Awkward accents while astonished trying traditional Korean food like Kimchi and Bulgogi, and praising Korea for being one of the most developed countries, this is what was expected of a foreigner celebrity shown on Korean TV shows 20 years ago. However, this is simply not the case anymore.
Korea used to be a country that highlighted its single-race as part of their identity (Dan-Il Min-jok in Korean), and even included this in their national curriculum. However, in 2007, UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) called this out and warned that stressing racial homogeneity will hinder people from diverse nations and of diverse race from being able to live in harmony with others in Korea as it fosters racism. Korea is also a country that gained independence in 1945, only 75 years from now. So, having comparatively less time for international exchange, foreigners were something new, completely different, and totally unknown to the public in Korea. That’s why “Things that foreigners find weird living in Korea” or “British Priest Reacts to (insert something Korean)” videos are easy view makers on video platforms like YouTube. To keep this popularity, foreign celebrities were expected to remain as someone exotic, someone with a different accent and voice.
However, unlike the past, many TV shows as well as YouTube channels are featuring new faces and this time, foreigners don’t have to fake their accent to sound like one. Now, they can flaunt their high-class Korean vocabulary skills as much as they want. After all, they lived in Korea for a life-time, longer than they stayed in their passport-country, and some even consider Korea as their home. There is no reason to pretend to just have landed in Incheon International Airport a day before the shooting when they did not. ‘Abnormal Summit,’ a renowned JTBC television program aired between 2014 and 2017 featuring fruitful debates with diverse foreign panels introducing their cultures, initiated the popularity of these types of programs. International celebrities including Kang Sue-jin, a prima ballerina of Germany’s Stuttgart Ballet and Simon Pegg, a prominent English actor have visited the show. It recorded a highest 7.9 percent audience rating on the episode featuring Pyo Chang-won, a well-known profiler.
Ilya Belyakov - Daehan Russian talks on Abnormal Summit
On July 4, Ewha Voice was able to sit down with Ilya Belyakov who is well known for representing Russia in ‘Abnormal Summit.’ He has been living in Korea for 17 years now and is currently introducing and advertising Korean culture to Russia on his own YouTube channel, “Ilya, Daehan Russian.” He obtained a master’s degree in the Department of Korean Language and Literature at Yonsei University and has been working as a Korean-Russian translator translating old Korean literature into Russian as well.
Q: Special thing about Abnormal Summit was that it wasn’t exactly an entertainment show, but it was also not a documentary where delivering the most accurate information is the foremost priority. What was it like to represent Russia in such a show? Were there times when you had trouble finding the right moment to be serious and when to relax a little?
“I think the editing team did most of that job of finding the balance for us. In season one, we did our own research and we debated freely, but there were some issues. For instance, the delegate of Nepal Sujan Ratna Shakiya, discussed Gadhimai, a Nepali traditional festival which involves the slaughter of twenty million animals including water buffalos. This wasn’t edited out and after this was broadcasted, many Koreans criticized it as animal abuse and some even signed the national petition to cut the diplomatic relationship with Nepal. These types of scandals resulted in making season two completely scripted. This is also why we were often cornered to cover relatively light topics such as giving relationship advice because that topic is safe and less likely to offend anyone.”
Q: It’s been 17 years now since you moved to Korea from Russia. Many of your values or even your personality would have changed since then. Nonetheless, you were there to represent Russia; was there ever a time when you felt the stereotypical image of a Russian forced upon you?
“That’s exactly how the show worked. Russia is a country with a population of over 140 million with more than ten different staterecognized religions. There is no way for me to actually act as a representative for all those people. They all have vastly different opinions, different personalities and this isn’t limited to Russia only. But there is a stereotypical image of a Russian, an American, a Japanese, so the show only aired that part of us because that’s what the audience expects from us. It’s worth noting that the entire shooting was usually sevenhour- long for a single episode. But what is broadcasted is a highly edited 56-minute video. Sometimes, the things we wanted to discuss or show the audience didn’t match with the things that they wanted or expected to hear from us.”
