Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Self-Reflection: Black Out Korea.

There are a few huge blogs in the expat-in-Korea blogging community. I don't use the word "blogosphere" because I don't believe in neologisms. Also, it sounds stupid.

The biggest two are probably Ask a Korean! and Ask the Expat!. Others like The Grand Narrative, Gusts of Popular Feeling and Kiss my Kimchi spring to mind as well. My friend Breda (Annyeong!) was even ranked as one of the top Korean expat blogs by Go Overseas. So there's a lot of content on the Internet being generated about Korea, by foreigners currently living in Korea.

Somewhere up there you also have Black Out Korea, a blog devoted entirely to pictures of passed-out drunk people in the ROK.

I will admit, on a base level, it is kind of funny. Even to someone like me, with a sense of humor more cerebral than slapstick. Because once in a while, after all the shots of passed-out party-goers in Hongdae, you get utterly weird stuff like this:

which just transcends funny and becomes pure, sublimated surreality.

Early on in life, we all learn the important difference between laughing with and laughing at at someone. And usually when you're enjoying the results of someone's drunken shenanigans, it's the laughing at kind of laughing. This is the same kind of humor that drives pages like People of WalMart, LameBook, and Regretsy. Those sites all have their own thorny ethics to deal with, but they are also all people poking at other people within their own culture. (Cue the appropriate Seinfeld reference about "joke-telling immunity." Bonus points for Bryan Cranston prior to Breaking Bad or Malcolm in the Middle.)

When you get cross-cultural haw-haws, though, then it gets weird. Are you enjoying it from a position of privilege? Is there some underlying cultural thing going on of which you're (willfully) ignorant? Are you using humor to distance yourself from responsibility? Would this be just as funny intra-culturally? Did I just make up a new word? Anyway, here's the stated purpose of Black Out Korea:

Black Out Korea is a site devoted to the often hilarious situations in Korea that involve full grown adults blacked out in public, sometimes from 60 hour workweeks, but mostly because of Soju.

I've been to quite a few countries, but never seen this phenomenon like I've seen here in the ROK. So send in your best pics!

(As an aside, I do remember the blurb, in the version I initially read, talking about how South Korea is a country where adults typically get "utterly shithammered" or some such. I presume that the author has changed it as the blog has grown, and so I present you with the current version.)

Black Out Korea does not necessarily discriminate, either; you do find the odd assortment of blacked-out foreigners among the photos.

Note, though, that instances of the "waegook" tag are not as frequent as many of the others.

I'm inclined to distance myself from that kind of humor/attitude about Korea (at least I am now, not sure what year-ago-self would say). First of all, the laughing at style of comedy doesn't normally appeal to me, anyway. Nor does the slapstick, physical kind of comedy.

On a deeper level, to me it also belies a lack of respect for Korea, in a way. Not only on the "hah hah, he's passed out drunk, what a Korean" level, but in a more abstract sense. I think a not-insignificant portion of foreigners come to Korea and think of it as "College 2: Electric Boogaloo" and see it as less a country with citizens who are just as autonomous as themselves, and more of a giant playground with few rules and cheap booze. "We can party all we want, someone else will be there to clean up after us and take care of us."

I mean, it's one thing for your friend to get stupid-drunk and then pass out in a club. By all means, prank away and photo-document as much as you like. But a random stranger? Who has no chance to consent to this or establish a layer of rapport such that they would be okay with you doing this? Who doesn't have a way to contact you if they want the photo taken down? Also note that faces are almost never blurred in the photos; if they are, they're of foreigners.

This, coupled with America's military presence in Korea both historically and currently, suggests an unequal power balance and no interest to fix it. I think a lot of the submissions to Black Out Korea spring from that mindset, and that makes me uneasy. Mine, however, is certainly not the only take on it.

Your thoughts?