I don't like much of what he's done in 2017, except this. It's actually part of an "Infinite Challenge" challenge, and it's teaching the audience the history of An Junggeon (Korea's penultimate martyr and hero). I even downloaded this, so it really does belong on this list of best of 2017. Turn on the subtitles if you don't know Korean.

G2 "Bang" feat. Bago, Los, Dumbfoundead
Okay, honestly this is on the list because of Bago's vocals. Amazing. She needs to be in every video (okay that'd be over doing it, but I love her voice).

Young Cream "Better Know" feat. J-Boog
To me this video represents a lot of things that were done right-- it's a really beautiful collaboration between two people who sound good. It brings together cultures without cultural appropriation BS. It's got a steady line of gayageum all through the track-- the only thing that could be better is the video.

Wutan "808" feat Don Mills

Don Mills "Mr. Trap Hwang"
I work well to this song, the beat works well for me, I guess. But I also like the strings (acoustic maybe yanggeum really low in the background.

Code Kunst "Fire Water"
I think really this is just here because of the line in the chorus "fire in the water" -- love it. Actually the music, the whole thing, it's great.

Cheetah "Blurred Lines"
I don't quite know how this song escaped notice, perhaps because if a woman is in Korean hip-hop she needs to blatantly objectify herself to succeed and Cheetah doesn't.

Siyun "그 때의 너" feat. Seo Jayeong
The vocals on this song, the simple video, and the fact that no one has watched it lead me to ask you to give this charming song a chance.

GroovyRoom "Sunday" feat. Heize and Jay Park
This song was able to do quite well because Heize and Bak Jaebeom (Jay Park) were the featured artists. GroovyRoom (Bak Gyujeong and Yi Hwimin) are actually pretty well known producers who have produced songs for a lot of big names (like Hyolyn of defunct group Sistar, Heize, and One), and they have been signed to Bak Jaebeom's H1GHR Music so we should hear more releases by them, not just songs they produce.

Double K "Used to" feat. Kriz
Actually I think I mostly like this song for the singing by the guest vocalist, Kriz.

Legit Goons "Junk Drunk Love"
No one is taking themselves too seriously here, but the result sounds good.

Crush "Outside
This is super smooth and the video is amusing.

Mun Myeongjin "Lie Down" feat. Reddy
From the Tibetan vocal sample at the start of the track, the music all the way through, the neon over-saturated colors, and the smooth rap, this is one of my favorite rap releases in 2017.

Mad Clown "사랑은 지옥에서 온 개" feat. Suran
It's a simple and beautiful little video featuring Suran, really nice. 

Reddy "My Lite" feat. A.C.T.
I have no idea why this video hasn't gotten more views. ACT's singing really adds so much to the song, too. Another on the list for the year is also by Reddy, "Supreme

Bill Stax "38 Flexing"
Bill Stax (back when he was called Garion) was a favorite of mine many years ago. I still don't know why he had to change his name to another stupid combination of Western name and sounds that don't exist in Korean ('st' as well as 'x'), but the track is awesome. I love that he calls himself the father of Korean rap in the song, too.

Justhis and Paloalto "Brown Eyes View" feat. Cifika (whom you already saw above).
With Cifika's guest vocals and a video where they cruise the city I miss so much, this is just so awesome.

Bumkey "Surprise
The singing in this song is just so sweet, and I'm a sucker for anything that includes Beenzino.

OLNL "Oyeah
He's so young I just want to pinch his cheeks and pat him on the back and say "good for you!" He really qualifies for the description of unknown young and struggling artist, so please throw a little love his way.

Woodie Gochild "Let's Get It
And video director August Frogs brings me yet another video with interesting hints of Korean locality, perfect for a paper I'm working on.

Keith Ape and Ski Mask the Slump God "Achoo!
I like a good bizarre video, and this song makes me bounce around in my seat I like the beat so much... Keith Ape even washed his hair before the video shoot-- I'm impressed.


(I am heavily biased towards those who actually make a video)

Hong Jinyeong, DIA, Kim Yeonja "You Are My FlowerTOP TEN
This is one of the simplest and strongest videos, ever. It's just a shot of a middle aged woman, sad, crying, drinking soju alone in a restaurant surrounded by couples and what not. It's a song of longing for an unhealthy relationship. 

