Monday, June 27, 2016

Appropriate Appropriation

Dear Korean,

I am an art student and I am currently interested in Asian art. I am really intrigued by traditional Asian art, including Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean but I am worried that because I’m white people may believe I am appropriating Asian culture, I truly just wish to explore this style of art, i.e. prints, ink works and make artworks that are relevant to my culture in an Asian style. I know that you do not speak for every Asian country and I also know about the many differences in culture and art but I would just like an insight to if what I am doing is in anyway offensive because the last thing I would want is to offend anyone or lead anyone to believe I am racist or ignorant.


Here, we have the biggest conversation among Asian Americans. "Cultural appropriation" is a fairly recently crafted set of ethical rules, and its boundaries are still very fuzzy. But the boundaries do become a lot more visible once we understand the core principle behind cultural appropriation.


What is cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation is a use of cultural artifacts as a prop. People generally tend to know this much. But they are often unclear on exactly why cultural appropriation is bad. Expressed as simply as possible, here is why: cultural appropriation is bad because using cultural artifacts as a prop leads to treating the people of that culture as a prop, rather than whole persons. This is the core principle behind cultural appropriation.

Understanding this core principle alone answers many tricky questions that are emerging cultural appropriation. For example: take this infamous instance of Katy Perry's kimono get-up. Asian Americans were nearly unanimous in their denunciation, but the Japanese in Japan seemed not to care. This disconnect is easier to understand once we understand the core principle: what matters is objectification, humans being turned into a prop. Asian Americans are constantly surrounded by non-Asian Americans who always stand ready to objectify them. Japanese in Japan belong to the nation of 127 million of the same ethnicity, and are almost never in danger of being objectified by the person next to them. Of course there will be a difference in reaction between the two groups.

But the mainstream society is hardly the only one that is ignorant of the core principle; Asian American themselves likewise often are unaware of it. This leads to a variation of "magic word racism." Previously, I explained that "magic word racism" is an attempt to detect racism by the presence or absence of certain words or phrases. Utter the forbidden "Word X," and you must be considered a racist. The same dumb logic can be found in at least some charges of cultural appropriation. Using any cultural artifact in any way must be cultural appropriation, regardless of the particular context and manner of the particular usage. This is wrong, just as much as magic word racism is wrong.

What, then, is an art student like Cait to do? The first thing is: study. Context-sensitive exploration of Asian arts cannot happen if you don't know the context. The ultimate challenge is to develop an internal view of the culture that you're exploring. Through whose eyes are you viewing the culture? Are you seeing it from the perspective of the people who created that culture, or are you seeing it from the eyes of the outsider? Do you understand the sense of aesthetics that led the people to create a cultural artifact, or does your mind stop at the outside shell of the artifact? Do you see the flow of history that led to the creation of this culture, or do you only see the here and now as if the culture fell on your lap from another dimension? Are you actively exploring what the people are saying about themselves, among themselves, in their own language, or are you merely hearing what other white people are saying about the exotic colored people?

These questions naturally lead to self-reflection. What is it about Asian culture and art that attracts you, the non-Asian artist? Lesser people would simply say they "just want it"--a bad answer, because in most cases, they are simply filtering the mainstream society that stands ready to use Asian culture as a prop. Stop the unthinking, and ask this essential question for understanding yourself: why do you want what you want?

This study need not be in isolation. You will keep talking and keep creating, and learn more from the reactions. And in the process, you will offend some people--usually those who are in the hunt for magic word racism, ready to pounce on their made-up rules. Don't get discouraged; keep plugging away. Because more often than not, a sincere willingness to learn overcomes any mistakes along the way.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Monday, May 16, 2016

TK's Korea Travel Itinerary

(This is for you, T.)

TK received a request from a friend who is traveling to Korea: where should she go and see?

This is a deceptively tough question. There are already plenty of excellent travel books of Korea out there. (TK's favorites are the two books from Seoul Selection, Seoul and Korea, both by Robert Koehler.) The New York Times--the New York Times!--seemingly runs a feature about traveling Korea every other month, and not just to big cities like Seoul. What could I possibly add to this, at this point?

In the end, what TK settled on is this: if I wrote a short exposition about Korea, what scenery would serve as the key illustration to highlight the points that I was making? What could one see to understand where Korea was, what it went through, and what it is now?

On this basis, a lot of the famous tourist attractions would be missing--partly because I felt that there are other places that tell the same story, partly because I do not know enough about a certain locale. The biggest omission perhaps is Busan, one of the most significant places in Korea that somehow is a big black hole of knowledge for me. Also, this itinerary includes Jeju simply because my friend asked me to include it. The whole thing is set for 10-11 days, but you will see that it involves fairly rigorous traveling. If you want to slot in a few "break" days in the middle, it could stretch into 14-15 days.

Long story short: this is just one guy's suggestion. Not the "best of"s, not the "must-see"s, just the places I would take you if we were friends. If that sounds good, off we go.


Seoul metro area is home for nearly half of the population of the entire South Korea--the fifth most populous metro area in the world. It has centuries of history, and far too much to see. By my standard, seeing the city in a meaningful way would take around seven to ten days. But we will try to do the best parts in three days.

To do this itinerary, it is best to stay in the north of the river. Look on Google Maps to see if the hotel you are thinking of is near the palaces and a subway stop. If you like traditional Korean houses, Bukchon area has many guesthouses run out of traditional homes.

Day 1

Gyeongbokgung Palace [경복궁] , Samcheong-dong [삼청동] and Insa-dong [인사동]:  Walking tour of the Joseon Dynasty, phasing into early 20th century.

