All hail the idiot box


The medium is the message

“I want to watch a moooovie…” That’s become the near-daily mantra my son repeats as soon as he wakes up and right before going to bed. Power Rangers, Little Einsteins, Caillou… in truth it could probably be anything and he’d likely turn to stone in front of the glowing screen.

Which is great for me on a weekday at 7pm, dead tired and looking to tune out alongside him. But there’s no denying that he’s grown addicted to the TV, and while we’ve managed to curb his watching time to just a couple of hours per day the box’s presence, even when off, is magnetic.

Which is what drew me to this article from Foreign Policy. Living in one of the world’s most high-tech societies I naturally assumed that the revolution would indeed not be televised but rather Tweeted or Twittered or thumbed across the digital ether. Hard to believe the ol’ boob tube still has a few tricks up its sleeve.

According to the author, televsion programming could help to create

a world more equal for women, healthier, better governed, more united in response to global tragedy, and more likely to vote for local versions of American Idol than shoot at people.

Where’s that damn remote? In cities, towns and villages — even where there is no electricity — around the globe humans gather around their TVs like moths to a flame. One Indian lawmaker even encouraged residents to watch more so as to lower the country’s birthrate.

In olden days people had no other entertainment but sex, which is why they produced so many children…  it is important that there is electricity in every village so that people watch TV till late in the night. By the time the serials are over, they’ll be too tired to have sex and will fall asleep.

I guess it beats forced sterilisations, but with Baywatch the biggest television series ever with an estimated audience of 1 billion I have to wonder…

Television programming here in Korea is huge. I remember stepping into a local bunsikjeom (Korean style greasy spoon) for dinner once. Across from me sat these two leathery old men, chewing on raw chilie peppers, downing soju by the bottle and arguing with the waitress about who would marry who on the local soap opera playing on the screen above. Weird.

But then again, former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun reportedly gave his North Korean counterpart a box set of the drama Jewel in the Palace during his 2007 summit in Pyongyang.

Russian-born Korea scholar Andrei Lanov has long been trumpeting the use of DVDs and similar means to bring news of the outside world to North Koreans starved by their government’s self-imposed isolation.

Rumors of South Korean prosperity have begun to spread, assisted by popular smuggled DVDs of South Korean movies. The world’s most perfect Stalinist regime is starting to disintegrate from below.

According to Lankov, DVD technology is perfectly suited to the North Korean case given the relative affordabilty of players and discs. And while radios have their place in delivering subversive information, images showing the propserity of Seoul and surrounding areas  make it hard to swallow the line that the South is a bastion of poverty and misery.


Simple curiosity or racism?

I tend to shy away from conversations about race in Korea, just because they tend to be circular and not really go anywhere. Also because more often than not they tend to be in English (or any other language that is not Korean) and thus miss the audience that most needs to be included in the conversation. But recent experiences that coincide with a few blog posts I’ve read and a NYT article have brought me out of my self-imposed silence, and back to the blogosphere.

My family and I spent the weekend with some friends in a small town in Gyeonggi.  Not far away is the town of Ildong, which boasts the only real sulfur hot spring in the province. Being a fan of the public mogyoktang, I decided to take my son there for the afternoon.

As I said I love the sauna, but in Korea it took me some time before I felt completely at ease strutting around in the buck through a crowd of naked Korean men. Partly cause I’m whte, and partly cause I’m blue. Or more precisly, cause I’ve got all kinds of tatoos scattered around my body that never fail to draw unwanted stares.

Anyway, for the first year or two I frequented Itaewon’s Hamilton Hotel, or the newer Itaewon Land (five stories of hot tubs, hot rooms and a kiddie playground for parents looking for a reprieve). I figured if there’s anywhere in Korea where an ink covered foreigner can fit in its Itaewon.  It worked well, more or less, and I’ve since gotten over the trauma caused by my first visit to a Korean bathhouse. (That was a nightmare!)

