Ways of Seeing Korean Plastic Surgery

By Colin Marshall 

The first morning of my first visit to Seoul, I went out looking for coffee and came back with a stereotype seemingly confirmed beyond all expectations. After I found the nearest main road and started walking down it, I soon came upon a coffee shop (as I knew even then, Korea has quite a density of them), but couldn’t bear to enter it. The second one I found had the same problem, and I walked on further still, past a third and a fourth that I avoided on similar grounds. They were all open for business, none with too big a crowd, and I certainly had enough Korean to order a coffee. So what spooked me so badly? It was their location: that is, they were all located inside plastic surgery clinics, institutions I had already learned to fear and loathe from the disapproving attitudes of countless trend pieces on Korea.

It hasn’t taken long for them to lean hard on a narrow set of tropes: the tense relationship with the North, the ultra-competitive academic culture, the robust pop music and television drama industries, and, yes, the creepy popularity of cosmetic surgery. No matter the medium, these reports usually make their way to quotes from a few Kim Jihyes on the street who blithely state their intentions to get new eyelids, a new chin, a new nose, or some combination of the three (maybe even bought as a gift by her parents, should she do well enough on her college entrance exam) in order to one day land the right job, the right man, or both. This sort of thing causes a good deal of us in the West, and especially America, to stroke our imperfect chins and lament what we see as some sort of conformist, surface-obsessed dystopia of the image.

The subject comes so laden with baggage and cliché that, on one level, I haven’t really wanted to write about it; but on another level, some of the questions I consider most interesting never really get asked. At the top of the list: what about Korean plastic surgery, exactly, bothers Westerners so much? Different Westerners have different theories. Some think it has to do with a perceived hypocrisy, in that the longer a non-Korean lives here, the more of the glories of the Korean race that non-Korean will have heard implicitly or explicitly trumpeted. So why, they sarcastically wonder, does this world-beatingly superior people so badly need the assistance of cosmetic surgeons?

Others find it bothersome to see such flagrant engagement in an activity so many in the West see as cheating; at least when Americans go in for plastic surgery, they have the decency to lie about it afterwards. Others regard the face as such an integral component of one’s identity that to casually change it seems as inhuman a choice as to casually change one’s name. (Then again, Koreans also do a surprising amount of name-changing, often casting off their “old-fashioned” given name in favor of whatever name happens to be most popular at the time; imagine the equivalent in America, where a few thousand grown Johns, Roberts, and Davids each year apply to change their name to, say, Jaden.)

Others still put forth a more controversial opinion: that Koreans use plastic surgery to make themselves look more Western, but refuse to admit it. To what extent we can consider Westernization an aesthetic goal of Korean plastic surgery has, so I’ve discovered, become something of a third rail in conversations about all this. I’ve scrolled past many a knock-down, drag-out online argument about whether Koreans have been spending all this money on lighter skin, wider-open eyes, and tapered jawlines in order to meet Western standards of beauty, or whether they do it to meet “classical Chinese” standards of beauty — a trivial distinction, to my mind, if the outcome is the same either way, but clearly not to the combatants in these elaborate debates.

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Surely we can all agree on one thing: that Korea and the United States have very different standards of appearance indeed. I first noticed signs of the chasm between the societies when I began to understand enough Korean to get a sense of what Koreans talk about when they talk about how people look: for instance, I’ve heard evaluations of the quality of skin in great detail, skin always having been something that, to my mind, you either had or you didn’t. I’ve heard much about the concept of face size — the smaller the better, according to their schema — which I’ve stopped even pretending to understand.

But the importance placed on appearance applies as much to clothing as it does to bodily characteristics. Many a Korean-American who pays a visit to the ancestral homeland returns filled with bitterness about the ceaseless nagging drawn by their style of dress, or lack thereof. I met one such lady who still seethes about how, when first she went to Korea back in the 1990s, her relatives all gave the stink eye, and worse, to her baggy jeans and Doc Martens — though she never once paused to consider whether her baggy jeans and Doc Martens may have been ugly.

