Tuesday, August 28, 2012

From the Outside In: Kdrama Imponderables

“Don’t you know anything? Rinse first, spit second.”

When I posted about feminism in Kdramas last week, I was expecting one of two things: that it would be greeted by the utter, soul-crushing silence generally elicited by tl;dr writings, or that I would be flamed within an inch of my life for cultural insensitivity or daring to criticize beloved dramas.

It turns out that neither happened—the post got many hits and sparked a good deal of interesting discussion. Its contents also garnered some extremely valid feedback: that throughout the entry, the line between dramaland and the real world was uncomfortably fuzzy. Of course, what we see on television isn’t always real. If it was, America would be populated exclusively by beautiful people with perfect makeup, hair, and wardrobes. Even the poorest of the poor would live in funky city lofts worthy of a profile in Architectural Digest. Our kitchens would be clean enough to operate in, and we would all have an endless supply of witty comebacks for every occasion. Even if credulous aliens came to planet Earth expecting American culture to exactly replicate their beloved Friends reruns, one look around would prove irrefutably that it doesn’t come close.

And does anyone really believe that all Koreans yank out their cell phone batteries whenever they don’t want to answer a call? Does every hardworking, poverty-stricken orphan eventually bag her own chaebol? Are bands of Joseon scholars wandering around downtown Seoul as I type, having time-slipped in from their home era? No, no, and no.

Ultimately, though, television isn’t created in a vacuum: It inevitably has a relationship to the people it serves, and represents their values, concerns, and mores. Otherwise, who would watch it? If South Korea and America are anything alike at all, dramaland and the real world are actually part of a neverending feedback loop: one creates the other, while simultaneously being created by it. Take Jackass, for an extreme example. When I was a teenager, this MTV show filled with crazy, death-defying stunts was all the rage. And guess what happened? Much to the chagrin of everyone involved, kids out in the real world started dying when they tried to mimic the show’s lunatic antics. Or how about the Brady Bunch? It would be easy to assume that bastion of 70s cheese bears no relevance to real life—until you remember that it was famously inspired by a news article on the growing number of blended families in America. 

If The Brady Bunch found its roots in hard news coverage of the changing American family structure, is it really too much to think that the 8.9 million Kdrama wrist-grabs I’ve witnessed in the past year might have bearing on things that happen in the real world? The trick, it seems, is to figure out what might be true, and to what extent. 

Sure, it’s important to distinguish between dramaland and the planet we actually live on. And sure, there’s no such thing as one, immutable “culture” shared by every single resident of any country. But that doesn’t mean that plumbing the depths of Korean drama can’t teach you a little something about Korean life.

As (a self-styled) Kdrama ethnologist, I’m full of questions about how the shows I watch relate to the lives people actually lead. Here’s an iceberg-scratching list of imponderables that have been on my mind of late.

—Are students and teachers in Korea really expected to have such close relationships that the student might call the teacher from the police station—and the teacher might actually go bail him out, as did the female lead in A Gentleman’s Dignity? In America, boundaries between students and teachers are carefully enforced, and the teacher would have gotten into an incredible amount of trouble for bystepping the student’s parents.

—The established tooth-brushing order in Korean dramas is: brush, rinse, spit. On the other hand, I am almost totally sure that bathrooms across America see only brush, spit, rinse. Why the difference? Is Korean toothpaste less foamy than American?

—Do lawn mowers not exist in Korea? And even if they don’t, isn’t there some easier option for lawn maintenance than the little hand scissors people are always shown using in Kdramas?

—From what I’ve heard, Korean popular music includes a lot of English. Does the average person sitting at home watching Boys over Flowers know the language well enough to understand what lyrics like “Almost paradise” mean? Or is it just as foreign and indecipherable to them as Korean lyrics are to me? (If so, that sort of explains why the people behind BoF thought they could get away with reusing that song ad nauseum—if the lyrics don’t mean anything to you, the fact that they’re completely inappropriate for the scene at hand won’t matter so much.)

—Girls in Korea don’t really walk around with hand mirrors, gazing adoringly at their own faces at odd moments during the day. Right?

—Is there no such thing as a Korean laundromat? One of the most stunning things early in my Kdrama viewing was seeing people hand (erm…foot?) wash clothes and bedding in a plastic tub. In America, pretty much everyone has access either to pay laundry facilities or their own washer and dryer at home; it literally never even occurred to me that there were people in the developed world who still did laundry by hand.

—On a related note, are linens not included in the price of a hospital stay? Is that why hospital beds are often shown with fancy sheets—someone brought them from home? Presumably that’s why we occasionally see people (hand)washing laundry at a family member’s hospital room? That’s pretty crazy, if so: a less-than sterile wash could bring germs home with them.

