Korean Culture: Obscure niche to mainstream cool?

As an older Millennial, I’ve often felt that I was just a few years ahead of the curve. Not in terms of being more advanced, but rather in being interested in things or wanting certain things that weren’t really available yet. As trends have gained steam, I’ve been surprised and delighted, but sometimes also caught off-guard, by how supposedly niche interests of mine have gone mainstream.

Korean culture is one of these areas.

Takematsu

Fourteen years ago, what I knew of Korea was limited to what I could experience firsthand in my Phoenix bedroom community of Glendale. My husband and I went on our first date at a local Korean and Japanese restaurant, Takematsu, where I tasted my very first kimchi and dolsut bibimbap.

Opening our wedding gift at my in-law's house. No sharp edges! Copyright 2014, Melissa Hahn

Opening our wedding gift at my in-law’s house. No sharp edges! Copyright 2014, Melissa Hahn

I had tried to do some research ahead of time, but because I couldn’t find good sites online dedicated to this topic (it was 2000), I resorted to the encyclopedias of culinary culture found at our local library, where I worked. (I may or may not have spent a bit of my afternoon shift trying to wrap my head around descriptions of fermented fish cake).

Otherwise, my grasp of Korea was limited to knowing that there had been a war there, that there was a North one and a South one, and that my mother-in-law had some really pretty decorations in her house.

Snelling

Things improved slightly when we lived in the Twin Cities. As someone who was studying Russia, I wasn’t learning more about Korea in school than the pitiful bit I already knew. In daily life, there weren’t really opportunities for engaging Korean culture, either. I don’t think it even crossed our mind to try. However, because we did not have my husband’s mother to cook for us, we had to venture outside our apartment and find Korean food for ourselves.

Our journey took us to a run-down section of a St. Paul street called Snelling, which had two restaurants – Shilla and Mirror of Korea – and a tiny grocery store no bigger than a one-bedroom apartment. Although the intention was initially just to obtain some good food, the experience of going to this microscopic Koreatown was my first real experience of Korean America outside my mother-in-law’s home or a restaurant. And, I think it was a watershed moment in our interest in engaging Korean culture, both for its own sake and for what it meant to my husband and the identity of our family. Stepping into the market, I saw another side of my husband – his Korean side – for the first time. I’m not sure whether this was because he was tapping into it more, and that is what struck me, or whether I was seeing what had always been there with new eyes, in the context of this new experience we were having together.

In any case, that tiny store was a treasure trove of cultural encounters for me. It was the first time I had been anywhere where absolutely no English was spoken. (Even in parts of Europe, which I had been fortunate to visit, it seemed English was omnipresent). Where customer service meant frowning at me. (Did they hate me? Had I made them mad? Did they not like to smile?) Where I hardly recognized a single item for sale. (What were all of these mysterious cans and plastic containers?) Where I felt too big and too loud, somehow. (Why was it dead silent in here?)

And where, amid what was to me a zone of total foreignness, my husband magically knew what to do.

One of our first glimpses of Koreatown, at the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Photo copyright 2014, Melissa Hahn

One of our first glimpses of Koreatown, at the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Photo copyright 2014, Melissa Hahn

He started pointing out what the different foods were – the bean sprouts, the red bean jellies, the dried seaweed – and while selecting what he needed from a suddenly accessible menu in his head, he began to tell me stories. He remembered Shrimp Crackers and Choco-Pies and the cherished moments of childhood bliss that went with them. He remembered having fish cake on a stick from a street vendor, and the joy he felt as a small boy as he drank the broth that came with it and dipped the stick into the available sauces. He said, “Anyonghaseyo,” and bowed slightly to the shopkeeper. And he chided me not to count my change in front of them because it would look like I was accusing them of stealing.

It was an awkward experience, but I was hooked.

As the years passed, we found ourselves regularly going back. The grocery store became a locus of our shared discovery, where he remembered fragments of his childhood and I became acquainted both with the culture and this side of him. It also served an additional purpose: Amid a Midwestern landscape which we found alienating, this was our own little world on the prairie – one he belonged to, I was starting to get to know, and which we could explore together.

Hallyu

Our experience of Korean culture might have been limited to those monthly trips to Snelling and our sometimes vain attempts to cook Korean food in our apartment, if it were not for a very important phenomenon: Hallyu. Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, is to much of the world what “The British Invasion” of pop music was to the U.S. back in the 1960s. And it brought us face to face with contemporary Korean television, movies, and music for the first time.

