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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.

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:

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…

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