Category Archives: the Korean thing

The things you discover….

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My sister was wondering why, in the Bastarz cover of “An Alley,” U-Kwon pulls out a lint roller and rolls himself. I was like, Well, I know he says “cat” in there, but I don’t know what the rest of it is–maybe I’ll get around to translating it one day, but probably someone else will translate it first.

And low and behold, JBTC did translate it–but the translation makes it sound like U-Kwon is singing complete nonsense.

Now, it certainly wouldn’t too shocking if U-Kwon just decided to do something like that, but YDG was singing along during the broadcast, and he’s totally the kind of guy to do that sort of thing, too, so I looked up the 2002 version of the song and found that part.

Then I Googled “Kim SuHan Moo” (and lets just be grateful I didn’t start with “Yang SuHan Moo,” otherwise I’d still be lost) and discovered what is actually going on–it’s a tongue twister!

Awesome!

You want to know something: Stuff like this is exactly what sucked me into Korean entertainment in the first place.

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Could this get dumber?

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I mean, it’s K-Pop, so of course the answer is yes, but apparently the justification for BTS fans being totally shitty to people who could help the group actually succeed in North America is that BTS is “not K-Pop.”

Right. You know you’re dealing with a bunch of not-terribly bright 12-year-olds when they think they can make something be or not be something by simple declaration. (And is there anything more stereotypically K-Popian than fans fucking up an artist’s career because they think the artist is too good for whatever is actually helpful? Or launching into a long “explanation” that includes an entire history of some fanwar that nobody who actually matters gives a fuck about?)

Anyway, the rationale the dimmer international fans are using for classifying BTS as “not K-Pop” is this post, which was written by someone who at least claims to be Korean about how the group is not K-Pop.

Except that these international fans are ignoring some very important context.

The poster’s argument is that BTS is not K-Pop because K-Pop is “B-grade Western pop songs”–in other words, because K-Pop isn’t really Korean. They like BTS because BTS is, in their opinion, “extremely Korean.” In particular, songs like “Spring Day” contain han. You can read a lot about han here, here, here, and here, but basically it’s a Korean term about suffering under injustice and having to persevere anyway.

As you might guess even if you aren’t extremely Korean, a preference for han typically also means “a strong preference for sad love songs and sad love stories.”

Now, if you want to argue that “Spring Day” was written very much to appeal to Korean audiences, I would agree with you–especially when you’re talking about the older generation. There’s a lot of sad ballad music in Korea–you can point to han and the country’s sad history, or you can more cynically point to the fact that ballads were one of the few forms of music allowed to be played publicly under the country’s military dictatorships (also part of the country’s sad history) and argue that the older generation simply likes what they grew up with.

In any case, according to the poster, BTS Is Not K-Pop or More Than K-Pop or Better Than K-Pop because BTS is authentically Korean, and K-Pop is not.

I’ll be honest: I really don’t like this kind of essentialist argument. I don’t think a Korean who likes sad music is somehow more Korean than a Korean who likes upbeat music. (Where would that leave many trot songs?) I feel like this poster is equating their own personal musical preferences with Koreanness to conjure up a nationalist version of talent-dol branding.

However, I think it’s important to pay attention to the fact that the “BTS is not K-Pop” argument as it is presented in that post is an essentialist and nationalist one—this is a Korean person grading BTS (and K-Pop) on their Koreanness. What makes BTS better than all those crummy K-Pop idols who are only of interest to hormonal schoolgirls? KOREANNESS!

From a practical point of view, the problem with international BTS fans picking up this “BTS is not K-Pop” mantra–and using it to justify damaging K-Pop’s prospects in a foreign market–is that international BTS fans are not Korean.

I think “BTS is not K-Pop” is unhelpful to BTS’ ambitions in the United States as well: After all, Psy was presented to American audiences as The Big Exception to K-Pop’s Enslaved Robots, and look where that got him. Compare his career in the United States to that of, say, Daddy Yankee, who is seen here as the founding father of reggaeton.

But where the whole “BTS is not K-Pop” thing could potentially kill BTS is in Korea. Foreigners saying “BTS is not K-Pop” is never going to come across to Koreans as “BTS is EVEN MORE Korean than K-Pop!” Especially when those foreigners are, again, attempting to damage a Korean export market.

