Korean Sociological Image #48: The Male Gaze

( Source: L-C-R. Reproduced with permission )

Like photographer L-C-R says, this 2008 Gundam advertisement is a prime example of a woman being portrayed as a child and/or sex object, of which she saw entirely too much of while she was in Korea.

You may be very surprised then, when you learn whom it was actually aimed at.

But first, please consider what is it exactly that so demeans drama actress Min Seo-hyeon (민서현) in it? I identify 4 or 5 things myself, which I outline in descending order of importance below:

  1. her childlike expression, combined with putting her fingers in her mouth
  2. the canting of her head
  3. her surprisingly awkward stance
  4. her passivity as she awaits the masculine-looking robot to make the next move

And after discussing those, albeit briefly because I’ve already done so in great depth in this similar post about soju advertisements, I’ll finally look at the ad in the context of the campaign as a whole. But feel free to disagree with any of those and/or suggest others, and in that vein I highly recommend asking your Korean partners, colleagues or friends their own opinions also. As if the experience of asking my wife and her friends earlier is anything to go by, then they are very likely to disagree with the first. Or indeed, that she’s being portrayed childishly at all, and – jumping ahead – not even in the following commercials either:

I’d argue that the main reason for that is the Korean cultural practice of aegyo (애교), difficult to define in English but probably somewhere between “affected sweetness” and “affected childishness“, and at least partially rooted in the prolonged transition to adulthood of experienced 20-something Koreans that are the biggest practitioners of it. For not only does the Korean education system essentially defer the joys of adolescence (but not the negatives!) until graduating from high school, but economic circumstances force them to live at home until marriage and/or deliberately put off their university graduation, and men also have their 24-28 months of compulsory military service to boot.

But I realize that since I was a student myself in the mid-1990s, more and more 20-somethings in Western countries are also postponing leaving home, and indeed to note all the above is not to argue that all Korean 20-somethings in such circumstances are childish; actually, I have intelligent, mature, and thoroughly Westernized Korean friends that have resigned themselves to them, or alternatively feel so trapped that they are literally fleeing the country to escape. Yet one thing they certainly do not do however, is aegyo, and I put it to you that in fact that is neither required for women to successfully navigate a patriarchal society, nor particularly savvy and ultimately empowering of them to do so.

( Source )
( Source: L-C-R )

Yes, “women”. As while Korean men do also do aegyo, and so as you’d expect content analysis demonstrates that men are much more likely to be portrayed childishly in advertisements in Korean magazines than US ones, and Korean men more than Western ones in the former, it is still overwhelmingly Korean women that are done so, and to a much greater extent than women of any ethnicity are in US magazines.

( Source )

As for anyone still not seeing the childishness in Seo-hyeon’s expression however, or why it is problematic in any sense, consider what the images above tell us about just how “natural” such expressions really are on adults, and why women are more commonly portrayed with them nevertheless. And which are often accentuated of course, by putting their fingers in their mouths, and which could possibly be considered “self-touching” as defined by sociologist Erving Goffman in Gender Advertisements (1979) below:

As discussed in that earlier post on soju advertisements, both are often combined with the canting of the head, which is problematic for the reasons outlined there. I also discuss awkward stances there too, and to anyone believing that I’m about to read too much into Seo-hyeon’s, I suggest stopping here and trying it for yourself,  making sure to bend and spread your legs outward at the knees like she does in particular. For not only will you realize just how unnatural it really is, and that people only ever stand like that in advertisements (and overwhelmingly women at that), but you’ll also probably end up falling forward a little on your first attempt like I did, and will suddenly gain a very palpable sense of why exactly the advertisement does indeed present her as a sex object:

( Source: L-C-R )

In Goffman’s framework in Gender Advertisements, that “bashful knee bend” is something that women frequently, men very infrequently, are posed in a display of. And whatever else, it can be read as

…a foregoing of full effort to be prepared and on he ready in the current social situation, for the position adds a moment to any effort to fight or flee. Once again one finds a posture that seems to presuppose the goodwill of anyone in the surround who could offer harm. (p.45)

Hence passivity, as blind to whatever occurs behind her, nevertheless Seo-hyeon seems to be eagerly awaiting whatever the robot plans to do with her. And which judging by the fact that it also is standing slightly thrust forward, and has a big long gun resting behind Seo-hyeon’s buttocks, couldn’t really be any clearer. Hell, even the protrusion on its crotch is already bright red for good measure too.

( Source )

An advertising campaign clearly aimed at young men and adolescent boys then, whom I’ll safely assume are the vast majority of Gundam fans? If so, then the effort actually appears to have backfired, as the few commentators on it I’ve been able to find here, here, here, here, and here generally express both surprise and disdain at seeing Min Seo-hyun at all, the last of whom wrote the following about the advertisement above:

이 광고는 광고로서의 설득력이 전혀 없다. 그것이 염가 제작되었기 때문이 아니다. 반대로 제작비는 많이 들었을 것이다. 이름있는 사람들의 얼굴을 비추기 때문이다.(그림의 건프라 광고에 출연하는 사람이 유명한지는 잘 모르겠다.) 그러나 문제 역시 그러한 사고방식에 있다. 즉, 유명한 사람의 얼굴을 비추면 광고가 될 것이라는 사고방식에.

