Hallyu and mutual respect
It was truly an accident. I was listening to a speaker talk about hallyu, the Korean cultural wave that’s making its way around the world.
He showed many photos and video clips as vivid proof that youngsters in Europe, the Americas and even in the Middle East had fallen for Korean singers. These adolescents knew the verses and sang the simple mixes of Korean and English words in unison. More surprising, was their ability to follow every dance step and choreographed motion by heart.
The speaker was fresh from an attendance at K-Pop performances in many countries. He seemed quite overwhelmed by the heat and zeal of these young people.
While expressing his surprise and welcome to see a similar response from young Arab Muslim women, he said, ``I heard that some young girls like K-Pop so much, they sometimes gather together at one girl’s home, and sing and dance after taking off their hijab (traditional head covering). Of course, afterwards they would return to their normal lives and put the hijab back on.”
No one in the room, as far as I could tell, took offense at the statement. To me, his remarks felt familiar and understandable as I had met many young women in Dubai and Abu Dhabi last year. Not surprisingly, they are just as intelligent, capable and energetic as young women the world over.
At shopping malls, I saw the same sort of beautiful dresses and intimate apparel available in Seoul. Of course, in much of the Muslim world, these items are generally hidden underneath a black, full-body covering.
I am sure that the speaker’s intent was to deliver a simple message that Korean pop singers appeal to young people around the world, regardless of their nationality, social strata, religion or culture. Nevertheless, I could feel that a Middle Eastern gentleman at my table was becoming increasingly uncomfortable about the comments.
Afterwards, the man asked a question relating to hallyu and the episode where a few Arab girls removed their hijab. The speaker simply reiterated his previous remark that he had heard that some girls freely enjoy K-Pop music at home. The gentleman appeared unsatisfied, and as lunch was being served, he quietly rose and left.
Ironically, it was after the man left that my tablemates and I reconsidered the speaker’s story. Previously, we had simply shared his enthusiasm about the spread of Korean culture among the world’s youth. We viewed the young girls removing the hijab as a temporary act of convenience.
Upon reflecting on the Middle Eastern man’s question, however, we recognized that the issue was more complex ― one that encompassed religious customs and possible cultural transgressions. Ultimately, we agreed that the speaker should have been more cautious when he talked about another culture.
In my experience, the biggest cultural barrier between Koreans and the outside world exists with the Arab and Muslim cultures. As a Korean, I have been relatively exposed to outside cultures, having traveled extensively and even lived in Europe for four years. Even so, my knowledge of Arab history and culture comes mostly from books. I have no personal friends from the region.
This unfortunate reality was one reason why I instantly accepted an invitation from an economic organization in the United Arab Emirates to discuss the possibility of establishing a body to facilitate more people-to-people exchanges.
Last November, I flew to Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways ― I’ll admit that the airline was also new to me. My five days in the UAE was a constant learning process. That said, I know that I’ve seen only the tip of the Arab iceberg, or, more appropriately, a few grains of sand on a vast beach.
Discussions on setting up a non-governmental cultural and economic exchange body are slowly moving forward. While in the UAE, I had expected that the organization would launch early this year. However, creating something meaningful takes time and effort and my institute cannot do it alone.
I’ve heard many times that working with ``people from the desert” requires patience as their concept of time differs from ours. Perhaps, but patience is necessary when working with people of all backgrounds. After all, achieving mutual understanding within one’s own family also requires remarkable patience!
There is a vast mountain of misunderstanding between Koreans and people from the Middle East. As an initial project of my institute to bring closer these peoples of two different worlds, a book on the UAE in the Korean language is in production. Although this volume is focused on economic issues, I hope to see future books, photos, films and digital content on the region’s cultures and history.
In the meantime, although it’s natural for us to be proud of hallyu’s popularity overseas, cultural exchange should be an interactive relationship, and mutual respect is the fundamental building block of any relationship.
The writer is the chairwoman of the Korea Heritage Education Institute (K*Heritage). Her email address is Heritagekorea21@gmail.com.