Thursday, June 19, 2014

PSY, JLC, FOB, and the Transmission of Culture

"Oh. My. GOD!" complains the exchange student played by Kim Sungwon as the audience erupts in laughter. "I don't understand about Korean culture!"

Questionable English grammar aside, this Western student's frustration is very relatable. In the popular sketch "School of Mental Breakdown" (멘붕스쿨) on the Korean comedy show Gag Concert, a brief and hilarious few minutes are spent trying to look at Korea through the eyes of a foreigner. (Well, not in the episode shown above; that one's about American superhero movies, but it's the only one I could find on YouTube.) This school is obviously the parody of parodies, but we can laugh at some of the stereotyped portrayals of one slice of Korean culture, its education system.

This does raise some questions about perspective, however. "School of Mental Breakdown" aired last year, but the memory of Kim Sungwon's outbursts came to me as I chatted with my English co-teachers over cheese and crackers at our semiweekly book club. We're reading Amy Tan's seminal The Joy Luck Club, and the bulk of each period is spent discussing that amorphous thing known as "culture". As I am Taiwanese-American, they were interested in whether the issues of cultural assimilation, immigration, and language that are so central to the stories of the four Chinese families were the same as those that my family and I have faced.

Certainly, there are a few similarities. The language barrier that rises between generations after a geographical shift is one of the big ones. There are smaller tidbits that I cheerfully identified with, too, like the story of steaming live crabs or the childhood hours spent banging away fruitlessly at the piano.

But I had to admit the other day that a lot of the cultural symbols are just as mysterious to me as they would be to your average Western (and non-Chinese) reader of The Joy Luck Club. I am totally unfamiliar with the folklore and mythology so often referenced in the stories; I don't know which of the five elements I was born lacking, and I have never heard of Xi Wangmu. My comfortably middle-class family has never lived anywhere near a Chinatown. And perhaps the biggest difference is that my parents immigrated to the US in the 80s from Taiwan in order to seek higher education, not from China in the 40s in order to escape war.

But then I realized that The Joy Luck Club, which for decades has stayed on high school reading lists as one of a few representative books about Asian-American minority culture, has probably influenced hundreds of thousands of people toward a certain idea of what it means to be a Chinese-American or part of an East Asian immigrant family. And while that idea, within the pages of the book, is at least not contrived or too narrowly delineated, it is also -- dare I say it -- outdated.

I mean, Asian America looks much different now, in 2014, than it did when The Joy Luck Club was published in 1989, let alone in the 1950s when the memorable just-immigrated stories and childhood stories take place. But what does every high school sophomore who reads these stories today come away thinking? If they're not Asian, they now think they understand Asians. If they are Asian, they try to match up their own lives and experiences to the lives and experiences of the protagonists, to varying degrees of success. In neither case is the media self-contained; that is, it will always inevitably be extrapolated onto others (and onto the Other). Comparisons will be drawn. Judgments will be made. Conclusions will be jumped to across the wide chasm of sixty years of change.

Now how does this come back to Gag Concert and Korean culture? Well, before your average Westerner steps foot in Korea for the first time, they may not necessarily know anything about the country. Surely they've heard of kimchi and PSY, and maybe they're aware enough to know that Samsung, taekwondo, and Kim Yuna are Korean and not Japanese. But when we arrive, there's more than enough in this culture to shock us into thinking, "Oh my God, I just don't get it!"

Thus, Korea has made great efforts in recent years to export not just electronics and cars, but also its own culture. Hence the Hallyu Wave, which has globalized Korean music, TV, and celebrity culture, and the breakneck speed at which Seoul has been metamorphosing into an international metropolis. Korea is flinging its influence in every direction while also urging everyone to come in. But not everything sticks, and not everyone stays.

I want to look at the odd things that do stay in the minds of non-Koreans about Korea. Everyone is still kind of at a loss to explain why PSY's "Gangnam Style" was such a global hit -- it now has over two billion YouTube views -- but, well, here he is. Intentional or not, his cultural influence is powerful and not likely to go away soon. Korea wanted the world to love K-pop and gave them BoA, Rain, Big Bang, and Girls' Generation. The world chose PSY.

