Finding Care in Korea: Korean Media Consumption as Urban Self-Care

Image generated by Craiyon, based on comments from the research participants.
Faye Mercier explores how first-time visitors to Seoul use South Korean film and television as sources of “self-care,” and highlights the tensions between the material experience of the city and its mediated imaginaries.
[Ed. note: this article is part of a dossier on Caring Cities.]

This article explores how foreign visitors in South Korea draw on their experiences with Korean media to negotiate the (dis)juncture of Korea as both an “imagined” and a “real” place. It is inspired by my own experiences as a first-time visitor to Korea, during which time I regularly drew on imaginaries of Korea that had been constructed through media exposure to find reassurance and comfort in the un/familiar urbanity of Seoul. Although I am an avid consumer of Korean media and a student of Korean language and culture, this knowledge only offered limited urban competencies. As a foreigner travelling alone in Korea, it was difficult to tap into community embedded forms of care, particularly as my time there was brief. Using my media-based imaginaries of Korea as a means of connecting to and rooting myself in the urban reality of Seoul became an act of urban self-care, ensuring my comfort and well-being while navigating a new and unknown locale.

My definition of care here is based on that of the Care Collective, who, in their Care Manifesto, outline a critical approach to care that addresses the intertwined political, social, and economic realities of our times.1Andreas Chatzidakis, Jamie Hakim, Jo Littler, Catherine Rottenberg, and Lynne Segal, The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence (London: Verso Books, 2020). They define care as the “social capacity and activity involving the nurturing of all that is necessary for the welfare and flourishing of life,” emphasising the interdependency that is essential to fostering a caring and supportive environment for all.2Ibid., 15. Drawing on conversations with three acquaintances who had all recently visited Korea for the first time, this article sets out to explore the role of popular media production in shaping our understandings of foreign countries and cultures, and asks whether media have a place in rendering the un/familiar city a caring space.3All participants consented to their involvement in this research. As I shall demonstrate, these visitors used their mediated imaginaries of Korean life to curate a certain vision of Korea as a caring place, one that allowed them to feel closer to a foreign culture for which they had much affinity. Crucial to this process was an understanding of Korean urban life through the lens of community-based activities.

What’s Care Got To Do With It?

Why this preoccupation with care in the un/familiar urban setting? What need is there for a renewed exploration of self-care and why must this be tied to the city? The answer lies in the coalescence of neoliberal discourses of the self and the effects of neoliberal economic policies on urban life. As the authors of the Care Manifesto put it, neoliberalism is “uncaring by design,” with market-driven policies undermining the centrality of care in our everyday lives by foregrounding “profits, growth and international competitiveness.”4Ibid., 22-23. These hostile and uncaring neoliberal logics infiltrate our lives in multiple ways, shaping both the macro and micro details of activities. The city has become an particularly important space for processes of neoliberalisation as they house the private and state institutions that are at the heart of neoliberal tensions.5Ibid. As core sites where the tensions of neoliberalisation are negotiated, contemporary cities find themselves embodying contradictory positions, being “devolved” of responsibility towards citizens while struggling to address “diminished urban capacities.”6Ibid., 24. Cities no longer have the ability or capacity to prioritise their citizens over market interests, when  citizens must navigate a city that no longer meets their needs.

