Why Psy Made it Across the Pacific…my take

I’m sure that far too many articles have been written about PSY and his American success, but during a walk this weekend a thought occurred to me that I hadn’t read elsewhere, so I held out hope that it was somehow original. For anyone who might read this, I’d be glad to hear your thoughts.

For the past couple years, Korean music producers have been bending over backwards to get K-Pop across the Pacific and in the American market. The big successes were Girls’ Generation on Letterman and Akon singing with the Wonder Girls. Then Psy’s manic media whirlwind put those modest gains in perspective as merely scratching the surface. So, what’s the difference?

Here’s my idea: Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video is ultra-Korean. If you haven’t spent much time in Korea, how could you possibly make sense of the ajumma noraebang (old women karaokae) bus, or the jopo/gangpae mokyoktang (gangster sauna). Even the tennis hagwon with the students’ immaculate outfits is rather typically Korean. On the other hand, those K-Pop groups that tried to go abroad wiped themselves clean of all their Koreaness. They tried to boil their product down to a non-national, super-cultural modernity that had little to do with their own lives and experiences or anyone else’s for that matter.

Here’s the strange thing. While all the cultural references that pervade Psy’s video are obviously lost on all its American/Canadian/British viewers, the vibrancy and context is not. While the landscape of Gangnam Style has a sort of “Alice in Wonderland” quality, it is a world of new experiences, full of a recognizable humor, irony, and humility. Meanwhile, Wonder Girls’ space-girl outfits in a silver room with silver walls point to absolutely nothing at all. Context, whether understood or not, is the stuff that humans respond to. We’re willing to accept a context that we don’t know the same way we embrace Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, and the Matrix. On the other hand, the non-world that K-Pop tried to sell in the US appealed to only the inane and mindless.

In the future, if Koreans want to sell their product abroad, Psy has set a course clear. Don’t run from confusion, or your language, or the stuff of your everyday reality. The rest of the world already has its own cliches; we don’t need them re-hashed for us.

Second Language Fluency..not as simple as it seems

Note: wrote this in early August, so it’s two months later that I’m actually posting it.

After a hectic spring and summer, in which I bought an apartment, remodeled and furnished the apartment, got married, found a new job, and will soon celebrate that marriage here in Philadelphia, I suddenly have a day with absolutely nothing pressing that needs to be done. I’d been desperately looking forward to just such a day, and yet now that it’s here I feel like I ought to be doing something constructive. However, rather than doing that, I’ve decided to give a little attention to my long ignored blog.

I had a conversation with my older brother about a month ago while he was in Korea for my wedding, which started with his question, “So are you fluent in Korean now?” The short answer to that question is “No, absolutely not.” But to my family’s eyes I seemed fluent as we made our way through Busan, based on the fact that I had no difficulty whatsoever in handling everyday affairs in Korean. And what’s more, beyond the fulfillment of those simple tasks, they also saw me engaging in simple small talk with Koreans, which normally occurs whenever a Korean meets a foreigner who seems capable of answering their small-talk questions. So, in that light, I have gained a certain degree of fluency.

But my brother’s question didn’t concern degrees of fluency, he just asked whether I was fluent: yes or no? Of course, his question assumes that we know what fluency is; we talk about and use the term in conversation, but if asked to define it, we’d likely be caught up short. Continue reading

Cherry Blossom Season & A Rainy Election Day

It’s cherry blossom (벚꽃) season in South Korea and in Busan the pink and white blooms line many of the streets and boulevards of this sprawling metropolis. Continue reading

The Oncheoncheon (온천천): Returning to Nature?

When I first moved to Korea in 2007, I was happy to find that my apartment was in easy walking distance of a running path. The path stretched through most of North Busan and continued further south, and if you were to run the whole thing (I never did), you’d get a very good workout.

