Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Navel gazing and sweeping generalizations: Watching drama as an American

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.


  1. The last paragraph is what I agree with most. I personally find Kdramas far more relate-able than the American stuff we have!

  2. It's nice finding out the different perspectives we have on dramaland. For me, because I'm from a very heavily Western-influenced Asian country, I can relate so very much to both Western and Asian dramas.

    I started writing out a very long comment but realized it was getting to be tl;dr material and so I'll be posting it as a blog entry on my own space. Haha.

  3. Dear Amanda, thank you for a great write up and more importantly for the glimpse of your rural life setting in America. We owe a lot to modern technology to allow us to explore other cultures in the comfort of our own home. I am an Asian living in New Zealand and I have to admit that the Western nuclear family structure seems very self serving in its promotion of isolation and independence. My Asian friends and families find it strange that my in law's large family home does not include us as residents and speculates that maybe I don't get along with them! After all you are not considered family until you learn to live together under the same roof. I watch Asian drama as a form of escapism if you like of what my life could have been if I have chosen to marry an Asian guy instead.

  4. Hello Amanda, I enjoy your postings with agreement and often a grin on my face. Being a widowed male in my later years living in Ohio I started watching Korean Drama shortly after my wife passed away of cancer. Always a romantic I found solace in watching these shows because they gave me the exposure of another way of life. What started became my way of life, I was never a big fan of U.S. TV which has degenerated too much. Of course not all shows are the same filled with spunky woman or men who appreciated such woman. Too much abuse is heaped upon woman as objects and not realizing that woman are the foundation of all societies. Watching Korean Drama with subtitles has enriched my life beyond my imagination. I learned to watch, read and start to comprehend and often saying out loud "that's not what they said" I now watch French, Taiwanese and much more while reading subs. I now enjoy watching a DVD in the original language while reading subtitles. What once sounded harsh to my years has become softer and filled with emotions I would have never know otherwise. It would have been nice to carry my wife on my back..Again thank you for your comments. Take care, Tom in Ohio

  5. I started watching Korean dramas about two years ago and then branched out into other Asian cultures as well so not much seems strange anymore. I'm so glad I found Asian dramas as there isn't much on American TV I can stand to watch. As an American I still find the importance placed on age and the power it gives a person in this hierarchical society a little strange. That and the fact that a couple can be dating for months or years and the younger still addresses the older formally in many cases. I'm watching a show right now where the female calls the male Seonsaeng-nim even though they've dated a year.

  6. This is a beautiful post, Amanda. I love hearing your descriptions of home. It makes me miss New England.

  7. What a beautiful article. I am European and I have lived both in small places and in a big city. Now I live in a very small town with beautiful nature and beautiful people and when I watch asian dramas I feel like I am entering a new universe. I had refused for a long time to watch asian dramas even though my Asian friends kept on insisting that I do so. When I saw the trailer for Meteor Garden I was shocked at how violent the main lead was towards the leading lady and I started to give my friends a whole speech about women's rights and so on. But one day I sat down and decided to give it a try and yes, you guessed it, I was hooked! Luckily for me I have an Asian boyfriend and Asian friends who explain what is accurate and what is not accurate in these dramas. Fortunately and unfortunately at the same time, many of the things are accurate. Inspite of the fact that I am very independent and have lived away from my parent's house and my native country for a while now, I can still relate to asian dramas, because as you said, they show us things that matter to us. Ever since I have been spending time with Asians I have learned that family is very important and I admire their dedication. I am currently trying to be a better daughter, sister and so on...

  8. I discovered Korean dramas 3 years ago and since then I have barely watched any of my local tv shows....I even watch the Korean news hahaha!! :-)

  9. I so agree with you Amanda. I have been watching Korean dramas for just under 3 years now, and show no signs of losing interest. I still enjoy some western dramas, but they are few and far between. Most of them seem very soulless, and I truly hate that they have a reset button at the end of every episode. Korean dramas, on the other hand, resonate with me on an emotional level. They may not be as polished, some of the actors may be a little amateurish, but the stories hit me where it hurts every time, the heart. Most Korean dramas seem to have a distinct lack of jaded cynicism which is all too prevalent in western dramas.

  10. My older daughters watch Korean dramas for the emotions and the guys but - I fell down the rabbit hole because of the knitwear. As a knitter who lives in a cold climate, my mind has been blown. Cowls, hats, scarves, (sometimes great) sweaters, socks - I may die before I can knit my way through it all. I've made two sweaters and four cowls since January under the influence of Korean knitwear. Ryu Soo-young gives me reason to live every time he wears a scarf!

    1. OMG! I would totally buy what you've made. I love korean knitwear. So fluffy and well styled.

  11. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think part of the multi-generational homes, particularly in South Korea is has more to do with how expensive it is to get your own place. In the US, you're 18 with a job so you go get an apartment and can move in for let's say first and last month's rent. In SK though, you're putting down a deposit of $10,000, $20,000 or more, which I'm assuming the average 18 year old wouldn't have on hand.

    That's just my perspective from watching dramas, more than a few have made references to these huge deposits (and loan sharks taking them from the landlords, lol). Which would also explain the "Oops, guess we have to live together!" trope. So I would think, although part of it would have to be the whole elder, taking direction from the family thing, that the bulk of it is that no 18-20 year old in Korea has that kind of scratch around to get their own place.

  12. Thanks for your post, Amanda!

    I, too, shared your fascination with the Korean culture when I first stumbled upon Korean dramas. Even though I've always lived in a more suburban environment outside of a major city, their whole way of life was so different (and I heartily agree about the food! Soup for breakfast?? I also couldn't believe that people would take their shoes off while running in and out of houses.) It has really opened up a whole new world for me, including making new like-minded friends from all over the world. While I will say that after 5 years of watching, some of the tropes are getting old and some of the things they do still infuriate me (fathers and mothers hitting adult children, wrist-grabbing) I enjoy these dramas more because of the lack of sensationalism due to sex, violence and what I believe to be the shock value of American shows. Plus they are just so convenient to watch on my computer! I almost forget what a TV is for.

  13. Hi Amanda :) What an interesting little history lesson you just gave us! You have a perspective I don't have because I've only been watching a year. I'm that later wave of viewers. I've seen most of the famous dramas and am now watching the new ones as they air, and that's a different experience too. I've enjoyed your insights and different kind of outlook. What a lot you were keeping up with! Good luck going forward.

  14. I started watching Asian dramas in 2011 and got hooked after viewing Boys Over Flowers (Korean) and Hi My Sweetheart (Taiwanese). Of Asian descent, I prefer to watch Asian dramas than American ones where there is much less nudity (apart from the shower scenes) and relationships are taken slowly.

    Thanks for your insights.

  15. Hey amanda. It has been so long since you last posted. I do read your episode updates regularly but I miss your long reviews. Can you please post something here :)

  16. What an interesting little history lesson you just gave us! You have a perspective I don't have because I've only been watching a year. I'm that later wave of viewers. I've seen most of the famous dramas and am now watching the new ones as they air, and that's a different experience too. I've enjoyed your insights and different kind of outlook. What a lot you were keeping up with! Good luck going forward.

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