Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cultural Exchange, Kdrama Style

Put down that silverware, Eun Kyul!
(And stop laughing at my lousy screen capture, while you’re at it.
It’s hard to take them, you know.)

I’ve spent essentially my entire life in the northeastern United States, and if someone were to sequence my DNA I’m sure they’d find it was made up of maple syrup, snowflakes cut from paper, and tiny little holstein figurines. (What, you expected something boring and scientific, like base pairs? As if.) But where I live is just an unavoidable fact of life; it’s not something I’ve really spent a lot of time thinking about. So it surprised me how shocked I was to see the kids from To the Beautiful You casually eating hamburgers with forks and knives early on in their show’s run. It felt fundamentally blasphemous and wrong, deep down in my bones, to see someone approach my national dish in such a foreign way.

Since then, I’ve realized that there’s yet another unexpected side effect of my obsession with Korean drama: Seeing my own culture in a new light. Kdrama offers a glimpse into life on the other side of the world, but through the comparison I’m also coming to learn more about life here.

As is probably true of most people in my country, the biggest reminder that I’m an American rolls around once every four years: the presidential election. Democratic elections are actually something that Korea and America have in common—while we Americans are voting for a president this November, the Korean campaign season will be winding to a close in anticipation of their December election.

In honor of what our countries do differently and the things they share, I thought I’d post two short lists today: one of American rituals and customs worth exporting to Korea, and one of Korean rituals and customs that we Americans should try out.

America to Korea
Trick-or-treating. Halloween may have roots in religion, but these days it’s almost totally secular. As a kid, there is literally no experience more wonderful than donning a costume to become someone else for an evening, and then going door-to-door demanding candy. It’s not unusual to spend months planning what to wear and strategizing the best neighborhoods to visit. Where to go is a balancing act: you want high property values, because that’s usually an indication of good candy. But you also want closely packed houses to minimize the time spent getting from one place to the next, which means a bigger haul in the end. Starting around five on Halloween night the streets are thick with families and kids all dressed up and carrying plastic jack-o-lanterns for booty storage. As the night progresses, the kids get older, the costumes get gorier, and the parents start to disappear. The “trick” part of trick-or-treating rarely happens, but when it does it generally involves high school kids misbehaving. In suburban America, if you don’t have your porch light on kids know that you’re not participating and just pass you by, rather than taking any sort of revenge.

As seen in: E.T.

Summer break. As a grown up, it can be hard to remember what summer break felt like: these days, two weeks off from work is an impossible dream. But kids attending American schools have more than two months off every summer to do whatever they want. Once upon a time, this vacation was intended to allow kids to help out on their family farms, but in the modern world it mostly involves video games, sleep-away-camp, and marathon-level slacking off. South Korean schools have breaks between semesters, too, but nothing so mammoth as the mid-June to early September vacation that’s traditional in America. Also of note is the fact that until this year, South Korean kids went to school on Saturdays, for a total of six days a week. Economic miracles take hard work and all, but this is clearly a country in need of a nice, long vacation. (A random side note: some of the “goose families” that are occasionally referred to in Kdramas actually send their kids to America specifically because the academics are so much more relaxed here.)

As seen in: Dazed and Confused

Prom. Out of all the youth-oriented Kdramas I’ve watched, only Boys over Flowers has included anything like a school dance. On the other hand, practically every American coming-of-age story uses the prom as a big finale—from Twilight to 10 Things I Hate About You to Pretty in Pink. (And let’s not forget Carrie, either.) The prom is essentially a teenage version of Halloween: you get dressed up as something you’re not for a few hours and do something you wouldn’t normally do. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I never did attend a prom. I can’t say that this is surprising—I’m not great fan of dresses or high heels or dancing, all key elements in the traditional prom experience. But when it comes right down to it, hating on the institution of prom is just as much a cultural touchstone in America as attending the event. Whether you went or you didn’t, whether you spent the whole time crying in the bathroom or ended up as prom queen, the grande dame of formal dances really is a key character-building experience that’s worth sharing.

As seen in: Footloose

Even without Jun Pyo in attendance, I’m sure this would be a good time.

Korea to America
Making kimjang. Practically every time someone is shown eating in Korean dramas—breakfast, lunch, dinner, or instant ramen consumed while standing in a convenience store—kimchi is involved. At least some of that kimchi was probably prepared during a fall gathering devoted to making enough kimchi to last through the winter. Extended families get together and, over the course of several days, work produce enough kimchi to go around. I’m no great cook, but there’s something deeply appealing about this communal event. See posts on Electric Ground and Life in Korea for more.

As seen in: Boys over Flowers

Hanbok. There’s really no such thing as “American” traditional dress. As a nation of travelers, our backgrounds are too diverse for such a thing to ever have taken hold—with the possible exception of Civil War getups for the reenactment set and fat Elvis jumpsuits for the fat Elvis set. I suspect it’s a dying tradition, but I love seeing that one woman at any Kdrama formal event who’s all decked out in this traditional outfit. The hanboks themselves are beautiful, and a distinctly Korean tradition like this strikes me as something too precious to lose to globalization. I would love to know more about what it actually feels like to wear a hanbok, but unfortunately the Internet is pretty much mum on this point. There are a few sources of information, though: how to put on a hanbok at Youtube; a visit to the hanbok store at Korea.net; and the hanbok photobooth at Estherxie.com. (If the owner of the last blog had watched as much Korean drama as I have, she would immediately realize the painting she’s sitting in front of was done by Shin Yoon Bok, one of the artists Painter of the Wind was inspired by.)

