I grew up in Gangnam, the affluent Seoul neighborhood featured in South Korean rapper Psy’s video (which has over 253 million hits as of this posting, more than the population of Indonesia. It has also entered the Guinness Book of World Records for most liked YouTube video). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I witnessed Seoul’s transformation from a grim, dangerously crowded place where all designer garments were counterfeit into a glamorous and rich global mega-city where–as Psy shows–people are fabulously well-dressed, but they still have to hang out in parking garages.
Irony is that special privilege of wealthy nations—Aristophanes, possibly the world’s first satirist, wrote his plays as Athens was becoming the dominant power in the region; Cervantes wrote at the height of Spain’s naval wealth; and Alexander Pope was born the year that England defeated the Spanish Armada. First, one scrambles for wealth; then one luxuriates in mocking the effeteness that comes with it.
Thus “Gangnam Style” signals the emergence of irony in South Korea, meaning that the country has reached the final stage in any state’s evolution. If you don’t think that irony is a measure of eliteness, think of how annoyed you were the last time you were accused of not having any. Americans have told me that Asians have no irony; in Europe, where I last lived, I was told that Americans have none.
South Korea had no irony when I arrived there. I can say that as plainly as I can say that it had no McDonald’s (it arrived in 1988, in Gangnam, of course). The Korean language has no word for irony, nor for “parody,” which is why the Korean press has been using the English word “parody” to describe Gangnam Style.
After a 20-year stint in the US, where I was born, my parents returned to their native Korea and set up in Gangnam’s snobbiest neighborhood, Apgujeong, sometimes called the Beverly Hills of Seoul; the major shopping street is named Rodeo Drive. I attended Gu-jung elementary and middle school—the highest-rated, most entitled, most hated school in the entire country.
In 1987, every schoolchild in South Korea made a mandatory donation toward the building of the “Peace Dam,” a project of then-President Chun Doo-Hwan’s. The North Koreans were allegedly building a dam of mass destruction close to the North-South border. The dam would collect water flowing from the north and then one day, when we least expected it, the North would unleash the water and flatten Seoul. The retaliatory Peace Dam, to be built in the south, would send the water back north. I do not pretend to understand the engineering involved.
The teacher hit all of us, one at a time, with her wooden stick wrapped with black electrical tape. We had all brought the recommended donation of 200 won (at the time, the equivalent of 25 American cents).
“You are from Gangnam,” the teacher said, a phrase she used often, as in, This is Sparta. “If the nationwide minimum is 200 won, you have to bring at least 1,000 won. You shouldn’t have to be told.”
You can’t have irony when you’re being hit with sticks wrapped with black electrical tape. Or, when you’re being forced to prepare a speech every semester to enter in your school’s Anti-Communist Speech Contest.
South Korea wanted nothing more than for its GDP to skyrocket, but it didn’t want to deal with increasing individual wealth. The clashing goals made South Korea a stark raving mad place to live in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
My school enforced rules to make the increasing income disparities less visible. Students were not permitted to wear watches exceeding 20,000 won in value or shoes exceeding 9,000 won. We were not permitted to be picked up or dropped off at school by private car–which became a matter of controversy, since students were often required to stay at school very late into the night, giving rise to safety concerns.
Korean law prohibited private tutors for school subjects, for fear that this would give an advantage to the wealthy. Most students at my school had them anyway.
Periodically, the school would give the students a sort of denunciation pop quiz with questions such as “Who among your classmates is receiving private tutoring?”
My family was not Gangnam rich. Not as rich as one of my high school classmates who, in the summer of 1989, flew with her little brother to Hawaii for just one weekend, because her brother wanted to see the movie “Batman” (the Michael Keaton version) on opening night and he couldn’t wait for the film to come to Korea. Nor were we as rich as the girl who misplaced a $20,000 violin and did not even bother to look for it because her parents would buy a new one.
Nonetheless, my father had a chauffeur. It was a professional necessity. Any Korean executive showing up to a lunch meeting in a car he drove himself would be laughed out of the restaurant.
It was a life ripe for irony, but irony came there none—not until long after I had left for the West. South Korea was historically so embarrassed by the notion of borrowing money, that when it received $57 billion in IMF bailout funds in Dec. 1997, former President Kim Young-Sam told his country via television that he was “whipping himself every day“ in shame at having brought his country to this situation. A national advertising campaign urged citizens to help pay off the debt; wealthy women supposedly donated their jewelry to be melted down and used to pay back the debt—which Korea repaid by August 2001, three years ahead of schedule. Now, however, South Koreans are drowning in personal debt surpassing that of the US pre-subprime crisis, as our sister publication the Atlantic pointed out in its widely-read Gangnam Style: Dissected article.
The acquisition of wealth is not funny. It was especially unfunny for the titled aristocracy in South Korea who were watching the earth start to crack beneath them. People like—may I be frank?—my family. We did not sit around making dry, witty existential comments as these vulgarians rose up among us and started showing up at the fish market in mink coats. Psy’s invisible horse dance comes too little, too late for some of us.