An old and a new world, searching for a way to live together

Just came back from a family trip in India. My first visit to the subcontinent. Granted, I am not that well-travelled, but it was nothing like any place I’d ever been to. The heat, the rain, the traffic, the constant honks, the bold colours and patterns of fabrics and jewels, the fruits and spices that I had never known existed, fresh flowers on head on no special occasion, …¬†sensory overload, I would summarise.

I managed to stay away from work email during those three weeks. This must be my record. You might think I was carrying on the new tradition that I created last year in Busan, but in fact, this time it wasn’t a result of conscious efforts. It just so happened that I was on a tourist visa, I didn’t have a local SIM, and it was unbelievably hot and humid that I couldn’t afford to be my usual self. My itinerary was also too packed anyway with meeting many relatives and neighbours, every one of whom wanted to feed and clothe me, by the way. ūüôā

One thing I couldn’t turn off though was my curiosity about how in different societies digital media gels with whatever is already there locally. I don’t mean so-called “glocalisation”; I am talking more about the organic processes of mutual shaping, which is my all-time and ultimate fascination. And I always prefer to use the verb ‘gel’ for that, instead of more conventional ‘intersect’ or ‘meet’, simply because I tend to¬†visualise internet technology in my head as some kind of Play-Doh. I felt almost vindicated when I came across Manuel Castells’s “The internet is a particularly malleable technology” (2001: 50), and Steve Jones’s “[doing internet research is] a lot like getting a grip on Jell-O” (1999: 12).

¬†(Speaking of localisation…)

Here are a few illustrative snapshots from the trip.

(A book I stumbled upon at home; (c) 1985)

(“Computers must be told what to do. They cannot think independently of their programming.”)

(“App-based taxi pick-up” at an airport)

(“Uber Zone” at an airport)

I was surprised to see how integral Uber and the likes were to everyday life. There were even apps for auto-rickshaws! No more hailing and no more negotiating.¬†As a friend half-jokingly said, technology did what the government couldn’t. In the meantime, some auto drivers have allegedly found a way to beat the algorithm; in order to exploit surge pricing, they agree to go off the grid simultaneously and come back online one by one, taking turn. My experience of app-based taxi rides in India was overall positive, so it¬†hit me extra hard when Jamie Bartlett’s documentary last Sunday showed the dark side of all this.

Museums were amazingly old-school. Perhaps I am just too used to shiny ones that are optimised for flocks of international tourists. There no AC, no English blurbs, no frills.

(“Complaint book is available with the duty clerk in the museum office”)

(“Camera Pass”, at 200 rupees, to be allowed to take pictures with smartphones inside the museum)

(P, our official guide, explaining the relationships between Hindu deities, using the analogy of instances of a class in Java)

(“World’s 1st 3D printed Durga idol”)

In this confusing world, you are my familiar.

A quick post to record an interesting conversation I had with a colleague, Alison, a few days ago. We were talking about how smartphones seemed to have lowered access barriers for older generations. She then shared this insightful observation that our smartphones are now like our familiars, as in His Dark Materials. I have come across mobile phones being likened to cigarettes and pets, but this one is an unbeatably fascinating addition to that list of analogies.

Process of elimination

I find it¬†harder and harder to stay engaged with elections, of which there is an abundance at the moment. Not only because of the bouts of the ‘what’s the point of all this‘ feeling, but rather because there really isn’t anyone that I can bring myself to support.

I then came across on Facebook this video clip of Yanis Varoufakis on today’s¬†French presidential election. The response in the comment box seems to be divisive, but I took some solace in it personally.

Vote for Macron, with the same energy and enthusiasm with which we are going to oppose him the day after he becomes President of France.

We ship you and we ship you hard.

More often than not, people ask me whether in Korea or here I feel more at home. This is a question that I don’t think I will ever have a definite answer for. In fact, throughout my life, both personally and professionally, I always find myself somewhere between two worlds.¬†On good days, I feel lucky that I am getting the best of both. On not-so-good days, I am reminded that I belong to neither.

I am also convinced that ‘bridging’ two worlds is what I do best. I am not sure which came first though. Do I get drawn to¬†such in-between positions because that’s where I shine, or have I become better¬†at it¬†out of necessity? Dunno, so I have jokingly concluded that that must be because I was born on a cusp.

