The Horror of Arirang, and on Ao Nang

A few nights ago, when I started writing this, I was in my room in Vientiane, wondering whether I should go to the North-Korean restaurant Pyongyang for dinner. It was rather far off, and I’d already wandered around a fair bit that day, but curiosity, oh but it niggled. I didn’t end up going, though. Probably a good thing: after all the Korean practice I got in Luang Prabang — the town was FULL of Koreans — I would have slipped into the language without thinking and would later have been kidnapped from my room and shipped up to Pyongyang to breed spies or something.

Anyway, that night I turned on the TV in my room, and flipped through the channels. Finally landed at Arirang TV, and watched it — really, actually, truly watched it — for the first time in ages. Aeons, actually.

It was horrible. I mean, terrible, cheesy, boring, watered-down, pap. It was mush. Everyone knows this, of course — I knew it too, even before watching it that day, from earlier brief exposures — but this time, the particularly bland flavour of the channel really hit me so that I could finally characterize it as it so absolutely deserves.

Arirang TV is roughly one-third EFL TV — that is, English TV for non-Anglophone audiences; one-third tourism-promotion (though at whom it is aimed, I have no idea… maybe it’s just feelgoodism for Korean-Americans of a certain age, but I don’t think Arirang would bring people to Korea any more than the so-called tourist attractions Lee Myung Bak has blabbered about, Cheonggyecheon and the bizarre pork water canals he wants to build connecting Seoul to Busan); and it’s one-third propaganda TV that I’m guessing is quite comparable to Soviet-propaganda TV about the greatness of the nation and all that, again, aimed at nobody I can imagine except maybe aging Koreans abroad. Something I read on Somtow’s World earlier that morning came to mind, in a post he wrote about censorship:

The attempts to censor Apichatpong’s movie again show that they simply don’t understand that the primary purpose of art is the elucidation of the human condition which, naturally, means that art exists to tell the truth. They don’t understand that showing, for instance, a monk breaking the rules of monkhood is not a criticism of the institution of monkhood at all; it’s an insight into human nature.

This reminded me of Arirang because the channel has no substance because it’s not about Korea. It’s perhaps about Korean anxiety about self-presentation on the world stage, but the anxiety so overwhelms the reality of the place that it renders real depiction of Korea impossible. So you get two-minute special focus clips on jade craftsmen who are “keeping the tradition and culture alive” but you get nothing about the millions of women in the sex trade who actually fought for their right to work in that trade. You get English-language game shows full of teenaged kids who can’t speak English (and really, why should they have to do it on TV?) but you don’t get discussions of Koreans’ fears regarding the way younger and younger people are prone to violence. (Not that I think teenagers are dangerous, but I’m a huge white guy and tend not to register danger as a smaller person might, and meanwhile lots of Koreans have suggested to me that they fear younger and younger people are getting more dangerous.)

Anyway, Arirang is, in the end, the full flowering of this anxiety about looking good in front of the whole world. What the execs at Arirang need to realize is that people respect you only when you stop giving a shit whether they respect you, when you just be yourself, be honest, let it all hang out, and laugh at anyone who insults you. It’s kind of like looking for a girlfriend: while you’re looking, nobody’s interested, but once you stop caring either way, your phone never stops ringing. When you’re standing on the street corner hollering, “Respect me! Respect me!” nobody ever will. That’s the horror of Arirang: it’s desperately trying to achieve something through means that guarantee failure.

If you ask me, weird Korean comedy shows and game shows should be dubbed or subtitled. Air documentaries about life in Gochang or Cheongryangri. Interview couples with Korean and non-Korean partners, and weirdoes like that Korean fashion designer, what’s his name again? Put all the weird stuff you can on TV and see what happens. It’s be simplifying things to say, “It worked for Japan” since Japan’s worldwide recognition is more complex than that — a topic of current discussion by James Turnbull on his blog — but I think it’s safe to say no nation achieved worldwide respect by wringing its hands and worrying about it.