Start your day from:  Gyeongbokgung [경복궁] Station at Line 3 (Orange) or Gwanghwamun [광화문] Station from Line 5 (Purple)

Visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, the grandest of the Joseon Dynasty palace. So grand, in fact, that the re-construction of the palace in the late 19th century contributed to the fall of the dynasty. Built in 1395, the palace burned down in 1592 during the Japanese invasion (i.e. the Imjin War) and was reconstructed in 1865, in the twilight of the Joseon Dynasty (which ceased to exist in 1910.) This should take at least several hours. Tip: in this area, there are little stores that rent traditional dresses (hanbok 한복) that you may wear to stroll the palace grounds, to really get into the mood.

Advantage of hanbok rentals: the pictures are awesome.
Leave the palace and walk east along Sajik-ro, and turn north (left) onto Samcheong-ro, which puts you on the eastern edge of the palace. Turn right on Bukchon 5-ro, pass the Jeongdok city library on the right, until you hit Bukchon-ro. Turn left--you are now in Bukchon [북촌] / Samcheong-dong [삼청동] area, the Seoul neighborhood with the most well-preserved traditional houses (hanok [한옥]). Because of its proximity to royal palaces, Bukchon was the place where the noblemen lived, and the houses there reflect the history. Today, it is a hip neighborhood with many adorable cafes and restaurants nestled into the traditional houses. Pick a place for lunch here.

Walk south from Bukchon, tracing back toward the palace. Insadong-gil would appear on the left; turn left. Insa-dong [인사동] is where you can get your fix for all the little traditional trinkets--and unlike most other tourist traps in Korea, these trinkets are in good taste. Tong-In [통인], a renowned antique store at 30-1 Insadong-gil, is particularly worth visiting even if your wallet cannot handle their exorbitant price for some of their genuine articles.

Insa-dong is also a home for many tea houses and traditional restaurants. For the highest quality of makkeolli [막걸리, rice beer], visit Nuruknamu [누룩나무], 13 Insadong 16-gil.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Fate of Humanity in the Hands of a Korean

(It did not take long to find a topic that excited TK to get back to writing!)

Yesterday, the world witnessed history:  Google's AlphaGo, an AI program for go, defeated the human champion Lee Sedol for the first time in the history of the game. 

The match to determine the fate of the human race.
TK is a hobbyist go player--around 14 kyu, which means I know just enough to understand the professional commentators when they explain the games played by the championship level players. I will spare you the stuff about how a game of go is played, how complex the game is, etc. Instead, for those who have no idea what it is like to play go:  from the player's perspective, what does the game feel like?

The best analogy I could come up with is:  go is like basketball at 4 a.m. The "flow" of the game is more like basketball than any other commonly played sport. In basketball, each team takes turn to run a play; the play may result in two points, three points, or no points. Ideally, the team would try to make a three point play every time, but of course that is not possible because the opponent would try to defend the three point line. In that case, you would try to win by finding the best two point shot. And of course, you would try your best to limit your turnovers, or possessions that result in zero points.

Go is similar, in that each move is worth variable amount of points. Like basketball, players usually trade points--you score a basket, I score a basket. But over the course of the game, you build a series of small advantages. In basketball, you would have a stretch of a few minutes where a team goes on a 6-0 run, and other team may respond by going on a 12-4 run. In go, like basketball, the player that puts together more runs, however small, ends up winning the game. But here is the twist that makes go such a complicated game: in the early and mid-game of go, it is almost impossible to know exactly how many points you have scored with each move. All what you have is a vague sense of how the game is going, based on certain recognized patterns. It is not until the late game where it is even possible to count the points.

That's why go is not just basketball, but basketball played at 4 a.m. At 4 a.m., the sun has not yet risen. In the dark, both teams can sort of make out the basket, but cannot really see exactly how far they are from the basket. Nor can they tell where the out of bounds lines are, or where the three point line is. The best they can do is to guess where they stand in relation to the basket and to the court. 

Each shot they take would be recorded. As time passes, the sun begins to rise. Around halftime, the sky is deep blue instead of pitch dark. The lines slowly become visible. Then the teams get the more concrete sense of where they stand: some of their shots in the dark were worth three points because they managed to correctly shoot the 3-point shot, and some of their shots were worth zero points because they were actually out of bounds when they shot the ball. A team with better night vision would realize sooner where they stand. By the time the sun rises and everything is visible, the game has about three minutes left in the fourth quarter. At this point, both teams finally know exactly what their scores are. Sometimes, with three minutes left in the fourth quarter, it is a 20-point basketball game (or around 7-point game in go.) In such a case, the trailing player would usually forfeit because it is virtually impossible to make up 20 points in three minutes. Sometimes, the game reveals itself as a 3- to 4-point game (or around 2-point game in go)--which leads to a furious finish between the two players until there is no possible move remaining on the board.

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Google could not have picked a better opponent than Lee Se-dol. Technically, Lee is not currently the world champion; that would be China's Ke Jie. The world go circuit operates similarly to tennis or golf, in which individual players amass "points" for playing in various major and minor tournaments. Lee Sedol, in fact, is not even the current champion of Korea; that title belongs to Park Jeong-hwan. But Lee Sedol, nonetheless, is the master. He is akin to Roger Federer--although they may or may not be technically the world champions at any given moment, there is no doubt that they are the very top of their respective games if one considers their body of work for the last decade.

