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This seems to be a thorough explanation:

Posted by not one | December 19, 2006 1:19 PM

That's it? I still don't get it. Since when do Korean cops—any cops—give a crap about the anxieties of middle-aged women?

Posted by Brendan Kiley | December 19, 2006 1:57 PM

At least they were in Korea and not Singapore.

Posted by elswinger | December 19, 2006 1:59 PM

The pain of this particular racist caricature is that it is a figure that should be familiar and known to any Korean-- the ajumma is often our own mother or grandmother. At times she may be cheap, loud, and a generally abrasive battleaxe of a woman-- but she is a well loved one. Ajummas, at least in my family-- worked tirelessly to keep my family safe, fed and secure through the Korean war, numerous immigrations and in transition to life in the U.S.

I could spend a great deal more time getting into the specifics, but my point is that people who have not known the strength and devotion of such a woman really have no business mocking one-- they can only express their own racialized exasperation/ignorance as an attempt at comedy.

For the record, I think that the Korean police are overreacting. And without specific information about their act, I can only dismiss it in the abstract.

For a classic example of the "ajumma" character, you might refer (painfully) to MadTV. There's a recurring character (played by a white actress,) a cheap old asian woman who is often inscrutable and violently demanding/assertive. In addition to that age-old racist charicature, MadTV mixed it up with a lot of "rappin' Granny" style hilarity.

Posted by christopher hong | December 19, 2006 2:30 PM

The short, dissertation free answer: Korea is a society where issues such as what is taboo, pornography, and the profane have their standards set by the aged and not youths. Even the 50 year olds are too young to be trusted with the social policy. By aged I mean the senior most citizens... think about how old the Chinese leadership tends to be (as opposed to the US leadership) and you are on the right line of thinking. To get on the "Ajumma" track, think of the group as having the chutzpah of the US "Soccer Mom" stereotype, combined with real political clout of the AARP or even the "Grey Panthers". Also, for those of religious bent, this society holds that the older you are by the time you die, the more special powers you get when you die. You get to do good things for your family (such as those who wash your tombstone regularly) and send down curses on those who did not listen and respect the old person while they were alive or speak smack about them when they are dead. There are a lot of religious people in that country.

OH, that, and maybe they were arrested for the fact that it is a country which, kind of like certain places in the US, does not cotton to outsiders coming around, breaking immigration visas, earning money which is in effect “under-the-table” and trampling on the communities' morals, morays and taboos to boot. As the saying goes: they are a long way from home.

Posted by Phenics | December 19, 2006 2:56 PM

Are we sure this isn't just rampant anti-Americanism?

Posted by Fnarf | December 19, 2006 3:29 PM

Titling a performance "Oriental Story" is about as offensive as KKKramer screaming "Nigger!" at the top of his lungs. Who the fuck still uses that word? And why is ramen still Oriental-flavored? Do I taste like ramen? So many unanswerable questions.

I feel for these teachers, because I think their intentions were mostly good (for a laugh), but I wonder how much they understand about Korean culture. The country was under a military dictatorship for decades and has issues with North-South spying; of COURSE you should be careful with what you say. There's a fucking war going on, for Christ's sake.

In defense of Piece of Meat, it's useful to remember that the cultural insensitivity between east and west goes both ways. A few years back, a Korean pop group called the Bubble Sisters caused an uproar by performing in blackface, cornrows and huge fake lips. (The Japanese did same quite recently; I remember seeing a blackface doo-wop group on TV around 2000, when I was living in Tokyo. Also, the Japanese eat horse meat, an unpleasant fact I learned first-hand...) And my old man has stories about Korea in the early '80s, when his black roommate was regularly accosted in the street by men and women who rubbed his skin to see if the color came off.

There's also the stereotype of mixed-blood Koreans being weaker than pure-bloods, an argument that, if detailed, sounds like a Harry-Potter-vs-Voldemort conflict.

As for the ajummas, Seattleites have probably seen an ajumma or two sometime in their lives. One can walk around the Alderwood Mall or Paldo World in Lynnwood and spot plenty of unfortunate perms and bad dye jobs. My mother is an inordinately well-groomed woman in her late forties, and she's told me repeatedly that she'd rather preserve her looks than lose face. It's not specific to the culture; everyone fears age. Shit, look at Joan Rivers. Her face is tighter than Ricky Martin's ass.

I don't think it's anti-Americanism. It's the government flexing their might. But shit, they may as well do it before the next massive corruption scandal brings down the government and sends the bigwigs flying off highrise rooftops.

