On Dealing with Korean Pop Culture Shock: An Invaluable Guide for those Who Don’t Understand Value (And an OK Guide for Everyone Else)


Back in the United States, where, from what I understand, the fork is still a widely used utensil, things are happening that I have no knowledge of.  The more time I spend in Asia, the more I lose track of what goes on back home.  Now, I’m not talking about the search for the next great GOP candidate – that doesn’t interest me so much, although I do find Rick Perry amusing, in a dangerous, if-this-guy-is-president-the-world-is-gonna-end kind of way.  But when Perry’s hilarity doesn’t have me in stitches, I find myself worrying about the important stuff.  Namely, the alarming fact that I don’t know who most of people on the Billboard Hot 100 are.

Drake?  Never heard of him.  Luke Bryan?  No idea.  Cobra Starship?  If it doesn’t have anything to do with GI Joe or Grace Slick, I’m clueless.  Bruno Mars?  I feel like I’m on planet Mars.  Who are these people, and when the hell is Amy Winehouse gonna put out something new?

But then it dawns on me that I haven’t lost touch with reality; I’ve instead gotten in touch with a new reality, one with chopsticks and Kimchi.  In this new world, the things I used to enjoy have disappeared; there is no arthouse cinema, no hard rock music, and no cleavage.  People talk about culture shock, but what they don’t talk about is pop culture shock, the slow realization that you must try to adapt to an entirely new set of leisure time rules.

Seeing that I’ve lived in South Korea for over a year, I consider myself an expert.  An expert on everything, by the way, but right now we’re talking about Korea.  Below are just a few of the things that will happen to you – yes, you – should you come here as well.  I’m hoping that knowing these things ahead of time might help you transform into your Asian self, just as knowing he was part of the Matrix helped Neo learn kung-fu.

You Will Dance…A Lot

Koreans get widely stereotyped for being good at math, but these number crunchers are equally good at learning how to do a choreographed dance!  Dancing is everywhere in Korea.  People dance outside of stores, people are dancing in schools…they even dance at baseball games.  Yes, baseball games.  When I was a kid, my image of “going to the game” involved a lot of older white guys (some with gloves) sitting around in the stands, talking about statistics and hoping one of the players would hit a ball at them.  That image stuck for twenty-some-odd years.  Here it’s a totally different, zany experience.  All the players have theme songs.  While the crowd sings them, cheerleaders dance around on a big stage by the dugout.  And the crowd?  Half of it is little middle school girls…not old guys who will, at the drop of a foul ball, reminisce about how their father took them to see Joe DiMaggio play against the Brooklyn Dodgers at the tail end of the Great Depression.

Why is the crowd made up of young people?  One might say Koreans love baseball, but I choose believe it’s because of all the singing and dancing.

You Will Love 2ne1

Looking at Korean advertising, you might start to believe that a lot of Asian girls look the same.  This is not true; you just haven’t realized yet that it’s the same Asian girl in 60% of the ads.  She would be Sandara Park, member of the insanely popular group 2ne1.  Ms. Park is everywhere; she’s like a living version of the McDonald’s logo.  Similarly, 2ne1’s music is all over the place.  I’ve found that both the music and the girl are impossible to resist.  It’s pointless trying to fight it.  Yeah, when I first got here, I acted like I was too cool for 2ne1, but now, when I hear 2ne1 at a club, I can’t fight the urge to dance around the place like I’m Sally Bowles or something.

If you’ve never heard a 2ne1 song, I’ve embedded a video for your enjoyment.  Enjoy the wild colors, the crazy outfits, and the goofy spaceship finale.  Really, in many ways, this embodies all of the best qualities of South Korea.

You Will Hear English Songs with Offensive Lyrics in Strange Places

Over the weekend, a friend of mine was telling me that he was in the Samsung store recently.  While he and several others – including a few families – looked at electronics, LMFAO’s “Shots” blared out across the store.  Little kids followed their parents, while Lil’ John shouted:

“If you ain’t takin’ shots get THE FUCK OUT THE CLUB!”

And the families went ahead with their business.  The Samsung staff assisted customers, oblivious.  Meanwhile:

“Now say ‘I’m FUCKED UP!’  (I’m fucked up)  ‘I’m TRYIN’ TO FUCK!’”

Luckily, none of the kids said it.  I’ve heard similarly explicit songs in clothes stores and at the gym.  It’s fun to watch everyone carry on like the store is playing Musak.

(One last note on LMFAO: they’re enormous here.  How many times have I heard “Party Rockers”?  A billion.  How many times have I heard the Korean national anthem?  I dunno…is there one?)