Lee Sedol is the perfect opponent for another reason: unlike the machine, he has personality. Lee is brash and confident, bordering on arrogant. A respectable football team may win a game by the score of 10-3, employing stiff defense and reliable special teams play. Lee Sedol's play style is the opposite of that respectable team. At every other possession, Lee would fake a punt, run an end-around and throw a hook-and-ladder pass like a drunk Boise State football team in 2007 Fiesta Bowl. He would fling himself to seemingly hopeless battles, contemptuous of the idea that such risk-taking may backfire. Against the longest odds, somehow Lee more often than not pulls it through. This trait made him not just a champion, but a superstar in the go circuit.

Lee does not just let his game talk; he lets his mouth run. Lee particularly delights in tweaking Chinese fans who, like English soccer fans, often get upset at the fact that another country dominates the game they invented. In an infamous exchange, an interviewer asked Lee if he admired the great players of the previous generation, giving Korea's Lee Chang-ho, Cho Hun-hyeon and China's Ma Xiaochun as examples. Lee replied:  "They are all great players, but I admire no one. Oh, and Ma Xiaochun is not a great player." In 2010, after defeating Kong Jie (then-China's top player) in one of the greatest comeback victories in the game's history, Lee casually said: "I didn't even try very hard because I though I lost already, but I ended up winning anyway." Lee was likewise confident against AlphaGo, which he estimated to be around the level of top-flight amateur. Before yesterday's match, Lee declared: "I would consider myself defeated if I lost just one of the five rounds."

After the loss, Lee Sedol remained confident. Lee said AlphaGo "truly surprised" him, but said "I have won a lot of world championship. Losing the first round does not really bother me." But Lee's swagger is gone, and he is taking his opponent seriously: "Now I think my odds of winning is around 50-50."

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Lee Sedol (black) versus AlphaGo (white), Round 1, March 9, 2016.

The first game is pure thrills-ville. Playing black, Lee Sedol almost immediately uncorks an unorthodox play in the early going. Perhaps to test AlphaGo, Lee Sedol deviates from the standard opening move, essentially daring AlphaGo to take advantage of his deviation. (B7 in the above diagram.) AlphaGo impresses right away by accepting Lee's dare. After several exchanges of complex battles, AlphaGo pulls slightly ahead. If go were a basketball game, AlphaGo finished the first quarter leading by four points.

Then AlphaGo makes a strange play (W58), taking a risk that is completely unnecessary (as it was leading.) Kim Chan-woo, a pro go commentator who is involved in AI go program development, surmised that this happened because AlphaGo does not make the "best move," but the "move most likely to lead to a win." Lee Sedol takes advantage of AlphaGo's risk-taking, and pulls even.

At W80, AlphaGo makes a straightforward, amateurish mistake. This is what makes watching AlphaGo such a trip. Pro players make mistakes too, but they make "pro mistakes." AlphaGo plays like a pro, but makes amateur mistakes. It's like watching Tiger Woods stringing together a series of incredible birdies, then suddenly seeing the golfer take out the five iron to hit the ball on the green. Lee Sedol duly punishes AlphaGo, and is now leading. AlphaGo begins thinking for a while. The game is entering the halfway mark. Things are looking good for the human race.

Then the moment of the match:  W102. The move was so original that Lee Sedol laughed upon seeing it. (Lee later said he though W102 move was "impossible.") Needing a change of pace, AlphaGo launched a daring, reckless attack--a Lee Sedol-esque attack. Lee is taken aback, and in response, makes a critical mistake of his own (B127). AlphaGo is now clearly ahead. The commentators are stunned: "If Lee Sedol was playing a human, he would have forfeited already because there is no way to make up this difference. He is now only playing in the hopes that AlphaGo would make a mistake."

At its highest level, go becomes a wordless conversation. With each move, you ask a question, convey your intent, send a message. Facing defeat, Lee Sedol becomes restless, poking fruitlessly at different corners to find an opening to attack. Each poke was a challenge: "Come on, AlphaGo. This game isn't over yet. Come out and fight me." AlphaGo would turn forbidding. With W154, AlphaGo seems to say: "I won. I don't have to answer to your challenges any more." 

Lee keeps at it for another 30 moves or so, and finally forfeits. History is made; the robot won.

Round 2 is at 11 p.m. EST on March 9, 2016. TK will be live-tweeting the game from 10:30 p.m., at Twitter handle @askakorean.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Monday, March 07, 2016

I'm Still Here

I know it's been a while, sorry. In the last month+ or so, TK has:

  • Traveled to Germany and Poland;
  • Published a major academic paper, and began working on another one;
  • Suffered from debilitating flu;
  • Worked at his law firm
Long time readers know that, in the near decade history of this blog, the frequency and the theme of the posts tend to fluctuate depending on TK's personal life. Right now, we are going through a dry season. If that made you leave the blog, well, sorry. For those who are sticking around: thank you for reading, as always. 

I really don't know when I can get back on this horse, but I am hoping it to be soon. If you want to chat, I am posting my small thoughts on my Facebook page and Twitter.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Monday, January 25, 2016

Do Korean Americans Intermarry with Other Asian Americans?

Dear Korean,

I'm an American of English heritage living on the periphery of Chinatown in Manhattan. Besides the Chinese, many Koreans and Vietnamese own businesses in my neighborhood. I'm curious about the extent of the interaction among different Asian American ethnic groups. For instance, is it common for Korean and Chinese Americans to intermarry?


There is survey data on this precise topic thanks to Professor C.N. Le of University of Massachusetts. At his site Asian Nation, Professor Le put together the marriage data for major Asian American ethnic groups.

For Korean Americans, below are the numbers. As you can see, there are three columns of numbers. The first column is for all married couples that include at least one Korean American. The second is for married couples that include at least one Korean American who is raised in the United States. The third column is for married couples, with at least one U.S.-raised Korean American marrying another U.S.-raised person.