When it comes to dress, I would submit that the Korean dystopia of the image doesn’t have it all wrong. Often when I think about what drove me from America, I think of the fact that, granted the freedom to dress just about any which way we like, we schlub around in hoodies and cargo shorts, a choice we make out of pure laziness but, if pressed, couch in incoherent terms of egalitarianism (or worse, self-expression, a concept which, to my delight, hasn’t yet caught on here as an absolute good), as if our slovenliness somehow put us all on an equal plane. In fact, even under those sartorially miserable conditions, the strata remain visible: witness how, in a city like Los Angeles, poor people dress in cheap sweatpants and flip-flops, whereas rich people dress in expensive sweatpants and flip-flops.

At least in Korea you see people putting in the hours, so to speak, by which I don’t mean that everyone here has somehow become a style virtuoso; far from it, especially among the older generations, whose women raise socks with sandals to the status of native garb, and whose men sport some of the most hilariously incongruous toupées I’ve seen everywhere. Words fail me to explain the preference for socked sandals, but in the case of the hairpiece-wearers, I don’t think they’re trying to fool anyone as much as they’re trying to feel as if they’ve made the effort, and be seen to have made the effort, in the manner of Americans who conspicuously work out five days a week at the gym.

Physical fitness counts as one of the qualities of self into which Americans feel little shame about plowing time and money. Another, one much more uncomfortably similar to the plastic surgery so tut-tutted about in Korea, is orthodontia. When I was growing up and even before, many if not most American kids could expect to have to go through what amounts to a years-long cosmetic surgery procedure, albeit undergone in something like a dentist’s chair. Orthodontists can justify this eloquently and fearsomely with talk of how little Jaden’s crooked teeth will surely, if left unchecked, grow into his brain by his junior year, but the fact remains that American parents will gladly shell out for it because they don’t want their kid looking like a poor.

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On a higher level, we might draw a comparison between cosmetic surgery in Korea and psychotherapy in America, in that both have at least the ostensible motive of self-improvement, and both give you something to talk about and signal your relative wealth, especially to friends of roughly equal wealth. And then they have the Sisyphean element in common: you’re never really done with either one. Just as you meet Americans who profess, not without a hint of pride, to having spend decades on the couch, you see Koreans on the street (especially in Apgujeong, the neighborhood where I searched in vain for coffee that first morning) wearing telltale bandages whose non-bandaged parts also attest to previous rounds under the knife.

We tend to think of serial plastic surgery recipients in America as falling into several looked-down-upon categories: the delusional would-be celebrity, the washed-up real celebrity, the aging society wife. Here, cosmetic procedures get advertised to everyday (if reasonably well-off everyday) people as addressing a more practical suite of concerns. The simple fact that job applicants must always attach their photograph to their resume, effectively granting preferential hiring to the most attractive from the get-go (as opposed to in an enlightened society like America, where companies have to consider everyone before they can proceed to hire the most attractive anyway), along with what some Korea observers see as a lasting influence of superstitious face-reading, constitutes reason enough to consider it.

Those eminently utilitarian considerations, of course, doesn’t make me or other Americans any less weirded out by it. The overall effect, given the prevalence of the same set of procedures all meant to produce a basically similar same set of supposedly ideal features, can look like a chilling conformity. (I still can’t get over how, when Koreans rank the beauty of the celebrities, they agree.) Still, I resist the notion of Koreans as a nation of mindless trend-following drones. The force behind all this looks to me less like conformity than resignation, a sense of, “Screw it, if changing my eyelids will get me a raise, I’ll change my eyelids” — or, for that matter, “Screw it, if working at Samsung will get me a more comfortable life, I’ll work at Samsung,” or “Screw it, if moving to Gangnam will get my kids into a slightly better school, I’ll move to Gangnam.”

But I, personally, have no more honest or cogent objection to cosmetic surgery as practiced and consumed in Korea than that I don’t particularly like the look it produces. Take this as the one man’s opinion that it is, but you need only watch older Korean movies, from the 1960s, 70s, or even 80s, to realize that people looked better, or at least more distinctive, before. Whatever people have gained with the advances in plastic surgery — and you could put a positive spin on it by calling it it the democratization of beauty, assuming you find its results beautiful — they’ve also lost something.

