By Park Chung-a
A popular TV comedy skit featuring the character of a Sri Lankan migrant worker will be laid to rest on Monday, its creator said.
From February of last year, comedian Jung Chul-kyu was portraying Blanca, a Sri Lankan migrant worker, in a five-minute skit on the KBS weekly variety show, "Laughter Club". In the skit, titled "What on Earth Is This!", Jung uses word play and acts out funny episodes that stem from cultural differences.
Earlier days, the skit also satirized Korean employers ill-treatment of foreign workers, including problems with back pay and sexual harassment.
At some point in the skit, Jung would deliver the line "My boss is bad", in slow and awkward Korean, drawing immediate laughter from the audience. The line, along with the skit, became a huge hit last year, with video files of the show being distributed illegally among Internet users. Last December, the 25-year-old comedian won the KBS rookie-of-the-year award.
However, the skit also drew its share of criticism. Presidents of Korean firms employing migrant workers protested to the network about how Jung negatively portrays them. Also, in the third week of the skit, Blanca began talking about his Korean wife Bong-suk and the funny misunderstandings between them. This led to women named Bong-suk and their mothers across the nation calling KBS to complain.
But on Aug. 26, the Sri Lankan Embassy joined in the fray. It sent an official document to KBS requesting it adjust the program's content a little, claiming the program could adversely influence Sri Lankan workers' employability with Korean companies. "Sri Lankan people are very disciplined, hard working and obedient. They are not like the character Blanca in the comedy program, always complaining about his boss", G. Wijayasiri, Sri Lankan ambassador to Korea, told The Korea Times in October. KBS did not respond to the viewers saying that a change was "unnecessary".
Despite Jung's intention to help the socially disadvantaged migrant workers through his comedy, he failed to actually increase the position of foreign people working here, said Kim Heoun-sic, a pop culture critic.
"The show did not reveal contradictions and inequalities in the relationship between Korean employers and migrant laborers, nor the human rights abuses laborers in Korean companies endure, which are the core issues regarding migrant workers here", Kim said. "The program at first gained popularity not because it satirized the hypocrisy of Koreans toward foreign laborers, but because it simply blamed the bosses of the companies".
Kim criticized the program for making fun of Sri Lankan laborers, saying that Blanca's absurd facial expressions, slow pronunciation, and out-dated clothes in fact reflect Jung's own prejudices against Sri Lankan people.
However, Jung said that it does not degrade Sri Lankan workers, that such a portrayal of a Sri Lankan worker is part of what comedy is all about. It was necessary to make people laugh.
"It is such a misunderstanding. I never intended to make fun of Sri Lankan workers", Jung said in a phone interview Friday. "By playing the role of Blanca, I wanted to show the difficulties workers face while living in Korea and create a friendly image of migrant workers in Korea. I still believe I contributed to increasing Korean people's interest and awareness on the conditions of migrant workers in Korea".
Jung said the idea for the skit came while he was doing substitute work for mandatory military service. During that time, he worked with foreign workers for three years. Jung realized Koreans were more ignorant of people from Southeast Asian countries than people from Western countries and decided to make a satirical comedy aimed at enhancing Koreans' awareness, he said.
Jung said he regularly visits the Seoul Migrant Workers Center and has been maintaining relationships with migrant workers, often playing soccer with them. In January, Jung also went to Sri Lanka with a KBS crew on the request of a Sri Lankan migrant in Korea to report on the devastation the country suffered during the tsunami disaster.
Jung said he did not feel there was any animosity between he and the Sri Lankan Embassy over to the embassy's protest regarding the skit in August.
"That was just a small mild appeal, different from what the Korean media described as a document asking for complete withdrawal of the program", Jung said. "The Korean media blew things out of proportion.
"Although I stop the role of Sri Lankan worker, I will continue to do satires and volunteer activities aimed at helping the socially disadvantaged".
In fact, the Sri Lankan Embassy recently offered Jung the post of founding member of the Korea-Sri Lankan Friendship Association, to be launched March 25. Jung and his manager have yet to make a firm commitment to the association.
"Laughter Club" airs at 11 p.m. on Mondays.