Korean Sociological Image #65: First Commercial to Positively Feature a Korean Woman with a Non-Korean Man? (2006)

(Source: Paranzui)

Turn on a Korean TV, and you won’t be waiting long before you see a commercial with a Korean man in a relationship with a non-Korean woman. But for a long time, I was only aware of one ever produced with the opposite pairing, which I discussed back when it came out in July last year.

Since then, there has also been at least one music video produced that positively features a Korean woman with non-Korean men (not just the one man in this case!), which you read more about at Mixtapes and Liner Notes and Fanboy vs Fangirl here, here, and here. But again, there’s many many more with the opposite pairing (see here, here, and here for examples). And as far as I know, no more commercials with Korean women hitting on non-Korean men.

It turns out though, that Lee Hyori (이효리) did so back in 2006 in a commercial for Anycall, a mobile phone brand. I must have seen it a hundred times on TV that year, but only ever the fifteen second version, in which the ethnicity of the lucky gentleman at the end was unclear. I would automatically have assumed he was Korean then, but he’s actually Caucasian (with a hint of Latino?), as you can see at 0:27 in the thirty second version above.

As always, I’d be happy to be proven wrong — again(!) — with any further examples of similar pairings. But I doubt I’ll ever receive enough to challenge this clear discrepancy in the Korean media’s representations of different genders and races, which is why I raise it here.

For any readers further interested in why that discrepancy exists, please read last year’s post for more background and many more links.

Update 1) As soon as I’d packed away my netbook and was walking home, I remembered that there was indeed one more example from last year, a promotional video for the 2010 G-20 Seoul Summit. It features a Korean woman and Caucasian man having a traditional Korean wedding, just like I had (the kiss is just for show though—traditional Korean weddings are really quite sombre affairs!):

Update 2) With thanks to Dan for passing it on, here’s a recent commercial for a smartphone, apparently with screen quality so good you’ll be able to see your foreign boyfriend’s bit on the side reflected in his sunglasses:

Until I saw that, I was wondering if the “positively” in the title was a little redundant. But now it seems more apt than ever!

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

63 Years On: Free Screening in Seoul this Sunday

With thanks to Shannon Heit for letting me know, this Sunday at Jogyesa Temple in Seoul there will be a free screening of 63 Years On, an award-winning documentary about the Comfort Women (with English subtitles). If you’re interested in attending, please see the press release (an MS Word file) for further details, and note that it actually starts at 2pm, not 3pm as stated in the poster (which I’ve confirmed is a mistake).

(K)Pop Art는?

(Sources: left, right)

What comes to mind when you hear that Korean(?) cosmetic brand Clio (클리오) hosts a biennial Clio Cosmetic Art exhibition? That it sounds more like a brand tie-in than a genuine attempt to encourage original and thought-provoking art? The purist in me couldn’t agree more, especially when you consider that some works in the 4th (2009) and 5th (2011) exhibitions were not just inspired by, but use the very same photos as Clio’s own advertisements, prominently featuring brand endorsers Kim Ha Neul (김하늘) and Lee Hyori (이효리) respectively.

When its at the behest of the advertiser itself, arguably the ensuing pop-art loses its edginess.

But art doesn’t have to be radical to look good. What’s more, when you combine the images with the women themselves, then the juxtapositions are like an intellectual wet dream, the afterglow of which has had me buzzing for the last week.

For which are the more real? The flesh-and-blood women in the Insa Art Center (인사아트센터) in Seoul’s Insa-dong district? Or Ha Neul and Hyori the mass-produced visual commodities, with which we are much more familiar?


(Sources: left, right)

But although the pictures did indeed persuade me to take down my handful of books on hyperreality and postmodernism, yet again I rejected them as unnecessarily abstruse, even for a geek like me. Also, Lee Hyori in particular (I’m less familiar with Ha Neul) is actually so down-to-earth and accessible that arguments that she’s merely a media creation can’t be sustained, one positive of Korean celebrity culture that I’ll be discussing in a lengthy post next week soon.

Until then, let me just pass on the art itself here, hoping to inspire more aficionados amongst you.

