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The Threat of Working Women in South Korea

By: Christina Lee

Under YouTube videos of her interviews with high-profile Korean celebrities, hundreds of comments referring to the red-haired interviewer as a “femi,” or the Korean abbreviation for the term “feminist,” paint the interviewer in a malicious light. Some comments claim that she hates all Korean men to exist, and some accuse her of aiding in the suicide of a male photographer from a 2018 sexual harassment case.

A self-proclaimed “semi-celebrity,” Lee Eunjae, or better known as JaeJae, made a name for herself in South Korea’s mainstream media with her superb interviewing skills and popular YouTube series “MMTG,” where she meets the biggest stars of the Korean entertainment industry. Her high-energy personality and witty sense of humor has attracted millions of views to her videos and launched her to star regularly on talk shows as an interviewee herself. Offscreen, she works a typical day job as a producer at one of South Korea’s largest broadcasting stations, SBS.

In a recent YouTube video titled, “How Single JaeJae Gets Her Money Back From Weddings,” JaeJae opened up about her decision not to marry. “I never thought of marriage as a requirement in my life,” she says. JaeJae mentions how generations ago, marriage was seen as a woman’s “final destination” in life.

To young South Korean women like JaeJae, marriage seems like the last thing one would ever want to do in a newly industrialized country where women finally have the opportunity to join the workforce and gain financial independence. This pattern is evident even behind the scenes of JaeJae’s YouTube series. Her production team from “MMTG” is predominantly women, something Girls’ Generation member Tiffany Young pointed out during her interview: “So many boss ladies. Working women on set. I respect you.” 

For a veteran of the South Korean entertainment industry like Tiffany Young to point out and praise the presence of working women on set speaks volumes about the traditionally male-dominated workspaces, and figures like JaeJae are undoubtedly beginning to threaten this status quo.

As a result, JaeJae has become a victim to relentless misogynistic criticism that attacks her every move. Despite having received a bachelor’s degree from one of South Korea’s most prestigious schools, Ewha Womans University, JaeJae opened up about her struggles to find employment after graduation.

The internet’s response to her story was brutal. Commenters, mostly Korean men, criticized her short hair, her looks (“Physiognomy is science,” reads one Facebook comment, referring to the hackneyed Korean saying that justifies attacks toward one’s facial appearance), and her educational background from a “femi” school. “I guess I’m sorry to women, but a short haircut usually leads to disqualification,” another commenter posted in an unintentional acknowledgement of the gender biases that do indeed exist within the workplace.

The South Korean perception of a “femi” and its negative connotations arise from various factors; it is difficult to pinpoint a single reason, but much of the Korean male anxieties about working, outspoken women like JaeJae who are honest about their experiences may be reflected in the status of marriage and fertility rates in South Korea.

Currently, South Korea is facing notably low marriage rates, with a 10% decline in the number of couples getting married just last year. The country is also known for having the lowest fertility rate in the world, raising concerns about how South Koreans will be able to stabilize their population as the country’s number of deaths outweigh its number of births.

Working women ultimately become a scapegoat in this situation, as they bear much of the pressure and responsibility to maintain the South Korean population—a difficult feat especially when women are favoring professional careers over motherhood.

These challenges to traditional family dynamics that have been historically and culturally enforced by Confucian values undoubtedly destabilize an entire country. But to have one public figure—who merely uses her newfound popularity and platform to voice her opinions—take the blame for the country’s uncertainties may seem more as a demonstration of male anxiety over their potential loss of power in a traditionally patriarchal society. Meanwhile, Lee Eunjae has been grappling with what it means to be true to oneself amid misogyny.

Hate toward JaeJae was only amplified by a video from 2018 that resurfaced in which JaeJae worked as an editor and reporter for an SBS news segment. Taking place back when JaeJae did not sport bright red hair, the news clip documented an investigation of a sexual harassment case involving YouTuber Yang Yewon, who claimed that she was sexually abused while modeling for lingerie.

The controversy made national headlines during the time, and netizens who are now coming across this older video are incriminating JaeJae for her role in supporting Yang Yewon. Calling the semi-celebrity and her supporters “biased feminists,” the netizens who most likely approach this issue with the same attitude as the commenters who spout “Physiognomy is science” to any woman with an opinion began likening JaeJae to a murderer, after one of the men involved in the sexual harassment case took his life amid the investigation.