This advertisement has no persuasive power at all. But not because it was cheaply and poorly produced; actually, because of the famous faces in it, it looks like a lot of money was spent on it (well, actually I don’t know if they are famous or not). Rather, the problem is with using that advertising logic in the first place.

이것은 어느 정도 맞는 말이다. 유명한 사람이 어떤 상품을 소비하고 있으면 그것만으로도 상품의 질을 소비자들에게 안심시켜 줄 수 있다. 그러나 그것도 광고의 효용성 안에서 이루어져야 한다.

However you look at it, this is correct. While of course simply having famous faces in an advertisement is sufficient for most consumers, they should still be used in the ad as effectively as possible however.

이 광고의 전략은, 유명하거나 예쁜 사람과 건프라의 이미지를 교차시켜 건프라가 갖는 오타쿠 이미지의 쇄신일 것이다. 좋은 생각이다. 그러나 이러한 두 이미지가 교차점을 찾지 못하고 있다. 저 사람은 건프라를 만지작거리고 있지만 전혀 즐거워 보이지 않는다. 아마 저 사람은 자신이 들고 있는 건프라의 이름도 모를 것이다.

The advertisement’s strategy is to reform the image of a Gunpla Otaku [an obsessive fan of something – James] by combining with a famous or attractive person. This is a good idea. However, ultimately they don’t really mix. This person doesn’t look like she’s enjoying holding the model [really?] and probably doesn’t even know the name of it.

( Source )

방 또한 지나치게 깨끗하지 않은가? 건프라에 열중하면 당연히 방은 데칼 찌꺼기나 플라스틱 조각으로 너저분해져 있어야 하고, 책장에는 잡다한 건프라가 어지럽게 진열되어 있어야 한다. 채색하는 손은 알록달록 에나멜이 묻어 있어야 하고, 옷은 더러워져도 상관없는 펑퍼짐한 츄리닝이어야 하며, 얼굴은 지극히 진중한 표정을 짓고 있을 것이다. 오히려 이러한 당연한 이미지를 예쁘고, 성공적이고, 멋있는 사람들과 교차시켰으면 이 광고는 성공을 거두었을 것이다. 장동건이 한없이 고결한 태도로 NDS를 플레이했다면 NDS는 그만큼 팔리지 않았을 것이다. 오히려 소파에 퍼져 앉아 우리들이 하듯이 게임을 했기 때문에, 우리가 하는 것을 장동건도 한다는 안심을 소비자에게 줄 수 있었다.

Also, isn’t the room excessively clean? When you are absorbed in assembling a Gunpla model, of course the room should be messy with the remains of decals and leftover plastic, and various other models displayed on the bookcase. And while your hands would be stained with enamel paint and your casual clothes dirty and speckled, your face shows that you don’t care about that as you focus all your attention on assembling the model. Rather, prettier and more successful people were needed. And recall that very famous actor Jang Dong-gun didn’t similarly loftily play Nintendo DS Lite while he was advertising it in 2007; instead, he just played it normally on the sofa like the rest of us, and so it sold well.

게다가, 타겟을 통일했으면 더 설득력이 있었을 것이다. 지금 이 광고가 노리는 소비층은 누구인가? 아이? 청소년? 남자? 여자?

Hence I think the ad would have been more persuasive if it had been aimed at a wider variety of people. But to whom was it actually aimed at anyway? Children? Teenagers? Men? Women?

( Source: L-C-R. Reproduced with permission )

Sounds like a rather picky otaku to me, but he does at least finish with some good questions, which I’ll now attempt to answer by passing on what I’ve been able to find of the remainder of the campaign.

First up, the one above that was alongside the one with Min Seo-hyun. Featuring popular singer (now actor) Kim Kibum (김기범) of the boy band Super Junior (슈퍼주니어), at first glance it’s very similar. And yet:

  • the robot isn’t even facing towards him, let alone thrusting a phallic object towards his buttocks
  • Kibum’s stance is much more natural
  • rather than passively waiting for robot to initiate something, here he seems to be silently asking the observer what fun things he can do with the robot himself
  • accordingly, his expression is more mischievous than childish
( Source: L-C-R )

Crucially however, this dichotomy is not repeated in the rest of the campaign. See the following commercial which features both actors for instance (as an aside, it starts with the lines “Shall we do it? Okay”, a common innuendo in Korean advertising):

And in particular, the long version of the bedroom one, which reveals that the reason she become interested in Gundam in the first place was because boyfriend Kim Kibum bequeathed his collection to her while doing his military service, to which she now enthusiastically adds to with her own robot:

And the theme of both sexes enjoying assembling and enjoying Gundam models is corroborated by the following posters and website images:

( Source )
( Sources: left, right )

Taken as a whole, I’d argue that the only consistent theme of the campaign is that of Min Seo-hyeon becoming more and more involved in the hobby for various reasons, including by: being (sexually) tempted by the models themselves; encouraged to take it up by Kim Kibum giving her his own models; assembling models together at his suggestion; and finally becoming equally passionate and knowledgeable about it as he is. Nay, it’s not so much a theme as the exact narrative Gundam hoped would play out repeatedly in real life, and besides which the cute portrait poster of Kibum above to download from the Gundam website is sufficient evidence in itself that the campaign was aimed at teenage girls and women.

