Thursday, June 25, 2015

Quick Book Review-- "The Birth of Korean Cool" by Euny Hong

I don't have time to write up a review of this book, and I read it over two months ago (three? time flows so strangely sometimes I have no idea). It was not very good. Don't read it. There, review done.

Honestly I originally intended to write a more in-depth review. I read the book and although Ms. Hong shares some insights, none of them are particularly new or original. When she's at her best she's sharing the sorts of reasonable sounding pronouncements you might find in The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, or other publication where competent writers fact check things before they get published. Those authors aren't generally experts, but they are smart and have more than a passing knowledge of Korea. That's about what Ms. Hong is-- a smart person with more than a passing knowledge. She lived in Korea as a teen for a few years (although she was so bad at Korean she couldn't attend a regular Korean school despite trying and went to an upper crust private school taught in English instead). She's been in and out of the country since, but her home is America, and the list of people she managed to interview for the book were undoubtedly interviewed with the assistance of a translator-- she never says so, but since she mis-translates Korean terms on over a dozen occasions throughout the book it is obvious she does not have a solid grasp of the language.

The book is, however, well written. The prose is good, it reads quickly and easily because the level is approximately middle-school English (making it perfect for a general English-reading audience unlike more academic books). Hong mixes in amusing personal anecdotes from her childhood and her research process, showing her struggles with cultural competence (such as arriving at an interview with a Starbucks cup in hand, preventing the standard polite serving of drinks to the guest). She uses abundant interviews, as I mentioned above, many are with people who are not easy to access. Yet her writing and research method seems to be a cherry-picking, skimming the cream from the top of the milk approach that obliterates any depth and does not facilitate deeper understanding, and unfortunately the book reads to me as a Korean-American's attempt to profit from the sudden interest in Korean popular culture, or at best a struggle to understand that sudden interest.

Just some random passages to give you a taste before I end this lazy attempt at a book review:

p. 53: On han: "It's the opposite of karma. Karma can be worked off from life to life. With han, the suffering never lessens; rather, it accumulates and gets passed on. Imagine the story of Job, except when God gives him a new family and new riches, he has to relive his suffering over and over again."

p. 77: "Being Korean in America when I was a child was like being a smoker now. We were pariahs with filthy smelly habits that made our friends not want to come over to play."

p. 97: "Building a pop culture export industry from scratch during a financial crisis seems like bringing a Frisbee instead of food to a desert island." (this from where she assigns credit for the gov't focusing on pop culture to Kim Daejung instead of Kim Youngsam, even though it was Kim Youngsam who started the initiatives after the famous Jurassic Park realization).

p. 134 -- on Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi  "Theirs is probably the best English-language site for comprehensive analyses and reviews of Korean culture."  (seriously? they're wrong as often as they are right and they are annoying as heck!)

Actually, to tell the truth, since this book is short and easy to read, it's not that bad a way to spend a couple hours (I read it on a bus ride to Seoul and then part of the ride back home). But don't take the things Ms. Hong says as absolute truth, she's repeating things that have been published often already and scratching the surface on her new observations.