An hour after landing at Incheon International Airport, I had my first encounter with aegyo. The Korean college student who was guiding me and my colleagues to our new home was impossibly, unbelievably cute. He flashed a dimpled smile. He giggled and glanced away nervously. He apologized winsomely for his “bad English,” and I think he may have even batted his eyelashes. I’d seen it in dramas, but it was hard to believe when I saw it in person. Aegyo is real.
In the exaggerated world of Korean comedies and melodramas, it’s easy to dismiss what’s on the screen. Obviously, South Korea isn’t a hotbed of time travel or vampires. It isn’t even teeming with handsome, emotionally neglected heirs and homely, self-sacrificing girls who are only one makeover away from a professional modeling career.
But if you don’t expect time travel, vampires or chaebol princes, K-dramas are a surprisingly good introduction to Korean life.
Aegyo, for instance. Though I’ve seen men in K-dramas employ cutesy mannerisms to disarm and charm, I didn’t expect to see it in the flesh. It was a struggle not to say, “You’re like something out of a drama!”
Cuteness in Korea shows up in the most unlikely places. My bank book, for instance. I have an account at a major bank, a serious nationwide bank. But my bank book is designed to look like a friendly cartoon tiger with a bow around its neck. That’s the image my bank wants to project—cute.
Cuteness is everywhere. On a hike this weekend, I saw a “danger, falling rocks” sign illustrated with adorable cartoon animals. In the United States, this kind of cuteness doesn’t appear outside of preschool classrooms. Here it’s on official signage.
K-dramas also capture many details of everyday life. Whereas American television increasingly ignores average people, average towns and average jobs, most K-dramas are full of ordinary daily rituals. The long running time of episodes allows (or necessitates) room for small talk—basic Korean politenesses like “have you eaten?” and “you worked hard.”
Watching dramas was thus great preparation for working in Korea. Knowing how to say “bangapseumnida” (pleased to meet you) and “putakterimnida” (I’m in your hands) went a long way for me in my first days as the only non-Korean working in a Korean middle school.
Korean television gives us tiny one-room apartments like the one I’m living in now. It prepares us for the ubiquity of rice and kimchi at every Korean meal, and the addictive deliciousness of street food. A few shows even prepared me for the diabolical complexity of sorting the trash and recycling here. (Think of our trash-sorting heroines in Flower Boys Next Door and Master’s Sun.)
I chose a job as far from Seoul as possible. I live in Gwangju, a city of 1.5 million in South Jeolla province—still commonly known as the city where the May 18 massacre took place in 1980, the city where opposition to President Park in last month’s election was strongest.
We’re far from Seoul, far from the setting of most dramas. But much that I saw on television holds true here too. The public transportation is prompt, cheap and clean, and goes damn near everywhere. Drama heroines may have to sell their organs for money, but they never have to wait more than five minutes for a bus.
The urban landscape is an important element in K-dramas, with many scenes filmed in the streets, and at public playgrounds and cafes. So real Korea looks a lot like drama Korea. Every city block offers a Paris Baguette, a Tous les Jours bakery or an Angel-in-us Coffee—sometimes all three. Convenience stores are everywhere, along with struggling family noodle restaurants and grandmothers selling red-bean bungeoppang from orange tents on the sidewalk.
Perhaps I’m surprised because I expected television Korea to be like television America—divorced from real landscapes. In America, I spend my life a lot of my life stuck in traffic, surrounded by ugly, nondescript strip malls. But I don’t see many scenes on American television filmed in strip malls. To make a gigantic generalization, American television is about things happening in other places. (Unless you live in Los Angeles.)
It’s thus eerie to discover that Korean dramas give a pretty accurate picture of the landscape. Sure, dramas like to film in exotic locations if they can, and they film plenty of scenes in expensive restaurants and tony bars I’ll never go to. But they also film scenes in tent cafes and samgyeopsal joints. Korea is really here, and sometimes it really looks like the dramas. Aegyo and all. ♥