THE INTRIGUING QUIRKINESS OF K-DRAMAS
K-dramas or Hallmark-like Korean-produced television shows are gaining in popularity in the United States. Within Asia, they are a dominant cultural phenomenon. In Korea, two nights of the week are dedicated to these stories. In Hong Kong, there are two separate cable channels that feature nothing but K-dramas. Leading K-drama actors are superstars within Korea. I have talked about K-dramas elsewhere. I grew up in Korea for seventeen years and speak Korean probably at a junior high level. Being a “third-culture-kid” has made K-dramas an interest to me. They remind me uniquely of home.
One of the reasons why Americans can benefit from studying K-dramas is that they are also largely reflective of Chinese society, which has its own strange mix of authoritarian Communism with traditional Confucianism. As China is fast becoming the United States’ most significant global, economic, and military challenge, some appreciation of how this society works is a benefit. American provincialism is not helpful. Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood’s critical description of Americans is apt: “American borders are the world’s longest one-way mirror. Americans look out and only see themselves.” Not everyone sees the world in the same way as Americans and becoming aware of this fact is enormously important for Americans living in an increasingly interconnected world. K-dramas are a useful way of expanding our perspective.
For most American viewers these television shows have distinctively quirky features, where the cultural differences loom large. All of these features can be seen in the recent K-drama television series Strongest Deliveryman (2017). Here are some of these quirks and what they mean in the K-drama context.
K-dramas are essentially conservative reaffirmations of traditional Asian values. The overarching foil is individualism versus communal values and Western modernity versus Korean Confucianism. If is for this reason the K-dramas are so popular with older Koreans and the Chinese. Modern American values are viewed in this context as a threat. Family, home, and order are commonly pitted against the individual, travel and chaos. A character who wants to travel to the West is immediately identified as an antagonist to traditionalism. If this character is a mother or a woman, the threat is amplified. Few Americans would immediately identify travel as a social threat. This idea is captured in the African proverb, "The person who has not traveled widely thinks his or her mother is the only cook (the best cook).” The point of K-dramas is always to return to the value of Asian traditionalism.
Originally, K-dramas were historical dramas usually set in the Joseon Dynasty. This was the 500 year old dynasty that immediately preceded modern Korea. Korea basically went from a feudal kingdom to a modern society in one step and in less than fifty years. Western missionaries and the Japanese occupation played a big part in this transformation. So the Joseon Dynasty is often used as the traditional foil to modernity in K-dramas. So when a character describes her contemporary life as a “Joseon hell,” she is being identified as a K-drama antagonist. Joseon based K-dramas—and there are a lot of them—are more difficult for an American to watch in that we lack a sense of this compressed Korean history.
K-dramas are framed by a Korean sensibility called “han,” or a tragic sensibility about life. There is in K-dramas the expectation of suffering, unrequited love, and yes, death. This is what sets them fundamentally apart—and makes them better in my estimation—from the schmalz of Hallmark Christmas movies. It’s also that which gives these narratives a sense of pathos and gravitas. In general, the characters find a way to endure with resilience and grit through the tragic plot twists. Esteeming such resilience is characteristically Korean. Koreans are not alone in this sensibility. Sisu is a distinctively Finnish concept described as stoic determination and tenacity of purpose. Han combines a tragic sensibility with sisu.
K-dramas are consequently powerfully emotional. Emotional outbursts and tears are a common feature of these dramas. A K-drama actor must be able to shed tears on command. There is a lot of facial acting in these portrayals. Koreans, like the Irish, are an emotive lot, but this feature is highlighted and exaggerated more than what one actually finds in normal Korean life.
A subtext of modern K-dramas is the ubiquitous presence of cell phones. The Internet in Korea is about five times faster than in the United States. As this is a communal connected society based on the codes of Confucianism, this has made the phone a regular feature of every aspect of contemporary Korean life. The majority of scenes will have someone talking or texting on a mobile device.
Another feature of K-dramas is social drinking. It is the natural lubricant of Korean communal existence. It is the mark of friendship. In Korean society, one never pours one’s own drink and if one does pour one’s own drink or drinks alone, it is a sign that social taboos are being violated. When offered a drink it is bad form not to finish it. When a glass if offered from an elder always hold the glass with two hands (similar to receiving a business card). Hangover remedies are common as are street foods associated with drinking. So the frequency of drinking in K-dramas need to be seen as revealing wider social structure, lifesyles, and traditions. It is embedded in a larger relational context.
Koreans, like the Irish, love to sing. Frequently a professional business dinner will end with singing. As a consequence, karaoke (noreaebang) is very popular among the young. Coin-operated karaoke machines have taken over Korea and are as common as a coin-operated Coke vending machine. All K-drama episodes end with a romantic song playing in the background so that the viewer knows that even as the plot line ends the episode with a twist, one is subtly reassured that it will all work out in the end—but not without repeated crises and rising tension.
Korea is a complex blend of the highly traditional (in the Victorian Jane Austen sense) and the highly modern. Typically in K-dramas depicting young people, English words will be used as a point of emphasis. When one wants to put one’s comments in bold, one uses the English word. English is studied by all Koreans in high school, as Spanish or French might be here in the United States. But as English is identified with the West, the use of English in a K-drama has a larger cultural significance than merely to show one’s educational prowess.