However, if the neoliberal city lacks care, it places this burden of wellbeing on individuals. As the Care Collective demonstrate, the burgeoning emphasis on “self-care” is, in fact, a sign of the deeper penetration of market logics into the minutiae of our daily lives.7Chatzidakis et al. The Care Manifesto, 25. By placing the burden of care on the self, the significance of communal and socially entrenched forms of care is undermined. As Lizzie Ward demonstrates, the notion of “self-care,” and its alleged association with “empowerment,” have been used to justify the dismantling of public welfare services that support traditional collective forms of care.8Lizzie Ward, “Caring for Ourselves?: Self-Care and Neoliberalism,” in Ethics of Care, 1st Edition., 45-56. (Bristol: Policy Press, 2015): 45-46. In this way, the practice of looking after ourselves has not only been commodified and commercialised, but it has also become the primary discourse on care. However, as Ward equally reveals, self-care has not always been tied to neoliberal logics of self-actualisation. The history of self-help is, in fact, tied to collectivist efforts to rethink care in response to the failure of institutions in addressing the needs of patients. Self-help hinges on seeking out advice from one’s community, and is a deeply political act in that it seeks to restructure patriarchal care hierarchies.9Ibid. Self-care, then, needn’t be seen as an individualistic act; looking after oneself can begin by rooting oneself in community-oriented forms of care. Rendering the neoliberal city a caring place also means placing community at the centre of urban life.

With this in mind, this article aims to trace how mediated imaginaries of Korean urbanity affect the experience of Korea as a real place for first time visitors. More specifically, this article hopes to provide an insight into the ways in which media shape the foreigner’s urban gaze beyond typical touristic visions. While these visitors may not gain a full understanding of Korean society, by drawing on their mediated understandings of Korean urban and communal life visitors can imagine themselves as a part of Korean communal life. Using familiar scenes and experiences that they have seen on television, film, and social media, these visitors can momentarily anchor themselves in Korean social life; by seeing themselves as part of a larger community, they can construct a sense of care and comfort for themselves. At the same time, it is worth noting that these visitors are actively seeking out a potentially uncomfortable or confrontational experience. Unlike migrant workers or displaced persons for whom navigating the un/familiar city is a necessity, these tourists are in the already comfortable position of having the means to seek out new experiences and take pleasure in exploring the unknown. In this sense, the care that they curate for themselves using mediated imaginaries is one unique to the privileged tourist.

That said, by exploring how these first-time visitors imagine Korea as a caring place, we can better analyse how mediated imaginaries shape perspectives on countries and cultures different to our own. Drawing on conversations with three acquaintances who had all recently visited Korea for the first time, this article sets out to explore how popular media production coincides with social imaginaries of the un/familiar through the prism of care. Through collective conversations around our mediated expectations of Korea and the realities we faced in navigating cities like Seoul, the next section will reveal how drawing on mediated imaginaries of mundane communal life in Korea provided these first-time visitors with both a sense of place and a source of comfort during their travels. This comfort, however, was very much shaped by their prior knowledge and understanding of Korean culture and society. In this way, these visitors were seeking an experience beyond that of the usual tourist, hoping to embed themselves in a culture they had long admired. Imagining Korea as a caring space allowed them to inch ever closer to this familiar yet distant community.

Imagining Seoul: Imagining Care

The conversations that form the basis of this article were conducted with three different women living in Amsterdam. Although based in The Netherlands, the women were Polish, Italian, and Peruvian-Slovakian respectively. Their ages ranged from their late twenties to mid-thirties. All three women were also actively studying the Korean language at the time of their visits. Each of the women regularly consumed Korean-related media, ranging from television and film to social media content focused on Korea. Interestingly, when it came to engaging with social media content related to Korean life, most of the respondents mentioned following accounts run by foreigners living in Korea. Rather than seek out the perspectives and tips of local Koreans, the respondents instead sought out content from individuals from their respective countries who were now living in Korea:

There are a couple of Italian YouTubers [living in Korea], who are not my generation, but they are quite funny so I just follow them. (Erica, Italian)

The Polish YouTubers, for example, one of them actually studied Korean in Poland and so she has more of the academic knowledge, more like the sociological point of view. And she does analyses of people, like she analyzes people based on tv shows and tries to explain why Korean people behave in a specific. The other one walks through the store with a camera and shows you like her daily life. (Joanna, Polish)

For both practical information and glimpses into daily Korean life the respondents did not look for “authentic” Korean perspectives, but instead gravitated towards an outsider view of Korea. While these YouTubers live in Korea and know how to navigate the country, their content hinges on the “foreigner in Korea” label, acting as intermediaries between foreign viewers and Korean culture. By relying on these foreign YouTubers for guidance, the respondents were actively aligning themselves with an outsider’s experience and understanding of Korea. In this way, the respondents did not attempt to gain an intuitive or local understanding of Korea, but instead used the insight of knowledgeable foreigners to prepare them for their travels.