Nasangdo "Get Up"
Trust me. Watch it. Yes, it has an unexpectedly advertisement like beginning (it makes more sense the second time you watch, and of course, if you understand Korean or have watched some Korean TV before). You just can't be in a bad mood while listening to trot (well, you can be sad, like the above).

Seo Ina "ApdieroTOP TEN
I use this video to illustrate inter-textuality in Korean media to my students. But more than all the clever references and the humor, it's just awesome. One of my top 10 for the year, for sure.


I could move the songs around the playlist, or I could keep these off the list, entirely. But somehow each of these songs told me I had to put them on the list, even though they all irritated me at some point.

Dok2's "Crazy
At first I didn't like this song much because it is essentially an extended product placement for Adidas, even though I liked the sound, in general. However, I have exactly one MA student-- even though she's in her MA she decided to take my K-pop class like a regular student. This song was one of the options for the final video essay and she chose to write on it, turning in a very pithy and well-argued analysis of Dok2 (who is an independent rapper, not an idol pop star) and his finances as one of the artists by the collaboratively owned and managed 1llionaire Records. According to her analysis Dok2 is unabashedly making money and he's not going to pretend otherwise.
Dok2 rubs his fingers together representing money, clad head to toe in Adidas. [screenshot]

Day 6- "All Alone
This isn't my favorite type of K-pop, and I don't even like their other songs, but the layered voices in this song really grew on me. I found that even though I had reacted with "meh" at first, I was listening to the song often.

Babylon "Lalala
It's not a complicated track, but it's fun-- upbeat.

NCT 127 "Cherry Bomb
I didn't like this song because of the overly repetitive and essentially meaningless lyrics, then it grew on me -- I guess sometimes repetition can be a good thing^^

Uhm Junghwa "Watch Me Move"
Musically this song doesn't really have anything to say for itself. But I love that Uhm is still releasing music from time to time, and this video is trippy. She isn't pretending not to be older than all the little K-pop stars, nor is she just trying to do their thing (this feels consistent with some of her work more than a decade ago), and the visuals are trippy.

Kim Changhoon and Blackstones "My First Love, Gwangju" feat. Jeong Hongil and Yun Seong
This makes it on the list even though I cannot actually list to it too often, because of the historical lessons for those still unfamiliar with the Gwangju Massacre in May 1980.

HearIM "Snow Flower"
It was really hard for me to get past this stupid name. But the song has a gorgeous video and combines piri with guitar and piano in a not unpleasing way. I mean, I want to see more of this! Oh, also, it's totally instrumental. Which makes it the only all instrumental song on the list.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Teaching Korean Culture through Korean Dramas

I lose track of time a lot. I live in that weird academic reality where time is governed by classes and semesters and grading periods. But somehow since I got to UBC, and certainly this semester as I taught a class that had a substantial drama component, I watched more Korean Dramas (TV dramas) than I ever did before. I used to have a rule about not starting a Korean drama more than a couple times a year, as it generally turns into a binge, sooner or later, interrupting your normal life and sleep patterns for what... escapism, I guess.

Right now I am just finishing teaching a class on Contemporary Korean Culture. To try to make it more engaging (and to avoid reading final papers that were Wikipedia influenced reports), each student signed up to be part of a group that watched an entire drama (start to finish), blogged on each episode, and incorporated that drama into their final paper (on any topic they could bring their drama into). Students had a choice of 17 TV programs, not all dramas, but signed up for the following 8 (all dramas):

Age of Youth (season 1)
Forest of Secrets
Fight for My Way
Chief Kim
Reply 1997
IRIS (season 1)
Descendants of the Sun

Originally I had not watched all of these dramas, I relied on the recommendation of friends to pick dramas with solid analyzable content. After the class started I quickly finished watching Reply 1997 because I had always planned to watch it, and just hadn't gotten to it yet (it's one of the two older dramas on the list). I planned not to watch the remaining two (Age of Youth and Chief Kim) but soon found that my feedback for those two groups of students was not as good as for the other six groups. Now in the last week of the semester I am finishing Chief Kim.

