|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
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