Men, Prayer, Politics, Horses, Detroit

Notes From The Road: South Korea and the Illusions of Gangnam Style, Part 2

(To view Part 1 in this series, click here)

My social circle here in Busan includes a woman in her thirties. When we first met she was eager to speak with me as she was facing a difficult time in her family. She had two brothers and was the only girl. Contrary to her family’s desire and fairly strict social norms, she had chosen not to pursue marriage, an expected trajectory for young Korean women. Instead, she pursued her education further in addition to various professional opportunities that were coming her way.

Marriage in South Korea is held in high esteem socially. Being single beyond ones early twenties is viewed with disdain. When meeting South Koreans, I was first asked, immediately upon being introduced,  if I was married or not. At first this took me by surprise as it seemed rude. It was just the opposite, they needed to know my marital status in order to address me in a socially respectful way. Being single and of a certain age, I was looked at with obvious discomfort and confusion upon answering them. It remains odd for young women to forego marriage for career and being single into ones mid-twenties and beyond is viewed as socially questionable. This young woman was bringing a veiled disrespect to her family by not marrying and was being treated poorly by them for it. She was struggling to establish herself without a husband and wanted to learn from me how women achieve success and security as single professionals in America. She was enthralled with my various careers and how comfortable I was living my own life, something quite the norm in America and on the contrary, simply radical here. It occurred to me that South Korea never experienced a feminist revolution, that this woman was perhaps the seed of one to come.

Listening to her I was so struck by her sense of wonder at the possibility of being a single career woman, identified by her professional achievements, not her marital status. It occurred to me that we might as well have been sitting having coffee in some small town in the U.S. circa 1960 as the conversation fit perfectly into that era when women across the country poised themselves at the threshold of the feminist revolution in the U.S. I was a bit overwhelmed with her endless questions but truly understood when I fully realized that she represented the first generation, literally, of Korean women to venture out into the 21st century to stake their own claim.

Further, I realized how profoundly starved these young women were for guidance, direction and an idea of where the edges were. They had no role models in their own country per se, beyond what they were fed via global culture, most of which delivered the warped out ideal of the American female based on television sitcoms. She was voraciously trying to absorb all she could from me, the genuine article. Once I realized these dynamics, I took my time listening to her tell of her family struggles, her sense of rejection and shame, but mostly of her curiosity and dreams for her future.

She is one of many bushwhacking their way through the jungle of re-packaged American culture as determined by South Korean media. All around us, young Koreans absorbed and reflected back in dress, taste and attitude various elements of Western culture with no regard for the root source of that culture.  No regard for the Civil Rights Movement, the industrialization of our cities and the consumer aftermath; no regard for the struggle of women to vote, to work and to move relatively freely through society. South Koreans just take the end culture, zip themselves up in it and carry on, walking empty images of the hip and now, acquired through mimicry rather than history.

It is this mimicry of elitist American culture by Koreans, particularly in the geographic area of Seoul known as Gangnam, that the artist Psy mocks so eloquently in his viral video ‘Gangnam Style’. It is truly surreal to walk around an urban area in South Korea witnessing first hand the rootless synthesis of American culture by young Koreans. They attire themselves in hippie boho, having never dropped acid; they strut about publicly in sexually explicit clothing having never witnessed the dark side of the porn industry; they flock to the clubs to listen to techno yet have never done ecstasy; they wear gangster styles yet have no clue about the struggle against racial inequality or life on the back streets of my beloved Detroit; They consume designer labels, symbols of attained wealth with nary a clue about class struggle. South Korea, in just one generation, has claimed the symbolic attributes of American capitalist success without giving a damn for the sacrifice that paid for it. The price of striving for and maintaining this entirely false social facade is simmering to a boil in the psychology of the masses. The pressure being placed upon young and old to achieve, to attain and to excel seems to be coming at a very high price: South Korea has the highest suicide rate among the 30 OECD countries. The toll of suicide deaths in South Korea has doubled in the last decade with suicide the most common cause of death for those under 40.

This social pressure is compounded for women who are caught in a perfect storm of cultural, sexual and social confusion. On the one hand they are being pressured by elders of the previous generation to follow the old ways: to marry, remain submissive and within the boundaries of objectified caregivers. On the other hand they are bombarded by western feminine standards and the epilogue of the western feminist movement with its promise of equality, economic self-determination and sexual autonomy.

