Thursday, June 18, 2009

Korean Experience in Brief

Alright, I decided that perhaps it is time to give an overview of how I percieved my international experience here in Korea. I'm supposed to be going home, but I ended up applying to extend my contract with TaLK after a fairly heated argument with the international coordinator at the University of Ulsan and getting removed from the Learn and Teach in Ulsan program. I was forced against a wall by him and by the TaLK program, and now I'm stuck with my decision, only 24 hours after finding out its possible. I hate the sucks.

Anyway, seeing life as an exchange student and as an English teacher at a public school is not the extent of my experiences here in Korea. I have been on various “Culture Tours” provided by the Provincial office of Education, which have taken me to the Island of Jeju (Korea’s Hawaii), inside a farmers home, to traditional Korean villages, and even to various regional festivals. All of these have given me great insight into the Korean mindset and also the mindset of a foreigner experiencing them because in all of these circumstances, I was surrounded by fellow English teachers who taught not only at elementary schools, but at Middle Schools and even High Schools. Each of them had unique and even interesting experiences to discuss, and many of them also openly shared their drinking and even illicit/illegal exploits while here in Korea. I’ve seen firsthand the repercussions of a drunken brawl between a foreigner and a Korean, and I’ve heard of the complications that arise when a foreigner attempts to pick up a prostitute, only to discover that she does not service non-Koreans. On the other side, I’ve been with other foreigners while learning traditional styles of dyeing cloth, making baskets to carry eggs on a day trip, and participating in traditional dances.

On top of cultural experiences, I participated for a while in a program developing English Lesson Plans for the elementary schools in the Ulsan Municipal Educational Office. That was a 2 month project working with other foreigner teachers and Korean teachers to create a system of teaching that would allow foreign teachers to provide better lessons to the elementary school kids. These lesson plans were distributed to all the other teachers in the Ulsan area and became part of their curriculum—of course I don’t know the overall level of acceptance by the teachers, but some have expressed their resolute dislike of the system while others have discussed their whole-hearted application. It is unreasonable to assume that we could have made a perfect system, but perhaps more research would have been helpful.

However, I did undertake a 120 hours TESOL (Teaching Students of Other Languages) course, which has become useful in my daily dealings with my students and even with the other English teachers. This particular TESOL course was sponsored by the Asian EFL Journal (and certified by universities in England, Australia and the US) and was thus oriented toward teaching in Korea and other Asian countries, discussing common issues that occur when teaching English in East Asia. One such discussion was about educational reform issues, and how we as teachers might help in that process. It was an interesting program, to say the least, but was nothing compared to the 220 hour ESL training we received at the start of the TaLK program, hours appropriately named “orientation.”

I have also gone on other trips up to Seoul, experiencing true metropolitan lifestyles. Recently, I spent two nights with my Canadian-Korean friend’s cousins in their upper-middle class high rise apartment in a lower income neighborhood. I found out later that the area in which we stayed is commonly known for its high crime rate. It was interesting to see how people of Confucian ideals intermingle with others of different income levels, which was far different from what I expected. On the hand, I spent two nights in the Executive Premier Suite of an affluent hotel chain in one of the richest neighborhoods in Seoul, and the effort that the hotel made to keep me from having to mingle with the “regular” guests was staggering. I had my own VIP lounge and swimming pool. It was far different from staying with my friend’s family.

But not all my experiences in Seoul have been about economic levels. I have acquaintances there who work for the US military, and on more than one occasion, we’ve discussed the situation between US-ROK military forces. Most of my friends have expressed serious issues in US-ROK military relations, and many of them have to stem from the stereotype of being “American Soldiers”—a stereotype my friends continuously try to avoid. Other things stem from the fact that US spends more money on the military in Korea than the nation of Korea does on its overall military forces, thus giving rise to a gap between the US and ROK soldiers in terms of lifestyles. In fact, that’s the main reason for the KORUS Joint Forces initiative, which allows Korean soldiers to serve in the US military.

Many of my friends, on the other hand, are former ROK soldiers, as it is a constitutional duty of Korean men to serve in the military for a term no less than 2 years, and then continue to be in reserve for another 3 years after that. This has a significant effect on relationships, studying, traveling, etc., especially when you consider that every Korean male over the age of thirty has served in the military. This might be the cause for the differences in culture between Japan and Korea. But it really changes the relationships among college students, when the gap between ages of the males and the female students is 2 years, and when all the male students still act like wild freshmen even at the age of 22, it’s very strange.