—And then there’s the fact that dramas show even average, middle-class people going to the hospital with a little sniffle and getting a bed and IV drip. Is this really the way Koreans react to an illness? In America, hospitals are usually seen as an absolute last resort for someone who’s extremely unwell—we’re a touch suspicious of them, and they can be outrageously expensive, so nobody is lining up to go in for a check-up.

—Do celebrities actually engage in martial activities while they’re doing their mandatory two years in the military? Or is it all cucumber facials and Abs of Steel on DVD?

—When you see giant racks of squid drying in the sun in shows like Padam Padam, does the entire town reek? I’ve walked by outdoor fish markets in midsummer and almost lost my lunch—I can’t imagine what 2,000 dead squid would smell like after a few hours out in the elements. (And even if it does smell bad, is it a nice smell to people who live there? I’m from a rural area, and every summer nearby farmers spread cow manure over their fields. Even though this is generally acknowledged to be the worst smell ever, I secretly kind of like it—it smells warm and earthy, like home.)

—Do people really leave cooked food lying around on tables under those funny little umbrellas? Does “Plate’s in the fridge; 2 mins. on high in the microwave” not translate into Korean?

—Is there a cultural aversion to eating out of hand? In America, people are delighted to pick up big, juicy hamburgers and take a bite. We also eat apples whole, bite after bite, until we get to the core. But in Kdrama, these things are almost always cut up and eaten with the help of a fork. In the Japanese version of Boys over Flowers, the second male lead’s unwillingness to bite off a piece of apple was actually a plot point. Is this an Asia-wide thing?

—Do some people really reckon their birthdays based on the solar calendar and others on the lunar? That must get pretty complicated.

—If the Korean government is involved in the funding and running of the major networks, do they have censorship power over drama content? I know the strike earlier this year was related to government influence on news broadcasts, but do they care about shallow drama things, like how the Joseon king is depicted in the umpteen-millionth sageuk airing this decade?

—Does nobody in Korea have a regular metal key? Even in older dramas everyone has electronic keypads and weird little fob things.

—I love those contract stamps people have with their names on them, but aren’t they incredibly easy to fake? They’re just purchased from a regular store, not government-issued or anything.

—Is there really still milk delivery in Korea, or is that a job invented for the sake of hardworking Kdrama girls? About the only thing I could have delivered at my house is the newspaper—there’s one pizza place that serves my area, but with a two-dollar per mile fuel charge, the delivery fee would be higher than the price of the pizza.

—SOLVED! Whenever someone gets food delivered in a Kdrama, it looks as if it arrives in plates that aren’t disposable. What the what? 

  • [According to Eat Your Kimchi, you just leave the plates outside your door and the restaurant comes back to pick them up. That’s the life...as long as you’re not the delivery guy.]

SOLVED! So. Circumcision in Korea—yes, no, maybe? (Wipe that shocked look off your face, dear reader. You should feel free to tell me you’ve never wondered, but be aware that I will feel free not to believe you.) 

  • [Yes, maybe. The answer to this one comes from the unlikeliest of places—last week’s Dramafever podcast. Stranger things have happened, but most of them involve sightings of Elvis.]
I guess all this means that I’m the Kdrama-fan equivalent of that nosy person who sits next to you on an airplane, asks all sorts of inappropriate questions about your personal life, and then totally misinterprets your answers. Oh well.

Anyone else have other Kdrama imponderables, or more information about any of these things?


  1. Would it be inappropriate to solve Kdramaland questions with more Kdramaland examples? Because that's the only source I consistently study.

    -Dal Ja's Spring: OTP actualy seen in a laundry mat, so they must exist.

    Another question that has been bothering me for a while: As Americans, we seem to have the right to private property... so when a big CEO goes bankrupt, unless I'm watching a British period piece, great-grandma's antique vase doesn't usually get confiscated in the family's home during a foreclosure.. yet anytime a family in Kdramaland goes bankrupt (whether they were already poor or filthily rich), it seems that little red stickies show up on every piece of furniture, item, clothes etc. regardless of whether the item is a family heirloom, or bought by a visitor/distant relative who unfortunately just dropped by for the day... ??

    1. Here's hoping that solving Kdramaland questions with Kdramaland examples isn't inappropriate, because it's all I've got, too. ;)

      I completely forgot about the laundromat in Dal Ja's Spring! Maybe they're considered prohibitively pricy by regular folks, and using one was supposed to make her seem affluent? And I guess, too, that a lot of shows that include handwashing laundry also feature more traditional gender roles—when you're a wife who stays home all day, why not do your laundry by hand? (And make your own kimchi...change the curtains seasonally...wash the floor on your hands and knees every single day...etc.)