Why then, did the bedroom commercial and the opening advertisement simply suck so badly? Why on Earth did the advertising agency responsible think that having a 22 year-old woman acting like a 12 year-old would make either age group more interested in the product, let alone by suggesting that – not to put too fine a point on it – she also wanted to get fucked by it?

Of course, there could be any number of reasons. For instance, there is the cultural practice of aegyo as mentioned, which I may have underestimated, and perhaps I’m wrong in thinking that the majority of Korean women would be at least unimpressed, if not offended, by depictions of women as children. It could also be yet another demonstration of an advertising agency so used to selling products to men that it comes to regard their perceived desires and tastes as the norm, and so unwittingly applies them to women too:

( Tempted to drink soju with 16.8% alcohol now girls? )

But recall that photographer L-C-R mentioned that she saw advertisements like these everywhere in Korea, as probably you do too, which raises a third possibility: either the Korean advertising industry as a whole is dominated by men (which may in fact be true), or else it has so internalized those male norms that even women in the industry (let alone consumers) regard them as normal and appropriate for selling products to either sex.

A phenomenon by no means confined to Korea or the just the advertising industry, this is the essence of the “male gaze“, and which hopefully having provided some evidence for and/or at least piqued your interest in, I’ll wisely finish by pointing you in the direction of excellent introductions to the topic rather than going on further here. One is the examination of the ways women are portrayed in graphic novels provided by fantasy magazine, and another is the related Bechdel Test for movies:

And here’s a brief application of that to specifically Fantasy movies at Feminist SF also. But I most highly recommend the illuminating, even strangely moving 1972 documentary Ways of Seeing by then art historian John Berger, which I’ve just discovered via Sociological Images here and here. Obviously the second episode on the female nude is most pertinent here, but episode 1 is more likely to captivate you to the extent that you forget to leave your seat for the next half hour:

Here’s episode 2:

And I would include episodes 3 and 4, the latter of which is on advertising, but I haven’t watched them myself yet!^^

(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)


The Grand Narrative On Air

( Source: Kevindooley )

With apologies for forgetting to mention them much earlier, see #56 here for my interview about blogging and Korean gender issues on Busan e-FM’s Let’s Talk Busan show back on July 11, and then here for the subsequent video webcast with Koreabridge owner and manager Jeff Lebow and fellow blogger Alexandra Karpen of Alex’s Adventures in Asia.

Unfortunately the first link doesn’t work in Firefox, and also requires installing an ActiveX control in Internet Explorer, so if you’d like to avoid all that hassle then please simply go here instead.

Please feel free to ask me any questions about or to expand upon any topic mentioned in either: unfortunately, time goes very quickly when you’re being interviewed about your favorite subjects!


Creative Korean Advertising #24: Will They? Won’t They?

Apologies for the slow posting folks: last week, I developed a “swellbow” from writing at my computer for too long, and it’s made sleeping a little difficult, let alone blogging. And I could mention the heatwave and my daughter’s kindergarten closing for 2 weeks too, but you get the idea!

Hence my original intention here just to pass on the deceptively innocent advertisement above, which had me burst out laughing at its crude sexual symbolism. But in hindsight it is also noteworthy both for having a woman initiating a relationship (possibly the first of its kind?), and for being part of a creative multimedia campaign featuring tantalizing hints of various episodes in various couples’ dating lives, which you’re then encouraged to find out more about by using the electronic tags on the bottles to download the “full stories” directly to your smart phone. Take a look for yourself:

Yes, my curiosity was especially piqued by the one involving kissing too, and it’s difficult to believe now that you only began seeing that in Korean advertisements just last year.  Regardless, fortunately the full stories are also available at the company website and now Youtube, and ironically that particular one ends up being more charming than anything else:

I hope you enjoyed them, and for anyone that missed the humor in the very first advertisement, then take a closer look at o:19 specifically. Lest you feel I’m reading too much into that however, then let me draw your attention to similar examples here, here, here, and here also!^^

(For more posts in the Creative Korean Advertising series, see here)


Korean Sociological Image #47: East End Girls, meet West End Boys

Yes, it had to happen eventually! A big round of applause to Nextour, for quite possibly the very first positive representation of a Korean female – Western male relationship in a Korean commercial.

