Korean Gender Reader

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1) Subways and culture

Yesterday, Busan Mike saw an attempted groping incident on the subway for the first time, and in full sight of a half-full carriage at that. Fortunately, I’ve yet to ever see anything like that myself, but I imagine that just like in his case, I too would find it difficult to know what to do about it exactly. After all, it was only an attempt, and Mike and his wife weren’t sure that the man and woman weren’t a couple until the latter switched seats.

Have any readers also ever seen or experienced anything like that in Korea? What did you do?

Update: By the way, what is “groping” in Korean exactly? My wife says it is seong choo-haeng (성추행), and that certainly did produce a lot of articles on Korean search engines. But according to the dictionary, that term actually covers a multitude of sins, including “sexual molestation, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and rape” and so on. Any ideas, or is it just academic really?

Meanwhile, Gord Sellar ponders what to do about the vocal minority of elderly Koreans who shout and swear at pregnant women for sitting in “their” subway seats (see #5 here for the original story), in the Korean case a traditional Korean deference to old people buttressing the universal human impulse not to get involved.

2) Everything you wanted to know about room salons

Provided by a former addict in an interview by The Three Wise Monkeys. On the bright side, no condom means no sex in any “second rounds” that occurred later in a hotel, unlike for the vast majority of Korean women who seem to feel that they have a virginal reputation to maintain.

Meanwhile, see Korea Beat for more on the perspective of the room salon workers themselves.

3) Female economic activity lowest in 10 years

Unfortunately, these latest dismal figures are quite predictable: not for nothing have I repeatedly described the post-1997 period as a “lost decade” for Korean women (see here, here, and here), even before they were overwhelmingly targeted for layoffs in the recent financial crisis.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

4) Dressing up as a Korean woman

Last week, I learned that not only it is so important for Korean women not to show their bare faces in public that even their fiances may not have seen them without make-up, but also that, counter-intuitively, many married women will get up extra-early to ensure it stays that way; see #6 here, and it also has rather ominous implications for their sex lives. Now, HiExpat also has a list of what else they must do in the morning if they want to look hot, but far from being particularly Korean, is it really just a matter of degree rather than difference? And why do it in the first place? Pondering the latter question over at Sociological Images, one sociologist answers:

…I would argue that the reason women, on average, spend more time on their appearance is because (1) the bare minimum for looking presentable is different for women than for men and (2) the social costs for neglecting their appearance is greater for them than it is for men.  It is not biology, nor socialization, but the realities of social interaction that draw women out of bed earlier than men.  We learn that our appearance matters to others and that others — strangers a little bit, friends more so, and bosses and lovers especially — offer rewards and punishments related to how well we conform to their expectations.  So we make a measured choice.  We primp and preen not because it’s natural, or because we’re socialized robots, but because it’s worth it or, conversely, we don’t want to pay the cost accrued when we do not.

With apologies for quoting so much of that short post, but there is also much to be learned from the 91 comments!^^

5) Every band has a “cute” member

Having so many members in Korean bands these days does mean that few of them get to actually sing, but then that’s not really the idea anyway, and on the plus side the more members, the more chance fans have of identifying with one of them (see #5 here). Which by coincidence, I’ve just read is also the case for Japanese bands, and probably provided the model. As AKB48 members Rino Sashihara and Tomomi Nakatsuka explain in Japanese School Confidential:

“There aren’t just lots of girls in AKB48, there are lot’s of different types of girls,” Rino says. Tomomi, decked out in a tracksuit and sneakers, chimes in. “Yeah, there are cute girls, beautiful girls. Everybody is different. I think that’s really what makes the group unique.” Tomomi, for example, likes manga and video games, and Rino’s hobby is eating udon noodles. Scan the profiles of other AKB48 members and you’ll find girls into professional wrestling, horror movies, or anime. It’s an idol smorgasbord where fans can find at least one idol to his or her taste. The music might be what draws folks in as listeners, but it’s the girls who turn them into fans. (p. 34, emphasis in original)

And hence as allkpop explains:

cute members of female groups tend to generate widespread interest and bump up a group’s popularity singlehandedly. Every member has their own individual role in the group, and every group has a member in charge of being the ‘cute’ one. In Korea, fans call this certain member “Kui-yo-mi (귀요미),” meaning “the girl with the cute image (귀여운 이미지를 가진 이).”  This member is in charge of garnering fanboy love with her cute/lovable/girly charm, which will result in a bigger fanbase for the group.

6) Actor finds empathy in homosexual role

If I had been worried about my image I wouldn’t have taken this role. I hope that the lives of homosexuals will be acknowledged and be a little bit happier through this drama of ours

See The Korea Times for an interview of Song Chang-ui (송창의), currently playing one of the first ever homosexual roles in Korean television (see #8 here for some background).

