Jul 9, 2014

My so-called kdrama-induced culture shock

Full House (2004) was probably my third kdrama ever

Amanda's blog entry on her experience of watching Korean dramas as an American viewer was an eye-opener of sorts. It's interesting discovering the different perspectives we have on dramaland. For me, because I'm from a very heavily Western-influenced Asian country, I can relate so very much to both Western and Asian dramas.

(Note: In order to fully understand where I'm coming from in this blog entry, I suggest reading Amanda's blog post on Outside Seoul first because what follows was originally supposed to be a comment in response to her entry that became tl;dr material and so I decided to post it here instead.)

My first language was English; I'm positive I only ever read English books (save for school-required reading assignments); I grew up watching Sesame Street, Nickelodeon, and Disney; and up until the early 2000's, all I ever watched was American and British shows and movies (and the occasional Mexican telenovelas). I knew there were things that were distinctively Western, but because of the lengthy exposure to the Western culture, none of them were jarringly obvious to me.

When I finally started watching Asian dramas (it all started with Meteor Garden, the Taiwanese adaptation of Hana Yori Dango, and everything else snowballed from there), I got the same "culture shock" as I did with the Western shows - in that, there weren't a lot.

My favorite multi-generational household in Ojakgyo Brothers (2011)

Multi-generational households wasn't a new thing, I myself still live at home with my parents and sisters. And when they were still alive, my great-grandparents too. And until the very end, they had a say on most big family decisions. Although I do have friends who have moved out of their parents' homes, that doesn't mean they have full autonomy of their lives. I would have to say there is no clear cut definition on what the norm is anymore. Both are widely accepted. So when I see our heroine going home to her parents' house, where her grandmother and an uncle also live, this is not weird for me.

I also live in a sprawling, yet highly-congested metropolis. Not as gorgeous or high-tech as Seoul, but not provincial or rural either. And we eat rice for almost every meal. Even for breakfast. Sure, we do cereals and cornflakes, bacon and eggs, but rice for breakfast is the local preference. And we do have dine-in tables at convenience stores. I've never eaten ramyeon there, but I do usually have the microwaveable rice meals. At 7-11, yes.

Tables outside convenience stores are also an option, as seen in You're Beautiful (2009)

I guess, culturally, from my standpoint, growing up in a country that has been colonized by Spain and the US, plus the short-lived Japanese settlement, my perspective is vastly different from a lot of the other international kdrama audience. Yes, I'm Asian, but I come from a country that is far from being homogenous. To quote Stanley Karnow, my people spent "300 years in a convent, and 50 years in Hollywood." Our population is a mix of Malay, Chinese, and Spanish, not to mention the ever-growing Korean community. So in terms of dramas being relatable, both kdramas and Western dramas feel very familiar and yet very different, at the same time.

Digging deeper into the matter of relatability though, as Amanda has also pointed out in her own post, the reason we watch dramas in general is because they speak to us on the most basic level. It's not really about the who and the where, but the what and why and how. It's not really because our hero is the grandson of a chaebol who manages a coffee shop in Hongdae. We cared because when he unwittingly fell in love with someone so beyond his imagination, he threw caution to the wind and faced his inner turmoil head on. Love, friendship, family, living happily ever after - these are the common themes we look for in stories, no matter where the story can be found.

Still dreaming of my very own Choi Han-gyul, because Coffee Prince (2007) will forever own me


  1. This is super interesting. I wish everyone would share their drama biography like this :)

    1. Oh hey! Thank you so much. I love reading your blog and I really appreciate that you found this post. :)

  2. I don't know how I missed this post initially, but it was really interesting. I can see that so many things that were odd to me at first watch were things that were pretty standard for you. As someone who hadn't been exposed to any Asian culture (which makes no sense considering Melbourne has a massive Asian population but anyways...), so many things were mystifying. The main thing I remember from when I first got into Asian dramas though, was the hierarchy and the titles. 'Hyung', 'Sunbaenim', those kind of things were so NOT what we do here that it took me a while to process it. And when you have love interests calling each other their name with '-sshi' at the end, I still find that weird. To me, that just means they're not as close as they should be as romantic partners, but to them, it would be weird if they suddenly started calling each other by their name only.

    It's funny but I can't think of anything worse than living with my parents, grandparents and whichever other family members decided to live with us. My dad is the only son in his family so if we were a Korean family, we'd be the ones stuck with the grandparents! I know that sounds horrible, and it's not that I don't love my grandparents, but both my Grandmothers actually lived in a different city to us so I never really got to know them all that well (both Granddad and Pop died when I was young so I didn't know them at all), and it would just be so weird and awkward to live with them. Plus, I yearned for my freedom for years before I eventually moved out of home, and going back there just feels like a big step backward.

    Having a full household means you never get time to yourself and there's always someone around to tell you what to do, even as an adult. The whole 'parents running their children's lives' thing is actually something I can sort of relate to. I don't live at home but my mum still expects me to tell her where I'm going and who I'm seeing. She's actually just doing it to stay involved in my life, and I can recognise that, but it's still very frustrating.

    I like that picture of Coffee Prince. Every time I see anything from CP, it makes me smile :-)

    1. The whole societal hierarchy thing is more evident in Korea, for sure. But where I'm from, we still call people who are older by titles like "ate" (ah-teh) for older sisters and "kuya" (koo-yah) for older brothers, at work we would generally use ma'am and sir... Except I work at a multinational company and my direct superior is a Canadian woman based in Sydney and Westerners do prefer to be called by their first name so I just call her Linda. But the local manager, I still call him sir. Everyone else's parents are "tita" and "tito" which literally means aunt and uncle, even if they're not related. We don't have an equivalent to "-ssi" so everyone else, generally, can be referred to by name.

      It is frustrating to live with family, but at the same time, it's good that we're never alone. I can have peace in my own room when I want to, and all I have to do is go to the living room for some company. Some people say this is why we don't have serial killers, because you can't hide a secret that big for very long if you have so many other people up in your business. Hahaha.

      And yes, Coffee Prince just makes my heart go all tingly. :)

    2. Both my Mum and Dad's families don't even do 'Aunt' and 'Uncle' for actual blood relatives, lol. We call our aunts and uncles by their first names. That's just us though, we're really informal. My brother-in-law's family use proper terms though so his kids have ended up calling me Aunt but that's not how I refer to myself. Or like, if i'm signing their birthday card, i'll just write Caitlyn. But they'll call me Aunty Caitlyn. Some schools here are implementing that as well. The kids calls their teachers by their first name. We used to call our high school teachers by their nicknames, lol, so Mr Lloyd became Lloydy, etc. That was fun.