Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The world out there

“You didn’t sort your trash, you slattern!”

One of the weird side effects of my obsession with Korean drama is that I know a lot more about the world than I used to. This gives me a different perspective from a lot of Americans—I realize that our way of doing things isn’t the only possible way.

Take the big news from New York City: America’s most densely populated urban area is now encouraging the composting of food waste. This will save the city money in the short term by reducing the amount of trash that goes into landfills, and in the long term will create environmentally friendly fertilizer that might even be a source of income someday. Predictably, people aren’t crazy about the idea: compost is stinky, New York is already teeming with rats, and recycling actually requires some small degree of effort.

But if you’ve seen the 2004 drama Sweet Eighteen, you know that New York City isn’t the first place to recycle metropolitan food waste. Korea has been experimenting with it since the early 1990s, and Sweet Eighteen gives a funny glimpse into a reality of everyday life in cities around the world—the great rubbish battle. The drama’s flighty young heroine spends a lot of time avoiding her apartment block’s ajumma trash police, who constantly try to make her follow food disposal rules. Failing at that, they end up re-sorting her garbage themselves—the only alternative to paying government fines for improperly prepared trash.

In Korea, food waste becomes fertilizer, biogas, or even pig feed. People buy special trash bags and sort their waste themselves, or suffer any number of unpleasant consequences. (The thought of the neighborhood gossips going through my trash would be more than enough motivation to get me to recycle food waste, that’s for sure.)  

In press coverage of New York’s new program, other American cities that already recycle food waste are mentioned. But nobody ever notes what we drama watchers realize: it’s a worldwide phenomenon with a long history.

And this isn’t the only instance of Kdramas exposing me to ways of thinking and living that are unfamiliar to most Americans. Here a few things that are just different in Korea.

Carrying books. Whenever I move, I start by packing everything I own into cardboard boxes. But this isn’t so great for books—they’re heavy, awkwardly shaped, and prone to being scuffed if they slide around. After watching a few Asian dramas, I realized there’s another way: the book strap. You stack as many books as you can carry in one trip and secure them with strings, which then serve as carrying handles. This takes up less space and will save you from finding and disposing of boxes. Why does nobody in the West do this? It’s so low-key and easy. (Image from The Hipster Tipster.)

Long spoons. If for only one reason, traveling 240 miles to visit Hmart was worth it. And that reason would be getting to buy my own Korean-style spoons. I suspect their design evolved to allow for easy sharing from communal soup tureens: they’re heavy and have large bowls and extra-long, angled handles that increase your reach. After a few months using them, I can’t imagine going back to regular American spoons. They’re perfect for getting the last olive out of the jar, and even make it easier to eat soup without slopping it all over yourself. (I’m not exactly sure why this is, but I suspect it’s because getting the bowl of the spoon to your mouth requires less arm motion.) How is it that we Americans haven’t realized that better spoon technology exists in the world?

The amnesia coverage better be spectacular.

Single-payer health care. There has been a long and contentious debate in America about single-payer healthcare. I don’t get it, though: how can we consider ourselves a civilized nation when we let people suffer and die because they can’t afford to go to a doctor or buy medicine? 

Single-payer schemes may not be perfect, but neither is the system we have now. Even with insurance, it’s a nightmare to get sick in America. As an example: I know someone who has excellent health insurance through her employer. She broke her knee earlier this year, though, and now has a binder about four inches thick full of copies of the paperwork she’s had to submit to her insurance company. She’s spent hours (and hours and hours) on the phone wrangling over payment and reimbursement, and between copays and costs that weren’t covered by insurance has spent more than a thousand dollars. Plus, the insurance company carefully rationed her visits to a physical therapist for help recovering, and her annual allowance for this service ran out before her doctor said it was safe for her to stop going. It’s a mystery to me how an older person or someone whose abilities are diminished by illness could be expected to handle this lengthy, painstaking process.

In contrast, visits to the doctor—and specialists—are easy and affordable for every single citizen of Korea, not just people who are lucky enough to be able to afford private insurance (and capable of navigating its mazelike bureaucracy). The invaluable Ask a Korean has a great run-down of how this works. Taxes fund the healthcare system in Korea, and all the resulting paperwork is handled between doctors and the government. Essentially all non-elective care needs are covered, although complicated longterm illnesses like caner are still extremely expensive. 

From an entertainment perspective, I think it’s really interesting that Korean dramas often show people who are suffering from financial hardship because of healthcare costs. That never, ever happens in America: our television characters are so divorced from the realities of everyday, bodily life that they might as well be robots. The Brady house had no toilet, after all, and no American character has ever needed to trim their toenails. Bills never need paying and money is never a concern. Why is that?