This pressure about looks has begun to weigh on Korean men almost as much it has on Korean women. (The hot trend piece of late: In Korea, Men Buy Cosmetics Too!) But to the extent that the men have entered the plastic surgery market later than the women, they’ve taken on that much less of a freakishly bland similarity of appearance. Korean friends, after a couple of drinks, often ask me what I think of Korean women. I always say the same thing: the regular, real-life ones present themselves with a skill few others in the world can equal, but the celebrities — well, frankly, I can’t tell them apart. Then they agree with me and we all have a good laugh, but part of me worries that Korean plastic surgery won’t have accomplished its mission until I can’t tell anybody apart at all.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. Catch up on the Korea Blog’s archives here.

Words Hurt

This is the 19th in a series of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference.

By Brendan O’Neill

We shrinking few who still believe in freedom of speech have got ourselves into a terrible bind. We too often defend freedom of speech by insisting that speech isn’t particularly powerful or harmful. In one breath we argue that the freedom of people to think and utter whatever they want is the most important freedom in the world; in the next we suggest that people’s utterances are not weapons, can not wound, and thus should be categorised as “harmless” and should be none of officialdom’s business. Faced with a new kind of fragile and self-regarding censor, one who claims that novels can trigger PTSD and controversial campus speakers can make students feel physically ill, we respond with the favoured chastisement of the frustrated grown-up: “They’re only words. They won’t hurt you. Chill out.” Continue reading

‘Bitter, Sweet, Seoul’: a Vivid Crowdsourced Portrait of an Unromanticized City

By Colin Marshall 

Even the least well-traveled Americans have a mental image — no matter how fantastical, outdated, or simply inaccurate — of cities like London, Paris, or Tokyo. But bring up Seoul, and apart from a few of the more garish sights seen in the “Gangnam Style” video, most of my countrymen draw a complete blank. I actually lamented this just today to a lady who works for Seoul’s city government, an organization that knows all too well the Korean capital’s lack of international recognizability.

That, given the steady flow of mostly Seoul-produced Korean cultural exports, will change in time, but therein lies the multi-million-dollar question: what will form that the ready-to-hand international image we all one day have of Seoul? Or perhaps, given the money Seoul has put into self-promotion in recent years, we should call it the multi-billion-won question. Some of that money funded “Seoul, Our Movie,” a campaign that called for video clips of everyday urban life there and ultimately brought in over 11,000 of them, shot on everything from film-industry-professional cameras to cellphones by people from all around the world.

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The filmmaking brothers Park Chan-kyong and Park Chan-wook (known together as PARKing CHANce) edited and soundscaped about 150 of them into an admirably coherent hour-long movie. (You may know the latter Park brother for having directed pictures like Joint Security Area, the first Korean movie I personally every knowingly watched, the grotesque thriller turned unexpected flagship of Korean cinema Oldboy, and the more recent international collaboration Stoker.) If you’ve never been to Seoul and want at least some foundation on which to base your own mental image of the city, you could do much worse than give that hour-long movie, which appeared with the title Bitter, Sweet, Seoul (고진감래, a saying meaning “sweet after bitter” or “pleasure after pain”), a watch, which you can do free on Youtube.

The viewing experience will provide you with glimpses of a host of elements of the Seoul experience, including but not limited to mechanized parking garages, bowing robots, forests of concrete apartment towers, people compulsively taking and viewing pictures of things, journeys on various conveyances across (and down) the Han River, the aftermath of infrastructural disaster, commutes on the buses and trains, elderly street vendors, even more elderly women tasked with manual labor, deliverymen scooting to and fro, all-seeing CCTV surveillance cameras, swarming police troops, neon-illuminated crosses, traces of shamanism, amplified public proselytization, Chinese shoppers, various performers in animal costume, a girl opening her very own coffee shop, and children dancing before video screens.

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I shouldn’t imply that Seoul has no image at all in anyone’s mind; there does exist a faint, received view of the it as a gray, crowded, harshly pragmatic sort of place, a kind of Asian capitalist boomtown version of a drab Soviet capital, a city that has known only the forces of destruction and construction, an unforgiving urban grind whose people work themselves nearly to death (between bouts of misery-palliating drunkenness) that they may emigrate from it. When you talk to Koreans who did emigrate, especially if they did so between the 1960s and the 1980s, they probably remember a Seoul not terribly unlike that; as for the Korean War veterans who didn’t care if they never even heard the place’s name again, they probably remember an ever worse one — one we see in bits of grainy wartime footage included for comparison and contrast to the modern megalopolis in Bitter, Sweet, Seoul.

