A review Of Nanoomi/Subject Object Verb’s Quest: Does Asian America Need a Brand Makeover?
Editor’s note: Before the racial flagellation comes my way, no I am not a Korean National or a Gyopo. I am American in fact a hyphenated Irish – American who understands indentifying with more than one place at one time. We are all Midnight’s Children living through different allusions at the same time, and as it’s been said it is not where you were born but where you belong and now I live in Seoul.
In a recent editorial I read on the Korea promotional siteNanoomi I was intrigued and finally flummoxed by the consideration and proposal that in order to get Korean soft power (i.e., books movies, pop-music, TV shows and the like) out to a worldwide audience a sort of Asian Creative Agenda should be established. “Does Asian America Need a Brand Makeover?” The idea is …
We need to give Asian America an extreme makeover — a thorough reboot that preserves the essence of our identity, our heritage and values, while dumping a lot of the baggage that comes with it. We need the kind of transformative rebranding that turned boring Target into sexy Tarjay, launched old-school Old Spice as a new-media sensation, made dead-end Apple magical again.–Jeff Yang
Pretty snappy writing for one thing; I can feel my pituitary gland releasing something and my heart beats for the East. A lot of the pique in the beginning of the article uploaded on Subject Object Verb has to do with the clichéd images of Asians like those front and center in the semi-exotic but really trite Hangover 2. I sense that like the film itself, the Asian characters in the film do come across as semi-exotic and really trite. To me it’s like listening to Shillelagh music on St. Paddy’s Day. So the question everyone should ask is how to turn away from the mediocre convention of the enlightened monk and shit-faced leprechaun and just create better art?
From Seoul, the Korean government spends subway cars full of money on promoting Korean culture abroad. It’s the build a global kingdom with soft-power approach: TV melodramas, pop-music, films, and “icons, icons icons,” as I often hear young Koreans maintain when talk of every day culture comes up. And the female Russian night workers whom I keep both eyes on at a local bar are always excited (after working their long nights on the sofa) to sit upright in the stools when the Kr. Pop-videos come up. Yes, we are in a time of Korean Global Hydration. And why not as every culture that has something to offer is shining it up and rebooting so the world can get that fresh look and taste. Something must be working as Pyeongchang, Korea has been awarded the hosting of 2018 Winter Olympics.
So where is the rub? For one thing I am concerned that the cultural re-branding of Korea is just a chameleon quick change of stereotypes that can now be the lovely guides to our current nihilistic epoch. Just a subtle reworking of the archetypes from Lotus Bride to Asian hip-hop chick. The Silk Sleeves transformed to Slick Sleeves: it’s all about being cool and being cool is extremely lucrative. Funny and plain to see is how the alternative Asian persona seems to come on loud and clear through hip hop culture (Example). Sometimes it’s all about the headgear from Royal Choseon Dynasty crowns to backwards baseball caps and urban street wear, from soft Asian ornamental to angry Asian skeptical. I get it: you can’t trust it, and you don’t want to spend your life in the suburbs living like a study-bug with your go-to, bookmarked Website being Grammar Girl. So what else? I would dare to expect that Korean American culture mavens would want a little more and bring it with the same passion they reject the animated Mulan putting Asian female heroism/ fantasy into the world of the Disney cannon.
Is the Korean Wave of pop culture creating the modern anthem of thin? Isn’t so much about current and hip Korea about thinness and the waking up to a new icon? From Dragon Lady to Androgyny Dragon? If it is, I say go for it. Indeed, let the drooling world take notice that Asia is rising. Who could deny the attractiveness of highly groomed pale bright toes still showing pristine through the detritus of our collapsed world? Often I would prefer the pedestal of the catwalk over the street podium especially when experiencing a reinvented culture but whatever, bring on the androgynous dystopia or utopia for who can say how it will turn out?
