Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Thanks, but no thanks

(Note that handsome chaebol heirs, like this one from Protect the Boss, will always be a “yes, please.”)


Last week I wrote about how much we Americans have to learn from the world around us, if only we pay attention to it. I’ve also been thinking about the flip side—that some beliefs and ideals are so specific to a time or place that they just don’t relate to the experience of living elsewhere.

Here are some drama standbys that don’t exist in the West, possibly for good reason.

Curing indigestion with a needle. Whenever someone in dramaland has an upset stomach, they ask a friend to prick their thumb with a needle. Maybe it really works—there’s always the placebo effect, or maybe an open wound on your thumb would distract you from the pain in your stomach. Heck, maybe the invisible energy of chi is somehow involved. I have no idea, but I do know that Alka Seltzer works like a charm and has been sufficient for Americans for quite some time now.

Two Kdrama tropes for the price of one: Autumn in My Heart’s ominous bloody nose and quasi-incest.

Terrifying nosebleeds. Korean dramas use nosebleeds as shorthand—they’re either a sign that a character is tragically overworked (as in Boys over Flowers) or a foreshadowing of an imminent cancer diagnosis (as in Autumn in My Heart). The American alternative seems more sensible to me: nosebleeds are what happen when somebody gets punched in the face.

Hospital humidifiers. In an entire lifetime’s worth of visits to American hospitals, can you guess how many times I’ve seen a humidifier in use? That’s right: none. But in every single Kdrama hospital scene, there’s one inevitably puffing away on a bedside table. This might actually be related to previous item on this list—if you want someone to stop having nosebleeds, sitting them next to a humidifier would be a good start. The second most common cause of American nosebleeds is irritation caused by dry air.


Personally, I prefer my pop idols acting—even if they’re not that good at it.

Kpop. I can see why Kpop’s Svengalis want to crack the American market: there’s a lot of money to be made here, as well as a lot of prestige to acquire. (It’s no accident that the performance that kicked off Dream High was in Los Angeles at the Grammys, not at a Korean awards show.) Kpop is every bit as polished and enjoyable as any American music, but as the expat blogger at Roboseyo explains, the language difference is a killer. Pop music is an industry of cool—to quote Cameron Crowe quoting late, great American music critic Lester Bangs—and you can’t be cool in a language (and culture) you don’t understand. My prediction is that Kpop will forever be a curiosity on the American music scene: beloved by a small group of diehards, but uninteresting to the masses.

Couples outfits. I just can’t see these catching on in America—and unlike the ladies over at Kdrama Fighting, I am completely happy about that. We experimented with them during the Justin and Britney years; the results were not pretty.

Another chopsticks-only dish: Sannakji, or live octopus, as shown in this scene from My Lovely Sam Soon.  (P.S.: Not a convincing reason for Westerners to adopt chopsticks.)

Chopsticks. Korea may have the world’s most useful spoons, but I’m less convinced about the whole chopstick thing. There’s certainly a time and a place for them—chopsticks are great for things like sushi and kimbap and they allow for the high-precision grasping of smaller foods. (Once you’re good at using them, anyway. I knew I’d finally arrived when I could use chopsticks and watch subtitled Korean drama at the same time.) But I don’t see how they’re any more useful than the forks we Westerners are already using, or why switching over to chopsticks would benefit us.

This quote from the 2010 Insight Guide to South Korea, and everything it stands for. “Women take second place to men in Korean society, and can expect to get served last when standing in a queue. This can be galling, but a pithy two-minute lecture delivered at top volume is not going to help.” 

Scent of a Woman: Sam Soon saves a dog destined for the stewpot.

Dog meat. Americans can be hypocritical on this front—many of us happily eat pigs, cows, and chickens, but find it deeply upsetting when people eat companion animals. In contrast, dogs, cats, and horses are all occasionally on the menu in Asia. I certainly won’t be the one to judge this practice. I ate a yummy hamburger for lunch that included two animals: one that’s worshipped by a huge chunk of the world’s population, and another that’s officially banned for members of two major world religions. What we can hope for is humane treatment of all food animals (and maybe the personal strength for vegetarianism).  For a long, thoughtful discussion of this topic, check out Ask a Korean. (I might as well save that sentence as a macro—I seem to be typing it an awful lot lately.) In any event, I don’t think Westerners are going to need to recipe for dog stew anytime soon.

