Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Discussion Topic: Authenticity

Dear readers:

The Korean so far has been faithfully answering your questions. (If you are wondering what happened to your questions, well, the Korean is now going through questions that he received in May 2007. But the Korean admits that he answers questions that he likes almost right away.)

Now it's time for the Korean to ask a question. It's a topic that the Korean has been struggling with for a while, and he would appreciate some input. We can discuss either through the comment section, or through emails.

The question is: "How much authenticity can one demand in a transplanted culture?"

The question underlies many of the posts that the Korean has written so far, and recently it implicitly surfaced in posts about Korean food. In the post, the Korean bitterly complained that people simply don't know what is the right way to cook Korean food in America. In reply, one of the commentors suggested that it was irrational for the Korean to demand everything to be completely authentic.

So one side of the debate can be elaborated thusly: In any piece of culture, there is a perfectly authentic form of that piece -- sort of like the perfect forms of all matters envisioned by Plato. Any deviation from that authenticity renders that piece to become something else entirely. Therefore, a person who enjoys the imperfect piece of culture cannot be said to be enjoying the foreign culture, for that imperfect piece does not actually exist in the authentic culture.

The particular example in the previous post was sullungtang, a creamy Korean beef soup. The "authentic" way to make the dish is to boil cow's legs for at least 8 hours, until the bone marrow produces the white broth. But since this is not efficient enough to be commercially profitable, many Korean restaurants (and almost all Korean restaurants in America) uses a trick to imitate the flavor. They use regular beef broth, and add coffee creamer (!) to imitate the creaminess.

According to the first perspective -- let's call it "cultural purist" -- anyone who thinks sullungtang in America is delicious simply does not know what he is talking about. It's a fake thing! It's not a real sullungtang! If you say you enjoy Scotch whiskey but all you ever drank in your life is Jack Daniel's (a Tennessee whiskey), is it not obvious that you don't know what you are talking about?

The other side of the debate -- let's call this one "cultural evolutionist" -- would retort: How does it make sense to demand a crystallized, perfect form in every piece of culture you enjoy? Cultural pieces evolve and change over time and place. If many people like the way the cultural piece has evolved, why does someone with the knowledge of "authenticity" have a monopoly over the question what is the superior? I like my Korean food in America just fine, no matter how different it is from Korean food in Korea. Can't we just call it American-style Korean food and be done with it? Why do you have to ruin my appetite by screaming "bastardization?

Moreover, how do you pinpoint the time of history when something became "authentic"? For example, the cultural purist would be aghast if Americans made a version of kimchi with less red pepper because Americans like it better that way. No "true" Koreans would condone such a travesty! But wait - kimchi only turned red in the 18th century, because red pepper was not introduced to Korea until then. In fact, red pepper originated in the Americas, and it was a distinctively foreign element in the food. Is it not completely arbitrary for a cultural purist to say that 19th century kimchi is authentic, while 17th century kimchi is not?

This debate can go into all kinds of different areas. Take Engrish t-shirts, for example. The cultural purist would simply laugh at the dumb Chinese/Japanese/Koreans who would sport such ridiculous things. In English, those things say really dumb or inappropriate things! They are ignorant for wearing such a thing.

On the other hand, the cultural evolutionist would say that, if those folks like the way their shirts look, who are we to judge? It is clear that the English alphabets on those shirts do not serve the function that English-speaking people presumes that they have. The alphabets on the shirts are purely decorative, like an elaborate pattern. From the perspective of the child in the picture, it would make little difference if he was wearing a t-shirt that had race cars. So who are we to laugh?

Wanna try to take this debate into a less-PC (and more odious) area? How about the idea of "white man's Asian woman"? Lucy Liu is the most popular Asian American actress in America at this point, but the Korean has never met a single Asian man who found her attractive. In the Korean's experience, near-universal reaction of all Asian men who saw a picture of Lucy Liu for the first time was "What the hell is wrong with her eyes?"

It is true that Liu's eyes are extra-squinty, and hardly anything like an average Asian's eyes. Based on that, many Asian American men consider Liu the prototypical "white man's Asian woman" -- someone who fits the image of an exotic creature, which has no basis in the "authentic" reality. Because of this perception, the Korean is positive that most Asian Americans would believe a movie like House of Flying Daggers would be ruined if Liu replaced Zhang Ziyi, because Liu would ruin the authenticity of the vision of ancient China.