It’s a rainy Sunday in fall, perfect weather for lazing in a tub or sweating it out in the steam room. My 4-year-old son, an experienced patron of the bathhouse in his own right, eases himself into the steaming pool with a loud groan of satisfaction. “Siwonhada…” All the ajjusis stare with mute faces that could either be looks of disgust or simple curiosity. I can never tell.

Soon some of the kids approach, their eyes wide with wonder. Are we the first non-Koreans they’ve ever seen or just the first naked ones? One young boy of about 8 or so starts to follow my son around, pointing at him and barking out, “Can you speak Korean? Let me see,” with an innocent and unknowingly offensive snicker as if my son were some monkey performing tricks.

None of this occurred to my son, thankfully, who just starts repeating ni hao ma whenever anyone asks him to speak Korean (which he does, fluently for a kid his age). What’s worse is that none of it seemed to occur to the boy’s father either, or to the boy himself. Which makes me want to believe that it was and is simple curiosity and not the kind of hostile racism that I know others experience here. But still…

Do I want my kid growing up in a country where there are basically two main racial categories, Korean and non-Korean? Where his ethnicity and appearance will constantly be a reason to question his place here? Where (what are in my view) anachronistic attitudes about race that get hammered into kids starting at a very young age?

There are a great many things that I appreciate about being in Korea, and more than a few things that I think the U.S. could learn from this place, but when it comes to my kid that question always gives me pause.

Not long ago we were standing outside Itaewon Land sauna when a young African American couple walked past. My son asked in his childishly exuberant voice why they were black. They heard, but kept walking. I thought, “Christ, it’s time to get back to the U.S.”

Students protest high tuition

Cutting hair to cut tuition

Cutting hair to cut tuition

Per Yonhap: April 10, SEOUL, South Korea — A female university student has her head shaved in Seoul on April 10 in a protest rally organized by student leaders to demand the government reduce tuition fees.

Recession boosts book sales

According to Yonhap, the financial downturn has boosted sales of books on finance, employment and religion, the last of which saw a 185 percent spike in sales last year. Cooking too was a big seller as more families are staying in to eat rather than dining out.

“Books are hardly luxury items. They are one of the most inexpensive means of entertainment that last quite long compared to movies or plays,” said Song Young-ho at Yes 24, a local Internet bookstore that sold more than 25 million books last year. “We expect to do even better this year with our increased discount services.”

“People are, naturally, trying to find answers to the financial crisis and are turning to religion and self-help books for comfort,” said Park Young-joon, the branch manager of Gwanghwamun Kyobo Book Center. “Novels are also popular during the difficult times with many people keen to escape from reality.”

Looks like the recession did what all those mothers out there couldn’t – get their kids to read more.

Seoul public schools will teach English in English

The JoongAng headline says it all. Still, not a bad idea considering how much time students sacrifice to learn English grammar in Korean, which doesn’t do much in the way of helping them actually use the language.

Mother kicks herself for not helping son cheat

There’s a piece in the JoongAng about the growing number of support networks for South Korean mothers and housewives. These networks engage in all sorts of activities, from real-estate purchases to child care and social functions. Apparently they also engage in helping their children prepare for exams by gaining access to test questions ahead of time. Last I checked that pretty much amounts to cheating.

Anyway, one mother in particular came to one of these networks after discovering that her son placed 190th out of a class of 400 students.

She soon found out why. It was because she, as a mother, did not have enough information. “Other mothers already knew what sorts of questions would be on exams and prepared their children ahead of time.”

Now, I don’t have anything against people wanting to help eachother out. And I can understand why, in a country where a kid’s grades play such a prominent role in shaping their future, the mother in question would be so concerned. What gets me is that not an iota is mentioned about the fact that the reason the 200 kids above hers were there because they cheated.

India’s version of ‘English-mania’

This came out a few days ago in the International Herald Tribune about the growing resentment in India towards the fact that English is more and more becoming a prerequisite for success. As I read it I couldn’t help thinking how much it helped explain Korea’s own ambigious attitude towards English education.

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