Hanbok Beijing, T-Shirt-and-Jeans Seoul

There was a very strange moment the other day that I meant to post about earlier, but forgot about because I was sidetracked into issues of foreign exchange students in Korea, especially Chinese ones.

One of my students wrote a fascinating essay on the effect of Korean popular culture and Hallyu (the so-called “Korean Wave”) on Chinese society; her argument, essentially, was that many young, urban Chinese are absolutely crazy for Korean pop culture, and that this is a bad thing because they’re essentially jettisoning their own traditional culture and so on. I’m not sure whether it was alarmist or not, but other students noted that she was erroneous in thinking that the Chinese tourist industry is smaller or less-developed than Korea’s (which is quite minimal, by all accounts), and that Hallyu in fact might be a bad model to emulate, since the Korean wave seems to be ebbing away, and partially, according to Korean commentators — so say my Korean students — because of strategically bad decisions in terms of promotion and production.

So anyway, after all that, I was talking about hyperbole, and its uses. I recommended “A Modest Proposal” as an example of how hyperbole can sometimes be quite useful — it’s so far over the top that it makes its point beautifully. It reminded me of another student’s essay on the inequality of women’s share of the household work even in an era when dual income families are commonplace — the moment where the student briefly observes, in hyperbole, “If things don’t change, there will be a mass demonstration, or maybe all the women in Korea will leave for another country.”

The demonstration isn’t such a stirring image, but imagine an exodus of women from a modern country! That’s such an arresting image that, no matter how unrealistic or ludicrous it is, it conveys a message about the intolerability of how women are treated. (Unfortunately, the rewrite of the essay, currently, doesn’t use this hyperbole in any expanded way. If she doesn’t expand it, I think I’m going to write a story on the theme or something.)

Anyway, we were discussing the idea of a country jettisoning its own culture in favor of a foreign popular culture, and I said, “How could we represent that in a single image that shows that something is weird, wrong, unexpected, deeply strange?” Nobody seemed to have any ideas, so I said, “How about this. Imagine walking down the street in Beijing, and seeing nothing but Chinese people dressed in hanbok, speaking messed-up Korean with a funny accent, talking about their favorite Korean TV shows. Everyone in Beijing in hanbok.”

Everyone laughed very loudly at the idea, at the incongruity of it, at how that could never happen, how strange it was. Then I added, “But you know, it’s not such a strange idea. It’s unlikely, but then, look at you. You’re mostly Korean, and not one of you is wearing hanbok. You’re all wearing jeans and American shoes and shirts. Who would have thought that was likely 150 years ago?”

It was a casual observation, but there was a weird, uneasy silence for a few moments — a pregnant silence, as it were, laden with oddness, though I hope not tainted by teratogens; though, interestingly, another student did indeed write an essay about how the obsession with English language study here is having a teratogenic effect on Korean culture as it is passed on to the young. I didn’t let the silence sit for too lone, though; soon, we moved back to discussing why hyperbole that isn’t over the top often comes off as weak, irrational, and ineffective.

As for their essays: I’m going to be pairing students up, and having them act as “unsympathetic readers” — that is, write a coherent response to their partner’s essay that attempts to reject or refute the basic points and assumptions of the argument presented, and to attack vulnerabilities like lack of evidence or unproven assertions of causality and so on. I’ve never given this as an assignment, but I’m trying to get students to consider their audience not just as ignorant, or as passive, but in a sense as an intelligent other, a whole other person with different beliefs, values, and opinions, with whom a form of persuasive dialogue is supposed to occur through the form of the essay. Monologic dialog, that is the essay.

Again, paradoxic, weird, hard to master. But we’ll see how it goes, I guess. I’m inspired by the idea, anyway. Big applause for Gerald Graff on that one. Such a simple point, but so important.One way of giving students a sense of entry into a culture of dialog — which anyway is alien to them in a rote-memorization-focused educational background — is to actually drop the students into a dialogue of sorts.  We’ll see how well students do putting on oppositionality, even toward opinions with which they actually agree.

5 thoughts on “Hanbok Beijing, T-Shirt-and-Jeans Seoul

  1. Oh, do write a story where all the women leave. It would be fabulous. And might win you a Tiptree to boot.

    Interesting idea for teaching about audience.

    I really wish I had been reading this back when I was taking Teaching Freshman Composition (not that I ever ended up teaching it anyway).

  2. Val,

    I think I shall, though I’m not counting my Tiptrees till they parthenogenerate. But it would be a fun story, wouldn’t it? :)

    Yeah, teaching in a somewhat multi-cultural classroom… I find it keeps me on my toes more and more. But I’d be happier not teaching composition, these days. It’s so energy-consuming.

  3. Yeah, that besides a job offer in publishing is why I didn’t end up doing it. Well, and that the competition for comp jobs at my grad program was FIERCE.

    Btw, since you mentioned the July Asimovs….I almost sent you an email.

    Your story reaffirmed my love of sf. I felt like a kid sitting in the library with summer light slanting in through the windows, reading Ray Bradbury for the first time, feeling the earth turn under my feet.

    And I’m going to say as much in my review. I’m glad I’m a member of Montreal 2009.

    Bless you. Making my (volunteer) review writing more pleasant.

    I don’t know if this is conflict of interest, but I hope not. I read the story day before yesterday, and agonized so didn’t send you an email.

    I’m astounded what a step up from the admittedly good Pahwahke the Asimov piece is.

    Please, please please submit it to Escape Pod after July! It would be a treat to hear.

    I know you won’t be at Readercon, since you’re so far away, but I guess I can hope to meet you at Montreal 2009.

  4. Val,

    Thanks so much. You’re very kind, and I am very happy to hear someone loved it like that.

    I don’t think there’s a conflict of interest in telling someone you liked their story before publishing a review of it. I’ll definitely submit it to Escape Pod when it’s free. (I think Asimov’s has copyright hold on it for a while longer, but I’m also sure Steve would be willing to hold it till he can use it.)

    I won’t be at Readercon, or, I think, any Cons this year, but I’m indeed hoping to be at WorldCon 2009 in Montreal. (The city is my old stomping grounds and all.) It’d be cool to meet you there.

    In the meantime, thanks for the encouragement!

    (PS I envy you: I won’t be seeing the issue for a while yet. I wonder when it will be on newsstands…)

  5. If there’s a serious lag as to when it shows up in Korea (which I imagine there might be), I can mail it to you if you want, although maybe they’ll be nice and send you a copy.

    As a whole, its a very strong issue (I’m about halfway through).

    Thanks for assuaging my concern about conflict of interest.

    And yeah, I figured you’d be at Montreal. yay!

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