At Large

From ‘bagets’ to ‘ajummas’

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An ajumma in Korean simply refers to a married woman, or a “woman old enough to get married.” But Korean women, I’m told, seldom admit to being ajummas, even if they are married with children.

A Korean documentary maker who interviewed me on Korean dramas in the Philippines was astounded when I called myself an ajumma. “You’re the first woman I know who admits to being an ajumma,” he told me. Likewise, during the “Hallyu sa Pinas” forum last week, a young Pinoy man “congratulated” me for openly admitting to ajumma-ness in my presentation. “Even my mother gets mad when I call her an ‘ajumma,’” he confided.

Maybe it’s the connotation. For an “ajumma” is linked not just with age and marital status, but also with a certain appearance and attitude. I think “manang,” the term most Filipinos use with older women, is the closest approximation, for it conveys not just age but also conservatism, and in certain circles, is a term used for older house help.

Well, in the world of Korean TV dramas, known as “Koreanovelas” here,  ajummas  rule. In most Filipino households, there is only one TV set, and in the primetime slot, it is the housewife who determines what show the family will be watching. “The C-D class is really the local TV viewing audience,” says Jobart Bartolome, program analysis head for GMA-7. And ever since “Marimar” and “Meteor Garden” in the early 1990s upended TV preferences locally, TV dramas or serials have become the dominant format, “killing,” in the words of Bartolome, sit-coms and sports broadcasts. And for a while until the inevitable slump, Koreanovelas used to rule it over local TV—morning, afternoon and evening.

In the estimation of Rachel Simon, head of acquisitions for ABS-CBN, Filipinos watch Koreanovelas mainly for the “strong storyline and good-looking actors, appeal to all the members of a family, and family- and value-centric themes.”

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But why have Korean dramas eclipsed even Mexican or Latin American serials and long-running American soaps?

In my “Ajumma’s Appreciation,” I noted how “Asian” Filipinos really are, despite our veneer of American orientation, our modern manners, our Western preferences.

What do  ajummas  like me look for when trolling the channels for our favorite Koreanovelas? We seek an “emotional connection,” a sympathetic heroine and a gallant and romantic male lead. We like the “socially acceptable” behavior and values that these shows preach; rarely, if ever, can one catch a torrid kissing scene or even a bedroom romp. We like it that the shows promote what Simon calls “the resilience of the human spirit,” the ability of the romantic leads to rise above their social and economic differences and even the most daunting obstacles put before them.

But, you might object, local soaps made by Filipinos and starring local actors likewise follow the same story arcs. Yes, but one advantage of Koreanovelas is that they are compact in structure and move the story rapidly, with interesting twists and turns. Filipino dramas, especially when they begin rating well, are often “stretched” to nearly unbelievable dimensions, with main characters kidnapped twice or thrice every time the story hits a narrative slump, or the villain dying not once or twice but even three times, sometimes with another actor assuming the character or turning out to be a malevolent twin.

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Is there a link between the immense popularity of Korean “cultural products,” like TV dramas, movies, pop music and even online games, to the sales of actual commercial products like cell phones, appliances, cars, skin care and cosmetics, food and even fashion?

Ma. Crisanta Flores, a UP professor, noted how Korean dramas subtly (and not-so-subtly) promote Korean products used by the characters in their dramas. This is certainly true of Korean cuisine which has grown in popularity, such that fans and viewers have now grown familiar with  kimchi  and  bulgogi,  japchae  (noodles) and  bibimbap, and  soju, the spirit in green bottles that protagonists in dramas ingest when sad or glad, despairing or celebrating.

Maybe the dramas and videos have nothing to do with it, but we are certainly seeing an upsurge of popularity (and sales) for Korean products, from cars to cell phones, slim TVs to cameras. Of course, quality and design have had a lot to do with the products’ popularity, but as Flores points out, the “international reputation,” the over-all favorable image of Korea, has made their export products “prestige goods and status symbols.”

The “commodification of cultural products,” said Flores, has led to the creation of what she calls a “transnational culture” that transcends national boundaries and finds elements in common with fans in every corner of the world.

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Perhaps the prime symbol of this “transnational culture” from Korea is Korean singer Psy’s video of “Gangnam Style,” a song spoofing the high style and pretensions of people populating Gangnam, a stylish, trendy district of Seoul.

Psy, said Catherine Deen of Yahoo Philippines, is the “first real crossover star” of the Hallyu school, his video on YouTube garnering well over 150 million hits and counting.

By any measure, Psy makes for a most unusual international star, being pudgy and not exceptionally good-looking. His video has also garnered countless spoofs, including one by a Pinoy comedian, Bogart, who is equally chunky and makes a jeepney his “stage.”

Whether homage, spoof or outright parody, this exchange of cultures, a conversation on modern manners and pretensions, tells a lot about how much we all have in common, and how a sense of humor holds universal appeal—for the  bagets  as well as for unapologetic  ajummas.

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