Other Asian2.910.413.0
Multiracial & All Others0.40.71.1
Population Size (x1000)265.447.830.2
Other Asian3.69.29.8
Multiracial & All Others1.22.73.3
Population Size (x1000)351.572.658.4

Please do visit the site for other ethnic groups, as the results are highly interesting.

The numbers indicate that Korean Americans regularly marry outside of their ethnicity, particularly if they were raised in the United States. It also shows that Korean Americans marry other Asian Americans at the rate of around 10 percent among U.S.-raised Korean Americans. One's definition of "common" may differ from person to person, but TK would say one out of ten is a fairly common occurrence.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Code

Dear Korean,

I've been trying to sign up for Korean websites, but they always ask for this weird number sequence and stuff like your ID. I have no idea what to enter and I'm wondering what they are asking for and why.


Short answer: the number is the Resident Registration Number, or 주민등록번호.

Every Korean is given an RRN when their birth certificate is issued. RRN is somewhat like the Social Security Number in the United States, but the use of RRN in Korea is a bit more comprehensive than the SSN use in the United States. As Claudia noticed, it is fairly commonplace for Korean websites to require an RRN for registration.


Can a non-Korean receive an RRN? Nope. But it is possible for non-Koreans to receive an equivalent number, called Foreigner Registration Number (외국인등록번호). Here is the catch, however: FRN is only for non-Koreans who are staying in Korea for more than 90 days, i.e. non-tourists who need to maintain a life in Korea in the form of opening bank accounts, etc. It is true that more and more Korean websites are refraining from asking for an RRN for registration, or have set up a separate track of registration for non-Koreans. But if you are a non-Korean who wants to join a Korean website, and the site requires an RRN, you are out of luck.

But things may change down the line. Late last year, the Constitutional Court of Korea invalidated a portion of the Resident Registration Act that forbade Koreans from changing their RRN, and gave the National Assembly until 2018 to pass a new law that is consistent with its decision. Currently, there is a great deal of public discussion in Korea about how RRN is an outdated system that puts too much personal information at stake. In the new system, RRN may disappear entirely; even if it does not disappear, the RRN use may be limited to a more limited set of purposes compared today. Until then, stay tuned.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Monday, January 04, 2016

Korea-Japan Agreement on Comfort Women

If an apology is not followed by contrition and self-reflection, but instead by gloating--“we apologized, so that ought to shut'em up”--does that apology mean anything? That is the core question that the Korean public is facing with respect to the recent agreement regarding Comfort Women between Korea and Japan.

On December 29, 2015, South Korea and Japan reached an agreement under which the Comfort Women issue was considered "finally and irreversibly" resolved. Under the agreement, the Japanese government issued a statement that read:
The issue of comfort women, with an involvement of the Japanese military authorities at that time, was a grave affront to the honor and dignity of large numbers of women, and the Government of Japan is painfully aware of responsibilities from this perspective. 
As Prime Minister of Japan, Prime Minister Abe expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.

In addition to this statement, the Japanese government pledged to contribute one billion yen (~USD 8.3 million), out of the Japanese government's budget, to a foundation established by the Korean government, whose funding will go toward assisting the surviving Comfort Women.

This agreement sounds fairly good on its face. But the Korean public is generally unhappy with it, with many good reasons. First among the reasons is that the actual victims, namely the surviving Comfort Women, were completely shut out from the negotiation of the agreement. The 46 surviving Comfort Women were not even aware that the Korean government is negotiating for this agreement; they did not learn of this agreement until the media reported it. In a cruel irony, the surviving Comfort Women were initially confused by a sudden flood of congratulatory messages from international organizations, which mistakenly believed that the surviving Comfort Women managed to reach an accord with the Japanese government.

Ultimately, the surviving Comfort Women are unhappy with the agreement for the same reason as the Korean public's: the obvious phoniness of the apology. Normally, an apology is a recognition of past wrongdoing, followed by a period of contrition and self-reflection. In this instance, however, neither the Japanese government nor Prime Minister Shinzo Abe showed any self-reflection about how Imperial Japan brutally kidnapped, raped and murdered hundreds of thousands of women under the vile euphemism of "Comfort Women." Instead, Abe followed up the agreement with triumphant gloating, as he stated: "there will be no future reference at all to this issue [the Comfort Women issue]. We will not raise it in the next Japan-Korea summit meeting. This is the end. There will be no more apology."

(Compare Abe's statement to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's statement in 2013: "Naturally, [Germany has] an everlasting responsibility for the crimes of national-socialism, for the victims of World War II, and above all, for the Holocaust.")

Only an idiot would believe that Shinzo Abe, son of a suspected Class A war criminal in the post-WWII Tokyo Tribunal, would feel sorry about Comfort Women. Yet the length that his administration traveled to display the hollowness of this apology is nonetheless impressive in a twisted way. Even as it was issuing an apology, the Japanese government demanded that Korea remove a Comfort Women memorial statue in front if the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Although this demand was not formalized into an agreement, Japanese officials are already telling the media that the Japanese government would not pay the fund in the agreement unless the memorial statue was removed.

Comfort Women memorial statue, in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

Speaking of the payment: the Japanese government strenuously denies that the money is a legal reparation for the damages that the Comfort Women suffered. This is consistent with Japan's position on Comfort Women thus far: that it did not violate any law in conscripting Korean women into forced sex slavery. Because Japan does not think it committed any crime, there is no damage to recompense as far as it is concerned. 

(If you were curious: the surviving Comfort Women receive a pension from the Korean government, and they do not need the money. One of the points that the Comfort Women have consistently made is that any money paid by Japan should be an expression of its legal responsibility.)

