“저의 몸과 저의 섹슈얼리티에 대한 이야기를 해보려고 합니다. 이것은 실로 부끄러운 고백이어서 저는 단 한 번밖에 말하지 못할 것 같습니다. 그러니 가만히 들어주세요.”

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes. Image sources: Aladin, NamuWiki.

I want to tell you a story about my body and my sexuality. But it’s going to be so revealing and embarrassing for me, that I can say it only once. So please listen carefully.”

If you can please indulge me, I just want to say I’m very proud of myself for ordering Bodies and Women ‘몸과 여자들’ by Lee Seo-su. It will be the first novel I’ll have read entirely in Korean!

I was instantly sold on it by reviews that mention its intimate coverage of beauty ideals, gender socialization and body-shaming in schools, sexual assault, pregnancy, sex in marriage, pervasive sexual objectification, and the male gaze.

However, there’s also the matter of the other members in The Grand Narrative Book Club,* who are much more knowledgeable and well-read than myself, and have often already read the original Korean versions of the translated novels we discuss. Because while I count myself lucky that I’m never the most interesting person in the (Zoom) room, does the fact I’m the dumbest really need to be so obvious?

In 2023 then, I want to work on disguising that. Starting by getting into the habit of reading novels in their original Korean myself.

Unfortunately, Bodies and Women will not be turning up in the club anytime soon. Lee Seo-su seems to be a relatively new writer, with a discussion in Korean Literature Now about of one of her short stories being all I could find out about her in English. So, although I could translate those persuasive reviews for you here, really any translation add-on for your favorite browser should more than suffice. Instead, hopefully I will find many interesting things in the book itself to pass on later.

Sorry. I did say this post was an indulgence!

However, with that my writer’s block does seem to be cured now too, so it served its purpose. Let me offer some humor too, as a parting gift—but also, a reminder of precisely why those reviews were so persuasive, and books like it so necessary. For I shit you not: these two sponsored ads on Facebook, I saw back to back after googling “몸과 여자들” the hour previously:

Again frankly, probably the juxtaposition is a complete coincidence. After the book itself, googling “몸과 여자들” in fact mostly brings up images of women perusing fine male specimens. But more to the point, during the evening rush hour, Korean advertisers on Facebook deliberately target men with ads for lingerie etc., which they won’t buy, but which do persuade them to swipe left to be rewarded with more lingerie models, then with ads for oh-so-masculine power tools and gaming equipment which they might.

Also, ever since I hit my mid-40s I’ve been inundated with ads for libido and erectile dysfunction treatments, and doubt it’s just me. I don’t mean to laugh at anyone or their partners who actually need to avail themselves of such products, especially since I’ll probably be joining their ranks sooner rather than later (sigh). But many prove just as creepy as campy. For instance, this one where the model’s head was cut off, in stark contrast to when a different advertiser used the same stock photos of her to advertise diet products to women:

Then there’s these screenshots from yet another ad in my feed today, from which I’ll let you form your own conclusion to this post to!

*Finally, the book for January’s meeting on Wednesday the 18th is Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (2017), translated by Anton Hur (2021); I’ll put up an official notice soon. Sorry for not doing so earlier, which is my fault for not realizing that I may not be the only person out there who hasn’t actually read it yet!

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

December Book Club Meeting: “I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokpokki: A Memoir” by Baek Se-hee, Wednesday 21 December, 8:15pm KST

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes.

To round off our last book club meeting of the year, may I present I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokpokki: A Memoir by Baek Se-hee, first published in 2018 and recently translated into English by Anton Hur. Described as “part memoir, part self-help book, and completely engrossing,” by The Korea Society, I Want to Die “is a book that captures the edgy relationship many millennials and Gen Z-ers have with hopelessness, hunger, and the pressure to be perfect.” It also provides, according to Willow Heath of Books and Bao, “a window into the mind of someone with depression, and a hand on the shoulder of anyone who suffers with it themselves,” and I just can’t wait to read it!

