Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The image of Korea: unfriendly people and TV dramas?

In Thailand, Korean people are not seen as very friendly or warm. Korea is also seen as a country with no history to speak of. Instead, Korea's image is tinged into a rosy coloured fluffy world. This is the world of dramas and boy bands.

For all those of you who dont know, Korea is THE Asian leader in producing popular culture. It used to be Japan, but now it's Korea. They do two things very well:

1.producing TV dramas that capture the Asian masses from Manila to Jakarta, Bangkok to Beijing and Taipei to Hanoi. 2.producing boybands with the cutest and most handsome singers of all Asia and market them extremely well to the masses of (see above...)

Korea is doing something what America has done for a long time. Make the people like your country via popular culture. This is a very powerful tool and I can see what crazy thing it does to my Thai (girl)friends' minds. They think Korea is some kind of heaven where cute boy band members are just waiting to be married.

Anyhow, needless to say that the image is wrong. Just like the image of Europe that Asians have (castles, old buildings, lifestyle etc) is somewhat wrong.

Korea is developing extremely quickly, perhaps most visibly seen in the thousands of apartments that have sprung up in the last few years. Development comes at a price though. And as usual, not all people manage to catch up. Old people are forced to take on development, as attendants on the subway are no more. You can not buy a ticket from a person anymore in the subway, it's just machines there.

The dear old people seem to cope pretty well though and I have seen old people help other old people use the machines. I have also seen that people are actually extremely friendly to help with anything. This has surprised me a bit, since Korean people are often seen as brash and loud. However, I do remember when I was here alone, I did struggle a bit with the people. As long as you can speak Korean, it's fine but if you dont, expect people to turn away from you.

Another thing which was pointed out to me by my boyfriend is the people's personal freedom. Society here is very Confucian, so essentially organised in a similar way as in China, or even among Chinese Thais. Family means everything and age and status counts a lot.

Yesterday, when I met my bf's auntie, she immediately asked my age. I thought she perhaps wanted to say that I look younger or older, but it was just to know my age, nothing to do with my looks.

Another interesting story to tell happened two days ago. The boyfriend's dad invited us to come to a shop where a friend of his sells ropes. We arrived there and were told to sit down and have a drink. We were served Korean wine, which tasted like marshmallows mixed with cidre and told to have some pig's trotter and kimchi. Great, I thought. We get invited in a real Korean way.

Then the men started to introduce themselves and shake our hands. A few moments later, I noticed that something was a bit off, when the business owner started to talk about his daughter and my bf's family. Then, I overheard him talk about a party at his house and by then I remembered that the boyfriend told me that his dad is suggesting that he should meet this girl he used to know for a drink.

Ahhhh, now the pieces came together. My boyfriend, still unmarried, was to meet this man's daughter at a party so they could get to know each other. The boyfriend got very uneasy about it all and wanted to leave quickly. Outside, he told off his dad for taking us to the man and told him he will never meet this girl.

It's not all as dramatic. His dad was not the main player in it all, it was the business owner who organised it. I was also to meet his other daughter (I didnt understand that in the conversation earlier on) on the countryside in their house somewhere. It did not sound intriguing to us...

The boyfriend's dad officially does not know that we are a couple. He knows me for years though. In New Zealand I often took the phone when my boyfriend was away. I learned how to say that my boyfriend is at work and when he will come back in Korean. Now we got to finally meet.

It's all good and there are no problems. We can not communicate so much though but that doesnt matter so much. The dad is very friendly and an active person. We bring him some food home every day and he loves it. It's probably even obvious to him that we are a couple.

But, it's not easy for parents to accept our identity. The first step, to somehow realise that their son is different and is not so interested in getting married to a girl and have kids is probably quite easy. Parents feel quickly when something is happening to their children. The second step, to really accept the fate that the son will fall in love with other men is probably quite difficult.

The boyfriend's mum has passed step number two a while ago. Last night, we met her at her apartment, which is not quite in the centre of town. She lives in a small studio above her sister's BBQ restaurant, but we went to each Kamja Tang (Potato soup) together.

I used to think the soup is quite spicy and tasty but since I am used to Thai food, I would say it's quite herby. The main ingredients are potatoes, pork bones (with some delicious meat of course), leaves, rice cake, mushrooms and other vegetables. It's delicious. The soup is boiled in a big pot and everyone eats directly from it.

In Korean restaurants, such food is eating on a very low table. This would be a horror for Thais, because your feet are constantly pointing at people and your bags and jackets are put on the floor next to you. The floor is wooden and warm but also hard and I lost any feeling in my right leg by the time we were finished...

Later, the bf's mum bought us giant Peppero sticks. Today is Peppero day and girls have to buy their boyfriends peppero sticks. (Peppero is the Korean equivalent for Pocky, a wafer stick with chocolate around in different variations). Then, the boyfriend showed me his old school and old apartment building where he grew up until 10 (when they moved to New Zealand).

It was very nice to see the surrounding and imagine a cute little primary school boy, who will later become my boyfriend, run around the neighbourhood.

Then, we went back to the mum's apartment and watched Korean dramas. I heard about them so many times but never actually watched one. And now I know why people can get hooked to them. So much happens in one show. Something like the husband of a woman goes through plastic surgery to take revenge for an affair. Then the nurse falls in love with him. The guy suddenly has a brother turning up who is having an affair with the wife. Etc....it's all.....well....drama.

So, my experience reinforces what commentator JR said two posts ago. Koreans are very welcoming and we are welcomed as a member of family very quickly.

The temperature is dropping and it was only about 5 degrees last night. Today I better wear my new ultra-warm jacket!


JR said...

Great post! Gamjatang (감자탕) is also one of my favorites! I really miss it. My boyfriend and I would walk to a great little 감자탕 restaurant near our home in 신림동 and have it on the weekends or when we were hung over.

I think your assessment of the friendliness of the Korean people is generally correct. Occasionally you may find some very friendly Koreans, but overall not so much, especially if you are a foreigner, or 외국인. The truth is that there is still a lot of xenophobia within the culture and the longer one stays in Korea the more pronounced it will become. Please don't flame me I am not trying to criticize.

I think it's awesome things are going so well with the mother. I would be interested in knowing what your boyfriend thinks of whether his father or not thinks you're a couple or the reasons for him being single. Would you mind asking? Also, where are you guys in Seoul? If that's a too personal question then please don't feel obligated to answer.

Korean dramas...like everywhere some are good and some are bad. Haha

Anyways, Happy 빼빼로 Day!


BB said...

hahaha, thanks JR but I hope you do not celebrate such silly things are peppero day. people went bonkers buying yesterday!

I have seen a surprising amount of friendliness. Towards foreigners, they are a bit unwilling to interact if you cant speak the language I think. That's only natural.

What did you do in Korea and why are you not here anymore?:) And where did you meet your boyfriend?:) sorry if these are personal questions....you can flick me an email if you wish...

Greetings from Dongdaemun

JR said...

LOL My boyfriend made 빼빼로 Day very special last year in his own way, not about the chocolate sticks.

I did what most foreigners do in Korea, I taught English . I was a teacher in the public schools in Seoul, in 남부 district.

My boyfriend and I met through an out of town mutual friend at the time. The mutual friend and I were going to 이태윈 to eat and dance and meet his friend. His friend was great and didn't want to take a taxi home, so since the mutual friend was already staying with me he came over too. We ended up spending the weekend together (nearly kicking the mutual friend out of my home) and have been together for over a year and half. Truth is I'm really worried about where we go from here. Long distance is very hard.

If you have any more questions let me know. Also, can't wait for your next blog.