In other news: it’s hot in Ao Nang. I don’t go out into the sun much because my complexion is such that I just burn and suffer after a few hours shirtless. This is not my definition of fun, so I shall be returning to Korea pasty everywhere except my arms and face and legs. Okay, pasty-torso’d. But I thought I’d remind myself — in the future — of something important.The thing I wanted to remind myself of is this: when it’s hot summertime in Korea, and I ask myself, “Why the hell did I pay to go to Thailand for hot weather, when months of summer are interminably hot here?” I should recall that word “interminably.” It’s not anywhere near as humid here in Ao Nang, and the heat is pleasant enough because it feels like a break from the current cold of Korea — it’s partly psychological, in other words, but not completely. The humidity that pervades Korea makes the peninsula really difficult for me to withstand, especially in August. Around then, Mongolia or Vladivostok start sounding pretty damned good.And there’s the mood, the vibe. Even in the touristy places like where I am now, people are just different: they’re not so serious, they goof off, they joke. I don’t know if it’s my patience that’s cut out, or whether things have changed, but the shop people are more aggressive — more like the tuk-tukdrivers who bug you even after seeing you turn another driver down moments before.

Even with the biggest annoyance — a relatively small one, as I left my cap beside a computer in the hotel where I stayed my first night, and came back an hour later when I realized I’d left it. “Oh no, sir, I saw you wear it out,” was the reply, at which point I wondered whether the girl at the desk was remembering wrong or what, because I know I left the cap there. But it’s a cap, and I replaced it. With difficulty, as my head’s big, but even so…

I don’t know, there’s a kind of mild, pointless pleasantness that is a nice break from the sternness that sometimes seems to pervade Korea. I don’t know if it’s Thai culture — as it definitely is in Laos — but people don’t walk down the street frowning the way they seem to do in Bucheon or Jeonju or Seoul.

Candid Strangers

But then, I should remind myself, not everyone’s like that: on the very same street and afternoon on which I shot the above, I also snapped this picture below:

Mother and Critter 2

If only such smiles were a little more infectious between strangers… but, ah well, there are things I like about Korea that are missing in Thailand, too.

But not croissants. Or all kinds of other good non-Korean food.  Oh, man. I’m hungry. Off I go…

22 thoughts on “The Horror of Arirang, and on Ao Nang

  1. I’m not sure if you’ve had a chance to listen to Michael Hurt’s podcast on the same issue that I mention in the comments in post you link to (and thanks for that by the way), but Michael, Expat Jane, and I think a CNN reporter come to much the same conclusions. One thing the podcast really highlighted to me was how even if the Korean Wave had been as successful as the hype, Koreans still seem to find the natural and inevitable criticism of individual songs and movies as incredibly personal attacks on Korea and Koreans themselves. Needless to say, it’s not very mature, definitely not cool, and other than the propoganda Arirang seems determined to preempt any negativity by enlessly presenting bland documentaries about Jade like you mention, or obscure freshwater fish.

    Having written that, I realise that in so many ways, Arirang epitomises Korea’s attitudes towards globalisation to me.

  2. James,

    Yeah, I haven’t heard the podcast, but it sounds sensible to me. The criticism-of-any-random-crap-as-criticism-of-the-nation/race thing is one I’ve noticed too, and again, I think it’s that awkward self-consciousness thing. Maybe Korea will get over it someday, but it’ll take sensible people trying hard. That’s VERY familiar from Canadian anxieties… when someone proudly declares, “Toronto is now a world-class city” you know there’s anxiety about not being one, or not having been one. Canada’s still not over being the clever, tubby wimp who lived next door to a bodybuilding jock with a sports car. Korea’s insecurity is analogous. I was going to say that it’s time for both societies to get over it and just shrug off criticism — but that’s wrong. Criticism’s good for societies, and insecurity prevents people from learning from it and using it to their own benefit. I think it’s just time to be less insecure. But that’ll take big changes in the media, I think.

    Thanks for the comment, and I’ll check out the podcast when I have time.

  3. Hey, what a coincidence. I’m in Ao Nang right now as well, Krabi actually, but I was there today and will be there tomorrow. It is indeed hot. If you’d like to meet for lunch just send me an email.

