aapi, asian american, cinema and media studies, Gender Studies, ideology, korea, TV

Sam Okyere’s Racism Anecdote in South Korea on “Talking Street”/말하는대로

Sam Okyere is a South Korean entertainment personality originally from Ghana. Okyere appeared on JTBC’s yeneung talkshow program Talking Street to discuss how he dealt with ignorance and discrimination while living as a black man in Korea. [Please view the YouTube videos on the site for context. On Facebook, a shorter version of the story was uploaded on a page called “All Things K” and generated over 19,000 reactions.]

Initially blending wry humor on ironically responding to ridiculous questions such as “Do you raise lions back home?” he eventually delves into a much more painful anecdote on the time he experienced outright racism on the 2 train. When he was trying to take a seat on the subway, a middle-aged woman forced her way in and sat down instead. She then spread her legs widely, swore at him, and told him not to sit. She then confronted Okyere’s friend and asked why him he is hanging out with a black man. She turned to Okyere and told him to return to his country. While addressing the wrongness of this situation, Okyere goes onto explain that what hurt him the most was the reaction of the other Seoulites on that subway car, and how no one said a word to intervene. All they did was sit back and observe. As Okyere’s story progresses, a melancholic symphony plays in the background.

Throughout this two-minute story, the camera cuts to members of the live audience who are sitting on the floor around Okyere who is seated in a chair, looking down at the crowd like a teacher does when reading to elementary school children. The cutaways focus on audience faces that are frowning with disapproval or pain at Okyere’s story. There are also cutaways to the show’s hosts You Hee-yeol and HaHa (Ha Dong-hoon) who add small remarks such as, “I’ll apologize on her behalf,” “Oh my…” “It’s embarrassing,” and “I feel really sorry.”

Anti-blackness, racism and ignorance are certainly prevalent problems in the ROK (and arguably throughout Asia). They need to be addressed and corrected. Part of what this program does is help address the issues in Okyere’s story as problems. Asking questions based on ignorance is rude. Okyere speaks on the stresses of day-to-day microaggression while living in the ROK. And, of course, being outright hateful to a black man is completely unacceptable and hurtful. This much is obvious to everyone who is sitting on the sidelines as the show’s hosts, as well as the audience.

What’s missing from this program, however, is any comment on whiteness in the ROK. Anti-blackness is a learned racial discrimination that stems from the US’ military occupancy of the ROK since the 1950s. Historically speaking (in US terms), Koreans have no need to hate blackness (no enslavement of African bodies, no emancipation, no civil rights movement), so where does it come from? This question needs to be asked but it doesn’t appear in this anecdote at all. Instead, it goes from point A (Okyere as the subject), point B (the middle-aged Korean woman as the other subject), to point C (racism is obviously bad, and so are bystanders who don’t do anything about it).

Whiteness often goes missing from discussions of racism in the ROK probably because South Koreans are not used to addressing that either. The silence Okyere felt is more complicated than racial hatred; it involves universal urban solipsism (how often in any of the viral racial discrimination videos do we ever see bystanders helping out victims of hatred?), a disconnect from Western hatred for black bodies, a muteness that erupts from the solipsism and disconnect, and a confrontation with confusion at a sight such as that: a Korean woman hating a black man. What makes a middle-aged woman hate a black man?

In the general horizon of the public sphere, South Koreans have mixed feelings when it comes to US military occupancy. The ROK government accommodates the US’ militaristic needs as a means to stave off the DPRK’s aggression. Then again, prostitution, violence and racism are all problems that occur in military camps and camptowns. We can’t discuss South Korea’s racism without discussing prostitution, the cold war, the Korean War and the US military occupation of South Korea.

Whiteness is the hegemonic cloth that cloaks over these matters and silences South Korean programmers from ever shifting blame onto the US. Okyere is certainly a victim of racism in South Korea, but he is also a victim of US military whiteness and its hatred for blackness. Understanding how racism works in the ROK requires addressing global hierarchy.

(A longer piece on this matter is in the works.)

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cinema and media studies, Gender Studies, korea, korean drama, TV

rewriting a woman’s history with JANG OK-JUNG (2013): (Yoo Ah-in just like Leonardo DiCaprio in my heart)

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I haven’t felt this kind of depression after watching a Korean drama series since Autumn in My Heart (2000)/가을동화.

Jang Ok-Jung, Living by Love  (2013) is a period piece from SBS. It is based on the historical novel work of the same title written by Choi Jung-mi, and is directed by Boo Sung-chul. The series is set during the Joseon Dynasty in the late 1600s.

