It’s Halloween, so here is something semi-serious – if US holidays show up in Asia, is that proof of cultural Americanization?
One of the things I miss most in Korea as an expat is the US holiday season. In terms of fun, parties, color and festivities, nothing beats the three-month run of Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Interculturally then, it is always interesting to see how much of this washes into other countries, given the endless debate about Americanization, globalization as cultural American imperialism, and all that.
In that vein, readers from the left might be glad to hear that little of that occurs in Korea. US holidays are generally un-celebrated here. While Korea is christianizing rapidly, Christmas has not even come close to the annual fun-time blow-out it has become in the US. It is still a religious holiday, not the cultural and shopping event it has evolved into in the US. (Ironically, religious conservatives who disdain the commercialization of the holidays might like the Korean attitude.) And Halloween has come mostly as an odd American event that is seen as somewhat fun, but kind of strange. When I explain Halloween to Koreans – Hallow’s Eve as the last night for evil spirits’ rampage in old Christian tradition – most Koreans find it fairly ridiculous. And all those new Korean Protestants don’t seem to know that story either.
Because of the big US presence in Korea for decades – first political-military, then commercial, increasingly now religious (American Protestantisms are pretty successful here) – you do have an awareness of US holidays, and some celebrations. But interest in this among Koreans generally serves Koreans’ interest to demark themselves from their fellows as cosmopolitan, worldly, and traveled. Ie, if you’re a Korean who celebrates Halloween with some resident expats, then you are ‘linked-in’ to the US culture in a way other Koreans are not, and that is a mark of social prestige. It is ‘cool’ to be able to say you celebrated Halloween with some white guy, kinda like it was to own a pair of blue jeans in the USSR.
In practice, then there is no trick-or-treating at all. Koreans mostly live in high-rises anyway, so trick-or-treating would be a weird, vertical affair requiring constant one-floor trips in the elevator. Horizontal neighborhoods filled with lights and people ambling about don’t really exist here. There are Halloween parties though. Korean clubs have them, but I have heard they are pretty strange events – just like a regular night at a club, only with some people in weird make-up. (Technically, there is no race-line for club attendance, but there are Korean clubs where foreigners would just never go in practice.) Ultimately though, it is the expat bars that try the hardest. They have costume contests and catch the spirit pretty well. The best expat bars are mixed; ie, Koreans come too. My impression though at these has always been that Koreans in attendance find the whole thing pretty bizarre and don’t get it at all.
So enjoy your Halloween. You are lucky to have the real deal…