Seoul Man: 12 Months in Korea – #6: Dynamic Korea? – South Korea

Dynamic Korea?
November 2002

When you come to Korea to be an English teacher there are many things you should expect. You should expect to make some money. To see some of the country. To enjoy the nightlife. To find teaching relatively easy. To make friends. To want to leave at least twice during your stay.

One thing you should not expect however is quality media outlets. Or decent TV channels. The standard of television here is as bad as anywhere I have been to (and that includes the taste-free zone that is Egypt).

The English speaking media is condescending, incompetent, self serving and basically anally retentive. You can expect to see countless media outlets referring to ‘dynamic’ Korea. In fact, aside from the word ‘hub’, ‘dynamic’ seems to be Korea’s favourite word. Countless programmes on Arirang TV English (Korea’s sycophantic English language channel) welcome us to dynamic Korea – showing us images of some mountain while cheesy cliches play in the background (“Korea, where old and new collide”). Unfortunately the sickening amateurishness of Arirang is quite representative of Korean TV as a whole.

Flick through the channels on any given night and you do get the feeling that in much of the output, the target audience is the mentally ill.

A typical Korean comedy show involves a group of ‘crazy’ guys running around frolicking with scantily clad women. ‘Games’ include the ladies trying to burst balloons by falling on top of them – complete with gratuitous, lingering shots. This Benny Hill style farce illustrates the juvenility of Korean television. This innuendo strewn garbage is shown nightly, while even the merest hint of full frontal nudity (however tastefully done) is blocked by a massive orb.

Other comedy shows basically expose Koreans as not having a sense of humour, or at least a pre-pubescent one. One hugely popular programme is Gag Show. This involves six or seven Korean comedians standing around in a ‘Whose line is it anyway’ style. Except instead of witty ad libs and comic genius the Korean version features men dressing up as women (a hilarious concept), people singing badly for laughs, slow motion replays of someone falling over, oversized cartoon graphics, crazy noises (booiiinnngg, squeeaakk), and all manner of crazy japes.

This all adds up to one unfunny programme. Yet observe Koreans watching it and you would be forgiven for thinking it’s side splittingly funny. It isn’t. Comedy is just one area where the Koreans are in the stone age.

There are plenty of other areas where Korea exposes it’s massive juvenile streak. Technology, the World Cup, education, sex…there are many examples of Korea’s obsession with the frivolous and the petty. Take technology. Koreans pride themselves on the technological advances they have made. Yet sometimes the adulation of technology seems gimmicky and childish. Obsessed with ranking, the Koreans are determined to be the top dogs when it comes to technology. But they can’t do this with any subtlety at all. They have to put up massive, garish plasma screens around central Seoul, most of which are now tattered and peeling.

It’s the same situation with cell phone industry. Most of the new ‘enhancements’ are little more than gimmicks. Do any of these new advancements actually make using your phone any easier? Maybe if sending video messages is an integral part of your day. Or if choosing which K-pop anthem will be your new ring tone. And for only $450 a cell phone these new gimmicks (sorry, advances) are the least you could expect.

In many ways Korea is like the next door neighbour who has won the lottery. Garish, overbearing and showing no class…basically all show, no substance.

While this assessment may seem harsh, I have never seen a country so obsessed with itself. With how it is viewed by the outside world. With how low or high it is in various tables brought out every day from the likes of the IMF or any number of economic and social think tanks. They will compare their rankings to two countries – Japan and the USA. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine there are more than three countries in the world.

This obsession with rankings is played out monthly in the hagwon. For once a month the FIFA football rankings are published (once of the most meaningless ranking systems in world sport). The students will all recite Korea’s ranking as soon as I walk in the door. Now they also look for Ireland’s ranking. They can’t name one Irish player but they know their place in the table. This statistical obsession is played out everywhere. In nightclubs, girls want to swap height and weight ‘data’ as if finding out she is 54, not 55kg, will somehow make a difference. Blood type also seems to be of vital importance, anything so that she can gauge where you stand in the grand scheme of things.

While these might seem like unimportant incidents, they do illustrate Korea’s love affair with the petty. With regards to the press, the TV, the ads, the technology, in fact just about everything, Korea could do with a kick up the arse.

For the aspiring English teacher, this log might seem like a reason not to come here, but in reality the whole culture of pettiness is at worst slightly annoying, at best very amusing. Again, just don’t take anything too seriously. And just so you are warned here’s a guide to the main TV channels you will (or won’t be) watching in Korea.

AFN:
This is the US military channel, basically a service for the American military, but available on cable for anyone that wants it. Does have probably the best lineup of any of the Korean channels with all the usual US hit shows as well as loads of late night films. The programmes are punctuated by US military propaganda, which is certainly funnier than the likes of ‘Dharma and Greg’. This consists mostly of warnings, ‘Don’t be a spy’, ‘Don’t be a victim of terrorism’ (even though the ad shows a man getting robbed, in the real world that is still known as crime), ‘don’t play golf on the runways’, ‘don’t misuse military vehicles’, etc…Probably the most popular channel among expats but you will begin to hate America after a few weeks of it.

OCN:
Styles itself as some sort of blockbuster movie channel, continually bringing us the biggest hits and most bankable stars. Maybe, if you consider ‘Nighteyes 4′ or ‘King Ralph’ blockbusters. In reality OCN is shit. Occasionally it will provide a good movie, but in the main sticks to the following criteria:
a) Viewers must have seen the movie at least a hundred times before.
b) All movies must be from the mid-eighties.

It also thinks of itself as rather risque, providing viewers with the ‘Hot Zone’ every Thursday and Friday night. The ‘Hot Zone’ is not really very hot at all, consisting as it does of ‘erotic thrillers’ with titles like ‘Night Stalker’ or ‘Sins of Desire’. These ‘thrillers’ are heavily censored which is rather bizarre for a ‘Hot Zone’. Even more so since I once saw Edward Norton smash someone’s jaw apart with his boot at 10am in ‘American History X’, no one’s idea of children’s TV. The same film also showed him getting raped in the prison showers. Again, not ideal early morning viewing. But hey, we’re in Korea.

CGV:
Similar to OCN but supplies what seems like 8 to 10 hours of Ally McBeal daily. You can occasionally strike gold with the likes of ‘Taxi Driver’ but in the main it sticks to straight-to-video American crap. Avoid.

BCN:

Even farther down the food chain comes BCN. BCN stands for Box Cinema Network, a title that is rather misleading given that it is doubtful any of the films shown ever made it to the cinema. Grainy 70’s Korean dramas compete with Hulk Hogan vehicles such as ‘Extreme Force 5′. In fact, every movie on BCN seems to be centred on a dangerous mission undertaken by some secretive commando group (either headed by the Hulkster or Chuck Norris). Again, avoid.

CNtv:
Makes BCN seem like the BBC. Utter, utter shite. Bizarre action films dominate the schedule, all in grainy technicolor. Probably the worst TV station in the world.

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