fantasising foreign culture

Fantasising foreign culture

As I’m spending most of my time at home now, I use TV sound as a white noise that can expectantly boost my productivity and perhaps make me feel busy. Thanks to the habit, I had good chances to familiarise myself with what’s happening on Korean TV world, with a little help of my sister’s TV preference and heads-up.

Lately, thanks to all the TV-ing, I’ve found the trend of Korean entertainment shows resembles each other and especially so for the popular ones. Many of them involve travelling to foreign countries or involving foreigners in the shows. I recall the atmosphere was clearly different at least 5 years ago. It’s good to have more diversity in the everyday TV contents and remind people of the fact that we are all the same after all. I mean, the common complaint of my friends from the foreign land was that people stare at them in subway trains or on streets, and I assume those stares come from the foreignness, thinking how different we are or imagining how different we would be. So my first impression on the trend was rather positive than worrisome. The more I watch, however, I found some concerning aspects wondering what impact could it have on viewers and whether the country’s future diversity was at stake.

Here are a few things that I found negative (as always);

  • The majority of foreigners in the entertainment is white. Meaning most cultures covered in shows are so-called Western cultures. I haven’t seen a single attractive person from the South East Asia on entertainment shows (maybe because I don’t watch enough?). So it, to a certain extent but somewhat hastily, proves my point on potential fantasisation of a particular foreign cultures namely white culture.
  • Those foreigners tend to be shown to represent their country rather than express opinions of individuals. Thus viewers may adopt biased opinions if they take their words as it is.
  • Usually, positive aspects of those countries are shown. Learning from positive things from other countries aren’t bad at all. While this promotes positive impressions on those countries, it may also contribute to blinded belief that other cultures have more good things unlike ours. I often hear people say “other countries must be doing better,” during conversations over negative sides of Korea. That kind of criticism isn’t very constructive.
  • It focuses on “differentness” than the “sameness.” It includes how other “civilised” countries are doing it “right” in different ways. Talking about differences is not something bad itself. It’s just that my approach to multiculturalism is focused on discovering the “sameness” rather than “differences” between cultures and individuals. It may not matter to others. Well, none of my points may matter to others, to be honest, and they don’t have to!

Some of the points are more obvious but some aren’t, and they can be very subjective to my judgment (when on earth haven’t they?). The thing is, I’m not worried about racial fetishism which isn’t quite related to the public education I’m trying to make a point in. It may sound ridiculous but yes, I’m actually discussing the public education role of TV SHOWS! How silly it sounds even to me. Nonetheless, I am very interested in public education that all types of media influences. TV shows aren’t the exception.

Although I usually enjoy highlighting negative sides, I do see some encouraging future in it as well. Here are relatively positive sides that I observed;

  • People can actually feel like they learned about foreign cultures. Because who wants to spend 2 years learning the language to learn about those countries when they can do it in 2 minutes? But seriously, getting familiarised is helpful to get rid of the ‘barrier’, which brings me to the next point.
  • Diversity becomes easy. Once familiarised with different coloured faces and their different behaviours, it becomes easier to accept. We are less afraid of blue-eyed or curly-haired creatures.
  • Even though some show’s main objective appears to be “fitting in” to western society, it at least shows the effort to get to know the culture albeit in assimilation.
  • It encourages people to travel more and interact more.
  • More jobs for foreigners, perhaps?

By the way, there are topics that I h-ate in conversation. Those are food and travel. I have nothing against food talk but it just bores me to faint. I would rather choose to watch the 3 hour Hobbit film than having to listen to what makes a great steak (oh my). Travel story itself can be potentially beneficial and entertaining. However there is a great risk of encountering the generalisation of the whole population of one nation or worse, continent, and that provokes my snobby nerve. Can’t help it. Based on my experience, it’s common among those who travelled multiple countries in short period. They always have stories where Italian people were like this and African people were like that. Apparently, whatever they see becomes the culture. So I don’t risk having to listen to it unless I’m allowed to contemptuously smile and mock the story.

The TV shows involving foreign countries or people are a bit similar to those travel stories. Travel story tellers often commit selection bias where the chosen samples do not represent the rest of the population or the case, and availability heuristic under which people rely on their recall rather than hard evidence when making evaluations or decisions. Despite the main objective of the entertainment business, the side effect it casts upon the general public isn’t as trivial as it looks. We can’t deny that media heavily contributes to our culture because it does. Have you seen K-pop? Thanks to media, a great number of people including my dad actually believe that’s the Korean culture and that makes them proud as global citizens. The instant, naked, shallow, money-making industry! Really? I have nothing against K-pop but it’s just a pop culture at most, not Korean culture per se. The question is, how much are we aware of the role of the soft media (meaning non-news channels, I made it up), does it play for or against ethnic division?


Photograph: Aziz Acharki

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An anthropology novice with passion for small things. A development worker in a world of imponderabilia.

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