Elwood 5566

In the Days When Google was Gobble-dee-gook

You naively expected this

Podcast 72

I often mention that ten only a few years ago there was little information available on most aspects of Korean culture. Looking back just a few years the changes that have taken place are truly incredible. For those of us who are older, it is easy to forget that access to a whole range of information, all at your fingertips, is a luxury that at one time did not exist and that ‘one time’ was only a couple of years ago; for those who are younger, it is worth pondering the Korean experience before the incredible growth in access to, and compilation of, information – a process still in development.

and found this

When I decided to come to Korea in 2000, it certainly wasn’t for a job and the only factor influencing my decision to step on the plane was to discover a country which at the time ranked with exotic and mysterious destinations such as Mongolia and Tibet.  Just ten years ago anyone coming to Korea, perhaps more so from Europe than the USA, which has had both a closer relationship with Korea and attracted a substantial number of Korean immigrants, did so blind. Other than the information supplied by your recruiter and the odd book in libraries, access to information or first hand accounts was scant. Those who decide to come to Korea today are able to furnish themselves from the abundance of information available in a range of formats and I suspect many are now lured here not because of  the mysterious, but in search of employment. I in no way mean to demean or underplay the reasons people currently come to Korea and it certainly provides a culture shock. But I envy  those who arrived here in the early 1990’s or 1980’s at a time when Korea was not the place it was in 2000.

when your PC looked like this (Macintosh PC circa 1999)

I kept a diary from my first day and reading through its pages it is clear how the internet has become a fundamental resource in both deliberating whether to undertake the experience and in influencing and developing your understanding of Korea. It may even influence the experiences you engage in while on the peninsula. Change has been so rapid, and the resources we now access  have become so integral, it is easy not just to take fore-granted its impact,  but to even doubt that it was really that difficult to access information in the first place.

and your mobile phone, if you had one, looked like this (2000)

Writing in hangul was a major obstacle and you simply couldn’t go into your PC, make a few tweaks and then be able to write in Korean or hanja and besides, in 2000, few teachers had air-conditioning let alone a personal computer with an internet connection. Before laptops and net-books, most of the waygukin you met were in PC bangs where you spent a substantial part of your week. And If you bought a PC  you were privileged but still required Microsoft Proofing Tools to enable you to write in Korean or hanja and which cost c£70 a package.

Korean dictionaries, certainly in the UK, were small and difficult to buy. On the eve of my first trip, I went to London’s largest bookshop, Foyles, and discovered the entire range of books on the Korean language amounted to two introductory books, a useless dictionary and the small copy of the NTC Compact Korean English Dictionary. I bought all four depleting them of their entire Korean language collection. The dictionaries used transliterated Korean rather than hangul script. Meanwhile, books devoted to Japanese occupied an entire book case.

and this was what you needed to write Hangul (and it was expensive)

I’ve known a number of westerners who arrived in Korea in the late 80’s  and whose Korean, many years later, is still rudimentary. It’s easy to criticise such apparent laziness until you remember there was no internet to support your learning or provide lessons, few decent language courses or dictionaries and unless you were in Seoul or one of the big cities, few language classes. After a few years enduring such conditions it becomes a case of, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ As for hanja, I’ve met westerners proficient in Korean who didn’t even know what hanja was. While access to information on the internet existed, certainly around 2000, there was very little compiled on Korea or Korean culture and the ability to write in hanja characters was difficult, costly and dependent on Korean based language packages. Today, though limited for the non Korean speaker, information on hanja is available and if you aren’t interested in trying to learning it, you can very easily research what it comprises.

a time when you really did have to 'teach yourself'

Once again, in the UK, other than on the Korean war, there were few books on Korean history and finding information on topics such as the Hwa-Rang-Do or one of the Korean dynasties, was difficult. And when you did find such books, usually in academic libraries rather than public ones, they were specialist and somewhat boring for the reader who wanted general information. It has only been in very recent years, by which I mean the last 6 or 7  that such information has appeared and I can remember trawling Google in 2002 or 2003 and finding very little other than specialist academic references to major, Korean historical periods. Exactly the same conditions applied to Korean culture, prominent figures, cooking or geography.  Back in the UK I have a small collection of books on Korean culture, history, cooking, hanja and language etc, but all of them were printed and bought in Korea, and ferried back to the UK. So, on returning to Britain in 2002 and 2004, I felt I had to take a part of Korea home with me because there was no way to access ‘Korea’ in the UK. In 1997, when TOPIK, the Korean language proficiency test was introduced for non-Korean speakers, it attracted 2274 people; in 2009, 180.000 people took the exam and test centers now exist globally.