As seen in: Sweet Eighteen

Go-stop. I’ve probably seen seventy hands of go-stop played in various Kdramas, but I have yet to grasp a single rule. It looks terrifyingly complex, but based on this guide for beginners it might not be so bad. (The full rules of gameplay are a bit more off-putting, to put it mildly.) Trying to learn this game is probably folly for someone with my limited brain capacity, but those Korean drama characters really seem to enjoy it. (I especially love the sharp snap they use to discard cards.)

As seen in: Coffee Prince


  1. Oh, I wish some of these things would export to Europe too.
    True Halloween is something I have always wanted to experience, from the costumes to trick-or-treating to house decorating. Here where I live, unfortunately, Halloween hasn't really become an actual holiday. Some kids to take part of it and go trick-or-treating, but it's all small stuff compared to the American Halloween.
    But we do have summer break here and it's actually quite long, from 1st of June to 1st of September. Additionally we also have term breaks in the fall, on Christmas and in spring. And I have never had to go to school on Saturdays. I feel bad for the South-Korean students for having to study so hard and for so many days in a year. I couldn't do it.
    I totally agree with you on kimchi-making, hanboks and Go-stop. I would love to try each of these. Though, I figure Go-stop would be too difficult for me to grasp. Kimchi looks delicious in dramas, I wonder if it tastes so in reality. And hanboks are really pretty. We do have out own traditional clothing here, but it's quite plain compared to Korean clothing. And we don't wear it as often either.
    One thing I would possibly add is the food stalls and drinking booths on the streets. I've always wanted to try out how it would feel like to go out in the middle of a night and to be able to sit in one of those tents and scream "ahjumma, more soju, please!" So K-drama-like :D
    Actually, noraebang (Korean karaoke) looks quite fun also.

    1. Yes, Noraebang! I was going to say that. I wish we had karaoke rooms here. The only karaoke I've ever seen is on stage in front of a bar full of people.

      Street food would be great too, but my city's not really set up to where this would even be feasible. We have a small downtown area that has food trucks, but other than that no one walks anywhere because there's no real public transit system. We only have the street vendors during festivals. Good thing there are lots of those in the surrounding area: Shrimp festival, Crawfish festival, Strawberry festival, Gumbo festival, Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras, etc.

    2. Halloween is probably one of the best things America has to offer the world. And it's fun for kids and for grown-ups: You get to see all the costumes and give the polite kids more candy. To really enjoy it, everyone has to be involved, though. Last year my dad's house had over 200 trick-or-treaters.

      I almost included noraebang on the list: Karaoke had a window of popularity here, but we screwed it up by making it a communal experience instead of having separate rooms for individual groups. Messing around with your friends would be fun, but singing in front of a room full of strangers is a recipe for stress and ridicule. If I wanted that, I'd try out for American Idol. In exchange, we could give Korea Coco Puffs. I bought a box on sale this week and I can't express what a delight is to eat pure sugar for breakfast—especially when it's specifically designed to turn the leftover milk into chocolate milk. That is the gift of an advanced civilization ;)

      Even American cities have street food, although it doesn't seem as common (or beloved) as it is in Korea. Out here in the country the closest we get are periodical farmers' markets. They're okay, but it's just not the same.

      I know someone who went to a wedding over the weekend and was surprised to learn that it was in the traditional Korean style. (It was in California, and apparently the bride's family is Korean.) I saw pictures of the bride in her hanbok—I would have been the rudest guest ever and monopolized her with questions about it.

    3. Hallow'een is actually Irish, not American, it dates back centuries. As a child growing up in the 70s in Dublin, I remember massive bonfires, dressing up in costume and calling around the houses looking for sweets and fruit.

  2. You know one thing that I would love? STREET FOOD. Ok, I realize this exists in New York and all those big schmancy cities, but there's precious little of it elsewhere. Having lived in Asia, I miss being able to grab hot, delicious, cheap food of questionable hygiene right off the street.

    Go-stop: the game looks so FUN when kdrama people play it, complete with loud laments, forehead flicks, card snapping, drinking and betting money.

    And yes, I love the idea of getting together with family to make kimchi for the winter. Maybe one day I'll gather my relatives for a marathon cake-bake...(this is already a disastrous idea on many levels ;P)

    Lovely post, and I wish I could contribute more!


    1. I know someone who lived in China for a while, and he loves to regale people with stories of all the street food he ate there. Not to mention the complicated legal implications of selling something called "stinky tofu." Yum. Or not.

      I tried to teach myself how to play mah jongg a few years ago, but failed spectacularly. I suspect go-stop would be the same—without someone who knows the rules around, it's hard to learn something as complicated as a game. ::insert scene of Amanda and three deeply frustrated friends sitting around her dining room table, taking turns looking up every single move in a mah jongg handbook:: Clearly, my friends learned their lessons, because these are the same people who refuse to try Kdrama ;)

  3. Hah. Halloween is tomorrow isn't it.. siiigh. Will make sure the porch light if off. Not that we ever have many kids, this side of my tiny neighborhood.

    Every now and then I think I want to make real kimchi.. Then I see that picture you've got of it, and the sheeer size and amount of ingredients! And the tubs, and the back breaking work.. and, the fact that it'd only be just me making it.. and I go and just buy a jug from the Korean market.. Someday though. Someday.

  4. Myself, my husband, and my friends all still spend a lot of time and money on our costumes and planning our annual Haloween get togther. We also make a point to visit the local haunted house that FSU drama puts together each year and spend hours carving pumpkins. I think every country should have a holiday where you get to dress up!!

    Gostop looks really fun! It is definitely on my list of things to try :)

  5. Are you looking for free Twitter Followers?
    Did you know that you can get them AUTOMATICALLY & ABSOLUTELY FOR FREE by getting an account on You Like Hits?