To bring storytelling and filmmaking into the cultural tabulation it seems to me that if the producers of the Korean Wave of pop culture had their druthers, the archetypes of character would decrease. You’d have thin vs. fat and hip vs. trad and cute vs. sexy, and of course old vs. young; and then you’d have those rich enough to buy designer clothes and those healthy enough to make them in a factory. You’d have the foreigner trying to steal the women and the foreigner who learned Korean so he could be on TV. Wait. I’m wrong about this. The permutations for character development and script treatments really are limitless. Actually, the most interesting East Asian character I have come across recently is Brenda Song playing Eduardo Saverin’s volatile girlfriend Christy Lee in The Social Network. There is a complexity of this interracial relationship which though some might call it melodramatic, to me anytime one of the couple starts a fire in the bedroom you are bringing something more basic and eternal into the presentation. Watch the scene. Oops I can’t find it on You Tube only “The Kissing Scene.” I wonder what’s up with that?
Now, there are currently more than a million Asian Americans enrolled in college — two-thirds of whom are concentrated in eight states. It would only take two percent of them collectively purchasing a book or DVD or CD to make it solidly profitable — supporting the work of a creative artist, and enabling that creator to continue doing what he or she does, with full freedom to make art that’s appealing and authentic and true to an Asian American experience.
This is the gist of something that, in our conversations, cultural critic and academic Oliver Wang has dubbed The Two Percent Project. Here’s how it might work: Get together a group of smart, influential tastemakers — journalists, critics, student leaders, bloggers. Have them select five indie Asian American creators — writers, filmmakers, musicians — from an open call that includes anyone with a brand-new, brashly different and commercially viable product.–Oliver Yang
But it seems that this Asian Creative Agenda wants to cut the umbilical cord from the motherland and re-tie the tribal shock chord to the Korean on the American campus. Is this rigging of the Asian aesthetic and experience on the American campus the best portal to produce art that goes beyond demographics? That is simply cool art? And I don’t think there is anyone who can convince me that cool art isn’t about breaking down everyday triteness and giving us something different.
Perhaps any cultural movement would want original shaman like the author of the article Jeff Yang in its vanguard and academic/marketer Oliver Wang in the engine room driving the force along but someone has to take a step sideways and consider of what goes in or really what does not go in to creating the product. It’s obvious that I am not an international marketing strategist and could never truck with that kind of temperament, but I do like to meet people. At about the same time that I was trucking with the Barrack Obama presidential campaign here in Seoul, Democrats Abroad had a get together at a local expat spot. A Korean American woman came to meet me pitching her short documentary she shot in San Francisco about some video-journalist, Josh Wolf, who was imprisoned for filming protests that turned into a riot where both protesters and the police were seriously injured. She asked me to help get it shown at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club because the video-journalist would not turn his camera over to the authorities and she wanted to help spread his story about the struggle for his self-autonomy. Lots of street cred here for sure I thought, and the world needs hipster chicks with cameras as much as it needs anybody else, but there was something in the way she portrayed the relationship with her father. He never ever left Korea and was unlikely to do so. She only sees him maybe once a year. She kept interspersing the making of her documentary with hard-bitten wails on how she couldn’t understand her father and what compounded everything was that they were living in different countries but they understood that their lives became an allegory for family time. He was old and she was supposed to be at his side. After getting some info on JoshWolf, I gave her a contact at SFCC, yet still our conversations continued. I next sent her a link and suggested to her that she consider doing a documentary on East Asian men who had brought their families to California and were having a really hard go of it. That seemed fresh to me and exposure of real character vs. hyped up caricature. It also seemed like that was the documentary she really wanted to make as it was the life she was experiencing. When it seemed like it was the right time, I pressed her on this and she hung up the phone crying. I called back a couple of times but nothing. The day she was getting back on the plane to go home to California she phoned to relay to me how she was given strong compliments from the journos and tools at the SFCC after showing her documentary. I hope she makes another documentary… her real one not theirs. Last I heard video-journalist Josh Wolf is running for mayor of San Francisco now and my short-time friend is not in touch.