How did these dramas work for students? The links below take you to the blogs the students made. Feel free to give them feedback if you want! As the student papers come in, you can judge for yourself how the class format worked to advance their understandings of Korea.

Age of Youth. This drama includes themes and content related to the tribulations of youthful college students, part-time workers in Korean society, gender discrimination, abusive relationships, sexual attitudes in Korea, parenting (or the lack thereof), sex work, body image/cosmetics/plastic surgery, the importance of education, class advantages, and educational networks

Misaeng This drama is famous for its realistic depiction of the life in a medium-large sized Korean company, particularly the difficulties of contract (not permanent) workers. Educational and personal networks, difficulties of working mothers, entertaining and drinking culture in the Korean company world, sexual harassment and gender discrimination, and more makes an appearance.
Image result for misaeng
Forest of Secrets.  Watching this drama, I immediately knew I wanted to include it. On one level it's a detective story as the leads try to catch a murderer. But more importantly its a story of the corruption in Korean society-- the two main leads are a prosecutor who is only believably honest as his backstory is that he had a part of his brain removed, robbing him of any empathy and leaving him a complete stickler for the rules, incapable of being corrupted. The drama also stars Bae Duna, and she is a reason to watch just on her own. It is the darkest of the 8 dramas, with sex work, blackmailing, corruption of the legal and law enforcement professions, corporations controlling politics, gender discrimination, and of course, murders.
Image result for bae doona, stranger

Fight for My Way. This drama is somewhat unique in that it does not follow the ideal successful young person, but rather four friends from more disadvantaged backgrounds who are struggling to overcome poverty (or at least get by in the world) while staying true to themselves. It's clearly a parable of "Hell Joseon" -- a new term for Korea popular with youth feeling the intense pressure of living in this society. The drama brings in issues of class, the importance of networks, the pressure in the workplace, the expense of marriage, fidelity, changing attitudes towards pornography, and so on.
Image result for fight for my way
Reply 1997. This drama swings back and forth between the past (with a lot of emphasis on 1997 and 1998 when the main characters are in high school) and the present (2012). Actually I had really looked forward to watching this drama, but was fairly disappointed. It has a historic K-pop and K-pop fandom connection, and addresses the importance of education in Korean society. It touches on corruption, the development of internet companies in Korea, regionalism, and much more. The same production/writing/directing team is also responsible for Reply 1988 and Reply 1994, but the stories are totally different.

Descendants of the Sun. This drama was a huge hit, one of the biggest. It was even tremendously popular outside of Korea. The drama deals with themes of nationalism, patriotism, professionalization of the military, sexual harassment in the workplace, networks and class and their impact on job opportunities, and even international peace-keeping. It is also a romance of the first order, with a stunning male lead who embodied almost every item on any woman's checklist.
Image result for descendants of the sun yoo shijin

Chief Kim. This was the last of the dramas that I watched myself. Friends strongly recommended it, but it hadn't seemed that attractive to me-- however, I ended up thinking it is one of the best of the eight. It is somewhat of a comedy, which actually works well to lighten up the dark dark dark topics addressed. The drama is another version of Misaeng in one way, except that the main characters all work for a major jaebeol (conglomerate like Samsung or LG or SK). The drama demonstrates the prioritization of the greed of owners and executives over the plights of irregular workers, contract workers, and of course the good-hearted team in Business Operations who are uncovering massive corruption that others continually try to hide using overseas paper companies, mafia-style shake-downs (the drama begins with someone being forced to commit 'suicide'), scapegoats and influence peddling. It just has to be the only drama in the history of the world with a bunch of accounts as the heroes and heroines.

