… to Korean dramas. I’ve mentioned this before, and really, you can just scratch the help part of that title because right now I am reveling, or perhaps wallowing is a better term.
It is true that some of the shows I loved as Korean Dramas I would probably not give a second glance to if they were American (Boys Over FLowers, I am looking at you. Unless Lee Min Ho was still in the hypothetical American version). However, this is not true of all of them. More on that in a minute, or a paragraph or two, however you tell time. Somebody asked me before what I like about my beloved K-dramas, and for a long time it was incredibly hard for me to quantify it- the whole ‘Korea-ness’ of it all was the main thing, and how do you describe that? Sometimes you just like a country and its culture for no more significant reason than that you do. My son has a thing for Russia. The FYG for a very long time has had this love affair with India. No reason, it just resonates with them. For a while now, Korea, obviously South Korea, just resonates with me- I have a yearning to go back and visit Korea, although I realize it’s likely drama-land Korea that really rings my bells.
In general, I love the family relations, the delicacy with ‘skinship,’ that touch is so significant that you don’t just get all hands on with just anybody, the respect for elders, the sense of humor, the predictability in some dramas, the lack of continuity checkers, the look into Korean culture and customs, the wrap ups that satisfyingly tell you what everybody is doing now at the last episode . There is also a quirkiness that I enjoy- not present in every drama, but, for instance, there was one called Wild Romance which combined all the hilarity of an I Love Lucy show with an ongoing thread with all the darkness of a creeper stalker movie.
One of the most hilarious scenes ever is in an episode of Coffee House- you can see it here- the part I want you to watch is from 12:48 to about 18:44. There is some language in the subbing, so be forewarned.
The backstory is that a mystery author has had a not very bright assistant foisted on him. The writer is not very easy to get along with, although it takes some time to know this because he has impeccable, dazzlingly good manners with new acquaintances. The assistant is no longer a new acquaintance. She’s rather stupid, and he’s arrogant, so he just tells her what to do without explaining his reasons and it takes her forever (much later than this scene) to understand he’s having her re-enact scenes from his current mystery to make sure they are plausible.
He’s taken her shopping for clothes, and then bought a suitcase, which he made her carry home. She is the assistant, after all. Then he makes her get inside it. The arguments that follow are funny enough, but when her family shows up at the door to visit their daughter/sister/grand-daughter and her workplace for the first time- remembering that he doesn’t know them well enough to lose his impeccable and dazzling good manners- it got knucklebiting hilarious. Knucklebiting because I watch these in bed while everybody else is asleep and I try not to waken my snoring husband. I think I might have drawn blood trying to stop my laughter with this one, and still woke him up shaking the bed with my silent guffaws.
So… I’m updating this post six months later, because now I’ve thought about it further, have watched dramas from other countries, have been reading more and thinking more, and I can now be more specific about the appeal of K-dramas. I have watched dramas out of Bollywood (India), Taiwan, and Japan. Objectively, I thought I should really like the J-dramas best, because I did live in Japan for five years, and I took Japanese 101 and got an A in it, so I ought to understand more of the Japanese than the Korean (I also once knew the basic Japanese alphabet, both Katakana and Hiragana well enough to sound out words). The shows I watched were well done and I liked them on their own merits well enough, and I did understand more of the language- but they just didn’t hit me in my happy place like K-dramas do.
There are a lot of things I just really like about Korean culture, and this comes through in K-dramas. There are some exceptions, because there’s a big difference between what you see on a Korean cable show instead of a Korean network, which is still controlled by the government and the government does censor things that it feels are detrimental to Korean society, but in general:
Emphasis on family: I cannot say enough about this. Warm family connections, loving sibling bonds, respect for elders, parents, grandparents, love for home and family- while there are naturally exceptions to this, generally, this is the rule in a K-drama, and it has the greatest appeal to me. Dramabeans discusses that here as well.
Connected to that would be manners and morals- good manners are emphasized. What constitutes good manners varies from culture to culture of course, but I find the emphasis on continuing to maintain basic respect for others and the value of family honor refreshing. Korean culture leans conservative in ways that my family also leans conservative, and I like that. For instance, while abortion apparently exists in Korea, I’ve never seen a K-drama where it was seen as a good way to ‘solve’ an unplanned pregnancy. Children are valued, and, at least in the K-dramas I’ve watched, unborn children are recognized as human beings (King2Hearts; 1 % of Anything, Bad Family, and others).