This was in the early 2000s, before digital streaming, social media, and blogging became so widespread. To learn about top Korean titles, we therefore had to painstakingly scour English-language Asia sites for reviews, buy an expensive import version on YesAsia, and then hope we liked it when it arrived. While we had a few misses, most films, like Il Mare, were well-chosen. Swept away by the wave, we soon filled our shelves with everything from Windstruck, My Sassy Girl, My Beautiful Girl Mari and Yobi the Five-Tailed Fox to Memories of Murder, Tae Guk Gi, Old Boy, Dae Jang Geum, and Jumong.

Really excited about this bong, or bread pastry in Koreatown Plaza. Copyright 2014, Melissa Hahn.

Really excited about this bong, or bread pastry in Koreatown Plaza. Copyright 2014, Melissa Hahn.

As we watched, we witnessed steady improvement in production value, and came to recognize patterns in storytelling, plot devices, relationship tangles, and challenges for the characters to overcome. We fell in love with stars like Jang Dong-Gun, Lee Young-Ae, and Song Kang-Ho. We relished the opportunity to see Korea in a modern light, to better appreciate its regal past through court dramas, and to be exposed to unresolved parts of its history through films like Silmido.

Most of all, we saw something we had never seen before: Male characters who reminded me and my husband of himself. Not simply because of surface similarities in appearance, but because of the portrayal of different kinds of Korean masculinity. I can’t overstate what it meant to see a leading man – the hero, the love interest – be someone other than a square-jawed all-American bro. And to see Korean men playing complex, multidimensional parts other than the eccentric sidekick to the normal white dude. Guys who felt affection, anger, surprise, and worry with the same expressions and reactions as the ones I so often saw on my husband’s own face. It was like discovering a piece of our authentic selves and the world we were creating together, arriving in a box from thousands of miles away.

Streaming the mainstream

When we returned from Minnesota in 2005, little had changed in Glendale, but Korean media had become even more accessible thanks to Amazon and Netflix. By the time we returned from sojourns in Poland and Atlanta in 2008, technology had improved even more. BluRays, smartphones, consoles, and streaming services were all taking off, and soon we were able to watch Korean media on-demand over Netflix and through sites like Crunchy Roll. We also began taking our first trips to Koreatown, where we discovered the wonders of Korean malls. After pigging out in the ridiculously delicious food court, we could buy dual-language books, ingenious home goods, and of course, more media. Soon we were making regular pilgrimages to Los Angeles, where we could fill our bellies, rejuvenate our souls, and stock up on essentials like Epik High and Rain.

Thus, as we entered the second decade of this century, it seemed that as long as we knew where to look, we could find nuggets of Korean culture. And yet, for all of our interest, it still seemed to be something peculiar that we and we alone were interested in, at least as far as other Americans were concerned. Our embrace of Korea was just one more exotic thing that we were interested in as strange globe-trotting people.

At the Korean Friendship Bell near Los Angeles. Copyright 2014, Melissa Hahn.

At the Korean Friendship Bell near Los Angeles. Copyright 2014, Melissa Hahn.

Imagine our surprise, then, when Psy’s Gangnam Style started playing on the Top 40 radio station in that very same Glendale. When I started not being the only white girl at the Korean spa. When columns at major news outlets started devoting space to Korean businesses, social life, fashion, music, and movies alongside the typical pieces about North Korean saber-rattling.

When books about how Korean pop culture was taking over the world started being discussed in Marie Claire. When articles extolling the hipness and irresistibility of Korean culture starting populating my Twitter feed. When blogs about Korean culture started springing up everywhere, exploring and critiquing not only media, but also social issues like multiculturalism, poverty, and racism.

When schools and companies started asking me to help them better understand their Korean students and clients. When other white women started expressing jealousy and admiration that I was with someone who was part Korean (a refreshing change from the remarks I’d had previously). 

Ahead of the curve or catching up?

Although this transition has been a long-time coming, in some ways it has caught me off-guard. After so many years of having to painstakingly search for and learn about everything from its food to its pop stars on a journey that was part scavenger-hunt, part research thesis, it is a bit weird and strangely irritating to see the newcomers have so much information and access at their fingertips. Like an old person, I think, “where is the hard work?” in this era where one simply clicks on the next show in the Netflix queue and never has to go through protracted inquiry and deliberation, making hard choices about which expensive show to watch next.