IRIS. IRIS has a much more stereotypical hero-- a secret government agent cast down and falsely accused of being a traitor who is trying to avenge himself.  The actor who plays that agent, Yi Byeonghyeon, was at the height of his popularity when the drama came out-- a total heartthrob who has since seen his star tarnished. The plot includes secret talks between the DPRK and the ROK, and some of the main characters are northerners. Other than Descendants of the Sun it is the only drama to include Korea's international standing/position and international politics as a major theme. At the time it was made (2009) it was the most expensive Korean drama ever-- shooting in Hungary and Japan in addition to Korea.
Related image
I posted some of my thoughts on teaching the class as it was going on the main clearing house for the class, here, if you're curious.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

On Friendship

I have been really blessed with the strong friendship of strong women throughout my life. These friendships have given me, taught me, helped me so much that it is simply impossible to explain. I could write a book about my memories of some of my friends, and about all the times I turned to them and was rewarded with affirmation, good advice, and some darn fine meals (people who care about food have friends who care about food, I guess^^).

Lately I've been thinking about friendship a lot. It started a few months ago when someone I was getting to know expressed rueful jealousy at my friendship with Kimberly (fast friends since 1997 – the closest friend I made in all my time in Korea—and since she lives in Vancouver, someone I get to see more than on Skype). To me it was almost impossible to imagine what this young woman told me—that at twenty she didn't have one close female friend, one long term friend. When I was twenty I had been friends with Faith for over a decade. Faith and I still talk or meet each other frequently (she's on Lopez, and now that I come to Lopez often she also exists beyond Skype). When I was twenty I was already friends with people like Rane (in Maryland, she mostly exists on Skype now, but when she gave birth to her eldest, I was there).

It can be hard to stay friends with people after you no longer live in proximity to each other, but in this internet connected age it's a lot easier than it ever was before. Back in 1996 when I first moved to Korea I was writing people letters on paper. That was harder. With the mailing time lag, even if someone did respond right away, the problems you were worrying would be solved or forgotten by the time you got a response. Now I'm partially addicted to Facebook because it's the way I can stay in touch with my people, as spread around the world as they are. And the reminders about birthdays sure are nice. I'm writing this on the ferry to Lopez, and in the five minutes since I sat down (we're still at the dock) five Facebook friends or their children (Yahanni, Kylie greeted me by name! So sweet!) have waved at me, said hi, or otherwise made small talk. I'm reasonably up-to-date on their lives thanks to Facebook. Other friends resist Facecrack, but we can stay in touch through email.

But even with the help of Facebook, Skype, and email you still have to do certain things to make and keep long term friends. One thing is just plain showing up—sometimes you have to go to the birthday parties and weddings and do all you can to ease their pain when they lose someone. I'm not always the best at that. I think I skate much too close to the thin ice on that one. I could justify this saying something like "they didn't come to my wedding" (then again, I got married on the Tibetan plateau), but the reality is that showing up matters and you can't be absent too often before people start to wonder if they are important to you. I try to help people understand my absences, but without making excuses, but one of my goals right now is to get better at showing up. I've been working at just showing up for my family (now that I live a few hours and a ferry ride away), and sometimes just that feels overwhelming for someone like me who is stretched too thin, but I need to show up for my friends, too.

And another thing is just being the type of person who knows how to be friends without spending physical time together—certain personalities know how to do that well, like Rebecca (the closest friend I made during my doctorate, currently in my life via Skype). Unfortunately there are other friends who are people I still really treasure, but for them it seems that face time must also include breathing in a certain amount of air that was previously in each other's lungs. Sometimes you don't know what type someone will be until you move, but the type of person who has long phone conversations while you're still living in the same city is probably also going to tolerate long phone and Skype conversations when you're not in the same city.

But there is a lot more to friendship than using technology and finding people who don't need you there to feel that you are still there.

For one thing, friends just accept each other. They get what makes each other tick. You can disagree with your friend (maybe it's something about their partner, their parenting, their diet or their use of a substance), but if you're friends you accept them. People turn to friends for acceptance. People turn to friends to know that even if they are a little crazy, it's okay. Friends offer advice and criticism when it's asked for, and most other times they just make a little comment like "well you know that's not my style,”  “I wasn't there,” “I don't have kids/work in that field.” Your friend probably already knew that you were unlikely to have made the same choice because they accept you being different than them. Friendship is very largely about acceptance. Because you have to be able to be honest with your friend. It's impossible to have any kind of real relationship without expressing what's important to you, honestly. And that does leave you vulnerable. But the friend –never- takes advantage of that vulnerability to slip a knife into your heart when your shields are down.