And this matters because BTS sells and has always sold much more in Korea than in places like the United States. Success abroad gets hyped in Korea, for sure–the original poster acknowledges as much. What they don’t mention is that the main reason the hype happens is because these kinds of K-Pop groups are seen as representing Korea abroad.

The notion that K-Pop groups represent Korea abroad is something that’s just everywhere in the Korean media–even the interview with Seven Seasons’ CEO ended with this coda about K-Pop helping Korea abroad. A big part of why Block B’s Thailand scandal was so bad was because the group was seen as not representing Korea well abroad, and their other big scandal in Korea came from not appearing to be adequately patriotic. When CL was seen as being something of an Uncle Tom abroad, it was also not helpful to her in Korea.

There is no way “BTS is not K-Pop!” flies in Korea coming from a bunch of foreigners, and it has the potential to cause BTS some real hassles in their home market. Like most K-Pop groups, BTS has to kind of thread the needle between their domestic and overseas market–and in general they’ve done that quite well. I think it’s ridiculous for fans to risk blowing it up for them because they’re, I dunno, afraid that Americans will hear Exo and decide they don’t have much use for a hip-hop sound after all. You have to know your market, and above, all have faith in your product.

Also, you know, have some respect for your own work. I keep seeing this argument that BTS fans have worked so hard, yadda yadda yadda we can do whatever we want now! as though they can’t understand that you can always undo the good that you have done if you’re stupid enough.

Dirty Korean!

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This is funny–some Korean journalist wrote about a book that was published in 2010. Cutting-edge news! And if you look at the article, the source is some random on-line comment plus an Amazon search, and they’re characterizing the book as a textbook, which it’s not.

I actually have that book–my sister got it for me as a joke when I started learning Korean. It’s…dirty (and not as funny as I was expecting). The examples they give here aren’t nearly as ribald as it gets. Let’s just say that, if you want to visit Korea, but you’re worried that once you get there the language barrier will prevent you from requesting a number of specific sex acts, this is the book for you.

This is kind of a depressing realization

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Back when I watched Hack Zico, something Zico said to Crush really stuck in my mind. They were talking about traveling, and Zico said:

When Zico was forced to go to America…?

Now, we are talking about Zico here, so it’s entirely possible that he’s just whining and exaggerating. But….

As far as I can recall–and a Google search provides me with no alternatives–the one time Crush and Zico were in the United States together was for K-Con LA in 2015 (and Zico stayed on to film “Veni Vidi Vici“).

Aaaand I was just reading this post from Ask a Korean, which touches on recent revelations about the Park administration’s heavy-handed approach to the Korean entertainment industry, including blacklisting troublesome celebrities.

Of course, I already knew that K-Con France was organized more or less with the purpose of funneling public funds into private pockets. (For the record: I don’t think the festival’s organizers had that purpose in mind at all–but certain people in the Korean government clearly did.) Of course, you can’t throw a K-Pop festival without K-Pop talent, and there is so much more money to siphon off if you can force talent to appear on the cheap.

How could you do that? Well, there’s always the direct threat of blacklisting, but more probable in my mind would be to get at them through CJ E&M, a major media company that is a big backer of K-Con (and is also Block B’s distributor). The Park administration forced out the parent company’s vice chair in October 2014; I would assume that CJ E&M became a lot more tractable to the government’s wishes after that. And I would note that K-Con’s big expansion from being a Los Angeles-only festival to being a worldwide, multi-festival operation began the next year.

So, yeah. Maybe Zico was just being dramatic when he said that he was forced to go to the United States with Crush–but maybe he wasn’t. Maybe it’s a coincidence that Block B has been appearing at far fewer K-Con festivals since the Choi Soon-sil scandal erupted–but maybe it’s not.

What I wish I knew about Suwon before I went

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I’m home again–a bit muzzy from the jet lag, but nothing too bad. (I have a portable light box I bought during our massive gloom this year, so I brought it along to help with the jet lag. I think that worked–I haven’t been to Asia before, so maybe this is just because of the location, but my jet lag wasn’t nearly as bad this trip as it has been in the past.)