Posted by B | December 19, 2006 3:40 PM

Plus, Korea is a very honor-based society, where respect for your elders is not just expected, but practically mandatory (even the words you use change when talking to an elder). So a bunch of Americans coming in and ridiculing the elders in the society probably didn't go over too well with those with the power to give them a swift spanking - ie, the police.

Posted by him | December 19, 2006 4:02 PM

How is "oriental" offensive? It just means eastern? I've never been offended by being called western or "occidental"...

Posted by Andrew | December 19, 2006 5:11 PM

Oh and Japanese don't just eat horse-meat, they eat RAW horse meat (bazashi) and it's fucking delicious with shochu.

Posted by Andrew | December 19, 2006 5:13 PM

And "nigger" just comes from the word meaning "black." Not nearly the same potency as "oriental", but there is some serious condescension there. It just sounds like you're describing a vase or a pack of noodles, not a person. It's a dated word.

Maybe not to you or others, but there's a significant number of people out there that find "oriental" either deeply offensive or at least demeaning.

Posted by Glora | December 19, 2006 5:18 PM

Can we remember that we're talking about police detention over a comedy show?

And this—Titling a performance "Oriental Story" is about as offensive as KKKramer screaming "Nigger!" at the top of his lungs—is insane.

American English teachers don't have a history of enslaving, then lynching, South Koreans.

Posted by Occidental | December 19, 2006 5:33 PM

"Oriental" is offensive because it refers to an entire history of thought (often academic and scholarly) devoted to devaluing Asians as human beings in relation to the "Occident." You're not offended because there is no parallel in the actual weight of significance each word carries. Further, "Oriental" is also a term that attempts to homogenize every Asian country into a single history of values, ethics, and culture.

Posted by christopher hong | December 19, 2006 6:16 PM

Ah, Mr. Hong has fallen under the spell of Mr. Said and condescends to learn us some theory.

Part one is pretty well accepted: "Oriental" is offensive because it refers to an entire history of thought (often academic and scholarly) devoted to devaluing Asians as human beings in relation to the "Occident.". (Academic andscholarly? My my.)

Part two, on the other hand, is hogwash: Further, "Oriental" is also a term that attempts to homogenize every Asian country into a single history of values, ethics, and culture. The Big O is a loose grouping of countries, not a homogenization—if it were that simple, we'd have to stop using "European" and "Middle Eastern" and all the other useful regional distinctions.

Posted by Occidental | December 19, 2006 6:29 PM

Forgive my redundancy, should I next clown on you for your failure to use periods properly? Yeesh.

As far as hogwash goes-- the word "Oriental" is not a regional distinction, it's a racialized notion of geography and people analagous to Aryan, Negro, etc. The word, "Asian" is the correct parallel to regional identifiers such as European, Middle Eastern, etc.

Posted by christopher hong | December 19, 2006 7:03 PM

There is also a difference between describing a large group of people as European, Middle Eastern, African or Asian and constantly calling all people from a region "Oriental" even if they are all clearly Korean, or Chinese for example.

I used to work in a place that served a lot of tourists. French tourists were called French, German called Germans - never European unless you were referring to a group of French and Germans. Thankfully most people I worked with called Korean tourists Koreans and Japanese tourists Japanese and so on. The only person I have ever met that calls people Oriental is my Grandma from Pittsburgh.

Posted by Lanik | December 19, 2006 7:49 PM

The term "ajumma" has been fully explained. But we didn't do an "ajumma show" as is inferred by some in the Korean press. We made two "ajumma" jokes in the course of the entire evening, and those were in passing.

And the name of the show was "Babo-Palooza," not "Oriental Story." The latter was an INVENTION OF THE KOREAN PRESS. The reporter evidently didn't know the name of our show, so he/she simply MADE IT UP. That's what passes for journalistic ethics in this country.

Posted by tharp | December 19, 2006 8:17 PM

American English teachers don't have a history of enslaving, then lynching, South Koreans.

Ah, yes, but we do have a history of running girls over with tanks and letting the drivers off the hook.

Also, the Oxford usage of the word "Oriental" per the definition:

The term Oriental, denoting a person from the Far East, is regarded as offensive by many Asians, esp. Asian Americans. It has many associations with European imperialism in Asia. Therefore, it has an out-of-date feel and tends to be associated with a rather offensive stereotype of the people and their customs as inscrutable and exotic. Asian and more specific terms such as East Asian, Chinese, and Japanese are preferred.

Like I said, I don't think Mr. Tharp and the rest of his crew meant to offend, but they did, period. Lesson learned.

Posted by B | December 20, 2006 6:30 PM

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