  4. Some of that insecurity can be blamed on the media and government but compare this website:

    To this website, from a place that isn’t very hockey friendly:

    The level of enthusiasm that American’s bring to building up their “civil society” helps put Canadian insecurities in it’s proper context. It’s hard to love your country in an abstract sense when you feel indifferent about your neighbors.

  5. What a small world. See you later, Trevor.


    To be honest, both pages were a blur to me. I think I don’t know what to look for. You’re saying Canadians are more enthusiastic about hockey? I never found hockey all that “civil” anyway. :)

  6. Well, the American website has a slicker, more “professional looking” design, some advertising, and even limited merchandising. Which is impressive, given the fact that the pool of volunteers (and support for the sport within the larger community) for such an enterprise is considerably smaller than it would be in Canada. I’m not really that much into sports, but even I know (speaking as a local) Washingtion, DC is a football town 24/7.

    The Manitoba website has a much bigger pool of volunteers to draw from, (and hockey enthusiasts within the community) but looks more amateurish, there is no support from local businesses, and well, I’m not sure if they have merchandising, but I suspect there isn’t it.

    Which is a long winded way of saying that Americans can display a better sense of civil society, on a local level, than their Canadian counterparts, even when playing a sport as “uncivil” as hockey.

  7. Mark,

    Incivil”, innit? Okay, then I guess I misunderstood you. Funny thing is, when I saw the Canadian site, I saw amateurs, but when I saw the American one, the slickness put me off.

  8. Well, whether or not the slickness puts you off is a matter of taste. However, the point is the amount of volunteer effort and talent on display at both sites. Given the larger pool of available volunteers, the amateurism of the Manitoba site is surprising.

  9. Ironically, I imagine the Canadian site involves more effort, just by people who don’t properly know what they’re doing in building a website. Which, don’t take this the wrong way, but doesn’t surprise me given that it’s a site devoted to hockey.

    (To be fair, the American site is not necessarily run by people less clueless, but they had the wisdom to use a blog format with a template. And maybe they started later? Revising an institutional website — when it’s all by volunteers, especially — can be a hell of a job when the site has been around for a while.

  10. Some of the biggest nerds and computer geeks I’ve ever met in my life are also the biggest sports fans and jocks.

    The sports editor at The Manitoban, while I was there was responsible for our website, and did a good job of it. Our managing editor was also a big sports fan (he cut his teeth on the sports section too) and loved all things SFnal just as much.

    In high school, university, Japan and South Korea, I’ve lost track of the number of high school jocks (football quarterbacks, basketball forwards etc) who played Dungeons & Dragons, loved all things SFnal, fantasy, and knew their way around a laptop.

  11. Mark,

    That’s funny. My experience is somewhat different. Not all hockey fans are jocks, of course, but I’ve never met a jock who understood CSS or played RPGs (non-computer ones, I mean). Mind, Korea and Japan is different — from discussions I’ve had, and lessons I ran explaining the stereotypical caste system of North American schools, they don’t have the “nerd” category, or, rather, the “nerd” category in Korea simply isn’t stigmatized. You can be smart and nobody minds unless you’re also self-important about it. Smart and nice, people like. Or so I’m told.

    (And scoring well in school is so widely valued that the highest achievement socially is to be the captain of whatever team, get straight A-pluses. In North America, someone who scores well on the court AND on tests seems to me never to gain admittance fully to the “cool kid” group, because of our widespread anti-intellectualism.

    Not to wax Bloomish or anything, but he was right about that, at least… North American culture is a very anti-intellectual one.

    Anyway, sports editors are writers, so being able to run a website doesn’t surprise me. I’d be more suprised to see gap-toothed goalies coding CSS or perl scripts. I’m sure a few exist, but I’m not sure how many.

    By the way, D&D is SO 1980s. I don’t even know what is hot now, but in the 90s, at least, it was White Wolf. Now? Probably some impersonal, characterless MMORPG. Not that I hate such games, but they’re even less sophisticated than tabletop wargaming in terms of character and narrative, which I found were the most useful things in the development of abstract thinking in gamers. (Characters, roles, dilemmas, and actions, not just strategy and treasure.)

