When I was living in Singapore, I was one of the few Korean expatriates. I moved to America in 2001, just as more and more Koreans started flooding in to Singapore.
It was also the time when the “Korean wave” (한류, or pronounced “Hallyu”) just started sweeping over Asia. Too bad I moved just before it hit Singapore. Otherwise, I could have gotten the star treatment thanks to my Han Guk brothers.
The “Korean wave” was apparently coined by some journalists in Beijing to describe the extraordinary influence of Korean culture and pop entertainment in China. It’s a disconcerting shock for the Chinese, who have for many centuries been the one impacting and controlling Korean culture.
I was talking about this with my buddies Jordan and Ellie yesterday. We think Koreans are the “black people” of Asians, as in they are a nation with incredible art and soul. Koreans have quite the expressive mannerisms and creativity, which is what made the Korean entertainment business so successful.
It’s a broad statement, but in the case of the “Korean wave” I think it’s similar to how African-American jazz and blues and hip hop dancing really carved the direction of America’s entertainment business.
To be honest though, I’m ambivalent towards this “Korean wave” phenomenon. I used to watch a lot of Korean dramas until I had to stop because they were kind of corrupting my mind.
First, I couldn’t stop comparing myself to those porcelain-skinned, big-eyed actresses and singers. Second, those sappy dramas gave me a very messed up idea of what a romantic relationship should be like. It also grated against my feminist ideologies, especially when I saw how the men in the dramas treated women.
Once I broke the addiction, I discovered other criticisms. For example, the basic plot is always the same: poor pretty girl meets rich dashing guy, fall in love, another sweet and handsome guy likes the girl, ohmigod love triangle boo-hoo-hoo but of course sweet girl likes bad boy and then everybody happy-happy. But most of all, I couldn’t stand people’s obsession over these perfect mannequin stars. Korean game shows, travel shows and other reality shows don’t feature regular people, but celebrities.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. The “Korean wave.”
One thing I do like about the “Korean wave” is that Korean food— a cuisine that was once ignored as the stinky grub of Asia— is becoming more and more popular all over the world, thanks in part to the hit TV series “Dae Jang Geum.”
Dae Jang Geum, or “Jewel in the Palace” (not a direct translation), is a 54-episode TV drama series about Jang Geum, a royal kitchen slave during Korea’s Chosun Dynasty (about 1500 AD) who later becomes the imperial physician. If you feel like getting soaked into a worthy TV series, you can watch it online with subtitles (Do it, do it, do it!).
It’s one of few Korean dramas I can proudly recommend to my friends because it’s so beautifully shot with well-written plots and dialogue that are interesting and realistic without getting too cheesy or incredulous. I also like that it is one of the more…decent (?) and conservative (?) program in Korea’s entertainment industry; the female characters aren’t ditzy cute-wannabes but are actually treated with well-deserved respect.
I guess that’s the image I’d rather have the world see of Korean culture. Unfortunately “Dae Jang Geum” is one of a kind.
Not everyone will share the same perspective as mine, but I think one negative image of Koreans portrayed by present-day dramas is that we are near-alcoholics. I’ve had people ask me, “Why do Koreans drink so much” after watching a drama. Every single drama I’ve seen has at least a bunch of drunk scenes, in which the characters will gulp down shot after shot of soju, and then stagger back home singing or cursing.
Okay, since I didn’t exactly grow up in Korea, I don’t know if it’s true that Koreans get wasted that often. But drinking is part of the culture, and that’s reflected in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, where almost half of the establishments here are pubs and nightclubs.
I’ve never been to a Koreatown pub. Actually, I’ve never really been to a pub, period. So when my dear buddy Jordan finally turned 21 on Saturday, we decided to visit one together to celebrate her coming to legal age.
After some research, I decided to take her to Bbuh Ggu Gi. And because we were two innocent Christian girls, we needed another person for moral support so I called Ellie as well.
It was the first time Ellie and Jordan got to meet, but they hit it off as I knew they would.
Now, we didn’t visit a Koreatown pub the “right” way. We went in broad daylight, wearing totally non-appropriate clothes (read: unsexy) and the whole time we were there, we talked mostly about Jesus Christ.
Bboh Ggu Gi has a unique theme.
It’s supposed to be a sool jib (“술집” or alcohol house) set in a much older period, possibly during the Chosun period like “Dae Jang Geum.” The walls are coated with clay like the old-fashioned houses, with paper windows.
Here’s the entrance to the quaint shack:
My apologies, but a lot of the pictures are gonna be in black-and-white or sepia because the lighting was just way off.
There were dim lanterns, wooden rails and pillars, straw thatches. I don’t really get the bats though. Perhaps an early Halloween decoration? Whatever it is, it gives this place a spooky ambience.