Please see LibraryThing, The StoryGraph, GoodReads and the videos below for reviews, and then, if I Want to Die still appeals, I’d like to invite you to our meeting on Wednesday 21 December, at 8:15pm Korean time. If you are interested in attending, please contact me via email, or leave a comment below (only I will be able to see your email address), and I will contact you to confirm, and will include you in the club reminder email with the Zoom link a few days before the event. At the same time, I will also post a SPOILER FILLED list of suggested discussion topics and questions below, which we’ll use to loosely structure the meeting (so please watch this space!).

But I want to emphasize that they will definitely only be suggestions, as I stress that the meetings are very small and informal really. And also, to help ensure that they remain as safe a space as possible, that there’s a limit of 12 participants including myself. So please get in touch early to ensure your place (and give you time to read the book!).

See you on Zoom!

♥♥♥

As Willow says, this is a very experimental book, both in subject and in format, so mostly these suggested discussion topics and questions will very much just be my observations:

My first is how valuable it is that a book about depression and therapy has become a bestseller in Korea. Mental problems are still hugely stigmatized here, not helped in recent years by incidents such as a murder/arson case by a schizophrenia patient in Jinju in 2019, as well as numerous attacks by men on women that are invariably attributed to mental illness rather than also acknowledging the role of misogyny, which is a much more politically sensitive subject. Accordingly, the government’s mental health care budget and number of trained personnel fall well below OECD average.

In such circumstances, it is very admirable and brave that Baek Sehee has deliberately set out to explain what depression is like for the public. That despite how vulnerable this makes her, she has shown the non-scary and non-judgemental reality of what therapy is actually like (sort of; I’ll return to this below), which is a good start towards encouraging more people in need to visit therapists. I’ve also heard that, especially in Korea it’s very valuable hearing the experiences of an ordinary person rather than a celebrity, and likewise the strong emphasis on her problems with her body image would find a lot of resonance with Korean readers—and Korean women in particular.

Related, can anyone speak to the impact of BTS’s recommendation? Alas, I’m not a fan, so I’d be interested in hearing more about the circumstances of that. Thanks!

♥♥♥

Next, in raising the subject of therapy we can certainly talk about the different attitudes, perceptions, and experiences of it between Koreans and people from other countries, and perhaps also between US residents and people from other English-speaking countries. Indeed, one Western expert(?) is actually quite scathing in her criticisms of the therapist, and I personally thought the therapist tended to be too quick to label what Sehee was going through, regularly shoehorning her issues into various convenient narratives and/or mental conditions rather than acknowledging her individuality and their complexity.

Speaking to the point earlier about how real a picture of therapy sessions Sehee provides, we can also discuss the issue of the transcripts of the conversations being very packaged and edited to make their points. (There’s no interjections, there’s no pauses, there’s no crying or missing minutes, and so on.) In doing so, I don’t think Sehee was being dishonest per se, as it may just have been a practical necessity for the sake of readability. But you could argue that in giving unrealistic expectations of sessions it slightly undermines her intentions to encourage and guide others to seek therapy.

Also, what sex do you think the therapist was? Why?

♥♥♥

How did you find the structure?

In my reading of reviews, the vast majority of people liked the transcripts, but by the middle began to find them increasingly muddled and repetitive, with no clear theme or narrative. The essays—”random observations”—at the end were also almost universally disliked, some reviewers accusing of them of being just padding to justify the book format. I tend to agree.

♥♥♥

Finally, what were the positives and the negatives of the book for you?

Many, we’ve already covered. Additional potential positives include the author’s honesty, and her therapist’s ability to demonstrate links between her feelings and her negative behaviors and habits of which she had previously been unaware—and which is one of the first steps towards addressing them. Reviewers also mention time and time again just how relatable she is.

I’m going to be a contrarian though, and argue that relatability is mostly because there are just so many experiences and feelings covered. That of course there’s going to be some moments when you can completely identify with Sehee and what she’s going through, because who hasn’t ever been depressed, had issues with coworkers, or felt fat (etc.) at some point?