Despite the criticism, JaeJae continues to host her popular “MMTG” series, appear on talk shows, and has gained fans throughout the country. She is one of the many female public figures who face scrutiny by misogynistic netizens, and her rising fame and fanbase is a testament to the ever-evolving social expectations in South Korea. To her female fans, JaeJae is the voice for women who choose a professional life over marriage, who live alone and don’t dream of having children. The idea that women now get to make their own choices in life threatens the country’s entire power structure, but the presence of unapologetic women like JaeJae in the media is something that South Korea desperately needs.

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Defining Foreign: What “Minari” Says About America

By: Christina Lee

“Korean people use their heads,” Jacob Yi says in Korean, his son David trailing behind him. Then in accented English: “We use our minds.” The duo walks across what seems like an endless field of grass below a cloudless sky, perfect for a farm.

The 2020 film Minari, written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, follows the Yi family, headed by South Korean immigrants Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri), as they relocate to rural Arkansas where Jacob hopes to support his two children, wife and mother-in-law by growing Korean vegetables.

A semi-autobiographical film based on Chung’s childhood memories, Minari took home the trophy for the best foreign language film at the Golden Globes this year. Chung shared his gratitude for his win, but he also hinted at what could be interpreted as lingering dissatisfaction, a sentiment shared by viewers and fans who understand what it feels to be “othered” in the United States.

Minari is about a family,” Chung said in his acceptance speech. “It’s a family trying to learn how to speak a language of its own. It goes deeper than any American language and any foreign language. It’s a language of the heart.”

With this statement, Chung suggests that he too is very much aware of the controversy surrounding the movie and its classification as a “foreign-language” film.

Minari, the story about South Korean immigrants in the United States, had no choice but for its American film distribution company A24 to submit the American-directed and American-financed film to the foreign language category, as more than 50% of Minari’s dialogue is spoken in Korean. 

“It goes deeper than any American language and any foreign language.”

The country that is home to the largest film industry in the world fails to recognize the inherent Americanness of its own movies. Instead, it resorts to arbitrary numbers to define what counts as “foreign enough” and therefore disqualified from competing against English-language films in a country that does not have an official language.

Chung knew that finding financial support for his movie about a deeply cultural experience would be hard in an industry still dominated by whiteness and one-dimensional narratives. However, thanks to Korean American producer Christina Oh, Chung found an ally in his mission to keep Minari spoken mostly in Korean.

While the film’s characters speak English from time to time, Chung addressed why the dialogue remains predominantly Korean, and his reasoning is personal. Chung described his characters’ Korean speech as the “sort of insular feeling that you have when the reality at home is different from the one outside.” Through this reality of bilingualism, Chung demonstrates that the dual experience or “twoness” is common among immigrant families, to whom a second language is not simply a convenient tool used to appeal to monolingual moviegoers for financial profit—it is an entire lived experience. The Golden Globes failed to acknowledge this.

“You really try to preserve some of that reality within your own family as you feel it slipping away,” Chung said.

The Korean American director and writer’s work is truly one of preservation, to uphold the truth about the immigrant experience through language, especially when Minari stars Korean American actors like Steven Yeun, who proves that the loss of home and one’s native tongue within immigrant families is an ongoing and evolving experience. Noticeable in interviews, Yeun’s improvement in the Korean language demonstrates that children of immigrants are still engaged in a constant relationship with their parents’ ways of communication and that “foreign” language is not a cinematic gimmick nor a static category title that demarcates narratives about the experiences of people who do not look like the white majority.

Chung also recognized the arbitrary nature of deeming something “foreign.” He said, “My grandmother, if she were still alive, she’d be very proud that I held through and did a film in Korean and didn’t compromise and then start using that foreign language of English.”

The subjective lens of “foreignness” easily allows for the country’s narrative to favor the white, English-speaking majority over multilingual Americans of diverse cultural backgrounds. Rarely is it acknowledged that English in America is just as foreign to immigrants and their children, who often learn their native tongue first, English second. To deem any language other than English as merely “foreign” hints at xenophobic tendencies to invalidate the sense of belonging and community of immigrant families, further establishing that their languages, cultures, and experiences can never be fully integrated into society.

Minari attempts to bridge this gap between “American” and “foreign.” Its actors—ranging from South Korean-born parents of American children to second-generation Korean Americans—exemplify the American experience characterized by these actors’ varying linguistic abilities. The Korean grandmother speaking broken English to the American-born child responding in flawed Korean is a living, breathing representation of the ultimate American experience for immigrants. What is foreign to one person is never foreign to the other. So what truly defines foreignness?

In retrospect, the tension between American and foreign feels nonsensical. A country built on immigration and cultural diversity should not devalue the very origins of the nation’s unique identity. Through films like Minari that portray the diverse lives of Americans, hopefully we will begin to realize that whatever seems “foreign” at first is more familiar than it appears.