First, see here for a brief English introduction to the 5th exhibition, then the following graphic about it for a quick snapshot. If there’s anything on it you particularly like, click on the graphic itself to go to the Clio website, then on the specific artwork on the graphic there to get a quick (Korean) bio of the artist.

To any K-pop fans, see if you guess where you’ve seen Mari Kim’s work before:


For many more large and/or high-definition pictures of the art and exhibition hall itself, see here, here, here, or here (beware the automatic music in the last one). My favorite work is easily The Magic (also known as Masic) by Park Dae Cho (박대조) below (the one using the same photo as a Clio advertisement), which you can see a zoomable version of here:


Note though, that it’s actually a color-changing transparency in a light box rather than a static image, like most of Park Dae Cho’s works (which you can see more of on his blog):

That video doesn’t really do justice to it though, as it must really have been quite mesmerizing when viewed close-up. For the best equivalent, click on the following image:


As for those of you that share my love of juxtapositions, alas, there seems to be a conspiracy of exhibition-goers to avoid taking decent pictures of Lee Hyori standing next to this particular artwork in particular, this one always cutting it in half for example, or this one being so much more interested in the contents of Lee Hyori’s dress that he ruined the contrast. But decent, albeit smaller and/or watermarked versions can be seen here, here, or on Park Dae Cho’s blog itself.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t guessed already, Mari Kim (blog; Facebook; Twitter), not to confused with (the also – quite literally – cool) Miru Kim, is the artist behind 2NE1’s (투애니원) I am the Best (내가 제일 잘 나가) album cover, and the Hate You music video:


Finally, unfortunately there was much less interest in the 4th exhibition with Kim Ha Nuel, but Dramabeans does have a good English introduction to it,  and again Clio has a snapshot image, although without links to the artists this time:


See here, and here for more pictures of the exhibition, and here and here for more shots of juxtapositions.

What do you think? Please let me know, and I’d very much appreciate it if readers could pass on any more examples of interesting juxtapositions and/or celebrity-related Korean pop-art. I’d be especially interested in anything featuring men, as I’m curious if I’m only interested in the Clio exhibitions because they’re centered around two attractive women. I’m sure that’s not the only reason I like them (what do female readers think of them?), but probably it’s much more important than I’d like to admit!

Update – Sorry for forgetting to mention it in case you wanted to go, but unfortunately the 5th exhibition ended back in May. But see you at the 6th one in 2013! :D

Korean Gender Reader


1) Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Circumcision in Korea

Whether you’re for or against male circumcision, there’s no sugarcoating some shocking facts about the practice in Korea.

First, consider why it is was taken up so enthusiastically after the Korean War. Not so much for its perceived health benefits, but more because it was seen a way to catch up with the medical practices of the developed world (i.e., the U.S.). Indeed, it was done so wholeheartedly that now more than 90% of Korean men between the ages of about 12 and 40 are circumcised, far higher than the U.S. rate.

Despite being world-leaders in numbers of procedures performed however, unfortunately Korean doctors are actually woefully ignorant about the practice, as Seamus Walsh explains at Asadal Thought:

What I find truly incredible is that the same misconceptions and outright false beliefs that were held about circumcision in the 50s – effects on sexual performance, prevention of STDs, cleanliness etc – are still so prevalent in Korea today, regardless of the fact that the rest of the developed world has moved on in its attitudes and knowledge, making such beliefs redundant.

Also, one of the journal articles he examines concludes that:

The mistaken and outdated notions of South Korean doctors about circumcision…seem to be a leading contributory factor to the extraordinarily high rate of circumcision [there].

Next, as most English teachers in Korea are probably well aware, Korean parents (painfully) get their sons circumcised in their early-teens rather than as babies. And finally, in what I regard as the most damning indictment of the practice, those parents often do so for no more compelling reason than the fact that all their sons’ friends are getting it done, as surveys of the parents make clear.


Update: By a wonderful coincidence, a related article from the Canadian medical website CMAJ appeared in my Google News Alerts as I was typing the above. Here’s what it says about South Korea:

…South Korea…may be the only country on earth where the majority of men are circumcised but not as infants, and do so for reasons unrelated to health, religion or aesthetics. According to one paper, almost 85% of males 16–39 years old are circumcised in South Korea, the vast majority around the age of 12 (BJUI1999;83:28-33).

