AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 585

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Session 585: Neoliberal Market and National Imaginary: Gender and Consumption in China and South Korea

Organizer: Gowoon Noh, California State University, Sacramento, USA

Chair: Jee-Eun R. Song, University of California, Davis, USA

Discussant: Laura C. Nelson, University of California, Berkeley, USA

With increasing forces of globalization (and urbanization), one of the prominent changes in East Asia is the rapid increase in consumerism that is at odds with the national imaginary. Yet the framework for understanding the present changes through the discourse of globalization is limiting in understanding the neoliberal conditions in both the context of South Korea and China. This panel looks at how local consumers of the nation-states mediate and negotiate information and knowledge about exchange of goods and services aided by the neoliberal market. Each of the papers in the panel explores the narratives collected from ethnographic research that support, reinforce, marginalize, and disrupt consumers’ relationship to gender and sexuality. The circulation and emphasis on knowledge (re)production about material and ideological goods through media, information technology, and/or personal and collective experiences complicate individual’s social locations within and beyond national space.

The Reconstitution of the Post-Partum Female Body in South Korea
Yoonjung Kang, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA

This study examines South Korean women’s contemporary postpartum care practices (sanhuchori) in relation to changing body/care regimes and traditional Korean postpartum care. Traditionally, very elaborate care and attention has been granted to new mothers after birth in Korea. According to Korean postpartum customs (sanhuchori), a woman is required to stay home to recover for at least 21 days after giving birth, during which time she follows a strict dietary and exercise regime. Prior to recent changes, most women upon giving birth have received such care from close family members like one’s maternal mother or mother-in-law. Yet the family-centered care soon took on a different cultural (de)value with the rapid rise of sanhuchoriwon, commercialized and institutionalized postpartum care service facilities, in the late 1990s. These institutionalized large-scale facilities cooperating with gynecologists, pediatricians, oriental medicine doctors, and various therapists began to gain immediate popularity by promoting a standard care regime combined with an array of Korean traditional medical practices and Western medicine. This ethnographic research explores how this market is stratified according to price and clientele and analyzes the meanings of women’s bodies within this context. It also examines power relations under South Korean neoliberal capitalism; changing notions of kinship and family ties; and the meeting of traditional Korean and Western medicine/biotechnology by looking into Korean women’s embracement of postpartum care beliefs and behaviors (sanhuchori).

China’s Baby Formula Scandals: Consumer Goods, Nation, and the Gendered Body
Amy Hanser, University of British Columbia, Canada

China is frequently characterized as the world’s factory shopfloor, yet Chinese people are increasingly global consumers as well as producers. This paper seeks to explore the reception and portrayal of imported consumer goods in China through an examination of two consumer scares related to milk powder (and infant formula). The “Nestlé incident” occurred in 2005, involved a batch of milk powder with iodine levels that exceeded China’s national standards, and led to accusations that as a foreign company Nestlé was operating according to “double standards”—that is, not treating Chinese consumers with the respect and concern given consumers in other (wealthier) countries. The second incident, in 2008, involved Sanlu milk powder doctored with the industrial chemical melamine, received worldwide attention, and produced a crisis of confidence in domestically produced milk products and infant formulas among Chinese consumers. In both cases, these incidents served as a stage on which debates about imported/foreign vs. domestic/Chinese goods, and about consumers and the nation, played out. But the specific nature of infant formula—which is designed to mimic breast milk, a product of the maternal body—also generated a complex discourse about culture, nation, the gendered and racialized body, and China’s position in global economic and status hierarchies. Together, these two cases highlight the ways in which consumer goods have come to serve as key sites in which discourses of the nation are articulated in China today.

A Quest for Café Latte: Cultural Meaning and Representation of Coffee Consumption in South Korea
Jee-Eun R. Song, University of California, Davis, USA

This paper examines the meaning of coffee in the 21st century in South Korea: what might the explosion of recent transnational coffee houses (namely Starbucks) and its growing designer café culture signify in South Korea with respect to the political, economic, and social restructuring associated with globalization? The taste for coffee at a particular moment has to be understood because it tells us a great deal about global circulations of goods, ideas and power. What does it mean to desire coffee, to crave it or to be addicted to coffee? Does coffee take on a certain cultural meaning of bitterness, of bitter-sweetness, of energy and potency? I address these complex questions through a reading of two popular South Korean dramas, The Man in the Vineyard (Podopat Geusanai) (2006) and Stranger Than Heaven (2006), paying particular attention to the symbolic representation of coffee. A reading of key characters and scenes from these films will attempt to explore the kinds of imaginary that emerge from the texts: naturalizations of “global” identity, use of cosmopolitan images, tropes and language, construction of a universal subject, marketing and branding of “American-ness,” and framing of temporality. In what follows, I analyze how the explosion of transnational coffee consumption impact: the tensions of ongoing urbanization; the reconfiguration of class divisions; and the reformulation of postcolonial nationalism. Analyses of these films will be read alongside findings from my fieldwork.

Gendered Meaning of Authentic Foreign Commodities in China
Gowoon Noh, California State University, Sacramento, USA

My paper looks at the processes through which the Korean ethnic population in China employs gendered meanings of consuming “authentic” foreign commodities within local market spaces. Since the 1990s, Korean-Chinese in the Yanbian ethnic prefecture have experienced an influx of commodities from capitalist countries, especially from South Korea. Goods, such as Haengnam china dinner sets or Cookoo digital rice cookers, have been associated with the lifestyle of urban modern Korean-Chinese women. Because many South Korean goods are produced in factories run/owned by multinational corporations in China, and imitation goods of the same kind are made by Chinese manufacturers, merchants and their customers often confront each other in verifying the authenticity of the foreign products . Based on two years of field research at a local department store in the Yanbian prefecture, this paper examines how Korean-Chinese middle-class women customers, small private business women, and lower-class women service workers deploy their sophisticated and cosmopolitan cultural taste as urban middle class housewives through their demonstration of familiarity with and the affordability of authentic foreign products. By analyzing how Korean-Chinese women debate their knowledge of South Korean products through comparing the qualities of those with Chinese goods, this paper explores how Korean-Chinese women (re)produce complicated identity politics by means of the multiple discourses of the new middle class in postsocialist China, Confucian womanhood of wise mother and wife, and transnational flexible belonging between China and South Korea.

“175, 75, 34”: The Gay Internet as a Tool of Sexual Marketing and Consumption in Post-IMF Korea
John Cho, Harvard University, USA

Since the mid-1990s, there has been a global exporting of queer sexuality and offshoring of sexual production to South Korea. This global exporting and local sexual production, however, occurs within the Korean context of hetero-norms and consumer techno-nationalism that have been state-sponsored. Based on two years of research conducted in Seoul between 2007-09, this paper analyzes how Korean gay men take advantage of the interactive feature of the state-sponsored Internet to mutually market themselves and consume each other as sexualized objects. That is, through truncated descriptions such as “175, 75, 34” (that respectively refer to their height in centimeters, weight in kilograms, and age in Korean years), they hide their social identities and market themselves as sexualized bodies. In so doing, they are forging new subjectivities as online sexual consumers and sexual objects. In analyzing how the sexualized body thus constitutes a new form of sexualized object, exchangeable commodity, and personal wealth among Korean gay men via online spaces, this paper strives to map the post-IMF Korean landscape of expanded markets and novel sexual interactions modeled progressively after the market. By bringing into our discursive purview the lives of Korean gays and lesbians who are still largely excluded and rendered in/visible within South Korea’s (offline) heteronormative public sphere, it also endeavors to challenge the supposed cultural homogeneity of this “family-oriented” and “collectivist” society.