Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Image Is Everything... And Everything is...

One thing is perfectly clear to me: in Korea, image is everything. Literally the way things look/appear/are perceived is what matters. I've now been to Seoul twice. There, people wear two kinds of clothes: 1) sheik, sophisticated, pressed business/casual wear (you will not find old or tattered looking clothing here) or 2) those t-shirts I wrote about last time with meaningless/absurd english words and phrases smothering the front. A westerner who's been here awhile told me Koreans don't care what the words say. They love the design and look of the lettering and the prestige associated with "using" the english language. I believe it. On TV, most of the channels are MTV and E! ripoffs (On a side note, we all get CNN, but NONE OF US GET THE SOUND--VIDEO ONLY. I forget, am I in North or South Korea?). The music videos and generation X programming are hilarious and disturbing. I was watching a break dancing competition show today. They called it "Black Battle". Yes, that's right. That's really what they called it. They actually, no foolin', as-a-matter-of-fact, called it "Black" Battle. Needless to say, the race of each contestant was Asian... But you have to remember, they truly pay no attention to the meanings of western culture trends, practices or symbols. They just want to emulate it all. And only on the surface. Its all based on what they see, not what they understand.

Korea has extensive public transportation. There are trains, buses and cabs everywhere. I can take a bus 45 mins to Seoul. From there, it seems best to use the subway. Seoul's subway system is clean, convenient and almost as extensive as New York City's. Subways are often packed. Most people are forced to stand, somewhat bunched. Elders are revered in Korea and it is customary to give an elder your seat if they're standing. No one says thank you (or "kamsummnida") if you do. It is expected.

When you walk around you quickly notice people walk through people. No one says excuse me or pardon me. If you bump someone, you just keep on truckin' and you don't look back. At first, I was put off by this. Now, I kind of appreciate the sparing of formalities. Let's face it, those can add up.

I've now been working at Gyeonggi (a Korean province) English Village (EV) for 9 days. To fill in some gaps from my first post, EV is an educational theme park built 2.5 years ago by the Korean government to pre-assimilate Korean Kids into western culture before they apply for jobs and schools in the western world. They have various practical classes ranging from basic written and spoken english to robotics to cooking to "going to the bank", etc. In addition to the teachers they've hired to hold these classes, they have about 20 or so "Edutainers". That's where I come in. I'm an Edutainer. I edutain. Edutainingly. Myself and the other edutainers, create, write, direct, and produce children's musicals aimed at entertaining the kids while we educate them on western culture and the english language. As a result, the shows are written and acted out in a very "in your face" way. Everything is, sometimes quite literally, spelled out to the audience. We also do game shows and various activites like line dancing and storytelling with kids at different places around EV.

You ever feel like a celebrity for no good reason? That's what its like for a westerner working at EV. Kids (average age between 5-15) will randomly ask to have their picture taken with you, have a "real, live" english conversation with you and sometimes, they even want your autograph. Keep it hush-hush, but some of them have actually met
Bea Arthur... or Nicholas Copernicus ;) Of course, any traveler whose been to asia knows westerners are generally placed on a pedestal. They want to be like us. Just like us. Thankfully, they don't understand us well enough to see us a bit more clearly.

... Ooh, random tidbit before I forget. In Korea, one eats most things with chopsticks, of course. However, its considered "unsophisticated and childlike" to eat RICE with chopsticks. You're supposed to use a spoon! No one seems to tell me why Koreans feel this way. From what I gather, this is a uniqely Korean quirk among the Asian countries. Just thought you'd like to know...

Back to EV... last week I had the delightful pleasure of being one of three judges for EV idol. Yes, they held a live American Idol knock-off show in a large concert hall filled to capacity with screaming kids. THIS WAS A TRIP. Some acts were solo, most were groups. Oh, and the names were wonderfully zany and meaningless (keeping in mind the discussion at the beginning of this post) ... the only one I can remember at the moment was "Narnia Cake". I think you get the picture. Most acts were cute but a bit boring. Each stood up on stage, semi-motion and expressionless, reading the lyrics off index cards. They sang everything from kelly clarkson to the beatles to metallica (there was a kid who actually sang metallica's "enter sandman" AND did a guitar solo in the middle of the song. he won.). One 3-boy, "boy band" group sang the backstreet boys classic "how deep is your love?". In mid-song, s
hamelessly trying to win favor with the judges, the boys shimmied off the stage to the front row where I was sitting with the other two judges and presented each of us with a necklace, attached to the bottom of which was a big heart with words written on the front. To the female judge, they gave a heart that simply read, "I love you". Well, no mincing words there. To myself and the other male judge, they gave hearts that asked the eternal question, "How Deep?". I never, in my whole life, thought the day would come when a 10 year old korean boy, singing the backstreet boys just South of North Korea, would present me with a cut out paper heart necklace donning the words "How Deep?". But, as remarkable as that moment was, my favorite moment of EV idol came sometime in an otherwise pedestrian period of the show. Two adorable 7 or 8 year old girls were singing some cheesy duet. I forget the song. One of them had cute little pigtails and glasses. I looked at her thinking, "What a little cutie. You sing it, little cutie!" Then, I noticed her shirt. I don't think I'll every stop noticing these shirts in Korea. I think they'll always be insanely funny to me. So what did it say? Ready? In big, bold, can't miss letters were the words, "EVERYTHING IS SHIT". Game. Set. Match.


Viviana said...

What a different world. In a lot of ways, though, it doesn't sound too different from LA -- image is everything here too and people often times "wear" political and social beliefs on T-shirts or carry handbags that "mean" something, without knowing their significance (which at times can be offensive -- case in point: Cameron Diaz wearing a purse that glorified Maoism in Peru, much to the horrow of many Peruvians who lived through the horrors brought on that country by the Maoist group, Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path).

Thanks for sharing, Anand! Keep the insights and observations coming!

Vaughan said...

Anand! I want your autograph! (Why didn't I think to get it before you left, while it was still affordable).

Thanks again for the posts. Love it!

Anonymous said...

That's glorious common sense to eat the rice with a spoon. I am now always going to do that and say I am eating "Korean" style if anyone questions me.

mamasita said...

Son - Love the blog. I feel as though I am right there with you, even though I know I am 9000 miles away. Love the "Everything is shit" line. That is hysterical! Keep the blogs coming and let's see some pics as well. Love Mom