Foreigners return to small screen, targeting Korea’s national pride

By Im Eun-byel
  • Published : Feb 4, 2018 - 14:25
  • Updated : Feb 4, 2018 - 14:25

More and more foreigners are appearing on Korean TV, featuring in numerous reality shows. As a large number of locals are curious of outsiders’ opinions of Korea, different formats showcasing foreigners’ reactions are continuously being produced.

Recent reality TV show “Welcome! First Time in Korea?” on MBC every1 yielded successful results with a relatively simple format. Three foreigners visited Korea for the first time after being invited by their expat friends. Episodes of the friendly visits marked viewership ratings over 5 percent, the highest ever since the cable channel was launched in 2007.

Italian visitors of “Welcome! First Time in Korea?” pose in front of a traditional Korean house. (MBC every1)

The production cost for each episode was reportedly around 50 million won ($46,700), but the weekly Thursday show, which aired its pilot episode last June, recorded around 10 billion won worth of sales up until now, selling all the commercial space, even for reruns.

At the time of the production, travel-focused entertainment shows were trendy in the broadcasting industry. Many featured celebrities traveling to new destinations, surrounded by beautiful scenery.

The production staff of “Welcome! First Time in Korea?” turned the tables, inviting foreigners to Korea. The outlanders explored Korea like any other tourists, plunging themselves in a variety of new experiences.

After the show’s unexpected success, numerous shows featuring foreigners sprung up, including SBS’ “A Guide for Those Who Travel to My Room,” JTBC’s “My Foreign Friend,” tvN’s “Friendly Driver,” Olive’s “Seoul Mate” and MBN’s “Hello? Do You Have a Room?” 

In an episode of “A Guide for Those Who Travel to My Room,” comedian Park Na-rae watches TV with her foreign companion who speaks Korean because she likes K-pop. (SBS)

Criticism arose that broadcasting stations were copying the popular format, a huge problem in the industry. In the multiple shows with different slogans and themes, the scenes were eventually similar as foreigners explored touristic places, tried out Korean dishes and mingled with locals.

The phenomenon is not so unfamiliar, as Korean channels had once been filled with expat foreigners in the past. Talk shows featuring local expats were popular once, such as KBS’ “Beauties’ Talk” and JTBC’s “Non-summit.” But as the shows ran out of topics, most of them disappeared.

With the success of “Welcome! First Time in Korea?” the format has moved on from talk shows to reality shows, leaving the road open to foreigners to make their way back to the entertainment scene.

The shows, however, remind the viewers of “reaction videos.” In Korea, clips showing how foreigners react to Korean food, drama and music have been a major hit on the video-streaming website YouTube. Amid the popularity, some expat creators rose to fame, for example, vlogger Josh who runs the YouTube channel “Korean Englishmen,” widely recognized in Korea. 

Screenshot of Josh`s video thumnails (YouTube)

Joshua Daryl Carrott, more referred to as Josh, posts videos of himself diving into Korean experiences, such as learning the language or eating dishes enjoyed by locals. His vlog of “English people try Korean Chicken and Beer!!” has received over 12 million views. 

Before the emergence of YouTube reaction videos, anecdotes recounting how foreigners were amazed by Korea were a hit online. Many so-called Korean expats recounted stories of how their foreign acquaintances were awed by Korean products and cuisines.

But stories of how foreigners have difficulties with Korea are not much enjoyed by the public. Viewers of “Welcome! First Time in Korea?” have expressed disappointments when the foreign visitors did not seem to enjoy their Korean experiences.

When a Russian visitor had a hard time adjusting to the new country, many posted words of discontentment on the broadcasting station’s website and social media. The situation was the same for French visitors as they had a hard time adjusting to the spiciness of Korean food. A large number of viewers scorned and criticized them.

Episodes where the visitors were surprised by Korean culture at first, and later awed by it were well-received. When the foreigners were shocked by the swift food delivery system or amazed by Korea’s internet network, online comments were filled with national pride.

Culture critic Kim Sung-soo argues Korea was “wounded” by the neglect and ignorance from the rest of the world. According to him, there is a sense of victim mentality to Koreans.

“Through wrong Orientalism, Korea was seen under the wrong perspective. We were hurt,” Kim said. “We used to be ashamed (thinking that Korea is a small country) but now we are past that point. Through education, we have learned to be proud.”

But he points out that Koreans yet do not know why they have to be proud, as they were just taught that they have to be proud.

“We actually are not so sure about it. We are trying to heal the scars from the past by being assured of Korea’s excellence through foreigners’ reactions,” the critic said. “A cultural content can only be enjoyed by a majority of the public if it specifically points out the era’s desires and scars.”

By Im Eun-byel (silverstar@heraldcorp.com)