As the film reveals, Seoul has changed. But as it also reveals, Seoul hasn’t made a complete 180 from hardscrabble backwater to Fun City, ROK. It may never become as tourist-renowned as Paris or even Tokyo, but I consider that wholly to its credit. I’d rather not live in a city where every tenth person on the street has a Lonely Planet guidebook in hand (although you can already spot a fair few of their Chinese equivalents), or one that practically comes ready-made with landmarks in front of which to photograph oneself. Not that constant, widespread, and habitual selfie-, or selka- (셀카) taking doesn’t happen here in Seoul; there just aren’t so many canonized locations in which to do it.

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This aligns with my personal taste for unromanticized cities. Others in my favored group include Toronto, whose reputation for bland stolidity masks untold urban riches; Osaka, powered by an avowedly uncouth commercial energy that sets it vigorously apart from the rest of Japan; and indeed Los Angeles, subject though it is to more mythologizing than most cities, but whose departures from traditional city forms and sensibilities invariably color that mythology with disdain, or the perception thereof. Seoul may not boast much inherent romance, but it has the much more appealing quality — at least to me — of not needing to.

Then again, just after my conversation with that representative from City Hall, I did go right out the front of City Hall to Seoul Plaza (that popular protest site) to join my girlfriend for an afternoon of ice-skating in the rink the city sets up every year, just about as happy an urban experience as one can imagine. Some of the footage used in Bitter, Sweet, Seoul consists of interviews with men and women on the street about their feelings for the city, though few of the interviewees can put those feelings, if they admit to having any into the first place, into concrete terms. The most telling response, to my mind, comes from a young soldier who, when asked what Seoul means to him, responds, “A place where 24 hours in a day is not enough.” Putting the finishing touches on the post well after midnight at the end of a full day indeed, I think I know just what he means. 

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. Catch up on the Korea Blog’s archives here.

Spillage

By Barton Gellman

This is the 18th in a series of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference.

Some of this material appeared previously on the website of The Century Foundation, and is republished with the foundation’s permission.

On September 24, 2015, I gave a keynote presentation at Purdue University about the NSA, Edward Snowden, and national security journalism in the age of surveillance. It was part of the excellent Dawn or Doom colloquium, which I greatly enjoyed. The organizers live-streamed my talk and promised to provide me with a permalink to share. Continue reading

Do Cartoonists Have the Right to Offend?

By Zunar

This is the 17th in a series of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference.

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It was recently the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, when two brothers who claimed to be Muslims stormed the French satirical newspaper’s offices, killing 11 people. This saddened me both as an artist and a Muslim. Freedom of expression is a universal right, and if something offends or bothers us, violent retaliation is not the right response. It is never the right response. Prophet Muhammad was a peaceful man – our response should be peaceful just as the Prophet’s response would have been, and just as other religions would espouse as well. Continue reading

Say Uncle

By Austin Dean

Who is Xi Jinping? What does he think? What does he want? How popular is he? Much writing on Chinese politics in the past three years has grappled with these questions.

Answers often rely on comparisons with Chinese history. Xi is the most powerful leader in China since Deng Xiaoping; there is a Maoist tinge to his rule; he shows much more personality than the Chinese leaders who immediately preceded him; his traveling with a stylish “First Lady,” Peng Liyuan, brings to mind the time when Chiang Kai-shek and Song Meiling hit the road together in the 1930s and 1940s; his proposal for a new national security council harkens back to the Grand Council of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Such are just a few of the nods to China’s past that have been used to help place Xi in perspective.

What has been done more rarely is to place Xi beside a past leader of a different place. That’s what I want to do here, through the admittedly idiosyncratic entry point of nicknames. Xi is known as “Uncle Xi” (one way to translate “Xi Dada”) — and this brings to mind two former Communist leaders, the Soviet Union’s “Uncle Joe” (Stalin) and Vietnam’s “Uncle Ho” (Chi Minh).