      And of course you're totally right about the across-the-board repossession being unlike what you'd see in America or England. I think that's why the designation LLC exists here, so business owners won't lose everything if their businesses collapse. This might encourage startups, because the owners konw their poor orphaned children won't have their teddy bears repossessed if they die bankrupt ;)

    2. I probably only remember that scene because it was ridiculously sexy when he lifted her up on top of the dryer and she sort of sat there stunned for a few moments rocking with the machine...

      Something else that I don't quite get - and this is way too deep for a single blog coverage - is the mixture of religious cultures. Ex in Me Too, Flower: girl prays before dinner to God, Allah, Buddha, Jesus.. etc. Now, I don't see it too much because Kdramas aren't usually this deep, but it's such a weird combo of Confucianism (which I actually had to research more, a short period into my immense Kdrama watching obsession), with Christianity, with a belief in the next life.. or past life.. and near-ancestor worship that I can't quite grasp the whole mindview of religious Korean culture.

      Death day procedures vs. a guy visiting his fiance's dead grandmother for an introduction vs. well, grandma probably has been reborn as something else entirely vs. we'll see each other in another life and/or Heaven vs. well you died first, so you're starting your next life without me.. That last part can be ridiculously effective in stimulating my tear glands btw...*finds nearest kleenex box*. Did I just confuse us all a little more? Because believe me, that was my intent. ;)

    3. I don't know if this counts because it's knowledge gleaned from China rather than Korea but I know that people there think that washing machines (and especially clothes dryers) are wasteful. The same thing goes for dishwashers. I would assume that has something to do with the uncommon sightings of laundromats and in-home appliances of that sort.

      As for religion- I think dramas/tv in S.Korea avoids a lot of religious stuff by throwing anything amusing in. The country largely followed Confucianism and Shamanism until the end of royal rule and was introduced to Buddhism by Chinese rule and Shinto by Japanese rule. Before Japanese rule however Christian missionaries came to the country and Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant) exploded there despite persecution from other groups. Revival around 1900 even got Pyongyang the label 'Jerusalem of Asia'. When the Japanese took over they forced everyone to take part in Shinto ceremonies. The Christians who refused were imprisoned and many died. Today depending on the statistics you look at roughly thirty percent of citizens of South Korea are Christian, forty-six percent non-religious and twenty-two percent Buddhist. Whether or not you genuinely practice Confucian thought the entire culture is saturated with it (seniority practices like comparing ages, devotion to family etc.). Sorry, love this kind of stuff :P

  2. I've actually seen that order of tooth brushing in a few American movies or shows before too. Every time I see it, I just wonder if I've been brushing my teeth wrong all these years. :)

    My imponderables involve authority figures. Are bosses really allowed to be so abusive to their employees? Is the employee really supposed to take the hit and apologize for whatever it was that set the boss off? My temper is not so even that I could ever let this slide even for a moment. I'm pretty sure I would be arrested.

    Speaking of which, the justice system couldn't possibly be so ineffective as shown on dramas. And I wonder, if the government does have some influence on what is shown, can't they see how terrible this makes them appear to the international audience that they are trying to appeal to? Apparently, if someone gets hurt in a fight it's always the other person at fault regardless of the circumstances. And that person is expected to buy their way out of it. I saw one show where three men were harassing a mentally retarded woman and when her sister intervened one of the men slapped her. She ended up a bit bruised in the ensuing fight, but she kinda tore up a couple of the guys. Therefore, she was the one in trouble and had to pay a settlement to her "victims". WTF!!! In what world does this happen?

    Also, what's up with the roving bands of delinquents that no one does anything about? This just doesn't seem to jive. And they are also almost always groups of girls that just go around beating people up for no reason and no one notices or says anything. Where are the male delinquents?

    Sorry, that was kind of long. Anyway, I've got a tropical storm knocking on my door. I hope I don't lose power, so I can take this opportunity to sit home and have a kdrama marathon.

    1. Well, I'm glad to know I'm not the only one so obsessively detail-oriented that I can be thrown for a loop by someone brushing their teeth in a different way ;)

      Having actually had a boss that rivaled the terribleness of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, I think employee abuse might be an international concern. But with the increased emphasis on hierarchy, I bet it's worse in Korea.

      Also, how about suicide in Kdramas? It seems as if bystanders are regularly held accountable for "driving" someone to commit suicide, like in The Snow Queen. In it, the male lead won some big math prize and his type-A best friend killed himself in response, prompting their classmates to ostracize him for causing his friend's death. In American this kind of thing only comes up in serious cases of longterm abuse of bullying, not because someone succeeded and someone else failed.