New readers shaking your heads in disbelief however, please consider reading other posts in the “interracial relationships” category, especially here, here, here, here, here, and here. And please also ponder the following quote from Hyun-Mee Kim in her chapter “Feminization of the 2002 World Cup and Women’s Fandom” in Feminist Cultural Politics in Korea, ed. by Jung-Hwa Oh, 2005, pp. 228-243 below on the then unprecedented public attention by Korean women on the bodies of the Korean players, and which gives a big clue as to why such an essentially innocuous commercial didn’t emerge back then:

…if Korean women’s enthusiasm had mostly been directed at handsome Western soccer players, such as England’s Beckham or Owen, Portugal’s Figu, Italy’s Toti or Spain’s Morientes, the situation would have been drastically different. That they zealously applauded Hiddinck, a Dutch male and the director of the Korean team, seemingly too much of a “father” for them to desire sexual union with, and the familiar handsome guys of Ahn Jeong-hwan, Kim Nam-il, and Song Jong-Guk, must have been the chief reason for positive response the Korean women fans got from the rest of the society.

In particular:

The attitude of the Korean media that looks down on Japanese women for expressing their love for Beckham and treats them as “ppansun-i”s [빤순이, or condescending slang for crazed girl fans – James], clearly shows what line the Korean women should dare not cross. This World Cup, which ended up as a worshiping of the 23 [Korean players], delineates the limitations as Korean women rose up as the subjects of their own sexual desires. This is a society in which there is still a strong belief in the sexual union of the full bloods: for the women to collectively root for Ronaldo or Morientes, there is too much at stake. It is so much easier to shout out that they want the “yellow bodies” of our own race rather than “white and black bodies”. Hence, the happy union of women’s sexual desires and new patriotism in the 2002 World Cup. (p. 239)

Naturally one commercial doesn’t mean a sexual and racial revolution of course (note that only Caucasian men were featured), but it is a start, and certainly provides a welcome contrast to the general persecution of foreign males in the Korea media in recent years, as most recently demonstrated by the fact that Anti English Spectrum’s Lee Eun-ung was uncritically allowed to present his repulsive, unsubstantiated views on foreign males on a national radio show for instance. Indeed, the lack of netizen reaction to the commercial so far hopefully demonstrates that things may have actually improved a little since 2002, and provides a healthy reminder that, just like in other countries, the Korean media is probably not a very accurate guide to public opinion in the first place.

Meanwhile, see here for the male version, albeit a slightly seedy one (caressing a ‘sandwoman’ anyone?), and young readers see here also if you didn’t understand the “East End Girls” reference!^^

Update, November 2011) Alas, it wasn’t actually the first! See here for an example from 2006 (and one more from later in 2010).

(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)

Korean Sociological Image #46: The Language of Exclusion (Updated)

(Source: Mental Poo; reproduced with permission)

A receipt from a recent visit by blogger My Jihae to an upscale restaurant in Seoul, about which she wrote:

I’m not sure how many restaurants do this, and why this restaurant bothers to do this in the first place, but on the top of the receipt they blatantly keep track of whether the guests are locals or foreigners. They pegged me right away, I guess it’s that obvious.

For those of you that can’t read Korean, for now let’s say that waegookin (외국인) on the right generally means a foreigner, and naegookin (내국인) on the left a Korean person. And that does indeed describe My Jihae and her dining partner respectively, although she is actually Korean-American. But why bother to note the distinction between two ethnically-identical customers at the same table?

Some commenters to her post speculate that it may have been done for taxation purposes, which I wrote would be something good to know if true, as otherwise:

…many expats (myself included) may simply chalk things like this up to Koreans typically and completely unnecessarily pointing out our foreignness, when in fact they may be nothing of the sort.

And see Occidentalism here and here for a similar case in Japan. Unfortunately however, not all perceived Korean tendencies towards exclusion are simply misunderstandings on the part of non-Koreans.

Take the “Waegookin Shock Meltdown” for instance, which describes the situation:

…where when speaking in Korean, Koreans freeze up because they have some silly preconceptions that foreigners simply ‘can’t’ speak Korean or that they just ‘shouldn’t’ speak to us in Korean – the latter which comes without the help of the government and medias insistence in the last 10 years or so that ‘globalization’ means that Koreans should all have to speak English whenever they encounter big-nosed white people.

Foreigners Gangnam Style(Source: Republic of Korea; CC BY-SA 2.0)

And which personally used to get me extremely frustrated and angry while learning Korean a few years ago, although now I believe that that reaction from Koreans more often stems from simple inexperience and/or nervousness in dealing with non-Koreans. Still, whatever combination of factors are responsible in any given case, all have clear solutions, something which can not be so easily said of the ways in which Korean notions of nationalism, citizenship, and even the Korean language itself arguably inherently exclude others. Focusing on the latter in this post, I identify 2 main ways in which it does so:

First, because Koreans might take a vacation to New Zealand, say, and describe New Zealanders as waegookin while they’re there, so clearly “foreigner” doesn’t quite cut it as a translation. Perhaps “non-ethnic Korean” would be more suitable? But then what about about My Jihae back in the restaurant?

