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Arts & Media

Koreans Dazzled by Foreignized Korea

  • 조회수 210
  • 행사기간 Jul 13, 2018 - Jul 13, 2018
  • 등록일 Jul 13, 2018

LIFE

ENTERTAINMENT Koreans Dazzled by Foreignized Korea

A new format is ingeniously flipping the script on TV travel programming, causing a sensation. “Welcome, First Time in Korea?” has expats and their neophyte visitors take Korean viewers along to reveal a country they thought they knew like the back of their hand.

Foreign residents from various countries appeared on JTBC’s “Non-Summit” in 2014, starting a new TV trend. Gathering in a panel hosted by three Korean celebrities, a group of non-Korean young men, all fluent and articulate in Korean, discussed an array of weighty topics, wowing audiences. Now some of the more popular panelists are rewriting the script on another TV genre - travel shows. They appear as hosts on “Welcome, First Time in Korea?” broadcast weekly on cable channel MBC Every1.

Subtle but Big Differences
When the reality show debuted in July 2017, some people worried that it would be little more than a recycled travel motif that simply added foreigners into the mix and would grab little attention. But by the end of its 33-episode opening season, “Welcome” had an audience share of 5.1 percent in its evening time slot. It was the highest ever for MBC Every1 and an enviable level for Korean cable TV networks. A second season is currently in the works.
“Welcome” puts a slight twist on a well-worn genre. Most Korean travel shows have featured intrepid Korean celebrities exploring and mingling in international locales. “Welcome” reverses the perspective. In each episode, a guest host invites friends from his/her native country to visit Korea for the first time. Viewers watch how parts of their everyday lives, such as food and transportation, as well as places, are perceived through the eyes of foreigners. The out-of-the-box formula presents enlightening impressions to the audience. Things that Koreans feel they know well are foreignized. Suddenly, familiar things take on a novel, curious, or even outlandish hue, and appear not so ordinary after all.
A German host’s friends were stumped by columns of metal tubes protruding from the ceiling at a barbeque restaurant, which simply were extractor fans. And chicken boiled with rice, a familiar dish to Koreans, became a “delightful adventure” to the visitors. As visitors peel back the layers of Korea, viewers realize what they take for granted holds many surprises and see their everyday life turn into an exploration full of wonders.

Sharing Cultures and Tastes
“Welcome” also opens a window into the first-timers’ own cultural traits and characteristics. Different ways of traveling and experiencing a foreign culture are readily apparent. German visitors gathered information and meticulously planned their trip beforehand, feeling a great sense of accomplishment when crossing off each activity on their itinerary. Their Mexican counterparts, however, felt one of the treats of traveling is to experience a destination through trial and error.
Undaunted, they tackled Korea head on with no set plans. Indian first-timers, with a unique sense of optimism, did not have qualms about being in quirky places with strangers.
The format of the program also provides a platform to enhance mutual cultural empathy between the show’s participants and viewers. The show hosts include a young Italian businessman along with three Koreans - a comedian, a rap singer and a TV announcer. As video clips of the travellers are shown, the hosts, perched in a studio, dish out quips and explanatory insights into their movements, reactions and comments. Thus, viewers can gain an enriched understanding of different cultures.
The program is immensely popular because foreigners have a special place in Koreans’ minds. Since the end of the 19th century when Western cultures began to be introduced to the country, Koreans became self-conscious about how they would be viewed from the outside world. The tendency became more pronounced in the 1970s; more active exchanges occurred between Korea and the international community and peaked during the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics.

In the pilot episode of “Welcome, First Time in Korea?” aired in June 2017, the Italian host Alberto Mondi (far right in the picture on the left) and his three hometown friends visit a royal palace in Seoul, drawing a curious crowd.

Changing Attitude Toward Foreigners
For a while, Koreans’ high sensitivity to foreign opinion helped pave the way to fame at home. Directors or actors who received awards from international film festivals like Cannes or Berlin were put on pedestals for raising Korea’s national status. Their works attracted moviegoers even if they leaned more toward being artistic than entertaining. These days, however, the general public knows exactly what they like, so accolades from prestigious overseas film festivals no longer guarantee commercial success in the domestic market.
That being the case, why are viewers so enchanted by “Welcome”? It is because of its fresh perspective. Being neither one-sided with praise or criticism is entertaining in itself. The program conveys the joy, surprise and respect that foreigners exude when immersing themselves in Korean culture. Still, at times, the visitors’ unvarnished reactions cause deeper reflection.
The Finnish visitors, for example, were surprised that Korean saunas served cheap draft beer all night, and said, “There are not so many places in Finland where you can buy a drink in the evening.” The comment could have been interpreted as an observation about Korea’s drinking culture, or a swipe at Korean society for being too casual toward drinking. The Finns also mentioned how they would only go to a hairdresser once or twice a year. That could have been read to suggest that Koreans are overly attentive to their appearance.
This program is meaningful in that Koreans have moved beyond angst about what foreigners think about them. They are now able to exchange thoughts with foreigners on an equal footing. It is not about comparing Korean culture with theirs and judging which is better; it just affirms that cultures are different and that is why they are intriguing.

Jung Duk-hyun Cultural Critic

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