Korea This Week (June 4 – June 10)

A selection of this week’s news and commentary on Korean culture


When I came to Busan in 2000, there were a few small chicken joints in my neighborhood with quirky names like Goopy Chicken, Chicken Syndrome, and my personal favorite, Smoper, which presented a rare case of a foreign word – “smurf” – being transliterated into Hangeul (스머프), which was then used as the basis of its transliteration back smoperinto the Roman alphabet. All of them were more or less interchangeable in what they offered, and they sat pretty much right on top of another. I often wondered how they stayed in business.

The answer of course is that they didn’t. According to statistics from the Fair Trade Commission reported by the Chosun Ilbo, though over 41,000 chicken restaurants opened last year, 24,000 thousand went out of business. In other words, a chicken restaurant fails every 22 minutes, while the market inches even further beyond saturation.

While some point to a copycat mentality in explaining the proliferation of chicken places, others have pointed out that the explosion has its roots in the 1997 Asian economic crisis, when many out-of-work salarymen were attracted to the business by its low entry fee and operating costs.


angry-raccoonI got a chuckle out of this short video by NPR reporter Elise Hu, who recently visited a few of Seoul’s animal cafes. As Hu notes, animal cafes have been popping up in many Asian cities, and are often popular because they provide a way for people who can’t have pets to get their regular fix of animal interaction. While she quickly takes a shine to the dog cafe, the raccoon cafe is another story.


I also came across this piece on kimchi juice, which is not referring to the liquid that pools at the bottom of your kimchi container, but a bottled “100% organic kimchi juice” that the manufacturer describes as “fresh, raw, and alive” and is selling for $16.99 per 32 ounce bottle.

It has an Amazon rating of 4.2 stars, but some of the reviews seem a bit, shall we say, overenthusiastic. One reviewer called it “the nectar of the gods”, while another had this to say:

My kids used to argue about who got the juice from the Kim Chi jar, now they can drink to their hearts content.

While I don’t see myself fighting my kids over who gets to guzzle the last drop, I will say

kimchi cocktail

Kimchi cocktails are another possibility

that I have found one use for kimchi juice – the old-fashioned, bottom-of-the-tub kind, that is: I drizzle it into my kimchi bokkeumbap to give it a bit of added moisture and flavor.

One of the other takeaways from the article is that the product contains a microbe that is named after kimchi: a species of lactobacillus called lactobacillus kimchii that was proposed as a distinct species in 2000 by JH Yoon et. al. Time will tell if the proposed classification holds up to peer review, but for now, our wide and wonderful world contains a living organism named for kimchi.


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Korea This Week (May 28 – June 3)

A selection of this week’s news and commentary on Korean culture


Is K-Pop a genre?

With the appearance of the all-American, self-proclaimed “K-Pop” group EXP Edition, the opening of K-pop cram schools in New York, and Jaden Smith announcing his intention to “drop a K-Pop single“, it was probably inevitable that fans and critics of K-Pop would eventually weigh in on the question

EXP-Edition-Group-Photo-Featured

EXP Edition

of what exactly K-Pop is; specifically, whether it is by definition a thing made only by Koreans, or whether it is a genre (like rock, hip hop, jazz, and many others) that has escaped the boundaries of its birthplace and is now open to any performer anywhere to borrow, imitate, or appropriate.

Last week, two K-blog heavyweights weighed in on the issue. “The Korean”, of the popular Ask a Korean blog argued that K-Pop is not a genre, and that the term refers to any form of popular music that is a product of Korea (read his full take on the subject here). Roboseyo, writing on his long-running, eponymous blog, argues that K-Pop is in fact a genre, and notes that the label is not used to refer to all music out of Korea. Whatever the case, if you find the question interesting, these are two considered opinions very much worth reading in their entirety.

Siesta, Korean style

studentsleepingKoreans are one of the most-sleep deprived groups of people in the world, clocking fewer hours of sleep than any other OECD country. Because of this, it’s still common to see commuters dozing on trains and buses, students nodding at their desks, and office workers consuming much more caffeine than was the case even a few years ago.

Since 2014, sleep-deprived office workers in Seoul have had another option to remedy their lack of shut-eye: the opportunity to get some quality downtime in a “sleep café”, which are places where visitors can pay a small fee and crash for a while before heading back to work. Personally I am cheering for these places to take off – many times have a wished there were a place to crash other than my office chair or local Starbucks sofa.

On the appeal of K-dramas in Malaysia

Though some Westerners these days are tuning into Korean dramas, many others (like myself) often find it hard to understand the appeal. Apparently this is true of a lot of Asian observers as well, like the staff at Cilisos, a Malaysian news magazine, who recently asked Malaysian fans of K-dramas what they liked about them. The resulting comments were interesting and touched on everything from the lack of

kdramakiss

Kissing tends to come late in the season, and is thus a bigger deal.

lighthearted fare from Hollywood, the focus on emotional rather physical intimacy, and the fact that Korean dramas often end after one season (which makes committing to a K-drama seem a lot less daunting than diving into an American serial drama).