So what’s my point? It seems the medieval tendencies still holding great currency in today’s dynamic Korea are not a power that the Asian art tigers want to fight nor engage with nor make cool art from. Better instead it seems to luxuriate in some sort of hip hop cred and stick it to the man who giggles at the phrase ‘The Kim-Chee-Culture-of-Production’, because it sounds cute and could be desperately true. It really seems comic. I won’t lose any sleep over it but it’s not very affirming if Korean American artists, tastemakers and marketers are California dreaming of only profitable Zip-codes.
There has been a lot of talk and promotion and some debate on modern Korean literature and getting it out to the big wide world. Headline phrases like: now it is time in literature for Korea’s Nobel Prize and Korean novelists capture the New York Times and in a readers’ group (the first and last I will ever go to here) Harry Potter should have had Korean characters because we won the World Cup; are said with toneless lack of irony by both the Korean and foreigner cognoscenti about all matter literary that is rising from the peninsula.
Some of the current boosterism springs from the publication of two fairly recent novels. Yung Ha Kim’s “Your Republic is Calling You,” and Kyung-sook Shin’s, “Please Look After Mom.” I have picked up each book and scanned through looking to get a feel for first the language and the attention to detail it pays then next for the inner-tension between the characters–which I need to keep reading fiction. As a high-school English teacher, I give the black box which is mentioned about 20 times in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” as an example of a detail, and what leads to Holden Caulfield and Stradlater’s punch-up about 45 pages into Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” for some psychological tension. These two reads are for sure not on any heavy weight lit-crit reading list but just as a base for a good read they work for me.
Rather than explain why I enjoyed or didn’t enjoy reading as much as I could of the two modern Korean novelists mentioned above, better to put what I can of the work in your lap so can you can draw your own conclusions. An excerpt of “Please look After Mom”, as well as the controversial review on NPR by Maureen Corrigan is here: “Your Republic is Calling You” is reviewed from here on the peninsula by Korean Modern Literature in Translation.
What I need to un-constipate myself about is what is the terrain for fertile literature and in modern Korea does that terrain exist? A few years ago a friend, MinJu, of marrying age yet living the artist life in the student entertainment district of Hongdae, went on a long jag to me how she was depressed because, “I have to write a novel.” She was even getting paid to do that and then she further explained how she wanted to write about something that she had a sensibility for yet was not really sure of. Her eyes never met the plane of the coffee table as she told how the Korean publishing industry had fastened all of her requests to the seams of the traditional Korean Hanbok. Maybe it was because of her age and the fact she came from an affluent family from Daegu who often worried about their artistic daughter’s well being in Seoul, but the Korean forces of culture production (MinJu told me her two editors were both married females) kept tacking her plot ideas to the seams on the wedding garment. Her novel had to be about the traditional Asian Lotus Bride under the duress of a Korean woman finding the best husband. At the table MinJu never touched her latte and wouldn’t accept writing for the dominant cliché. She saw no art to that. Perhaps not for nothing her favorite American writer was Flannery O’Connor. She would always go to “Our Youth” Catholic Mass on Sunday and occasionally drag me along to hang out in the back while she sat in the first 10 pews where all of the marrying-age singles would bobble-head through the service and keep checking each other out. MinJu had already backed out of the book deal, returned the advance and was involved with starting a café when I sent her this quote, “You may say that the serious writer doesn’t have to worry about the tired reader, but he does, because they are all tired. One old lady who wants her heart lifted up wouldn’t be so bad, but you multiply her two-hundred and fifty thousand times and what you get is a book club.” Flannery O’Connor
In a perfect world marketing should come last in any kind of art/culture movement. But suppose it came first? It wouldn’t surprise me that whoever is behind the pinwheel of spinning out the virtues of Korean Literature, is just one move away from starting to market Korean cultural six packs abroad. I like the working concept: When you buy a Korean novel or film included is, ‘The six paths to Kortopia’: 1. A coupon bonanza for plastic surgery 2. A unisex fragrance with the new international appeal—Ode to Kimchi. 3. Little blow up androgynous dolls (both the erotic and platonic versions). 4. A pack of Korean Fortune telling cards (minus the gloomy ones) 5. A smart phone app that is updated every time a new Korean drama or pop song becomes a best seller. 6. A pack of plain white envelops to personally enlarge and help speed up the bureaucracy while we are all on the glide-path to dystopia. Who wouldn’t want to get in on the action and get a piece of that? How would that be as an extra thrown in for Korean literature book clubs? I am culture baiting here and enjoy being a little comic-novelty ridiculous yet there is something gruesome about the attempt to make sure that a young would-be writer would have to follow some sort of map in order to get her novel published and worse than that to follow the publishers story lines while trying to write it.