This is not to say you shouldn't tell someone they are out of line, tripping, or whatever when you just really need them to dial it back on down. But say it without judgment and then leave it alone. Do this without drama in a way that they will hear. If you're still building on the friendship, and the issue doesn't impact you personally, table it for another day when you're closer. (If it does matter that much, rethink the friendship—because saying "I am telling you this because I'm your friend" & "I have to be honest with you because I care about you" implies that other people don't tell the truth, that only the speaker is honest, and this is just a mild form of gas-lighting).

One of my oldest friends used to demonstrate against abortion (not nasty outside clinic demonstration, but at least once she went to a march). It was hard for me (because I believe strongly in women's choice) when she told me that, and we'd already been friends since we were five or six, but I couldn't figure out what to say about it. So as I remember it I simply said I had the opposite opinion, but it drove a wedge between us (from my side, I'm not sure about her side) and I spent less time with her (and then moved out of that city and it was pre-email so we fell out of touch for awhile). I couldn't figure out how to reach her with my feelings, but didn't want to trash the friendship. And you know, she and I are still friends today. And in the years since she went to that rally in 1990 (?) she's also been faced with the sort of situation where many many women would rethink their anti-abortion position, and yet she didn't get an abortion. All respect to her. She's a different person than me, she lives her truth, and we'll be friends until we die. I could run away from my life with the clothes on my back, and she'd give me a place to sleep for as long as I needed. So you can have diametrically opposite opinions about something (perhaps not the most elemental and central thing in your life, or something as all encompassing of a difference in values as voting for Twittler) and if you want to be friends, you accept each other. (And perhaps it's true that when she had that baby the lingering feeling I'd carried with me for more than fifteen years went away, because I respected that she never backed down from her own beliefs.)

Once in awhile, when your friend asks, you tell them some hard truth. But you make sure they're asking for that first. And you try to be super aware of their feelings and how they're taking your hard truth. Say something, wait, listen to their response and if they seem like they don't want to listen to what you just said—shut up about it. Do you want to be friends, or do you want to say your piece? Can you still be friends if you change the subject and go back to safe territory? Can you accept that they aren't ready to hear what you're saying? Are you making it about you and the fact that you're "right" more than the fact that you want to be friends with them next week, next year, next decade? Does expressing your truth matter more to you than their feelings while listening to you? Being a friend means being sensitive to other people's feelings. If you make a decision that winning an argument or saying your piece is more important that someone else, that means you've just decided that you matter more than they do. And if that's what you think, then you didn't really want to be friends.

There was a lesson I learned once. It was when I was in my third year of college and I was living with my best friend, Dawn. My splurge was to buy real honey for my tea, coffee, and baking needs. I was really broke (almost compromise and use white sugar degree of broke)—paying the tuition percentage left over after my fellowships, grants, and loans, rent and food costs by working forty or more hours per week while going to college full time with zero financial help from my parents. And Dawn kept using my honey. I knew how fast I used it—much slower than it was disappearing. I was really pissed about it for awhile and then I realized that Dawn was much more important than the honey. That she had different financial concerns than me, and different pressures on her, and came from a different culture where people were less frugal with treats. That it was worth buying twice as much honey to have a friend like her. I'm sure there were things about me that weren't easy for her to live with, either (probably quite a few), but she was tolerating them and accepting me. It was an important lesson. I have fallen back on that lesson thousands of times since, and it's probably a large reason that across the cultural divide my relationship with my husband is stronger than ever seventeen years after we first got together. What's more important, that person or something they do that bothers you? As long as the answer remains that person (and it helps if you reflect on things you do that also bother them, that they usually let slide), then you try really hard to let it go.

Actually, there is one time that as a friend you should occasionally give unasked for advice. That's when you think your friend has been neglecting a bigger goal in favor of something right in front of them. Or when they are neglecting some amazing talent or ability they have in favor of some immediate but maybe more practical thing. It's your duty as a friend to occasionally nudge at them about writing the novel they always promised you, or recording those fabulous songs of theirs, or starting that business that you suspect they're a little scared to try to start because they are afraid of failure. As a friend you should give them a little reminder, in a positive and upbeat way that lets them know that someone stands behind them even when they are reaching for the stars.

