MANILA, Philippines – To say that you have not caught even just a small part of the hallyu (Korean culture) wave is to say that you have never surfed the Internet.
Whether binge streaming Descendants of the Sun or watching makeup tutorials on YouTube, getting updates on Girl’s Generation via Twitter or trendspotting in Korean Fashion week through Instagram, it’s quite easy to think that we know Koreans, or at least what it takes to be just like them. How can we not when we see it all the time?
But then again, my only knowledge of Korean culture was exactly just that — a heavily filtered kind if only because of the medium through which I learned all about it. That’s what I realized on a recent trip to Korea where I got to be a part of the ASEAN Next-Generation Leaders Visit — a symbolic coming together of the 10 member states of the ASEAN by way of representatives from both the government and the media — that was hosted by the Korea Foundation.
Between the presentations about Korean unification, diplomacy, economy, and sustainability and history lessons from museum visits, having a firsthand experience of Korean culture is what excited me the most. Imagine: watching a live performance and getting to touch the material of the costumes right after, being in the filming location of that dramatic scene in that particular movie you loved so much, and asking people questions about their outfits instead of just pinning their #ootds on Pinterest.
I admit my bias towards the hallyu segments of the week-long trip was a combination of my love for the arts and my profession as a writer under the lifestyle section. But I, like many others, had always been intrigued by the global phenomenon that is the Korean wave: why is it so darn appealing and what viral thing is it going to come up with next?
It seems that these days, political and economic strength are hardly the only things that give a nation power. There is no doubt that technology has a major role in spreading and sustaining the interest in all things Korean but a greater depth of understanding of her soft power — why she has a strong influence on her surrounding nations and what others can learn from her — can only come from firsthand experience.
Beauty and Fashion
Whether it’s how they effortlessy mix and match clothing or how supple their skin is, Koreans will definitely get you to do a double take. Not in a creepy stalker way but either out of envy or aspiration. While they won’t admit to having any beauty secrets, most would say that diet (vegetables, less meat, and drinking tea) is most likely a major key for good skin and well-being. The easy access to great skin and beauty products help too. The items I’m used to seeing on YouTube beauty tutorials were finally at arm’s reach and my morning ritual was never the same again. For a moment, I even thought about hoarding enough products to do a review on: is this the beginning of my vlogging career?
Meanwhile, a quick train ride got us to Dongdaemun market, the one shopping area that should be in every visitor’s itinerary. Majority of the stores in the area operates til 4 a.m., others are even open for 24 hours, so there’s really no excuse to miss out on this pop culture gold mine. It doesn’t even matter if you’re there to shop or not (though I highly recommend that you do since the items are cheaper compared to other areas). The energy on its own is contagious: K-pop songs are blasting on the speakers along the streets, the smell of street food fresh from the wok is enticing, and the people are very vibrant. It makes for a pretty good spot for people watching too after a good haul, but only if the weather allows.
In between looking inside the stores and bumping into Korean style pegs IRL along the way, I couldn’t help but take notes; it was a rare chance to be schooled in style and I didn’t need to look further than the lady beside me by the bus stop. When you have the entire city as a Pinterest mood board, it’s really quite hard not to develop a style. There seems to be an ecosystem, one where creation and inspiration thrives, and that’s one of the things that helped strengthen the sense of identity of the people in South Korea
You got served: The Korea Foundation also hosted a traditional Korean feast on the first day of the tour.
Click and snap: This booth in the Cultural Creation & Convergence Belt allows you to have a photo with your favorite K-stars.
Kitchen wars: Some of the ingredients traditionally used in Korean cuisine.
Meet and greet with the cast of Youll after the show.
Healthy habit: Green tea farm in Jeju Island.
Street style: Teenagers wearing hanbok, the traditional korean dress.
At the heart of hallyu lies the Korean entertainment industry. I admit I’m not as familiar with K-pop as much as most of my peers, if only because of the language barrier. But that doesn’t seem to bother the great number of Filipinos fans who learn choreography through YouTube and flock to malls and concert grounds when their favorite acts go on tour. How could they when there are a lot of other things to focus on in a K-pop performance (see: the costumes, their outrageously tiny waist, their dancing, and even their non-aging faces)? Others can even argue that the appeal of K-pop is more visual than auditory so the language doesn’t even matter that much. K-pop performances have been known for having a consistently amazing production value, a feat only a few in the music industry all over the world has come to concur. And while I wasn’t able to catch a K-pop concert during my short stay in Korea, I did however get to watch a modern-traditional theater performance entitled Youll. The plot is simple — good vs. evil — but it was made exceptional by the seamless coming together of modern light and sound design, almost similar to what a K-pop performance would be like.
There’s also the Korean dramas and films that have probably triggered the obsession of most people with all things Korean. With a charm and chemistry so palpable, even completing the 4th rerun is never enough for a true K-drama fanatic. While a visit to South Korea won’t guarantee you a chance to meet your favorite Korean star, K-drama tourism has become a thing to satisfy the fangirls in all of us. (Come on, you’ve seen Coffee Prince too.) From palaces to coffee shops to tourist attractions like Seopjikoji Hill, these filming site visits have given the fans the next best thing to a hug: a sort of behind-the-scenes exclusive that ultimately seals the deal for fandom nirvana.
A great deal of the success of hallyu lies in the quality of the experience it gives the person consuming Korean media. It’s not just about giving them something to listen to or watch but keeping them engaged in a unique kind of storytelling that makes a lasting impact. And if there’s anything we can learn from this, it’s to value and maximize that connection.
While the growing abundance of Korean restaurants in the Philippines has given us a taste of their heavily seasoned cuisine, there’s more to appreciate about Korean food than its pickled cabbage and grilled meat. The K-Style Hub located at the third floor of the Cultural Creation & Convergence Belt (CEL Center) in Jung-gu, Seoul is an integrated exhibit that focuses on hansik or the Korean food experience. A typical Korean meal often includes steamed rice, soup, and two to three side dishes — mostly an assortment of vegetables. Before going on a food trip, take the opportunity to get to know the traditional process of fermenting that produces meal staples like kimchi (pickled cabbage) and gochujang (red chili paste). Since some of the ingredients that go into the preparation of most dishes are not easily distinguishable (very important if you have allergies!), there is a special part in the exhibit dedicated to it.
I also found my way to the island of Jeju where the rich volcanic soil has gifted the people some of the best produce in the country like sweet tangerines and green tea. These organic produce are even incorporated into other export items like the famous Jeju chocolates with organic fillings and beauty products by Innisfree. Another notable thing is the traditional Jeju woman divers who have been providing not just some of the freshest seafood you can order in restaurants but a livelihood for their matriarchal families as well.
Although food is probably one of the last things you’ll think about when it comes to the ever-growing Korean wave, the amount of international attention that Korean food has garnered is also notable. Although what we know of its cuisine is still quite traditional (and we love it that way!), it won’t be long before someone comes up with a modern twist to the dishes that will take Instagram by storm. Because if there’s anything that Koreans are good at, it’s being creative with what they are given.
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For more information on the programs offered by the Korea Foundation, visit http://en.kf.or.kr/