That said, if you deeply related to any—even many—such moments, if they moved you, if Sehee’s thoughts and feelings and/or the therapist’s advice were truly beneficial to you, then nobody can or should want to deny you any of that.

It’s just…there were no moments like that for me.

Probably, because although a lot of people found that although the book can appear to be a very general one about depression and therapy, really her core problems are very specific to her. The advice given, not really relevant to anyone without the exact same.

Indeed, despite the title, do suicide and tteokbokki get any mention at all? Is the book really as universal and relevant as it’s often described and marketed?

My verdict then: 2 out of 5. How about you?

Sehee does have my great admiration and respect for helping start the long, difficult, but very urgent and necessary conversation about mental health that needs to take place in Korea. Having read I Want to Eat Tteokbokki, now I very much hope to read its sequel, and from other authors it spawns on this topic, a genre which was previously dominated by psychiatrists themselves. But however valuable it was to open the doors for more such possibilities, unfortunately this particular one fell flat for me, the delivery and structure somewhat flawed. Sorry!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

EVEN MORE Upcoming Zoom Lectures and Webinars You Should Totally Register for ASAP

I swear original posts ARE coming. If only there weren’t all these distractions…

Reading time: 4 minutes. Image source: Photo by Fausto García-Menéndez on Unsplash

First, on Thursday 8 December at 10:00 Korean Time, Jackie Kim-Wachutka (Ritsumeikan University) will be talking about her book Zainichi Korean Women in Japan: Voices. More information and registration available here and here:

Presenting the voices of a unique group within contemporary Japanese society—Zainichi women—this book provides a fresh insight into their experiences of oppression and marginalization that over time have led to liberation and empowerment. Often viewed as unimportant and inconsequential, these women’s stories and activism are now proving to be an integral part of both the Zainichi Korean community and Japanese society.

Featuring in-depth interviews from 1994 to the present, three generations of Zainichi Korean women—those who migrated from colonial Korea before or during WWII and the Asia-Pacific War and their Japan-born descendants—share their version of history, revealing their lives as members of an ethnic minority. Discovering voices within constricting patriarchal traditions, the women in this book are now able to tell their history. Ethnography, interviews, and the women’s personal and creative writings offer an in-depth look into their intergenerational dynamics and provide a new way of exploring the hidden inner world of migrant women and the different ways displacement affects subsequent generations.

This book goes beyond existing Anglophone and Japanese literatures, to explore the lives of Zainichi Korean women in Japan.

Next, also on Thursday 8 December, at 19:00 Korean Time, Gavin Campbell (Doshisha University) will present a Modern Japan History Workshop titled Modern Girl, Modern Geisha: Interwar Popular Entertainment and the Geisha of Kyoto. The Zoom link is https://u-tokyo-ac-jp.zoom.us/j/82336610079, and the password will be available here from December 5:

In 1927 a new building cast long shadows over the tiled roofs and narrow alleys of Kyoto’s Pontocho geisha district. Four stories framed by steel girders and clad with fashionable yellow bricks, the building dwarfed tea houses of wood, tile and paper. Inspecting it from across the river, an observer would have quite naturally wondered how much longer Pontocho’s narrow streets would echo the shamisen’s twang, the geisha’s song, and the quiet rustling of kimono over candle-lit tatami mats.

But in fact Pontocho geisha were thrilled. After all, they were the ones who had built this startlingly modern kaburenjo as a multi-purpose entertainment hall. It housed a large theater to showcase their district’s annual “Kamogawa odori,” it gave geisha and their maiko apprentices space for classrooms, and it boasted a large hall the public could rent out for dances, banquets or other fun. This new kaburenjo, then, was one prominent way Pontocho’s geisha adapted to a rapidly changing popular entertainment landscape.

