More On ‘Lost’

You know, from the discussion you see online, you’d think the Koreans in the TV show “Lost” are central characters. Well, I can’t say for sure that they aren’t, since I’ve only watched as far as Episode 3 so far—everything else is still just an incoming file, for me, but the first thing to remember is that these characters are not any more central to the story than others, and actually seem quite peripheral. It’s not as if a main character is an evil Korean guy. He’s not a villain, he’s just a guy among many on the island.

The topic of the show has been making the rounds on Koreablogs once again, showing up on The Marmot’s Hole (with many comments), at Cathartidae, The Unlimited Mood, Duophony, and Lost Nomad. And The Choson Ilbo is whining too, of course.

Much is made of the fact that the Korean male character is a grouchy son-of-a-you-know-what, but then again, I was surprised by his generosity in preparing some food for everyone as soon as he could—despite rudeness in response in at least one case. The character is uptight, he’s grouchy—sure, I would be too if I were having a day as bad as his. He’s possessive of his wife, which isn’t flattering but I’ve seen some instances not too far off from this. Instances, I note. I don’t think most of the men I’ve met would be as grouchy, as possessive, as commanding, and so on. I do think the distrustful instincts are believable in a Korean man who had never spent time with foreigners, though probably the way the character is acting out on them is pretty exaggerated—like all kinds of other things in the show are also exaggerated. I think it might have been more effective to let Daniel Dae Kim be a little more sympathetic, more fearful and trying to protect his wife as best he can from perceived dangers, instead of barking commands at her. But he does seem more an exaggeration of a conservative Korean man than a kind of evil styereotype invented from thin air. Is he wholly offensive? Not to me; I can understand his fears. And I think he was generous with the seafood, regardless of how the other crash victims regarded the gesture. But I probably wouldn’t get along with the character. I do think he’s a bit psycho, a bit of a jerk. (As of episode 3, mind you, only episode 3. All this may be subject to revision as I work my way through the series.)

What’s amusing is complaints originating on the Korean side tend to focus on how this show will give Korea a bad image, how Koreans aren’t really like that, about how it’s unfair that Koreans are represented by such a bad, bad guy. There’s so much focus on the male character, and the female character is discussed primarily as his victim, instead of as a character in her own right. You’d think that there was only one Korean character on the show, really, when there are two; the Korean woman on the show is extremely likeable, very decent-hearted, and very sympathetically received. The focus on the male character seems to me a bit sexist, to be honest.

This brings back my memories to the whole outburst over Anton Ono, when, at the same time, a female Korean team won the gold in the womens’ 3000m relay. Which one do you think got more press? My roommate at the time took young Koreans he knew to task for not talking about the womens’ win, and focusing only on the Ono upset. Ignoring those women was not just negative and kind of embarrassing, it was also blatantly sexist, even when women were the ones complaining. Yes, it’s not just news coverage that’s sexist; there’s a whole complex set of social and cultural factors at play here:

  • A habit of self-asserting by demonizing non-Koreans. (A habit noted in other cultures as well, of course, but it’s pretty pronounced in Korean popular discourse.)
  • A habit of focusing on the male over the female. This is why, when the brothel crackdown began, I was shocked to see reportage of complaints from businessmen in Seoul who claimed they were running out of avenues of entertainment for foreign business visitors. Even the most ridiculous male concern will get airtime. I don’t remember a lot of interviews with the girls in the brothels, though, or the madams.
  • A tendency to be overly concerned about what non-Koreans think of Korea. Why anyone should care, I’m not sure, but I think that, like in Britain, a common cultural concern in Korea is that of keeping up appearances.
  • A tendency to think that TV-shows convince gullible viewers that people of nation X are bad, stupid, evil, or good, kind, and sweet. Some of my most ignorant students do see the world that way, but plenty of intelligent Koreans don’t assume all white women are willing to sleep with anyone, as on TV. Actually, I’m torn about this, since there is a certain segment of the Korean population that is gullbile enough to think that: I know white women living here who’ve had to deal with that stereotype, so I know. Meanwhile, I am not so sure that North Americans are as impervious to this kind of subtle idea-forming… except that North American media is far more sympathetic to people outside the majority than media in other countries. I’ve seen plenty of extremely unsympathetic portrayals of whites on Korean dramas—small though they mostly have been, and admittedly few that I have seen—but never seen one of whites doing things like, oh, volunteering at the local orphanage, the way several foreigners in my neighborhood do. Should we find this scandalous? Because overall, I think most of us find it boringly predictable.