Anyway, it was super-easy to get around Seoul–the subway is great–but while it was easy to get to Suwon, and while I really liked Hwaseong Fortress, getting around Suwon was a little tricky. Obviously I managed, but I would have appreciated having some more guidance–whereas Seoul’s transportation system is very much set up with the non-Korean speaker in mind, that is not the case with Suwon.

So, let’s say you subway, Korail, or KTX it down to Suwon Station. (There’s also a $12 shuttle bus that goes between Incheon Airport and Hotel Castle in the hotel district.) That’s great, but your hotel probably isn’t near the station. The cool stuff isn’t there, either.

 

How do you get to the cool stuff and the hotels? Luckily there are a number of buses (the 10, the 66, and the 83-1 are three, there may be more) that run up and down the big east-west street connecting Suwon Station to the hotel district (and passing just south of the cool stuff)!

But here’s the tricky bit:

Suwon Station

There are two big exits out of Suwon Station. The one to the west takes you out to an enormous roundabout where you can catch all sorts of buses!

This is the wrong exit.

Those are not the buses you need–they are express buses that will zip you off to God only knows what faraway corner of Korea. You want to go out the opposite way, to the east. You will come out onto a great big street. Make a left (don’t cross the street) and walk up to the local bus shelter (local buses are green). They pull in and pull out again at about 100 miles an hour, so get ready! (But if you miss one, don’t panic–the buses come often, and there is a display telling you when the next is coming.)

You can use your T-money or CashBee card on the buses, and I suggest you do. I also recommend that, while in Suwon Station, you make sure that your card has plenty of money on it. Why? Because I still have no idea what the fucking bus fare is–it was not displayed on the buses anywhere that I could see, and the information I got on-line was obviously out of date, which is why my card ran out of money.

OK, so now you’re on your way! And you want to see the cool stuff!

That’s a satellite picture of the wall–you can see that it’s quite something! The little castle marker down where the circle doesn’t quite complete itself is Paldalmun Fort. (It’s in a roundabout.) The long dark north-south line between the fort and the beginning of the east wall is a river, which has been channeled and has a park around it. The treed area where the west wall is is actually a pretty steep hill!

The famed Joseon Stairmaster.

You can see that the wall runs right through the city. The neighborhood just between Paldalmun Fort and the beginning of the east wall is a traditional market where you can get street food; the neighborhood west of the fort is very pretty and more touristy, with crafts shops and cafés. Also in the area is, no lie, the chicken district–as in the kind you eat. Apparently there’s also a soondae district, although I did not see it myself. In short, many food options lie about the fort. Yum-yum!

As you walk along the wall, you will sooner or later come upon a tourist information center. There, you can pay the whopping $1 fee it costs to visit the wall (if you’re too cheap for that, 1. you’re an unbelievable jerk, and 2. you’re SOL because they will check for the ticket if you’re a foreigner). You can also pick up an English-language map, which I should note focuses on the wall and the tourist attractions, not the city itself–the blank spaces are actually full of buildings.

I walked, so my map got all beat to hell.

If you’re not up for the hike, you can pay to ride a trolley–less physical labor, but the downside is that you won’t get see things up close, and the trolley road doesn’t go to the attractions at the top of the hill. I should note that, if you walk, you usually have a choice of two trails–one is right up next to/on the wall and is more rugged, and the second is a little bit away from the wall and is more level and smooth (a lot of locals, including many seniors, walk or jog the smoother trail for exercise). I walked the wall east-to-west (counterclockwise on the map), but I think it would be better to go west-to-east–that way you get the big hill done with early in your hike, you end your hike right at the market, and you can just follow the river back down to the bus. I was not up for visiting the temporary palace after walking the wall, but I would assume it’s a good option if a long hike is not your cup of tea.

All right! So, I hope that helps anyone thinking of making the visit to Hwaseong Fortress to navigate the trip. I really thought it was worth doing!

OK, I no longer regret leaving Seoul

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I went to Suwon, which I had to look up back when I was first putting together BlockB.com (it’s where U-Kwon was born), and I discovered that it was a walled city, which sounded really cool. The Hwaseong Fortress is a World Heritage site, and you can take the freakin’ subway to Suwon from Seoul, so I decided to go.