No one can say for certain how the country came to embrace circumcision so quickly — the procedure was basically unheard of there in the 1940s — though the prevailing theory is that South Korean men were influenced by circumcised American soldiers during the Korean War in the 1950s. “Within a decade, South Koreans came to believe that practicing circumcision was ‘advanced and modern,’ just like the American soldiers,” US sexologist Robert Francoeur wrote (http://gkorea.nayana.com/s1.html). “If Americans did it, it must be good.”

In the 1960s, South Korea’s doctors made a big push for circumcision, launching a widespread media campaign promoting it as better for hygiene and health. Since then, the practice had become the cultural norm. “Korea has no religious background, it is nevertheless practiced during adolescence, largely initiated by peer pressure,” states the South Korean study. “Therefore, it has partly become a ‘rite of passage’ and is fully integrated into present Korea culture.”

(Taken by a friend of mine at Hongdae Station this summer. Is it still there?)

2. Homophobia in K-pop

No, really. As Megan at Seoulbeats explains:

Just take a little time and browse some K-pop videos on YouTube. Odds are, on at least one video by a boy group, you’re going to see a comment along these lines:”See, this is why K-pop and Korea are superior to America! Because boys can look and act like this and not be accused of being gay!” This is hardly anything to celebrate. In fact, this is precisely the problem. People pretend that homosexuality doesn’t exist. It wouldn’t matter if a boy group member snogged his bandmates in public (ahem, Heechul), because it’s nothing. It’s just fanservice, they’re just close like brothers, is all. No way my oppas are gay! Even if an idol was to stand up on a table and scream at the top of their lungs that they were gay, it would mean nothing. This acceptance of behavior commonly pegged as gay in the West isn’t acceptance at all. It’s discrimination so strong it assumes that homosexuality doesn’t even really exist.

Maybe I’m just prejudiced by coming from New Zealand, where the only time men touch is when they’re fighting or playing rugby, and where if a guy doesn’t don’t like beer, cricket, or rugby then both the men and the women will think he’s gay, but still: I think the physical affection and pink clothes are something to celebrate. Also, please correct me if I wrong, but I’d argue that it’s overwhelmingly foreign audiences that are making such comments about Korean male singers, whereas the question of their sexuality wouldn’t be an issue in Korea itself.

I definitely agree with Megan though, that the corollary of allowing such a wide range of gender-bending (skillfully exploited by G-Dragon [지드래곤] throughout his career; hence the sticker above!) considerably narrows the range of what is regarded as genuinely homosexual behavior, although I think she’s putting it much too strongly when she says that people deny that possibility altogether (despite what the foreign media says, few Koreans now deny that homosexuals exist). Indeed, that that possibility is still very much open is evidenced by so many male celebrities making a lot of homophobic comments recently, lest their clothes and behavior cause people to question their sexual orientation (which to be fair, Megan also discusses).


3) Science Blogging at its Finest

Remember last month, when one of my favorite blogs I09 told you about a study published in the latest issue of Hormones and Behavior, that concluded that women’s facial features and estrogen levels correlate with their self-reported desire to have children? Since then, two science bloggers wrote even-handed critiques of the study, to which the author of it responded with a blog post of her own.

In short, this was the internet was invented for, and you can read more about those exchanges at a follow-up post at I09 here.

4) The More Egalitarian the Society is, the More “Innate” Biological Differences Disappear

Back when I was an undergraduate student, I read The New Sexual Revolution by Robert Poole (1994), which would come to have a big influence on how I viewed the nature/nurture debate regarding differences between the sexes. As the introduction on Amazon explains:

In this controversial study of gender differences, Robert Poole outlines the recent research which has strongly challenged the notion that men and women would be equal if only they were brought up in the same way. The research has revealed that the brains of men and women are different in distinct ways and that it is these differences which account for much of the mental, emotional and psychological variation between the sexes.

To be sure, after four years of writing about gender issues I’m much more in the nurture camp now, and indeed I regularly make arguments about the influence of one’s environment in gender socialization myself. However, I do still think that there are some innate – not learned – differences between the sexes, especially men’s greater hand-eye coordination and spatial ability mentioned in the book’s introduction, which Poole suggested may be why men prefer playing computer games to women.