Given such confusion, then as you might expect the question of the most appropriate English term has already attracted a great deal of attention from many generations of expats, and so if you can forgive my heemanggomoon (희망고문; literally “hope-torture” or “stringing someone along”, and one of my favorite Korean words), I’ve decided that it would be unhelpful to repeat any of that here. Instead, let me refer you to this excellent post by regular commenter Seamus Walsh for the most recent and comprehensive discussion of this aspect of the language issue (but this and this post by others are also helpful), only passing on myself what I wrote in my own post on it 2 years ago:

It may not sound like much, but like I said in this forum, Korea’s (and Japan’s) bloodline-based notions of nationalism and citizenship emphasize and exaggerate the differences between natives and non-natives to an extent rarely found elsewhere in the world, and the constant reminders of these quickly become wearisome to anyone who’s spent even just a few months living here, let alone 8 years. And ironically, constantly hearing the term waegookin in our daily lives probably means that we come to adopt some of the same notions of division and distance ourselves too, and the effect snowballs.

Naturally, Seamus also covers the the second reason in that post, the fact that Koreans never say “my home”, “my wife”, “my language”, or “my country” for instance, but say “our” (우리) instead. And that I can add something useful to here, as by coincidence there was recently a lively discussion on that very topic on the email-based Korean Studies Internet Discussion List, prompted by the following question by William Pore of Pusan National University (source, right: Asadal Thought):

Dear List:

For any comparative Asian linguists, Ural Altaic linguists (?), or, maybe even Korean linguists on the list, I would like to inquire if a pronoun similar to the Korean we (i.e. ‘uri’) occurs with the same frequency/prominence in any related languages to the same degree that it does in Korean. Should we accept the assertion that I nearly always have had that the prominence of that pronoun in Korean is due to a particular Korean mindset alone?

And rather than have you scroll through the full June archive yourself, my contribution is in presenting a truncated and much(!) more readable version of the most pertinent comments instead. Starting with JMF’s reply then:

Perhaps this is not directly related, but I witnessed some very interesting aspects of “uri” while raising my daughter in Korea. Not only my daugher but all of her “pure Korean” friends as well naturally used the words “I/my” almost exclusively. I saw and heard all of them say in Korean “my house,” my school,” “my Mommy/Daddy,” etc. Of course, they were quickly corrected/reprimanded by parents and teachers until they capitulated and began to use “we/our” almost exclusively where they had once felt that “I/my” was more natural. In a word, “uri” is not somehow “organic” to Korean-ness or Korean language but rather externally injected and enforced.

Frank Rudiger, University of Vienna:

And here comes something even less directly related, yet not completely unrelated: In Russian, there is a similar way of saying “we” when actually meaning “I”, for example “me and my mother” would literally be “us with mom” (my s mamoj). In other words, this is not necessarily a purely Korean phenomenon. I guess Russian is not the only example. What about “we won” (wir haben gewonnen) meaning “our team has won” in German (at least)?

(Source: Stinkie Pinkie; CC BY 2.0)

Dr. Balazs Szalontai, Mongolia International University:

In Mongolian language, which has some interesting grammatical similarities with Korean, this practice is carried even further. One would often hear a lady utter the term “manaa nuhur” (our husband), rather than “minii nuhur” (my husband), though she supposedly does not intend to share the said individual with any additional ladies.:)

Alison Tokita, Tokyo Institute of Technology:

I know Japanese much better than I know Korean, but clearly the Korean uri has its equivalent in Japanese language and usage. The Japanese equivalent of uri has indeed been very frequent in recent decades as an aspect of Nihonjinron (theories or discourse of Japanese uniqueness), but is probably declining in the younger generation. The Japanese equivalent actually uses archaic forms of the pronoun. Some examples:

Japan is expressed as not only Nihon, but as waga kuni (our country; cf the softer watashitachi no kuni). The Japanese are not only Nihonjin, but wareware Nihonjin (we Japanese). My or our house can be wagaya (cf watashitachi no uchi).

Then there is the use of koku (country, nation): Japanese literature is koku bungaku (recently the use of Nihon bungaku is starting to replace this); Japanese history is kokushi (now changing to Nihonshi); Japanese (national) language is kokugo: what is taught to Japanese in schools is kokugo and what is taught to non-Japanese is Nihongo.

The use of our and national instead of the country name conveys a somewhat closed country, nationalistic mentality, and as Japan is becoming more internationalized this seems to be going out of favour. These are only my impressions, but others may know of research on this linguistic phenomenon.

Dr. Edward D. Rockstein:

Of course, the usage of koku [a Sino-Japanese loan word] you describe has antecedents in Chinese usages such as  guoyu national language, guoshi national history, guowen national writing system or national literature, ddeung ddeung, nado nado, deng deng.