To those who complain about racist stereotypes being wrong and not belonging in media, I ask, what are you doing about this?
Or this?
Unlike the nastiness of one of the two Korean characters in the TV show (among many other rather unsavoury characters with different racial backgrounds), these cartoons are outright racist. Black people in America with bones in their noses? Is this why little kids I teach at camp, and college freshmen alike, at least one per class, call out “ooga-ooga” as a monkey sound when people with dark-skin are brought up in discussions or seen in pictures? White people with noses so big they could be elephants?

Meanwhile, Jodi at Asia Pages has some interesting things to say on depictions of Asians in American media. I mean, really, TV is often pretty much the Penny-Dreadful of our age: we can’t expect too much from it, since it’s meant more than anything as money-making, comfortable, disposable entertainment. Someone said, rightly, that the Korean guy on Lost needs to chill out. Well, yes, but so do those Koreans who are so worked up about one character on one TV show in America. I don’t remember anyone writing celebratory posts about the Gilmore Girls and their “Korean content”. If nothing else, they should realize that their intepretation of the TV show is also sexist.

And another thing: they should realize it’s silly to identify so strongly with the character just because he’s from the same country as them. I don’t feel hurt or badly characterized as a musician, though the only musician on the island is a pathetic drug addict and a liar. This is just a story on TV. And if it’d been a Ghanian man who was hollering at his wife and fighting the American Korean, Korean audiences would never hear of the show, or would be eating it up, with occasional kids going “ooga-ooga” in front of the TV.

(And yes, I realize not everyone in Korea is of the “ooga-ooga” racist mindset. But racist depictions of non-Koreans are widely tolerated here in media, news and entertainment alike, and racism is far from nonexistent here. What I found most revealing about teaching people almost twice my age was how they split on notions of racism; those who’d never been abroad tended to complain that America and other Western countries were far more racist than Korea, whereas those who’d actually been abroad were very quick to point out how very common and widespread and tolerated racism is in Korean society.)

7 thoughts on “More On ‘Lost’

  1. I won’t spoil you, but More Is Revealed about the characters in later episodes.

    Some Things Are Made More Clear.

    And that’s all I’ll say until you’ve seen the episodes.

  2. Well, having read some of the online complaints, I do know that he was a sensitive, kind, warm kind of guy until he married into the wife’s gangster family. I’m not sure I really buy that, though it would certainly make sense in terms of the way one of them remembers it—him, bitterly, or her, wistfully and guiltily—but in any case, I do know a little about that. And the shows are downloading like mad, though I’m more intent on watching Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, which I highly recommend. :) Adam, if anyone would enjoy it, I think you would.

  3. “Why a black american has a bone in his hair, and why white people’s noses are so big they could be an elephants?”
    Because of Koreans’ lack of imagination and artistic creativity. You are seeing a racist insult, but in my eyes is just a bad tastless plagiarized drawing: black character from some cartoon, white character from a foreign newspaper’s comics series… Believe me, Koreans can’t create art, they can’t create parody or style. They think in clishes, act in clishes…. They don’t have no theatre, nor literature, movies are same dreadfull shamless copies of foreign ones, expressed in Korean clishes. An explanation for that would be a history of Confucianism forbidding all arts and a deeper one – that of the specificts of Eastern aestethics and artistic practice and goals – to copy the already perfect nature, and to copy ancient masters. You see, copying equals creating (not sure that’s the right word even). So as it may seem out of context, it is more of easthetic insult then a racist one, I think, and I’m not protecting the caricaturists — they just don’t have an eye for art in our way of understanding. Poor devils….

  4. Koreans don’t have art? Confucianism forbids art? Oh reeeeeeeaaaaaalllly?

    I can’t speak for movies or theater, but certainly literature exists… How you choose to measure its aesthetic value is up to you, but literature exists. As one common example, the _shijo_ form is undeniably a uniquely Korean literary genre!

  5. Hi, Teamin,

    I see you’ve got your pride hurt… That’s normal. But your argument was not strong enough to restore it. You came up with a single example of shijo! Ok, maybe in some old days of its glory poets did composed verses about the beauty of nature or the efemerity of human life, but these days it’s just a silly jokes put together by tv “talents” to entertain. Or you can recommend me a book of contemporary shijos??!!
    And ok, confucianism didn’t forbid art in the literary meaning of the word “to forbid”, but it didn’t encourage it, too. It was left to lower classes, to the folk so to say. And don’t tell me that e few exceptions could brake the rule.

  6. Salome,

    As discussions have revealed over at another blog I post at (called The New Sophists’s Almanac), definitions of “creativity” and “originality” as incredibly hard to pin down even just within Western Art.