Fan death. Although unheard of essentially everywhere else on the planet, it’s considered common knowledge in Korea that you might die if you sleep with an electric fan running in a closed-up room.
(This isn’t something that comes up much on television, but the general menace of fans is obvious: every shady business deal, kidnapping, and gangster battle takes place in sight of an exhaust fan.) Snoopes doesn’t buy fan death, but Ask a Korean actually makes a case for it being possible under very specific circumstances and notes that cases are regularly reported in the news. Even if fan death really does happen, the odds of experiencing it are probably just slightly lower than the odds of winning the lottery while simultaneously being struck by lightning—which is why other cultures haven’t observed a relationship between fans and death.

21 comments:

  1. What about the common but horrifying instances of guys kissing girls who've just hurled up their guts in a club restroom or on a dark street? I know that's a drama thing and not a Korean cultural thing like the "terrifying nosebleeds". Heehee.

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    1. Ewww, your right I've seen that & wondered if anyone else was thinking about what just happened.

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  2. The total trivia nerd and history major in me broke loose. I should probably apologize upfront for any soap box oratory here:


    The needle pricking is probably related to old school medical practices similar to western humoral medicine. I'm lacking on eastern medicine knowledge.

    Nosebleeds-This is probably related to anemia/lack of iron which occurs when one does not eat properly. Sometimes when one is anemic, nosebleeds are a symptom. This happens to people in the west, usually young girls and women often linked to diet and menstrual cycles and can run in families. It's just not a tv trope in the west.

    Humidifiers everywhere in Korea-I assumed it had to do with cold weather and dry air. It's not just good for the respiratory system, but for appearance conscious Korea, I assume it is also used to hydrate the air for the skin.

    Meat Sources- A good place to start to understand why food sources developed the way they did is Germs, Guns, and Steel by Jared Diamond. If we step outside ethnocentrism we understand not all people have the same resources the culture we belong to has, and personally I have a hard time finding fault with any people that have had to use what resources they have. Do not think people in the United States have not eaten dogs or cats in its history, because they have. The problem today is what is a cultural habit and what is a needed or viable resource. We do not need to hunt wild animals to supplement diet in America, but it is still a big practice.

    Chopsticks-Chopsticks ARE useful for certain foods, usually Asian cuisines, because the foods were designed to be used with chopsticks. That is why we look at western foods and chopsticks as incompatible-because western foods were designed for use with forks.

    K-pop-Let's be real, many Americans can't tell you what the lyrics means to half the songs they know. But they want to be able to sing along, and if they can't bother to understand the lyrics in American, they surely are not going to learn anything about another language.

    Gender Inequality-Korean is just like most countries, we've all come a long way baby, but not far enough because we are still allowing people to call us baby. Read a 1970's American or British romance novel. It's not far off a Korean Drama, except worse, and with sometimes non con sex. We all also must remember Korea has had to deal with invasion and subjugation by foreign entities-including the U.S. In such environments, women are used as resources by the foreign entities. Add that to Confucianism and you get at least a beginning of seeing the picture. If any woman in America thinks there is not gender inequality in the U.S. chances are they are no older than college age and probably haven't worked a real job and paid attention. And unfortunately women can be just as responsible for perpetuating gender inequality as males by buying into it. Korea has a female President, and a plethora of younger male/older female characters and castings in dramas despite the legions of Korean fan gurls screaming that their Oppa's deserve young pretty partners not old ladies (I've seen flame wars over four years age difference): I don't know how either of those things happened but Go Korea.

    Couples Outfits and fan death: I got nothing.