Here’s a shot on Flickr (not mine) showing the Oncheoncheon from a nice high angle: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rampanto/4509410449/. Continue reading

The Power of an Interpretation

Two days ago, I finished B.R. Myers’ book The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves & Why It Matters. Myers is a professor at Dongseo University in Busan and has obtained a sort of minor, local celebrity among foreigners in Busan as a fluent Korean speaker/full-fledged university professor who appears on major media outlets like this Al-Jazeera interview. In the end, I had mixed feelings about the book, but the basic thesis is quite intriguing and goes something like this: Continue reading

Korea’s Disappearing Past

Having spent several years in Korea, I’ve heard and read about the nation’s relatively recent poverty any number of times. I’ve heard my fiancee’s stories of how her father, growing up in 1940’s Busan, would not unoccasionally eat rats. And this despite the fact that her father came from a relatively wealthy Busan family, as evidenced by the fact that he was one of the only children in his class who wore sneakers. Continue reading

The Death of Kim Jong-il

The death of Kim Jong-il was obviously a big deal. My co-worker, who never mentions the news, told me as soon as she heard. My girlfriend said it first thing when I talked to her that day. That being said, the news barely made a ripple in my daily routine or anything I could notice about life in Yangsan/Busan/Southeast Korea. The 0ne thing that did happen (which pointed to a greater concern at higher levels of decision-making) was my school trip was cancelled because government-oriented organizations were not permitted to travel outside of their province in the wake of Kim’s death. Other than this needless though perhaps understandable emergency protocol, Kim Jong-il barely surfaced on the radar of my Korean experience. Continue reading

The Developing Coast of Busan

This past weekend I hiked out over 오륙도, the Five Sisters, five large rocks that reach out into Korea’s South Sea. If you’ve been to Haeundae (해운대) Beach, Taejongdae (태종대) Park, or the Nurimaru APEC House, you’ve likely seen the islands, as well as the passenger boat that ferries tourists to get an up-close look at the islands. Since arriving in Busan in 2007, I’ve wanted to get to the Five Sisters, but it’s never been possible.

Hence this post. Continue reading

The Rich Getting Richer…

I worked in two private after-school language academies in South Korea from 2007-2009, and I also have worked at three vacation-time English camps hosted by Korean universities. The students at these schools, especially those attending the overnight camps, represent Korea’s moneyed class whose drive for success and well-honed sense of competition have become world famous. While I was working at these schools, I would occasionally hear friends of mine who worked in the public school system comment on how easy it was for them to recognize those students who attended supplementary classes from those who didn’t. Now that I find myself on the other side of the glass (i.e. working in a public school), I realize how accurate their statements were.

My co-teacher has said that English in particular highlights the inequalities inherent in the Korean educational context. Many children begin to learn English from a very early age, perhaps even attending an English-only preschool or kindergarten. It is likewise not so rare to find children who were sent to study for six months in the Philippines to improve their English, or who moved with their mothers to Canada, Australia or New Zealand for some period of time to develop their language skills in an authentic setting. None of this is cheap, so these avenues are closed to a large portion of Korean society. Therefore, when children begin formal instruction during their third year of elementary school (roughly age 9), some children may be facing up to six years of catch-up in comparison to their most advanced classmates.

This gap is only exacerbated by certain classroom inevitabilities. Oral communication is an obvious goal of language education, so when the teacher engages the class in natural conversation, the students’ end of the conversation is naturally dominated by the more advanced students. The students are certainly as aware of the gap as the teacher, if not more so, though they may be ignorant of the larger causes and ramifications of the gap. Therefore, if the teacher consciously attempts to focus conversation on the struggling students’, he is in effect putting their inabilities on public display. He is then faced with an undesirable dilemma: allowing the gap to grow, or putting the struggling students’ relative weakness under the microscope of the advanced students’ gaze.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no good answer to the issue as long as the moneyed class continues to seek full English language fluency for their children. To a certain extent, they can’t be faulted; my experience abroad has led me to believe in the importance and usefulness of English as an international langauge (which I was lucky enough to be born into). The ultimate solution lies in improving public education to the point where a regular upbringing is sufficient to obtain English language skills, as is the case in countries such as Norway, Sweden, Singapore and even the Philippines. For South Korea, however, that reality is decades away, and until that time the gap can only widen.

The New Korea – 한국의 신세계

During the winter and summer of 2011, I worked at Yonsei University’s new Songdo International Campus, to the south of Incheon. The land on which the campus rests has been reclaimed from the sea and designated as an International Free Economic Zone. Lonely buildings dot the landscape, standing for the most part empty as weeds work their way through untread sidewalks. Continue reading