Orientalism and the Kpop/Kdrama Fandom

So I’ve been thinking about Orientalism a lot lately trying to come up with a good idea for this blog post. Then a few nights ago as I was watching a Kdrama it hit me, the Kpop and Kdrama fandom. In few places will you find as much unabashed Orientalism as you will in those fandoms. As someone who loves Kdramas I am all too familiar with it.

Now, before I write anything else I would like to say that I am not bashing on everyone who likes Kpop or Kdramas. The orientalist mindset that I take issue with is not shared by all fans of Kpop or Kdramas, however, it is an issue within these fandoms.

It all comes down to the fact that they seem to see Koreans as completely homogeneous. Logically, one can assume that Koreans are individuals and as individuals are not all going to act like characters in a tv show or a celebrity who has been coached in how to respond to an interview Koreans will not all act that way. Well, according to some Kpop/Kdrama fans you would be wrong.

The problem with seeing an ethnic group that way is that it dehumanizes the members of that group. When you treat people as though they are nothing more than their culture, when you forget the variability of individuals, and when you objectify them, you are not fully recognizing them. That is what I think the core of Orientalism is, the refusal to look at another group with nuance, to other them. Whether the resulting distortion idealizes or demonizes them it is still wrong because it works against mutual recognition.

The Profitability of Suffering

In Chapter 3 on page 85, there is a passage that intrigues me. The passage begins with a description of Baby Kochamma and Kochu Maria watching a man sing on a show called The Best of Donahue. The audience is shown a video of him singing in a subway where he keeps getting interrupted by the passing trains. Then the video ends and the man is revealed to be on the stage and begins to play. Roy says of the man: “He was ragged as a rock star, but his missing teeth and the unhealthy pallor of his skin spoke eloquently of a life of privation and despair” (85). The moment that the man is able to achieve his dream of singing on the show is no doubt supposed to be a moment that warms the audience’s heart (and it did if their compassionate clapping is any indication), but Roy does not let the book audience take such a rosy view. She says, “It had been his [the man] dream to sing on the Donahue show, he said, not realizing that he had just been robbed of that show too” (85).

This moment made me think, and thinking about it made me uncomfortable. Particularly the line “The studio audience clapped and looked compassionate”(85) annoyed me. How compassionate were they really? Couldn’t they see what Roy had pointed out? That the man had been interrupted yet again, not allowed to have more than a few seconds basking in the glory of his dream before it was snatched away uncompleted? Then I realized that no they couldn’t. They, just like the man, were caught up in how good the moment felt and completely missed it!

They didn’t see the way the man was being treated like an object. He was given the chance to be on The Best of Donahue, not to show his singing talents as shown by the fact they cut him off, but to give them a sob story. To me, that is a gross perversion of his dream. It is something that people should be repulsed by, and yet they weren’t. They participated in the manipulation of a man’s misfortune for entertainment value and kindness points for Phil Donahue.

If I am being honest though I think the reason they bother me is that, in truth,  I can’t always see what Roy pointed out. It’s easy for me to judge them for not seeing how the man’s misfortune was exploited when the narrator kindly tells me that. Ultimately, that passage made me uncomfortable because it made me wonder how many times had I bought into the manipulation and objectification of another person for entertainment value. I don’t know, I guess I’ll just have to try to pay better attention in the future.


Gerda Taro and Robert Capa

The song “Taro” by Alt-j is about a real man. His name was Endre Ernő Friedmann, though he worked under the alias of Robert Capa. He was a traveled photographing many wars until his death at the age of 40. 

This song is set at the occasion of his death. He was covering the First Indochina war (referenced by the first word of the song: “Indochina”) after being convinced to photograph it. This was not the first war he had been to, from 1936 to the end of his life he photographed a total of 5 wars the first being the Spanish Civil War. He and his girlfriend Gerda Taro went there and working under the shared alias of Robert Capa documented the war in photographs. However, tragedy struck when his girlfriend, Gerda Taro, for whom the song is named, was killed. He was deeply affected by the loss and never married. A big part of the song is about his reunion with Taro after his death, however, that is not what I will be focusing on.

The first verse contains some of the best imagery I have ever heard in a song:

“(Ooh) Very yellow-white flash!

A violent wrench grips mass

Rips light, tears limbs like rags”

The line “Very yellow-white flash!” in the context of the song leads the listener to first think of a camera flash, however, the next line “A violent wrench grips mass” reveals it to be an explosion. I think the line captures the feel of an explosion well (at least how someone whose never been in one might imagine it to feel like) with its word choice. Wrench is a word you can almost feel in your stomach, it captures the feeling of sudden interruption and disturbance, like your insides are still going forward after your body has been suddenly stopped. Mass makes it feel like the change is not just the person is being wrenched, but something more fundamental. “Rips light” furthers this idea as only something large and powerful on a giant scale could really manipulate light to that extent. In short, these lines gives a feeling of greatness to an explosion nowhere near that scale, unless of course you are caught in it. 