So this is what we have: a statement of apology, followed by gloating. An acceptance of responsibility, followed by denial of legal responsibility. A pledge to pay money as an apologia, followed by the demand to erase the crime from the public memory. 

This is another rendition of Japan's playbook with respect to its war crimes. In its heart of hearts, Japan steadfastly believes that it did nothing wrong leading up to and during World War II. Was Imperial Japan wrong to colonize Korea and China? No--Japan was only trying to protect Asia from European powers. Was Imperial Japan wrong to bomb Pearl Harbor? No--the United States forced Japan's hand by setting up a trade embargo. Was Imperial Japan wrong to kidnap hundred of thousands of women--many of whom were no more than 13, 14 years old--and force them into sexual slavery, to be raped by dozens of soldiers every day? No--war is bad for everyone, and at any rate, Comfort Women are lying whores who volunteered to join the war effort. 

This sick and disgusting worldview is so deeply rooted into the Japanese consciousness that any Japanese statement to the contrary is no more than a cynical bargaining chip, tossed in order to lower the heat of international outrage directed at the worldview's heinousness. Because Japan (and in particular, Japan's conservatives led by the current prime minister) cannot bring itself to mean what it says, Japan must always follow up its statements with a series of attempts to run away from them as quickly as possible.

Question, then, is: what should Korea and Koreans do about this?

(More after the jump)

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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Most Popular AAK! Posts of 2015

Here is a quick look back at the most popular AAK! posts of 2015, by the number of page view.

Most Viewed Posts of 2015 (All-Time Posts)

The top four posts of this blog have become the "perennials," as journalists like to call them. They will never die as long as the blog shall live.

Most Viewed Posts of 2015 (Written in 2015)

Another million pageview year for the blog, even though TK has been quite negligent with the blog toward the later half of the year. Thank you everyone for reading; I don't deserve it, but thank you anyway. Have a wonderful holiday season.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Best of the Worst 2015

It's that time of the year--the season where we all gather around and wallow in the Interweb's swill of stupidity! Despite seeing the examples of dumb questions from 2008,2009, 2010 (in Parts I, II, and III), 2011, 20122013, and 2014, people simply do not learn.

The rules are the same as always: these are all real emails that TK really received from real people in the past year. Below, among all the shitty emails that TK has received, he has selected the douche de la douche, the crap de la crap. Other than redacting personal information, not a single thing about the email is changed or modified in any way. TK's comments and thoughts on the emails are highlighted in blue.


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You Are Not Going to be a K-Pop Star, Stop Fucking Asking

re: Please Help

I'm 15 years old am thinking to go join the k-POp world after a graduate . I want to be a dancer and model. What company would I go for . I want a company that treats people well. Also I'm from Australia and am not Korean at all nor have any Korean background . I have green eyes and do not look Like a korean . Will that affect how I will do? Please help me . Is joining k-POp worth leaving my family and life behind?( my parents don't approve )

Is it worth being a model ? Can I be a model without wearing revealing clothes ? Do I have to speak Korean in order to be a be a k-pop idol?

I just want an answer via email. If I can get the answer faster that would be awesome.

Yes, yes, "joining k-POp" is totally worth leaving behind everything you have ever known. Because all the best Korean talent management companies will line up for you, and you can pick and choose the best one among them. 

re:  KPOP

Dear Korean,

So I am well aware that these are commonly asked questions, but I would like to clarify on my own.

I am a huge KPOP fan, and hoping (maybe) to become a KPOP star in the future.

I am Canadian/Russian/Jewish, and none asian blood, or at least as far as I know, and quite obviously not at all asian to the eye. I do not speak Korean, but I will be learning soon (like next year or something), but I am guessing that I will have a large accent seeing as this is not one of my well known/practiced languages. Will any of this matter, or affect becoming a KPOP star?

Also, I am slightly shy, though working on it, but I do feel better in a group, so what happens to become a solo or group act? How do you get into the KPOP music industry, or more specifically, what must you do to get noticed, get a manager, get a group, or whatever is required?

I’m guessing that I have to live in Korea, but what part? I know that right now living in South Korea isn’t the best, especially for someone of my background (I do not mean to be racist), so would North Korea be just as successful?

Now, I do plan on finishing school first, so I’ve still got to finish grade 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12, so I am guessing that things will change quite a bit by then. Are there any expectations? So, height, weight, language, body type, looks, teeth, and so on and so forth, and can girls be in the same group as guys, because I recall seeing that once, but very rarely. Basically, what are the expectations, procedures, scheduling, etc.

This one may appear to be strange, but makeup and hair-wse, what is required? Because I have naturally red-copper hair, and am not a fan of dying my hair, as well as makeup.
Now onto dancing and singing. I consider myself a good singer, and so has one of the best vocal teachers in Calgary, but, I do not do theory, learn piano (I quit a while back, and have forgotten everything I learnt) or anything of the sort. Is this something I need to know?

And dancing is not really a forté of mine. I want to learn, but free-styling is absolutely not something I can do well, but with a given dance, it takes me quite a while to learn, and I’m not that great in the end. I know KPOP really concentrates on it’s dancing as a factor of the performance, but if I can’t dance, does this impact me severely?

This is one of a few emails. I tend to forget details, so I will include others in a series of emails spread throughout the years.

Thank you either way,

Definitely try making it as a K-pop star in North Korea. Seriously. You will be making history. Group act sounds good--"Gulag Girls" has a nice ring, doesn't it?

(More ridiculousness after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at But no stupid questions please. TK may have to kill himself soon if this keeps up.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Lee Jung Hee Hoax

Dear Korean,

I am curious about your thought on the Lee Jung Hee scandal that happened earlier this year, since it is so bizarre and apparently trending in the various social media. Could you please share some words about the scandal?


