Videotapes filling TV void in local Korean community


Lisa Chong rarely watches "Must-See TV Thursday." She has her own television event: "Gotta Rent Videos Monday."

That's when the latest episodes of Chong's favorite shows, Korean soap operas, are released to local Korean-language video stores. On Monday, Chong and a friend drove straight from school to a video store in the Bethany 40 Center to get the latest episodes of her favorite soap, Orlin, which focuses on the struggles of a young gambler.

"Once you start, you just can't stop," said the 16-year-old River Hill High School junior. "Besides, it's not like you can watch them on television."

Chong's weekly trip to the video store highlights an entertainment gap for Baltimore's Korean community: the absence of a Korean-language basic cable channel.

Unlike the Spanish community, which can watch Univision 24 hours a day on expanded basic cable, Koreans have to get premium cable or a satellite dish to watch shows.

Instead of paying the extra money, most Koreans rent their favorite soaps and watch them with a few friends.

The practice has become so ingrained in Baltimore's television-deprived Korean population that it has led to strange twists in the social fabric: Some children are encouraged to watch videotapes so they can learn Korean, college students plan their schedules around video store hours, and it is impossible in some circles to have a successful dinner party unless everyone has rented the same program.

"It has reached such a point where we want to sit down with Korean friends and [if] we haven't seen some of these videotapes that they watch, we can't join the conversation," said Jai Ryu, a professor of sociology at Loyola College in Baltimore.

Booming business

Nobody is sure how many Baltimore-area Koreans rent videos, but the business is expanding.

Korean companies exported $17.7 million worth of programs last year, an increase of nearly $6.7 million from the year before, according to the Yonhap News Agency in Seoul, South Korea.

Korean shows are significantly different from their American counterparts. Commercials come at the end of the program, not during.

"That alone makes it better than American TV," Chong said.

The dramas tend to be fairly restrained -- it is unusual to see NYPD Blue-style sexual situations or strong language in Korean programming. Comedy shows have elements of American shows such as American Idol or Celebrity Boxing. A-list Korean celebrities regularly appear on the shows.

"Everyone is a star, not a [C-list] celebrity," said Vivian Kim.

Kim, 21, a senior at the Johns Hopkins University, grew up in Culver City, Calif., but spent her high school years in Seoul. She rents videos once a month from stores in south Charles Village and often watches them as study breaks.

She recently watched Kang Ho Dong in Chunseng Yunboon, which features a well-known comedian interviewing stars.

Kim pointed out one of her favorite actors, Suh-hee Jang, who was making an appearance on the show.

"Isn't he cute?" she said.

But a few minutes later, Kang persuaded Jang to sing a screechingly awful version of a popular Korean song, the rough equivalent of David Schwimmer, Ross on Friends, belting out "Moon River" in prime time.

"It's so embarrassing, but you have to watch," said Kim, her admiration temporarily melting away as she simultaneously giggled and cringed.

Later in the show, an actress trotted onstage in a long coat only to drop it, revealing tight pants and a halter top, and launched into an enthusiastic, wiggling dance to Pink's "Get the Party Started." The male contestants whistled their approval and host Kang collapsed on the floor, howling in apparent delight.

"You just can't see things like this in America," Kim said.

Korean-language television executives are eager to attract customers like Kim.

But only premium cable subscribers in Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties can get the service, although executives hopes to expand soon.

"It's a question if we can get the numbers to support it," said Mike Seo, a vice president with Korean Broadcasting Network.

Cultural link

Kim, who is fluent in English and Korean, started watching the shows with her mother as a child and regards them as pure entertainment. But the shows also serve as semiformal cultural and linguistic lessons for others.

Hannah Choi, 16, a junior at River Hill High, speaks fluent Korean, but said she still picks up slang from the videos.

"This is America, we speak a different way than real Koreans do," said Choi, who began watching shows on a trip to Korea several years ago.

And Chong's mother will sometimes use the videotapes as a lesson for what a "good Korean girl should be like," Chong said. When a female character defers to her husband or is obedient, Chong's mother will tell her daughter.

"I just say, 'OK, OK, Mom,' " Chong said.

Such behavior is common in the local Korean community, many say.

Although Korean culture traditionally places stronger emphasis on homework than television, many Korean community leaders view the videotapes as a way for members of the younger generation to retain some of their Korean heritage.

"Our generation grew up thinking we absolutely had to fit into Western culture," said Timothy Oh, 39, pastor of New Life Church in Long Reach village in Columbia. "But the younger generation is different. They enjoy finding their Korean identity, so positive things will come out of these videos."

Videotapes play a similar role in other communities. Foreign-language programs are available at many Hispanic and Indian stores in the area.

"When immigrants are feeling vulnerable and lonely, they like to talk about the common experience of watching television," said Ruth Chung, an associate professor of clinical education counseling psychology at the University of Southern California.

Many video renters say they would not mind having an easily available Korean channel.

"It would be nice to have television," Chong said. "They would have to have my favorite shows, though."

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