Korea and the World: My Podcast Interview

Brown Eyed Girls Japan(Source: Danny Choo; CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Korea’s entertainment industry has become extremely popular abroad and conveys the image of a modern and attractive country. Watch any K-Pop video and you see plenty of skin and sexiness; but look into Korean culture as a whole, and you witness the dominance of traditional values. Does the way women are depicted in Korean popular culture tell us something about gender politics in Korean society? How persistent are traditional gender roles? Does the entertainment industry empower women or does it merely represent the reality of gender patterns in Korea’s conservative society? To answer these questions and more, we sat down with media specialist James Turnbull in Busan.”

A big thank you to the good folks of Korea and the World, for being such pleasant podcast hosts back in November. Unfortunately though, frankly I had a terrible cold at the time, so apologies in advance if I sometimes sound a little incoherent during the interview!

Either way, make sure to also check out the interviews of Robert Kelly, Daniel Tudor, and Andrei Lankov, with many more to be added in coming weeks.

Update: If you’re interested in hearing more about K-pop specifically, also check out the first episode of Anonymous Said, a new podcast series in which the host aims to “talk to anonymous guests each week, and together…comment on recent events in Korea, and the experiences the guests have from behind-the-scenes of entertainment and life here.” This blog gets a brief mention at 21:50 (squee!).

Something Everybody Needs to Know About Yellow Fever

Yellow Fever Personal Zones(Source, left: Kevin Jaako, CC BY-NC 2.0. Source, right: Isabel Santos Pilot, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, edited)

Now, I’d be the last person in the world to victim-blame anyone who’s ever been the target of Yellow Fever. And I don’t doubt for a moment that the media is overwhelmingly responsible for creating and perpetuating the stereotypes that come with it. But for those men who bring those stereotypes with them to East Asia, there is one aspect of life here that is likely to further convince them of local women’s attraction to them. What’s more, it’s something so fundamental, so visceral, that frankly it completely fooled me too—even though I never shared those stereotypes, and definitely continued to treat Korean women as individuals. 

See here to learn what it is, and why it has impacts that go well beyond mere dating. While it’s really quite simple, and I think most people who deal with people from a foreign country or live in one are already aware of it on some level, I think it’s enormously helpful to have it spelt out—especially if you’re having a bad experience. Also, although again I stress it only plays a minor role in perpetuating Yellow Fever stereotypes, I think it’s one that tends to get neglected in most (English) discussions of those, which tend to focus on Asian-Americans.

I’d be very interested to learn if readers have had any similar experiences, and what you did about them. (Or if your students have; if mine are going overseas, I make sure to photocopy the relevant pages of this book for them!) Also, how does it play out with the sexes reversed?

Continue reading

Presentation, Yonsei University, Friday 12th: “Give it to Me? The Impact of K-Pop’s Sexualization on Korean Advertising”

Sistar Rice Ad(Source: *cough* Ilbe)

The reason I’ve been so busy in recent weeks, and unable to properly reply to all your comments and tweets sorry. But, I’m happy to finally announce I’ll be presenting in the 2014 Situations International Conference, “Culture and Commerce in the Traditional, Modern and Contemporary Asian Music Industries” this Friday at 3pm, and I’d be delighted if any readers could make it.

If you can’t make Friday though, never fear, for there’s a host of much more interesting presentations than mine on Saturday, and I’m happy to meet up after the conference on Sunday too. Please just say hi there, or give me a buzz here or on Facebook or Twitter.

As for my topic, consider it a direct extension of this post. I look forward to your questions and comments!

Quick Hit: “Don’t Leave the Responsibility for Contraception to Men”

Korean Contraception Poster Not Men's Sole Responsibility(Source: Wikitree)

Let’s be clear: Korean women do, on the whole, leave contraception up to the men. So the Ministry of Health and Welfare, which issued this advertisement on Friday, does seem to have the best of intentions.

But, “Although you leave everything (to men), don’t leave the responsibility for contraception (to men)”? For something encouraging women to empower themselves in one aspect of their lives, it’s a bizarre assertion of traditional gender roles in others.

Frankly then, while I was happy to see the ad at first (what’s not to like about women being more assertive in the bedroom?) I came to understand the opposition to it. Especially Korean Womenlink’s criticism that “It is regrettable that the Ministry described contraception as a conflict between men and women while the poster was designed to promote contraception.”

Fortunately, it’s since since been withdrawn. But I do hope there’ll be another, more thoughtful attempt to get the message across soon. If so, I recommend the text focuses on shared responsibility, and replacing the image with something like this one. What do you think?

