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.
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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.

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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!