I began this course with minimal exposure to Korean culture, represented in four random Korean words: oppa, unni, saranghae, ahnyong and the imperative statement gong bu hae. At the end of the semester, I feel like I have been exposed to a whole new world, and become culturally educated. I really enjoyed this class, and I think one of the hallmarks of a great class is the percentage of the material you studied that you will actually recall after the course is over. I definitely won’t forget the material we covered because I see it manifested in so many areas of my quotidian life. This class has impacted me in a myriad of ways I shall elaborate upon later on in this post, but first I will start with an overview of the course.
We began the semester with a look at historical dramas. “The Immortal Admiral Yi Sunsin” highlighted the efficacy of utilizing this genre of popular culture to heighten Korean nationalism and glorify national heroes. Not only do historical dramas serve as entertaining history lessons for the locals but help preserve and make the rich past of Korea more assessable to the average citizen. Historical dramas take advantage of the Hallyu to spread Korean popular culture, history and heritage on an international stage, preserving it as something important and noteworthy of showcasing.
Next, we examined more entertaining popular (“low-culture”, “of the masses”, “low-brow”, as Matthew Arnold outlines in Cultural Theory) drama serials. The Hallyu is almost synonymous for Korean dramas; these mass entertainment Korean drama serials have become somewhat international cultural symbols for Korea. These dramas are not only entertaining, high addictive, but also act as a gateway for other aspects of Korean culture to be broadcasted: music (discussed further later), food (how it can serve as a form of identity and high culture, also a very portable product that can be easily globalized), fashion (a factor for constructed culture), literature (as we’ve seen in “Goong”, intertextuality adds another dimension), comics (and its visual inspirations) etc. Another factor to consider is the misrepresentation of Korean society as an affluent, commercialized nation of luxury, expensive cars, leading-edge technology and beautiful men. While it is true that this thing do exist in Korea, like any other country, Korea has its fair share of social, economic, political issues and ugly people (plastic surgery is always an option, and in fact, a social pressure). Overindulgence in such portrayal can lead to disillusioned and irrational acts, such as the one Japanese woman in the article I posted at the beginning of the semester, who was so enchanted by the Korean men portrayed in dramas that she invested exorbitant amounts of time in money to travel to Korea on a personalized manhunt. On another note, it’s pretty fascinating how a traditionally isolated, Confucian-influenced, conservative nation can explode into the international scene with the Hallyu and emerge as a global (well, predominantly SE Asia) entertainment leader.
A huge part of Korean dramas are the love songs and soundtracks. The love song plays an important role in the drama by creating an ambiance and intensifying the on-screen emotion. Furthermore, these love songs help promote the drama serial and allowed music artists the social mobility to transition into the TV and vice versa. We discussed how Korean music videos differ from American music videos in the originality of each mini-production. Each video often tells an individual story, and the visual imagery may/may not have any relevance to the actual song lyrics. The concept of “han” (unspeakable sorrow, long suffering, and shared pathos) is a recurring theme throughout Korean love ballads.
The music section opened my eyes to hidden genres of Korean music I never knew existed. My impression of Korean music beforehand was the archetypical Korean Pop Princess or Korean boy band; who knew Koreans could be so edgy and rebellious with genres such as hip-hop and punk rock? We talked about how music was just more than music, how it acted as an outlet of expression, and especially in the explosive genre of punk rock, a release to the highly stressful education system implemented in Korea. We also explored the question of authenticity (East vs. West) and used post-modernist theories (David’s favorite) to justify the originality of Korean popular music.
In our internet chapter, we discussed the internet and how it facilitates democracy and globalization, yet paradoxically hinders it with the censorship of political issues such as North Korea. We all found Sze Hui’s “Wired (and wireless) Korea: Information Technology and its effects on Korean Culture” an eye-opener to the world of communication technology in Korea. The social function of PC Bangs as an alternative space for the Korean youth (to get away from parental pressure, school stress) and the ingenuity of love seats were two elements that we discussed extensively.
I really enjoyed last Monday’s class, where I think we wrapped up the whole semester with the Chua’s essay and questions about the Hallyu and its relation with nationalism, regionalism and globalization. (Why is nationalism significant as a category of analysis vs. regionalization/globalization). We also explored the topic of Hallyu backlash and its economic implications. Assertions from other Asian nations about the Hallyu being a one-way cultural exchange and the rising consumer prices of Korean culture (with regards to dramas) were refuted with criticisms about naïve and insecure governments who, in a desperate attempt to protect local film industries, forget the basic economic rules of supply/demand and expect step-by-step guidance and a formulaic strategy in a competitive industry that demands creativity, originality and innovation. This cross-discipline approach lent another dimension to this culture course, and helped to place the Hallyu in a larger global context.
I really like the way the syllabus was organized topically (dramas, music, etc.), which help structure an abstract topic (pop culture) and each section built upon the previous, which helped enhance our learning. I really enjoyed High Pop and Cultural Theory (it was at times initially agonizing, but satisfying afterwards to grasp certain challenging concepts that were presented), which helped to solidify a lot of abstract theories we were learning. A course on pop culture is definitely an academic subject worth teaching at an institution of higher learning--the close examination of popular culture, something we experience and live in daily, but never really find the need or take the time to gain an intricate understanding.
Blogging was an innovative and dynamic method to share ideas and interact with classmates outside of the classroom. The concept was extremely refreshing (and befitting, for the focus on our course, as internet culture such as blogs make up such a huge part of popular Korean culture), and I’d never done something like that in any other class. The articles (ranging from Korean pop stars to the eligibility of Korean bachelors) from outside sources (Korean newspapers, etc.) complemented the material that was covered in class and the in textbook, and help add a third dimension of relativity to what is really going on in modern Korea today.
What I really appreciate about this course was the real impact it made on my life outside the classroom. I really like it when a class makes an actual impact outside the classroom, being exposed to a culture is not something one can easily forget (unlike memorizing facts for an exam that one will forget a week after the final). Two concrete examples would be the Ch’unhyang movie we watched as part of the syllabus and the Crying Nut “Let’s Ride the Horse” song in our music section. The 2007 KSA/KAP culture show held a couple of weeks back had a spin-off, modernized play based on the legend of Ch’unhyang. I was sitting in the audience, extremely pleased with the fact that I know had the foundation of the origins of the myth, which lent me a greater appreciation and deeper understanding of the parody. The 2 hours in Rosengarten watching the movie was definitely not wasted, and resulted in me becoming more culturally literate. The second incident was at a concert KAPacity (a band made up of several members from Koreans at Penn) concert where they did a cover of Crying Nut’s “Let’s Ride the Horse”, which was part of our syllabus, and coincidentally a song I did a presentation on (dun dun dun). My choice of background study music has also done a 180 degrees switch-up from hiphop/indie to Korean music. After a whole semester, I can proudly say “Na neun hangook saram ib ni da”.
It’s extremely fulfilling to realize that the material covered in lectures and readings are not esoteric and rendered obsolete once the course ends (nor do I need to wait for next summer to travel to Korea next to garner the full benefits of a semester of Kpop, but can experience right here right now in my everyday life). As my high school teacher said, there comes a moment in time when one realizes education is not just about the “stuff you are reading in textbooks, but how that ‘stuff’ relates to what is actually happening out there in the world.”
Thanks for a great semester everyone =)