I Wanted to Hate the Seoul Episode of Huang’s World
Everyone makes mistakes. It’s a refrain a lot of people spout, but the truth is it’s hard to actually accept. I’m a huge believer in the importance of admitting when I’ve thought, said, or done something wrong. It’s easier said than done, but to put aside pride for a second and become completely vulnerable, honest, and maybe even sincerely apologetic, leads to an unparalleled kind of catharsis.
I sat down to watch season 2, episode 7 of Huang’s World with the intention of writing a piece afterward called “Everything Eddie Huang Fucked Up in his Seoul Episode.” That was seriously the title I intended to use. I opened up the notes app on my laptop, and prepared to make a list – yes, an actual fucking list – of everything he got wrong about the food, culture, whatever. The episode aired more than a month ago, but I had put off watching it, because honestly, I thought it would really piss me off. A potential new features piece gave me an actual reason to let myself get mad, and then spew that rage into a Word document.
I was wrong.
But before I talk about why I was wrong, and about the episode, I want to provide some reasons why I had these shitty expectations. Though I’m an undeniably cynical person, there was actually experience-based logic to this.
First, travel shows chronically fuck up on their Seoul episodes. Frankly, they may fuck up on episodes in a lot of cities, but since Korean culture is the only non-American one I have any expertise on, that’s the only one I can reasonably comment on. Anthony Bourdain’s Seoul episode of No Reservations was trash. I actually know the producer of that episode, and she did tell me once that he was a piece of shit to work with on that episode, but that’s like double hearsay so take it as you will. Anyway, Vice too has had their fair share of Seoul fumbles, like the fashion week episode where they sent that blonde British girl to marvel at how every single person in Korea has plastic surgery and buys matching underwear (within the first 15 seconds, she describes Seoul as “North Korea’s fun, Southern cousin”… what the actual fuck), or when they sent the same girl to report on mukbangs and she basically got everything wrong. Especially when it comes to food, if people haven’t really, really done their homework before talking about what Korea has to offer, they’re going to incorrectly describe shit, let alone neglect the entire cultural context and history that surround the cuisine.
Second, I have a complicated history with Eddie Huang. Now, that makes it sound like we have a relationship, and we do not – there is almost no way that he has any idea who I am. But, as a New Yorker, I remember the hype that surrounded Baohaus when it first opened in the East Village, and then carried over to its present Union Square location. I’ve watched his rise to fame, propelled by his book (which I read), a show that he was involved in at first and then dropped out of when they fucked him over, his relationship with Vice, and his advocacy for the Asian American community. I respect him for all of these things. At the same time, having a background in the restaurant industry, I’ll tell you that he is generally not respected by New York chefs. Baohaus is good, and I think its cultural importance is notable, but look, it’s not that amazing. And most chefs shake their heads remembering the sit down restaurant he tried to open that closed largely because he insisted it serve Four Loko. I love Korean food and I love Olde English, but I’m not gonna open a Pocha that serves 40s (wait, actually…). So, I like him as a cultural figure. Like most people in the restaurant industry, I don’t take him seriously as a food authority. Maybe you can see why I had low expectations going in.
Last but not least, I have an issue with Vice. I’m not gonna front, their style and way of doing things influenced our publication, and shaped the media industry in a way that made a publication like Hamburo possible. But I think a lot of the time, Vice gets so wrapped up in itself, in the culture they created, and in their image as “that cool magazine that talks about drugs and sex and shit” that the quality of their content takes the backseat. Again, watch that Seoul mukbang video. It’s rough.
I was wrong. I don’t think I was wrong about travel shows fucking up in their Seoul episodes. I don’t think I was wrong about Vice. But I was definitely wrong in my judgment of Eddie, and for that, I have to apologize.
Huang’s World’s format is generally to give a cultural, current events-informed and food-infused overview of a city in about 45 minutes. Obviously, to do a place justice in 45 minutes is pretty much impossible, so I guess the challenge for travel shows is to cover the right amount of material, in-depth enough so as to be respectful but quickly enough to stay interesting. Whereas other travel shows regularly fail this challenge, Eddie Huang’s show excelled.
Over the course of the episode, Eddie covers the lasting effects of Japanese occupation and the Korean War. He discusses Korea’s rapid industrialization, massive cultural dominance in Asia, including hip-hop (through an interview with Jay Park) and beauty trends, and suicide. He visits a halfway home for Korean adoptees who return home, and he visits a school that teaches seniors to speak English. In between all of these, he eats famed Korean dishes. Not bad for 45 minutes.
As lead by his various “fixers” in Seoul, Eddie tries Pyeongyang naengmyun, fried chicken, tteokbokki, kalguksu, jokbal (big ups), kimbap, and jeon. After each first bite, he describes the food using clunky, off-base adjectives (tteok is “silky”) in an attempt to either convey what the food is like, prove that he knows a lot about food, or both. In either case, he falls short. Probably his biggest error, other than a couple of mispronunciations (but that’s cool) is exclaiming that naengmyun broth has a clear, sharp flavor due to the beef bone stock. It’s not beef bone stock, and if it was, it would be milky like seollongtang and taste like beef bones. Not sure how someone who made his name opening a restaurant could fuck that up, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not the worst mistake he could make. Arguably more criminal was that he didn’t add mustard and vinegar to his naengmyun, but I guess that’s on the guide who didn’t tell him to do so.
Other than the awkward and forced descriptions, neither he nor the guests really talk that much about the food, though if his show is more aimed towards culture than food, it makes sense that that’s where he would spend his time. I give him props for talking about the wives’ tale of jokbal being good for your skin (or even eating it at all), and exploring market food. Not enough time was devoted to Korean drinking culture, but that’s my personal bias.
What was kind of fucked up was how, despite opening the episode discussing the lasting cultural tensions stemming from Japanese occupation, he kept describing things using Japanese terms. Dried seaweed was nori instead of kim, and kimbap was described as a relative of a California maki roll. Not far off, but maybe a little insensitive after everything he and his guides had just discussed.
As I said, I find it hard to respect Eddie Huang as a food authority, but I wholeheartedly believe in him as a cultural figure. He’s smart, well-spoken, and has a lot of important insights, as well as an admirable love of kicks and hip hop (we’re with you b). Huang’s World’s Seoul episode pretty much completely reflected this. Sections about food were competent – just competent – but that’s a lot more than other travel shows can say. The cultural segments were insightful, gave a good overview of contemporary Korean society for 45 minutes, and maybe most importantly, gave the locals a voice (which I think Eddie is great at).
I wanted to hate it. I wanted to take note of everything he fucked up, and then go in on him, on Vice, on travel shows. But within 10 minutes of watching, I became acutely aware that I was the one who fucked up.
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