My family watches Korean shows and movies online. I like romantic movies and reality shows about babies, my mom likes cooking shows and daytime soap operas, my brother likes action-packed variety shows, and my dad likes action flicks. The Internet has made it incredibly easy to click play and be instantly gratified. You can subscribe to Netflix or Hulu, get Korean dramas by the season. If I want to watch a Korean movie, I can torrent it, stream it, whatever.
But before streaming video links on forums, there were ripped VHS tapes from your friendly, neighborhood Korean video rental store. That’s how I remember growing up – you went into this tiny room, surrounded by stacks of VHS tapes, and they had the latest weekly episodes of my favorite dramas and variety shows. These stores still exist in my heavily Korean-populated neighborhood, although I don’t know for how much longer. It makes me sad to think that, someday, these elderly Korean men and women will have to shut down their video stores for good, even though they’ve long expanded to DVDs. Props to them for surviving longer than chains like Blockbuster but my family stopped frequenting these stores years ago and we’re not the only ones.
It makes me sad because this was how I, a first-generation Korean-American, realized my Korean culture. I spent my elementary school years in the suburbs of Illinois,, surrounded by white people. My Korean language skills were limited to what my parents needed me to know – food words, yes and no, simple sentences to indicate how I’m doing in school. Korean TV shows were where you learn the good stuff – love confessions, schoolyard slang, how to disown disgraced family members. This was the kind of media that was unavailable to my white classmates because this was before the advent of the global k-pop movement. Being Korean wasn’t cool yet, it was just a part of who I was. Going into this tiny store and marveling over the shelves upon shelves of VHS tapes was part of my experience growing up Korean-American. To this day, I still have no idea how the legality of these places works but they were always up-to-date. You could, of course, subscribe to the Korean television channels through cable TV providers but 1) they were pricey and 2) at least a week behind with everything but the news. “Illegal” was faster, easier, better.
Now, I can choose between Netflix or torrenting, licensed sites or illegal uploads. Either way though, I don’t have to have my parents drive me down to the store to pick up a VHS tape and then worry about getting it back within a week, rewound and in its slipcase. Newer technologies have removed the middleman but then where does the middleman go?
The middlemen are people who look like my grandparents, people who facilitated my cultural upbringing. Once you get to know them, they start putting aside your favorite shows for you to pick up. It’s personal in a way that clicking a streaming link isn’t, as hard as Netflix’s recommendation algorithms try. But their businesses are suffering and there’s really no way they can keep up to something even greater, even more illegal. As business owners, they can’t compete with the low, low price of free. An important part of my childhood is literally fading away as I see more and more FOR RENT signs year after year.
Maybe that’s just the nature of technology. Some people thrive, others become obsolete. To go back to my family, I have a little brother. Even with an age difference of just five years, there’s already a difference in how our Korean-American identities are formed by the different ways we access media. Not to say one is better than the other (I don’t want to be that old person) but, to circle back to our class discussion, I’m realizing that vital parts of both my brother’s and my identities relied on illegality. The illegality is expressed through different media but, nonetheless, subverting the law was essential to our childhoods.
Just curious – has anyone else had this sort of experience, with culture or otherwise? In which their life experiences would be vastly different if these illegal methods of accessing media did not exist?