In-betweenness, of course, doesn’t mean an exact half point. More of sliding back and forth, I maintain. That said, it has recently struck me that my behaviour is that of a complete outsider when it comes to consuming¬†Hallyu¬†products. I have discovered that it is *addictive* fun to hang out among international fans¬†of K-dramas. And the present post is to jot down¬†a few notes from this accidental ethnography.

# The content is available outside Korea almost in real time Рon video streaming sites such as Viki, but Korean TV stations upload soundbites one by one on their respective YouTube channels as the latest episodes are being aired within the country. No considerable time lag.

# Other important places include various social media platforms, particularly Instagram (where not only hashtags but also dedicated accounts newly emerge), and K-entertainment¬†news sites such as Soompi (where relevant news articles are translated into English and reposted – again in real time). I see this as a typical example of how an ethnographic place is now “dispersed across web platforms, is constantly in progress and changing, and implicates physical as well as digital localities” (Postill and Pink, 2012: 125).

# Most fans who frequent those places do not understand Korean, and many cry¬†for subtitles in the comment box under official YouTube clips, but in the end, the language doesn’t seem to be a barrier. There will always be some¬†form of crowd-subbing. More importantly, seasoned ones are already proficient in¬†the grammar of the genre.

# Related to the previous point, multiple interactions take place under each YouTube clip, and there is no one lingua franca. Sure, English does serve for that purpose to an extent, but only to an extent.

# So, we – and I say ‘we’ here consciously – don’t necessarily understand one another, but the bond is stronger than you’d imagine. Squealing and swooning together virtually while¬†the main couple develop¬†their romance is the core activity. Personally speaking, I find it even more fun than the drama itself! Reminds me of the participatory viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

# On whichever social media platform, several¬†stock phrases recur across comment sections, such as “I can’t even”, “My heart can’t take it”, “I died today”, “This couple is the end of me”, “So sweet that I will get diabetes just by watching them”, “Relationship goals”, “Where can I find a man who looks at me like he looks at her?”, “How can I move on from these two?”, “What am I going to do with my life until next week?”

# If the story unfolds as they have hoped, they thank the writer-nim and the PD-nim for listening to them. The ways in which K-dramas are produced and communicated through YouTube seem to create this impression that their wishful feedback has actually been accommodated.

# Shipping a couple is not specific¬†to K-dramas, but what seems to be unique is that viewers are clearly¬†conscious that it is a make-believe world. Instead, what’s important to them is ‘off-screen chemistry‘. They like seeing¬†the couple getting along well and enjoying themselves while filming romantic scenes. When they like what they see, they demand the behind-the-scene footage¬†of it, a.k.a.¬†BTS. It is a common practice that the production team doles it out, alongside the actual episode. To put it another way, the front and back of the house are no longer distinguishable.¬†It is like taking the experience to a ‘meta’ level, with a curious twist of reality TV. This was the most fascinating discovery.

# Overall, I find non-Korean fans to be¬†more expressive and more accepting. I hypothesise that they can afford to ‘bracket off’ the ugly social context surrounding those dramas. The industry’s cruel working conditions, sexism, and homophobia, to name a few.

Navigating life through screens

Little Sister One came to see me last month, and as she instructed, we did some serious touristy stuff.

Seeing the change of the Royal Guards at the Buckingham Palace turned out to be a particular challenge for us as we were not tall enough to stay afloat in the crowd. A group of middle-aged French women were also struggling like us, but then one shouted with joy to the others (if I may roughly translate): ‚ÄúOh, I can – I can see them through the screen of that young man!”

I found that moment amusing and also encapsulating. That is, it aptly encapsulated how everyday life is now experienced through multiple screens, regardless of whether one’s own or someone else’s, or whether switching between or using many simultaneously.

Speaking of screens, next month I will participate in the event Research Methods for Digital Work: Innovative Methods for Studying Distributed and Multimodal Working Practices at the University of Surrey. The work I will be presenting is titled The penumbra of academic work: A case study of #AcWriMo and scholarly writing as a second-screen experience. This is what I actually meant to share today, but I somehow side-tracked myself (again).