One of the bizarre features of Korean society is the use of English on T-shirts. Often these English phrases are taken out of context so that they make no sense to an American viewer: “Take Highway 57.” Rather than trying to capture a literal meaning, these phrases are used to capture a metaphorical meaning. This is carried over in K-dramas. When the main characters are wearing clothing with English phrases on them, they are obliquely tied to the plot line of the story. So when a girl wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the one word “MORE,” it is reflective of her restlessness and desire to accumulate wealth. These phases are used differently in their Asian contexts than here in the United States—they are subtly reflective of the character’s psyche.
Another aspect of the social character of Korea is the importance of food and eating together. Company dinners are common as a way of expressing communal solidarity. Food is thus a dominant theme in K-dramas and if one has a love for Korean food, watching a K-drama will always make you hungry. Typically, a Korean meal is eaten in a communal style, everyone dipping their chopsticks into a communal pot of ramen, for example. Dishes are typically shared. The idea of everyone individually ordering their own meal is un-Korean. Every aspect of Korean society leans against individualism. In fact, when characters move in an individualistic manner, it is viewed as a challenge to traditional norms. Here modernity and American individualism are viewed in a profoundly negative light. It is the family that matters not the individual. Loyalty to these social commitments as outlined by Confucianism is paramount. In this context for a child to be orphaned—to be essentially family-less—carries a much greater social weight. Or for a mother to abandon the family is almost unforgivable. The tension between the individual and the community, individual and the family is the dominant dramatic dynamic in K-dramas.
Most people who don’t speak Korean are not aware that the Korean language itself embodies the five Confucian hierarchies (fathers were above sons, husbands above wives, older siblings above younger ones, older friends to younger friends, and rulers above their subjects) with different endings to every sentence depending on one’s station relative to the person to whom one is speaking. Knowing the answer to “When were you born?” is critical in Korea, if one is going to be able to communicate. For this reason, elderly persons are traditionally respected in Korea. All one has to do to put someone down is to change the ending of a sentence. These linguistic dynamics are not possible to translate in English subtitles, but one might hear the refrain in a K-drama, “Why are you talking down to me?” Positional respect is woven into the very fabric of the Korean language. Bowing as a greeting is emblematic of this embedded sense of respect.
Modernity plays havoc with these traditional hierarchies. This is why a first generation Korean-American church will be a very different experience from a second-generation Korean-American church. The first generation church will tend to maintain the Confucian hierarchies. This is also why a cosmopolitan Korean woman who has lived abroad will find it very difficult to marry a traditional Korean man. The entire expectations of hierarchy are overturned in her psyche. This is a dynamic that is different from ideological feminism. To be fair, these Confucian relationships were generally unequal but consciously complementary, which means that they were designed to work in harmony.
However, when respect is breached a common plot point in K-dramas, brawls are common. Like the stereotypical Irish, Koreans are depicted as hotheads readily resorting to stylized violence. However, in K-dramas this rarely involves gun violence only fist-to-cuffs with a tip of the hat to Asian martial arts. Gun violence is evident in Korean movies, but not so much in television-based K-dramas.
Equally important in this light is loyalty to one’s hometown or place of birth. Second only to one’s family name is loyalty to one’s gohyang or hometown. My Korean hometown or gohyang is Jeonju, which would tell a Korean that I’m a country bumpkin or “country person.” And I speak Korean with a “country” (Honam) accent. In courses on learning Korean, an entire class will be devoted to learning how to introduce one’s hometown or to say where one is from. One’s hometown is an important social variable. In this sense, going home carries a lot more weight in Korean society than in the United States. Obviously, friends from one’s hometown also have a special significance.
Another feature of modern Korean society is the fact that its economics and politics are dominated by massive business conglomerates or chaebols (Samsung, LG, Hyundai, and SK Group, for example), accounting for about two-thirds of Korean exports. There are roughly two dozen well-known family-owned chaebols that dominate the South Korean economy. These families are extremely rich, politically powerful, and often corrupt. They are the equivalent of a celebrity royalty class in Korea and are a throwback to to a feudal tribal historical memory. Because they operate within the wider Western global economy, they are generally viewed in K-dramas as a danger to Korean traditionalism. They are often cast as the villain in these dramas.
The importance of knowing one’s standing in society’s latent hierarchies, places enormous pressures on Korean young people. Korea is a shame-based culture. Suicide is common in Korea. It is the number one cause of death for those aged 10 to 39. Korea's suicide rate is currently 10th highest in the world. There is a problem in Korea of under reporting suicide by the Korean National Statistical Office as a way of "saving face" for the family.
Frequently in a K-drama there is a comic character or characters who is used typically to challenge or expose traditional boundaries. The humorous foil can say what is gauche to say or politically incorrect and still get away with it. They can act in a manner that would typically cause one to be socially ostracized. One can think of these characters as the court jester who has the courage to tell the king that he has no clothes. Boundary maintenance or following expected social morays is a big deal in Korean society particularly among the common folk and poor. The upper class has more ability to break the norms, but the lower class do so at great personal peril to themselves.
K-dramas are both enjoyable and at times culturally bizarre to Western viewers. But it is actually in their quirkiness and oddness that some of the biggest life lessons can be learned by American viewers in the beauty of contrasting cultures.