Although in this more explicit sense the respondents did not try to “act like locals,” their discussions of Korean drama viewership revealed a more implicit attempt to root themselves in Korean society during their trips. All three women had previously watched Korean dramas (K-Dramas) with varying degrees of regularity and credited these Korean television series with providing them with an understanding of Korean cultural norms and social behaviours:

I felt privileged by knowing what certain things are like. For example, [knowing] how buses look, you know? Or how to read the names of train stations. […] You know, like how to call things. How to order things. Not that I drink coffee, but knowing how to order it, what it’s called, what’s right. These kinds of things. (Joanna, Polish)

I don’t know, I had some idea about how, say, convenience stores work, even though it was my first time being to like an Asian convenience store. (Ana, Peruvian-Slovakian)

Overall, just the way to interact with people. For example, you know that Koreans are very respectful to their elders; that’s also something that you can always see in K-Dramas. And you really do see it also in real life, like people are super polite. As soon as elderly person comes onto the public transport and all the seats are taken, the youngsters will just jump off their seats and let them sit. So, these kinds of little, I don’t know, traces of culture that are really familiar [from K-Dramas] (Ana, Peruvian-Slovakian)

These “traces of culture” are aptly named: they follow visitors from the media they consume through to their time spent in Korea, essentially tracing their mediated imaginaries of Korean life onto their lived experiences. While the role of media in shaping the tourist gaze has been well-documented, these discussions mostly focus on how televisual representations are used to construct the tourism experience at a more formal level, such as organised tours or national branding strategies.10Harvey Perkins and Davis Thorns, “Gazing or Performing? Reflections on Urry’s Tourist Gaze in the Context of Contemporary Experience in the Antipodes,” International Sociology 16. no. 2 (2001): 185–204; John Urry, The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies (London: Sage Publications, 1990). Although these women did also discuss how K-Dramas shaped a touristic gaze during their visits to Korea, noting that they visited locations typically seen in K-Drama productions, what we see here is a more mundane and socially oriented gaze that is rooted less in tourism and more in notions of understanding and belonging. Indeed, when asked about moments when they felt comforted or at ease during their travels, each of the respondents brought up interactions with locals that echoed their understandings of Korean communal life. In particular, each of the women noted interactions with elderly Korean individuals that echoed what they had seen in Korean media:

[…] the lady from Airbnb like she didn’t speak a word of English […] but she was the nicest grandma or auntie. She took care of me […]; she cooked all the meals for me for three days, she drove me places because the village didn’t have any buses, she took me to a museum and to a temple. She almost cried when I was leaving […] so that was kind of like what you see in the in the movies, you know? This like grandma somewhere in the village that was kind of like… I didn’t expect to have that experience as a as a foreigner. (Joanna, Polish)

[When] living there we had a routine: so we knew the neighbours. We would go walking in the morning and we always meet a couple of old people who were exercising at the public gym in the playground. They love their gym playground! And every morning we would chat a bit with our elderly landlord and he would give us sweets and we would give him energy drinks. (Erica, Italian)

I guess I was surprised by the number of older people I saw. Because, I know it has an aging population, but […] when I saw them there were so many classic halmeoni (힐머니, grandma or elderly Korean woman), like halmeoni you see in a K-Drama. I really thought, ‘oh this is really Korea,’ you know what I mean? It was how I had it stereotyped in my head. These moments were a bit funny because I always had thought the halmeoni represented in K-Dramas were a sort of caricature, but they’re not! It’s really the real image: the permed hair and the sun visor and the sunglasses, and they also walk so fast. I was really impressed. And also these exercising places. I don’t know if you got the chance to see them, […] but they have these outdoor exercising spaces, like little gyms. I really loved the concept ,and I loved how many elderly people were training really hard on those little gyms. (Ana, Peruvian-Slovakian)