(Source: Unknown)

And by Owen Miller, with a similar example from England that I was very surprised and happy to see as a former Geordie myself(!), and with most of my extended family still in the region:

I wouldn’t like to step to far into the territory of the linguists on this list but I really wonder whether the case can be made empirically that the pronoun we is more frequent in Korean than in other languages. While I’m sure that John Frankl is right about its enforced use (as a result of ideological norms of national and familial collectivity that probably have relatively recent *historical roots), this doesn’t mean that it isn’t used **frequently** in similar ways in other languages. *

The use of the ‘national we’ is not uncommon in the UK, although perhaps uncommon enough that it makes me wince when I hear it. For example, teaching the First Opium War last year I found myself feeling strangely uncomfortable when the students spontaneously started discussing how terrible it was that ‘we’ had done this bad thing to China.

In certain British English dialects ‘we’ is also very commonly used in the way that Ross King describes above (exclusive first-person plural pronoun) in non-national contexts. For example, the Geordie English pronoun ‘wor’, as in ‘wor lass <http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/wor_lass>’.

It strikes me that the Korean discourse on the use of ‘uri’ is probably something of a self-reinforcing feedback loop: Encourage the use of a word in official discourse so as to strengthen national collectivity –> discover that word is used frequently –> find that this is evidence of strong national collectivity –> further encourage use of word etc etc.

Finally Jonathan:

Is there evidence of widespread vernacular use of uri prior to the twentieth century? I ask because I wonder if its use was prompted by the Japanese use of ware as in wareware Nihonjin?

And after all that, a clear message that this lingusitic feature of Korean is by no means as unique to Korean as many of us probably thought!


Update 1: As several people have suggested in the comments, and Sara confirmed, the reason that upscale restaurants keep track of non-Koreans is so that they can determine which dishes are the most popular among them, and adjust their menus accordingly. Which is certainly nothing to get upset about, but then wouldn’t actually be all that helpful either, and it would make much more sense to note customers’ nationalities instead (provided staff had the ability to politely ask them).

Regardless however, certainly Koreans in the service industry do frequently unnecessarily keep track of customers which are non-Koreans. As I originally thought Brian in Jeollanam-do‘s receipt on the right was a prime example of for instance, but after reading his explanation:

In my case, I was at a Lotteria (shut up, it’s pretty good) in a Kim’s Club next to my apartment, and the “foreigner” was to help identify who the take-out order went to. Just to preempt any commenters from James’ post, no, I’m not terribly offended and it’s not the worst thing to ever happen to me. It’s just an odd default term considering the people working the counter usually just announce the order to the crowed in order to connect people with food. There’s no reason not to just announce “Bulgogi Burger set,” or whatever, unless the person assumed I wouldn’t understand the announcement. A good posibility, in spite of me having ordered in Korean.

…then I realize that it would indeed make sense to identify a foreign customer if the person taking his or her order felt that they’d be unlikely to understand their announcement. But I disagree with Brian’s first last line though (why assume that someone who can order in Korean couldn’t also understand that it’s arrived?), and which is just the sort of thing which so aggravates me about speaking Korean in this country like I explained. Hence the “외국인” was actually unnecessary then, but rather more because of the Lotteria worker’s preconceptions of non-Asian foreigners’ Korean ability (they would never do the same to a Japanese person) than anything inherent to the Korean language.

Either way, it’s good to remember that whenever one is highlighted like this, then it could be for any number of reasons, and 99% of the time the people responsible do not mean to and are probably completely unaware that they may be causing offense. Moreover, as Brian’s discussions here and here of decades-old journal articles on this subject attest to (see this one at Gypsy Scholar also), this is something one just has to get used to.

Update 2: See The View From Taiwan for a similar issue with terms there.

(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)

Korean Sociological Image #45: Modernizing Traditional Korean Clothes


For all my love of Korean culture, I’ve never really understood the appeal of modern hanbok (한복).

Primarily, because of their impracticality: after performing the ancestor worship rites known as cha-ryae (차례) in mine at my parents-in-laws’ house on various Korean holidays for instance, I find it very difficult to eat the traditional breakfasts that follow with such baggy sleeves getting in the way, especially at the low tables that most Koreans use. It also has no pockets, no zipper, and can get uncomfortably hot very easily, especially during Chuseok (추석) when the weather can still be quite warm. And my wife has similar problems with hers too, adding that women also seem to find their slightly more elaborate version more uncomfortable than men do theirs.

For those reasons, I fully expected the Wikipedia article on hanbok to mention that despite popular perceptions, only the small elite known as the yangban (양반) ever really wore them historically, who were notorious for being resolutely opposed to performing anything that smacked of physical labor. Was Koreans’ pride in their “national dress” a little misplaced then, and just another invented tradition like the kilt in Scotland?