Quidditch is different in Korea, huh?

Kids clean schools. In 2011 American politician Newt Gingrich suggested a revolutionary way to cut education budgets: get rid of professional janitors and instead make students take responsibility for cleaning their own school.

Gingrich isn’t someone I tend to agree with. But I’ve watched a lot of Korean dramas, and here’s what I can tell you about student janitors: It’s not such a farfetched idea. We’ve all seen it—the poor female lead is stuck all by herself cleaning the urinals in the boys’ bathroom. Students flirt over mops in the hallway. In Hello My Teacher, kids were responsible for cutting the school’s lawn with something resembling scissors.

What followed Gingrich’s announcement was nothing short of a shitstorm. People freaked out because of the jobs that would be eliminated, and also because kids would be exposed to dangerous chemicals in the course of cleaning. And while there was a lot of lip service about the value of manual labor, the undertone in most press coverage seemed to be that janitorial work was undignified and possibly damaging to youthful psyches.

But here’s a quote from a 2007 US News & World Report article about similar practices in Japan:
“Most Japanese schools don’t employ janitors, but the point is not to cut costs. Rather, the practice is rooted in Buddhist traditions that associate cleaning with morality—a concept that contrasts sharply with the Greco-Roman notion of cleaning as a menial task best left to the lower classes. 
‘Education is not only teaching subjects but also cooperation with others, ethics, a sense of responsibility, and public morality. Doing chores contributes to this,’ says Katsko Takahashi, a member of the Board of Education in Nanae, a suburban town in Hokkaido. ‘Besides, if students make a mess, they know they wi”ll have to clean it up. So naturally, they try to keep things clean.’”
This actually makes great sense to me. The hard, gross work of cleaning is part of life. Why are the mythologized “school children” of America exempt from this? And let’s also take a moment to consider the fact that cleaning is traditionally a “female” gendered task. Is disparaging the idea of students with brooms the same as disparaging the arts of homekeeping?

Here’s another quote about Japanese children working in their school’s cafeteria: “This lunch routine contains several moral messages: no work, not even the dirty work of cleaning, is too low for a student; all should share equally in common tasks; the maintenance of the school is everyone’s responsibility.” 

Where’s the harm in that, I wonder?

I feel you, Pil Sook.

Noraebang. A confession: I’ve never done karaoke. It was faddishly popular in America for a few years in the 90s and is still around, but singing in front of an audience would be my own personal hell. When America adopted the Asian concept of karaoke, we somehow overlooked the one thing that might actually make it fun: privacy. American-style karaoke is generally a bar with a stage where people take turns singing in front of everyone in attendance—friends and strangers alike. What would probably be incredibly fun in a cozy little noraebang with a bunch of good friends was turned into a high-stress exercise in self-loathing (or an excuse for vanity and showing off, depending on what kind of person you are). Apparently there are true noraebangs in America, but far from where I am.

Han Gyul and I have similar cooking skills; Eun Chan and I have similar eating skills.

Health. Korean drama is going to be the death of me—seriously. According to a study conducted in Australia, every hour of television we watch after the age of 25 reduces our lifespan by 21.8 minutes. Based on this reckoning, I should drop dead any minute now. On the other hand, all the time I’ve invested in Korean drama has also shown me a different way of approaching food and exercise.

The Korean food I’m exposed to on television is actually much healthier than what I might normally eat. I’ll be going over to my dad’s house for dinner on Sunday, and here’s what will inevitably be on the menu: red meat, mashed potatoes, gravy, and canned peas. Which is awesomely tasty every once in a while, but it’s the way a lot of old-fashioned American eaters approach food all the time.

This couldn’t be more different from traditional Korean meals, where the main dish is usually a clear soup that’s served with an array of vegetable-based side dishes and small amounts of fish. Meat is often used as flavoring rather than a primary ingredient. (This is partially caused by economic reasons: Korea’s beef is some of the most expensive in the world. According to Drover’s Network, an American beef-industry journal, average-quality beef can cost between $18 and $20 per pound in Korea. Even the fanciest cuts at my local supermarket are about half that much.)

My interest in Korean cooking has actually prompted me to eat more fresh vegetables and fish, which I’m sure my doctor would thank me for. (Now if only I didn’t love ramen quite so much...)

Korea’s common-sense approach to exercise is also something most Americans could learn from. We tend to think pricey gym memberships and luxury sneakers stand between us and a good workout, but that’s not true. Just getting moving makes a difference, which is exactly what we see in shows like Coffee Prince and The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry.