If Your Favorite Celeb Commits Suicide, it’s Up to You to Follow Suit

It took moving to Korea for me to learn about “The Werther Effect.”  This is, in a nutshell, when a famous person commits suicide, and then suddenly there’s an explosion of copycat suicides.  In a study titled “Research on the Werther Effect in South Korea,” reporter Yu Cheong-wha found that following the suicide of a famous person, 137 more people committed suicide per month than the normal suicide rate (this average was taken between the years of 1994-2005).  In 2005, a popular actress named Lee Eun-Joo hanged herself; in the next 23 days, 49 people offed themselves as well.  How did the “overwhelming” majority of them choose to end their lives?  You guessed it – hanging.

Another study, done by the Grand National Party in 2009, claimed that an average of 606 people in South Korea commit suicide after the “publicized suicide of a famous person.”  The stories of celebrity suicide and its aftermath are really pretty shocking: After a TV personality named Choi Jin Sil killed herself, two other celebrities committed copycat suicides soon after.  I mean, that’s not even fair.  If one publicized celebrity suicide is like taking an alcoholic to a bar, three is like taking him to freakin’ Mardi Gras.

If Sandara Park ever commits suicide, this country is going to suffer more casualties than it did during the Korean War.

All things considered, South Korea is a whacky and fun place to live.  It’s filled with dancing and suicide.  In other words, it’s a lot like life itself, full of ups and downs, highs and lows.  I think I love it.  Sorry Bruno Mars.


Man on the Tracks


Each morning, I leave my bed the way a kid leaves home for the first day of school, miserable, wanting to go back, possibly crying, and I find myself thinking about the night before and the day that lies ahead and mixing the two up into some kind of anxiety-ridden fog.  That was certainly the case on the Wednesday morning I left for Hong Kong.  There were so many things to be worried about.  It was like a buffet of stress.  There was my flight, which I was nervous I’d be late for.  Then there was the idea that I’d be spending six days in Hong Kong and I hadn’t planned a thing.  I had no place to stay, no sense of how much the currency was worth, and no real itinerary of things to do.  And to add to all that, there was a certain girl whose apartment I had just left.  She was still sleeping when I headed down to catch the first subway train.  I thought about how much I liked her, and how I hoped that my side of the bed would still be empty when I got back.

All this is to say, on a day when I should have been excited, I was instead overcome with the enormous realization that nothing about my trip to Hong Kong felt right.  I would be spending six days alone in another country, probably not talking to anyone and going to bed early to escape loneliness.  Part of me wanted to go back to the girl’s apartment and curl up with her.  I sat on a bench down by the subway tracks.  Going back was a bad idea.

I was thinking about her when an older Korean man standing about twenty feet from where I was yelled something out.  He sounded serious.  I had no idea what he yelled, as it was in Korean and, despite living here for almost a year, I have no grasp of the language.  I turned my head, though, as the noise demanded attention.  In doing so, I could barely make out the image of a young man walking down the subway tracks.  Not on the platform I don’t mean, but walking down the tracks themselves.  I looked up at the board to see if the train was close.  It was two stops away.

It was as though every person waiting for the train noticed the young man at the exact same moment, suddenly everyone began shouting and running.  Everyone except me, that is.  I continued to sit there, looking down at the guy on the tracks with mild interest.  Things like this don’t happen, right?  That’s what I asked myself.  Yeah, there was a man on the tracks and the train was coming, but people don’t just get crushed on the subway tracks in front of you.  It didn’t seem possible.  I was sure someone would help him up and he’d walk away fine.  For all the horrible daily events that happen in the world, for each car crash or electrocution or brutal animal attack or mugging, none of it seems to happen in my world.  Secretly, I hoped the train would come and run the man over.  Just to spice things up a bit.

But as I had assumed, nothing really happened.  A subway officer was rushed to the tracks and he went down and helped the man back up onto the platform.  The man didn’t put up any fight.  He did exactly what the officer told him to.  Back up on the platform, he staggered away.  He was obviously drunk.  The subway officer pulled himself up off the tracks and then led the man away.  The shouting and running around ended, and in a few minutes everyone got on the train like nothing had happened.

Taking a seat on the train, I thought about a couple things.  First, no matter how bad I might feel, there’s probably someone around who feels worse.  I might be sitting by the tracks feeling depressed, but there’s someone who feels so bad he jumps down on them, and for that person maybe there’s someone who feels so bad he actually lets the train hit him.  And secondly, I thought about how rare true disaster is.  For all the anxiety, all of the possible catastrophes, nothing much happens really – the man always gets off the tracks before the train comes.  Things have a tendency to be right, even when they feel all wrong.