Saturday, September 01, 2007

The King of Comedy

Like many Asian cultures, Korea remains a patriarchal society, so meeting your future father-in-law for the first time takes on a level of importance it would not necessarily have in the West. Meeting him immediately after spending the best part of twenty-four hours travelling could be a recipe for disaster, particularly if the idea of his daughter dating a foreigner in the first place wasn't exactly the highlight of his life. I had no idea how that first meeting would go, but fortunately by the time it came, I was too tired to care.

If I'd done things by the book, I should have kowtowed to Korean Father, figuratively speaking, at every available opportunity, but there's something about hierarchical institutions which never quite sat well with me, and in my first few rushed and jet-lagged days I settled into a pattern of courteousness, punctuated by carefully calculated stabs of humour or bitchiness depending on your perspective.

One of my earliest family memories here, is of Korean Father regularly pointing out my failure to shave on the mornings I skipped this chore in the first week, a process apparently necessitating grabbing my face in order to confirm the observation. Lesson one, sporting any kind of facial hair in a follicly-challenged country like Korea is not the social ideal. Getting manhandled by Korean Father is an aspect to my Korean existence I had to get used to, though whether it is a more widespread experience or some hangover from his career in the police force I cannot say. But it quickly became apparent that Korean Father had the same kind of mornings and I was more than happy to point this double-standard to him, although I stopped just short of seizing his jaw in my hands. In retrospect, the first time that happened it could so easily have caused offence, but perhaps through the unexpectedness of it he instead appeared to think it the height of hilarity. After about three months, when it had lost its humour-value and long since passed into irritating territory, I finally let it go judging that I had made my point.

Having discovered that much against the stereotype of his Beat Takeshi persona he had a sense of humour I could appeal to, through gestures and translation it became about the only form of communication I had with him aside from speaking a little Japanese directly. So even on the days when I'd had enough of his 'this is the way we do things in Korea' advice and I tried to smile while saying the bitchiest thing I could think of, he would just point at me, laugh and say 'ah - Michael - koh meh dee'. So even though I grind my teeth a little every time he invites himself round to our apartment, he's grown on me in my time here and it amazes me that given our personalities we've got on at all, because we couldn't be more opposite. Whether this will remain the case when I reach the level of fluency at which things are no longer lost in translation is an open question however, and he still doesn't know I spent my year after graduating from university working full-time as the student union president - in his mind given the Korean context and his background - possibly the very antithesis of evil. One day I'm going to drop that on him along with some stories about our battles against the establishment just to see the look on his face.

Even though he still thinks me hilarious, I am not of course, really that funny - although my life probably is in a black-humour kind of way - as long as you don't happen to be the one living it. But that said, perusing through the channels on our admittedly basic cable service here does not paint a very positive picture of the state of comedy in Korea, because on the evidence one could be forgiven for thinking what passes for funny here is a hybrid of Vaudeville and 'Jackass'. So when the conversation with Korean Father turned one day recently to what actually constitutes British comedy, it was not the likes of Monty Python, Peter Cook, Douglas Adams or the British Embassy's staff which came to mind but... Rowan Atkinson... as Mr. Bean. So close to Blackadder, yet so far - Mr. Bean is the public face of the British sense of humour in Korea. Perhaps the visual antics are more in keeping with what I see Koreans doing every night to great laughter on TV, or perhaps it's precisely because anything that relies on more than this gets lost in translation.

Korea has a dark past but it sees itself - in part writ large in the concept of the 'Korean Wave' - as having a bright future, while the UK's better days are behind it, and each year the dark future sensed for many years comes closer to realisation. To my mind, British comedies like Fawlty Towers serve as a metaphor for the frustration born from the sense of a society slowly imploding around us as we continually rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic. It seems inevitable that dark humour is what drives us - perhaps Korea has too much to hope for to take its laughter too seriously.

Korean tags: 코메디, 아버지, 역사

2 comments:

wonderful-electric.co.uk said...

I happen to think you have your very amusing moments. In a dry wit kinda way - which makes a nice change from all the zany wacky comedy I try to put out.

Mike said...

Thanks - but it's really just extreme cynicism on my part.

There's nothing wrong with zany and wacky - and obviously it pays well for George W.'s speech writer.

Anyway, better to aspire to Monty Python than Antisthenes or Diogenes!

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