When will the hurting stop?
I have a bit of a theory about Korean culture that I would like to elaborate on. I doubt that I am the first person to come up with this concept, but I am beginning to find it an inescapable conclusion, which means that I am perhaps becoming too biased to judge whether my own idea actually makes sense. So let me know if you think it’s all wrong.
The concept came to me when I was reading about gang initiations. Many gangs initiate their new members by making them commit a crime. The initiate subsequently feels a bond of shared guilt with his fellow gang members, who have commited the same crime. This shared guilt bonds gang members together tightly.
Now what I’m saying is that Korean society acts in a similar fashion, but instead of a bond of shared guilt, I believe that Koreans are brought together by a bond of shared discomfort.
Where did this theory come from? I noticed that, while people in Korea do a lot of things that are pleasurable, there is usually some extra something thrown into the mix that is unpleasant. Communally unpleasant. When you eat Korean food, the first thing that you are struck by is the spiciness. You ask yourself “Why must everything we eat be spicy?” and even if, like many non-Koreans, you like spicy food, you are confronted with the basket on the table containing carrots, cucumbers and green peppers. You eat the carrots, eat the cucumbers, and then someone tastes the pepper, gingerly at first but then quicker. “It’s ok, they’re not spicy!” that person reassures you, so you grab the other pepper and bite into it. It must be from a different batch, because it is burning the enamel off your teeth. It’s like Russian roulette with food.
Or you can go in for the guaranteed torture that is buldak (fire chicken).
Buldak is another shared adventure in masochism. You and your friends go to the buldak restaurant to suffer through a painful chemical burn together, with the added bonus of a vaguely charcoal-y scent and a chicken-y chew. There is nothing to recommend buldak except the oft-repeated claim that ‘spicy food is addictive.’
Do you know what happens if you blow your ear drums out listening to your headphones? Or if you develop a dependency on a drug? You require an increasing amount of these inputs to feel satisfied, because you’ve dulled your senses. Imagine how much a lifetime of eating spicy food dulls your senses.
It is a well known fact that Korean workers go home only when their bosses go home. If the boss stays till 9pm, that pretty much means that everybody is staying till 9:01. I usually hear people explain this in terms of the boss. “Oh, you mustn’t leave before your boss.” I disagree. I believe the true point of everybody waiting for the boss is everybody waiting together. Everybody missing dinner with their families and knowing that that’s what everybody in every office in Korea is doing has a real effect on the national psychology. How can you help but think ‘We are a hardcore nation.’
Drinking alcohol is commonly agreed upon in most cultures to be an agreeable recreational experience. Those who drink alcohol typically do it to loosen up and relax, to let their guards down, and to facilitate socialization.
Koreans are no different, in intent, however it is the degree to which the drinking takes place that makes it, for many, a painful experience. Most of the participants in drinking sessions are not in control of the amount that they wind up drinking. That is decided by whoever is running the party, usually a boss or the oldest person at the table. Blacking out and vomiting are common experiences for some. What should be a fun activity becomes a brutal slog mandated from above. Everyone in the drinking party is bound by the will of the senior member to drink, sing and be merry or else face ostracism.
Some office girls, chugging as though their jobs depended on it
Again, we see singing, at times a pleasurable experience, turned into a painful social tool, like a hammer. Public singing becomes another bond, this time one of shared humiliation. Bear your soul or else. Again, this is not always the case, but it takes on this unpleasant dimension in the context of forced socializing.
What’s next? Why it’s on to stage 3, for some real bonding through shared guilt. This time the guilt of adultery. What could create more convivial feelings than sullying your marriage vows with some guys from work? Some whiskey, women and song will guarantee that you and Team Leader Choi will remain close business contacts forever!
Finally, what form do the most popular Korean television shows take? Celebrity humiliation, in which Korea’s most famous TV personalities have to suffer hilarious indignities. In the show shown below, celebrities have to memorize a song and sing it perfectly, at the risk of having a pan dropped on their head (HT to James at The Grand Narrative for finding the Youtube clip).
Although the most popular current incarnation of bonding through shared suffering theater is Old Time TV (옛날TV), in which entertainers must perform such feats as pulling the tablecloth out from under a stack of bowls at the risk of having 100 liters of water dropped on them and having to memorize and sing a song while trapped inside a sauna, being allowed out only if they can sing the song perfectly.