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Expatriates and Creative Bitching

I’ve often got this song on a loop in my MP3 these days when I ride the subways:

Before you read the following, seriously, listen to this song, check out the lyrics, of which the following passage grabbbed me (hard, by wrist) when I first heard it:

I understand the culture’s
Of a different kind,
But here [the] word celebration
Just doesn’t come to mind!

This resonates with me in the context of the story the song tells: a band that describes itself, in its early days, as “a bunch of immigrants jamming” who met at “a Russian wedding in Vermont” (those are from this page at the band’s website), fronted by a man who is exuberantly unapologetic about his Ukranian accent (as he well should be!) rants about how pathetic America weddings are back home.

So as I’m listening to it, I’m asking myself what the song would be if I were singing it in Korea, about Korean weddings. You know, what’s the white Western expat in Korea equivalent of this song’s railing about a lack of 3 days’ worth of vodka and marinade of herring (em… ew?), a (good) live band; the mockery of how people stuff themselves on cake and dance meekly to crappy DJ music until one in the morning, and then go home. The video is even more aggressive in its mockery — of things that we Westerners, if we’ve experienced a really fun wedding, totally know are cheesy, feel are cheesy, but usually just accept as being the way things are done. (In Canada, I should add, which is much like America in terms of cheesy wedding culture.)

I figure the rant would include stuff about how the wedding party is chased out because the ceremony took more than an hour and the wedding hall has a 2:30 to set up in that hall; the bubble machines; the ajummas shoving the bride aside during the wedding march to get to their seats; the, er, tuxedo that the groom invitably wears, which more often than not is the kind of tux no Western man would risk being caught dead in; the lack of dancing and singing; the people who come just for the food, skipping out to the dining hall before the ceremony’s even done; the way lots of people show up in jeans and other casual clothing (or, maybe that’s a Jeolla thing?)…

But at the same time, there’s that caveat in my mind, from the verse above.

I understand the culture’s
Of a different kind…

Is a disclaimer of a sort. It’s saying, “Look, I get it. This is your culture, not mine. You go on and do things as you like…” But then it’s followed up with:

… but here [the] word celebration
Just doesn’t come to mind!

… which reflects that insistent, “But, no, man. I’m sorry (but not really) sorry to say, this way you do X in your culture, it’s just never gonna make sense to me, never gonna be fun. There’s something about it that just does not work for me, and I can’t help but say that this thing is ridiculous! (And I know you know it too!)” Followed by nudges and winks and crazy dancing for those who are from the local culture but happen to agree.

This seems to me a very healthy sort of model for thinking about cultural difference when you’re in the thick of expatriate life. Anyone who’s  taken a few university courses in the humanities  (in the West, at least) undoubtedly has experienced the preaching of the whole, “Be respectful and tolerant of other cultures” gospel, and there’s a very good intention there.

But many of the people who preach that have never actually lived in another culture that differed significantly from their own. Sometimes I wonder just how much of their academically-correct gospel would survive a couple of years of actually living in the Chinese countryside, or the bush of Papua New Guinea.  That’s not to say it’s not important to cultivate a sense of respect for the people around you, and to grasp that if you’re going to function in a new society, you’d better get a handle on its culture. But there’s something about the experience of living as an expatriate day in and day out that changes your sense of what “respect” entails.

That’s probably even more pronounced when what you’re so often experiencing is a remix of your own culture. Though it’d be silly to simply assume the story of “American Wedding” is simply Eugene’s real feelings about American weddings — surely there’s some playing up of his Ukranian-immigrant persona, an element of expatriate theater in Gogol Bordello right down to the concept — the story tyhe song tells is of someone moving from a Slavic Culture with its own (holy crap over the top) wedding traditions to the more sedate, subdued Anglo-Saxon wedding culture of America.

(And, of course, all the other elements of American and Ukranian cultures that weddings reflect or suggest.)

It’s even more tricky to balance respect with critique when what you’re seeing is a remix of your own culture, with what sometimes seems like the most relatively fun parts (the awful dancing, thehorrid music, the prolonged drinking, the cutting loose) drained from it. For modern Korean weddings are, if nothing else, a remix of the Anglo-Saxon weddings that this song criticizes, with extra cheese on top. (In the form of bubble machines, or fog machines, or karaoke love songs sung by wedding hall staff, in some cases. And no, I’m not kidding. These are things I’ve seen with my own [bleeding] eyes.)