A provisional programme is telling me that I will be in great company. If anyone is interested, the registration page is here.

Greater than the sum of one’s many selves

Being an Asian woman living far away from her native land, I might have gained some experiential awareness of the ‘intersectionality‘ of identities, but to be frank it is only recently that I have started studying and reflecting seriously on the concept.

Once something registers in your mind, you realise you are in fact surrounded by it. There have been a few particularly memorable moments, personally.

# When¬†the South Korean presidential¬†candidate with the highest rating Moon (fashionably) declared himself a¬†feminist but refused to support an LGBT-related bill, an activist in the audience cried out: “I’m a woman and I’m homosexual. […] Can you¬†split my human rights into halves?

# danah boyd’s latest article¬†‘Failing to See, Fueling Hatred‘, which contains¬†the line:¬†“I grew up with identity politics, striving to make sense of intersectional politics and confused about what it meant to face oppression as a woman and privilege as a white person.

# Stand-up comedian¬†Cristela Alonzo‘s joke: “As a woman I wanted to break that glass ceiling, you know. But as a Mexican I want to clean that shit too.

# And then the very today. Conversations on Twitter around a sweet¬†viral video took a surreal turn as¬†the Asian woman in the¬†clip was automatically assumed to be a “nanny“, “oppressed”, or “emotionally abused”. Blimey.

Rising above reality

Jeff Kaplan’s keynote at the D.I.C.E. Summit yesterday has caused a bit of¬†buzz in my Twitter bubble, so I thought I’d check the full speech out myself. He comes up on the podium around 7:20 and stayed¬†until 40:00.

Listening to him, I felt overwhelmingly envious of being able to build a whole new universe. The same envy I have for sci-fi and comic book writers.

Anyway, the buzz was to do with his shout-out to the National Foundation for D.Va (ž†ĄŽĒĒŪėĎ) in Korea. 36:40 in, he says:

At the end of January, we saw something very special happen. There was an international march for women’s rights that took place all over the world, and the thing that really caught our eye was that in Seoul, Korea, during the march, somebody was flying this flag that had the symbol for D.Va, who is our character from Korea, who in some ways challenges stereotypes and in other ways embraces them.

We saw this flag flying for D.Va and we looked into it more and there was this national foundation for D.Va, which was a feminist foundation for women’s rights. What really started to fascinate me when I looked more into this, as I read their charter, was this last sentence: ‘We decided to act for feminism under her emblem, so that in 2060, someone like D.Va could actually exist‘.

Which I thought was just amazing, and this came back to that original point I was trying to make: ‘Never accept the world as it appears to be, but dare to see it for what it could be’. And that was exactly what was happening in Korea.

In no way do we aspire to be a political game. We have no political motivation whatsoever, but it’s fascinating to see that the values of the Overwatch team are now being embraced and owned by the community in their own positive way.

Computer says so.

In Mr Monk Goes to the Ballgame, the murderer lures his target to a deserted industrial park by manipulating the GPS in their car the previous night – because he knew they would be unsuspecting of the instructions from that little machine.

I have just had one such moment myself. My Calendar indicated I had a Committee meeting this afternoon, so I planned my day around it accordingly. When I arrived at the venue, there were already people in the room, but they were not the usual faces. I asked them why they were there. Oh so authoritatively. It took me longer than it should to realise it was I who barged into their meeting. I just never doubted the Calendar.

After thinking about the Monk episode, I also remembered a casual list that I was compiling for students on a related topic. Related in my mind, at least.

“Suis-je bovvered?” [2]

‚̧ ‚̧ ‚̧

I don’t have much conviction about anything, but this‚ÄĒI believe this. On the internet those¬†who bother are¬†the last ones standing.

In any case, I am becoming more and more convinced that in the digital era, in which information is a product of collective definition, interpretation and construction, what matters most is activeness. In other words, the real digital divide will not lie along with age, gender or socioeconomic status, but will emerge between those who actually bother taking time out of their busy day to write/rewrite/overwrite on the Net and those who lurk.

Says who? Yours truly, 10 years ago. And it goes both ways.