From the coteries of dedicated academic and media types on the peninsula who construct the trope that all Korean culture is great culture, I’ve come to discover that the point to becoming an academic or media type is to avoid the others. Those who are not and could not become academics or cultural game changers. The un-chic standing in line to take the city bus away from the green circle line #2. Or the others living in LA and taking the bus five times a day. Those who didn’t grow as tall as they should be, or get into the preferred schools. The problem here is how very often it is the others: outcast and unprincipled and the matter of fact doomed that both inspire and move the plot forward in honest literature. I know my teenage students (and I treat them all as readers in the classroom) have had their perceptions expanded by: a man who accidently kills his father and sleeps with his mother, a teenage boy who unexpectantly quits his job at a supermarket, a community college bound high school senior who is fated to become a murdered organ donor and, of course, a company man who one day wakes up and discovers that he is a bug.
Do sordid characters made wondrous by great writing exist in modern Korean Literature? I suppose they do, but my point is when making the rounds and surveying the Korean print/screen media, ginning up passion and talk of greatness and international literary ascendancy through best sellers is the way the keepers of the culture gates go about their business and it is a business. I suppose we shouldn’t expect much else. You know what Holden said, “Goddam phonies.”
Yet very surprisingly sometimes it seems like there is some sortAcoustic Shadow being cast here on the peninsula. Like those closest to the battle don’t always hear the fighting. I am talking about the Korean Americans who are back over after landing in Elite American universities and now find themselves tipped in favor for Asian Fulbright scholarships or at interesting positions at major Korean media outlets. Instead of supporting and organizing something ( and I don’t mean a scenester flashmob in Hongdae) for Korea’s talented and yes perhaps, non-conformist, would be artists, or getting into it with their producers and editors and demand more honest attention and coverage to thorny issues, well, they just seem to happily court the machine. Promote a fluffy Korea on KBS or proudly claim publishing cred on CNN.go. I guess their understanding is complete. Completed by an Irishman in fact. Yeats.
THE SECOND COMING
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
In 1948 Korea competed at the summer Olympics in London, England winning a bronze medal in both men/s weightlifting and middleweight boxing. The division of Korea was not yet complete as South Korea was establishing itself as a sovereign nation and the two narratives of those athletes surely would serve as interesting profiles of character. In 1948: Graham Greene, Norman Mailer and John Steinbeck published weighty novels. Also published were, Thomas Merton’s autobiography turned spiritual treatise, The Seven Story Mountain, and T.S Elliot’s’, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. It was a pretty essential year for the written word in English.
‘So why stop reading if you are going to write?’ is a maxim not so popular with today’s new age hothouse writing culture in full bloom. But, while wondering about the literary boosterism coming out of a small corner of Korea’s pop-culture blast out to the world, I have picked up J.D. Salinger’s “Nine Stories,” also published in 1948…
This part of the essay is being written now, live… In-between teaching English classes and while wondering what the school cafeteria is whipping up for supper.