Scholars of interwar Japanese culture have largely overlooked geisha in favor of department stores, cafes, and movie palaces, and the cabaret dancers, actresses and “modern girls” that all seemed to be making the geisha obsolete. Focusing on Kyoto’s Pontocho geisha district, this paper instead argues that geisha creatively adapted to new forms of mass spectacle and popular entertainment. Geisha are, in short, a fascinating and overlooked constituent in the emergence of “the modern.”

Then, on Monday 12 December from 20:00 to 21:30 Korean Time, Katrien Jacobs (Chinese University of Hong Kong and Ghent University) will lead a Centre for Research on Culture and Gender lunch seminar titled Tit-for-Tat Media and the Hong Kong Meltdown, (register and more info; Facebook event) in which she will discuss:

…a polarization in social media discourses and sexual politics in the field of online activism. Political activists across the political spectrum are using online visual cultures as “extreme speech” to target each other and as a mechanism of emotional release and social cohesion. The talk will zoom in on the role of sex-focused visuals used during the Hong Kong Anti-Extradition movement of 2019 and coinciding with “a highly radicalized “laam chau” doctrine. (“If we burn, you will burn with us”). It will outline the wider techno-political contexts of these visuals and also make a plea for archiving and studying them despite their highly contentious and “rubbish-like” nature. It will discuss research methods of “historicizing” and “humanizing” this imagery by positioning them as catalysts for radicalized movements, geo-political transformations and sexual well-being. At the same time, it will ponder a shift in a researcher’s methods of online ethnography from open and affective encounters or observations towards a cautious handling of highly polarized and politicized materials.

Finally, on Friday 16 December from 17:30 to 19:00 Korean Time, Dr. Alisa Freedman (University of Oregon) will give a talk titled  Japan on American TV: An Alternate History of US Fascinations and Fears of Japan. More information and registration available here and here:

This talk explores political, economic, and cultural issues underlying depictions of Japan on US television comedies and the programs they have inspired. Since the start of regular broadcasting in the 1950s, US television programs have taken the role of “curators” of Japan, displaying and explaining selected aspects for viewers. Beliefs in US hegemony over Japan underpin this curation process. Drawing from my book  Japan on American TV, I will take a historical perspective to understand the diversity of TV parodies about Japan and show how these programs reflect changing patterns of cultural globalization and perpetuate national stereotypes while verifying Japan’s international influence. I will suggest strategies for using TV comedies as research and teaching tools to gently approach racism, cultural essentialism, cultural appropriation, and other issues otherwise difficult discuss. Television presents an alternative history of American fascinations with and fears of Japan.

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Why is Korea’s Largest Marriage Agency Only Targeting Women?

Potential customers are put off by unequal sex ratios, and Duo already has more female customers than male ones. So what gives?

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes.

I know, I know—I’m not even divorced yet, and I’m already looking at marriage agencies. But the reality is that Duo’s latest campaign ads are just impossible to avoid on Korean public transport at the moment. And the obvious emphasis on attracting female customers in them, for a service ostensibly about providing those women with as many romantic encounters with male suitors as their finances allow, should give everyone misgivings. For it’s not like correcting an excess of male customers is the motivation.

This concern may still sound odd. “Sweet,” I’d wager, is what usually comes to mind when most people see Duo ads. Indeed, I only did a double-take at this one at all because I happened to be reviewing my translations of a lavishly-illustrated, feminist Korean book about paintings of nude women (as any normal person does on the subway), and, glancing up, was immediately struck by how unlike those paintings the ad was. For actor Lee Shi-won/이시원‘s look back at the viewer doesn’t exactly scream pandering to the male gaze. Nor did all the other Duo ads on the subway carriage I could see from my seat, some of which just had Lee alone, and only one of which had model Noh Seong-Su/노성수 looking back with her.

Source: Duo.

Then my stop was coming up. And you don’t exactly need to have read Erving Goffman’s Gender Advertisements to be realize what the ‘relative sizes‘ of Lee and Noh in these ads signify in the ads I saw once I stood up:

But so what? What is the issue exactly, about Duo prioritizing women?

Well, the last time I checked in 2020, Duo had more female than male customers then, at a ratio of something like 6 to 4 or 5.5 to 4.5.