Then I read on Sociological Images about spatial ability tests given to two tribes in Northern India, the Karbi and the Khasi. As the post explains:

– The Karbi are patrilineal.  Only the men own property, and they pass that property to their sons.  Males get more education.

Khasi society is matrilineal.  Men turn their earnings over to their wives.  Only women own property, which is passed along only to daughters.  Males and females have similar levels of education.

And whereas the Karbi men were much better at spatial ability than the women, the difference between the Khasi men and women was negligible.

For sure, it’s just one study, and there are also methodological issues to consider. But if the result holds true, and the relationship can be confirmed by a wide range of other groups, then it will definitely force me to reassess some beliefs about male/female differences I’ve held dear for the last 17 years!


5) Gay-Han-Min-Guk: Gay Culture in Korea

For the last two years, I’ve been referring readers wanting a good quick history of Korean LGBT issues to a paper by Professor Douglas Sanders of the University of British Colombia, a noted author on human rights and LGBT issues, and as it happens also the first openly gay person to speak at the UN. And I still will, but now I’ll also link to this post by Michael Hurt and Josh Forman at Groove Korea, which does a good job of filling in the last two years (and much more).

Everything You Always Wanted to Know about The Grand Narrative…


Well, not quite everything, but I did indeed just get interviewed about blogging by Gwangju Foreign Language Network (광주영어방송), which you’ll be able to listen to here at 6:15pm on Tuesday (I’ll add an MP3 file when it becomes available). It’s very short, but I’d be happy to expand upon anything mentioned in the interview here, or answer any other questions that readers may have.

For anyone that does listen to the interview, here’s the post about criticisms of Korean female – Caucasian male relationships that I mentioned, as it seemed to resonate with a lot of people.

Update – Unfortunately, WordPress.com doesn’t allow me to upload the WMA file that I was sent. Sorry!

Advice to Women Looking for Work: “Say you like to sing and dance”


Last week, I posted a translation of an article about sexual discrimination in the hiring practices of several major Korean companies, some only hiring one woman for every four men. As a follow-up, here’s a recent interview of a young woman looking for work, to give readers a better sense of what that discrimination means from job-seekers’ perspective. Naturally, the focus is on women, but much of what the interviewee describes applies to men too:

여자 신입사원들은 지들이 공주인줄 알아” / “New female employees all think of themselves as princesses

“엄마가 없는 형편에 정장 사주면서 꼭 취업하라고 했는데… 엄마 목소리 들으니까 눈물이 나.”

“My mom bought me a suit in our poor circumstances and told me I must get a job…hearing her voice makes me cry.”

13일 저녁 중곡동의 한 포장마차에서 혼자 술을 마시던 김선희(가명?24)씨는 전화기를 부여잡고 울고 있었다. 포장마차 테이블 넘어로 들려오는 그녀의 울음 섞인 대화에 가슴이 저릿해 몰래 엿들었다.

On the evening of the 13th at a food stand in Junggok-dong, Kim Sun-hee (false name, 24), drinking alone, was clutching a phone and crying. Her tearful conversation, audible beyond the food stand table, moved me so I secretly eavesdropped.

김해에서 서울로 상경해 수도권에 있는 사범대를 다니는 김씨는 대학졸업반이다. 그녀의 서울 생활만큼 취업은 녹록지 않았다. 전화 통화를 끝낸 그녀에게 말을 붙여 혼자 술을 마시게 된 사연을 들을 수 있었다.

(Sources: left, right)

Kim, who had moved from Gimhae to Seoul and who attends a college of education in the capital area, is a senior. Getting a job is not as easy as her life in Seoul. After she finished her conversation I approached her and heard the story of how she had come to be drinking alone.

 “좀 청승맞죠? 근처에 사는데 오늘은 정말 너무 힘들어서 술이라도 안 마시면 화병 날 것 같았어요. 오늘 면접을 5군데 봤어요. 서울 남쪽, 북쪽 할 것 없이 면접보러 다녔어요. 긴장을 풀었다 놓으니까 정말 미치겠더라고요. 나중에는 (면접보면서) 헛소리까지 했어요. 제가 너무 긴장을 해서 눈을 못 마주치니까, 면접관이 사시냐고 물어보더라고요. 아마 떨어지겠죠.”