Not only that, but it is strange to have this part of us which society formerly seemed to reject now be upheld as the wave of the future and the epitome of cool. Of course, I’m thrilled for Korea. It deserves its time in the sun, and its success and popularity have nothing to do with me at all. But, on a personal level, after enduring disinterest, rudeness, hostility, and rejection for our embrace of Korean culture – which is not something exotic to us but is a real and living, breathing part of who my husband is, and by extension, what our life is like – it is a little odd to see it suddenly become a fad.

It’s a paradigm shift that we like, and which definitely benefits us as it provides ever-increasing access and also more approval from the mainstream. However, it also reorients our own relationship to Korean and American cultures and how we see ourselves occupying the sometimes contested, uneasy space in between. What does it mean to us, now that it is perpetually available? No longer an act of rebellion, but now even more cherished, has anything really changed at all?

That feeling that you've come home, because you have. In Seoul, with squid from the back of some lady's van. Copyright 2014, Melissa Hahn.

That feeling that you’ve come home, because you have. In Seoul, with squid from the back of some lady’s van. Copyright 2014, Melissa Hahn.

I don’t know. Yes? Maybe? No? I’m not sure we have to know.

But it’s something we think about with a combination of bemusement and appreciation as we laugh uproariously while streaming Rooftop Prince. While we sound out Korean lessons streamed from Pimsleur. As I listen to the Secret Garden soundtrack – streamed over Xbox Music. As I prepare to give a short talk at the office about my recent trip to Seoul and the photography I did there. As I reflect on my work with my favorite Korean student and consider ways that I can continue to help her during her transition to the U.S. school system. And as I help those in the film industry to engage with directors and producers from Korea, who they feel would be a great visionary fit for their projects. And as I munch on dried gim seaweed snacks from Costco and Trader Joe’s.

Maybe the answer is that Korean culture is simply here to stay, that it is finally a legitimate global influence, and that it’s not about who liked it first. (At any rate, there are certainly, many people – Koreans first among them – appreciated it long before I walked into that grocery store on Snelling so many years ago). Perhaps, like long-fermenting kimchi (or maybe bulgogi), it is finally ready to be enjoyed by the masses. With such richness and so much to offer, it’s about time. We’re just lucky to be a part of it.

In a bite, a dream

Something beautiful and delicious happened tonight, at the most suburban and quotidian of places. A trip to Whole Foods yielded not just a head of red cabbage but a 4 pack of mochi.

We rarely buy this Japanese treat in Phoenix for the simple reason that it is often dried out, due either to our extreme desert climate or the time-delay effects of shipping the top stuff from California. After tonight, though, we stand corrected. Apparently, quality mochi does exist here. We just didn’t know where to look.

These mochi were soft. Supple. Moist. Delicate. Bursting with flavor. And as we drooled over each bite, we were reminded in a visceral way that we must find a way to get back to Japan. Because even if we can find these particular treats, doing so only reminds us of all that remains out of reach.

For although globalization allows us to sneak tastes and glimpses of faraway places, there is nothing like actually physically being somewhere. To hear the breeze whistle through the trees at Meiji Jingu. To feel the pulse of humanity in Shibuya. To stand before the wonder that is Asakusa. And to do it all before jetting off to Seoul, which has an even tighter grip on our hearts.

Such dreams cost money; alas we do not have a trip on the horizon. But tonight, in an unexpected but appreciated surprise, we were temporarily transported back. Three months to the day that our feet first carried us through customs at Narita. And for that, we are certainly lucky.

Material world, dream world

Sometimes we rejoice in living within two cultures, but sometimes it strains us. After all, it means straddling conflicting realities, each with its own expectations, assumptions, rules, norms, and pressures. What we want and who we are can get lost in this in-between space. As the Korean saying goes, when the squid and the whale fight, it is the shrimp that gets a broken back.

This morning it so happens that the materialism of Korean culture has got us down. Specifically, the emphasis placed on acquiring the outward symbols of success (which ties into “face” as well) at the expense of what we US Millennials might call “our dreams.” Or personal goals. Or self-actualization.

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Making the most of your life doesn’t mean the same thing in every culture. But we’re trying anyway. Copyright 2013 Melissa Hahn

We took MIL to see “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” While she dozed intermittently, my husband and I shed a few tears about the meaning of life. It wasn’t so much that it was a great film (it’s not), but it struck all of the places in our hearts that needed validated:  The reminder that life is about taking leaps of faith and following our hearts, of having profound experiences, and in cultivating a life of purpose and meaning. Which we both define as seeing the world and pushing ourselves to grow as much as possible.