      Gangsters are another group of people who get away with anything they want in Kdramas—there was literally a turf war in the lobby of a hospital in Lovers, but no police intervention whatsoever.

      I hope the storm cooperates with your plans for marathoning Kdrama!

    2. I never did understand that in The Snow Queen. How could his succeeding have caused his friend's death? It didn't make any sense whatsoever. I also skipped the last 2 episodes of that drama cause I could just see the dissatisfaction coming. This way I imagined my own ending. Wish I had done that with Bad Guy too. Really liked it until the end.

      I don't think I could hold a job in Korea. I'm not that diplomatic. Just a few months ago a federal auditor overheard me telling my boss to not be a dumbass. Oops! I'm just glad the auditor thought it was hilarious and he didn't say anything about it.

    3. My brother (the one in China) says that Asians worship money like no other culture and that money rules their government to an extreme and that it is very very corrupt everywhere in Asia because people are always willing to take bribes. An example would be in The Crucible (or Silenced whichever you want to call it) the people who were sexually, mentally, and physically abusing those disabled children were given only a 6 month sentence and then probation and then some were allowed to return to the school to work after they served their sentence because they bought off the judge, the lawyers, and the officials (and this one was actually based on a real event). That would never happen here with the media being involved.

      I was observing yesterday that the kings in Joseon era sageuks don't seem to have much power. Like in Painter of the Wind when the Dowager Queen wanted to smash a painter's hand and the king didn't, instead of just being like "Look you're being a frigid bitch, we're not going to go that far" he had to trap her by letting her know that he realized it was her in the painting. And the King in S Scandal always seemed afraid of the Left and Right Ministers and their cronies and had to sneak behind their backs. I was wondering if that really was how it was, or if that is just for added drama purposes.

      Another thing I have discussed with bloggers before is is it just cultural that most women in their early to mid 20s still act like 16 year olds in kdramas and have no independence? Everyone still refers to them as kids, but here women in their 20s are often supporting themselves and are married, some even already have children.

      I know I had another big one, but it is escaping my mind right now... if I remember I will post it.

    4. I loved Snow Queen, in spite of the crazy. I'm a sucker for overwrought melodrama with lots of tragedy and general lameness =X As far as I'm concerned, the only downside was that she knew she was dying and had a smoking hot boyfriend she really loved, yet she never once hit that. What kind of madness is that, Kdrama Overlords?

      I've also noticed that any toddler off the street could easily outwit any one of the Joseon kings I've seen in a sageuk. Or, in fact, any of the good guys—Kdrama writers seem to think people were stupider back then. (Which is pretty impressive, considering how idiotic Kdrama writers must think people are today, based on some of their choices.)

      I'm at the point where I mentally subtract about ten years from the age of all Kdrama adults, which gives me a better feel for how they'll behave ;) I came across an article about "aegyo" on Eat Your Kimchi the other day, and I think it might partially address the infantilization of characters. Cuteness is desirable in America if you're blogging about puppies and bunnies, but it seems that cuteness is desirable in human beings in Korea.

    5. And one other thing: I don't think it's appropriate to make sweeping generalizations about people based on their race, and I hope this entire entry didn't come off sounding like I was doing that very thing. Our cultures impact who we are and how we live—these things aren't contingent on the color of someone's skin.

      On another front, I've heard some interesting things about people in Asia talking more openly about money. Of course I can't find the link now, but a longtime NPR correspondent in China did a report about how different interviewing people from China is from interviewing people from America. In China most people are willing to be super frank about money issues, but don't like to discuss personal things about their lives. He said that people who live in America tend to be the complete opposite: we'll tell you anything about ourselves, but good luck getting us to admit how much we make in a year.

      The website Wise Bread has some interesting coverage about money habits in China.

    6. I didn't mean it as a slight. I was just stating an observation of a commonality between Asian cultures. There are plenty of things we worship like god here, one being sex for sure, which happens to be an issue in our government as well (there are constantly sex scandals with government officials it seems). Every culture has its own idols.

    7. @Amanda

      About suicide- I know that it is the highest cause of death for those under forty in South Korea (or something like that) and they are one of the top countries in the world for it. There's really interesting studies on suicides in students because of academic pressure and societal standards. Here's an interesting vid I found awhile ago with some Korean students talking about friends who had committed suicide http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5GvkcjszLk It isn't super surprising because there is such a high standard and such a shame factor in every area of life in Korea, not just in academics. We probably wouldn't feel like we were ruining our parents good name and lives by failing a test but that's how it's viewed a lot of the time.

