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[HanCinema Korea's Diary] The Korean Wave: Multiculturalism, Foreigners and Cultural Backwash...

2012/06/02 | 3980 views | Permalink

Beijing journalists coined the term "Korean Wave" in 1999, when they noticed the ever-increasing presence of Korean entertainment in China. Since then the "Korean Wave" (or "Hallyu" as it's known in Korean) has swelled not only to include a wide range of Korea's cultural exports (such as music, films and dramas), but also to take on the responsibility of spearheading Korea's image on the world stage. This phenomenon is largely concerned with Korea's cultural exports and it is responsible for Korea's recent economic growth as the country continues to climb the ranks of our globalised world.

Korea is one of the most ethnically homogenous societies in the world, and underscoring that description, you will find the inherent need to protect and maintain cultural objects as they pertain to Korea's global and local identity. The Korean Wave is the product of the country's position within modern society as the process of globalisation continues to evolve and infiltrate our social existence. Korea's current social, economic, and political climates have converged on the issue of the Korean Wave; and the result has been a tremendous boost for the country's economic well-being and the construction of a its image that, for the most part, appears desirable and is one that its citizens can be proud of.

Many of Korea's top news and media giants are behind the nation's drive to sell/push these cultural products as a way of promoting Korea and their cultural identity to the world. However, the process of cultural export cannot be understood as simply a one-way street as cultures invariably absorb or incorporate the very cultures they are hoping to reach. Consider Girl's Generation's recent trip to the United States, during which the group performed an English version of their new song "The Boys" to Western audiences. Here is a good example of how the Korean Wave has identified the need to alter its image or content in order to be better received in a market they deem as potentially beneficial. This kind of exchange better reflects the type of process that needs to take place as the platform on which different nations, especially among those where such ethnic and cultural differences exist, transcends the nations involved in the exchange. But, while Korea is seemingly thriving at presenting itself to the world, is there a contradiction between the image Korea projects and the feelings and opinions of the average Korean?


Recent outrages over MBC segment

This past week has seen the foreigner community in Korea outraged by a short segment aired by one the biggest broadcasters in Korea, MBC. The piece was entitled, "The Shocking Reality About Relationships With Foreigners", and it painted a rather sensationalist view of foreigners' attitudes towards relationships with Korean women. MBC was also responsible for the controversial Lunar New Year special "Quiz that Changes the World" in which comedians Lee Kyung Shil and Kim Ji Sun wore black face make-up. Although MBC apologised for the unintended insult, stating that it was a parody of a popular Korean cartoon that foreigners might not be aware of, the damage was already done. Now the broadcasting company finds itself once again in hot water with this latest segment about foreigners and has not yet issued a similar apology.

 Many Foreigners have joined a protest group on Facebook and are responding by posting pictures of the relationships with Koreans.

MBC is not the only media outlet that has been criticised for negatively depicting foreigners and their presence in Korea. Many foreigners in Korea frequently voice their concerns over how various Korean groups portray them and their impact on Korean society. The "Anti-English Spectrum" is one such group that is publically known to advocate the removal of English teachers and foreigners who upset Korea's cultural norms and expectations. The methods and manner in which they take action has generated strong criticism from foreigners.

Yie Eun-woong, volunteer manager of the Seoul-based Anti-English Spectrum (John M. Glionna / Los Angeles Times)

Anyone who has visited Korea or is familiar with its cultural practices will tell you that Korea is obsessed with image. This takes on many forms, the most noticeable being Korea's obsession with physical beauty and social appearance. This is not just an isolated observation of an individual's physical appearance, but a philosophical characteristic of Korean culture and society that permeates all activities. Consider the Korean education system and the acclaim it has received from other global powers. Recently, American President Barack Obama lauded the Korean Education system and, for the second time, praised its effectiveness and the results it produces. Korean students are some of, if not, the most hard-working students I have ever seen. However, this drive to be studious is not an internal one, but rather an external pressure placed upon them by Korean society. Pair that with Korean students' extremely high suicide rate, bullying issues, and the fact that Korean students rank as some of the unhappiest and depressed among OECD countries, you begin to question some of the behind-the-scenes issues that exist.

Behind the Image: Korean students are getting the results, but at what cost?