7) Yes, unmarried Koreans sometimes have children too

With the news that YG Entertainment head Yang Hyun-seok (양현석) has just had a daughter with long-time (secret) partner Lee Eun-ju (이은주) of the ex-girl band Swi.T, I’ve decided that I’ll no longer report on the fact that Koreans are generally fine with couples of marriageable age having premarital sex, with the important proviso that the participants do actually have plans to get married. Hardly an enlightened modern attitude either, it’s actually been that way for centuries too: see #5 here for more information. (source, right)

8) Officials in Japanese community play Cupid online

As explained at The Boston Globe:

The coastal region of Fukui has Japan’s biggest share of dual-income households, the highest ratio of working women, and the lowest unemployment rate. What it does not have is enough babies.

This month, the provincial government is starting the Fukui Marriage-Hunting Cafe, a website for singles, to help stem the falling birthrate. Couples who agree to marry will get cash or gifts, said Akemi Iwakabe, deputy director of Fukui’s Children and Families division.

“Many of our single residents were telling us that they wanted to get married, but couldn’t because they weren’t meeting anyone,’’ she said.

Japan’s first online dating service organized by a prefectural government follows national measures to extend parental leave that have so far failed to convince women to have more children…

Hey, it certainly can’t harm, and is positively inspired compared to the Korean Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs (보건복지가족부), in charge of raising the country’s birthrate, insisting earlier this year that its employees go home at the shockingly early 7pm on the third Wednesday of each month, all the better to have sex with their partners and have more babies.

9) “One of the most radical feminist performers working today”

Popmatters has a long article on Korean-American performer Margaret Cho.

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10) André Kim and attitudes to LGBT in Korea

Michael Hurt ponders the recent passing of Korean fashion designer André Kim (앙드레 김) at Scribblings of the Metropolitician, in passing mentioning public attitudes to his homosexuality:

There is the constant denial of his gayness — which anyone who interacted with him closely knew to be a fact, and not a vicious slur or accusation, but a mere fact — which continues today. In the end, it is additionally a tragedy that someone who was obviously gay, or at least someone out-of-sync with a cultural of heavily enforced heteronormativity, was never able to “come out” lest he pay a heavy social price. He was never able to see a Korea that would accept him for whom he truly was, however he might have defined that identity-wise. Or perhaps he was quite lucky, in that he fit well inside the stereotype of the harmless gay male fashion designer, which allows everyone to kinda “know” but not have to talk about it in polite company.


13 thoughts on “Korean Gender Reader

  1. FYI Allkpop has a nasty reputation for making up rumors and mistranslating things. :) Not to say that the article you linked to there is wrong, but so you know for the future — sometimes they’re way off the mark, and can be really dishonest for the sake of fostering drama.

    Regarding kpop bands… the problem is that many of these kids, when auditioning for companies, audition under the promise of becoming a model, or an actor, sometimes a backup dancer or choreographer, and then they sign those now infamous slave contracts. The company then often decides that they want this trainee to be in a band instead, so they’re give rough vocal and dance training and shoved out there, sometimes with the promise of “well in a few years, after you’ve done this for exposure, you can move on to that modeling/acting/whatever it is you really wanted to do.” To use Super Junior as an example of this… several members of Super Junior auditioned to be actors. When Super Junior debuted, they were to be a rotating group, meaning that those actor members could eventually transition cleanly to acting roles. However, the fans raised a big fuss at the first hint of rotating new people in, and so Super Junior was cemented as a permanent lineup, effectively trapping a few kids in careers they really weren’t cut out for.

    There is also this strange fixation on “singing” as the “proof” of one’s worthiness as an idol, which holds very true in Korea (most idols will identify themselves as “a singer” and talk about their dreams of “singing”) but doesn’t fit at all the shape that idol groups have become. Some of those non singers who have four seconds in a song? Are amazing dancers. Some of them are great models, and some of them are great TV personalities. All of those things are valid entertainment industry jobs, but the idol is more or less forever coded as a “singer” and then judged for their lack of singing, or their low skills at doing so. As such that article about “four second singers” is sort of unfair. Most of the members of groups who don’t have a lot of singing time are working overtime in another field to gain attention for their groups.

    (I know I often come along to basically write paragraphs at you about kpop business. I hope you don’t mind! It’s sort of my area, and I hope to be able to shed some light on things you post about, or don’t seem to know much about. :))


    1. No please, by all means write paragraphs about the Kpop business when you think I’ve made a mistake and/or think I don’t know much about something! For the record though, I never have had much respect for allkpop; actually, I don’t even subscribe to it, just finding interesting things on it via Omona! They Didn’t occasionally, but I try to avoid linking to that instead because I don’t like how they do little more than just copy and paste articles from other sites.

      Having said all that, I think it’s perfectly natural to focus on singing when that’s what, like you say, most idols identify themselves as (or have to identify themselves as rather). But I didn’t know at all that many of them in fact planned to be something quite different originally, so you have indeed made me look at them in a new light from now on thanks.