Alas, it doesn’t say, although it does seem reasonable to suppose that practical considerations were undoubtedly more important for the bulk of the population. But what the article does demonstrate though, is that the hanbok has as rich and varied a history as, say, the Western suit (it was naive of me to be surprised at that), and the frequent changes in the various forms and usages of the garment over time indicate that its role as a signifier of class, status, and occupation was much more complicated than I first thought.

Still, I can’t think of a more unflattering garment for women.

No, I’m not so uncouth as to think that women can only be attractive in clothes that are form-fitting and/or show some skin. But then from the neck down, the hanbok is almost like a burqa in that it’s impossible to tell if there’s a man or woman under it, so I certainly can’t imagine anyone ever describing as a woman as sexy in it. Beautiful, yes. Pretty, cute, charming, handsome—sure, you name it. But sexy? Judge for yourselves at Flickr, or from the hanbok sections of recent Miss Korea pageants:

Of course, possibly I’m being too harsh, and by all means feel free to disagree with me: these two bloggers here and here certainly do for instance. (Update: in turn, I disagree with this blogger’s response that being “traditional” means that the clothes shouldn’t be sexy, and that only “a non-Korean male writer” would think they could be both. I’d also point out that they were once considered everyday clothes, with many different purposes. So why should how they now “honor [one’s] tradition and culture” be the only criteria we evaluate them on?). But regardless, hopefully now at least you can understand why I did a double-take when I saw the following new designs last week:


Unfortunately, the only information about them are in clumsily-written advertorials from the company that makes them (see here, here, here, and here), but at least they do explain a little about the logic to the new designs. Here’s my rough translation of the first of them, which incidentally also has the best quality version of the image on the left(!):

아찔한 초미니 한복 / Giddy Ultra-miniskirt Hanbok 2010-07-07 12:09

한국의 아름다움을 오롯이 담고 있는 우리의 옷, 한복. 복을 부르고 화를 쫒는다는 뜻을 담고 있는 한복은, 인생의 중요한 순간마다 반드시 갖춰 입어야 하는 우리 생활의 일부이자 소중한 문화유산이다.

The hanbok is the item of clothing that completely and harmoniously shows Korea’s beauty. It has the meaning of bringing good luck and dispelling anger, and at every important event in your life you should wear this vital part of our cultural inheritance.

한복을 아름답게 입기 위해서는 속적삼과 속치마는 물론이고 긴 치마와 저고리까지 제대로 갖춰야 하지만, 시대가 변하고 젊은 층의 안목도 새로워지면서 한복은 어느새 고리타분하고 촌스러운 옷으로 전락하는 듯 했다. 그러나 명품 한복 브랜드들을 위시해 전통한복을 계승하고 퓨전한복과 한복 드레스를 내놓으며 젊은 층은 물론이고 나아가 세계인의 시선까지 사로잡는 상품을 개발함으로서, 한복은 다시금 아름다운 우리의 옷으로 발돋움하고 있다.

In order to beautifully wear the hanbok, of course you need to the undershirt, petticoat, long skirt, and top and to properly wear them, but as times change the hanbok is become old-fashioned and rustic in young people’s eyes.  However, the hanbok is currently taking a big step in becoming all Koreans’ beautiful clothing again by the entrance on the market of a new brand which has developed a fusion style of traditional hanbok and long skirts that will appeal to everyone from the young generation to globalized people.


한복 알리기와 보급에 주력해 온 명품 브랜드 <안근배 한복 대여> 역시 초미니 한복 드레스와 퓨전 한복 등, 차별화된 디자인과 소재 개발로 고객들의 다양한 요구를 충족시키고 있다. 최근 2010/2011 신상품 70여개를 출시한 <안근배 한복 대여>는 높은 퀄리티의 전통 한복뿐만 아니라 파격적인 초미니 한복 드레스와 퓨전 한복등을 선보이며 화제를 모으는 한편, 우리 고유의 멋을 계승하며 신세대 고객들의 입맛까지 사로잡았다는 평가를 받고 있다. 특히 <안근배 한복 대여>는 전통 한복의 아름다움은 그대로 살리면서도, 더운 여름철에 쾌적하게 한복을 입고 싶어 하는 고객의 구미에 맞는 상품을 전략적으로 출시해 눈길을 끌었다.

Angunbae Hanbok Rentals (AHR) is a company that has concentrated on supplying and letting people know about this new style of hanbok, and in addition to having one fusion type with and ultra-short miniskirt, is differentiating its designs and materials in order to satisfy the varied demands and requirements of customers. Recently, AHR has launched 70 new designs for the 2010/2011 season, and these have been attracting lots of attention not just for their high quality traditional forms but also their fusion with unconventional ultra-short miniskirts, and have been gaining a lot of praise for their coolness that satisfies customers’ modern tastes. In particular, AHR has been noticed for strategically providing customers with hanbok that, while showing off the garments’ traditional beauty, are also a comfortable choice for their summer tastes.