All the furniture was carved from polished wood, beautiful in a rustic and simple way. The posters of beautiful women with spaghetti straps broke the old world quality though.
Chosun Dynasty women most certainly did not look like that. Hmph.
A word about Korean sool jibs. From what I know based on Koreatown’s pubs, their menus are all pretty extensive.
You can choose from stews, appetizers, grilled meats and skewers to fried munchies and fresh fruits. Menu-wise I felt like this place was more of a restaurant than a pub, because the alcohol selection was limited.
I knew what I wanted. I wanted to try soju.
Soju (소주) is Korea’s native distilled drink. It is what vodka is to the Russians and what sake is to the Japanese. It’s our drink, and we are damn proud of it apparently.
Traditionally, it’s supposed to be distilled from rice; translated literally, it means “burned liquor.” I’m not sure if that’s still the case in most commercial soju’s. But they all share the same clear-colored and clean-tasting characteristic.
There are many varieties of soju in Korea, but Chamisul (참 이슬) is the most popular brand, so that’s what I ordered. I ordered the “Fresh” version, which is the milder kind at 19.5% alcohol content (the original has 20.1%). I also asked for lemonade to spruce up my soju, since I don’t like drinking alcohol for alcoholic tastes.
Now, there’s a specific way Koreans drink soju…at least from the way my relatives drink it, and the way I see it in Korean dramas. You fill up your shot glass, you down it in one gulp with your eyes closed, and then you release a deep, satisfying “Kkkkkkk!!!”
I tried in vain to find a YouTube video that best demonstrates this after-drink noise that you make, but this commercial was the best I could find. Take note of the “kkkk” sound they make after drinking, though their version is softer and uh, feminized.
Coincidentally, it also kind of demonstrates characteristics of Korean drama. I have a feeling some people might find it offensive.
Okay. Now it is my turn! My first soju shot!
I used one part lemonade, two parts soju to fill up my shot glass.
“Won shi-aah-tt!” (“One shot” in Konglish).
Big gulp. And then release all the liquid courage you ingested in one huge sigh:
Darn it. Some people make it look so cool; I just look plain stupid. Oh well. I stopped “kkkk”-ing after awhile and just sipped demurely like a lady.
I’m not an expert in alcoholic drinks, so the only thing I can say about soju is that it’s pretty much flavorless. It tastes like…alcohol. It lacks the complexity of Guinness or the oakiness of rum. It’s the kind of smooth, clean drink you want to gulp down easily for the sake of intoxication. The lemonade gave it a nice, citrusy, sweet kick though.
Jordan, meanwhile, backpedaled on her decision to order her first drink. She just got a can of 7-Up, which is like a virgin soju:
She said the reason she didn’t want to order her first alcoholic drink is because she’s still having trouble accepting the fact that she’s 21. “I’m so old now,” she wailed. I should have smacked her, because I’m turning 24 (!!!) in a month.
But Jordan’s one of those adorable people you can never get mad at, so I let her sip her 7-Up happily and pretend she’s still 20.
Ellie, meanwhile, is an extreme light-weight. She helped herself to a sip of my soju, and her whole face immediately flushed up. Since she has to drive back to OC after our sool jib date, she stuck to plain water:
We also ordered some anju:
Anju (안주) is Korean for the side dishes frequently accompanying alcoholic beverages. We got a plate of jwipo (“쥐포” or Korean dried fish filet jerky) and roasted peanuts.
With booze or not, I LOVE jwipo!!!! It is so chewy and so flavorful and it’s a snack I dearly missed.
While I mostly chomped on the jwipo, my two sool jib partners nibbled on the peanuts. Somehow plain ol’ peanuts taste better in a sool jib.
Since we were really early, we were the only customers at the time, which suited me just fine. The place blared a lot of K-pop music, and there were two flat-screen TVs broadcasting music videos of famous Korean singers like SNSD and…uh, some other bands. I don’t really keep track of Korean singers; they all look similar to me anyway.
Despite the fact that we were in a watered down pub in mid-afternoon discussing Christian stuff, I didn’t really get a positive vibe from the place. It’s just…not my thing. It’s not my scene at all, and the only reason I enjoyed myself there was because I had Jordan and Ellie with me. I did finish half a bottle of soju, but that was half to quench my curiosity, the other half to make my money worth it.
I don’t think I’ll be returning to a pub anytime soon. I’ll leave that to the Korean dramas. Me? I’m all talk and let out a mean “kkkkk” but the truth is, I just don’t belong in pubs.
Question of the Day: Have you heard of the “Korean wave?” Have you watched any Korean dramas?
P.S. Take a look at the YouTube video below…it’s a scene from “Dae Jang Geum” that made me super hungry!
I need to do a bit more research on Korean palace cuisine…