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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: 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