But my particular dormitory hall is for foreign students, so I have made some fairly good friends with men from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Mongolia. One of my former roommates was Mongolian, working on his PhD in Computer Engineering, and discussing with him the difficulties of researching in another country was interesting. My friend from Sri Lanka agreed with the situations discussed by my roommate, but he added more as his doctoral research normally takes him to the city of Taejun, where he works directly with chemical engineers at some of the biggest plants in Korea. His difficulties then had the added effect that despite being surrounded by the smartest minds in South Korea, he didn’t understand what they were talking about. Language difficulties hinder the process of information evaluation and incorporation. However, my Pakistani friend didn’t have any of the issues discussed by my other friends, by he has problems finding Islam-friendly Middle-eastern food in Korea, and that has been a huge problem for him; so much so that he’s had to go far out of his way just to get a meal. That creates an impact on his overall schedule.

Here in Korea, I’ve experienced the gamut from low to high economic levels, good to bad teachers, illegal behaviors to church service projects, government funded training to privately funded training, private universities to public universities, public schools to private institutions, and industrial cities to commercial metropolises. But none of that was anything like my experiences as a volunteer church missionary in Japan.

If you wanna know more, talk to me. Otherwise,

Happy Trails people.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Korean Wave Splashes Abroad

This time, it's 5:30am, not 4, and I just finished this week's essay for Korean Politics. I still have half an essay to finish (the one from last week) before I've completed my assignments for the class, but I also have to write a comparison essay on something between China, Japan, Korea and the US for Understanding Modern China(my professor recommends Temple construction, but I'm not certain yet). There has been a lot that has happened to me since the last post, like getting the results of my TOPIK exam, but I thought that I would dedicate this post to explaining what I know about Korean Pop culture. So, this Blog post is all for fun :P

In 1997, the Korean Drama “Star in My Heart” aired on the Chinese TV channel Phoenix TV. It was shown in Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, and various other Asian countries at the time, but experienced the greatest popularity in China and Taiwan, partially due to its representation of High Korean Culture and partially because the main actor, Ahn Jae-Wook, was attractive to Taiwanese and Chinese women. This small step into the global television arena started the fire that has been named Hallyu or the “Korean Wave.”

Star in My Heart aired 10 years ago, but this single incident can be traced as the source of the Korean Pop culture movement abroad. Since then, TV dramas like “Winter Sonata,” “Jewel of the Palace,” and “Boys Before Flowers” have all been added to the list of shows that experienced (or in some cases still experiencing) popularity abroad. However, even after 10 years, Hallyu remains a mostly regional phenomenon in Asia, making small by steady ripples in other markets.

Hallyu has been a niche market in Asia due mainly to the secret behind its initial success. As satellite television hit the East Asian arena, there became a demand for new and exciting dramas to fill the voids of airtime that suddenly appeared. Most Asian nations experienced a sudden lack of local entertainment when cable channels went from ten to one hundred almost overnight. This being the case, the need to import dramas and movies to fill the void they had almost accidently created, and importing western dramas and movies was an incredibly expensive endeavor. It was at this time that the already tested Japanese Pop industry stepped up and filled the TV screens, experiencing a huge boom. However, Japanese drama imports were almost as expensive as western ones, so the networks started looking for more. So, when the option to air a Korean drama appeared on the table, it naturally seemed like a good choice.

The price of airing a Korean production was significantly less than Japanese productions, so in no time at all, dramas like “Autumn Story” budded popularity in the Phillipines, while “Winter Sonata” fell on Japan and “Firework” flashed across the Taiwanese networks. Not only were these shows less expensive to broadcast, they had stories that enticed the viewers and had a centrally “Confucian” feel. Young viewers enjoyed the flashy cars, high standards of living, hairstyles and lifestyles of the Korean characters, while the older viewers enjoyed the family centric values and the lack of overt violence or sex. These same reasons for the growth of popularity in Eastern Asian countries, however, might be the same reasons that Hallyu has not had greater success in Western nations like the United States.