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Setting the Record Straight: Cultural Appropriation

By: Christina Lee

The next time I sit down on a chair, I should think about “cultural appropriation.”

That’s the message writer Bari Weiss relays in her 2017 op-ed for The New York Times titled, “Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation.”

Weiss misses the point in some spots, failing to examine the impact of colonialism, i.e. the inherent power play that does exist within the broad concept of “cultural appropriation,” and claiming that cultural appropriation is what “makes America great” in an eerie echo of hackneyed Trump-isms. Nonetheless, the takeaway that “cultural appropriation” is everywhere, even in the chair I’m sitting on, may seem far-fetched, but it’s essentially an idea that has shaken my worldview ever since, making myself doubt my own stance toward this hot, new term “cultural appropriation” and what it really means for someone bicultural like me to grapple with the ways people are abusing this new phrase.

In her article, Weiss writes that cultural appropriation “is overwhelmingly being used as an objection to syncretism—the mixing of different thoughts, religions, cultures and ethnicities that often ends up creating entirely new ones”. To discuss the term as it’s commonly abused especially by young, outspoken social media users today, I would have to say that Weiss has a point: American singer Jessye Norman specializes in the Italian opera and performs pieces written by German composer Richard Wagner; one of the most popular Greek yogurt companies is run by a Kurd born in Turkey who now lives in America; and as for me, Koreans rarely used chairs until they were most likely introduced to them via foreign nomadic tribes who had already made use of stools. This exchange and adoption of various cultures into our own lives is inevitable.

With the prevalence of social media and online communication today, we’ve created an environment in which we learn to empathize with, gain awareness of, and implement new ideas faster than ever, and it’s only appropriate that we have learned to do so considering the abundance of resources at our disposal. However, the consequence emerges where these “advocates” begin to misuse their newfound power, wielding their social media accounts as a weapon to present their indignantly self-righteous cries for restoring justice in niche spaces, only to validate their self-created sense of virtue.

These are the people who blur the lines between assimilation, cross-cultural exchange, Weiss’s so-called “syncretism,” and true cultural appropriation that suggests actually harmful notions of racism, colonialism, and discrimination in the given context (e.g. naming an American sports team “Redskins,” a white individual donning Afrocentric hairstyles without facing the same consequences in the workplace). In that same sense, before examining the dangers of misusing the term “cultural appropriation,” it’s crucial to establish that nuances to this discussion indeed exist. Specifically, this issue extends to the implications of white privilege and the hypocrisy of a dominant culture misrepresenting and exploiting the cultures of ethnic groups that have been systematically discriminated against throughout history. Essentially, context matters. In the United States, where issues surrounding race have continuously marred the country, it’s important to note that “cultural appropriation” can quickly escalate into a denial of an entire ethnic group’s past struggles, the establishment of imperialist sentiments, and blatant racism.

But in examining the pros and cons of being aware of “cultural appropriation” as it’s thrown around these days, it seems that the negatives outweigh the positives.

Following the “logic” of some of these advocates of cultural appropriation’s dangers, I should have been considered guilty of appropriating culture—I’ve been copying and using the cultural items valuable to these nomadic tribes without knowing about their origins because I literally Googled the history of a chair just to write this article.

In this same manner,  the commonly misunderstood version of cultural appropriation results in a slippery-slope argument that could leave me posing endless examples: white people shouldn’t listen to R&B, jazz, or even rock music—if they don’t know the comprehensive history behind these music genres, starting from where and when they originated, their characteristics, and key figures, they should probably just stick to Bach or Mozart.

I exaggerate, but that’s essentially the dangerously flawed message that these advocates portray. These same advocates choose not to speak out so vocally about the exploitation of slaves who worked in unimaginable conditions in salt ponds during the 1800s whenever they pick up a container of salt to season their food, and these same people indulge in music genres that, surprise, have been appropriating the sounds that originates within cultures of people of color.

Perhaps we’re just picking and choosing our own battles for our own convenience and self-conceited sense of righteousness and entitlement without acknowledging the hypocrisy of our flawed logic.

