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  • Writer's pictureElzbieta M Gozdziak

Studying Korean culture at a distance: How an anthropologist survived the pandemic

Updated: Oct 22, 2022

COVID-19 brought field research to a screeching halt. Without fieldwork, the anthropologist in me felt like a fish out of water. I started looking for a substitute that would bring me closer to a foreign culture that I knew nothing about. This search brought me to K-dramas and the discovery of the Hallyu wave!

My first venture into the world of Korean dramas was Rookie Historian, Goo Hae-ryung, starring Shin Se-kyung, a free-spirited female historian embarking on a career in a male-dominated world, and Cha Eun-woo, a prince working underground as a romance novelist.

The show was delightful; a feast for the eyes not only because of the visuals of the leads, but also because of the beautiful costumes, stunning scenery, and intriguing architecture.

Next came Crash Landing on You and I was down the rabbit hole. This k-drama took on the theme of forbidden love and crafted it into a modern Romeo and Juliet. However, instead of the Montagues and Capulets, it depicted the lives of a South Korean chebol, Yoon Se-Ri, and North Korean Special Forces Unit Captain, Ri Jeong-Hyeok, played by Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin, respectively. While the love story between the star-crossed lovers at the center of the drama is far-fetched, it provides an interesting glimpse into the lives of North Koreans. The portrayal of life in North Korea was crafted with input from some North Korean dissidents. The drama presented a three-dimensional country with relatable — even lovable — people. The Washington Post asked a couple of North Korean dissidents to comment on the accuracy of the portrayal; you can read what they said here.

I soon had my favorite actors and actresses and followed their cinematography. But I also watched k-dramas the way an anthropologist studying culture at a distance would. I figured if this methodology worked for the grand dames of social anthropology, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, it ought to work for me. I did not merely follow the narrative arcs of the melodramas and police procedurals, but focused also on the political and social backgrounds against which these dramas are set as well as the everyday details of cuisine, dress, and social etiquette. I sought out dramas depicting the Japanese occupation of Korea and the Gwangju Student Independence Movement (Mr. Sunshine; The Hymn of Death; Different Dreams) as well as more recent political events such as the Gwangju Uprising (Youth of May), not to be mistaken with the Gwangju independence movement.

I watched Snowdrop, staring Jung Hae-in and Jisoo, to continue my education about the June 1987 Democracy Movement, a mass protest movement with the purpose of forcing the dictatorship in South Korea to hold fair elections, and the resulting December 1987 democratic elections, which led to the end of the authoritarian Fifth Republic of Korea and the establishment of the democratic Sixth Republic of Korea.

Interested in the role of women in Korean society, I sought out dramas and Korean films with strong female protagonists. In particular, I liked IU in My Mister, penned by my favorite drama writer, Park Hae-yeong; Shin Se-kyung (as Oh Mi-joo) from Run On; Gong Hyo-Jin (as Oh Dong-Baek) in When the Camellia Blooms; and the world's bad ass ajumma, Kim Mi-kyung, in Healer, the best k-drama there is, hands down. There were many more; too many to list them all.

After a while, watching dramas was not enough. I wanted to know more, therefore, I started reading books about South Korea.

Not surprisingly, the first book I picked up was The Rise of K-Dramas, edited by JaeYoon Park and Ann-Gee Lee, professors of media communication and English at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. This collection of essays focuses on the cultural impact of K-dramas and their fandoms. The contributors look at the K-dramas’ appeal to non-Asian audiences and analyze shows ranging from melodrama and romantic comedy to action, horror, sci-fi, and thrillers. They also explore an immersive fandom where devotees consume Korean food, fashion, and music to better understand their favorite shows. I had no idea about the resources the South Korean government devotes to the promotion of Korean films and television abroad, the same way the government supports export of Korean electronics.

Korea has a fair share of Westerners living in the country. I was intrigued by the books on Korea by Michael Breen. He lived in Korea for more than 30 years, working as a journalist for The Guardian, The Times, and The Washington Times before becoming a public relations consultant in 1994 with the Seoul office of the Burson Marsteller PR agency. In 1998, Breen wrote the critically acclaimed book, The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies.

Twenty years later, urged by his agent, he wrote The New Koreans. Breen talks about this book in an interview with Matthew Fennell. As an anthropologist, I found this book fascinating, especially the apparent contradiction of moving from paddy fields into the Silicon Valley within just a few decades and the contradiction of establishing themselves as a democracy, on the one hand, and being influenced by tradition and Confucian principles in their everyday behavior and social interactions, on the other hand.