First, some background on Xi’s moniker is in order. The Chinese leader was not always Uncle Xi. When he started his term in 2012, a fan club emerged on weibo, the Chinese counterpart to Twitter, whose members referred to him as “Our Pingping,” an informal appellation using a doubling of the last character of his name. A little while later the fan club played with alternative nicknames and landed on Xi Dada. The government propaganda bureau may have been behind the creation of this fan club or it might have had no involvement. In either case, both some Chinese netizens and the official party apparatus quickly adopted the term. Even Xi seems to have embraced it. When Xi visited Beijing Normal University, a school for teacher education, one student asked him if he could call the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party “Xi Dada” and Xi reportedly responded in English, and with a smile, “Yes.”

Uncle Ho

Xi Peng

There are cartoons that show Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, who goes by the equally affectionate nickname, “Peng Mama,” as a happy couple. There is even a song talking about the love between them. The overall image is of a leader who is more accessible and relatable than his predecessors.

Of course, there are limits to how familiar one can be with this uncle. One 9 year old wrote a letter to the leader, which his father shared with friends and which eventually got picked up by a local newspaper, suggesting that Xi should lose weight. “There’s no need to be as skinny as Obama,” the boy wrote, but “like Putin is good.” That was too far. The story disappeared.

Let’s turn now to the other Communist uncles, beginning with Stalin. Franklin Roosevelt took to calling him “Uncle Joe” during World War II when Washington and Moscow were allies in the fight against the Axis Powers. At the Tehran conference in 1943, FDR tried to get through to Stalin at a personal level by making a series of mocking comments about Winston Churchill, drawing a smile from Stalin. Then “he kept at it up until Stalin was laughing with me, and it was then that I called him ‘Uncle Joe.’ He would have thought me fresh the day before, but that day he laughed and came over and shook my hand.”

The nickname stuck. To ring in the New Year in 1945, FDR’s family and friends drank champagne that Stalin had sent from his birthplace in Georgia. Although the guests thought it “too sweet” and “awful,” they still made a toast to “Uncle Joe.” By the Yalta conference in 1945, Vyacheslav Molotov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, remarked that “All Russia knows you [FDR] call him Uncle Joe.”

Stalin might have had a hand in the creation of the “Uncle Joe” image as well. As Stalin biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore writes, “The foundation of Stalin’s power in the Party was not fear: it was charm […] he constantly lost his temper, but when he set his mind to be a charming man, he was irresistible.” Lord Beaverbrook, an English diplomat, echoed this view describing Stalin as “a kindly man […] he practically never shows any impatience at all.”

The moniker did not stay at just the elite level. In 1943, the movie “Mission to Moscow” painted Stalin and the Russians in a favorable light. As historian Walter Hixson points out, American propaganda at the time portrayed Stalin as “tough but friendly.” Of course, the figure of Uncle Joe did not last much beyond World War II. It was tied to a specific time and place.

There are differences here. The Uncle Xi moniker began domestically within China and has not become widespread outside the country, despite an unfortunate propaganda video involving a group of foreign students who use the term continually in expressing their affection for the Chinese leader. The Uncle Joe label started outside of Russia and from the beginning got more play internationally, including from the lips of other leaders. It’s hard to imagine President Obama referring to Uncle Xi as FDR referred to Uncle Joe.
Others might point out that the Uncle Joe discourse obscured the brutal nature of the Soviet regime, just as the Uncle Xi narrative glosses over the more authoritarian aspects of the current Chinese administration.

What, then, of Uncle Ho? That was not the Vietnamese leader’s only nicknames. Revolutionary activities required anonymity, so he had more than one nom de guerre. In fact, Ho Chi Minh wasn’t even “Ho Chi Minh” until he was nearly 50 years old.

Unlike Stalin, Ho Chi Minh became Uncle Ho, as Xi became Uncle Xi, in a purely domestic context. Another difference is physical. While Stalin was solid with a thick mustache and Xi is rotund, Ho was thin, almost frail, with wispy facial hair. If Chinese netizens fret about Uncle Xi being too plump, Vietnamese might have worried that Uncle Ho was too abstemious.

Uncle Ho always left an impression, particularly on foreign interlocutors. As one remarked later, “Ho was a courtly, urbane, highly sophisticated man with a gentle manner and without personal venom.” That is not too far from some foreigners’ descriptions of Stalin.

What most sets the Uncle Ho nickname off from the Uncle Joe one is its endurance. In Vietnam Ho’s image, “ever serene and benevolent — is ubiquitous, even in the south where bitterness festers among those who lost the Vietnam war.” In part, the nickname lives on because it has to. Without it, “people would find it easier to envisage a time when the Communist Party wasn’t in power.”