Sometimes I do my best to blend in culturally. For example, when drinking with Koreans and someone’s glass is empty, you’re supposed to fill it for them. The worst thing that can happen is someone is stuck filling his own glass. When I’m the only non-Korean, I try to observe that rule, since it’s just politeness for everyone else. There’s a level where it’s not so much politeness to me, but more something falling between a fascinating ritual of courtesy and social awareeness when it’s fun, to puzzling and frustrating when you’re in, say, work-related meetings and would rather concentrate on the conversation.

But sometimes, if it’s just me and one other person, or a mixed group, or with a bunch of foreigners in Korea (because a lot of us internalize this drinking ritual and find ourselves doing it even in culturally-inapporpriate settings, like when out for drinks with other foreigners), and the mood strikes me, I’ll just say, “Ah, let’s do this like Westerners,” and dispense with the anxious paying-attention that, at least for me, characterizes some of the experience of drinking in a group. I’ll pour my own beer if I like, and no apologize. I’ll fail to notice someone else’s mostly-empty cup and not feel badly. And I’ll pour someone else’s cup if I happen to notice them ready for more. I don’t dispense with all courtesy, since we have courtesy at the bar in my culture too.

Anyway, all of this is a meandering thinkabout regarding the way expats and immigrants talk about the foreign societies in which they find themselves living. I think that a wide-ranging survey of expatriate/immigrant/diasporic creativity would be a really interesting thing to look at, though I suspect tyhat if it’s been done much, those books are like to be full of all kinds of PoMo jargon and nonsense, and very little informed by the actual experience of expatriate or immigrant life… as well as focused on “high art” as opposed to pop culture. As a Canadian SF writer living (for a long time) in Korea, I find the question of what kind of popular culture other expats and “foreigners” create a fascinating one. Yet another doctoral thesis I’ll probably never write, but I may spend time looking at it for a while.

(And yeah, I know, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot. I don’t mean to exclude someone like Rohinton Mistry, who emigrated to Canada and then wrote a series of stunning novels about life in the Bengal he’d left behind — and a number of major Canadian writers in Canada are also expats of some sort or another — but I think popcultural incarnations of this experience might also be fascinating. Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg — expat artists abound in the 20th century, and weren’t rare in earlier centuries either — how many of the composers in the court of the Dukes of Burgundy were homegrown locals? — … but I’m thinking more recent stuff, in the more recent wave of globalization, and more pop-culture in flavour.

And in that region of pop culture, I’m thinking of people whose work, instead of simply conforming to local (especially American) mass media (music industry, TV, Hollywood) actually evidence in their creative work some interesting, critical, and engaging discussion of the expat experience and of their new country and its culture?

What comes to mind is a group like Gogol Bordello; a writer like Minsoo Kang (a self-described “real Korean from Korea”) who is both a scholar and a fantasy writer in the United States now (that book review I linked — I’m reading the book off-and-on now, and it’s pretty damned good!); an outfit like Dabang Band that, from time to time, touched on the surrealness of expat life in Korea, though for some reason there was a conscious effort made to steer clear of of that being too focal to the band.(And we’re far from the only foreigners in Korea to sing about the life of an expat here… “Kickin’ It in Geumchon” is probably the most famous case, in viral-video terms:

… though “Soju Mama” (conspicuously taken down now back up at Youtube — see the comments section —, but and still available at the Internet Archive):

… was the predecessor… both videos, by the way, are crammed full of stereotypes about Koreans and foreigners alike, again displaying the same kind of over-the-top overstatement we see in the Gogol Bordello video above. Personally, I get more of a kick out of the former video, maybe because the gags and references are more “insider” — the refrain about kimchi being good for health, the way they’re dancing in front of the most boring sorts of places (comic book salons and the Family Mart, because, well, there’s nothing to do in Geumchon), the middle aged man making a V with his fingers for the camera, the noraebang (karaoke room) scene… all of that is so familiar yet so incongruous in a rap video, yet the gags, it seems to me, while making fun, don’t outright mock the town or its people, as much as illustrate how downright bizarre it is to live as an outsider in a place like Geumchon. (Actually, their more recent video also does the same kind of thing — if it’s mockery, there’s plenty to go around, but it’s still insistent that going on a date where you end up sitting on lawn chairs indoors, or the way you can’t meet your girlfriend’s dad because he doesn’t like foreigners (still absolutely common here), is just incongruous to us Westerners, and probably will remain so.)

Well, dear readers, I’m sure you’re brimming with suggestions at this point! You know what to do, the comments link is just below, so hit me with whatever you’ve got!

By the way, photos from the video shoot for the video above are (newly!) available here. What timing I have, yes I do!

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