Story arc- K-dramas sign on for a specific length of shows- usually 16, sometimes 18, 20, or 24, or, if it’s a weekend drama 50 to 100 or more- I do not tend to watch the longer ones because they are a different genre and i have a short attention span, however, I have watched a few. But mainly I stick to the shorter run weeknight shows. This limited run, determined aforehand, is brilliant. One of the things I find very tiresome about American television shows is the way sometimes the writers are clearly making stuff up as they go along because they are just trying to string the story out, not tell a cohesive tale, and they have no idea where their story is going and when it is going to end. And they spend years keeping a couple apart because once they get together all the story tension is gone and the show fizzles out. K-drama writers know where they are going and how many episodes they have to tell the tale, so the story arc has a unified beginning and a known end. There are exceptions- sometimes a show gets an extension, which almost never does it any good in the story telling arena, though fans usually get more views of their idols being cute this way, which is why it’s done. Or sometimes something happens where a writer is switched midway, and then you have a strangely schizophrenic result (Mary Stayed Out All Night). But as a general rule, I think the limited number of episodes for a show is a definite advantage.
I like the cuteness- we noticed this when we lived in Japan (and from there we visited Korea and the Philippines), and if you visit any Asian stores you will see it, too, Asian culture likes cute, and it’s not just for little kids. Korea seems to me, at least viewed through K-dramas, to embrace the cute and sprinkle it all over with a charm that makes for supersized bowl of adorable. Korea even has a special word for one form of the cute- aegyo. More about that here (with video). It makes me go all ‘awwwwww’ and melty inside.
Restraint: American t.v. shows seem to be all about that disgusting term “hooking up.” A K-drama romance on network television might not even show the main couple kissing, or, if they do, the kiss might be more awkward than passionate. It’s a huge step forward in a relationship when a couple just holds hands. For our very conservative about dating and mating family, where we stress that kisses are reserved for the person you marry, this is immensely refreshing, and even a relief. I am so tired of the constant, indiscriminate, meaningless (and often sloppy) liplocks on American television. To me, there is more breath-taking romance in the delicate, slow, deliberate and self-controlled approach of a K-drama. Again, this is very different in a K-drama for cable, and often for movies as well.
There is more romance in a chaste K-drama forehead kiss than in any American t.v. bed scene I’ve ever seen.
Food: I really like Asian food, and I live in a desert wasteland with only a few small oases of Asian food, so I am deprived, seriously deprived. If you want to go out to eat on Mother’s Day in my area, go to an Asian restaurant. Yours may be the only family there. I have met more people here who have never even tried Asian food than I even imagined could exist. I love the scenes that include Korean food not because I’m exactly homesick for it, since I am not sure you can be homesick for a country you only visited for one week and otherwise only know about through books and television, but I miss real Asian food with something akin to homesickness.Food, and eating together, is an important element of Korean culture, and I am not sure you will ever watch a K-Drama that doesn’t include a few scenes of people eating together and close up shots of the food. From this terrific article on parenting, we read:
In Korea, eating is taught to children as a life skill and as in most cultures, children are taught it is important to wait out their hunger until it is time for the whole family to sit down together and eat. Koreans do not believe it’s healthy to graze or eat alone, and they don’t tend to excuse bad behavior (like I do) by blaming it on low blood sugar. Instead, children are taught that food is best enjoyed as a shared experience. All children eat the same things that adults do, just like they do in most countries in the world with robust food cultures. (Ever wonder why ethnic restaurants don’t have kids’ menus?). The result? Korean children are incredible eaters. They sit down to tables filled with vegetables of all sorts, broiled fish, meats, spicy pickled cabbage and healthy grains and soups at every meal.
Also, it turns out that some of my favorite Japanese foods are also Korean (dried cuttlefish, mixed rice, sesame flavored seaweed, sushi/kimbap, and so watching a K-drama warms my tastebuds.
We like dried cuttlefish so much that I have gone out of my way to acquire it so I have packages to put in our stockings at Christmas. I am completely serious about this. We also order seaweed from Amazon on a regular basis because my youngest two snack on it almost daily.