Other rules as a friend?

Listen to each other's bad day. Stand behind your friend. On the bad day listen to them gripe about anyone and anything and don't judge them for it. If you cannot stand listening to them gripe, are you really their friend? And the rules are that if it's their day to gripe, you have to let them talk it out. You can tell them about the similar thing that happened to you, but unless you're also in crisis mode right now, this is their time to do the whining, and all you can do is normalize the whining by proving they aren't crazy, you've experienced that sort of ________ as well. But you don't get to unburden. They need it, now. Let them talk it out. Listen and wash the dishes, clean the floor, take a brisk walk, but let them keep going. If it starts to seem like that's all your conversations are, and they always bitch and you always listen, then you can re-evaluate the friendship. But in a long lasting friendship, in my experience, you take turns.

Bring them the good stuff. You visit them or call them when you're in crisis, but you also have to show up on the great day. You have to tell them right away when "the" good thing happens to you. Do something silly and happy to let them know you were thinking about them. Kimberly has insisted before on buying me something because she was sure I should have it and she invites me when they buy something delicious to make for dinner (and I pretend to be excited about tiger spotted prawns and eat four which I would only do because they are locally caught that same day but mostly because my best friend is sharing with me her special treat and it feels really great to be invited for the happy special day even if I am more excited about asparagus and potatoes and salad). Actually writing this paragraph is just re-emphasizing to me how Kimberly is just the sweetest friend in the world. I am so freaking lucky.

Do the favor for them when you don't want to because you're just too busy. You Photoshop that series of photos into the desired format and they read your overdue book review (thanks Rebecca!). Cooperating helps lighten everyone's load.

I'm still learning all this stuff as I go. I haven't kept every friend from my whole life close. Some it's because we have diverged too much to have a lot to talk about (even if we still carry love for each other in our hearts). Some it's because the friendship becomes imbalanced over time in a way that's not sustainable. For example, I had this friend for about ten years. I introduced her to her husband (who I first met in 2000 or 2001, so you can see how deep the connection is). When we first met we lived in the same building, worked for the same university and exercised in the same studio. In other words, we spent a lot of time together. She used to call me to work through cultural differences she was having with her husband and such. When I left Korea and went to do my doctorate and we started spending less time together in person and on the phone I guess something changed for her. When I moved back to Korea and the same time zone I was happy to talk often again. I called her one day, no answer, and got a text message that she was taking an extended vacation in Colombia, she'd call me when she got back. This is someone I'd talked to on the phone at least once every couple weeks for the past year after returning from the US. But I realized in that moment that it was almost always me calling her. She'd moved on, her interests and needs had changed. I wasn’t the person to excitedly talk about an upcoming vacation with. I had to let that friendship go and leave it as a memory—it had meant a lot to me in the past, but wasn't part of my present. Who knows, maybe she'll reach out again someday. But we grow and we change, and that means what we need from those around us and the type of people we want to spend time with also changes. If all your friendships end in giant blow ups, then of course something is wrong with you, but if you just fade away from each other, move on from each other, but leave communication channels open then when the need arises you can still turn to each other, and you'll still care about each other. Even when I unfriend someone I was once close to on FB (for example when they post lots of things that rile you up) I make sure to send them a note and let them know my email address and ask them to reach me that way if they need. I don't want to close the channel of communication, even if I don't want to read their public character assassinations of their ex (who I never met and might actually be horrible) every other day.

Anyway, I've been thinking a lot about friendship, and what friendship means, and how to be a good friend. These are lessons I learned on the go, from my friends. They deserve all the credit for making me into a better friend, and tolerating me when I don't always get it right.

Love you all!

p.s. and of course sometimes the best friend is an animal
p.p.s. the friend I've know the very longest, my mom, read this post to make sure I didn't sound like a crazy person and suggested a few clarifying touches. Love you mom! I'm not sure when you became my very bestest friend (and not someone to wipe my bum or rebel against), but you rock.