Underlying the idea of "white man's Asian woman" is a cultural purist attitude. "White man's Asian woman" is someone who is clearly inferior to "Asian man's Asian woman", because after all, who is a better judge of Asian beauty than Asians themselves?

But -- a cultural evolutionist would point out -- Lucy Liu is a real person! She did not choose the way she would look. What is wrong with people liking her for the way she looks? How does white people liking her make her "less real"? Is she supposed to decline the fame and fortune because she is not "authentic" enough?

On the whole, cultural evolutionist view is closer to reason, and cultural purist view is closer to gut reaction. We would all like to say that we are reasonable people who are not swayed by unreasonable gut reaction, but admit it -- you are a lying liar if you say you did not laugh at the picture of the child whose shirt said "Wake Up! Mother Fucker." If you have more knowledge on a topic, it's difficult for you not to mock those who flaunt less knowledge.

So, the question again: "How much authenticity can one demand in a transplanted culture?"

The Korean awaits your response.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@hotmail.com.


  1. Count me in as another Korean who doesn't find Lucy Liu attractive.

    Also, as the person who made the comment in question, I figured I should reply:

    I'm of the opinion that "authenticity" isn't a trait inherent to a specific object, person, or preparation of a dish. It's an ideal invented by people and thus subject to variation from person to person, day to day, year to year, etc.

    I know exactly what you mean when you talk about the divide between "authenticity" and reality. As a foodie, I often make judgements about something being unauthentic in much the same way you did (and which I called you out for). It's an impossible situation but at least when it comes to something like food, it's mostly harmless except for the occasional disagreement over sullungtang.

    Where a desire for authenticity becomes problematic is when it comes to the way cultures are depicted. The bottom line is that when it comes to cultures, the idea of what is authentic as perceived by people not familiar with that culture are really just stereotypes.

    For example: depictions of groups like Native Americans in movies and on television that are often hailed as being "authentic" typically do little more than reinforce stereotypes.

    I'm at work so I can't really give the topic the thought it deserves but basically I think the idea of authenticity can be useful in perhaps categorizing foods where there is some vague idea of the way something is supposed to be done but in most aspects of life the struggle and desire for authenticity does more harm than good.

  2. I love Mexican food because I eat Chipotle burrito every night.

    Interesting topic =)

  3. This is a problem that doesn't need to be solved. If a restaurant claims that it is serving "authentic Korean food, just like it is in Korea," in those cases, one should demand authenticity. Otherwise, it is sufficient to just say that you don't like it because it's not as authentic as your tastes lean, or vice versa.

    About Lucy Liu and popular white tastes in Asian "things" in general: It is a good idea to point out misconceptions about Asian preferences. For example, saying that Asians or Asian Americans don't find Lucy Liu is informative and possibly helpful. However, I'm not sure how demand or authenticity would come into play in this situation. Would one demand that America-at-large favor a more "authentically" Asian female star? That sounds ridiculous.

    In short, it's fine to point out authenticity or non-authenticity, but there are few cases in which demanding authenticity is justified, and most of those involve claims to authenticity on the part of whatever is being judged.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. The strive for an authenticity may be a result of pride more than anything.

    For example, who cares if I call my restaurant "China Express" and sell burritos, as long as my customers are satisfied? I have no personal feelings attached to Chinese or Mexican culture so I could care less.

    However, if McD started to sell watered down ddukbokki, I would burn down every McD that carried what they call ddukbokki. This is similar to The Korean being disgusted at the shity "Korean food for whites". My guess is that The Korean wouldn't have cared much if that restaurant didn't claim itself "Korean Cuisine".

    What's the deciding factor? Amount of pride that individuals have on a culture. I think we need to look at this issue from a social point of view and figure out what causes people to associate themselves with a specific group, or hat causes people to have pride in something.

    Maybe we should look at evolution of languages as a reference. A paralleling topic would be,

    "Is American English really English? Can we teach them in school? Why or why not?"

    "Then Is AAVE(African American Vernacular English aka Black English) really English? Can we teach them in school? What about in a limited volunteering region? If it's not English, can we teach it as a foreign language? Why or why not?"