First things first: Even Suwon has one of these:

Only five stories, not eight.

Better yet: The fortress is awesome! You can walk the wall (cost: $1), and there’s just an incredible variety of posts and command centers and gates and things. The city has outgrown the wall of course, so the wall goes through it, which is really cool. The wall is mostly lined with parks, and it’s definitely a major hangout for locals looking to get some exercise in a beautiful environment. (It’s also where school groups go, including one filled with hyper young boys who screamed “HELLO!” at me at the top of their lungs.)

I took, like, a million photos, so these are just some random highlights in no particular order.

So, definitely if you’re a great big history nerd like I am, Suwon is worth the trip. But while it’s not the country, you’re definitely dealing with a population that isn’t as used to dealing with foreigners and will just rattle off a bunch of Korean at you at top speed like there’s any chance in hell you’re going to understand it. (“Hanguk mal jal moteyo” has gotten a lot of exercise today.) Also there’s no subway, and the buses are kind of stimulating to get on and off of because the drivers don’t mind opening the doors before the bus has actually stopped.

Nonetheless, I have dealt with some very lovely people today, including a bus driver who let me skimp on the fare when it turned out my T card had run out of money, and a young woman who went to the effort to look up the English word for refrigeration in case I didn’t eat my pork sandwich right away.

Guess where I am!

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Hint #1: In the past few days, just walking around, I have heard the following songs, which were not being blasted out of any musical equipment that I own:

“H.E.R”
“Red Sun”
“Yozm Gang”
“Fanxy Child”
“Oppa’s Car” (yeah, that’s not Block B-related–except for this–but God did it make me happy)

Hint #2:

It’s HUMID!

Yes, I’m in Seoul! I’ve been here for three days–today I go to Suwon for a day and then back home. All I can say about Seoul is WOW–I realize I’m here during a holiday period, so it probably isn’t quite this awesome normally, but in terms of fantastic public spaces, Seoul really takes the cake. I think it’s probably better even than New York City, and that’s a pretty high bar.

I’ve seen the guard ceremony at Gyeonbokgung Palace (the people in hanbok are just other visitors who dressed up for the holiday):

Communed with Nature along the quiet banks of the peaceful Han River:

(Yeah, that one didn’t quite go as planned–I found a seat and listened to a busker instead.)

Went up to Namsan Tower, where couples “lock” their love (there’s a huge compound up there, with restaurants and arcades and what have you).

And toured the garden at Changdeokgung!

So, yeah, I’m really enjoying myself! Everything’s been MORE than I expected–I walked myself to exhaustion at both Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, and I still didn’t see either compound in its entirety. The only disappointing thing was when I went to Apgujeongdong to see the K-Pop Bears: I couldn’t find them (there wasn’t any kind of guide when you left the subway station, although that might have been because things were closed for the holidays), and OH MY GOD is Apgujeongdong a dump. Wow. The stuff inside the stores is cool, but it’s definitely the shittiest-looking “nice” neighborhood I have ever seen.

I wish I had booked a longer trip, and I’m trying to remind myself that the plane ticket was very expensive so I can’t come back over and over again. Once you get here, though–my God are things cheap. (Except granola. Granola is imported from Europe and shockingly expensive.) The palaces were mostly free because of the holidays, but the all-palace pass is about $10. The garden tour of Changdeokgung, which is a freaking World Heritage Site, set me back a whopping $5. That was for a guided tour, in English.

My Korean is terrible, but it’s Seoul so most cashiers speak a little English and I’ve been able to get by without major problems. If you are not Asian you WILL get stared at, and people will also ask you where you’re from and how long you’ve been in Korea. The kids are really cute about it; I wave at them, and they excitedly report that fact to their bemused parents and then drop their snacks. Elderly people seem to go to extremes, tending to be either incredibly friendly–“I love America!”–or quite rude (so far not in English, so it’s easy to ignore). I guess it’s also a little unusual to be a non-Asian tourist here, although Seoul is definitely a great tourist destination. Still, I get the impression that most Westerners here live here, and that the expat community is pretty tight–they don’t approach and interrogate you directly like the older Koreans do, but they do stare at you like they’re expecting (and expecting) you to start talking to them, which is a little awkward when you’re just passing through….