All this adds up to a country with one of the world’s lowest obesity rates. That’s a pretty good influence, especially compared to what I see around me every day in suburban America.

I always assumed that the fundamental details of life were pretty much the same everywhere, in spite of cultural differences. Why would the medicine you took, the school you attended, or the way you felt about your parents depend on where you lived? But after watching hundreds of hours of Asian dramas, it’s clear to me that how we think, what we do, and even the ways we dream are all inextricably linked to the place we’re from.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from how the other side lives.


  1. I love this post! It's so true that watching Korean dramas and films has introduced me to alot of great and different ways things are done there. It's also made me much more attentive whenever I read or hear anything about other cultures. I've admired that way Korea's school children are expected to be responsible for their school's cleanliness. It teaches the value of hard work beyond acedemics and a sense of community. I've also seen how people are expected to be somewhat responsible to eachother as a community. Teachers getting involved outside of school hours when a student gets in trouble. People in public telling someone who's behaving badly that they should behave better, treat someone better, or be more responsible. I don't see that alot in America. We tend to have TV shows devoted to people acting badly. Also, it would be totally unacceptable to comment on a stranger's conduct here (except online). I'm a little sad that my non-Kfan friends and fam may think dramas are only about romance, intrigue, and handsome guys. I'm gonna forward this post because you explained it much better than I could. Thanks Amanda :)

  2. We're house hunting right now. Which makes me look at my (literally) thousands of books and cringe. The normal book moving process usually means packing them all into boxes, moving them, unloading them in a corner of a new house, then bringing my precious boxes back to pack the rest of my house's crap. NOT THIS TIME! Where's the twine. Korea's gonna be a life saver this time around.

    The way our cultures differ is mind bogggling sometimes. I seriously do sit around some days and just reflect on all these things you mention, and more. Then I get depressed with our society. Not that Korea is a perfect society by any means. I just hate how cultures get in a rut and cannot and probably will not ever be open to major change. Of course I also sit around and think about some of my friends who - not content to just smirk at my love of Korean entertainment - would probably actually use racist slurs to describe this, and my love of humanity takes a major dip again.

    Kdramas really do change lives, considering how it effects our worldview in such broad ways..

  3. Another good one Amanda. What Korean dramas have taught me the most is that pretty to the point of being feminine boys can really be very manly and not the suspected gay I first thought they were. I have come to appreciate their beautifully chiseled V shape faces, porcelain skin helped by make-up, their chocolate abs and six packs, hair done to perfection or in unusual ways and colors. Sigh.... I remember the two flower boys all dandied up I saw on the street in Itaewon when I vacationed in Korea last year and said to myself: oh my, they are flower boys!

  4. Thanks for the awesome post, very enjoyable.

    Waste management: It's only intelligent to sort waste if you ask me. But the idea that they need to buy special plastic bags to sort their garbage AND that there is no public garbage bins is lost on me.

    Carrying books: I actually never seen that despite the many many drama I've watched. It doesn't really appeal to me. I don't want to put my books directly in the truck nor do I want to expose them to rain in a trailer…

    Long spoons: I never noticed the spoons were longer! Now I want one…

    Single-payer health care: I agree with you that I don't understand why we never see that story line in American media. I recently learned that some may have to pay 25 000$ to give birth in a hospital in the US and I was completely floored. If it's true/still true, how come the fertility rate is so high???

    Kids clean schools: I like that one. If the chemicals are too harsh for the poor little children, they are too harsh for the poor little janitors! Change the cleaners! Some kids grow to never clean an inch in their home, so it would be a good start to clean at school I guess.

    Noraebang. I want a noraebang! I'm like you, no noreabang in driving distance. :(

    Health. Yeah their diet is healthier than ours but there it's also spicier and that's why stomach cancer rates are so high. Between the two, I'd still choose the Korean diet any day though. I would need to learn how to eat spicy though.

  5. I agree, discovering k drama has opened me up to looking at the world with new perspectives.

    One of the first results of my K drama addiction was the spoons and stainless steel chopsticks. I eat daily with a Korean spoon. Greatest thing ever. The chopsticks, I love the flat design, but I find them a little difficult to use because they are small.

    I find the family ties and the passion combined with a pragmatic nature portrayed as a big part of Korean culture in dramas of interest. I also really like that the dramas portray that people have choices in life, and that neither may be wrong, and that there is often more than one person that is right for you in life (i.e., the first and second male leads that are both viable love interests in most dramas). I dislike love triangles but I absolutely love the life lessons in k dramas about choices.