TOPIK exam hall

Korean related information on the internet was in its infancy; Google, for example, became a registered domain name in 1997  and certainly before 2000 most lay-people researched information from software such as Encarta. In 2000, I was originally going to teach in Illsan, I can remember using the internet to find information on this location and found very little. I have just this moment keyed ‘Illsan’ into Google search and in 14 seconds have access to 1.800.000 written resources and 1200 images. Learning Korean and hanja meant you compiled your own dictionary because the words or characters your learnt weren’t in dictionaries and there were no translation tools such as Babblefish or Google to provide support. Even with hangul, I still keep my own dictionary because western ones, even on the internet, don’t explain words uniquely Korean. As for idioms? Try searching Korea idioms on the internet or the availability of electronic dictionaries which are designed for the English native speaker learning Korean. All resources still being developed.

Resources in their infancy 10 years ago, blogging, vlogging, podcast, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter etc, have since become a fundamental means of sharing experiences and providing first hand information not just about all aspects of Korean culture, but on more specific topics such as life for the foreigner and whether you are vegetarian, teacher or gay, information is readily available. Blogging now provides an immense wealth of information but it is worth remembering that the term ‘blog’ was only coined by Peter Merholz, in 1999. Major blogging software which has helped give rise to the blogging phenomena are recent developments: Blogger emerged in 1999 and WordPress in only in 2003.

Song So, Daegu, November 2000

Even today, unless you live in London, obtaining Korean foodstuff is still almost an impossibility and online order of Korean foodstuffs is undeveloped. None of this is very surprising given there were very few Korean living in the UK until recently. Between 1998-1992, at a university with one of the most diverse students populations in the UK, there was a total absence of Koreans and Russians. Indeed, I was to meet Mongolian students before I met any from Korea. And, I can recall the very first five Korean I met; the first, a taekwondo instructor in London, in 1979, the second, a taekwondo instructor in Paderborn, Germany, in 1986, the third, a student in a school near New Maldon,  London, in 1998, and finally, two Koreans in a hotel in the Philippines, in 1998. I had a fleeting ‘meeting’ with Rhee Ki-ha (now  9th Degree Black Belt, taekwon-do), in 1988 but as a grading taekwon-do student, I was forbidden to talk to him.

Daegu 2001. When westerners were still a little unique

Korean Culture – the Korean Wave, Korean football players playing for British football teams, LG, Nong Shim, I-River etc, all arrived on British shores in the years following my first visit and indeed, this Christmas, I was treated to the first Korean cookery program I have see on British television. However, I suspect its genuineness as the recipes included beetroot and English pear (you can easily buy Asian pear in the UK). And neither chopsticks or kimchi featured!

and before the advent of the Korean wave

Up until a few years ago, if you arrived in Korea from Britain, you probably knew nothing about Korean society and possibly expected ‘second world’ conditions. Much of what you learnt about Korea occurred through accidentally stumbling across something and you certainly couldn’t learn from a computer screen. Indeed, access to a computer was probably detrimental to your Korean experience, removing you from, rather than immersing you in, Korean culture. Today, a computer can certainly enhance your experience and if you need to know how to: use your Korean washing machine, plan a trip, find a doctor during a holiday or translate a sentence from Korean into Blackfoot, it’s at your fingertips. Day to day life in Korea has been ‘made simple’ by the tomes of information we can now access  and only last week I used the internet to help me adjust my ondol heating control. With hundreds of accounts on topics such as soju, the Boryeonng Mud Festival  and kimchi, done to death, a blogger is forced to use a range of media formats (vlogging, photographs, podcasts, even cartoons), and  driven to be more creative and original in their perspective  especially if posting on what are now common, if not mundane subjects.

Link to TOPIK Guide.

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

It Can Pay to be a Pygmy

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Entertainment, Gender, Korean children by 노강호 on October 7, 2010

Not suitable for Pumpkin people

My Korean girl students love camp boys, other wise known as ‘flower boys.’ Camp is totally in and the poncier and more androgynous a boy or man is, the better – provided of course, he’s straight. If you dressed a frond of ooo-wong (우엉 – burdock) in fashionable clothes, gave it a nice haircut and sent it flouncing down the street all limp and bendy, girls would swoon.

‘Boys over Flowers;’  highly successful!

Jay Park (박재범) – Handsome or Pretty? Or even pretty handsome!

Boys over Flowers (꽃보다 남자) was a highly successful drama which ran in early 2009, was aired in numerous other Asian countries and has subsequently been identified with the migration of Korean culture to other countries, a phenomena known as the ‘Korean Wave’ (할류). The first ‘wave’ (2005-2009), often associated with Winter Sonata,’ consisted exclusively of drama which gradually gained a fan base outside Korea, predominantly in Asia. With the export package now including  pop music, theater and musicals, a second wave (dating from 2010), can be identified. As an example, the singer Jay Park created more traffic via Twitter, on March 8th, 2010, than did that day’s Oscar nominations. Coined by some as ‘Hallyu 2.0,’ the ‘2nd ‘wave’ has encompassed Egypt, Turkey, Romania,  India and even Uzbekistan. Interest in Korean has increased and a country as small as  Nepal now has 30.000 people a year  signing up for  Korean language proficiency tests.

