Thursday, 7 June 2012

How I Became a Victim of the Korean Media

I recently found myself misrepresented by SBS, a Korean television company, but before I speak about my particular case, a more recent incident of Koren media misrepresentation occurred by another Korean television company, MBC, has foreigners in Korea fuming.

An MBC insert that aired very recently presented a bigoted xenophobic image of foreigners in Korea. The social networks are quite aflame and my reporting on it here on my blog is actually a little late, but nonetheless.

This is not the first time for the Korean media to depict foreign men as ravagers and abusers of innocent Korean women, or as foreigners as sex-crazed paedophiles. There are some issues I would like to comment on.

The first is not how this insert depicts foreign men, but how it depicts Korean women that should dare to be seen with foreign men. I know quite a number of interracial married couples in Korea and it is well known that Korean women in interracial relationships are often seriously frowned upon. They are sometimes shouted and cussed at, and the dirty looks they get abound. An insert like this one by MBC just adds fuel to fire and seem to validate the unfounded discrimination not merely to foreigners, but to Korean's that should dare to have relations with foreigners.

A second thing that really irked me about this video is the implied suggestions that foreigners are the main source of HIV / AIDS in Korea. What this one sided video does not mention is that most foreigners working in Korea (in the education industry) have to get annual health check-ups, which includes an HIV / AIDS test, in order to get their visas. If a foreigner in this bracket is HIV+, they cannot get a visa to work in Korea. So the question is, if one of these foreigners are HIV+, where did he get it from? A likely assumption would be from a Korean. A blanket suggestion that foreigners are the source of HIV / AIDS transmission in Korea is as silly as my statement that all foreigners that get infected with HIV are infected by Koreans.

Another ridiculous suggestion made by the insert is that foreigners get Korean girls pregnant and then disappear. I'm not saying that a foreign guy has never stood up a Korean girl and fled his paternal responsibilities -- I'm sure there are such cases; however, the insert makes it sound like this is a common, and particularly foreigner-related, issue. The insert conveniently ignores the very high numbers of abortions that occur in Korea, apparently around 1.5 million annually! While a handful of these unwanted pregnancies may have been fathered by foreigners, for all practical purposes these unwanted pregnancies are by and large all-Korean, and it is very reasonable to infer that a significant number of these abortions were motivated by Korean fathers that did not want to accept their responsibility. I'm confident that the cases of foreigners responsible for unwanted pregnancies are ridiculously smaller than is the case for Koreans. (There is that whole condom issue . . . Korean women are known to lament how Korean guys do not like to where condoms.)

A fourth issue I had with this insert, and this is related to my incident with SBS, is how the insert manipulates the material. In one part of the video, crew from MBC calls a woman that had apparently been victimized by foreigners -- see 3:05-3:30. When the woman denies that she was "the victim of a foreigner", the programs narrator accuses her of lying. In short, because she denied being victimized by a foreigner she clearly must be lying as it is obviously impossible for a foreigner-Korean relationship not to involve some form of victimization of the innocent, helpless Korean girl by the barbaric warmongering foreign guy.

This type of editing and narration to spin the story regardless of the facts is quite common in the Korean media and happened to me recently too. My incident is a very trivial incident really and to say that I was a "victim of the Korean media" is of course an overstatement, but the incident nonetheless poignantly highlights how the Korean media manipulates the truth.

Yes, that's me in the happy yellow shirt, on an SBS TV-program.
SBS-television has a program in which it shows Korean people with various skills. This particular program had among the skills showcased someone that made a Ham. No, this is not a type of pork, but a special type of Korean gift box that the groom takes to the bride's parents shortly before the wedding day (often the night before). The ham-ceremony is actually quite interesting and I discussed my own experience of the ceremony in much detail here. But I digress.

So some weeks back some friends and I were walking through Myeongdong, a trendy fashion district in Seoul. We were on our way to a Taekwon-Do demonstration. As we walked I saw a ham on a low stand and also a television crew shooting something. I didn't heed it or them much because there are always some television crew busy in Myeongdong and since I have actual experience with a ham before, it wasn't anything too out of the ordinary for me. (I did wonder why they had placed a ham on a stand in the middle of Myeongdong, but at least I recognised it for what it was, and there is always some peculiar thing happening in Seoul.) As we were walking one of our group members, Lynne, disappeared among the throng of people. That's when I and another friend, Leo standing in front of me in the picture above, turned around and looked back to see where Lynne had disappeared to. Lynne is rather short, so it was quite fun trying to spot her amongst the crowds of people, hence the smirks on our faces.

According to the SBS program, foreigners (referring to me in the screenshot) are very curious about the ham. The truth is, in this instance I wasn't even looking at the ham which was on a low stand on the ground. Notice how Leo and I are looking up ahead, not down at something. They were outright lying when they suggested that I was looking at the box. The funny thing about the video is that they interviewed young people and asked them what the box was, and the young people did not know what it was. (The ham-ceremony is not too common any more.) They then asked older people, who of course knew that it was ham.  What is ironic about this is that I actually knew what it was, yet they used me in to depict a foreigner in baffled intrigue over the "unidentifiable curious box".

You can see the segment with me in it from around 39:43 in the video at the following link.

I mention this incident because it is a fun thing to put on my blog -- I had my fifteen seconds . . . uhm, I mean two seconds of fame of me on Korean TV. But more importantly, it illustrates how manipulative the Korean media is. They wanted to show a "curious foreigner" looking at the strange box and they manipulated the footage and narration in such a way to make me the curious ignorant foreigner, whether this was the actual truth or not. They had an agenda, and they didn't care about the facts. When Koreans (my students and martial arts friends) told me that they saw me on television and that I looked a bit like an over-curious monkey, I must say, I did feel somewhat victimized by SBS's fraudulent depiction of me. I've been in Korean long enough not to consider myself an ignorant tourist and do not appreciate being considered a buffoonish foreigner that knows nothing about Korean culture. I'm long over it now, of course, but at the time my students told me about my face on TV,  I did feel misrepresent, I did feel somehow violated.

This is pretty much what MBC did too, but at a much greater and much more malignant scale. They had an agenda to tell their "The Shocking Reality About Relationships With Foreigners"-story regardless of ethical, factual journalism. They pushed their xenophobic agenda and in so doing sanctioned the stereotype of Korean women with foreign men as sleazy and without proper morals, and of foreigner men as diseased carrying womanisers. Alas, this is of course part of a bigger cultural problem.

The expat community in Korea has taken such offence to the insert that they have launched a petition demanding an apology from MBC. If you would like to sign the petition, please do so at Avaaz.Com. Obviously, I did.


Retha said...

The MBC's video is shocking! I'm amazed that a reputable company would air such blatant drivel.

Skryfblok said...

I am equally shocked -- but then again . . .

I have a terrible love-hate relationship with Korea.