TK really, really did not want to get into this one, but it was simply ridiculous how many of you asked this question. So let's go.

The Lee Jung Hee scandal began with a sensational allegation made on a website late June this year. The full version of of the allegations is available in English here. The short version of the allegation is this:  
A woman named Lee Jung Hee, who is in her 40s and has two teenage sons, claimed that she and her sons have been subject to decades of sexual abuse at the hand of her husband. Lee was forced to marry her husband, who was a pastor, in her 20s, after having been raped by him and got pregnant. Since then, Lee's husband forced her into prostitution for 20 years, during which she was forced to partake in orgies while being drugged. Her sons were also forced into the orgies after they became older. All told, Lee was raped by "around 1,000 people" for 20 years, and her sons "around 300 people." The orgies were filmed, and the participants of the orgies sold the videos and shared the profit.
Lee finally escaped in 2014 and called the police on her husband, but there was minimal investigation as the participants of the orgies were politically and socially powerful men. Instead, the police committed one of Lee's sons to a mental institution, where he developed psychosis.
This story started going around the Internet in Korea, because it had all the sensational elements--a twisted mixture of sex, power, religion, denial of justice. Lee and her sons repeatedly made their case on the Internet, writing more testimonials and filming Youtube interviews. Eventually, the story was translated into various languages. The #helpleejunghee hashtag campaign began; there was (and is) a Facebook page also. A petition garnered more than 37,000 signatures

Lee Jung Hee and her two sons, from their Youtube interview

As we know now, this was all a hoax. The monstrous former husband, who was supposedly blocking the police investigation because he was so well-connected with powerful people, was no more than an old pizza delivery man living in a crappy studio apartment. Lee led to the journalists to a rural village, claiming that her perpetrators lived there--not just one or two of the perpetrators, but according to Lee, the whole village was a sex colony that raped her and her sons. (But why would these allegedly rich and powerful men who assaulted her and her sons live in a crappy rural village?) The police did investigate the former husband when Lee initially claimed sexual assault to the police. After four months of investigation, the police did not find any nefarious orgy picture or video, nor did they find any sign of drug use from the former husband.

The real story was simpler and made much more sense. Lee and the former husband were indeed married, and were in the process of divorce. The former husband did beat Lee and the children, which resulted in a favorable divorce for Lee. It was when the husband appealed the decision by the divorce court that Lee began claiming sexual assault. Her story fell apart as soon as the more serious Korean media began their investigation. Earlier this month, Lee was arrested on the charges of malicious litigation and child abuse; Lee's children were separated from their mother and were placed in protective services.

TK stayed away from this story from the beginning for a simple reason: it smelled funny. The story did not make any sense internally. Who would pay to have sex with one woman and two young boys, along with a bunch of other men? Maybe that could happen once or twice, but over 20 years? Really? Who would even pay to watch the video of that happening? Have you even seen what kind of porn is available on the Internet nowadays? But because very unlikely things do happen in real life, TK was willing to let the story play out, and see what the more serious people would have to say about this topic. And as soon as the media scrutiny came in, the story crumbled entirely.

The lesson from the hoax is an enduring one: Internet justice campaign is for gullible idiots. Tens of thousands of people bought into this transparent bullshit because . . .  well, I don't know why. I don't know why people feel compelled to put their name down on something without knowing what is going on. I don't know why people put their name down on something while having no way to know what is going on. (This applies especially to non-Korean people who cannot access regular Korean media.) I don't know why people think putting their name down on some corner of the Internet helps in any way.

The Lee Jung Hee scandal shows once more that this kind slacktivist campaign is no more than a cheap moral masturbation, a blind dog wandering aimlessly and biting anything that gets in the way. The only way to make your sense of justice meaningful is to think critically, and act. Do not just get indignant at bad things, but actually study them, so that you grow the ability to discern what is really a bad thing, and what is a caricature of a bad thing. When you are reasonably confident that bad things are happening, take action instead of talking. Invest your time, put in your money, give your expertise. Protest in the streets, serve the needy, sue the powerful. Much of the world's problems would be no more if people did these things as often as they signed another meaningless Internet petition.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Friday, November 20, 2015

The 2016 NK News Calendars are Here

As long time readers may know, this humble blog has shared long time friendship with NK News, the finest source in English to get the news about North Korea. One of the proudest moments of running this blog was inspiring NK News to begin Ask a North Korean!, an honest and revealing look into the country that is so opaque from the outside.

Here is one way you can support NK News: buy their gorgeous North Korea calendar.

From NK News

For the readers of this blog, NK News has something special: enter the discount code "askakorean" to get 30 percent off on your entire shopping cart. You can buy the calendars here.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

IU and Zeze

Dear Korean,

This seems shallow but I couldn't help but to ask this question. What's up with IU and this whole Zeze controversies? Who's Zeze,anyway?


This blog is about to answer a question about K-pop. Could it be?

The second question first: Zeze is the main character from a Brazilian children's novel, My Sweet Orange Tree. The novel is popular worldwide and well known among Koreans through translation. In the novel, Zeze is a five year old boy whose family moves to a poor neighborhood because his father lost his job. In the new (and dilapidated) home, there are several trees in the backyard, and each of Zeze's siblings claim a tree for his or her own. Because Zeze was one of the youngest, he ends up with a small, sorry-looking sweet orange tree. Although Zeze does not like the tree at first, he finds out that he can talk with the tree. Zeze names the tree Minguinho, and the two become friends, partially because all of Zeze's family is busy working and trying to support the family. Left alone, Zeze causes all kinds of trouble, and frequently gets beaten by his parents and his older siblings.