The American-educated, somewhat goofball rapper, whose past three music videos have poked fun at various aspects of his home country, certainly has something to say. His most recent video, "Hangover", which satirizes Korean drinking culture, has racked up nearly 70 million views in one week. It is impossible to ignore the fact that PSY's entertainment output is influencing the way the world views Korea. I watched and commented on "Hangover" when it was first released, noting at the end of my post that a viewer should certainly not assume that all Koreans drink from sunrise to sunset and get into street brawls. Yet they do drink a lot! There's enough truth in the parody that before you know it, tourists in Seoul are going to attempt to imitate the dozen different ways to down shots of soju as portrayed in the video and ask their Korean friends why they aren't doing the same.

What I am trying to get at here is that Korean culture can never be fully understood just by watching a few videos, listening to a few podcasts, or studying a few books, but the bits and pieces of it that go viral will become representative of it, for better or for worse. Some would argue that PSY's music is not bad inasmuch as it opens doors for people to get better acquainted with Korea, or at least K-pop, once they are first exposed to his earworms. Whatever it takes, right? On the other hand, it's equally likely that viewers will watch "Hangover" and content themselves with the assumption that Korea is a bizarre land of drunken wtf-ery. I mean, this is the country that produced PSY, after all.

To the confused exchange student at the School of Mental Breakdown: OMG! If you want to understand Korean culture... don't watch K-pop videos.

At least, don't just watch K-pop videos. Without a doubt, "Hangover" does provide the casual viewer with visuals and symbols of Korea, like karaoke rooms and cup noodles; it's not a completely vapid party anthem after all. But my point still stands: we cannot necessarily choose the things that represent our culture to outsiders, especially in this day and age when instant fame and influence on the Internet can fall into the lap of literally anyone. Pop culture entertainment may not be the ideal way to raise awareness about you and your community, but it tends to be the most successful or accessible conduit for those who aren't already commanding the stage on a global or national level.

Hm, where am I going with this now? Eh, here are some conclusions. The Joy Luck Club did a wonderful job of representing Chinese immigrants to the US. But it does not represent them all. PSY does a good job of bringing Korean culture to global consciousness. But he does not represent it all.

I hope that we can all be more aware of how media and entertainment (which includes books and novels) shapes our worldviews and influences our perception of anything unfamiliar, whether we like it or not.

Okay, now watch this:

This is a first look trailer for a new ABC series coming this fall called Fresh off the Boat. It's about a Taiwanese-American family trying to adjust to life in Orlando in the nineties. What do you think? From what I saw so far, it's funny, it has a talented cast, and it captures some great moments familiar to me as a Taiwanese-American kid who grew up in the nineties. Already, the very concept is causing a stir, because 1) Asians in media! and 2) that title...

Yes, there will be controversy. Like I've been saying, as scenes and storylines from this new show undoubtedly raise a lot of questions about issues of race, people will start to compare every Asian they know, including themselves, to the high-profile (fictional) Asian family they can now watch on TV every week.

I know that I'll be enthusiastically watching FOB, even if it turns out to be awful, because I'm really excited about having a sitcom family that is so representative of me and my culture. At the same time, I'm not going to stand for anyone who even thinks they can reduce me -- or my family -- to a set of stereotypes derived from a TV show. Remember: "...but not all."


  1. I think my experience reading The Joy Luck Club was similar to yours. Some elements I recognized/identified with, and others I didn't relate to at all. I've read some of Amy Tan's other novels too and liked them, but as far as I can recall they all feature a lot of Chinese folklore/mythology that nobody in my family has ever talked about. The Chinese mythology I'm familiar with I learned from reading children's books my mom gave me, mostly.

    1. Same with me. I grew up with stories from the Bible, not stories from Chinese mythology. (I remember being really into the Monkey King when I was little, though.)

      Do you think it's a fair assumption that minorities are too often compared to the few representations of their cultures in popular media?

  2. Yes, I think that's true. If the only exposure members of the majority group have to members of a minority group is through one really famous book or movie or TV show, they're inevitably going to think of that portrayal when they encounter someone of that minority group. That's why it's important to have multiple representations of, say, Asian Americans in media.

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