    "Then what about Korean American English(aka fucked up LA Konglish)? Is that English? Is that even a language? Who decides what's a language? Who decides that American English is a language?"

    Linguistics/Anthropology/Sociology experts deal with a similar issue with heavier content(language vs food), so they may have the answers to our quest.

    PS: sorry for dupe postings. Blogger doesn't let me edit so I must delete and rewrite.

  6. Jim,

    "However, I'm not sure how demand or authenticity would come into play in this situation. Would one demand that America-at-large favor a more "authentically" Asian female star? That sounds ridiculous."

    It's actually not that ridiculous. I myself find this argument odious, but you can easily find a lot of Asian Americans who think this way: "Asians know more about the way they look, and Lucy Liu is not a proper representative of an Asian face. In fact, Lucy Liu on television is a caricature of how white America perceives Asians to be. That's simply inaccurate. We need more "authentic"-looking actresses on TV instead of Lucy Liu."

  7. Notwithstanding the intrigue of the question, the answer is an easy one: one can demand as much authenticity as one can afford.

    Korean restaurants don't spend 8 hours on their sullungtang because they'd quickly go out of business. On the other hand, if a restaurant did some polling and discovered that there are enough people out there willing to pay $40 for a bowl of sullungtang, the restaurant just might prepare it the "authentic" way. You can demand anything you want--this is America after all--but no one is going to give you anything for free or just because you are demanding it in a loud voice.

    As for Lucy Liu, the market has responded to her relatively well. She fills a niche for a sexy, kittenish Asian-American movie star. Let's remember, she's not an Asian movie star. She's an Asian-American movie star. You could argue that she is as authentic as they come when we're dealing with Asian-
    American women--part exotic, part girl-next-door.

    Bottom line: if you've got the dough, the world is your oyster, with a lifetime guarantee that all the pearls inside are going to be authentic.

  8. No comments on the poor kid with the shirt?

  9. for some reason, i can't see the images in the post... something must be wrong with my computer... argh...

  10. The images are not showing up for me as well.

    I have to agree with Calvin though, much of this "authenticity" argument seems to be stemming for your desire to set yourself a part from other Koreans. It seems that you have a need to be above everything. Who knows, maybe your idea of authentic flavors are skewed as well. I'm sure your mom didn't make everything as exactly how tradition calls for it to be.

    I can't even figure out how far you want to go with your definition of authenticity. Like you said yourself in reference to the kimchi, how far back will you go until you stop and say, "This is the origin."? On that point, who are you to decide what is or isn't?

    Whether or not a soup has been boiling for 8 hours or 20 minutes, if it arouses nostalgic feelings of the motherland, what else do you need?

    I understand the fear of losing a culture to the assimilation of American culture, but if you stick your nose up too high about something, you'll run out of oxygen. Relax.

    I also do not know what is going on with Lucy Liu's face. Personally, I don't find her UNattractive though.

  11. Interesting topic. From the perspective of a Black American female, a lot of your concerns are shared by *my* culture. I personally find Lucy Liu gorgeous, but I understand why she may be considered the 'White man's Asian'. A lot of *our* stars, don't appeal to Black people in general, but are in essence, the 'White man's Black'. On the flip side, I know more than a few Black people who study Tradition African Spirituality. Villages and spiritual centers abound. A Nigerian couple that I know visited one of the centers and was disgusted by the watered down interpretation of *their* culture. It really is about perspective. I thought the boy in the T-shirt was cute. :-) How is that any different than Americans getting Asian tattoos without knowing a thing about the language? I agree with the person who stated that purity is about pride. That's really all that I can add to the dialogue other than I love The Korean's blogs! Very informative!! BTW, The Korean would totally hate the way I try to make kimchi. *embarrassed* I like mine mild.

  12. Okay, now I couldn't the pictures so I put them all up again. Blogger is really infuriating sometimes. I am in the process of ultimately leaving Blogger to have my own site, so until then, bear with me.

    I like all the comments, but please don't just limit yourselves to the examples I gave! I want to have a larger discourse about cultural purist vs. cultural evolutionist, not whether I should like gammiok sullungtang.

    Calvin's point about cultural purist attitude having something to do with cultural pride is probably the most significant contribution so far. But I think there has to be something more -- something closer to a gut reaction.

    For example, imagine yourself being at the flip side of cultural transplant. Suppose you are traveling oustide of the U.S., and you see people enjoying what they regard as "American culture". This most often happens in Asia, whose people are more receptive to American things than, say, Europeans. Suppose you see a kid who is wearing a shirt that says: "New England Patriots: 19-0 Super Bowl XLII Champions." You have got to think that's funny. There's your cultural purist attitude. And that had nothing to do with pride. You just laugh at the shirt just like the way you would laugh at the shirt back home in the U.S.

  13. I am wondering if your concern lies with cultural appropriation. This could be why, in your gut, you do not like unauthentic representations of your culture. Again, if that is the case, the Black community is similar in that regard. Take music, for example and our contributions to it in American culture. Which sometimes, in the past, has gone unacknowledged.
    On the other hand, some cultural markers are in fact regional adaptations, cooking with available spices or the environment dictating how much one should be clothed, etc. In the case of adapting, it is expected that when people of one culture relocate to another region, the culture will evolve to reflect it's surroundings. I don't know if I am totally off of the mark in regards to your query, but I can see both of the different perspectives and I, personally, would be considered more of a cultural evolutionist. I believe that cultures grow and adapt depending on the conditions in it's environment. As far as food is concerned, as someone who has only recently become aware of the culinary delights of Korean cuisine, I can say that I have yet to see any two recipes that were the same, posted online. The ingredients may have been the same or similar, but the preparation differs. I, as an outsider, could not say which recipe I chose to follow, was authentic. All that I can say is that I appreciate what I have learned thus far of Korean cuisine and it sparked an interest in me to know more about the culture, which led me to your blog and elsewhere online. When it comes to 'soul food', sometimes it tickles me to see recipes online that bare no resemblance to the foods prepared in my grandmother's kitchen. I do not feel a need to correct anyone, but I'd most certainly invite them down South to show them how it's really done. :-)

  14. Ah that old argument. One which can never be settled. As you said, we all like to flaunt our superior knowledge by putting down our fellows for their ignorance on any subject. Authenticity is just one of many.

    Reality is that cultures change. Look at the French. (Ah, do I have too?) They spend a lot of time trying to keep the French culture free of any foreign influences -- from passing laws against American movies to inventing new "French" words for things like Le Internet.

    It's not just the Koreans, of course, who have this authenticity problem on food. Go to Italy see what pasta and pizza are like there.

    But you can be sure the Koreans, along with the Italians, Mexicans and every other immigrant group -- including we WASPs -- will forget the languages our ancesters brought with them, reject the customs of the old country but we will never, ever give up eating some form of the food of our forefathers, even if it is unauthentic.


  15. Pride has something to do with it. But it's more primal than that. To see "authenticity" diluted is to lose grasp of something that you feel familiar and comfortable with--it's an assault on your past, on your very identity. Eileen discusses "cultural appropriation." I think it's closer to "personal appropriation."

    People who complain that the sullungtang in K-town isn't what it's like in Korea inevitably launch into talk about the good ol' days in Korea and how food was served at the hole-in-the-wall restaurant for taxi drivers at the local bus terminal. It's a past they know they can't, for the most part, recapture. Eileen's talk about the soul food recipes she sees online these days bearing no resemblance to her grandmother's is case in point.

    I found it interesting that she goes on to say that she feels no need to explain "authentic" to anyone. Because the fact is, once you truly understand something you actually lose the desire to explain it. To explain something is to distance yourself from that phenomenon--it requires you to step out of the comfort zone you know so well and describe things objectively to the individual who also stands outside of that zone. If asked to explain real soul food, I am sure Eileen would be courteous and explain. I am also sure that in her heart she knows her grandmother's food will never be appropriated away from her, and that's why she can laugh at all these newfangled soul food recipes online.

    By the way, when they start rebuilding Namdaemun at a cost of $21 million, it will have something to do with pride. I think it will have a lot more to do with trying to hold on to a cherished past and identity.

    I wonder if the Korean started this post because he feels insecure, that his past and Korean identity are slowly being appropriated away from him. Could that be the reason he started this blog in the first place--to try and hold on to a life long ago? For all this talk of authenticity, I think the most important thing is to always be true to yourself and your feelings. I see this blog as a manifestation of that as well.

  16. nah, I started this blog because people keep on asking me more or less the same questions about Korea and I got tired of repeating myself.

    About the food - for me, the food doesn't really link to nostalgia. I didn't have a favorite restaurant in Korea, nor did I particularly have a fond memory related to food. (I do with one type of Korean food, but it is completely unavailable in America -- and not widely available in Korea either.)

    For me, it's more like being correct and incorrect, like math or chemistry. Sullungtang in America is, for me, incorrect. It is made the wrong way, and it tastes incorrect. And my reaction to that is not all that different from my reaction at "2+2=3" -- it's a manifestation of incomplete understanding. That coffee-creamer-and-beef-broth-soup should not be called "sullungtang", because it goes through the wrong process. To acquire carbon dioxide, you have oxydize carbon. You can't give me nitrogen dioxide and tell me, "look, it's something oxydized! It's close enough, why are you being so picky?"

  17. Generally, I am more of a cultural purist when it comes to food, name, rituals, and language. I am more of a cultural evolutionist when it comes to fashion, style, and looks. Those two positions are somewhat difficult to reconcile -- hence this post.

  18. Oy.. that's a dangerous move..

    Asking for authenticity requires a strict definition(much like a mathmatical definition), but it is impossible IMO to define food or language.

    Coca Cola company made a strict rule of the ingredients on their product, but that's because they invented that product. Food and languages are obviously not predefined products from a central authority(ie, In the beginning, there was sullungtang).

    I think we should get back to the picture of the kid and get more out of this great discussion, rather than trying to argue for the existance of "the truth".

    I sense a soul in search of answer =)

  19. When addressing Calvin's point on pride, your words were "there has to be something more--something closer to a gut reaction". This language, to me, smacks more of emotion than it does of logic.

    If your entire beef here is that 2 + 2 must always equal 4, then I think James' point must prevail. What is "authentic" sullungtang? What is "authentic" kimchi? And who are you to decide what is? Are you Dae Jang Geum? What gives you the right to be peeved? I think the only way to defend your right to be peeved is that the "authentic" food you are eating here in America references so little of your personal past in Korea.

    I think this whole sullungtang issue does bother you at some deeper emotional level and that you just don't realize it yet. But that's just me playing Dr. Phil... :-P

  20. What if I told you I have the same emotional response to seeing "2+2=3"? In other words, primal contempt towards inaccuracy?

    On "Are you Dae Jang Geum?" I never did say what I do for living, did I? ;)

    But yes, we would definitely run into the "defining authenticity" problem with my approach.

  21. Yes, J, I would explain the way I was raised to prepare soul food, if asked. You understood my position well. :-)
    "Those two positions are somewhat difficult to reconcile -- hence this post."
    Well, The Korean, all that I could suggest to you is that you must learn to deal with the contradiction. You already know it exists within you and like GI Joe says, 'Knowing is half the battle'. :-)
    Ah... the little kid in the shirt... well, I am of the opinion that it's a cool ass shirt! I know plenty of mother fuckers in real life who need to wake up! :-D
    All in fun my friends. I thank all of you guys for allowing me to converse with you.
    BTW, I am sorry that Korea has lost a historical landmark. I'm sorry that the guy felt a need to do that. :-(

  22. I don't care if you cook at Le Bernardin or Le Cirque... no one will ever be Dae Jang Geum! Uh, btw, if you are at Le Cirque, how about a friend's discount on the food? :-)

  23. To me, 'authentic' Korean food is how my mom used to make it. Living in Guam, sometimes she had to make do with whatever ingredients available. I think it would be unreal to demand 'authenticity', because after all, 'authenticity' in food has different flavors for different people. Or are we just talking about palate of people who were born and raised in Korea?

    In Japan, 'Gimchee' is so popular, you can easily find ten or more different brands of 'gimchee' claiming to be authentic. But are made in China or Japan. I haven't yet found one brand from Korea. I suspect any true Korean from Korea will be embarrassed that these cabbages loaded with sugar and msg's are #1 selling Korean food in Japan.
    Most Japanese will brag how much they love and eat 'Gimchee'. I even sense their certain pride of having such a open mind toward 'Gimchee', which once considered too offensive to eat.
    What they don't know is that, 'Gimchee'in Japan tastes nothing like 'Gimchee'
    in Korea, few Koreans will even consider eating Japanese version of 'Gimchee'.

    But, I am not one to correct them, because I too grew up eating 'Korean' food that was altered so much, that some of my Korean friends will not call that 'authentic' Korean food.

  24. I'm beginning to think that a title such as "Korean food" is merely an identifier for categorical purposes: restaurants are labelled "xx food" so that they could be found in a phone book.

    I love Chipotle(see my previous post), but I really don't think of it as a Mexican food. However, they call themselves "Mexican Grill" (and I hope that they continue with that title) because when I'm travelling and want to find a local Chipotle, I'll grab a phone book and look under Food/Mexican.

    In essence, I'm arguing that the title is a marketing tool used for advertisement, not a certification that guarantees any quality.

    In one extreme example, we can start calling all the non-authentic Japanese roll places(god knows how many there are) a "Super Fantastic Space Fantasy Food", SFSFF. With enough collaboration, this movement would trigger the birth of Food/SFSFF section in a general yellow pages. If this carries on for a decade or so, there will be "Authentic SFSFF" restaurants. The patrons of these restaurants will argue for the degree of real fakeness of each restaurants, and get into flamewars because a self-claimed "Authentic SFSFF" restaurant used real crab instead of imitation crab(*gasp*).

    Going back to Gammiok and other Korean restaurants; these restaurants call themselves "Korean Restaurants", because that is the identifier that their customers will use in order to find them.

    IMO, that's all there's to it, and there's no reason to be angry at the "correctness" of the title. Even if Chipotle changes its business category to Korean food one day, I'll still go to them as long as I can have my double steak burrito. I guess that would suck for the people who came looking for sullungtang though.

    I'll get on the subject on the kid later. I gotta go for now =)

  25. ok... my last comment on this post... I think the kid is frickin' adorable, but the shirt is inappropriate for the obvious reasons. It's one thing if the shirt says "Soar Paper Turtle, Jump! Uganda" or "Susie dream best world tiger love". Then we scratch our heads and realize the words are decorative, possibly demented, or in fact, quite existential. I would be puzzled, but not offended. The English on his shirt is meant to shock, and even if he lives in Korea, we all live in a global village and many people are bound to perceive the inappropriateness of the language. If he was with his mother, I would say something to her without hesitation.

  26. IMO, you are right, J. It certainly is not appropriate for a child to wear offensive clothing. I am quite sure if the parents knew what that shirt said, they would disapprove and most likely thank the person who brought the offense to their attention. In my sometimes myopic, limited world view, I see/hear/view offenses quite often from other Americans who share my culture and *should* know better. Take the website 'Hot Ghetto Mess' for example. Some things on that site are SOOO bad, it makes the shirt that that child was wearing, look totally benign and innocent (which it is, from his perspective, I suspect). Which brings me to another subject... should I feel responsible for defending/excusing/justifying acts by members of my culture, simply because they share my culture? I'm sure that you guys have heard of black folks saying that sometimes one cringes when they hear a news report of shootings, etc. and are relieved to know that the offender was not black. Or the frustration felt when the eye witness at the scene of a crime was the most inarticulate black person that the newscaster could find. Should I feel responsible for members of my community who behave inappropriately? Or should I keep in mind that even if we share a culture, we are not a monolithic group, but individuals who share some of the same characteristics ... but in essence, individuals who think, feel and act for themselves? I guess that would be along the lines of group responsibility and personal responsibility. Anyway guys, thanks for hearing me out. I've been quite the 'Chatty Cathy' on this post and that's usually unlike me. I thank you The Korean, for having this blog/forum and I suppose, this particular question for your readers, so that I could share my opinion.

  27. as someone who lived in korea, i often wish i could find "authentic" versions of korean dishes i loved. but then by the same token during my time there i often wished i could find a sandwich or pizza that didn't suck. it's inevitable, isn't it? when countries take on parts of other cultures they change them to make them more acceptable to their own tastes.


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