A lurking sense of discomfort emerges whenever someone points out an instance of “cultural appropriation” and calls for the restoration of that particular cultural practice or item to its original place in a context that doesn’t hint at racist and imperialist sentiment. Realistically, the idea of “exoticism” and “otherness” is perpetuated instead, where we enforce the concept that whatever seems foreign and unfamiliar should remain foreign and unfamiliar. In adopting this mentality, we stray further from learning about other cultures and growing closer to them in a healthy way that encourages the unification of people rather than division. Let’s be honest: deeming other cultures “exotic” is frankly outdated. But with these mindless performances of gatekeeping, the discouraging sentiment surrounding the integration and possibility of approaching various cultures evokes the imagery of the past, of segregation, of exoticism, and of discrimination.

Would I be offended if I saw any person who wasn’t Korean wearing hanbok? Probably not. But then again, I’m in no position to speak on the behalf of an entire culture and its people when I myself am a combination of countless cultures integrating and influencing one another.

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To a Mom

By: Christina Lee

To a mom who never caught the flu in the winter, who never forgot the names of her daughters’ childhood stuffed animals, who never complained about the distance between “home” and the home she has grown to know.

You held one baby in the crook of your left arm while gripping a toddler’s hand in your right hand and led two others trailing behind you. You are the same mom who smiles in the photograph taken the day of your college graduation. It was raining that afternoon, and the crowd of parents behind you, dressed in gray suits and long skirts, hold umbrellas above their heads like a nylon backdrop for your own personal photo shoot. On your face is the biggest smile I’ve seen, your eyes almost completely closed. A modest bouquet of congratulatory flowers rests with dignity in your hands, and to your right is your mom, a portly woman from whom you got your smiling eyes. Your dad on the left looks stoic. This was the same man who told you to put down the heaps of laundry and read another chapter from your textbook instead, who told you to stay out of the kitchen and go to college because you would be spending enough time in there once you were married. He was right.

In that photograph, you didn’t know that you wouldn’t be returning to your home country until 15 years later, arms full of toddlers and hair shorter than ever, no longer permed because quite frankly you didn’t have the time for that. At some point, you went back to the country from where you first earned your bachelor’s degree in agricultural science from one of the top universities in South Korea, and when I asked you about that bright-looking twentysomething in the photograph, you answered, “That was me at my graduation. I left for the United States not too long after that.” That’s when I knew something was not lining up.

One night, I sit at the foot of your bed while you are relaxing under the covers. I ask you, “Did you ever want to work?” You answer, “Of course I did.” So I respond, “Did you ever have a job?” You say that you had a desk job for a short while after graduation. Although I didn’t at the time, I now believe this to be a lie. The timeline of your rushed youth did not allow for such a thing. Now I wonder how it would feel to be you, the freedom of youth cut short by naivety that quickly led to marriage, immigration, and four kids. You, who have never worked a day in your life, then ask your daughters to please go to college and find a job because you know what it’s like to be a slave to domesticity.

It’s strange that “America” in Korean literally means “beautiful country.” I tell you this, and you respond with the story of South Koreans living in a pre-industrial world who dreamed of a better life in the West where everyone could supposedly find gold on the streets. You unwittingly held onto a version of this dream yourself, thinking that you would put your degree to use and become a working woman. Instead, you never became a naturalized citizen and never got that dream job.

I ask you why you never became a U.S. citizen. “I wouldn’t mind going back home sometime,” you say, vaguely. Within that statement lingers regret, longing, and conviction that the United States isn’t truly your home. It hurts me to understand that.

It hurts me to think that perhaps the only reason you stay here in the so-called beautiful country is because of the family you created, your loyalty to your husband, who is more American than you will ever be. You look at your eldest daughter and wish that she would not get married, and you begin panicking when she tells you that she’s moved in with her boyfriend. “They probably just live in the same apartment complex,” you say, completely in denial. Your mind wanders for the rest of the day.

Finally, you let her bring him home for the holidays but only once you know that she’s been promoted at her job at a large IT consulting company. You’re pleasantly surprised when you learn that she’s finally paid off her student loans and that her boyfriend has been working a steady job as an accountant. On your eldest daughter’s 24th birthday, I can see your relief, knowing that she is the same age as you when you had your first child but only has a job instead.

Once again, you panic when your daughter brings up marriage. “It would be easier for him to work if he finally gets his citizenship,” she says, explaining her South Korean-born boyfriend’s trouble with his work visa. Something about the suggestion haunts you. You furrow your brow and stay silent, as if you are traumatized again and again by the demands of marriage. You think marriage means finality, devotion, years and years of routine. You think about what you lost on your way to America. What is gone. What you can never get back.