Perhaps the important question is whether Xi’s avuncular nickname will go the way of Stalin’s and fizzle out or be more like Ho’s and live on. How long will Xi Jinping be Uncle Xi?

Two Provocations by Lalo Alcaraz

This is the 16th in a series of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference. As the notion of “provocations” suggests, these contributions, like the cartoons below by Steve Brodner, are not the opinions of the editors of LARB; if you feel provoked, please leave a comment.

Lalo Alcaraz is the creator of the nationally syndicated comic strip, “La Cucaracha.” He has produced editorial cartoons for the L.A. Weekly since 1992 and also creates editorial cartoons in English and Spanish for Universal. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Village Voice, the L.A. Times, and many other publications. Mi Ciudad Magazine named him Best Latino Cartoonist in Los Angeles. Alcaraz is a new faculty member at Otis College of Art & Design in Los Angeles, and his books include Migra Mouse: Political Cartoons On Immigration (2004). Continue reading

The Politics of Becoming

This is the 15th in a series of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference.

By Jody D. Armour

THE N-WORD, one of the most transgressive utterances in the English language, figures centrally in gansta rap, the art form at the heart of the “Rap and Repression” discussion that caps off the What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World conference.  For many, the N-word is the linguistic equivalent of the Confederate battle flag; many see both as blood-soaked forms of symbolic communication with deep roots in black oppression. Continue reading

A Provocation by Lalo Alcaraz

This is the 14th in a series of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference. As the notion of “provocations” suggests, these contributions, like the cartoons below by Steve Brodner, are not the opinions of the editors of LARB; if you feel provoked, please leave a comment.

Lalo Alcaraz is the creator of the nationally syndicated comic strip, “La Cucaracha.” He has produced editorial cartoons for the L.A. Weekly since 1992 and also creates editorial cartoons in English and Spanish for Universal. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Village Voice, the L.A. Times, and many other publications. Mi Ciudad Magazine named him Best Latino Cartoonist in Los Angeles. Alcaraz is a new faculty member at Otis College of Art & Design in Los Angeles, and his books include Migra Mouse: Political Cartoons On Immigration (2004). Continue reading

Multicultural Love and Its Discontents

By Colin Marshall 

I watch television here in Seoul, but I watched even more Korean television back when I lived in Los Angeles. My girlfriend and I got satellite TV installed especially for the small bundle of Korean channels available in the States, which required the technician to bolt another satellite dish onto our balcony next to the standard one, which we never used since we never watched any channels but the Korean ones. If I did, I’d lose out on a valuable opportunity for listening practice (listening being the formidable wall so many students of the Korean language never completely scale). But soon, the entertainment value of Korean television for me matched its educational value, and I assembled a roster of favorite programs to which to tune in.

All those programs air on EBS, which stands for Educational Broadcasting System — so whatever the entertainment value I personally derived, educational value at least remained the mandate. I usually describe EBS as the Korean equivalent of PBS, an analogy that works in some respects but not others. Whereas my childhood memories of PBS after my Sesame Street years consist mostly of licensed British programming and frequent pleas for donations, EBS features a huge amount of original content (with, in my viewing experience, nary a pledge drive to interrupt it). I first got hooked on its travel shows, like the domestic Travelogue Korea (한국 기행) and the international Thematic World Tour (세계 테마 여행), which, like many EBS productions, you can watch free on their Youtube channel.

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But then I found another category of favorite show, one even more compelling because it reflected my imminent future: reality shows about foreigners living in Korea. Korean audiences seem positively unable to get enough of watching non-Koreans try to make a go of it in their society, and EBS serves that demand with at least two different programs: 한국에 산다, which means something as straightforward as They Live in Korea, and 다문화 사랑, or Multicultural Love. While they differ a little in sensibility, they share the same central question: Vietnamese wives, Canadian husbands, Indonesian civil servants, French buskers, Japanese hostel workers — how can these people possibly handle Korean life?

