When Koreans take off their clothes

Courtesy of Dynamic Wang

What you’re doing right now doesn’t feel like culture. It’s just real life. Culture is what other people do. Culture is exotic, mysterious: something to be preserved, treasured, and protected from unfair use and exploitation. Korean culture features intangible concepts such as han, jeong and nunchi. It is represented by artifacts such as the hanbok, the hanok and pansori.And so we pour over photos of the past, looking at the clothes, the backdrops, drawn in by elements of what Roland Barthes called “punctum.” Something which rises from the scene, shoots out like an arrow, and pierces us. Look at the old man’s hat. Look at the way the kitchen is arranged. See the children play. We can see the culture of the past alive in these photos. Images of old Korea receive huge fanfare on social media for offering us a window into a life we can recognize but not fully understand.But what if someone took a photo of a Korean coffee shop or a university classroom today? That wouldn’t feel like culture; just a bunch of twenty-somethings sat around in hoodies, Crocs and baggy t-shirts drinking ice-americanos before going back to their apartments. There’s nothing special about that. People wouldn’t want to analyze or immortalize such a trivial scene. Such photos are not subject to analysis or devotion.

But then imagine that photo of the lecture hall or coffee shop we took was being looked at by someone 200 years in the future. Imagine a group of sociologists and anthropologists discussing the meaning of the hoodies, how baggy t-shirts were a symbol of what people at the time called individualism, and how the Crocs were a dying vestige of an ancient religion called Taoism: the holes being the continued presence of the void and Yin Yang in society. The haircuts would be representative of something. The ice americanos interpreted. Some correctly, others incorrectly.The only thing that stops us seeing what we do as culture today is time. Well, time, distance and misunderstanding. Culture can and probably should be understood as that what the majority of people do in society. People don’t really wear hanboks today in Korea. They are more of a fancy dress reserved for special occasions. Real Korean culture is blue jeans, a black belt, and a black tshirt. Bonus points if you can have a pair of Jennie’s Gentle Monster sunglasses while doing the “cat walking on the frozen river” challenge. Korean culture is rice (but it’s slowly changing towards bread, bagels and bakeries). It’s taking the subway. It’s Instagram. Korean culture is what the majority of people do 슬롯게이밍 today.

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