<안근배 한복 대여>는 초미니 한복뿐만 아니라 전통 한복과 한복 드레스 등 다양한 상품으로 인기몰이중이며, 업계 1위의 브랜드답게 전문화된 콜센터 운영과 홈페이지 운영으로 고객들을 만족시키고 있다. 특히 공식홈페이지 http://www.hanbokrent.kr에서는 7월 한 달 간 진행되는 신랑 신부 커플 한복 20% 할인 행사 안내와 다양한 신상품들을 확인할 수 있다.

AHR doesn’t just provide hanbok with ultra-short mini-skirts, but is also popular for its traditional hanbok and hanbok dresses and so on, and provides a wide variety of products to rent; as the top brand in the business, it operates a call center staffed by experts and a homepage to make sure to fully satisfy customers’ needs. And please note: any couples about to get married, visit www.hanbokrent.kr to get a 20% discount on couple hanbok and/or a variety of new products.

(Sources: left, right)

Is 300,000 won reasonable to rent the first ones? Regardless, see many more examples at the “Fusion” section of AHR’s website, and I’m all for changes to any popular item of clothing that make it more comfortable, cooler to wear in the summer, and a little sexier and more elegant too.

But this post wasn’t intended to be only about hanbok. In fact, the humble podaegi (포대기), or traditional Korean baby sling, may ultimately be much more interesting:


Quite simple to put on once you get the knack, it’s very easy to see why Korean mothers would use these while working in fields, or even just the kitchen (scroll down here a little for a picture). Hell, if I had to carry a baby for hours while doing manual labor, then I’d probably choose something that comfortable and tight too, and so I wasn’t surprised to hear from my father’s Nigerian colleagues that my wife’s was just like Nigerian ones, where, naturally enough, they’re called “wrappers,” and the act of wearing one “backing.” (Thanks to reader eccentricyoruba for the terms.)

Still, note that the shoulder straps are a recent adaptation carried over from Western baby harnesses, and there weren’t many versions with them available in 2006 when my first daughter was born; wearing a version like this without them then, my wife’s back got tired quickly, and she speculates that perhaps that would have been less of a problem had she been bending over in a field in it like her mother and grandmother did (she eventually got a Western-style baby harness). Also, as you can imagine they can get extremely hot in the summer, which is why these modern mesh types are now available (and I’m sure ones with shoulder-straps are available too):


Clearly then, podaegi manufacturers are also quite capable of adapting their products to modern tastes. But still, one big, possibly insurmountable problem with them remains.

Men usually refuse to wear them.

(Source: unknown)

At this point, I should probably mention that I don’t wear anything to carry either of my 2 daughters myself: when Alice was born in June 2006, I was working long hours and my wife became a housewife, so it was only natural that she carry her while I carried groceries and so on; when Elizabeth was born in August 2008, my wife carried her whereas I had Alice to either walk with me, chase after, and/or only briefly carry when crossing roads. Sometimes I wish I had used a Western style baby carrier though: both daughters refuse to sleep or be carried in my left arm, often crying until I put them in my right one, and I’m sure that I now have a slightly crooked spine as a result.

Still, of course I did wear my wife’s poedagi at home sometimes, especially when she was out and I had to put them to sleep in the way that they were used to. But in public? Never, for I think I’m safe in assuming that the vast majority of Koreans consider the podaegi as inappropriate on a men as a bra, and which is why you’ll only ever see pictures of them in podaegi if they’re posed in comical situations like the above.

Western-style harnesses however, you’ll see plenty of Korean men wearing them, which leads me to a question I’d like to throw open to readers: are podaegi then, in a sense an impediment to changing people’s beliefs that childcare is only a women’s job?

Yes, of course popular perceptions of clothes and senses of appropriate fashions are constantly changing, and of course there are also a myriad of reasons completely unrelated to clothing that explain why Korea has the highest number of housewives in the OECD. But recall that throughout our daily lives,  we are in fact constantly bombarded with subtle messages that reinforce the notion that parenting is women’s job, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that this may also have an impact.

Alternatively, look at it this way: if you were a woman expecting a baby soon, which style would you buy if you wanted your male partner to take equal responsibility for carrying the baby after it arrived?^^

Update: See FeetManSeoul (or The Marmot’s Hole) for a post about upcoming fashion shows featuring Jung Jun Hong and Lee Young Hee, the latter of whom:

…is considered the greatest living hanbok designer. And her stuff is smoking, every season. It’s one of the classiest shows of the season, consistently. She really does hanboks like they should be done — who knew hanbok style was still evolving, and evolving quite stylishly? The former, designer Jung, has a more modern take on the hanboks and always has some of the most colorful shows out there.

ung Jun Hong and Lee Young Hee, the latter of whom is considered the greatest living hanbok designer. And her stuff is smoking, every season. It’s one of the classiest shows of the season, consistently. She really does hanboks like they should be done — who knew hanbok style was still evolving, and evolving quite stylishly? The former, designer Jung, has a more modern take on the hanboks and always has some of the most colorful shows out there.