For each of these women, interactions and relationships with elderly Korean individuals were a key source of both realisation and comfort during their travels. K-Dramas are often noted for their distinctive representation of Korean family and community life, where storylines focus not just on individual struggles but also demonstrate how familial and Confucian concerns also shape individual life in modern Korea.11Kim Youna, “Korean Wave Pop Culture in the Global Internet Age: Why Popular? Why Now?” in The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, ed. Youna Kim (London: Taylor & Francis, 2013). K-Dramas often focus on elderly women, whose affective labour is typically shown keeping the family or community together.12Nagayama Chikako, “Women’s Desire, Heterosexual Norms and Transnational Feminism: Kitahara Minori’s Good-bye Hallyu, Asia-Pacific Journal 14, no. 7 (2016): 1–13. By drawing on this knowledge to interpret their own experiences in Korea, these women can briefly imagine themselves as a part of, or at least tangentially related to, the communities that are propped up by these elderly citizens. In doing so, they are better able to imagine their own position in relation to a broader Korean society. Moreover, by noting how these elderly individuals occupy public space, specifically outdoor gyms, this (imagined) understanding of community also extends to an understanding of urban space. These public gyms are seen through a lens of community and care that has been shaped by televisual constructions of Korean life.

This focus on mundane experiences is reminiscent of Raymond Williams’s “structures of feeling,” in that these women are tapping into an ongoing social experience that is shaped by “meanings and values that are actively lived and felt” in Korean society.13Raymond Williams, “Structures of Feeling,” in Structures of Feeling: Affectivity and the Study of Culture, eds. Devika Sharma and Frederik Tygstrup (Berlin, Boston, MA: De Gruyter, 2015), 25. Rather than be led by a tourist gaze, in these moments these women found themselves led by a kind of gaze of feeling, one that struck them on an affective level. This gaze of feeling saw them interpret their various experiences through the affective symbolism of K-Damas. As Ju Hyejung demonstrates, “affective affinity” allows transnational fans to find meaning and representation in K-Dramas through affective connections despite cultural differences or geographical distance.14Ju, Hyejung, “Korean TV Drama Viewership on Netflix: Transcultural Affection, Romance, and Identities,” Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 13, no. 1 (2020): 40. While Ju is focused on the affective implications of K-Drama viewership, this initial affective affinity can become an affective gaze when transplanted to situated Korean experiences.15Ibid. Most notably, this gaze of feeling is used to interpret Korean urban life in a way that allows these travellers to rationalise their own position in Korea, using emotion and affect as a means of temporarily rooting themselves in visions of Korean society.

Interestingly, the respondents often used K-Dramas to make sense of their experiences and interactions in Korea even when those interactions did not align with the typically romanticised visions of Korean life for which K-Dramas are known. K-Dramas have long served as an important tool for Korean cultural diplomacy, presenting an idealised vision of contemporary Korean life for foreign consumption.16Mary J. Ainslee, “Korean Soft Masculinity vs. Malay Hegemony: Malaysian Masculinity and Hallyu Fandom,” Korea Observer 48, no. 3 (2017): 609­–638; Jo Ji-Yeon O, “Korean Dramas, Circulation of Affect and Digital Assemblages,” in The Soft Power of the Korean Wave: Parasite, BTS and Drama, ed. Youna Kim (London: Routledge, 2021). While this idealisation is tied to various aspects of Korean life, from food to fashion to cosmetics, the representation of romance in K-Dramas is a primary means through which foreign viewers foster romantic visions of Korean life.17Lee Min Joo, The Rise of K-Dramas: Essays on Korean Television and Its Global Consumption, ed. Park Jae Yoon and Ann-Gee Lee, 26-46 (North Carolina: McFarland, 2019); Lee Min Joo, “Touring the Land of Romance: Transnational Korean Television Drama Consumption from Online Desires to Offline Intimacy,” Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change 18, no. 1 (2020): 67–80. As Lee Min Joo notes, representations of dating and romance in K-Dramas have led to an increase in “romance tourism” to Korea that is typically fuelled by the depiction of Korean men as idealised romantic subjects.18Lee, “Touring the Land of Romance.” The respondents were keenly aware of this trend, and while they acknowledged that K-Dramas present an unrealistic image of Korean life, they nevertheless used this romantic lens to interpret specific interactions with local Koreans:

I didn’t go for romantic purposes, but I did get that feeling. I have a one-on-one teacher, and he brought me out for dinner. It wasn’t romantic, because he’s in a relationship, but the feeling was still sort of what you would expect in a drama. He gave me a present, he was guiding me away from traffic, and he took me to eat in the restaurant where they grill the fish in front of you, and he was taking out pieces and giving them to me. It was very sweet, and I didn’t expect it. You know, you know that K-Dramas probably exaggerated reality, but I had these moments where I was surprised to see that things were like a K-Drama. (Erica, Italian)

Although keenly aware that the expectations set by K-Dramas are unrealistic, this respondent still uses this romantic idealisation of Korean life to describe her dinner with her Korean teacher. The nature of their relationship is platonic, and she makes it clear that there is no reason to suspect any romantic intentions. And yet, by drawing on these romantic connotations she can position herself more clearly within imaginaries of Korean life, no matter how unrealistic they may be. In this way, the respondent aims to hold on to certain fantasies of Korea, bringing them to life through her experiences even if they contrast with the reality of Korean society as a whole.

By using the comfort of idealised media imagery to make sense of certain experiences, no matter how unrealistic, these respondents were able to root themselves in Korean life momentarily. Even though each of the respondents recommended not using K-Dramas to set expectations for travelling to Korea, they each regularly drew on K-Drama imagery to explain or rationalise encounters and experiences, demonstrating the comfort and familiarity of media imaginaries:

This halmeoni just came and grabbed me by the wrist, which is just like you see in K-Dramas people grabbing you by the wrist to help. (Ana, Peruvian-Slovakian)

This could also be a K-Drama moment: one evening a friend and I were out in Itaewon and two businessmen approached us and starting chatting to us and offered us dinner. (Erica, Italian)

If self-care needn’t be an individualistic act, then finding a means to root oneself in a sense of community, even if that community is based on imaginaries, can also function as a form of caring for the self in an unfamiliar urban locale. By using an affective gaze of feeling to navigate their surroundings the respondents were able to rationalise and understand their position in relation to a broader Korean society and an unfamiliar urban landscape. Although the respondents were quick to clarify that they did not expect to live out a K-Drama fantasy during their respective trips, they each still drew on affective imaginaries of Korea to root themselves in this un/familiar place. Evidently, media imaginaries can play a significant role in both sense- and place-making practices.