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    1. Impressive information! I loved Guns, Germs, and Steel, too, and definitely appreciate that all these things have developed over a long history and are just a different take on the world than what I'm used to. I still don't think any of them will ever fly in the West, though ;)

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    2. Oh, I agree we you. Have you read Beyond the Shadow of Camptown, Korean Military Brides in America by Yuh Ji-yeon? If not, check it out.

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    3. Gender (in)equality: My problem is not so much with the fact that there really is quite a gap in gender equality in Korea, but the fact that so many of the dramas keep on reinforcing the idea. Just one example is that it is really difficult to find a K-drama that does not include some guy grabbing some girl by the wrist and dragging her along.

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  3. OMG ... "Sam Soon saves a dog." I laughed right out loud! I was like, "c'mon now, Sam Soon wasn't in Scent ... waaaiiitaminute! I see what you did there. Nicely done!"

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  4. I can think of many things that chopsticks are better than forks for eating them. Ramen. Thing that you need to eat with more than one bite. (I hate it when it gets stuck on my fork, I want to use my fork for other things too!) Other things that I don't remember clearly but that are super slippery and don't want to stay on the fork... Plus chopstick are easier to clean.

    But you forgot the drama staple of eating a hamburger with a form and a knife! haha!

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  5. Coming from a country where you learn to eat with chopsticks almost as soon as you learn to walk, i fully believe all noodles taste better with chopsticks! although korean chopsticks, the flat metal kind, took a little retraining to use.

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  6. Found this really neat video about the weird things Asians eat. Sort of fits with this topic. I have to agree, you have to be Asian and it be part of your culture to eat this stuff! Of course, all cultures have their own foods other cultures consider weird. http://blogs.wsj.com/scene/2013/07/10/do-asians-eat-weird-things/?mod=e2fb

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  7. Another link to a great listing of cultural mistakes to avoid in Korea: http://seoulistic.com/korean-culture/20-cultural-mistakes-to-avoid-in-korea/ which might be "no thanks".

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  8. The humidifier thing weirds me out. I had surgery on February and actually asked the nurse about it because I was so dry. She said that humidity breeds bacteria so they intentionally keep it very dry. I couldn't help but laugh thinking about the humidifiers in my KDrama hospitals :)

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  9. Don't forget the practice of touching your tongue with your index finger than your nose to relieve cramps and piggy back rides when intoxicated?

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    1. I don't get the touch tongue nose trick- I tried it I didn't get anything out of it. I wonder where all the 50 year olds are hidden til they turn ancient. Seems like 'age-ism' is as serious as 'look-ism'

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  10. Anyone that has ever been in Korea in the summer, especially in the rainy/monsoon seasons, would know just how stupid a humidifier really is. With temps quite common in the 90's and humidity to match, it can be like a sauna bath.

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  11. The humidifiers, yes! That was one of the first things I noticed when I started watching Korean dramas! It actually made me think "i haven't just been totally missing them, right? We don't have them everywhere as well, right?", lol. And chopsticks... man I suck at using chopsticks. I've been trying to use them for 2 years, and I've decided that my lack of coordination is to blame. I can hardly catch a ball either.

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    1. I learned how to use chopsticks when I was about 8 or 9. There was this really good buffet that my family and would go to every month. My little sister and I loved it because they had a chocolate fountain. The servers gave us those chopstick "training wheels," I guess you could say. The ones you put on the top of each stick to help keep them together. Have you tried those?

      --B

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  12. Oh Muy Gaud! Thank you for posting this. I've recently got into a Korean Romantic Comedy binge and was wondering about all these themes. This post is hysterical because you are like a mind reader questioning all the things that I was wondering about. Oh and jenredshoes I was wondering about the vomit thing too!! I'm thinking that Koreans like acidic fermented foods like Kimchi and really is vomit that much different? I understand the dog thing...If I were in Korea I think I would request a chihuahua...I hate those pesky little yapper dogs. Oh but to get back to the vomit...Many mammals regurgitate food for their young to eat...birds....dogs etc... I'm wondering aren't humans also mammals? Thanks so much for the post...much of this is a mystery to me.

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