  12. Sorry, I’m not up on the roleplaying terminology. I was using D & D as an example, and not in the perjorative sense.

    After I left Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, my interactions with jocks and sports fans were a lot more pleasant. However, my junior high/ senior high school basketball was routinely beaten by the school for the deaf, so that helps put things in perspective. Most of the sports enthusiasts (armchair quarterbacks and atheletes alike) I met in University and in the workforce strike me as being genuinely nice and for the most part intelligent guys.

    As for anti-intellectualism in North American life, well, when I read Orwell’s description of socialists on a bus (or was it the metro?) there was an instant flash of recognition, and things hadn’t changed one bit when P.J. O’Rourke wrote about a boat tour he took with a bunch of ageing lefties in “Ship of Fools”, from his collection Republican Party Reptile. Flash forward to that bit Michael Moore wrote in Stupid White Men about the things that your annoying conservative in-laws do right, and well, it’s amazing we don’t tar and feather the creatures instead of just trying to ignore them.

  13. Mark,

    Yeah, no worries. I was just saying. Didn’t think you were a gamer… you never played when Mike and Aaron and Ryan and I started gaming together, did you? (Or was that when you moved?)

    I gotta say I’ve met some people who were smart but liked sports, but very few who were extremely intelligent and liked sports. Some, yes, like my buddy Charlie, but not many. This, too, could be an idiosyncratic thing. I could also say I’m prejudging people. But on the other hand, I should clarify that “not extremely intelligent” is not really a pejorative either. It’s just a statement of degree. The guys you can talk about real philosophy with (even just in layman’s terms, but without dumbing it down) usually don’t spend their time watching men chase balls around a field, or similar things.

    “The creatures” being intellectuals? Yeah, well, but my definition of intellectuals is maybe narrower than the standard one. I’d call Orwell’s socialists and O’Rourke’s Fools pseudo-intellectuals, I’m guessing. (Not having read either book, let alone Moore’s.) But I think that in North American schools — all the ones I attended, but yeah, that’s only in Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan — proto-intellectual are essentially tarred and feathered. That is, they’re pretty much tortured into submission by morons, and equally moron teachers allow this to go on like business as usual.

    And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

  14. Funny. I didn’t always like street hockey (or in Canada, ball hockey) or hockey for that matter, but a year and a half ago, when I was stuck in Winnipeg, I was playing with a bunch of profs on Sundays. The best guy in our group (he played ice hockey too) was also considered one of the smartest philosophy professors (well, the philosophy prof’s were all extremely intelligent at the University of Manitoba) by the name of Bob Shaver.

    I know I played RPG’s a couple of times with you and the guys in PA, and have done so on occasion since then. It was fun, but I was never as passionate about RPG’s as I was about comic books.

  15. It’s perhaps about Korean anxiety about self-presentation on the world stage, but the anxiety so overwhelms the reality of the place that it renders real depiction of Korea impossible.


    Now the question is why the anxiety?

  16. I rescind my earlier explanation. I’d forgotten that I’d thought up a better one, which I discussed briefly here and here in relation to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. With the caveat that I’m not sure violent revolution is the only way the shackles can be thrown off, or that it actually works (I can think of plenty where violent uprisings haven’t resulted in a cultural or mental decolonization of the subject nation), but Fanon’s description of the nation that fails to successfully decolonize itself rang dozens of bells for me at various points in the book. It was all just so familiar.

    That’s a good question, Sperwer. Here are some possible contributing factors:

    • Anti-Japanese sentiment clashing with the fact that, even having been old-school colonial and an Axis power, the Western world is fascinated with (and more respectful, and hell, more aware of) Japan than it has ever been of Korea.
    • Anxiety learned by rote, ie. indoctrination. When I was growing up in Canada, we had it hammered into our heads that Canada was having an identity crisis. This was something we picked up from our teachers and took for granted, even when we were too young to understand what “the Canadian identity” was supposed to mean. Imagine if teachers were hammering a paradoxical message of the greatness of one’s nation, and the perpetual, righteousness-providing victimhood of your nation, when explicit nationalist propaganda is floating around in at least a few classrooms at every school… I suspect that would lead to a lot of anxiety about perception and identity.