I was afraid that the next book I picked, The Korean Mind, would essentialize Korean culture and would not appeal to my anthropological sensibilities. I was pleasantly surprised. The late Boyé Lafayette de Mente conceived of his book as an encyclopedia of the most important ‘code words’ or concepts that are fundamental to the Korean language and culture. He examined each concept in detail, discussed their evolution over the years, and provided the reader with quite an insight into the character and personality of the Korean people. Although I don’t speak Korean, the book explained a lot about the power of filial piety, the versatile bow, the intricate ways of addressing people, and many more.

I have always liked Korean food, but never attempted to cook Korean dishes myself. As I continued to watch K-dramas, where eating is so important to the narrative, I bought several cookbooks and started experimenting. To put the recipes in context, I read the short book Traditional Food. A Taste of Korean Life by Robert Koehler. The book is part of a series of books published by the Korean Foundation aimed at equipping international readers with basic understanding of different Korean traditions. This book explores Korea’s 5,000-year-old culinary culture and introduces the readers to the historical, cultural, nutritional, and philosophical background to the rich Korean cuisine. I liked it so much that I decided to also read Hanbok. Timeless Fashion Tradition.

The latest addition to my Korean cookbooks is Cook Korean by Robin Ha, a comic book with recipes! Born in Seoul, Robin Ha grew up reading and drawing comics. At 14 year of age she moved to the United States. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in illustration, she moved to New York City and started a career in the fashion industry. Her work has been published in independent comics anthologies, including Secret Identities and The Strumpet, as well as in the pages of Marvel Comics and Heavy Metal Magazine. Her blog Banchan in 2 Pages features Korean recipe comics. She currently lives in Falls Church, Virginia, just across the river from me. Maybe I should ask her for an interview?

I continue to watch k-dramas between working. Or do I work between watching k-dramas? I better not answer this question.

My current obsession is Son Suk-ku, who mesmerized us all in My Liberations Notes, where he starred alongside Kim Ji-won. I watched him also in Matrimonial Chaos, penned by the already mentioned Park Hae-young. If you want to see what I watch you can follow me on Tumblr.

After nonfiction, there was time to delve into Korean novels. Oh, what a delightful adventure. As I don't speak or read Korean (should learning the language be my next pursuit?), I read Korean literature in English and, on occasion, Polish translation.

Among my favorite authors are Han Kang, Frances Cha, Kwon Yeo-Sun, and Shin Kyung-sook. I also read Korean American authors such as Eugenia Kim and Min Jin Lee, but their writing style is decidedly different from the Korean novelists who write in Korean.

Most readers know Han Kang's bestselling novel The Vegetarian, but I want to mention Human Acts, an astonishing portrait of political unrest and the universal struggle for justice. During a violent student uprising, a young boy named Dong-ho is killed. The story of this tragic episode unfolds in a sequence of interconnected chapters as the victims and the bereaved encounter suppression, denial, and the agony resulting from the massacre. The protagonists of this novel include Dong-ho’s mother and his best friend; an editor struggling against censorship; a prisoner and a factory worker. Each of these people suffered indescribable heartbreak. But the book is also about acts of hope as the brutalized people search for a voice. As one reviewer wrote: "Human Acts is a timeless, pointillist portrait of an historic event with reverberations still being felt today, by turns tracing the harsh reality of oppression and the resounding, extraordinary poetry of humanity."

Recently finished Chesil's debut novel, The Color of the Sky Is the Shape of the Heart, translated by Takami Niedaa

(graduate of Stanford and Georgetown!), about prejudice and the complexities of a teen girl’s experience growing up in Japan as a Zainichi Korean. Reviewers compared it to Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko and Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. While the topic of this novel resonates with that of Lee's Pachinko, the writing is measurably better.

The novel includes Compact chapters set a brisk pace, punctuated by family letters from North Korea and a scene in the format of a play that flesh out a collective history and entrenched prejudice against Koreans in Japan. The narrative pivots between Ginny’s fragments of memory and her current dilemma in the U.S.: whether to exert academic effort or embrace expulsion. It's a complex, layered story, originally published in Japanese. The cathartic conclusion comes about when Ginny resolves to catch the proverbial sky as it falls, thereby forgiving herself and claiming her agency.

I could go on listing the Korean novels I enjoyed, but I will most likely write an end-of-year summary of my readings in 2022. You can also follow me on Goodreads to follow my reading challenge for this year.

Having tasted Korean culture through k-dramas, novels, and cooking Korean dishes, I am planning a trip to Korea in 2023.

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