Another example of the amazing imagery in this song is the way he describes Capa’s death:

Quivers, last rattles, last chokes

All colours and cares glaze to grey

Shriveled and stricken to dots

He provides both an external and internal view of the same event. Quiver sounds like a quiver and by repeating the word last it reminds the listener that Capa is dying. It then shifts inward to Capa and has three pairs of words starting with the same letter and separated by the word ‘and’. This emphasizes what is being said and stretches the moment in time. I think the focus on visual imagery works very well here considering how he dedicated his life to photography.

The careful control of language used in this song to tells the story of Capa and Taro very well and vividly. I believe that this song is definitely poetry.


If you are interested here are some of the photos from his time in Indochina: https://www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/conflict/ropert-capa-indochina-war/

“Bottom of the River” and Beloved

The song that most reminds me of Beloved is “Bottom of the River” by Delta Rae.

The verses, which are from a different perspective than the chorus, tell the Mother through call and response of terrible things to come and that she should drown her son before an angry God takes him away. Like Sethe, the unnamed mother in the song kills her child to protect them.

One way to interpret the chorus is that the Mother is calling to her child to hold her hand. This tenderness and desire for togetherness reminds me of the way Sethe was with her children. She may have tried to kill them but it was never her intention to be separated from them. I believe that had she not have had any other children she would have killed herself to be with Beloved. 

One can also imagine Beloved singing the chorus. She emerges reborn from the river with the intention of being with Sethe. However, she becomes like a parasite sucking the life from Sethe. If she comes to life after swimming to the river’s surface then swimming to the bottom of the river could represent her going back to death. Only this time she demands Sethe goes with her.


Hold my hand
Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down to the bottom of the river
Hold my hand
Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down, a long way down

[Verse 1]
If you get sleep or if you get none
(The cock’s gonna call in the morning, baby)

Check the cupboard for your daddy’s gun
(Red sun rises like an early warning)

The Lord’s gonna come for your first born son
(His hair’s on fire and his heart is burning)

So go to the river where the water runs
(Wash him deep where the tides are turning)

And if you fall
And if you fall

Hold my hand
Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down (long way down)
To the bottom of the river
Hold my hand
Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down (long way down)
A long way down

[Verse 2]
The wolves will chase you by the pale moonlight
(Drunk and driven by a devil’s hunger)

Drive your son like a railroad spike
(Into the water, let it pull him under)

Don’t you lift him, let him drown alive
(The good Lord speaks like a rolling thunder)

Let that fever make the water rise
(And let the river run dry)
And I said

Hold my hand
Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down (long way down)
To the bottom of the river
Hold my hand
Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down (long way down)
A long way down

Hold my hand
Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down (long way down)
To the bottom of the river
Hold my hand
Ooh baby it’s a long way down, a long way down

Saeed and Prayer

One thing I found interesting about Saeed’s contemplation about prayer is that is was devoid about any mention of God. Most of the time when talking about prayer people will talk about their relationship with God. However, Saeed talks about his human relationships.

Of course, Saeed likely believes in God, but it seems that his primary reason for praying is the way it connects him to other people. For someone like Saeed who is not naturally inclined towards cutting ties immigration would likely be especially painful and destabilizing. It is understandable then why he began to pray more after immigrating. Prayer was what kept him tethered to his family and past. For Saeed prayer served as a portal to other times and people he had lost, just as the doors served as portals to other places.

Existentialism: Every man is an Island

Existentialism is profoundly individualistic, and I think that is part of the appeal to some people, but I think that intense focus on the individual is what makes the existentialist world view so sad.

The image of the lone hero standing in a sea of absurdity may have romantic appeal, but it isn’t real. The world isn’t absurd. There is order. Natural laws are followed, even if we don’t fully understand them, and the universe keeps spinning.

Image result for first photo of universe
The Andromeda nebula, photographed at the Yerkes Observatory around 1900

Does that mean life is fair? No. I don’t think that those natural laws care much about fairness but it does mean that we are part of something far bigger than ourselves.

Is that the meaning of life? Probably not. To be honest, I don’t have a clue what the meaning of life is, and I think that is ok. But I do know that even if every man is an island, underneath the waves we are all connected. 

No man is an island entire of itself; every man 
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe 
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as 
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine 
own were; any man's death diminishes me, 
because I am involved in mankind. 
And therefore never send to know for whom 
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. 

John Donne, 1624

“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” and Hospitality

One thing that struck me as I was reading “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” was the complete lack of hospitality towards the angel. Hospitality was an important value for many ancient civilizations. In a time when people lived further apart, being turned away into the wilderness could be a death sentence. As a result guests were not supposed to be turned away and there was an expectation that the guest would be treated well. The bible actually explicitly states “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” Hebrew 13:2.

This attitude was not unique to the Ancient Israelite’s. The Greeks also had similar expectations and potential rewards. The Ancient Greeks called hospitality Xenia. Xenia was a reciprocal relationship of mutual respect (perhaps even mutual recognition) between the host and guest. In many Greek myths Zeus, god of lightning and protector of travelers, would take the form of a traveler and depending on how he was treated would either punish or reward who did (or worse yet, didn’t) host him. The message was clear, you never knew which guest was Zeus so you better treat them right.

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