  6. I love you examples and I totally agree with you on them! Especially the eating and exercise one. That really needs to change in America. Thank you for all the the articles and quotes, it was really very insightful :)

  7. Another one I would mention is their bath houses, the jjim ja bangs! The emphasis on cleanliness and caring for your body is wonderful. They take time to just hang out with family and friends. I found one, not real close in Duluth, GA, and have been there twice so far. Can't recommend it enough.

    Here is a link to a New York Times article about Little Italy in Flushing, NY. They have noraebangs! This is on my list of must visits for a road trip.

  8. Love this post! I am totally on board with spreading the superior spoon technology!

    The local council of the town where I work and hope to live soon switched to a new rubbish bin system in 2011 for their residents. Each household gets 3 bins: a small one for food waste (no plastic bags allowed, special biodegradable ones can be purchased if smell is an issue for you), two larger ones for recyclables - one for paper/plastic, another one for green garden waste.

    There were complaints amongst my co-workers for a while, especially around Christmas time when food waste quickly built up and got stinky in the heat - I live in the sounthern hemisphere. But after 9 months or so everyone got used to it and the township is getting accolades for spearheading the food composting initiative.

    So the lesson there, everything is just a habit, once you get used to it, its no big deal.

    1. oops, got some of that wrong, should have said the two large bins include one for recyclables like paper/plastic, the other one is for all non-recyclable waste.

  9. Wow!! Such a good post! And so true. I hadn't realized how much I learned from kdramas..without actually sitting down to a sociology class. Thanks.

  10. I lived in Japan for many years, so I find lots of similar cultural mores in Kdramas. As a matter of fact, if you take out the yelling, hitting, emotional breakdowns, then you could be watching a jdrama (sorta).
    I would love to grow old in a Confucian/Buddhist society with their respect of the elderly and ancestor worship. Do you know the date and place your grandparent's death? I sure don't. So many kdramas have an episode where the elder son has to perform a ceremony for his grandparent's date of death. The good is the respect for parents, but the bad is the ability of the parents to control the lives of their children as they are culturally required to honor their parent's wishes. At least according to my drama watching. Thanks for such a thoughtful essay.

  11. I also wanted to add that in Portland, Oregon we have deposit return on beverage bottles and cans and we sort our garbage. Paper and other recyclables into one big bin and another big bin is for yard waste and food scraps. The other small can is for REAL garbage that can't go in the other two and that one is only picked up twice a month by the garbage hauler. Grumbling initially, but Portlanders are generally "green" citizens. My daughter lives in Salt Lake City and she said she cringes every time she throws away a bottle or can.

  12. This is such a lovely post Amanda! You make so many wonderful points. Something else that I have found is that not only do we learn new and perhaps better things to add to our lives, but we also learn to embrace ideas and people different from us. Here in the Internets, it is so much easier to be friends with someone from another country, political perspective, religious or non-religious background. I have seen some really wonderful discussions and conversations about non-drama related subjects. I think that if more people embraced cultural differences and people, that the world would probably get along a whole lot better.

  13. This link is to an article that dovetails very well with this topic, it's also very cute! http://www.buzzfeed.com/regajha/31-signs-youre-a-third-culture-kid

  14. Buzzfeed is fantastic! Here is another one that follows along this topic http://www.buzzfeed.com/daozers/27-signs-you-were-raised-by-asian-immigrant-parents

    1. What Korean dramas have given me is an all consuming interest in another culture. Before Korean dramas I mainly watched US and British drama (with the occasional Scandinavian drama thrown in for good measure), but now if I go a day without seeing a Korean drama, I get withdrawal symptoms. Since I became addicted to Korean dramas, I have begun learning the language (for 19 months now, my tutor tells me I am doing very well), I have made 4 Korean friends, one of whom I am very close to, have visited Korea for 2 weeks (last month, went to Seoul, Cheongju, Gyeongju and Busan)and have already booked my flights for a 3 week trip early next year (couldn't go again this year because I don't have enough annual leave left). I know in my heart, that Korea will be very important to me for the rest of my life. And it all started with a visiting relative from the US asking me if I could find a drama for her online. It was Dae Jang Geum. I was hooked from the first 10 minutes.

      But back to the original post. I was perplexed at people having to pay for health care in Korea, I thought that was only the US. I am just so used to all hospital treatment being free in the UK that it shocks me when I see sick people being asked for money for treatment.

      The recycling didn't faze me at all, as we have been recycling in the UK for years now. To be honest, I thought all developed countries did it.

      As for Korean food!! Ah, I love it. It was so cheap to eat out in Korea too. Really miss it since I returned to the UK. However, as regards obesity in Korea, I read only the other day that 1 in 4 people in Seoul is overweight. Rapidly catching up with the West, it seems

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