Marilyn Monroe and Lady Gaga’s Korea, and Korean Literature

Marilyn Monroe came to South Korea in February of 1954. While honeymooning in Tokyo with Joe DiMaggio, she had boarded a military plane and was en route to Seoul even before the marriage was fully consummated. At the airport, she was swarmed by hundreds of GIs who had been awaiting her arrival. When she came down the gangway, Monroe was dressed in a flight suit. Reporters noted that “half of the buttons on the top were undone, offering tantalizing glimpses of her chest, which got the troops even more riled up.” According to Korean news reports from the time, the GIs were disappointed to see her immediately board a helicopter bound for the frontlines and asked her when she would return, to which she “turned on the charm like a mother comforting a child” and replied, “I’ll be right back.” By February of 1954, the Korean War, which had lasted for three years, had already been brought to an end under the pretext of a ceasefire, but tens of thousands of American soldiers were still stationed in South Korea. Monroe gave dozens of performances, visited wounded soldiers in field hospitals, and posed on top of tanks. In archival photos, the soldiers’ excitement as they greet her is palpable. In colorless, dirt-covered barracks, Monroe alone stands out in color, as if someone had come along later and photoshopped her into the pictures. Before thousands of soldiers seated on a low hill devoid of even a single tree, she spreads her arms wide and sings in time with a piano. The images look like they could have come from a 1960s rock festival.

Yeouido Island, where Monroe alighted from the plane that brought her from Tokyo, is now the center of Seoul. It is crowded with high-rise buildings that house television stations and finance companies. The spot where the airport once stood has been turned into a park. Monroe died never having said anything special about Korea. Which is how it had to be. Because the Korea that she saw in 1954 would have been nothing more than scorched earth, razed to the ground by bombs and cheering GIs.

About half a century after Monroe visited Korea, Lady Gaga came to call. She was giving a concert sponsored by the Korean credit card company Hyundai Card. While Monroe had worn a flight suit, Gaga wore a mask. Where she did resemble Monroe was in her deeply low-cut dress that offered tantalizing glimpses of her chest. The concert was held in April of this year. Though the Korean War has long been over, the scale of U.S. troops stationed in Korea has not lessened much. But Lady Gaga was not here to “comfort” the troops. Instead, she gave what was for her a very modest performance for the tens of thousands of fans, as well as board members of Hyundai Card and their VIP customers, who attended the concert. Also in attendance outside of the concert arena were protestors. You might think they were all old-timers who cling to Confucian tradition, but in fact the protests were led by conservative Christian groups who are influenced by evangelical Christianity in the United States. The close connection between Korean Christianity and American evangelical tradition likewise dates back to the Korean War. After the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered, the U.S. military entered the Korean peninsula and established a military government. Then the Korean War took place, followed by a succession of pro-American dictatorships in South Korea. To the eyes of Koreans, who had suffered through Japanese colonialism and civil war, the United States was the strongest country in the world, and therefore the God that Americans believed in must also be all-powerful. Korean Christianity grew and grew, and they opposed Lady Gaga just as conservative American Christians did.

Lady Gaga spent three days and two nights in Korea. Of the news reports detailing her movements, the one that caught my attention was a story that took place in a Korean restaurant, where she had gone to eat with her entourage. According to the report, she ate the banchan, the small dishes that accompany a Korean meal, with her hands instead of the chopsticks that had been set out. The January 2012 issue of Vanity Fair describes her wearing Chanel and skillfully making whole-wheat pasta at her parents’ house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Somehow I doubt she ate that pasta with her fingers. If she had, the reporter would have been sure to include such an amusing detail. Yet three months after that interview took place, Lady Gaga was eating with her hands in a hotel restaurant in Seoul. Perhaps someone had given her the wrong information. Koreans consider it impolite to eat with one’s hands. Nevertheless, Gaga was not criticized for it. It was merely seen as amusing. Perhaps that is because she is not only famous for her eccentric behavior but was also a guest from a faraway place. But if eating with her fingers was not part of her unique style of eccentricity, then it’s interesting. Throughout her stay in Korea, she barely did anything provocative that would make her audience uncomfortable. Instead, it was her excessively well-behaved and courteous behavior that drew attention. Given the way she behaved during her trip to Korea, eating banchan with her fingers may have even been a kind of gesture of respect. For Koreans, the difference between eating with chopsticks and eating with your hands is like night and day, but for Lady Gaga, there may have been little difference at all. Perhaps in her mind, there is the culture of forks and knives and the “other” culture of everything else.

