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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.

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