It’s times like this that we face the fact that no matter how comfortable we may have felt in Asia, our psyches are profoundly imprinted by the template of American culture. And unsurprisingly this is all highly threatening to MIL, who wants nothing more than for us to accept “the box” and all of the extrinsic satisfaction that comes with it. Just get a good job honey, keep your head down, stay at the office later than your boss, be loyal, and scheme about ways to get and save more money on the side. Then we will have the resources to buy things that make us comfortable, and she can finally sleep well, assured that we have a good life.

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Ah, the holidays. Copyright 2013, Melissa Hahn

I understand why she feels this way. At least I think I do. For someone who grew up fleeing the approaching North Korean army and enduring a kind of poverty I cannot imagine, material wellbeing is essential. She went to bed with an empty belly, sat near the charcoal stove at school to keep her fingers from freezing, and sacrificed much to give her only son the future we now enjoy. The trouble is not in empathizing, but in knowing what her story means for our lives. Entangled in the web of family life, it can be hard to discern where her dreams for us end and our actual lives as individuals begin.

Americans, of course, often sacrifice their dreams in order to keep up with the Joneses or to provide for their families, and especially in light of our unravelling middle class, dreams now seem an out-of-reach luxury for too many. And even when the economy was strong, most adults eventually gave up on becoming an astronaut or rock star and took office jobs instead. Even so, the abandonment or foregoing of what we really want out of life is understood as a tragedy, something to fight against and even mourn. Walter Mitty truly begins to live by letting his own inner light dictate his actions. In Korean media, it is the other way around: the dreamer finally grows up and listens to his parents, conforms, and finds fulfillment in the family-determined expectations.

Two different perceptions on how life is and should be – settling vs. striving – are hard to paint onto the canvas of one coherent soul. So you see, as we embark on another year, some conflict overshadows us. Is it possible to be filially pious in a Korean context while also pursuing the individual life that US culture demands and encourages? I’m not so sure. But the beat of our inner drummer compels us to keep exploring, to keep striving, and to keep living a life that is authentically ours. Even if the tallest nail gets pounded down. 2014 is the Year of the Horse and we’re ready to run free.

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A merry mixed Christmas!

We’re hosting my MIL for Christmas – a surprisingly new experience given that we’ve shared a family for so many years. While some things are the same with this arrangement, like her cooking duk mandoo gook, others are different. For example, having it at our place seems to mean that we celebrate alone, without the Korean chorus of my husband’s aunt and grandma. Strange to discover how foreign it feels without their running dialogue about us and with us in a language that we barely understand.

Yet there are new delights as well. In keeping with the Korean belief that you cannot truly know someone unless you drink with them, we got her slightly tipsy and at last heard stories she had never shared before. These little snippets, perhaps meaningless in another family, are rare treasures for us. So much history is cut off, and so much of the family dynamic remains concealed behind hangeul and reticence and a desire to cleanly abandon the old life, that there is a lot that we simply do not see, hear, or understand.

But on a night like tonight, over the Polish mead that we bought in remembrance of our former lives in Krakow, and after a meal of tamales, and before watching Harold & Kumar (MIL’s choice), we had the rare chance to see the life behind the mask of motherhood.

And so on this international holiday – one that has cut like a river across cultures while also being shaped like so many terrains, we celebrate the gift of our mixed, magical, and sometimes incomprehensible lives. To mothers, to sons, and to the promise that we can come together in a moment of peace and rejoicing.

Merry Christmas.

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Hapa Holidays!

Please forgive my shameless attempt at a pun.

I’m just pretty jazzed about participating in Everything Hapa’s conversation about holiday traditions that blend East and West. I’m never sure if I should join in discussions like these because many of these types of sites seem set up with the Eastern half of the person or couple in mind, and obviously I’m the Western half. I do not want to intrude, or take up space that is not meant for me. But, when I saw that one of their contributors was a Polish woman who had married a Japanese man and subsequently become interested in the multiculturality of their family, I went for it. Now it is up on their site, and you can get a little glimpse into our varied family traditions if you so desire.

While my humble little contribution is special to me, of greatest interest to you might be the rest of their site. For example, you can start preparing for Hapa Day 2014 with statistics about the rise in mixed marriages around the world and tips on what gift to give (hint: it’s tasty). Or, you can keep up with the latest Asian designers who are influencing global brands. There are also links to other pages of interest, travel apps (why did I not see these before our trip?), a regularly updated section on food and dining. and suggested films to add to your Netflix queue!