I don’t know if this ratio was affected by the pandemic. But regardless, more women competing for fewer men clearly disadvantages them. That extra level of competition also incentivizes charging women more for the same services offered men. Which indeed Duo, and most of the over 1000 other registered agencies out there, do so with a gusto.

Moreover, Duo, already experiencing massive drops in sales in the mid and late-2010s, almost made none at all in 2021 thanks to the pandemic, as marriages and childbirths, still inexorably tied together in Korea, dropped precipitously. Which, once again, was something the subway carriage wasn’t subtle about reminding me:

So, although Duo clearly retains the financial resources for its latest massive campaign, I speculate that it may actually represent a doubling-down on financially discriminating against young women. And, given Duo’s position as a industry leader and model, I have concerns about what this will have on Korean dating, gender roles, and marriage norms.

Not convinced? Really, it’s only a matter of degree. Please see my in-depth investigation from 2020 for a plethora of evidence on how that sexual discrimination has in fact been occurring for decades. And don’t let me forget the influence on body-image either: just a few months ago, one agency focusing on wealthy clients, with nearly half a million customers, came under fire for its strict financial criteria for admitting men, but only requiring a members’ vote of 3.6/5 on appearance alone to admit women. I also invite readers to consider that demanding women pay more to date men than vice-versa,* and deliberately skewing their customers’ sex ratios to justify this, is surely yet another form of “pink tax” that perpetuates the gender gap.

*(I realize that the norm in Korea is for men to pay on dates; no social issue that is interesting isn’t complicated!)

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

MORE Upcoming Zoom Lectures and Webinars You Should Totally Register for ASAP

Reading time: 4 minutes. Image source: Photo by Fausto García-Menéndez on Unsplash

Am really far too busy…must resist…but neither spirit…nor flesh…is willing…

So, let’s just make letting you know about interesting online presentations and webinars I’m attending a regular thing from now on.

In chronological order then, with the first one starting just tomorrow (hey, I only just found out about it myself!):

On Wednesday 23 November, 18:00-19:30 Korean Time / 10:00-11:30 CET, the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism will host a live briefing for the release of the book Masculinity and Violent Extremism. More information and registration here:

Update: Here’s a recording of the webinar. One of the presenters, Professor Michael Flood, told me it’s going to be made into an open-access book soon too. I’ll keep you posted! :)

Next, on Tuesday 29 November, 12:00 Korean Time, Chuyun Oh (San Diego State Univ.) will give a talk about her book K-pop Dance: Fandoming on Social Media. More information and registration here and here:

Then on Friday 02 December, 09:00-10:00 Korean time / Thursday, December 1, 16:00-17:00 (Pacific), Hagen Koo will talk about his book Privilege and Anxiety: The Korean Middle Class in the Global Era. More information and registration here and here:

Finally, on Thursday and Friday, 08 and 09 December, 11:30-19:00 Korean time, 13:30-21:00 AEDT, the jam-packed Queering the Korean Wave: An International Symposium will be held, with multiple presentations spread over the two days. See here for more information and registration:

What are you waiting for? ;)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

9th Busan Women’s Film Festival to be Held This Friday and Saturday

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes.

Curiously unconcerned about consulting with me first (I know, right?), the organizers of the Busan Women’s Film Festival scheduled this year’s event to open on the day of my divorce hearing.

This somewhat complicates my own attendance. But don’t let that stop you!

Obviously if your Korean is good, then you’re spoilt for choice. As for non-Korean speakers though, unfortunately I’ve yet to hear if any of the Korean films will have English (or even hangul) subtitles available, and frankly doubt there will be. (Update: The organizers have confirmed only the two foreign films will have subtitles.)

However, there is the English-language The Ants and the Grasshopper screening on Friday night, and the French-language L’événement on Saturday afternoon. With translation apps or plugins, reserving tickets for either and arranging the bank transfers seem pretty straightforward.

So what are you waiting for? ;)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)