“Pitiful, aren’t I?  I live in the area, and today was so hard, if I don’t at least drink alcohol I think I’ll get sick from repressing anger [hwabyeong].  Today I had 5 interviews. I went around north Seoul, south Seoul, everywhere, to interview. I kept going from nervous to calm, so I thought I’d go crazy. Later (as I was being interviewed) I was even talking nonsense. I was so nervous that I couldn’t make eye contact, so the interviewer asked if I was cross-eyed. I must have failed the interview.”

Image Caption: “하이킥 짧은 다리의 역습” 미 래의 88만원 세대 백진희가 인턴으로 취직을 하기 위해 면접을 보고 있다 /Future 880,000 won generation member Baek Jin-hee is interviewed for an internship in comedy program “High Kick: Short Legs’ Counterattack.”

취업하기 위해 춤과 노래를 권유하는 사회/ A society that urges singing and dancing to get hired

대기업 인턴, 자격증, 교생실습, 알바까지 그녀의 대학 생활은 ‘낭만’이 아닌 ‘알바와 스펙쌓기’로 채워졌다. 1년의 휴학 기간 조차 그녀에겐 휴식이 아닌 이력서에 채울 경험을 쌓으면서 보냈다. 그렇게 열심히 대학 생활을 한 그녀였지만, 면접에서 쏟아지는 질문들은 그녀를 난처하게 만들었다.

Her university life, with its internship at a large company, certificates, teaching practice, and even part-time work, was filled with “accumulating part-time work and qualifications”, an activity which lacked romance. Even the one-year break she took from university was not a rest, and was spent gaining experiences to fill her resume. Though she had worked so hard during university, the hailstorm of questions at the interview landed her in difficulties.

“오늘 면접 본 회사에서는 대놓고 이런 말을 했어요. 회사는 일을 배우려고 하는 사람을 뽑는 곳이 아니고, 일을 잘 해서 성과를 낼 수 있는 사람을 뽑는다. 당신 같은 사람보다는 잘하는 사람 뽑고 싶다고… 기업은 이윤을 창출하는 곳이니까 안타깝지만 어쩔 수 없죠.”


“At the company where I interviewed today, they said this to my face: this company is not a place that hires people who intend to learn the work, it hires people who do this work well and so get results. We want to hire people who do better than someone like you. A business is a place that creates profit, so though it’s regrettable, it can’t be helped.”

그녀가 면접을 본 외국계 회사 중 한 곳은 면접에 들어가자마자 영어로 질문을 했다고 한다. 자기 소개를 하기 전부터 쏟아지는 영어 질문에 그녀는 적잖게 당황했다고 한다. 심지어 취업상담센터에서는 그녀가 쓴 이력서의 취미란을 ‘춤추기와 노래하기’로 고치라고 권유했다.

She said that at one of the foreign companies at which she interviewed, they started asking her questions in English as soon as she entered the interview [room]. This rain of English questions that came before she introduced herself flustered her more than a little. Furthermore, an employment counseling center urged her to amend her hobbies to “dancing and singing” on the resume she had made.

“지루한 사람으로 보일 수 있겠지만, 제 취미는 진짜 독서랑 요리예요. 그런데 취업상담센터에서는 회사 레크리에이션과 회식자리에서 잘 놀 수 있는 사람을 뽑을 수 있으니까 춤추기, 노래하기로 취미를 바꾸래요. 취업하는데 춤추고 노래까지 불러야 해요?”

“It might make me look boring, but my hobbies really are reading and cooking. But the employment counseling center said companies can choose people who can have fun during company recreation activities and office dinners so I should change my hobbies to dancing and singing. I’m [just] looking for a job – I even have to dance and sing?”

취업준비생들에게 이력서 취미란은 고민되는 항목이다. 평범하게 적으면 불이익을 받을 수도 있고, 막상 돋보이게 적으려고 해도 ‘색다른 취미’란 것이 없기 때문이다. 그래서 남자 취업준비생들 가운데 대부분은 취미란에는 축구와 등산을 적는 이들이 많다.