Best of all, Everything Hapa normalizes and celebrates the diverse reality of our lives and those of many of our friends. And in doing so, it not only offers community and functions as an important symbol, but also claims territory for those of us living (in all our forms and ways) at the intersection of Asian ancestry and another culture. What are you waiting for? Go take a look.

And maybe have a bite of butterball or jap jae.

Acknowledging imperfection

It’s no secret: we really miss being in Asia. My mouth misses sipping jujube tea, my spirit misses the temples, my mind misses the challenge, my eyes miss the palaces, and my heart misses the exuberance of it all. Even my body misses the time zone: it seems this week I am either sleeping until 3 pm or waking up at 4 am! (No fun when we have a houseful of eager company who are very much living in THIS time zone).

But, there are some things that I didn’t love about Tokyo & Seoul with my whole self, and which, reframed in the spirit of U.S. Thanksgiving, can be stated as things I appreciate about my life here. Here goes:

1. Not having motorcycles drive in crosswalks or on sidewalks (As in Seoul)

2. Being able to use our debit and credit cards basically everywhere (Unlike Tokyo)

3. Not having to throw toilet paper in the trash can (Seoul)

4. Not having to wonder about typhoid in the water (Korea)

5. Being functionally literate and able to speak in full sentences in my own language

6. Not being run over, pushed, or ignored (Seoul, Chinese tourists at Narita)

7. Not being an exotic object of fascination with my hair, eyes, and frame

8. Not being one of the only multicultural couples

9. Having abundant public trash cans!

10. Having full access to the Interwebs on our cell phones (we didn’t have the right system or pay for access in time in Asia)

11. Having a wider range of American food at our disposal than fried eggs and toast

12. Generally knowing where we are, where we’re going, and how to get there.

13. Not living out of a suitcase.

14. Not having a bathroom wall made of glass (Seoul)

15. Understanding the full meaning of events and interactions

16. Not being 17 hours ahead of family & friends.

So, 16 things to be grateful for this morning :) But I still miss it all.

The almost digital kiosk for ordering food, helpfully located outside a delicious ramen place near Omotesando. For someone who has trouble deciding what to order, this low-stress approach of letting you take your time before entering the restaurant is so appreciated! Copyright 2013, Melissa Hahn

 

Gangnam Station. It’s not all horsey dances. Copyright 2013, Melissa Hahn

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Re-entry woes + determination

So, we’re home. As the cliche goes, the party’s over, and tomorrow it’s back to work.

I knew it would be hard to leave Asia, given what a great time we were having, but I didn’t expect to be so bummed about what greeted us upon our return. Sorry suburban sprawl, but you’ve got nothing on the nightlife offered up by Shibuya and Apgujeong. To be fair, you’re not meant to. But now that we’ve experienced shopping at 10 pm, hanging out at coffee houses till 11 pm, and grabbing late night street food after that, we’re a little underwhelmed.

Compared to dusty sunsets over strip malls, the heady cosmopolitanism was intoxicating with its array of technology, artistry, and history. Soaring skyscrapers set incongruously next to ancient palaces, metal metros zooming past wooden shrines, fishcake vendors operating in front of glitzy department stores, calligraphy shops situated next door to upscale galleries… It was a veritable potpourri of life, emanating a vitality we’d never experienced before.

Travel is always a heightened form of living, in the way that plopping into a new country requires you to instantly navigate new terrain in a new language, with new cultural behavior. But usually it is a relief to come home to our routine, to get back to our own ways of doing things.

This time was different. We felt at home in a way we never have in Amsterdam or Vienna. Maybe because it actually was Mike’s first home, and because it felt so similar to being in his mom’s house. Perhaps because we cared more, and were so invested in the experience. Probably because we “get” Korean culture more than Polish or Italian culture, even if our pronunciation falters.

We were utterly captivated, and are determined to go back. Time to refill the piggy bank!

View of marvelous Tokyo from the top of city hall. Some of the best things really are free! Copyright 2013, Melissa Hahn

Indeed. Wishes from my water bottle lid in Narita. Copyright 2013, Melissa Hahn

One of our only photos together from the entire trip. Copyright 2013, Melissa Hahn

봉은사 Bongeunsa, a Buddhist temple founded in 794 A.D. Be impressed. Copyright 2013, Melissa Hahn

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