Conclusion

By focusing on activities and interactions as they take place in urban spaces the respondents could imagine themselves as part of a larger Korean society, giving sense to the urban environment around them. If the neoliberal city is rendered caring through local community interactions, then for the foreign visitor imagining themselves as a part of this community can also forge a comforting understanding of the Korean city. Mediated imaginaries of place, space, and community are then crucial to this process, as they allow visitors to construct an affective gaze that can be used to orient themselves in the midst of new urban interactions. While this gaze of feeling cannot completely negate the realities of a hostile neoliberal city, it is a step towards a practice of urban self-care that can subvert an unwelcoming built environment through the imagination of a more caring communal life. That said, it is important to stress that this access to care and community remains imaginary for these visitors. They do not gain any significant access to Korean society and remain outsiders. Moreover, access to this form of imaginative self-care is limited to those with the resources and time to travel recreationally to experience foreign cultures.    I recognise that this study has its limitations, in particular the small number of respondents interviewed. Despite this, it offers a useful framework for future studies on the role of media in shaping perspectives on foreign countries and cultures, particularly where mediated imaginaries meet real exposure and experience. Using care as a lens to understand these relationships, it is clear that media can be used to curate an understanding of the foreign that allows one to feel embedded in another culture, even if that embeddedness is imaginary. Crucially, this specific form of imaginative self-care recognises the important role of communities in rendering spaces accessible and hospitable. With this in mind, this article also supposes that a gaze of feeling is a constructive means through which visitors can mobilise their media imaginaries to make sense of un/familiar surroundings. By seeking out affective resonances of community and care during their visits, they could construct for themselves an experience of Korea that satisfied their mediated imaginaries of the country, while still leaving room to challenge or expand on these expectations. Mediated imaginaries, then, provided safety and comfort during a period of exploration and learning.

Notes

Notes
1 Andreas Chatzidakis, Jamie Hakim, Jo Littler, Catherine Rottenberg, and Lynne Segal, The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence (London: Verso Books, 2020).
2 Ibid., 15.
3 All participants consented to their involvement in this research.
4 Ibid., 22-23.
5, 9, 15 Ibid.
6 Ibid., 24.
7 Chatzidakis et al. The Care Manifesto, 25
8 Lizzie Ward, “Caring for Ourselves?: Self-Care and Neoliberalism,” in Ethics of Care, 1st Edition., 45-56. (Bristol: Policy Press, 2015): 45-46.
10 Harvey Perkins and Davis Thorns, “Gazing or Performing? Reflections on Urry’s Tourist Gaze in the Context of Contemporary Experience in the Antipodes,” International Sociology 16. no. 2 (2001): 185–204; John Urry, The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies (London: Sage Publications, 1990).
11 Kim Youna, “Korean Wave Pop Culture in the Global Internet Age: Why Popular? Why Now?” in The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, ed. Youna Kim (London: Taylor & Francis, 2013).
12 Nagayama Chikako, “Women’s Desire, Heterosexual Norms and Transnational Feminism: Kitahara Minori’s Good-bye Hallyu, Asia-Pacific Journal 14, no. 7 (2016): 1–13.
13 Raymond Williams, “Structures of Feeling,” in Structures of Feeling: Affectivity and the Study of Culture, eds. Devika Sharma and Frederik Tygstrup (Berlin, Boston, MA: De Gruyter, 2015), 25.
14 Ju, Hyejung, “Korean TV Drama Viewership on Netflix: Transcultural Affection, Romance, and Identities,” Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 13, no. 1 (2020): 40.
16 Mary J. Ainslee, “Korean Soft Masculinity vs. Malay Hegemony: Malaysian Masculinity and Hallyu Fandom,” Korea Observer 48, no. 3 (2017): 609­–638; Jo Ji-Yeon O, “Korean Dramas, Circulation of Affect and Digital Assemblages,” in The Soft Power of the Korean Wave: Parasite, BTS and Drama, ed. Youna Kim (London: Routledge, 2021).
17 Lee Min Joo, The Rise of K-Dramas: Essays on Korean Television and Its Global Consumption, ed. Park Jae Yoon and Ann-Gee Lee, 26-46 (North Carolina: McFarland, 2019); Lee Min Joo, “Touring the Land of Romance: Transnational Korean Television Drama Consumption from Online Desires to Offline Intimacy,” Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change 18, no. 1 (2020): 67–80.
18 Lee, “Touring the Land of Romance.”
Mercier, Faye. "Finding Care in Korea: Korean Media Consumption as Urban Self-Care." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 2 (June 2023)
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.