|“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.