What they write down as hobbies on their resume is a cause for worry for job-seekers. That’s because if they write it in an average way, they could be at a disadvantage, but even if they try to write it so that they stand out, they don’t actually have an “unusual hobby.” So among male job-seekers, there are many who write down soccer and hiking as their hobbies. (source, right)

대놓고 신입사원에 대한 험담을 하는 회사도 있었다.

There are companies that badmouth new employees in their presence

“한 회사는 ‘요즘 여자 신입사원들은 뽑아 놓으면 지들이 공주인줄 알아. 밑바닥부터 시작할 생각을 해야지. 어디서 공주 행세야’라고 말하는 회사도 있었어요. 전 공주 소리 들어본 적도 없는데… 그래서 저는 (사장님께) 30분 먼저 출근해서 책상을 닦아 드린다고 말했어요. 책상이 깨끗하면 그 날 하루를 기분 좋게 시작할 수 있으니까요. 은근히 그런 거 바란다니까요. 기업 문화도 문제지만, 이 정도는 각오해야죠.”

“One company said, ‘These days, we hire new female employees and they think of themselves as princesses. They should expect to start at the bottom. Why are they acting like princesses?’ No one’s ever called me a princess … so I said (to the company president) that I would arrive at work 30 minutes early and clean his desk.  Because if your desk is clean, you can start the day in a good mood. Because inwardly, that’s what they want. Business culture is also a problem, but you have to be prepared to do that much.”

눈물을 훔치는 그녀의 말 끝에서 안타까운 한숨이 흘러 나왔다. 기자와 김씨의 대화를 듣고 있던 4년차 직장인인 기자의 지인은 “회사는 외국계인데, 사장은 한국 사람이구나”라고 말했다.

As she finished speaking, wiping away tears, she sighed pitifully. An office worker in her 4th-year and acquaintance of this reporter who had been listening to our conversation said, “Ah, so it’s a foreign company, but the boss is Korean.”

화제 전환을 위해 그녀에게 선생님이 될 생각은 없냐고 물었다. 그녀는 실제로 교생실습을 하기도 했으며, 이번 학기를 마치면 교원자격증을 취득한다. 하지만 그녀가 선생님이 되는 길은 멀고도 험한 길이었다.


To change the subject, I asked her if she had thought of becoming a teacher. She had had actual teaching practice, and when she finished this semester she would acquire her teaching certificate [with which she can teach at some private schools and is eligible to take the test to work at public schools]. However, she said the path to becoming a teacher was long and rough.

“선생님 되고 싶죠. 과정이 힘든 것은 견딜 수 있어요. 하지만 대학 졸업 후에도 임용시험 준비한다고 부모님께 손 벌릴 수는 없잖아요. 그리고 사립학교 교사라도 되려면 몇 천만원을 내야 돼요. 저희 집에는 그렇게 큰 돈 없어요. 공립 학교는 준비하는데 몇 년 걸리고, 합격하기 어려워요. 만약 임용 시험에 실패하면 나이 27살에 이력서에 ‘임용 준비’ 이렇게 쓸 수 없잖아요. 그래서 선생님이 되는 것 포기하고, 일반 기업에 취업하려고 하는데 잘 안 되네요.”

“Yeah, I want to be a teacher. I can endure that the process is difficult. But even after graduating university, if I prepare for the [public school] teaching certification test, my parents can’t afford to pay for that. And if I want to become even a private-school teacher, I have to pay tens of millions of won [tens of thousands of dollars]. My family doesn’t have that much money. Preparing for a public school takes a few years, and it’s difficult to pass the test. If I fail the teaching certification test, I can’t put “teaching certification test preparation” on a resume when I’m 27, you know. So I gave up on becoming a teacher and intended to get a job in a regular business, but it’s not going well.”