      Also there's this weird thing where a certain student is singled out and completely ostracized (for whatever reason) and bullied by the entire class/school. A lot of kids switch schools because of this. Eatyourkimchi has an article and video on this here: http://www.eatyourkimchi.com/bullying-in-south-korea/ Crazy stuff.

    8. @ wishiwasasian

      I know you didn't mean it in a bad way, Julie. It just occurred to me that it was really possible to see this whole post as being completely racially motivated, and I wanted to make it clear that wasn't at all how I meant it. I'm interested in Korea as a country and how it impacts my beloved dramas, not in perpetuating stereotypes about Asians. Talking about this stuff without being upfront about intent is dangerous territory, really.

    9. I didn't take it that way, I took it more as curiosity. I don't think you're coming across as racist.

      I just wanted to make sure I let you know that so you guys know I wasn't trying to offend anyone. I love Asian culture more than the majority of people I've ever met, my screen name is wishiwasasian for that reason lol.

      I remembered what the other one was, and it had to do with money actually. I was wondering about loan sharks. Are so many koreans actually in debt to loan sharks and do they really chase them and their children around like that or is that just a convienient drama scenario?

    10. And do the loan sharks really make borrowers sign forms saying their bodies are forfeit? That's something they're always threatening about—would it mean they gave up a kidney? Or would they be sold into slavery or something? I suspect both of these are dramaland only issues, though ;)

      (But on the other hand, one of the things the press is writing about in response to the that "Gangnam Style" video is that credit card debt is a serious issue in Korea, even compared to America...)

    11. Hmmm I didn't know that. Ha that song was in one of the last episodes of AGD when they wer eint he club and then some of my friends were laughing at it on Facebook and I was like "hey, that song was sin a kdrama!" and then they started picking on me lol. Of course it didn't help my case that I felt compelled to start translating and explain the parts I understood...

  3. @ A.E. Hall

    The treatment of suicide in dramas is really interesting, I think: At horrible moments, people are always saying "Let's die together," as if a suicide pact is the only logical response to the situation. The high suicide rate in Korea makes me suspect this is one case where the Kdrama attitudes really do match up with real-world views.

    I thought it was interesting how the recent drama What's Up dealt with bullying/hazing in a Korean college. One student stood up to the hazing and wouldn't get involved, and instead of being seen as a hero or role model by the people being hazed, they thought he was a troublemaker who should fall in line and put up with the hazing. I wonder if this comes back to the difference between Korean and American cultures evidenced in the sayings "The squeaky wheel gets the grease" (American) and "The nail that sticks up gets pounded down" (Asia).

    1. In light of the bullying/hazing, and some of the articles I've been reading today on this, the case of teachers stepping in with their students' lives - more so than parents-is doubly confusing.. On one hand, if students really spend just about every waking hour at school (from 7am-11pm) Monday through Friday, then such a home room teacher might be quite qualified to know so much about their students.

      Then again, if most feel like the best situation is to ignore whatever's maybe happening... then the dramas where teachers' do take such an interest may the truly exceptional, if not completely rare and mostly fictitious cases, worthy of making a hero/teacher drama character in the same way unbelievable way that every poor girl seems to marry a chaebol's son. I'm thinking Biscuit Teacher on this one.. That is a serious over-stepping of teacher-student relations.. No answers here.. just more questions?

    2. That's a super interesting idea—an involved teacher as a source of drama wish-fulfillment? It's like that movie Waiting for Superman, only with Gong Hyo Jin instead of a guy in a cape ;)

    3. Sadly, I would probably watch something with Gong Hyo Jin in a superman cape. She's so darn cute!

    4. Yeah it probably does have to do a lot with Eastern vs. Western ideas of society and how fitting in/following along is valued over standing out/up.

    5. —Girls in Korea don’t really walk around with hand mirrors, gazing adoringly at their own faces at odd moments during the day. Right?

      Well, when I was on the Seoul subway last month, they certainly did!

      —Does nobody in Korea have a regular metal key? Even in older dramas everyone has electronic keypads and weird little fob things.

      I asked a Korean friend this when I was at her house in Cheongju, and she said they don't have house keys, just keypads. I asked if she was worried about burglars, and she said she had never even considered the possibility of a break in or the code being hacked.

      —Is there really still milk delivery in Korea, or is that a job invented for the sake of hardworking Kdrama girls? About the only thing I could have delivered at my house is the newspaper—there’s one pizza place that serves my area, but with a two-dollar per mile fuel charge, the delivery fee would be higher than the price of the pizza.

      Well, I don't know about Korea, but there certainly is still milk delivery in my area in the UK.

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