Now, about the song. Zeze is one of the songs on IU's most recent album, Chat-Shire. Here is the translation of the first verse of the song:


흥미로운 듯 씩 올라가는 입꼬리 좀 봐
Look at the lips that curl up, as if something's interesting
그 웃음만 봐도 알아 분명히 너는 짓궂어
I can tell just from that smile; you must be mischievous
아아 이름이 아주 예쁘구나 계속 부르고 싶어
Ah you have a pretty name; I want to keep saying it
말하지 못하는 나쁜 상상이 사랑스러워
That unspeakable naughty imagination is lovable
조그만 손가락으로 소리를 만지네
With the little fingers, you touch the sound
간지러운 그 목소리로 색과 풍경을 노래 부르네
With that ticklish voice, you sing the colors and the scenery

제제 어서 나무에 올라와
Zeze, hurry and climb the tree
잎사귀에 입을 맞춰
Kiss the leaves
장난치면 못써 
Don't fool around
나무를 아프게 하면 못써 못써
Don't hurt the tree, bad bad
제제 어서 나무에 올라와
Zeze, hurry and climb the tree
여기서 제일 어린 잎을 가져가
Take the youngest leaf here
하나뿐인 꽃을 꺾어가
Pluck the only flower here 
Climb up me Climb up me
Climb up me Climb up me

If you can't tell why this song caused an uproar, congratulations--the ways of this world has not yet tainted your little heart. Please stop reading now.

For everyone else: the song obviously is barely disguised pedophilia. If there was any remaining doubt, IU's own interview about the song clinched it: "The song Zeze is from the point of view of Minguinho, from the novel My Sweet Orange Tree. Zeze is innocent, but in some ways he is cruel. As a character, he has a great deal of self-contradiction. That made me feel that he was attractive and sexy."

Is this a big deal? Objectively, and emphatically, no. But people rarely fail to overreact to a topic like pedophilia. The publishing house that introduced the novel to Korea expressed displeasure at the lyrics of the song on its Facebook page, noting that "Minguinho is Zeze's only friend who takes care of Zeze through the abuses from his family.  . . .  It is regrettable that the song makes a five-year-old, who holds the pain of abuse, as an object of sexual desire." After the media ruckus, IU issued an apology, saying she never intended to sexually objectify a five year old child, and Zeze in the song was another character based on the novel rather than the novel's Zeze.

What does TK think about this? The controversy itself is uninteresting; the more interesting part is the way in which IU decided to make this song. TK is convinced that, in today's K-pop scene, IU is the artist who possesses the most self-awareness about the way in which the K-pop market consumes her (or more precisely, her image,) and the interaction between her actions and the pattern of that consumption. In fact, she may be the most careful orchestrator of self-image in Korean pop music since Seo Taiji.

Here is the uncomfortable truth: underlying much of IU's fandom is the id of barely-legal pedophilic desire. To be sure, this is a general phenomenon in the K-pop market, in which "uncle fans" of girl groups--men in their 30s and up, ogling mostly-uncovered young women--make up a significant portion of the fan base. Writ large, it is the general phenomenon of the way in which most young female pop stars are consumed in the market. (The Catholic school girl uniform by Britney Spears was certainly not geared only toward young men of her age.)

But what sets IU apart from other youthful, girlish-looking K-pop idols is that, unlike the girl groups who are creations of a producing company, IU has invited the pedophilic gaze on her own terms. IU does not settle for the crude simulacra of pedophilia, like a school girl outfit. (Although she certainly does employ that too.) She employs much more sophisticated devices, like issuing a remake album containing hit songs from 1980s and 90s. (For an 80s song to be meaningful, you must be at least born in late 1970s. IU was born in 1993.) One of the most popular moments of IU is when she sings the songs of Kim Gwang-seok, whose soulful reflection on self made him the legend of early 90s Korean pop music. In this sense, IU is akin to an evolved Madonna; like the pioneering female American pop artist, IU flipped the script by taking over the agency of her own sexuality. In fact, IU does one better than Madonna, because she does this without any crass skin exposure. 

What makes IU's Zeze truly interesting is not the overblown controversy about whether or not the song is pedophilic. (Of course it is.) The truly interesting part is that, with Zeze, IU flipped the script once again. In Zeze, IU is no longer the young child that subtly invites the sexual attention of the grown-ups. (For those who are dense: IU is obviously not a young child in reality. That is her public image that she herself cultivated.) In the song, IU plays the role of the grown-up, detecting the nascent sexuality in a young child and gently encouraging the child to be even naughtier. That feels uncomfortable, because that's exactly how IU wants you to feel--because being that child is the reality that IU has experienced throughout her professional career.

IU will never stop playing you. The whole media circus is about getting played by IU. That's what's up.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

How to Make Gochujang (and Dwenjang and Soy Sauce)

Dear Korean,

If you were unable to get the gochujang in the ready-made container, would you be able to make it using some more common ingredients, say ones found at your average health food store? Do you think it could be approximated by mixing soy miso and hot harissa?


First of all, a huge, honking NO to the abominable recipe involving miso and harissa. You may as well be working on getting dogs to mate with cats. Good lord, have you no respect for the natural order of things?

The other question, however, deserves more attention. Can one make gochujang with common ingredients found at a regular health food store? This may surprise people, but the answer is yes--as long as you have several months to spare. In order words, obtaining the ingredients is not the hard part; it is the skill and patience it takes to create the finished product. 