그녀의 유일한 소망은직장인 / Her only wish is [to be] an ‘office worker’

“정치권에서 청년들이 취업을 못하는 이유는 열정과 창의력이 없기 때문이래요. 저는 한 직장에서 뼈를 묻을 만큼 열심히 할 자신 있어요. 열정도 있고, 창의력도 있어요. 그런데 취업을 못해요. 돈도 없어요. 이명박 대통령, 나경원 서울시장 후보가 청년들 일자리 만들어 준다고 하잖아요. 그 사람들이 어떻게 청년들 현실을 알아요. 돈 많고, 배부른 사람들인데…(이번 서울시장 재보궐 선거도)말이 아닌 진심으로 청년실업 문제 해결한다고 하면 청년들이 뽑아주겠죠. “

“Political circles say that the reason that young people can’t get jobs is because they have no passion or creativity. I’m confident that I can work hard enough to die at an office.  I have passion and creativity. But I can’t get a job. I don’t have money, either. President Lee Myung-bak, the Seoul mayoral candidate Na Gyeong-won, you know they said they would create jobs for young people. How do those people know young people’s reality? They are people who have a lot of money, and whose stomachs are full but… (in this Seoul mayoral re-election too) if they sincerely say that they will solve the youth employment problem, young people will vote for them.”

그녀는 소위 말하는 ‘개념 찬 대학생’이다. 2008년 미국산 쇠고기 수입에 반대하는 촛불집회에 참여하기도 했고,  노무현 전 대통령의 추모식 때 자원봉사를 하기도 했다. 정치에 대한 얘기가 나오자 그녀는 한층 격앙된 목소리로 말을 이어갔다.

She is a so-called “thoughtful university student” [lit. “full of concepts,” but has more to do with being aware of your world and taking care of it].” She participated in the candlelight rallies against importing beef from the United States in 2008, and did volunteer work at former president Roh Moo-hyun’s memorial service. As the topic turned to politics, she went on in an increasingly agitated voice. (source, right)

“(이번 선거는) 꼭 투표할 거예요. 대학생들 중에서 투표 안 하고, 정치에 무관심한 것이 쿨한 줄 착각하는 학생들이 있어요. 사실 정치는 우리 삶과 연관되어 있기 때문에 정치에 무관심하면 나중에 자신한테 돌아와요. 부메랑처럼.”

“(In this election) I will definitely vote. There are some university students who don’t vote, and mistakenly think that not being interested in politics is cool. Actually, because politics is connected to our lives, if you are not interested in that, it will come back on you. Like a boomerang.

“서울에서 살기 너무 힘들어요. 전세금, 물가 비싸잖아요. 전 학교 다니면서 생활비를 다 벌어서 썼어요. 아르바이트를 쉰 적이 없었어요. 뭘 하려고 하면 돈이 필요하니까요. 정말 닥치는 대로 일했어요. 사실 대기업 가려는 이유도 돈 때문이잖아요. 연봉은 물론이고, 퇴직금도 두둑하잖아요. 대기업다니는 직장인들은 월급이 스쳐지나간다고 하잖아요. 통장에 찍힌 월급 명세서를 볼 때 유일하게 행복하대요. 제 희망연봉은 2200만 원이에요. 이 정도 (연봉) 못 받으면 서울에서 살기 힘들어요. 근데 대기업은 매번 떨어지니까, 눈을 낮춰서 일반 중소기업이라도 감사하게 생각하고 들어가려고 해요”

Living in Seoul is really hard. Prices and key-money leases are expensive. While going to school I made and spent all of my money for living expenses. I haven’t had a break from doing part time work. Because if I want to do something, I need money. I’ve really done any work I could. Actually, the reason I want to work at a major company is also because of money. Because of the salary, of course, and the pension is also generous. They say that the monthly pay of employees at major companies flashes by [comes regularly]. Their only pleasure is seeing their monthly pay statement stamped in their bankbook. The salary I would like is 22 million won [about 19,800 USD]. If I can’t get that much, living in Seoul will be hard. But because I keep failing to get into a major company, I plan to lower my standards and be thankful for and work at even an average mid-size company.

그녀는 면접관에게 “이 회사에서 뼈를 묻겠다고 말했다”고 했다. 한 직장에서 뼈를 묻을 정도로 오래 일하는 것이 가능하지도 않지만, 안타까운 것은 ‘뼈를 묻는다’는 절박한 표현을 써야하는 우리 사회의 암울한 취업 현실이었다. 안타까운 마음이 들어 그녀에게 ‘꿈’에 대해서 물었다.