Update: See the Korea Herald for more information and context. It says new posters will be coming as soon as next week!

Planned Parenthood Birth Control(Source: Planned Parenthood)

Book Giveaway: Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei (2014)

Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei(Source: Tuttle)

Sorry that I haven’t posted for so long everyone. I was very busy with offline work for two weeks, then I caught a terrible cold which lasted another two weeks…which means now I’m busier than ever. But, I would like to get writing here again, and I can think of no better way to start than by offering a book giveaway!

For this first one, I’ve selected Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei. It’s a good book, but frankly it was a frustrating read for me personally, because the publisher’s website gave me the wrong impression of what to expect. Know what it’s really about though, and you’ll enjoy it from the get-go.

Here’s the offending description, which has two big problems:

Labyrinth of the Past is a collection of short stories that explore the lives of young women raised by single mothers in China, a country that is unforgiving to unmarried women and their children.

A dark, yet engrossing look at the lives of these girls, each story examines their personal struggles with family and the greater world around them. Coping with the stigma of being the daughter of a single mother, most of these women can’t seem to form anything but dysfunctional relationships, from mothers to friends to lovers.

While often frank and terribly bleak, these stories provide a vivid and real view of the women who struggle against a history they can’t change, in a culture that has difficulty accepting them.

That stigma surrounding unwed mothers is very real in Korea, so I partially chose the book to gain some insights into what it was like living with it. You can imagine my surprise and disappointment then, when it never even came up. Primarily, because none of the mothers are “unmarried” in the sense of never having married, but are all divorcees or widows instead. Which, given China’s skyrocketing divorce rates since Deng’s reforms, probably doesn’t carry any stigma at all:

The number of divorces has risen steadily in the new millennium, with one in five marriages now ending in separation. In 2006, the divorce rate was about 1.4 per one thousand people—twice what it was in 1990, and more than three times what it was in 1982….The number of divorces in the first three months of 2011 increased 17.1% year-on-year….Beijing leads the country with nearly 40 per cent of marriages ending in divorce, followed closely by Shanghai.

Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, Richard Burger (2012), p. 59

I’m happy to be corrected by any readers raised by female divorcees or widows, and/or with more knowledge of China, who may be able to read between the lines and see the influence of a stigma on the characters where I can’t. But if so, it’s still a very peripheral theme at best, and should really be removed from the description on the website (fortunately, it’s not mentioned on the back cover, which I wish I’d read instead).

Chinese Woman in Shanghai(Source: Matthijs Koster. CC BY 2.0)

The second problem is that the book is about the lives of young women, yet two of the seven stories—”Scab Addiction” and “No Choosing Today”—are entirely about the characters’ childhoods. In particular, in the former the character-narrator is revealed to be still in high school, making it a terrible choice for an opening story. Had I picked up the book in a store, expecting it to delve straight into the lives of adult Chinese women, I would have rejected it on the spot.

Again, this is not a criticism of the book per se, and of course all the remaining stories are indeed from women’s perspectives, with “A Good Year”, “Love,” and “Summer Days” all covering dating, marriage, and/or sex. “I Really Don’t Want to Come” too, covering the narrator’s increasing disdain for kowtowing to ancestors as she grows older, and frustration with what the ceremony means for her split family, is something many Koreans (and their foreign partners) will surely relate to. (“Memory is the Slowest” though, I just found confusing—I’m still not really sure what it’s about). But it’s also a real pity, because, once I got over the disappointment of reading something very different to what I’d been sold, and was able to take a fresh look at the book, ironically I came to find Zhang Yiwei’s depictions of childhood to be one of its biggest strengths. Her ability to evoke its timelessness, the sense of children’s whole worlds confined to just a few streets and fields, and our fuzzy, malleable memories of that phase of our lives is really quite remarkable (frankly, it immediately reminded me of the magic realism of 100 Years of Solitude), and that should be highlighted in its marketing.

Another strong point is showing how profoundly the issue of housing impacts ordinary Chinese citizens’ lives. That may sound rather boring at first, but it looms large in a country with such breakneck development, huge internal migration, and consequent vast urban/rural and home-owning/renting divides, and accordingly it’s a constant concern for many of the characters in the book, some of whom are stuck in limbo because their property is in an absentee husband or father’s name. Indeed, as if to rub that in, recently the government manipulated the ownership laws in a bid to thwart the divorce rate, taking a great leap backward for women’s rights in the process:

…the Chinese government has expressed alarm at the soaring number of divorces and its threat to the traditional Chinese family. In 2011, China took controversial steps to discourage divorce, reinterpreting the marriage law so that residential property is no longer regarded as jointly owned and divided equally after a divorce. Instead, it will belong exclusively to the spouse who bought it or whose name is on the deed, which is usually the husband, even if the wife helped pay for the property. This means that upon divorce many women might find themselves homeless.

