If you’re looking for the headlines that shaped Seoul or Korea in 2011, you won’t find it here. We don’t have much to add to the free school lunch fiasco, the glowing halo of Ahn Cheol-soo or the anticlimactic death of Kim Jong-il. But remember the few days of panic when the Korea release of the final Harry Potter movie was erroneously listed as months after all the world premieres? Yes, that really shook our world. Here is our list of things that may not have been covered extensively by other media outlets, but really made our year a memorable one on a day-to-day, pedestrian level—in good ways and in bad.
1) Mr. Pizza’s “True Origins of Pizza” viral video
In early October, a documentary-style video on YouTube created buzz by claiming that Koreans invented pizza. It opened with expert interviews typical of any Korean tourism promo video but we immediately knew it was special.
As ZenKimchi remarked, “[f]or observers of Korean culture, it’s a refreshing satire. It has all the cliches of the usual national panics that hit the peninsula, particularly the battles between Chinese and Korean historians.”
The video turned out to be a marketing ploy by the domestic pizza franchise Mr. Pizza. The feedback from the expat and international community was generally positive, and nearly incredulous. What other Korean company owner/chairman (a.k.a. Chief Love Officer—a nod to the company’s awkward domestic slogan) would parody himself? What other videos have come out of Korea, gone viral and gotten a play-by-play write-up in an academic journal? While there were those who clearly didn’t understand the joke, most agreed that it was a brilliant scheme—one we’re not used to seeing from Korean corporations.
2) International reality TV
Although Korean reality competition TV shows have long been modeled after oversea hits, this was the year that several shows we love came to Korea, properly licensed and adapted for Korean audiences. Dancing with the Stars Korea garnered enough viewers, but not enough interest. Korea’s Got Talent brought tears to our eyes and won our hearts with Paul Potts/Susan Boyle-like overnight sensations. We nervously twiddled our thumbs to see how well the beloved American stand-up format of Saturday Night Live would translate to Korea. Fans of the original SNL rooted for it and gave favorable reviews and recaps while locals used to the slapstick humor of the ever-popular homegrown Gag Concert were unamused. A Korean TV critic wrote that SNL Korea has become handicapped by its live format, unwittingly made the director, Jang Jin, star of the show and generally tries too hard. On the other hand, while Soompi loved the show, they also pointed out that it “might be leaning a little too much to the left.” Carrier cable station tvN has committed to eight episodes, but will there be another season? Only ratings will tell.
3) Hagwon teachers behaving badly
Not a year goes by without some hagwon teachers making national news—but then again, no incident goes undocumented or as heavily scrutinized by Korean press as those that involve expats and particularly expat teachers. This year, the spotlight was all over the former Korean American gangsters from L.A. who forged identities and diplomas to start their own hagwon, and the black hagwon teacher who got into a scuffle with a older Korean man in a bus. Both stories have been replayed endlessly in both Korean and English media, but what is hard to come by is their side of the story. We have no idea what led to the incident on the bus, before some bystander caught it on camera and uploaded it to YouTube. The former gangsters from L.A. had led seemingly normal lives in Seoul, likely with family, friends and stable jobs for the past decade. For further commentary and less biased reports, we often found ourselves rummaging through the English blogosphere to gauge these events.
4) Korean public high schools to phase out native English teachers by 2013
The Ministry of Education made a decision to start removing native English teachers from Korean high schools in 2012. This affects at least 255 jobs currently held by non-Koreans. While we lamented the lost jobs and the disadvantage this gives to lower-income families who don’t have access to private native English tutors, Discover English Explore Pounam brought up further ramifications of cutting teaching jobs: “How much is Korean Tourism going to lose out once native English teacher numbers in public schools are drastically decreased? My sister has brought me and my family to Korea. After getting married this year, my wife has brought her family to Korea for a visit too. How many thousands of other foreigners teaching in Korea contribute to a sustainable Korean tourism industry?” Questions to ponder.
While some wine and cheese aficionados welcomed this year’s Free Trade Agreements with Europe and the US with open arms, the latter in particular came loaded with political backlash, teargas, candlelight vigils and fear of mad cow disease.
6) Foreign brands enter the Seoul scene
The “I can’t get/find/buy it in Korea” excuse is almost invalid these days. If anything, you can find just about anything in Korea—you just can’t afford it. From Red Bull, which (sky)dived into the capital with fanfare, to the monstrosities like Crocs, which was one of the few things from home we didn’t miss, they’re here. The new Jamba Juice mega-store in Gangnam station gave us hope and quenched that indeterminate line between thirst and hunger. Of all the new businesses to spring up in Korea, the biggest and most exciting shockwaves came when news broke that IKEA bought a 23,655-pyeong plot of land in Gyeonggi-do, just southwest of Seoul. This plot is equivalent to 10 football (read: soccer) fields.
7) Tacogate 2011
Tacogate revealed deeper insight into the tastes of locals and those who were acquainted with Mexican grub outside of Korea. And it was a classic case of social media gone wrong, one deserving of a “PR razzie,” as one blogger declared. Here’s what happened: A woman tweeted that the tacos from local restaurant Grill 5 Taco were “disgusting,” to which the restaurant essentially responded “Your FACE is disgusting”—not something you want to say, especially on a public feed, and especially to an American journalist with over a thousand followers on Twitter. What ensued was a flurry of RTs, public outrage and backlash, especially among the English speaking community. The tweet was later removed but no formal apology was issued and by the following day, it was business as usual. But the story doesn’t end there. A couple months after the seeming social media disaster, the Korean Economic Daily (한국경제) featured Grill 5 as an “SNS Marketing Success Story.” The restaurant that engaged in public name-calling ironically made it to the main page of Naver, attributing their success to social media. And so we found ourselves doing a little soul searching. How far do the English voices in Korea carry? And is anyone really listening?
8) The return of the children
The global economic downturn of 2008 saw the first significant wave of second generation Koreans from abroad step onto the soil that their parents had left for better lives. Many came to be the big fish in the small pond. After being eliminated from American Idol, Korean American singer John Park flew to Seoul and auditioned for the Korean adaptation, Superstar K, to later be crowned runner-up and sign numerous endorsement deals. In November, MMMG in Itaewon hosted David Choi, Big Phony and Clara C in an acoustic showcase. Though it’s uncertain if all three of the biggest names in the Korean American music scene have motherland aspirations, it was certainly a treat to meet them here. Singers and entertainers aren’t the only ones to make a splash in this pond. Tech-savvy entrepreneurs are returning to Seoul, finding a launching pad, test market and a wealth of resources in one metropolis and attracting overseas interest. With the number of homegrown incubators, such as the English-friendly Seoul Space and newcomer Fast Track Asia, growing steadily, 2012 may truly be the year of the returnees.
9) New American ambassador to Korea is Korean-American, just like us!
On that note, one very important foreign envoy to Korea turns out to have Korean roots as well. If that proves to be an advantage or not (and for whom), we shall see.
10) Itaewon Renaissance
Last year’s sleeper hit music video, Itaewon Freedom from the dynamic duo UV (think The Lonely Island of Korea) warmed our hearts with bad hair and campy visual effects. While the song’s portrayal of Itaewon as the grimy heart of Seoul is still very much true, the song failed to mention the new face of Itaewon–the one that’s getting a lift. The southern streets of Itaewon (namely the alley behind Outback Steakhouse) are starting to look more like Garosugil, with pristine white boutiques replacing the fake storefronts for counterfeit bags. But with that comes a price. With redevelopment and new businesses have come skyrocketing leases and unspeakable foregift (권리금), the unwritten, tenant-to-tenant real estate premium associated with highly-coveted properties. This year, expect the steady influx of locals in what used to be a heavily expat hangout, and the new dynamics thereof.
11) More Year in Review
We dedicate our last highlight to some other 2011 Seoul and Korea-related lists for you to peruse.
Alien’s Day Out Best of 2011 for the vegan in Seoul.
Top 10 Korean Films of 2011 by Darcey Paquet of KoreanFilm.org.
Korea’s Top Four Digital Trends of 2011 by Erik Cornelius.
Top News of 2011 by Wall Street Journal Asia’s Korea Real Time.
Korean Translated Literature Year in Review by Korean Modern Literature in Translation.
2011′s top issues of the Korean entertainment industry from Showbiz Extra on Arirang TV
Top Ten K-Pop Music Videos of 2011 from You Offend Me You Offend My Family.
What made 2011 memorable for you? Leave us your thoughts in the comments below.