Though I occasionally tune into whatever current drama my wife and kids are watching at home, I still don’t know if I’m sold, but it’s good to keep in mind that much of that stuff wasn’t made with middle-aged American guys in mind. To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s campaign manager James Carville, “It’s the Asian market, stupid!”

Korea This Week (May 21-27)

A distillation of select news from the peninsula


Tourism promotion has always been tricky business in Korea. In this writer’s humble opinion, one of the main stumbling blocks has been a problem of perspective, specifically, a tendency of Korean tourism promoters to consistently overrate the appeal of traditional Korean culture to international tourists.

People travel for a variety of reasons – experience, entertainment, relaxation, enrichment – but rather than consider what kinds of things tourists would like to see, do, or experience, tourism officials more often seem to promote Korea the way they would like people to experience it. As a result, their offerings and suggested itineraries often end up sounding less like an exciting holiday package and more like a high school class trip.

With the exception of Chinese and Japanese tourists ( who can pop over for weekend if they want), people from most anywhere else have to travel a long distance to get here, and the reason for doing so has to be something a bit more compelling than making kimchi, watching a mask dance, taking a pottery class, or visiting a museum dedicated to the history of the song Arirang (I’m not making that up). In short, Korea is a cool place to

Arirang score

All together now!

visit, but you wouldn’t always know that from reading the official tourism literature.

In other news, last Sunday, the band BTS won Billboard’s Best Social Artist prize, and in doing so became the first K-Pop group to win a Billboard award. I’m not a K-Pop fan (mainly because I’m a 46-year old male), but you have to give credit where it is due: winning at an American awards ceremony despite having no songs in English and only one band member who is fluent in the language is a remarkable achievement.

Some were quick to point out that we shouldn’t read too much into it however, because it was a fan-voted prize. Anyone who recalls 2011, when the K-pop singer Rain won Time Magazine‘s poll for “The World’s Most Influential Person” (beating out Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and a comically incredulous Stephen Colbert), knows very well that you never – ever – challenge a Korean entertainer to an online poll. You will lose. Badly.

BTS also sold out a 5-show arena tour in the US earlier this year, which has fired dreams of bigger success in the North American music market, something that has so far eluded Hallyu stars (who, to be fair, have mainly focused their energies elsewhere). If the current South Korean / Chinese spat over the THAAD missile system deployment drags on, cracking into the US and other markets could become a bigger priority for K-Pop acts. Stay tuned…

Back From The Dormant

After a couple of years languishing in the Great Blog Graveyard, Sweet Pickles and Corn is up and running once more. Before we get started, I’d like to take a few moments to address our faithful and long-suffering readers’ most burning questions.

What happened to the old Sweet Pickles and Corn?

The short answer is ‘inertia’. As Isaac Newton pointed out, a body in motion tends to stay in motion, and a body on a sofa tends to stay on the sofa. Despite all the initial enthusiasm and good intentions, this seems to be the fate of most blogs: they sputter, run out of gas, and finally lie abandoned by the big electronic roadside in the sky.

The more charitable explanation is that we were busy. Three of us wrote books last year,

writeratdesk

Anonymous SP&C blogger at work.

another was waist-deep in an MFA program, three SP&C alumni moved overseas, and another moved across the peninsula. The truth lies somewhere between these two explanations.

Why are we starting it again?

We find ourselves now in a much-diminished K-blogosphere, in which many long-standing and much-beloved blogs have passed on. Does Korea need a resurrected Sweet Pickles and Corn? Readers can decide that, but we aim to try to fill the gap.

What is this new Sweet Pickles and Corn?

Those of you who were readers of the old SP&C may remember it as a bit of a grab bag by a bunch of people living in Korea, and writing mostly about Korea, if sometimes by default. The new Sweet Pickles and Corn is going for a similar tone but a more narrowed focus: it is a “Korea blog” by design, and as such, will take Korea as its focus. Culture, events, news, commentary, humor, reviews and other Korea-related brain droppings are all fair game.

What’s up with that name?

The name Sweet Pickles and Corn was initially chosen as a nod to the pizza side dish and topping that often appear in Korea, and was meant to suggest the quirks and minor absurdities of life here that our blog would take as its focus. I suppose the name will still function that way, but there’s another sense in which I’ve come to like the pickles and corn symbol: as a common example of a cultural borrowing with a Korean twist.

Not everyone is a fan of corn on pizza (I don’t have strong feelings about it one way or the other), but whether you like it or not, it’s a small but common example of the many opportunities to view the familiar through a different lens. I often find that the interesting things about Korea are not always the uniquely Korean creations, but the unique way that Korea re-purposes and re-invents cultural imports and ultimately makes them their own. Sometimes it’s a hit, and sometimes it’s a miss, but it’s seldom boring, and this, in a nutshell, is our lofty aim here: to hit, to miss, and to not be boring. Or something like that.

What do I do now?

Sit back, pull up a small tub of your favorite fermented vegetable, and enjoy!

bob_farrell_pickle