The Korea that Marilyn Monroe saw was a battleground. The Koreans that Lady Gaga imagined were people who eat with their fingers. Sixty years have passed since Marilyn Monroe boarded a propeller plane and flew here to visit American GIs, but it is possible that views of Korea from the outside have not changed very much. Korea still brings to mind words like war, division, nuclear North Korea, and the Great Leader Kim Jong-il. In literature, as well, the first works to be translated were those that included such themes. Of course, Gaga’s generation is a bit different from Monroe’s. They are more interested in Korean culture than politics (which isn’t very cool), and probably give little thought to an old war that broke out in the 1950s or in a Stalinist state where students march in lockstep down city streets. They probably see Korea as a country of exotic foods and strange living habits. To them, Korea seems to be symbolized by bulgogi and bibimbap, boy groups wearing makeup who command legions of girl fans, and art films rife with cruelty and violence. I encountered both stereotypes frequently while living in New York for two years. 

The real Korea lies somewhere between, or perhaps somewhere beyond, Monroe’s Korea and Gaga’s Korea. And as is the case with any country’s serious literature, Korean writers are fighting these stereotypes and working to create their own world. In particular, after the 1990s, when Korea’s economic development accelerated, Korean literature broke free of nationalistic narcissism, the struggle against dictatorship, and the epic narratives of national division and the trauma of war, and began to focus on conspicuously individual issues. Writers who had devoted themselves to social issues began to look inward and question what they could do through language and through fiction. The result was the astonishing diversification of Korean literature. Now, in 2012, I can say that it is all but impossible to briefly summarize current trends in Korean literature.

For this special issue, I selected two short stories. I had hoped to include Park Mingyu’s “Is That So? I’m a Giraffe,” but the story has already appeared in the Asia Literary Review. The stories are all departures from the kinds of stereotypes that readily come to mind when one speaks of Korea or of Korean literature, but at the same time, they show what Korean literature is like at present.

Sim Sangdae’s “Beauty,” written in a mythic style, takes place in a run-down coal mining town. The town, which was once prosperous but is now in ruins, is probably similar to the image of Korea that Monroe would have seen from the airplane: denuded mountains, scorched earth, colorless beings scraping out a living. But even back then, there were those who went to extremes in search of beauty. And that ill-matched aesthetic impulse ends tragically.

Yun Ko-eun is the youngest of the three writers. Her story, "The Chef's Nail," which was written in 2011, also takes place on the subway. But it is different from Park’s subway of ten years ago. Park’s pushers are left behind on the platform when the train leaves, but Yun’s characters ride the “Circle Line” around the city all day. For these people, whose job is to advertise books by pretending to read them, the subway is an inescapable reality, a Mobius strip. Their only way out is to become the books that they are selling, and in the end, that is what happens. They are easily replaced and disposed of. In 2011, South Korea was economically more affluent, and yet the prospects for young people in this country have never been bleaker and less stable.

Several months after Hyundai Card invited Lady Gaga to Korea, they also invited Eminem. In the middle of his concert, Eminem raised his arms to form a heart and perplexed the audience, who had been expecting bad manners and crude gestures. Both Lady Gaga and Eminem were so polite and well-behaved. They probably meant no ill intent whatsoever when they ate with their fingers and made hearts with their arms. We all live with misunderstandings about others. And sometimes that’s the more comfortable path. But isn’t literature an art that struggles to overcome stereotypes and easy misunderstandings? I hope that the readers of this special edition will enjoy these three unfamiliar stories from South Korea sent to them from afar. 

© Kim Young-ha. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Sora Kim-Russell. All rights reserved.