This week I saw yet another addition to the media wave attempting to tackle social issues in East Asia. Admittedly, it was beautifully filmed, thoroughly artsy and wonderfully edited, but it was also everything I have come to expect from Western media’s portrayal of anything foreign, especially as remotely foreign as East Asia. You had a white girl, with no understanding of the culture they were asking her to comment on, with no language knowledge, going about the report in a very ‘oh gosh how odd!’ way.
If you want to know why we’ve got these perpetuated stereotypes and consistent othering of cultures that are not our own, then that right there, that is why.
So hi, media moguls and magazine/video content curators that want to do these pieces on fascinating aspects of different cultures, this is mostly for you.
Because honestly I want you to do these pieces; they’re brilliant ideas that open doors to new knowledge in a way that is so completely accessible and visual and fabulous that slamming the hammer down and saying ‘no u can’t’ would be counterproductive.
But – and here’s where we get a bit … novel – how about you choose someone to front these projects that actually has an understanding of the culture you’re wanted to create the piece on. Push the boat out a bit and hire someone who’s bilingual – or at least conversationally competent – who’s studied or lived the culture for a period of time, because I know sometimes actually choosing someone of the target ethnicity is a bit hard**.
The UK, and the rest of the West, actually, have universities producing graduates that specialise in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, South East Asian and South Asian languages and cultures. There are actual degrees for this. I should know, I’ve been doing one for the last four years. My university has been providing the services of three East Asian languages and a more general regional degree for the best part of 60 years, with the number of graduates produced increasing every year as the courses become more popular. And there are more than 10 universities countrywide in the UK that offer programmes now. 10+ universities with the best being Russell Group if not Oxbridge themselves.
That’s all maths that I don’t particularly want to do, but it’s proving the point that in 2016 there is really no excuse to be creating content for public consumption that perpetuates ideas and stereotypes because projects are fronted by people who don’t – and often don’t really wish to – understand. Or who think they do understand but aren’t willing to harbour more than a superficial interest in the more ‘unique’ or ‘alternative’ aspects of the cultures that differ from the West. Most research is taken from newspapers and reports that sensationalise and other the ‘oddness’ of certain cultural practices. The topic I’m most knowledgeable on that frequently gets this treatment is cosmetic surgery, as I’ve spent the last 10 months of my life writing 12000 words on it for my undergrad dissertation. Almost all western ‘newspaper’ reports on the issue sensationalise it in some way, grossly skewing the generally accepted ideas.
Look at how North Korea is displayed in the media. It’s an actual physical country that routinely threatens to raze Seoul to the ground in a sea of flames and tests missiles (two tests failed on Thursday) – yet public opinion makes it out to be the tantruming toddler of the East; or some crazy loose-canon with its actions mocked, albeit wittily. This isn’t a fear-mongering thing, the South Koreans aren’t particularly fussed since they still have US protection and the North’s attempts are somewhat lacking, but how many of you know that the Korean War hasn’t actually ended, they’re just in a cease-fire.
How about the rise of China? Now the biggest economy in the world, treading in the footsteps of Japan and Korea on its way to assert global competitiveness while carrying the stigma of low quality goods at ridiculously affordable prices that the ‘Asian Tigers‘ bore before it. The recent push in the Chinese economy to create better quality items for domestic consumption, so they rely less heavily on Western imports and brand preference, is actually being reflected in sales now. Not to mention an awful lot of Western brands are manufactured in China – the label and price point may differ but they are. 20 years ago, before Samsung and LG were synonymous with high quality electronics, they were battling the same stigma: low quality goods at low prices, mass produced for export. It’s only since the technology drive that these brands are worldwide household names, and that drive started in the 00’s. That’s recent. With the speed that China is going, to paraphrase my Korean Business lecturer this week quoting someone she knows: ‘if China develop a smartphone that is as good as Samsung and cheaper, Korea will be looking at serious issues’. And to be honest, minus those that are steadfastly brand loyal, so will Apple.
These things may not be particularly interesting to the general public or to report on; despite the fact that they’re large issues that are currently being tackled behind scenes or written about by academics, and rarely get blasted outside of that circle. But understanding the history and development of cultures different to our own is key to producing informed content on current issues. Instead of approaching things as ‘oh how odd, how funny’ you can look at the how and the why in a way that is more analytical and overall more positive, and a little less condescending.
“Click bait gets views, passion gets engagement and changes opinions”
In my honest opinion the reason we so often fail to produce this sort of content is because we’re part of a culture that doesn’t care about the culture of others. Unless it’s in a way we can benefit from it, or mock. It’s something that we’ve inherited as a generation, but the continual production of sensationalist media, fronted by reporters that have little to no cultural understanding, and sometimes little to no interest in forming a cultural understanding, shows that we’re not doing enough to change that.
I understand that loud, attention grabbing or ‘click bait’ headlines get people talking, reading, writing and adding to the discussions, as well as using reporters that are popular or ‘down with the youth’ to entice certain audiences, but in reality it’s generally doing more to hinder than to help. If you’re giving these gigs to people that don’t have a genuine interest in what they’re creating then it just adds to the superficial nature and lack of cultural understanding. Lack of interest in a topic doesn’t exactly set a fire under you to do the best research possible, even if you are getting paid. It’s very apparent and it shows consumers of this content that they don’t need to be invested, really. Click bait gets views, passion gets engagement and changes opinions.
So stop overlooking graduates who do actually give a damn about the countries you’re wanting to produce content on. 4 or more years of language study, cultural study, and a dissertation on an aspect of the target country that inspires us, sets us up to be able to help you create quality content that projects passion and genuine interest while being culturally understanding. Most of us have lived in the country of the language that we speak for a year if not more. We’re here, we’re a thing. We want these opportunities too. Get us on the team, at least.
**In all honesty I still believe that graduates are the next best alternative to actually choosing to front these projects with reporters who are of the ethnicity that the piece is on. But apparently that is also still an issue in 2016 and my mind actually boggles.
I also think that Buzzfeed does a fab, fab job in this area.
Let me know what you think? Agree, disagree, didn’t realise this was even a thing. The degrees in the pictures are just a small handful of the number of East Asian or Asian based degrees available to study in the UK, there are many many more should you wish to look into them.