To date the most poignant scene that for me defined South Korea’s great leap forward as it is informed by women came one day while walking in the subway tunnels. I saw from a distance some workers in traditional work attire ahead of me at the next station. They had on traditional hats with drawstring. They stood out in the crowd of scurrying professionals in work suits, casual shoppers well attired and students identifiable only by book bags slung across shoulders. Everyone makes an effort to ‘put themselves together’ each day with thoughtfully chosen clothing. No one I ever saw represented the various mutations of grunge street fashion found in the states. Everyone looks as if they are on their way to church, only the younger women dress much more provocatively.

This line of workers turned out to all be women, and all well into their fifties and perhaps sixties. They were all petite, their growth stunted by poor nutrition, their bodies thick from a life of physical labor. They were working in a loose line stretching from the street level above, down the steps onto the first subway platform, around the corner and down the second flight to the lowest level. They were barking at one another in Korean. It was easy to ascertain which ones held rank.

As I watched, up from the lowest level came a woman carrying a tray of rocks and rubble atop her head. When she was half way up the long flight of steps, she lowered her stout frame, holding the load steady with her neck, barked something in Korean to the next woman who then stooped to load the round tray of rocks onto her head. The second woman then finished the flight of stairs, repeated the relay to the third woman who then scurried across the glistening platform, repeated the pass to the fourth in the chain who  steadily marched the load up to the street. As the final load was about 1/3 the way up the stairs, I found myself riveted by the dance of labor these old women where orchestrating.

As if choreographed just for my eyes, a sight unfolded on that stairway that in a mere four steps defined the conundrum facing women in Korea today, giving me a scene I will never, ever forget. Down the stairs trotted the future: a 5’8″ stunning young Korean woman. She was all legs and showing every inch of them under her mini-pleated cheerleader-style skirt, swinging it masterfully in perilous heels, her breasts perfectly displayed in the tightest of tank tops, layered in bright colors to set off her perfect opalescent skin, cosmetically altered eyelids and colored auburn hair which swung and glistened down her back. She moved herself like a cat down the stairway, all the while poking away at her handheld smart phone, a practice done incessantly by 99.9% of pedestrians under 30 on the streets of Busan. As she passed the old woman with the tray of rocks on her head I held my breath, expecting an interaction. There was none. They passed as if the other did not exist. I stood there, quite paralyzed by the scene, my American mind fully taking in what I had just witnessed.

In the next moment I understood what the women of Korea are tasked with: trying to define themselves in a post-feminist, wired world delivered upon them without the benefit of time to discover themselves by trial, define themselves by struggle against known obstacles within that changing world. In just one generation, if even that, more like just one or two decades, that world came to them, imposing its definitions of what it is to be a modern woman upon them. And as it has engulfed these young Korean women, demanding they adopt a new role as women, one for which they are mostly unprepared, and one for which they certainly do not have mentors, it has thoroughly ignored all generations of Korean women prior, it has cast them aside as no longer relevant to the future.

In the time spent with this young woman friend and her dreams, I once again realized just how far we have come in the U.S. as women, the sacrifice made by older generations, paving the road for women like me. Now here I am, on the other side of the world, giving a young woman a crash course in what it means to own ourselves and move through the world as equals. It is my prayer that she finds more mentors like me to guide her, that she finds happiness and a sense of self worth as she endures a most confusing era in her home country.

As I ride the trains out into the country side, I pass the fields filled with tiny groups of middle-age and elderly workers, stooped in the sun tending crops by hand. Others move livestock from field to field in traditional clothing and wide-brimmed hats. Rural SKWe stream past home-based shops housing various craftsmen plying their trades: auto repair, welders, etc. These scenes always feel like they move in real time. These rural and quasi-rural landscapes feel like a country moving at an organic pace into the future, a stark contrast to the hyper-reactive, dis-located scenes found in the urban areas where those under 30 seem to move through their days utterly disconnected from their own history, as if a decade or two were simply removed from time.

To be continued…

© 2013   Nancy Kotting   All Rights Reserved    Reproduction by Permission Only


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