    I can name at least one poet in Korea active today about whom I know who writes poems that use the Korean language in a way that is both reflective of the kind of sophistication we expect in contemporary poetry, and yet somehow just very different from other Korean poets (so I am told)… and he translates his own stuff into English. His name is Ko Chang Soo, and I recommend his prize-winning book Between Sound and Silence. And I am sure with a little digging one could find many more such poets.

    A form like “shijo” is more an example of an innovation within tradition, but it’s not like most major poets in any language these days rely heavily on strict “forms”. So the Shijo is neither here nor there in my opinion; it impacts on what you said, but I suspect (though I am ignorant enough not to know for sure) that what you said is based on an error in comparison.

    My suspicion, with all due respect, is that you’re generalizing, Salome, based on experience and personal opinion of Korean culture. After having conversations with certain engineers and businesspeople I’ve had feelings that are similar to what you said about how a long Confucian tradition, and a very rough history with dictatorships in the more recent past, have crushed the creative spirit and marginalized the kind of “difference” that underlies most innovation.

    But then, I’m comparing Galileo or Blake to some random businessmen I happen to have met. After all, in reality most Western artists suck too, and are brainless copycats, and we never hear of them. Even the best Western art has sometimes very imitative in its development, hasn’t it? That’s certainly the case when you look at music. I sometimes think that very little innovation happened after Bach until you got to Debussy and Wagner… there was that sinkhole of Classical music that was so stable and easy and never went past the pretty melody supported by nice chords of increasingly weird sequence.

    And in fact, from what I’ve read recently, the history of some Korean art forms has been full of radical change. For example, people think that Samul Nori is a traditional art form, but it’s not. It’s modern. It dates to the seventies, I think. We westerners tend to take the average Korean’s claims about art as the actual history, when we’d probably just assume it was claptrap if some taxi driver started telling us about the life of Michaelangelo.

    We see the radical change, and the finer details in the more conservative artworks that distinguish them from copyist crap, because we’re used to the tradition, I think. I for one don’t know how to look at traditional Korean painting in such a way as to derive the most aesthetically deep experience possible, and I suspect you may not either (though I may be quite wrong!)… and it’s those fine points that make all the difference.

    Just like, if you know nothing about jazz, it all sounds the same. But the more you know, the more different every stream is, the more unique each artists’ approach suddenly sounds, and so on.

    Anyway, just my thoughts as of now, ending my lunch break and running off to continue afternoon classes at camp…

    NOTE: I edited this comment after posting, so it says something closer to what I meant to say when I posted it in a horrible hurry.

  7. Dear Gordsellar,

    thank you for the title “Between sound and silence”, I’ll try to find it. Strange, that the topic which actually started with visual arts, ended up with poetry… Yes, I was generalizing and speaking based on my own experience and personal opinion, but whoes else experience and opinion I should rely on? Definitely not on wide range of information on the topic, then I simply couln’t be able to generalize the way I did. Admit it. Maybe I looked pretentious mentioning Confucianism and risked to be compared to engineers and bussinesmen, but what the hell. I trust my instinct on things aesthetic which is also quite backed up by studies in art and art history. Problem could be my not enough fluent and exact( especially in matters of debates)English. Ok, let’s go back to the caricature. What I see is lack of integrity in style and that makes me think of artist’s poor ability of drawing in general. He could borrow the caracters, but as an artist he should be able to unite them in his own personal handwriting. But he didn’t, so I tried to figure out why and thought of the tradition in visual arts that he could learn from, and it’s really not a rich one. I know, it’s just a caricature in just a newspaper, it’s pop culture, not a refined elite art, bla bla bla – all the racionalizing. But this thing reminded me of another (programs for children, only three original Korean cartoons that I know of, two of them painful to wach, few original comic books, it’s hard to remember more, maybe because of the dissapointment)one and then another of what I have seen, so I did generalize and the generalization should have been better expressed in “Lack of style In artistic expression” and I should have stuck strictly to pop culture and avoid words like “art, creativity” and such. Well it’s nice to sort it out for myself, too. Then there’s nothing I can say more, I guess. Except that the feeling of constant aesthetic dissatisfacion that I experience everyday has left unjustified…. Maybe Koreans are good at singing and music but not at things visual which brings to memory ideas of Marshall McLuhan about cultures “of eye” and “of ear”. Maybe the extra effort for a sake of only aesthetic purpose which is beyond utilitarian necessity in their environment is out of question. And people don’t seem to complain about that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *