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Korea Blog: Korea’s 1990s sitcom about life in Los Angeles, “LA Arirang”

Not long after I started studying Korean, I signed up for a Japanese class, Japanese being the closest language I could find classes for in Santa Barbara at that time, in hopes of meeting a Korean international student with whom to practice the one I really wanted to learn. I soon did, and he invited me to a meal at his favorite Korean restaurant in town (or rather, one of Santa Barbara’s few Chinese restaurants, but one that happened to serve Korean dishes on the side). It turned out he had something more on his mind than introducing me to the food of his homeland. “I have a question to ask you,” he said after ordering, and nothing I could have considered in that moment would have prepared me for what came out next: “What is the American dream?”

I recall mumbling an unconvincing answer about small businesses, big houses, two-car garages, and green lawns — or at least I found it unconvincing myself, having ceased dreaming about suburban comforts the moment I realized alternatives existed. But clearly this teenager from a small city in South Korea, abroad for a none-too-intensive few semesters of community college in a California beach town, considered the definition of the American dream a much more urgent matter. A decade later, I wonder if, in the impressionable years of childhood, he’d ever watched LA Arirang (LA 아리랑), a mid-1990s family sitcom essentially all about the Korean vision of the American dream, small businesses, big house, two-car garage, green lawn and all.

If you’ve ever attended a Korean choral performance, you’ve almost certainly heard “Arirang,” the old folk song anointed by UNESCO as a piece of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and generally regarded as the unofficial anthem of the Korean peninsula. It comes in many regional variations, most from the different parts of the countryside and at least one from Seoul, and so it makes for a sufficiently clever joke to suggest, in the title of a show set in the city with the highest Korean population outside Korea itself, that the time might have come for “Jeongseon Arirang,” “Jindo Arirang,” “Miryang Arirang,” and all the others to make room in the canon for an “LA Arirang.”

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.