For the most part, Korean dramas appear in the United States on ethnic channels, finding a footing in the Asian-American population. The recent Korean drama “Boys Before Flowers” (꽃보다남자) is one such success story, however, “Boys Before Flowers” presents another aspect of Korean Pop culture entirely, that of the proliferation of outside influences on Korean Pop culture. These influences appear more in popular Korean music than in dramas or movies, but the influence in unmistakable.

The current popular Korean groups in the pop music industry are: 2AM, 2PM, Dong Bang Shin Ki, Big Bang, Shinee, SNSD (Girls Generation), Son Dambi, SS501, Super Junior, and Wonder Girls. Others include: 2ne1, After School, Chae Yeon, Davichi, Epik High, Kara, Lee Hyori, Rain, and Yoon Mi Rae. These groups/singers have at least one thing in common, aside from dominating the current pop music charts, and that is the influx into their music of outside influences. Girls Generation and Super Junior, for example, are groups made of a large quantity of members—Girls Generation having 9 members while Super Junior has 14. The record company behind these bands, SM Entertainment, got the idea of building a large group of entertainers from the Japanese band “Morning Musume.” CP Entertainment also got the rotating membership idea of After School from Morning Musume, however, After School has limited its membership, for now, to six members at a time.

Most of the other groups have aspects of American hip-hop culture in their music, or even overt R&B sounds, and so even go so far as to remix older American hit songs. Big Bang and 2ne1, for example, remixed the 1950’s song “Lollipop.” Son Dambi’s “Saturday Night” is reminiscent of the classic American disco film “Saturday Night Fever” starring John Travolta, while the Wonder Girls’s label JYP records gained inspiration for “Nobody” from the recent blockbuster American film “Dream Girls” – which isn’t a surprise since JYP himself admittedly gained inspiration for his “Honey” dance and dress style in 1998 from Michael Jackson, while the video for said song has obvious “Pulp Fiction” undertones. These are clear influences of western pop styles on current pop music, but despite all this, many of these groups are still trying to break into the US market.

Breaking into the US market, however, is not an easy task. BoA and Se7en are two prime examples of Korean artists currently trying to make it big in the US, as these two artists are, after a long period of hard work, finally starting to get recognition. BoA recently released her all English album in the US and has been lucky up until this point to have the support of the American artist Sean Garret, which has accumulated in her recent reception into the CAA family—this is the same group that promotes Brad Pitt, Will Smith, George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, David Beckham, and Steven Spielberg, among others—and her performance at the MTV music awards, a giant leap for any performer in the US music scene. Se7en, on the other hand, hasn’t experienced as much popularity yet, but his music video “Girls” featuring Lil’ Kim aired on BET during primetime hours last week, so there is still more to go for him.

So far, Korean Pop artists have had to rely on established US artists to get their name in primetime spots in the US music scene, which may signify the fact that as of yet, Korean pop music lacks the necessary creative push that breaks it into the western markets. Some argue that the American market is, in fact, not readily receptive to non-American artists, but this argument does not hold true when such groups as Nickelback, U2 and Coldplay are presented, both non-American bands experiencing tremendous popularity in the US—Coldplay was even the official band of the iTouch. These bands are Western bands, however, which may then show a line drawn between Western and Eastern bands. That arguments leads to question whether the US market is hard to break into because of a lack of reception by US consumers of Eastern-style music or because of the perception of US consumers on the styles of music. Korean groups and artists, for example, are “trained” for years prior to their breakout, which is contrary to the majority of bands in the US. While some bands are put together by labels and coached, most bands establish themselves and prove their talents to the record labels by building fan bases before they are signed. These polar opposites create a distinct difference in talent level perception by US consumers.

Currently, the Wonder Girls have been brought to the US by their manager JYP, being coached in English and attempting to show their “different” Korean style music to American audiences. However, they too have used the crutch of established popular artists to spread their music to larger audiences. Currently on tour with the Jonas Brothers, the Wonder Girls are playing their innocent images to the fans of Disney’s most popular group. With the backing of Disney, the Wonder Girls are almost guaranteed to succeed in the US market, so long as they continue to drastically improve their English skills and keep themselves from scandalous behavior. However, one has to wonder about the necessity of riding the curtails of other artists in order to get air time.