Q: What kind of positive effects do you think Abnormal Summit has brought to the Korean society?
‘Abnormal Summit’ increased Korean’s tolerance towards other cultures and it completely changed the way Koreans see foreigners living in Korea. It allowed Koreans to see a foreigner as just another being who’s living in the same city as them, just another member of the society who also ponders the same political and social issues and how to solve them. In fact, the word ‘foreigner’ has very negative connotations. It separates people, it’s either us or them.
If you’re a foreigner living in Korea, you receive an Alien Registration Card (ARC) and that’s exactly how foreigners used to feel in Korea, almost like an alien. Before ‘Abnormal Summit,’ non-Korean celebrities in Korean shows were clowns. Their roles were limited to saying, ‘I like Kimchi,’ ‘Korea is a very safe country’ and were often asked to speak Korean with an accent even if they did not have any.
Non-Korean celebrities used to only talk about lighter subjects such as romantic relationships but ‘Abnormal Summit’ completely changed that by discussing more serious topics regarding politics, economy, and culture. I think there was a knowledge-thirst towards other cultures among the Korean audience because there were very few known about foreigners in general. Also, back then, JTBC was a smaller company as apposed to now, so they had more freedom to try something new compared to the Big three national television networks. I sincerely hope that programs like ‘Abnormal Summit’ will be introduced once again to the Korean audience in the future.”
Rose Kizgin shares her experiences in ‘77 Billion Love’
Rose Kizgin is a 25-year-old French working as an entertainer in Korea. Kizgin appeared as a cast member of ‘77 Billion Love’ which is a similar format to ‘Abnormal Summit’ but the topic was on love, and this time included female members as well. Although the show ended this April, Kizgin conversed with Ewha Voice on the reason why she continues to work in Korea as a foreign entertainer.
Her interest in Korea germinated through k-dramas when she was a teenager. When she was 22, she came to Korea as an exchange student to Ewha Woman’s University. Even as a student, her dream was to act as a cultural bridge between Korea and France. Kizgin stayed longer in Korea when she earned a working holiday visa and it came to the point when she attempted to find a job in the entertainment industry. Ewha Voice asked about the reason why she wants to work in Korea.
“Korea was a place where everything seemed so possible for me,” Kizgin said. “I love the people here and there are people who love me for the work I do. Although there are limits for me as a foreigner, I still think Korea gives plentiful opportunities for foreigners who work hard.”
She was casted in ‘77 Billion Love’ through three trials of auditions. At times she felt pressured to talk about love as a French delegate since love is a topic that is hard to generalize. It took 12 to 20 hours for her to form arguments and check facts in each episode.
Her most memorable experience was when the members shared opinions each countries’ attitude towards infidelity.
“It was so entertaining, because I explained how France was relatively more ‘accepting’ than other countries,” Kizgin said. “I even commented that infidelity could be used as a method to prove the love one has for the lover, if you still feel great love for your partner during infidelity.” However, I am completely against it. I would break up immediately with my boyfriend if he cheated on me.”
Rose remembers this episode as the most amusing as the cast members were extremely enthusiastic and had decent arguments supporting their opinions. It was enriching for her to see that the facet of infidelity in France could arouse such an active discussion.
Still, as a foreign cast member on a Korean program, Rose did feel the need to filter her comments.
“When we had to talk about Korean culture, I was afraid that I was misrepresenting certain aspects since I still have numerous cultures and knowledge to learn before judging,” she said. “In the case of France, even if there were parts I do not know clearly, I felt comfortable criticizing as I was born and raised there. All in all, I do wish I was more confident back then and shared my opinions more aggressively to the panel members.”
Kizgin gave her views on why there are multiple popular programs in Korea that center on foreigners. She thinks it is because foreigners can bring different points of views such as entertaining anecdotes from various cultural backgrounds. She believes the Korean people are fast learners and full of curiosity, which is why they are intrigued in what foreigners in Korea want to say.
Rose wishes to sing, act, dance, and star in talk shows continually in the future. She believes one’s ambition is never enough in whatever country one may reside in.