Gender roles: sometimes this is too strong for 21st century American sensibilities, but Korea is still a Patriarchal culture, and in general, I am on board with what I see of this on K-dramas. I don’t want a long argument about this in the comments, I’m not saying that wife abuse is fine, or that women are inferior to men, etc, etc. I just don’t mind gender roles being differentiated, and I think it’s silly to pretend that when it comes to physical strength in the upper body women and men are egalitarian.
It’s kind of interesting, too, because when it comes to standards of beauty, Korea is more androgynous in taste than America (though cosmetics for men are coming into style in the USA), and male Korean idols will wear make-up, including lipstick (I’m fine with guy-liner, but still a little shudder of revulsiony over pink lipstick on a guy), and even look a bit effeminate to western tastes, but when it comes to relationships, the make-up wearing pretty boy is still expected to be protective of his woman in meaningful ways. This doesn’t mean he opens car doors for her, because that’s not really all that meaningful, after all, but it does mean he watches out for her when it comes to unwanted male attention, and a Koren male is more likely to be seen carrying a baby, and…. piggy back rides!
I also appreciate that in K-dramas, and I suspect in Korean culture in general, more caution is displayed when it comes to male/female friendships.
Music: Singing is a significant part of Korean culture. Hardly anybody in American sings just for fun anymore, unless they, like we do, come from an acapella church background. I like the singing in K-dramas, and I like the background music and OST in most K-dramas as well.
Age Hierarchy: This, and some other similarities (I also dislike shoes in the house, ftr), may be why I feel such connection with K-dramas. In
our family, for years, we have instructed our children in the ways of RHIP- that is, Rank Has Its Privileges, and the older children have Privileges the younger do not because the older children also have responsibilities the younger do not. We required that the younger children obey the older children (more about that here) , and there came a time when the older children no longer had to ‘take turns’ for the front seat, they just got the front, because they were older. We were not nearly as rigid about that as Korean culture is, but there was enough of that in our family dynamic that I found it charming, appealing, and even familiar in K-drama culture.
More about age hierarchy in K-dramas and Korean culture here.
(I’m so smitten with K-dramas, that If I could get my son to call his big sisters noona and the girls would call their older sisters unni, I’d be over the moon with delight, but it’s not going to happen)
So those are some of the reasons I like them. However, the point that sometimes you just a love a country and its culture because you do is still likely the strongest reason. Have you heard of sympathetic resonance? According to Wikipedia, it’s:
a harmonic phenomenon wherein a formerly passive string or vibratory body responds to external vibrations to which it has a harmonic likeness. The classic example is demonstrated with two similar tuning-forks of which one is mounted on a wooden box. If the other one is struck and then placed on the box, then muted, the un-struck mounted fork will be heard. In similar fashion, strings will respond to the external vibrations of a tuning-fork when sufficient harmonic relations exist between the respective vibratory modes.
K-Dramas and me- we have sufficient harmonic relations that my heartstrings respond favorably to the external vibrations of a good K-drama.
Oh, yes, I have got it bad. I not only watch them, I read recaps of the shows I have already watched, or think I might want to watch, or think I might not want to watch, or watched once and want to know if I want to continue them, or just because I am putting off doing something else. I like the recaps here, although I think they generally get it ridiculously wrong when they attempt social commentary related to feminism.
Some people don’t like closed captioning or subtitles. I prefer them even when watching something in English, so the subtitle issue doesn’t deter me at all.
It helps that I read very fast and that when I read, I always *hear* the voices of what I am reading in my head. It’s no different with subtitles. So while I am reading the English words, I am hearing the actor’s voices saying those words simultaneously in English and Korean (because I do not turn off the sound). I realize that sounds a bit strange and maybe a bit nuts, but it works for me.
And when I say I have got it bad, I mean really, really bad. How bad?
One night while watching an episode of a program called Faith, I had to shift positions momentarily so I could no longer see the screen- I did this without thinking and then was startled at the sudden cessation of comprehensible dialogue.
I had completely forgotten that they weren’t really talking in English and I don’t understand Korean.
You might also enjoy:
A few of my favorite K-Dramas (family friendly a priority)