Thursday, June 09, 2011

"저는 '된장녀'입니다"

A few weeks ago, I saw the ad above on the subway. You can see it on lines 1 and 4, apparently. The ad, for those unfamiliar with the matter, is as clever as it is cute. It says "I am a dwainjangnyeo" (literally "soy bean paste girl", a meaningless translation).

The term is slang for a girl who lives an extravagant lifestyle, buying expensive lattes, cell phones, handbags and doing so on someone else's dime. It is, obviously, a pejorative term. What makes the ad so funny is that it uses the term literally, to refer to a girl who likes dwainjang, this time referring to dwainjang jjigae, a very popular and typical Korean dish.

The girl in the picture is a Vietnamese woman who married a Korean man, one of over 100,000 women from Southeast Asia who have married Korean men.

The ad says:

"I am a dwainjang girl.

She likes dwainjang jjigae and also makes it well, so her husband gave her this nickname.

At first she couldn't even handle the smell, but now she really loves it.

She loves her husband. And she loves Korea

Underneath it gives her name and says that she's from Vietnam, but it's not leigible in the picture I have.

An explanation below says:

"Did you know that the number of foreign residents in our country now exceeds the population of Ulsan?

These 1.3 million residents have become an important part of our society.

Every year, 30,000 immigrants come to our country. Let's work with them today for a brighter tomorrow.

Korea is a place where everyone grows together, that's why it's called Dae Han Min Guk.

A couple of notes: First, Ulsan is the 7th-biggest city in Korea. Second, the hook for tying together Korea's past and future into one nifty slogan is the sentence "그래서 大한민국입니다."

The character 大 means both 'big' or 'great', when used in Korea's official name it translates to Great Han People's Republic, but by emphasizing it in the ad, it turns the name into a big Han People's Republic, one big enough for all races.

Viewed in a purely positive light, modernity in Korea has been about two things. First, it has been about relentless change in just about every facet of life. Second, it has been about proving doubters wrong.

No one thought this was a country that could be anything other than a poor basket case. No one thought that this was a country that needed a highway, or that this was a country that needed a major highway; both Posco and the Gyeongbu Expressway were considered risky white elephants in their 60s.

No one then would have predicted at the time that this country would host the Olympics in 20 years, and while foreign labourers first came to Korea around the time of the Seoul Olympics, it would have been absurd to imagine Korea becoming a multicultural society, a buzzword that's all the rage this year. Google News returns 1,450 hits for multiculturalism (다문화), compared with 2,500 for unification (통일) and 479 for Dokdo.

You can even find op-ed pieces such as this one questioning the very idea of there being a pure Korean race and suggesting that this is an idea best left behind as Korea moves into a multicultural era. (I'm sure this isn't the first time such a piece has been written, but I think it would surprise English speakers, myself included, that someone would write that.)

Korea has its work cut out for it when it comes to addressing its non-Korean population. It's one thing to treat me badly: I'm an adult, don't plan to live here the rest of my life, and I don't have kids. Women who marry Korean men, however, will live here the rest of their lives, they tend to be Korean citizens and they will have kids who will be Korean citizens and attend Korean schools. This subway ad won't change the fact that a shockingly high portion (about 20%, I think) of mixed-race children don't even attend school, never mind how they perform at school, but it's certainly welcome to see a government-sponsored ad acknowledge and welcome non-Koreans as being a part of Korean society.

What's also interesting is the way the ad portrays the woman: she is reasonably light-skinned, well-dressed, and is someone who loves Korean food. The Korean model of multiculturalism is, here at least, a non-Korean who can act Korean. This is more multiracialism than multiculturalism, though I don't think many Koreans really have an objection to racial and ethnic minorities continuing to live the way they live.

Part of that comes from the extent to which Korea itself has been Westernized and globalized, and part of it comes from the reality that much of Korean culture is really accessible only to ethnic Koreans. As long as I live here and no matter how well I speak Korean, I will probably never make food to offer to ancestors at Chuseok to take one example. Rather than demanding complete assimilation, the problem in Korea is the demand for a certain level of separateness.


David S. Wills said...

Great post.

It's good to see Korea attempting to come to terms with its multiculturalism. I suspect it will be a difficult journey and I have no idea how successful it will be, but ads like this show at least that someone is trying to move the country in the right direction.

Gomushin Girl said...

One thing . . . a 된장녀 doesn't get her luxury items on somebody elses dime. I know it's a derisive term, but it emerges from the idea that some women will restrict their consumption in one area (in this case, the implication is that they eat cheap 된장찌개 every day instead of a regular lunch) in order to have more for luxury goods. People can mock her for where her priorities are, but she's not relying on other people to get what she wants.

Adeel said...

Wow, comments from two heavyweights (I'm not calling anyone fat).

Gomushin Girl, that's what I thought originally, just somebody whose priorities weren't in order, but then I read this Wikipedia article to the contrary.

I know, I know, that's what I get for relying on Wikipedia. Your etymology is much better than what Wikipedia gives, pronunciation shifts from 젠장 or 똥, so I'm inclined to side with you. Thanks.

David, multiculturalism in the form of liberalized immigration policies and greater acceptance of ethnic minorities is an idea that's about 40 years old in the West. If Korea is able to seem equitable by 2030 even, it will have done better than we did.

It will be a long road, absolutely, I agree, no doubt with setbacks along the way.

Alex said...

Appreciate the translation and seeing Korea proactive in being tolerant of other races