Friday, April 22, 2016

The Reason I Adore the Diversity in K-Drama Moorim School

Moorim School: Saga of the Brave
Network: KBS2
Episodes: 16
Release Date: January 11 - March 8, 2016

Moorim School started airing this winter. It's about a secret university that concentrates on training its students in discipline and martial arts.

Yoon Shi-woo (Lee Hyun-woo) is the leader of the idol group 'Mobius'. His rise in popularity and fame made him become arrogant and prickly in nature, but he has a serious problem: he is suffering painful hearing loss that doctors have not been able to pinpoint or cure.
Wang Chi-ang (Lee Hong-bin) is the son of Wang Hao, the president of China's largest enterprise groups in Shanghai. Spoiled and selfish, he acts like he owns the world, yet hides his own wounds: he is an illegitimate son who was born from a Korean mother.
The boys both end up at the Moorim Institute and are forced to share a room together despite an instant dislike for each other. But Moorim Institute isn't focused solely on high academic scores. The school teaches its students virtues including honesty, faith, sacrifice and communication. The teachers and students come from different countries and each have their own stories. As the boys grow in character and strength, they discover that there is more to both of them than appearances suggest.

So, the reasons I like this show are plentiful. I absolutely adore Lee Hyun Woo (To The Beautiful You & The Technicians). And, because of this show, I really like Seo Ye Ji. The story is also really fun (if not that novel, but that's alright, I don't need everything to be mind blowing). I like the relationships between Shi Woo and Chi Ang (bromance!). As well as the four lead kids as a group. Even the teachers have fun dynamics and add a lot of comedy to the stories. I don't mind the adults and their complicated flashback stories and drama. I even tolerate the villains (oftentimes the villains are the most boring characters in a drama, but I don't absolutely loathe them in Moorim). If I'm being honest, the ending fell flat (I blame this on the fact that 4 episodes were cut from the end mid-production).

However, the main reason I'm writing about Moorim School here is because of its treatment of the international cast. There are people from Africa, Europe, South East Asia, and beyond. Of course, the majority of the cast is still Korean, however, the point is that there is an international cast. And what I kind of adore about what Moorim School does is that it just lets its characters be whatever they are.

To be fair, it uses really awkward English (spoken by former U-KISS member Alexander Lee) to show how international the school is. And they also have the Thai character speak Thai even though everyone else always replies to these two in Korean. But I never get the feeling that these characters are being made into tokens.

With the teachers, there's one from Europe and one from Africa. They both only speak Korean the whole time. The European teacher is an expert at martial arts and just does his thing being a badass as he teaches the kids discipline and skills. He's not fetishized or exotified. He's just a professor who happens to not be Korean in a mostly Korean school. I like that. I think that it feels more integrated than if he were the "English teacher" who could only speak English and is otherwise super separate. And this is in a country where that legitimately exists (e.g. white teachers who come to Korea just to teach English).  However, Moorim School doesn't care about those stereotypes. It just does its thing with its international, diverse cast. And because of that its diversity is easy to watch and not awkward. The not awkwardness of it is the best part. And it's what I'd love all of my entertainment to have when it has diversity.

Listen, Moorim isn't perfect. There is are small things that give me a "hmmm" moment (aforementioned English spoken by Alexander Lee). And they aren't oblivious to the international cast angle, it was legitimately marketed as an international Korean Drama. But at the end of the day, it's kind of refreshing to see the branching out of an industry that's mostly Korean and/or token foreigners.

In the publishing industry right now, we have movements like We Need Diverse Books, DiversifYA, and publishers (Lee & Low) who are doing great things like creating Diversity Baseline Surveys for the first time ever! I love it. However, the sad side-effect are books being written and published because they fill a "diversity" niche.*

But are they really?

When I read a book that is supposed to be diverse and I feel awkward when reading it because the diversity is overblown I don't feel like I need to validate it automatically. Like someone waving something shiny in my face and going, "Look-it what I did!  Isn't it great?!"

Because what they claim is a diamond is actually a rock covered in glitter.

And I'm not going to let that fly.

I don't think a book that has an MC that's "diverse" in only superficial, stereotypical ways is effectively filling a void. I think it's actually ripping that void even wider. We don't just need diverse books, we need authentic diverse books. Books where the diversity feels less exotified and tokenized.

I want the YA book version of Moorim School. And it wouldn't hurt to have some eye-candy cuties like Lee Hyun Woo and Hong Bin.**

*Oh hi, soap box, my name's Kat, I'm going to stand on you now.
**I will note that I don't think we should mirror the diversity trends of other countries. I don't think Moorim is perfect in its diversity. It just made me think and appreciate something that is new and diverse. And that's the point of this post. Soap boxing done.

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