K-drama nightmare: Abuse, "KAD-face" and more

Hallyu, the Korean wave, has brought Korean pop culture around the globe. It's virtually impossible to avoid the impact of Korea movies (think Host), music (think PSY), TV, dance, fashion - whatever your interest, Hallyu has something for you.

My guilty pleasure is K-drama, Korean TV serials and other shows. They have enjoyed tremendous popularity around the world, and are easily accessible to anyone with a computer or internet TV. I enjoy the historical dramas, but gravitate far more to the modern ones. I love them for the fact that they give me a little window into Korean daily life, in spite of the fact that it is surely as distorted as American culture is in any popular U.S. show. But I watch them anyway, and love that I'm picking up Korean phrases I know I wouldn't have learned in Korean language class, as well as everyday culture and habits.

I just finished one called Good job, Good job! that features a couple of my favorite Korean actors, Chun Ho Jin, Kim Hae Sook and Jung Ae Ri, all of whom every K-drama addict will recognize. Although single parenting and adoption come up in many Korean dramas (adoption usually mishandled), the way they were addressed in this drama makes me wonder if I have any understanding at all of the Korean psyche around these social issues.

Good job, Good job! is a 2009 MBC drama that tells the story of an unmarried mother's effort to build a life with her daughter. A simple, worthy goal, sadly derailed from the moment daughter Byul was born. We meet mother Kang Ju and Byul as sisters, and learn early on that Byul was registered as grandma's daughter, ostensibly to protect Kang Ju from Korean society's condemnation. And boy oh boy, do they dish out the condemnation in spades in this one.

When Kang Ju decides to go public with the secret so she can be Byul's mother at last, her life and others around her, including Byul's, begin to spiral out of control. Her fiance's family rejects her, with verbal and physical assaults. She loses her job. Her fiance separates from his family, is forced out of the family-owned business and starts heading toward alcoholism. The child's first father returns from an unexplained absence (during which Byul was born) and decides he wants custody, which is of course battled throughout.

Throughout the drama, lies and secrecy are promoted as the best approach for Kang Ju to take, which she does, right up to keeping her father's identity from Byul. By the time the cat is entirely out of the bag, both families are in shambles, and Byul has developed emotional illness. Only then, with this little girl's emotional health on the line, do the adults step away from their own interests and find what they consider to be more reasonable solutions: father steps out of the picture, giving custody to Kang Ju's new husband. Byul is told she'll be able to see her father again when she grows up. Nice.

Everyone lives happily ever after. K-dramas frequently advise us to forget the past, which the Good job, Good job! folks do. Everyone's smiling as by the time closing credits roll by.

Single motherhood is just the main story line. There's also the case of Kang Ju's philandering father and his relationship with Kang Ju's mother - of course they make up, conveniently finding a possible beau for Dad's mistress. And then we have the Korean adoptee from the U.S. who, after being raised by an African American mother, returns to Korea with heavily accent English, but absolutely fluent in Korean. I have struggled to figure out why adoption was featured in this drama and can find none. The adoptee is no more than a caricature in "KAD-face;" the role completely out of touch with reality and dangerous in light of the importance of this issue in Korea right now.

It's easy for me to see how incorrect this adoptee characterization is. I don't, however, have the Korean cultural skills to know if the portrayal of the single mother's experience is equally incorrect. If it is, we all really need to step up to help our Korean sisters. No woman on the planet should go through what this drama seems to say is typical, defensible behavior.

And the moral is: take your dramas with a pound of salt. They may be fun and entertaining, but as social commentary, they fall woefully short.

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