Korea's image to the world and cultural exchange

Image. The process of constructing an identity from normative beliefs/desires that transcends the source in some form or another. The Korean Wave is an image, an intangible asset that has been designed to encourage the consumption of Korean entertainment and culture by promoting it to the world. But is Korea's effort to promote the Korean Wave hindered by an inherent cultural belief or attitude towards foreigners and their respective cultures? Many would argue that it is, as individual reports, news stories, and events continue to raise questions about Korean society's perceptions and active attitudes towards cultural 'aliens'.

Cultural Exchange: David Letter presents the group with a football after their performance

As I mentioned before, for a country to exist in a globalised world, the process of cultural exchange is an unavoidable consequence. The degree to which Korea's global image differs from a large amount of its population must be considered critically. Can Korea truly be considered a globalised nation if it's mainstream media produces such offensive programming of minority groups? Does multiculturalism exist in Korea in its truest sense? Or are there just pockets of foreigners to be found within a larger, perhaps more exclusive society? I believe the measure of a multicultural society is one that has assimilated or actively incorporates the beliefs and societal norms of a number of cultures into one collective existence. Otherwise, the result would be something akin to the world embracing the cultural exports of North Korea, whereby the process of cultural exchange would be undoubtedly one-way.

The authenticity of this exchange should be measured in the nations from which they originate. Thus, if Korea is promoting itself as a global player and open to foreigners and their cultures, why are we seeing such xenophobic news reporting and culturally insensitive articles in their media? Of course one will never struggle to find social, cultural, political, and economic obstacles in a multicultural sphere, but the manner in which we begin to problematize these issues must be handled with respect, tolerance, and a sensitivity that many believe is currently lacking in Korean society.

Microaggression and the cultural 'other'

Broadcasters such as MBC are the voice of the nation, and as such, they are currently failing to conduct themselves in ways that suggest Korea is culturally open-minded and prepared to accept and engage foreigners with respect. However, Korea's apparent inability to fully accept the notion of multiculturalism, and the cultural exchange that results, is perhaps even more evident in Korean daily life. I recently read an article that dealt with 'microaggression', a term used by American psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce and described as "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of other races". This reading shed light on some of my own personal experiences living in Korea and the manner in which locals treated me, and it voiced some of my own apprehensions about my presence here in Korea.

'Otherness' and Cultural Insensitivities in the Korean media

Walk down any street in Korea for the first time and something strange and unnerving will occur. The stark difference between your own culture and that of Korea's will take the form of something you might not have expected. Paralleling your own fascination with the new culture and its people is the counterweight that becomes blaringly obvious in a homogenous society such as this. You will feel not only the excitement of looking at all the new faces and places, but you will also be unnerved by all the eyes that are following you. Initially such interest is exciting and all part of the rush we get when experiencing a new place or culture, but as your time here increases, you find yourself unable to shed the very obvious fact that you are the cultural 'other', the alien who is making a temporary stop before you are on your way again. Stay a little longer and you will soon be able to pick up on what people are saying when you walk by, the most common being young children, teenagers, and students openly stating the fact "it's a foreigner". This is an example of microaggression within Korean society that speaks to the degree to which their culture is different and separate from others. Imagine walking down a street in your hometown or city and feeling the need to tell your mom or friend that there is a foreigner about to walk past or standing on a nearby street corner. It's beyond bizarre, and although it is not intentionally meant to hurt or alienate, the negative side effects persist.

The Anti-Korean Wave has already been felt in Japan and China.

The others. The alien. The interloper. To be publically identified as such can only reinforce the cultural idea that foreigners don't belong. We are the 'others', those that will always exist outside the realm of the Korean identity. Here again I speak of multiculturalism and the resulting inclusion of individuals into a greater society, a facet that Korea is still developing and has yet to fully embrace and see actualised.

A Wave. A fluid force that moves "to and fro with a swaying or undulating motion while remaining fixed to one point". This is the metaphor Korea is trying to promote to the world as it symbolises its identity. But the act itself is suffering from an inherent inability to deal with the backwash and the swirls that help redefine the next wave. I was recently listening to Arirang radio's early evening segment "Sound-K" where the host mentioned that a recent study showed that the majority of foreigners feel that the Korean Wave is a temporary phenomenon that will pass. If the Korean Wave is to continue, and further Korea's economic and social stature in the world, the wave needs to reflect the very process it is trying to engage. If it keeps crashing on the shores of the global community without returning to its source with new material, there will undoubtedly be a drought and, eventually, the wave will be reduced to a trickle, remembered only by the fleeting imprints it once made in the sand.


-C.J Wheeler (

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