|Heirs: No hot guy has ever gazed adoringly at me from a convenience store’s eat-in counter, |
because here convenience stores don’t have eat-in counters. (That’s why, right?)
Someone I follow on Tumblr was recently asked an interesting question: “As a western person, how does it feel watching Kdramas? I’m Asian so I like them because they resemble my life more than western dramas.”
As a fairly average American, I can say the exact opposite is true. When I first started watching Korean dramas, it was like the moment in the Wizard of Oz when the world turns to technicolor. I’ve spent most of my life immersed in pop culture, but here was something totally new and different. As a form of entertainment, it was like nothing I’d ever seen before, or even imagined might exist. But what fascinated me most about it—and what eventually inspired me to start this blog—was how very different Kdrama life was from my own.
Of course, I know a country’s television shows aren’t necessarily representative of life within its borders. (My own lack of granite countertops, a vampire boyfriend, and a job in a glamour industry are exhibits A, B, and C.) But they do have something to say about how people in a particular place and time interact with the world around them, and how they expect that world to interact with them.
There are lots reasons why my life doesn’t have much in common with Korean dramas, and not all of them are cultural. For one thing, I’m from where the suburbs turn to countryside. Here, people have four-wheel-drive trucks and keep chickens in their backyards. Men often save up their vacation time for hunting season, and women wear more polar fleece than high heels. My state is also tiny, which means that we’re left out of things that are common elsewhere. To watch a movie on a screen bigger than about 15 feet across, I have to drive 90 miles. I’ve never seen a Trader Joe’s in person. Until recently, getting to the nearest Starbucks required a two-hour car trip. Here, we have local news reports that include more information about snow cover at nearby ski areas than actual...you know...news. And one of the most frequently played commercials on the radio station I listen to is about a special rollover protection device for tractors.
In contrast, most Korean dramas are set in Seoul, which is depicted as an enormous, bustling Disneyland of a city. There are giant movie theaters, a thousand restaurants per capita, and the public transportation necessary to get to them is ubiquitous and cheap. You can shop at fancy boutiques as well as at alleyway stalls. You can see gorgeous views from Namsan Tower, and then find a convenient spot for assignations near the swan boat rentals on the Han River.
|Coffee Prince: No hot guy has ever given me a piggyback ride, |
because piggyback rides are unheard of in America. (That’s why, right?)
To a girl from the boondocks, city life as it’s shown in Korean dramas is nothing short of astonishing. (To give you an idea how different my area is, around 600,000 people live in my entire state, which measures 9,000 square miles. Seoul’s population of 9.5 million people is squeezed into 233 square miles.) Through Korean dramas, I’ve witnessed something like real city life for the first time. After all, drama characters seem to spend more time on random street corners and at picturesque tourist attractions than they do in the controlled indoor environments favored by American production teams. I’m pretty sure I could navigate through Incheon airport in a blindfold, thanks to all the scenes I’ve watched that were filmed there.
But lots of the ways my life differs from dramalife do arise from culture. Take family life. I’ve mostly lived on my own since I went away to college at 18, with only a few bounces back into my parents’ house. That’s pretty much how things are expected to work in America—part of coming of age is acquiring your own place to live, whether you share it with unrelated roommates, a significant other, or no one.
In today’s trendy rom-coms, we see some evidence of this lifestyle in Korea. The majority of general-interest series take a different approach, though: In these shows, children live with their parents until they’re married, even if that doesn’t happen until they’re older. What’s Up Fox, Ojakgyo Brothers, and Beyond the Clouds all feature characters in their thirties who have always lived at home. If these shows are to be trusted, this is a simple fact of life for many Koreans.
Multigenerational households in America are the exception rather than the rule, and often come into being because of temporary hard financial times rather than any kind of longterm plan. While the recent financial fracas has made it more common for extended families to live in a single home, our attitude about it hasn’t really changed. I heard a news story on the topic just this week. The segment ended with the presenter asking the reporter: “Are parents worried about their children being productive individuals when they live at home?” I’m pretty sure you’d never hear a question like that in Korea, where multigenerational homes are part of a longstanding tradition. Unlike this American presenter, Koreans seem unlikely to worry that letting their children stay in the family home would stunt their personal growth.
|My Girlfriend is a Gumiho: I’ve never been to a sauna with a hot guy, because no such thing exists here. |
(That’s why, right?)
Some Korean family dramas even take things a step further—homes include young people, their parents, and their grandparents. There’s a lot of sense in this arrangement: household expenses are saved, and there are extra adults around to help out with child rearing. As an American viewer, though, these shows can be hard to watch. The deference paid to older generations is never on starker display than when members of the older generation tell their adult children what to do with their lives. For me, the otherwise charming Smile, You was completely derailed by a controlling grandfather who gave his fifty-something son zero autonomy. I can’t imagine an American eighteen-year-old sticking around for that kind of treatment, let alone someone old enough to have adult children of their own.
There are certainly lots of multigenerational homes in America, especially in families with Hispanic or Asian roots. But whenever they’re discussed in mainstream media here, the assumption is that the family’s elderly component will have a semi-separate, private living space. One of my friends’ grandparents spend their summers in our hometown, living in an apartment over her parents’ garage. It’s a fully free-standing space with its own kitchen, living room, and bathroom—there’s an adjoining door between the apartment and the house, but it’s kept closed and locked. Based on dramaland, this is pretty different from the expectations of multigenerational households in Korea. (In spite of some digging, I can’t find any specific figures for how many people in Korea actually live with their extended families. Every news article I’ve come across bemoans the decreasing number of multigenerational households, but no English-langauge source backs this up with any kind of actual fact. In 2008, 16 percent of the U.S. population lived in multigenerational homes.)
And it’s not just the big stuff that’s different. Take breakfast. In America, only specific foods are generally considered appropriate for the morning meal—things like cereal, toast, pancakes, or eggs. These things are so associated with breakfast that if you eat them in the evening, it’s inevitably called “breakfast for dinner.” (Personally, I like eating leftovers from dinner for breakfast, even if it’s considered slightly odd.) The first time I saw someone in a Korean drama sit down in front of bowls of soup and rice in the morning, my mind was blown. It never even occurred to me that eating “breakfast foods” at breakfast was a strictly cultural innovation, but it obviously is.
It’s funny to think that I would have written a better version of this post three years ago, but that’s definitely true. I’ve been watching Korean drama almost exclusively since then, and there’s not a lot about them that surprises me anymore. It’s hard to remember just how exotic drama life seemed when I first started watching, from the ever-present ramyun to stopping mid-argument to take off your shoes when entering someone’s house. The one thing I know for sure is that none of these differences ever really mattered—they’re just skin deep. The reason why people love Korean drama is because it speaks to the things we all care about: Families, jobs, relationships, and living a happy, successful life. There’s no language or culture barrier here. Even though I live an average American life in all the practical ways, Kdrama speaks to me in a way Western TV doesn’t. On American television, characters are almost always casually upper middle class people who have never used a bathroom in their lives. So maybe Korean drama is more like my life, after all.