I’ve read Geek in Japan. Both these books are not really just about geek culture but modern, youth culture including the obligatory historical background. However, Korea is now surpassing Japan as the pop culture center of Asia and perhaps the world after America. I also read a book called The Birth of Korean Cool which uncovers the huge government subsidies that go into promoting and developing Korean pop culture. In a sense, the South Korean government is trying to sell LG and Samsung TVs and products and using Korean K-Pop and dramas as marketing. Korea hasn’t tried to invade the American market with the occasional exceptions of a hugely successful K-Pop concert in LA, perhaps because they think there’s too much competition. None-the-less, more and more American youth are jumping on the K-Pop bandwagon, much more so than they once jumped on the J-Pop, Anime, Manga bandwagon.
This book is highly comprehensive and full of photos. It is basically what I would want of all travel guides. I could care less about museums and historic sites. If I go to Sweden, I want to know where they go out drinking, how to get along with them without acting stupid, and what they think is cool. The historical background may be a little too much for what most people want, but if you’re the type of person to wonder why a phenomenon occurred, it is very helpful. There are two things I don’t like about this book however. The first is that the author ate dog meat. This is reprehensible. At what point would you draw the line? Chimpanzee or dolphin meat? Human meat? It is incredibly disrespectful to consume an animal that may have helped us survive for hundreds of thousands of years as trustful companions and guardians. Second, the author has no clue what the Korean War was about and regurgitates 8th grade US History folklore. The Soviets did not hand pick Kim Il-Sung to run the North like the US handpicked Syngman Rhee. Kim Il-Sung was a resistance fighter in China who returned to Korea expecting to run the entire place, while most of the South Korean leaders were Japanese collaborators.
Beyond that, the book is very well written and complete covering all aspects of Korean culture from food, to drink, to work, to partying. What the author does miss is that the Korean social culture is rather conservative. While they drink a lot, they don’t mingle a lot with strangers. They aren’t extroverted like Americans. Like Japan, it is rare to simply walk up to strangers and start talking with them. Illegal drugs are almost unheard of in Korea. Most Koreans are basically nerds. They study hard and then they work hard. While you hear that they go to school or work 10 or 12 hours a day, it’s not like continual schooling or work. In fact, often they consider getting drinks after work as part of the work day. Because there is a plethora of talent and limited work, I would argue that many workers find themselves with nothing much to do and goof off at work or take long lunches. The image of arriving early and staying late is all that matters. In fact, some American companies are considering shorter work hours, since they realize a lot of time is spent goofing off. Often times, an entire morning is just spent nursing a hangover from a company party the night before which happens anywhere from twice a month to twice a week. As a result of this, workers do not spend much time outside of work with their family and friends or just recreating.
While Korea has succeeded tremendously as an industrial powerhouse, the Information Age will not be so kind. While they have a leg up with technology and Internet familiarity, they are not as creative and imaginative as their American counterparts. A culture which ingrains obedience and conformity and hierarchy is handicapped when it comes to creating innovation. The book states, however, that the government funds 60% of tech startups, although, many of these startups are simply mobile phone game apps and video games.
The one thing you will notice when visiting Korea is that image is everything. Koreans are obsessed by image, and being a Korean, I can say that and attest to that. The typical Korean would like to have an image of cool, intelligence, wealth, status, and good looks. Brand names are everything. They are the apex corporate brand consumers. Everything is about brand names including what school you went to. If you want to know what corporate world looks like, check out South Korea. Korean men are the biggest consumers of makeup, and Koreans have more cosmetic surgeries per capita than any other nation on Earth. In fact, if you’re thinking about cosmetic surgery, I’d recommend going to Korea. Koreans are also highly sensitive with fragile egos, so if they ever found out I said all this, they’d excoriate me anonymously as some Westernized, brainwashed, bastard, traitorous, lowlife, shit bag. Since image is everything to them, anything you do to tarnish or “throw shade” on the Korean image instigates a visceral, life-and-death, violent reaction, much in the same way as criticizing Mohammad would get you in trouble in Middle East countries.
An interesting thing about what Koreans view as beauty is almost juvenile, but then again, maybe it’s because they’re not marketing to grown adults. Then again, the female K-pop stars’ fan base is largely middle aged dudes which is kind of gross. As far as women, the beauty standard is a small, narrow face with large eyes, a pointy nose, and a cutesy overall look, almost like perpetually 15. They don’t like big butts or boobs like Americans. As for guys, I swear, half of them look like lesbians, really, really hot lesbians like Ruby Rose. Very slim, narrow face, deep v jaw, big eyes accentuated with mascara (I kid you not), and a very skinny body accentuated with super tight clothes with lots of accessories. In fact, I’m like nowhere near the male archetype, and I didn’t know it at the time, but they probably considered me lunky, broad-shouldered, and big faced when I was in Korea. They can also tell if a Korean is Western by our body language and mannerisms. Koreans have a very small posture. Their shoulders are rolled forward (reflecting constantly sitting at desks studying or playing video games), they let their arms flop to their sides, they take small steps, and their gaze in often downward. A lot of Americans roll their shoulders back, although, arguably, Millennials increasing roll them forward. Americans take longer strides and our gaze is often on the horizon or scanning around us. Then when we stand, we often do the superman pose and take up more room.
Here are a few photos I took from 2009 in Taejeon and Seoul.
If you visit Korea, it’s basically like Disneyland, Vegas, or Manhattan. It’s great to visit, and it’s a sensory smorgasbord of novelty and action, but ultimately, you don’t want to delve too deeply or else you see the cracks. One thing I’ll never get used to in Korea is the open sewage you’ll smell occasionally turning some street corner or the restrooms with holes in the floor and poop-stained toilet paper in a waste basket in the stall. Don’t get me wrong, there are many wonderful things about Disneyland, Vegas, Manhattan, and Korea, but keep in mind, a lot of it has been purposefully manufactured to support a certain image. I can have a great time in Vegas, but at the same time, I know there is a downside. There are many people getting ripped off or losing their savings at the tables. Likewise, in Korea, everything may look wonderful, but there is a big downside when most all the students and workers have little social life and tremendous pressures to conform and be materialistically successful.