Monday, November 29, 2010

Foreigners on Korean TV

I have been one of these foreigners, and I will be again. But I have a few things to say about the Korean practice of sticking foreigners on TV doing/enjoying Korean traditional things.

In the past Korea bought the whole idea of the West as superior (partially because of a belief that acceptance of Western culture, ideas and technology was a major reason why Japan was able to overpower Korea at the beginning of the 1900s). Koreans considered Western things advanced and superior (and the West agreed) and in an attempt to succeed (particularly after achieving independence) they swallowed the baby and the bathwater (to screw up a traditional saying) hook, line and sinker. In an effort to become economically advanced they also accepted Christianity, fell in love with Monet and decided to start sleeping in a bed. Not everyone, of course, but I guarantee you that use of beds (instead of sleeping on the floor) will be higher in Christian households. Seriously.

This also meant that Korean music was discounted in favor of “art music” (whoever came up with that term should be shot—shouldn’t all music be considered art?), the misconception that Korean 판소리 pansori would be better if staged like an opera or musical (창극), the assumption that Korean instruments should be adapted to use of a 7 note Western scale, etc. Parents discouraged their children from learning Korean traditional music, dance or drama and this only got worse as the years went on. (This is partially because making a living from Korean performance traditions has been difficult and actual economic success amongst those practicing traditional arts has been exceedingly rare, and partially because of the status (low) associated with performers in the traditional mindset). During the pro-Democracy movement the protestors utilized Korean performance traditions for two reasons 1) they could cloak themselves in Korean tradition, casting themselves as the true patriots 2) they could use performance to attract people with the cops helpless to stop them, then once they had a critical mass they could engage in political speech-making and so on until enough cops gathered to break up the gathering. However this brought a backlash, where some people thought of traditions (like 풍물 pungmul drumming) as something that was just for loud, aggressive protestors to use, not for enjoyment.

In the years since the pro-democracy movement associated surge, interest in Korean traditions has dropped off. Some performance forms have been more popular, some forms have even regenerated interest to some degree, but most have lapsed back into relative invisibility. Of course some people are really concerned about this and doing whatever they can to try to reverse this trend.

One tool that has been utilized to try to get people to look at Korean traditions again and perhaps become re-interested in them is to show (frequently) on TV or in other media how much foreigners love Korean traditions. Since I speak Korean and attend a lot of festivals and performances I have been interviewed countless times and been spotlighted on a lot of TV shows, too. In 2003 I’d had the same cell number for 6 years living in the same town. I got phone calls up the wazoo just from news reporters who wanted to make sure they could interview a foreigner at such-and-such event. Who knows how my contact info got around, but it was really out there. I was even asked to come to the inaugural “Talks with Beauties”(미녀들의 수다) (which I’m not, but neither are all the women on the show). I’m so glad I said no, that show is one of the most annoying and embarrassing things I’ve ever seen. This is a sort of mellow taste. I have seen clips from this show that make your hair stand up on end.

To get to the point, I’ve been used a lot by the Korean media to make traditions seem more attractive to Koreans. But since I actually believe Koreans should take another look at traditional arts and think about having their children learn 해금 haegeum instead of violin, or 공중무용 court dances instead of ballet, I figure they can use me, and I hope it works. They have their agenda, I have mine, but they are complimentary. However, as I’ve gotten older and wiser I’ve noticed how often they try to make foreigners on shows with a focus on traditions look like idiots. Or, to put it another way, I think they’re not comfortable with foreigners actually knowing too much about something Koreans might feel embarrassed to see a foreigner knowing more about than they know themselves. Temper the introduction of an aspect of Korean culture through the eyes of the enthusiastic foreigner with a little superiority (well, even I could do that! The viewer says as he watches the foreigner fumble his or her way through some task or another). But what the viewer might not know, and I certainly do, is how often these shows will spring something on you “You need to do this, it’ll be so interesting!”

Back in 2005 my friend Georgy and I were spotlighted on the same 10 minute slot in a TV program a couple of weeks apart from each other. She always made 김밥 kimbap and I always made 김치찌게 kimchi stew, but when she did her show they asked her to invite a Korean friend for lunch and make stew (she got the recipe from me) and when they came to my house (to film me making 김치 kimchi) they brought a bunch of kimbap makings from the market (like already cooked carrot strips) and insisted that I assemble the kimbap and take it to school to share with my friend. Even if I was going to make kimbap (which I almost never do), I would make it very differently, and with their ingredients I was making the most basic kimbap of all. It was SO FAKE. I didn’t even have a good kimbap rolling bamboo slat thing. But I hadn’t learned to be really assertive and direct with these TV people yet.

I have now learned my lesson, and I’m super direct. I will not be a performing monkey. I will not be made a fool of. I will not accept them filming something that’s not real, nor will I allow them to screw up my regular activities. I have to constantly re-assert these points, but it’s possible. I really believe it is.

There is just one thing that is holding me up this evening (and in recording the segment I started working on today): do I stay all academic and speak softly in my interview Q&A sections (which today meant I ended up getting all tangled up in the words I was using and really frustrated--I'd already had a day with over 5 hours of very careful use of Korean), or do I speak the way I normally speak Korean when I talk about protection of Korean traditional arts (directly, passionately and in a way that is kind of challenging in that it doesn’t mince words about how serious this situation is)?

Oh, and a last point in case you think being in the newspapers/magazines will make things easier—you get misquoted. Happens so often, I should seriously learn to keep my mouth shut. One time in 2005 or 2006 I found myself quoted as saying things that were back-ass wrong and offensive to a mask dance group I love. Jeez, that was hard to smooth over. I found this article by googling the search terms “mask dance” and “American” in Korean. It was the fifth result and you have to know that’s a pretty general search. My first time to see the article, and yes indeed, I am misquoted. It really pisses me off. I had a very sincere and important point, but they've basically taken my photo and put the words they want to make their point next to an image of me. I'm even quoted using a word I don't think I've ever spoken in my life.


  1. oh lord.... I saw this all the time when I edited subtitles at KBS world. The fumbling foreigner is a very popular subject. Sejin once mentioned going on a documentary style program and I was quick to shut down that idea. You have a reputation to uphold in the academic community, so I don't blame you for being extra careful.

  2. I was interviewed for "Sports World" and they made up entire quotes about what I thought about being in Korea. It's too bad they didn't actually ask me that question--I would've been even more flattering than they thought! (No, seriously.)

    I found your blog through Sarah's blog, and ever since my husband brought me to EBS Space and I saw a 해금 being played, I've wanted to learn the instrument. Unfortunately, even though we live in a very Korean area of the US, we haven't found any classes around there. (Yes, we even called the Korean Dance Company that's housed in the same building at my taekwondo studio, and they said it was really hard to find lessons here.)

  3. Amanda, that's too bad you can't find any lessons, but if it's a pretty large city, don't give up hope. The more deeply I became connected to the Korean-American performance scene the more i found was going on. In LA, for example, there are even competing companies/teachers. If you tell me what city you're in, there's an outside chance I may be able to give you more info.

  4. We're in the DC area, northern Virginia more specifically.

    My husband found a place in Annandale (the Korean area of town) that advertised the classes, but then when we called, they said they never offered them. (Yes, it was the right place.) They admitted that they advertised that they had the classes

    At this point, it's sort of on the back-burner right now, since I'm currently busy doing additional grad classes for an endorsement in my educational field. It's one of those "when we move back to Korea, I'll learn it then" things for right now. But if, by some random chance, you know of someone/somewhere, please do let me know. :)

  5. okay, then i won't stress on it, but I'll keep my ears open for you.