Burdock, wu-weong (우엉) Limper than a lettuce!

The incredibly popular, ‘Boys over Flowers,’ which has among other things, helped lower the fan-base age associated with the ‘Korean Wave,’ consists  of 29 episodes following the intrigues of a group of  high school boys. The four central characters, often refereed to as ‘F4,’ have been attributed with consolidating the interest in ‘flower boys’ and encouraging men to take more pride in their appearance. As a result, significantly more Korean men now use cosmetics and the current trend for teenage boy fashion is what Americans might call ‘preppy.’

Boys over Flowers‘ (꽃보다 남자) was inspired by the Japanese bi-weekly manga comic, Hana Yori Dango, by Yokio Kamio and ran from 1992-2003.   The magazine was targeted at Japanese high school girls. I find the title, ‘Boys over Flowers,‘ a little clumsy and  feel ‘Boy’s before Flowers,’ a frequently used alternative, much clearer. The title is a pun on  the Japanese saying, ‘dumplings before flowers’, which refers to the habit of being more interested in eating snacks than viewing the cherry blossom during the famous Hanami festivals.  It is the snacks and  festival foods that  are the most alluring; the blossom simply provides an excuse to indulge.  And if you’re not eating the snacks, you’re probably watching the passing boys, especially if they are as beautiful as the blossom.

A Japanese hanami party. Beautiful blossom, beautiful boys, delicious food. What’s your priority?

‘Flower boys,’ basically meaning ‘pretty boys,’ is not in the least offensive and Korean youngsters, even boys, are able to differentiate between those who are ‘handsome’ and those who are ‘pretty.’ Neither identifying someone as ‘pretty’ or indeed being labeled ‘pretty,’ implies  any accusations of homosexuality or effeminacy.

A boy nominated by his class as a ‘pretty boy.’

‘Pretty boys’ have delicate features, soft skin, and are usually a  little gaunt and certainly very androgynous. In terms of western, and certainly British standards, they’d babyishly be deemed ‘gay’ and might even get the shit kicked out of them.  Korean ‘flower boys’ can also get a rough  ride, not because they’re gay, but because  of their pin-up status and ability to capture the hearts of girls and women.   One significant mystery-comedy movie, ‘Flower Boys,‘ often called by the crappy title, Attack of the Pin Up Boys’ (2007), centers on the theme of ‘flower boy bashing.’ There’s no pleasing thuggy straight men who will just as quickly bash you for being gay as they will for being heterosexual and a babe magnet.  Of course,  Attack of the Pin Up Boys is only a story and doesn’t reflect real life. From what I’m led to believe however, the biggest problem ‘flower boys’ face, is in convincing girlfriends they are not ‘playboys’ (바람둥이) because they are often too pretty for their own good.

Leetuk, one of the Super Junior celebrities. A possible candidate for a ‘pretty boy’ nomination.

Unlike many British girls, Korean girls tend to like a boy who is well-mannered, slim and  averagely muscled (which given we are talking predominantly about boys, means skinny), has broad shoulders, is fashionable and  intelligent. Neither do they have to have a six pack or look manly. Indeed, a few of my female students positively dislike both aggressive boys and muscles. But the most important quality of all, one which  constantly supersede all others, is that a boy has to be taller than his girlfriend. Girls can be quite cruel about this requirement and while talking to a class of girls about the celebrity Tae-Yang (태양), I overheard  one call him a ‘loser.’ The reason? He is under 180 cm tall. Basically, if you’re a boy and short your fucked!

Taeyang Big Bang member. ‘Handsome’ or ”pretty?’

Though they wouldn’t understand the word even if explained to them, the definition most reflecting the sort of boys Korean girls like, is camp! In the very words of one of my students,  ‘we’ like boys who ‘look like girls.’ And though ‘handsome’ boys, that is boys who look like men, are attractive and certainly seem to be preferable in terms of a solid relationship,  many girls will swoon in discussions about ‘pretty boys’ even if they prefer the ‘handsome’ type.

Back in Scumland UK, when it comes to boys, many girls have no taste at all often because their priority is a quick rummage in their panties or a passionate-less poking behind the bike sheds and hence prefer boys who are one step up from brute primates and who are valued for being aggressive, butch, sporty, loud mouthed and promiscuous. If British girls demand any prettiness, it is that their lads be, ‘pretty unintelligent.’ Yes, I’m being horribly unfair but in the UK, currently riddled with anti-intellectualism,  teenage pregnancy and sexual diseases, for many, any spark of brain is a turn off.   The reason why the Korean predilection with ‘flower boys’ is so refreshing is that it is a kick in the mouth to the belief that the alpha male is universally appealing. I would go as far as to suggest that in Korea, even the boys and men who look like men pail into effeminacy when compared to the shaven heads and brute physogs of the men that dominant and epitomize so much of British culture. Meanwhile, if you’re a Korean girl with the stature of a pygmy or dwarf, life’s gonna be one big ride!

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