At a time of soaring property prices, real estate is often a couple’s most valuable possession, and the revised law has caused many women to consider more carefully whether they really want to get married. Chinese media reported that marriage registrants plummeted as much as 30 percent in some cities weeks after the revised law was announced in 2011.

Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, Richard Burger (2012), p. 61
Chinese Housing(Source: Anita. CC BY 2.0)

The verdict? I can’t lie—despite its strengths, the cover price of $13.95 is a little steep for such a slim book (160 pages), especially with some of the stories being so frustratingly short. But it’s definitely worth the $10-ish or even cheaper on various websites it’s selling for at the moment, especially if you know what you’re in for.

But first, remember I have two free copies to give away! Please just leave a comment below, and a week from now I’ll pretend to select two of you at random to receive them (make sure your email address is correct!). Really though, if you’d like to get to the head of the queue, please do bribe me with interesting comments about single mothers and/or something China-related!

What are you waiting for? ;)

Announcements: A Rare Film About LGBT Asian-Americans, Bras for a Cause, and a Survey on Street Harassment in Korea

Spa Night(Source: Kickstarter)

Some worthy causes which would really benefit from just a little of your time or money this week:

Spa Night – A Korean-American Film about Coming Out

From the Kickstarter Page (my emphasis):

WHY THIS FILM IS IMPORTANT

I have always associated Korean spas with my childhood, my family, and my Korean identity. As a kid, I would go to the spa with my dad. It was a cultural ritual; we would clean ourselves.

A few years ago, I discovered that Korean spas in Los Angeles are used as a space for underground gay sex. As a gay Korean-American man, this discovery felt strange, thrilling, and very wrong! It’s very easy for me to separate my identities. I can either be Korean or gay. But here is this place where I have to deal with my identities at the same time. I’m forced to be whole.

I knew immediately that a Korean spa would be the perfect setting for a film about a gay Korean-American identity. There aren’t enough films out there about Asian-Americans, let alone LGBTQ Asian-Americans. It’s important to me that I share this story so that people understand that we exist and that our community holds a diversity of people, voices, and experiences.

If this sounds like something you’d like to support, please do so soon: as I post this on Tuesday morning Korean time, unfortunately it’s still $7000 short of its $60,000 goal, with only 3 days left to go. See Kickstarter for further information, or the Facebook page.

Bras for a Cause 2014Bras For a Cause

From the Facebook Event Page:

Bras for a Cause (Seoul) is a fun event in November that raises money for the Korea Breast Cancer Foundation while promoting breast cancer awareness. According to the KBCF, breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer affecting Korean women.

Please contact the Korea Breast Cancer Foundation if you are aware of a breast cancer sufferer in your community who has been unable to receive surgery or treatment due to financial hardships. They offer funding for breast cancer surgery anticancer and radiation treatment after a patient undergoes evaluation. The Korea Breast Cancer Foundation is dedicated to helping encourage patients with breast cancer to continue treatment despite financial difficulties and to helping them escape the pain of breast cancer.

Survey on Street Harassment in Korea

Via Hollaback! Korea:

Have you been to Korea in the last year? Please respond to this important global survey on street (sexual, gendered, racial, homophobic) harassment. It takes about 10 minutes but contributes in a very important way to spreading awareness of this issue. Please spread widely.

Please participate in our global study of street harassment by following [this link]. We appreciate your participation!

See the links for more information, or here for my February story about Hollaback! Korea itself.

Hollaback Korea(Source: Facebook Group Page)

As always, if any readers also have any event, worthy cause, video, or just about anything else they’d like to promote, please just shoot me an email (but please add as many pictures and details as possible!) and I’ll add it in a later post.

From The Archives: October

Kirin Neo-Confucian Hierarchy(Source; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Apropos of this quick look back at over 7 years of blogging, here’s a picture of an old ad close to my home that I must have passed hundreds of times in the last few years, which often gets me thinking. I hope some of these posts can still do the same for you too.

Meanwhile, please feel free to use the picture for your own post or presentation on gender, hierarchy, and (Neo-)Confucianism(!). From my perspective, it’s a pity it’s Japanese and not Korean, but that does raise the interesting question of how similar Japanese society is (or not) in those regards. Continuing today’s theme, please see here for some investigating of that I did back in 2008.

Thoughts?