      1. Omona has issues too, unfortunately. There just aren’t a lot of good English language sites dealing in this stuff. Cobble together what you can — your blog is really great.

        I’m glad it’s useful! :) And yes, I think it’s not generally well known unless you’re a very hardcore fan or you work in the business about the original intentions of some of these idols. A majority of the time, they’re not much more than puppets for the corporations that own them, even when it comes to their own careers. (Thus why you get situations like the Dong Bang Shinki one.)


          1. Omona depends extremely heavily on netizen opinions for their news — there are frequent posts regarding the Korean internet equivalent of frothing youtube comments, which are usually interpreted by the members as having more weight than they do. The userbase is generally extremely ignorant about Korea, does not speak Korean, and is in both regards not willing to learn or hear explanations… I know of several native Korean speakers who when trying to clarify what a star said or did have been argued with and then ignored or shunned, because their explanation is either less dramatic or casts a precious oppa in a bad light. This wouldn’t matter too much if Omona had set, regular posters for everything, like a blog, but any member can submit a post, and the result is often the same personally biased accounts or mistranslations that Allkpop has, sometimes with a malicious twist.

            It’s not really a matter of “these websites make ______ look bad and that upsets me” but that accurate pictures aren’t painted, regarding everything from Korean culture to, say, sometime Star of the Week said that sounded sort of fishy. It’s just not accurate a lot of the time.


  2. From one of my adult students today: she was upskirt-filmed by a man on the subway (line 2) on Thursday evening. He had an extremely small, high-quality camcorder. She screamed when she realized what he was doing. Three men saw what was going on, grabbed the guy, and frog-marched him to the police at the next station. He had hundreds of videos on his camera, and admitted that he had been posting them online.

    One can only hope that he gets an appropriately harsh punishment. Also, I’m pleased at this strike back against the accusations that Korea is a ‘bystander culture’ – one that, in my experience, is untrue.


    1. Wow…I wonder will happen to him? A fine or jail time? Either way, sorry if I gave the wrong impression: while I do think still that Koreans defer excessively to older men in situations like these, in my own limited experience the same people who’ve done nothing but watch, say, someone get verbally abused for 15+ minutes (by anyone) will spring up the instant anything physical develops. It was really quite surprising (and relieving) to see the couple of times I have.


  3. I don’t think Korean women spend more time getting ready in the morning compared to women in other countries, but rather spend much more time maintaining their appearance: shopping, primping, going to hair salons and spas.

    I found the hiexpat link offensive because it makes Korean women seem universally…misguided. The tall, foot-altering shoes, tiny skirts and giant knock-off bags; it makes it seem like they are all trying to look like Heidi Montag. In my experience, most Koreans have individual senses of style and by no means are all trying to achieve this party-girl look.

    However, most (not all) seem to go out of their way to cultivate a very feminine look, which would seem to directly correlate to the discrimination they face in the workplace, as men in suits and women in mini-skirts provides a visual representation of gender differences. Since appearance counts for so much in Korea, style matters more here than it might elsewhere.

    That’s one of the reasons this blog is so interesting.


    1. Sorry you found the hiexpat link offensive: to be honest, actually I only skimmed it really before linking to it. Just based on what you’ve written about it above though, in hindsight it does seem to be overgeneralizing what is really quite a specific look.

      p.s. Thanks for the compliment!^^


  4. In relation to item 4:

    I knew several female Korean students at my university and have asked a few of them – now that we’re in Korea – what they missed most about the United States. Two of them said it was the ability to leave home without having to spend a lot of time on their appearance. If I remember correctly one of them put it as “I don’t have to spend 30 minutes putting on make-up to spend 15 minutes at the store”.


    1. It’s easy enough for me to say this as a male and from the luxury of my study, but still: I’m surprised that they put it with it again. Hell, it’s amazing that even Korean women with no experience of anything different do for that matter.


  5. James –

    I don’t know if there is a specific word for ‘groping’ in Korean, but I do know the word in Japanese: ちかん, or ‘chikan’. In fact, there’s a whole section on it in the Wikipedia article for ‘groping’: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groping

    Incidentally, I’m aware of an entire subgroup of Asian porn created around this specific fetish. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with that (the porn, I mean – of course the criminal activity is wrong), but it shows that it’s an important part of Asian sex culture, which could unfortunately normalize it in some sick people’s minds.

    Anyway, I’m sure there must be a Korean word for it – maybe they just say ‘chikan’ or something similar to it? Regardless, I thought this info might be of interest! ^^


    1. Thanks: it was indeed. And following your example, I just looked at my English-Korean dictionary (duh!) and found deodumda (더듬다), but it seems to be only meant in the sense to fumble around for etc., rather than intentionally grab someone’s body parts in a sexual manner.


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