She said she told an interviewer, “I will work until I die at this company.” It’s not possible to work at one office so long that you die, but the regrettable thing was the grim employment situation of our society, that must use the desperate expression “die [lit. “bury bones”].” Feeling pity, I asked her about her “dreams.” (source, right)

“취직해서 시집갈 수 있을 정도로 적금 들고, 집에 많지는 않지만 생활비 보내드릴 수 있을 정도로 사는 거예요. 소박하죠. 근데 이 꿈조차 이룰 수 없게 우리 사회가 막막해요. 취업을 하는 것도, 직장에서 안 잘리고 버티는 것도 어렵잖아요. 원래는 꿈이 거창했는데, 사회의 쓴 맛을 보니 소박한 꿈도 쉽지 않은 것을 알게 됐어요.”

“Getting a job so I can save enough money to get married, and living so that I can send money home – not a lot, but living expenses. Simple, aren’t they? But our society, that can’t let me realize even these dreams, puts me at a loss. Getting a job, and then not getting fired and enduring at a workplace are hard. Originally, my dreams were grandiose, but after being taught a bitter lesson by society, I found out that even simple dreams are not easy.

그녀는 1%가 아닌 99%다. 소위 ‘SKY’라는 일류 대학을 졸업하지 않았고, 자녀에게 수십억의 자산을 물려줄 수 있는 부유한 부모님 밑에서 자라지도 않았다. 또한 취업을 통해 ‘신분상승’이 이루어질 것이란 꿈도 꾸지 않는다. 그녀가 유일하게 소망하는 것이 있다면 ‘직장인’이 되는 것이다.

She’s one of the 99%, not the 1%. She didn’t graduate from one of the top-tier “SKY” universities, and she didn’t grow up with wealthy parents who could leave their children inheritances of billions [millions in USD]. Also, she doesn’t dream that, through getting a job, she can become “upwardly mobile.” If there’s one thing she wishes for, it’s becoming an “office worker.”

4년의 서울 생활이 그녀에게 안겨준 것은 학자금의 빚과 사회의 높은 문턱이었다. 한 시간이 조금 넘도록 얘기하면서 그녀는 틈틈이 눈물을 닦았고, 틈틈이 소주 반 잔을 입속에 털어 넣었다. 그리고 혼자 술을 마시던 그녀를 걱정해 한 걸음에 달려온 그녀의 친구 앞에 다시 눈물을 흘렸다.

What four years of life in Seoul have given her are student loan debts and society’s high threshold. While talking for a little over an hour, she wiped away tears from time to time and poured a half-glass of soju past her lips from time to time. Also, she cried again in front of her friend, who had come running without hesitation because of worry over her friend drinking alone.


‘아프니까 청춘이다’라는 말이 있다. 기왕이면 안 아픈 청춘이면 좋으련만, 우리 시대의 청춘 가운데 99%는 현실의 높은 벽에 부딪혀 아프고 절망한다. 20대라면 누구나 잠시 거쳐가는 성장통일까? 아니면 경쟁을 강권하는 우리 사회가 만들어 낸 어쩔 수 없는 아픔일까? 후자라면 ‘어디’를 점령해야 해결될 문제인지 고민해 볼 필요가 있지 않을까? 이런 저런 생각을 하는 동안 그녀는 “다음에 여기서 검은 정장을 입고 혼자서 술을 마시고 있으면 또 면접 떨어진 줄 아세요”라고 말하며 떠났다.

There is a saying [from the title of a recent book]: “Youth is pain [Lit: “it hurts so you are young”].” That said, a youth without pain would be nice, but 99% of our era’s youth are running into the high wall of reality and feeling pain and despair. Is it the fleeting growing pains that anyone in their 20s feels? Is it the unavoidable pain created by a society that compels competition? If it’s the latter, isn’t it necessary to think about where we need to take control of in order to fix this problem? While I was thinking about that, she said, “Next time, if I’m wearing a suit and drinking alone, know that I’ve failed an interview again,” and left. (end)

Update: See I’m no Picassso for an interesting follow-on post.

(Thanks to Marilyn for the translation)