      [Notable are the political uses of this kind of thing. In Canada’s case, Brian Mulroney and his people ended up defining the nation in such a way that we began chasing an economic model that doesn’t actually work for us (since our resource base is so different from the US), pushing through rather damaging trade agreements (that did us much less benefit than they did the USA but increased our workload and exports) and so on. There’s a reason so many young Canadians leave Canada.]

    • The more generalized trend in Korean (and generally Northeast-Asian) culture to worry about what others think on a personal level. It’s very easy to map this onto a national consciousness level, since it’s the same sort of attitude: regardless of the reality, the presentation must be absolutely picture-perfect, or a loss of status and dignity will result.
    • The fact that in most other international media, Korea usually only comes up in terms of North Korea, or bizarre giggly/scary news items.

    Which isn’t to defend that anxiety. As I say, it’s about time people tried to get over worrying what everyone else in the world thinks, and got on with improving their own lives.

    But then, you know, people might start demanding political reform, a rooting-out of corruption, and might start demanding a choice of political representation that isn’t obviously, from the outset, going to rape them in the ass for four years. So you can bet that moving on is not going to be encouraged.

  17. Isn’t blaming Brian Mulroney a little bit disingenous? His government lasted two terms, about ten years in total. We had Liberals from 1993-2006.

    They are Canada’s natural governing party – governing for a total of almost 80 years in the twentieth century.

    If I were casting about for a federal party to blame (I’m not – I think the provinces generally do a lousy job, regardless of political affiliation) – well, the Liberals seem to be the more obvious choice.

  18. Re: Canada’s identity crisis – I think it tends to be more marked in English Canada. It’s harder to have a distinct culture when our large neighbor next door shares the same language.

  19. Mark,

    Well, I think the provinces do a bad job too, but it was under Mulroney that the government made a huge leap towards Americanizing our economy, and furthermore they’re the ones responsible for NAFTA. Not that I think the Liberals are any better, but I get this (perhaps misinformed) feeling that the scurry to try be a mini-
    America came in during Mulroney’s time. (And definitely not under Trudeau’s.)

    I think French Canada also has an identity crisis, though a different one. And indeed, the whole combination of it all becomes one big fat backwards-looking, unimaginative mess that we were all taught is significant. It is… but only as history.

    And if we were to argue about the nature of the Canadian identity crisis (though I am not inclined to believe there’s really one to begin with) I’d argue it’s really just all the stacked peripheralities that make up our sense of self in various regions of the country. Northern Saskatchewan (or BC or whatever) is peripheral to the southern half, town is peripheral to city, west (and Maritimes, and Quebec) are peripheral to Ontario, everyone’s peripheral to Ottawa (politically) or Toronto (otherwise), and Canada itself is peripheral to the USA. These is some of that in the way Canadians think about themselves. I just think they ought to get over it.

  20. Just ran across your recission of your earlier comments about Korean anxiety and your substitution of the reference to Fanon. I found the reference provocative, because I haven’t read Fanon in over 35 years, and had consigned him (perhaps precipitously)to the dustbin of other New Left stuff that I was reading back then. That being said, it also seems to me that your recission was a little drastic. As you note Fanon’s themes seem applicable, with adaptations to Korea. But, as you also note, to make the suggested aplication mimetically persuasive would involve hanging some Korean flesh on the bones excavated from Fanon’s analysis of Martinique and Algeria. Your previous comments comments are useful tissue samples for that enterprise.

  21. Sperwer,

    Yeah, and I would like to hope the linked posts there explore that to some degree. I’m sure there’s a book in there somewhere, but I’m not sure I want to write it. (Or that I could.)

    I can say, though, that the few Koreans to whom I’ve handed a (Korean-language-translated version of) The Wretched of the Earth have responded with, “Holy crap, this is SO applicable to Korea!”

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