The show centers on a young, aspiring fashion designer Jang Ok-jung (Kim Tae-hee) who is born of a middle-class rank (중인) but falls in love with King Suk-jong/Yi Soo (Yoo Ah-in) and becomes his favorite concubine. It starts off as a lovey-dovey tale simply about a young woman and man whose affections for each other seem pure and eternal, then of course shit hits the fan when every single person around each character has a political problem with their getting together. Drama ensues.

Jang Ok-Jung is not only an intense political drama, but also an interesting critique on Joseon’s classism stemming from a caste system that damns a person’s life according to who s/he is born from and what the parents’ ranking is according to Joseon’s societal standards. This is the show’s primary critique–the rigidity of a society that make class mobility near impossible. But the protagonist Ok-jung makes it up the ranks (4 to 1) as a consort, eventually even taking over the dethroned Queen In-hyeon’s place as Queen herself for a short term reign. But In-hyeon returns and Ok-jung is demoted back to the place of consort Hui Bin. She eventually is framed for having placed a curse on the queen and is forced to kill herself, ordered by her beloved King.

Ok-jung in her early appearances takes a fascination to Joseon days’ erotic illustrated novels, which are essentially just some softcore sketches of men and women caressing. Ok-jung takes a liking to the way the women’s dresses flow depending on their sensual positions. The drawings inspire her vision. Sexuality is where Ok-jung sees beauty, and the show has plenty of coded sex talk throughout that compares women to flowers and men to bees.

The drama relies heavily on the female characters’ catty tension throughout, mostly rooted in jealousy over things like beauty and male attention. There’s really just one man who all the women desire, and that is the King. Around Ok-jung, however, there are men galore. She has three different pursuers but the King is the one she wants and eventually gets.

The women on this show all must rely on their only agent of power and that is their body. The women must be beautiful. Her face is the main selling point. After that, she must know how to dress well.  If the King desires her, then she has found “favor” by him, meaning that he sleeps with her. Her vagina is the access to bringing her status and power–it is her only agency towards class mobility. From there, she can move up by becoming pregnant but her status upgrade is only a possibility if she births a son–a potential heir to the throne. Ok-jung accomplishes all of this. She even maintains her favor with the King until the end of her days.

Throughout the series, Ok-jung and Lee Soo’s romantic theme is their little promise to each other that they would never let go of each other’s hands. (Ring a Titanic bell much? Yoo Ah-in is the Korean doppelgänger of Leonardo DiCaprio. They remind me of each other so much that I can hardly contain myself; they have the same nose, the same voice, the same trembling mannerisms that have a danger of appearing trite/overused at times; a tendency towards frequent explosions in their performance that oozes thick passion.)

What depressed me at the end of the series is that ultimately the King does not overcome the political powers that be and allows his beloved consort to be put to death by poison. Her crime is breaking the palace rules of having no shamans make an offering on site; at the desperate situation of possibly losing her son to smallpox, she brings the shaman in, gets caught and is blamed for the death of Queen In-hyeon by placing a curse or some bullshit…

What then added to my depression is how after Ok-jung dies, the King mourns her at Chwi Seon Dang (Ok-jung’s place of residence and the King’s gift), and the drama immediately cuts to King Sukjong’s grave site,  calling him one of the greatest reformers of Joseon history. Be that as it may, the namesake of the show seems almost completely forgotten at this point. Later, another title card appears, explaining that Ok-jung’s damnation was lifted in 1965 and that her grave was moved to be placed beside Sukjong’s.

Anyway, what made me so sad was how awful, limited, and impossible a woman’s life was back then. What the hell’s even the point of rewriting the history of Hui Bin this way? Even if there’s the mediated, dramatized effort to make her appear a little less evil, and make the relationship with her and the King more meaningful, it doesn’t change the fact that she was a victim of rigid circumstances and was ultimately killed by the man who was supposedly in love with her.

The rules back then were insane. Truly, truly insane.

Now, I have to refer to the Wikipedia page because it’s just so fascinating how it writes about her (FYI, Wikipedia’s citations link back to website descriptions written by museums, government sites, cultural sites, etc.), and the general consensus is simply that she was an awful woman. Historical references even blame her son King Gyeongjong’s illness and infertility on her (Gyeongjong’s illness, according to these records, made him an unsuited King, and he was replaced by his half-brother Yeongjo, who held a very long tenure on the throne). This type of blatant misogyny on a lower status historical figure is just more evidence of patriarchal sexism and bias. In a lot of ways, the drama rationalizes some of those accusations of evil that is frequently placed on her while also moving against the grain of patriarchal injustice. Some of the best dialogues are the ones shared by Queen Inhyeon and Ok-jung when they discuss the King’s flaw which is being male.

Anyway, what a great show. The costumes were utterly beautiful. Color coordination, head pieces, lipstick shades–all of it–utterly beautiful. (Think Marie Antoinette (2006) level of costume beauty.)

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