“You just have to learn to live with him,” you say half-jokingly about your husband while he’s away at work. We are discussing his impatient personality and strange habits in one of our “self-improvement” talks about what it means to be a “good person” or how to turn out “better” than the previous generation. By “previous generation,” you mean yourself and your husband, and you wish that your children will not experience the behavioral side effects of enduring immigration, language barriers, and racism. It’s 3 p.m. No one is taking any of this seriously. You know that when your husband comes home in the evening that you will ask about his day, feel like the family is whole again, and spend the rest of the night happily catching up on missed conversations. Although you might never use the word “love” to describe your feelings toward him—because how cringeworthy and emotionally vulnerable is that?—you still know that this man is still the reason you remain in America and live each day with a sense of stability, safety, and security. You look at your four children, all born on American soil, and wonder if they resemble you or him more.

To a mom who hates watching American TV that pokes fun at Asian stereotypes because your immigration, your accent, your struggles, your lost dreams are not a couple lines on a script for the masses to laugh at. To a mom who hates watching these shows because oftentimes the representations are somewhat true. To a mom who always told her daughters to “brag” more, in a rough translation of a rather more humble piece of advice that means: “Be more confident.” To a mom who lives vicariously through her three daughters. To a mom who says, “Don’t ask me weird things” when I ask about your childhood, your college days, your dreams growing up, as if opening up about your true desires is “weird,” too indulgent, unnecessary.

What did you lose on the plane ride here? Were these things lost or sacrificed? I know you ask yourself this everyday without deciding on an answer because you watch your daughters grow up and become all the things you couldn’t be, feeling concern, pride, regret, and joy—all at once.

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The Dangers of The Model Minority Myth During The BLM Movement

By: Christina Lee

The society that white people have constructed has allowed for this—a Black Lives Matter movement. Reflecting on just the title itself, I can’t help but wonder what hasn’t changed in white America thus far that precipitated the need for such a movement, that we explicitly need to rally for the validity and worth of human lives. The social stagnancy scares me. We are repeating the same mistakes over and over again, and so the Black Lives Matter movement emerges, and we must begin to recognize once again the related problems that arise.

In America, Black Lives Matter doesn’t simply end with the story of Black Americans. It begins to spiral into a long-existing yet insufficiently discussed story about the dynamics between minority groups in America. The term “melting pot” that Americans love to throw around euphemistically ignores the elephant in the room, that America consists of drastically different ethnic and cultural groups. Especially during a time like this, when the racism targeted at these groups is at the forefront of national politics and social movements, the dangers of positioning the numerous minority groups in America in comparison to one another become amplified under the watch and control of white society.

For Asian Americans, this “comparison” comes in the form of the model minority myth. This “model minority” myth is not a new phenomenon. It can be traced back to the 1940s when the government forced Japanese Americans into internment camps. In response to the socioeconomic achievements of Japanese Americans even after suffering from a traumatic history, the concept of the “model minority” emerged, which asks, “If Asian Americans can succeed in the face of adversity, why can’t everyone else?

The problem with the model minority myth is that it assumes that all minority groups in America share the same experiences. It assumes that all minorities start off on a level playing field and that any discrepancies can be attributed to the sufficiency of each group’s “work ethic.”

What the model minority myth actually does: perpetuate tension among the various minority groups and ignite a sense of competition, comparison, and antagonism within their dynamics when in actuality, there is nothing to be compared.

Pitting minorities against minorities distracts from the main issue, that minority groups should be uniting against the Eurocentric society that enforces those ideals by attempting to direct those antagonistic feelings anywhere else but toward them.

The inability to dismantle the concept of the model minority especially during times like Black Lives Matter is especially dangerous. We must be uniting against a force that opposes the Black Lives Matter movement, not fighting each other.

I can’t speak for all Asian Americans, but at least within my small social circle, I know that this change begins by dismantling the stereotypes and prejudices that our own communities have perpetuated against other minority groups, particularly through anti-Black sentiment. The greatest problem is white society, the people who create and uphold our laws, who define what it means to be a person of color, who purposefully promote the value of “work ethic” as a valid method of succeeding in a society that we already know is rigged.

There are lessons to be learned, steps to be taken, mindsets to be changed. One of those first steps is for minorities to begin viewing their experiences from the perspective of white society. Despite the glaring differences, we are simply the “other” to them, and in this case, we can use this generalization to our advantage. We can unite under this sense of “otherness,” and Asian Americans can begin to dismiss the idea that we are an example of American success, that we exemplify the fairness of white American society. We can’t let them convince us with lies, and we can’t let them allow us to believe that this was a fair game in the first place. But this is what we can do: unite against the common enemy and recognize that although we experience different kinds of pain, we can feel. Sometimes, it’s a blessing to be able to.