Even if you only buy gochujang from the store (as vast majority of Koreans do,) it would be helpful to know just how that sauce is made. A lot of people, for example, do not know that gochujang and soy sauce are related. If you didn't know that either, read on; you might find this interesting.

Meju: the Daddy

Everyone who has had gochujang knows that it is a type of paste. But what is the paste made out of? Answer: beans--fermented soy beans, to be more precise. Thus, in order to make gochujang, you have to start by fermenting some beans. Through long historical experience, Koreans developed the best way of fermenting beans. This is done by creating meju [메주], a block of ground beans. Both dwenjang and gochujang are made from meju, which makes meju the daddy of them all.

To make a meju, start by soaking soybeans in water for 12 hours or more. After the soybeans are soaked, boil them in high heat until the water comes to boil, then in medium heat, for approximately two hours until the beans are soft. Drain the beans until they are dry. While the beans are still warm, bring the softened beans into a mortar, and mash them with a pestle.

Mashing the boiled soybeans into paste
With the mashed soybeans, form a solid block. This block is called meju. A meju can be as large as a big brick, but it can be smaller. Koreans would usually use a frame, in which the mashed soybeans are stuffed, to create a block. But it is fine to just use your hands. (Aside: meju is also an old timey slang term for an ugly face.)

Monks and visitors of Daeheung Temple, making meju. One can see the
frame for making meju out of the soybean paste, which is in the tub.
Once the blocks are made, they have to be dried. Place the meju at a sunny location with plenty of ventilation, and dry them for seven to ten days. Then comes the exciting part--the fermentation. Place the dried meju in a warm room (around 77 to 83 degrees) for around two weeks, which is usually enough time for the mold to grow on its surface. Ideally, you want to use straws made from rice stalks to place the meju, as the microbes that make the best meju tend to live in those straws. 

Meju with fresh mold beginning to grow on the surface
It takes time for meju to fully ferment. Traditionally, Koreans would hang the meju with mold from the roof, and let it ferment for several months. Fresh soybeans are harvested in the fall, which means the meju hangs and ferments throughout the winter.

Hanging the meju to ferment.
Intimidated by this process? You should be. Like many other fermented foods like wine and cheese, this process requires delicate care. One misstep and the batch can be ruined. The process is so delicate that traditionally, Koreans had a series of elaborate rituals surrounding the sauce-making. A traditional Korean family would select a day of good fortune for making the sauce. For three days before the sauce-making day, the lady of the house would not leave the house, and refrain from having sex. For three weeks after the sauce-making day, the household members were not allowed to attend a funeral.

But if you live in Korea, you're in luck--all this can be skipped because there are many places that sell meju powder, i.e. powder made up of meju blocks that already finished fermenting. Although if you really didn't want to invite your date upstairs, you can always say: "Sorry, I am making gochujang tomorrow."

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Them Fighting Koreans

Dear Korean,

How did the Korean expression "Fighting!" get so popular? I am curious to know whether or not it was first used by a very influential person, came from a popular Korean series or used for some sort of political propaganda to encourage Koreans to think positive.

Li San

That would have been a heck of a story, but it doesn't look that way.

Sample Korean usage of "Fighting"

First of all, the definition of the term first. "Fighting" is one of the most classic Konglish words: a borrowed word from English that barely makes sense. Koreans use the word to signify positive encouragement, like "Let's go!" or "Way to go!" 

To be sure, the use of the word "fight" in this context is not completely ridiculous, since there are some occasions when the English language use of the word is at least somewhat close. For example, the refrain for "Texas Fight," the official fight song for the University of Texas Longhorns, goes: "Yea Orange! Yea White! Yea Longhorns! Fight! Fight! Fight! Texas fight, Texas fight, yea Texas fight!" But of course, no Anglophone would yell "fighting," and it is not very clear how Koreans came to say "fighting." 

The popular theory is that the Japanese are fond of saying "huaito" (Japanese pronunciation of "fight",) and the term migrated to Korea in an even more ungrammatical manner. TK's own theory is slightly different: based on the historical usage of the term, "fighting" is more likely a contraction of "fighting spirit." For example, an article from Dong-A Ilbo from September 5, 1926 carried an interview with a baseball umpire who oversaw a baseball tournament. In the interview, the umpire lamented that some of the teams lacked the "fighting spirit" [파이팅 스피리트]. Throughout the early 20th century, Korean newspapers spoke of the "fighting spirit," usually in reference to sporting events. 

Then around 1960s, Korean newspapers could be seen dropping the latter part of the phrase (i.e. "spirit",) and began using "fighting" as a shorthand for "fighting spirit." For example, an article from Kyunghyang Shinmun from September 21, 1962 speaks of a Thai youth soccer team that visited Korea to play Korea's youth team. The article describes the match:
Both the visiting Thai team and the Korean team are youth teams. However, as they are made up of players who are younger than 20 years old, their intensity and skill level are comparable to adult players. Indeed, in terms of stamina and fighting, a match of vigor that cannot be seen in adult matches is expected. As both teams include three to four players who are of the national team caliber, soccer fans are taking note.
(TK's emphasis). It appears that the word "fighting," by early 1960s, came to mean something similar to "enthusiasm" in Korea. Around the same time, Korean people can be seen using "fighting" as a cheering slogan

Korean people are fully aware that "fighting" does not actually make sense in English. In 2004, the National Institute of Korean Language attempted to push people away from using the word that makes no sense, suggesting the exclamation "aja" as a replacement. That campaign failed completely, like many other ham-fisted efforts by the Korean government to change the national culture from the top down. Although "aja" is (and has always been) commonly used, "fighting" is very much alive in everyday Korean parlance, and it's not about to go away any time soon.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at
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