The shows strike a delicate balance between spreading a message of cultural understanding and acceptance and making use of what I call the “freak show” aspect still inherent to the condition of the visible foreigner in Korea. The spectacle intensifies when the subjects have married and even reproduced with Koreans, creating what gets labeled the “new Korean family,” and providing material for such episodes as “I Married a Muslim Woman” (나는 무슬림 여자와 결혼했다), “My American Son-in-Law Lives on the Upper Floor of the House” (우리 집 위층에 미국 사위가 산다), “My Wife is an Indian Princess” (내 아내는 인도 공주님), and “Canadian Dad!” (캐나다 아빠!), some of which spend a good deal of time probing the scowling disapproval (and, for the lucky ones, eventual half-pleased resignation) of the aged and conservative parents- and grandparents-in-law.

I still like watching these shows on the lives of foreigners in Korea, now that I lead the life of a foreigner in Korea myself. But that enjoyment, I admit, has taken on a spirit of competitiveness; now I listen more closely than ever to the Korean spoken on each episode, especially by its non-Korean star, in order to gauge the level of their language against my own. Do they speak worse than me? Do they speak better than me? If better, why? And if worse, what can I learn from their mistakes, which get corrected in Korean reality television’s ever-present Korean-language subtitles? (Now that I think about it, the fact that Korean subtitles regularly appear to help Korean audiences understand even other native Korean speakers tells you all you need to know about the difficulty of the language.)

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This obsessive judgment has let me to formulate a theory: in general, those who come to Korea from the developing world speak better Korean than those who come from the developed world, and women speak better Korean than men. A lady from Ghana married to a Korean man (whom the show goes out of its way to depict as an unappreciative lout) particularly impressed me, as did a Pakistani merchant at a traditional market (who has to deal with customers who haggle by intimating that they’ll report his “illegal” stall to the police). But watch enough episodes and sooner or later the very worst Korean speakers always come lumbering into the frame: white dudes. By “worst,” I don’t mean to put down these white dudes for speaking broken Korean, which I do myself; I mean to put them down for barely trying to speak Korean at all.

Some rattle off their excuses for the camera, and some end their episodes finally, at the behest of a nagging wife or a bewildered extended family, submitting to language instruction, but they all stand to me as cautionary examples. They also stand as examples of a certain kind of low-level resentment, the resentment of the comfortably marooned, that you can sense among certain long-term Westerners here: they’ve long since settled down with a Korean wife and Korean kids, but damn it, they barely meant to come here, let alone stay here. Their willful incompetence sometimes comes with strange and pitiful desires, exemplified by the words of an incidental white dude in “I Married a Beer-Crazed Man” (나는 맥주에 미친 남자와 결혼했다), a customer in bar the titular Canadian runs in Busan: “It’s so fun to find something in Korea that is very similar to San Diego” — perhaps the saddest sentence I’ve ever heard.

So if white dudes have colonized the low end of the Korean language ability spectrum, who do you find at the high end? Why, white dudes. An episode of Multicultural Love focused on one such impressive fellow, the American business consultant, columnist, and tailor shop owner Todd Sample, but other astonishingly fluent white dudes, such as Tyler Rasch, the American star of the hugely popular foreigner chat program Non-Summit (비정상 회담) invariably described by my Korean friends as speaking “better Korean than Koreans do,” have gone on to become one-man miniature media industries.

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These shows provoke all kinds of strong emotions, apart from my own psychodramatically oscillating disdain and worship of my fellow man. They also try to capture them, often in the form of explosive arguments, or at least long-simmering conflicts, between the foreigners and their Korean spouses. Violently rocky roads very much suit the Korean concept of “love,” but what about the concept of “multiculture”? The fact that whole programs exist to showcase the existence of non-Koreans in Korea both demonstrates that the country’s multicultural day will come, but also how long it still has to go before arrival.

To those who remember when Korea’s population was 99 percent rather than 98 percent ethnically Korean, the streets of Seoul now look wildly diverse. But any experienced traveler can tell you that it remains essentially homogenous, no more a multicultural land than it is an English-speaking one: that is, not trivially so, but only a little more than trivially so, and still resistant to widespread changes in the outward direction. I can’t claim to know whether to consider multicultural Korea an unambiguously positive prospect, but it does seem to me that many of the complaints non-Koreans have about life here stem not from the prejudices and dysfunctions of an insular society — though those exist — but from their own inability to communicate. Even so, they still get their fifteen minutes of fame. Korea, what a country!

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. Catch up on the Korea Blog’s archives here.