Korean Films, on the other hand, are having a much greater success rate in the US market than Korean music. The movie THIRST (Bakjwi), recently received rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival, showing the world that South Korea has a distinct film style that can surprise even the most veteran movie makers. On top of this, many Korean films have been remade in the US or are in the stages of being remade—discussions of remaking first have already begun behind closed doors and the movie has not even had its necessary box office debut yet. This list of remade (or soon to be remade) Korean films includes: My Sassy Girl, The Lake House, The Uninvited (Tale of Two Sisters), The Mirror, Awake, The Chaser, My Name Is Kim Sam-soon, and Old Boy. Interestingly, these movies were also readily accepted in other non-Korean markets like Hong Kong, which has had a notoriously receptive relationship with Korean films during the past 10 years of the Korean wave.

The fact that these films are being remade rather than simply released in the US does not signify a lack of necessary creative value like Korean Pop music might, as US movie makers remake almost every imported movie rather than dubbing over them in English. In fact, most US movie goers prefer to see remakes over dubbed or subtitled films, no matter what the cost. Films like “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman” from Taiwan became “Tortilla Soup,” “Shall we Dance?” “The Ring,” “The Grudge,” and “Dark Water” from Japan were remade with the same name, as well as “The Eye” from China, while movies such as “Le Femme Nikita” from France became “Point of No Return.” The US film industry is notorious for remaking foreign films into English versions, so this remake of Korean films has nothing to do with the Korean film industry, but the American film industry.

While Korean TV Dramas are receiving little popularity among mainstream US viewers, Korean music is steadily growing and Korean films have crashed on the shores. However, it appears as though US viewers do not represent the whole of western viewers, as Korean TV dramas are experience more popularity in European nations than Korean music or Korean movies. This is due mainly to the growth of youth culture. As youth in the technological age, especially those in Europe and in Southeast Asian countries, have begun to develop sufficient buying power and are in sync with global cultural trends thanks largely in part to the increase of the internet, they have become increasingly curious about new and fresh pop culture products. Businesses and media industries are continually trying to satisfy the demands of this generation, which opens opportunities for the Korean media industry to market Korean dramas and other pop culture products. In this light, Korean dramas have been able to provide alternative media to consumers with diverse preferences and tastes and who are bored with the too-familiar and too-abundant Western and Japanese pop culture with something fresh and different. This has been emphasized mostly in the Southeast Asian markets, but Korean Drama DVD sales have increased dramatically over the past few years in European markets.

Within Korean Pop culture, western influences can be felt, but Korean influences can also be felt in Western Pop culture. It is true that Pop culture has a tendency to wane quickly, replaced by the next best thing, the Hallyu Korean Wave has not only continued to hold, but also continued to grow over the past 10 years. Hallyu is not as prominent in Northeastern Asia as it used to be, suppressed mainly by anti-Korean sentiments in Japan and government fear of “foreign influence” in China, it has been growing in Southeast Asia, Europe and the US. There is a strong possibility that hallyu will become a domesticated cultural occurrence like it already has in the Philippines or as Anime has in the US, and if that happens, it will be the final show of hallyu effectiveness, as well as being the ultimate compliment to Korean culture. As Park Jung-Sun stated in her article “Korean Pop Culture Spreads Beyond Asia,” “it is premature to predict the long-term effectiveness of [market] strategies. But the fact that those are not uniquely Korean but common strategies shared by many Asian media industries indicate that the production, dissemination and consumption of pop culture in Asia will take on more regional characteristics than ever before. Also, in such a context, hallyu as a separate and unique phenomenon is likely to disappear as regional and global cultural hybridization will intensify even further.” (Insight into Korea, pg 285)

The future of hallyu is uncertain, and some even argue that the Korean Wave is slowly fading away, but since Korea is the land of miracles, it would not be surprising for the Korean Wave to sweep the world out to sea. Hallyu is important to the Asian pop culture landscape, along with Japanese Animation and Hong Kong action films. It not only provides fresh new images for the growing youth culture, but it also polishes the image of Korea to the rest of the world. The Korean Wave isn’t going anyway, and despite resistance in some markets, it will last for a while.

Happy trails people.

(PS I passed the beginner test but only made half of the necessary points to pass the 3 group on the intermediate test)