Yongusil 95: The Korean Wave and Identity in the Land of Liberty

By | September 25, 2018 | No Comments

K-pop meets urban America. | Image: Sherri Ter Molen

The mere mention of K-pop evokes images of screaming 20-year-old fangirls, but while these young female fans of South Korean (henceforth: Korean) pop music are arguably the most visible, fans of the Korean Wave, or Hallyu1)Ryoo Woongjae, “The case of the South Korean film industry: The political economy of the global mediascape,” Media, Culture & Society, 30 no. 6 (2008): 873-889. do not always conform to this stereotype. Case in point, Jeff is a 42-year-old white man who lives in the Southern United States. He was introduced to Korean culture through the Korean television drama, Princess Hours (궁), which Netflix, a US entertainment streaming service, suggested after he watched other international programming. He was so enthralled by this K-drama that he canceled his cable television subscription because he was no longer interested in non-Korean content, and he branched out into other Korean cultural products such as K-pop, traveling all over the United States and Korea to attend concerts featuring his favorite idols. What is perhaps a bit more surprising, however, is that Jeff’s new entertainment diet led him to replace the forks in his home with chopsticks, prepare colorful and often plant-based Korean meals, and over the course of a decade, lose 80-to-90 pounds (36-to-41 kilograms) as a result.

The idea that there are Hallyu fans who develop interests that transcend pop culture and that somehow also reshape, physically or otherwise, their notions of self was at the center of my doctoral dissertation, which I defended in the Department of Communication at Wayne State University in March of 2018.2)Sherri L Ter Molen, “’Black American, heart Korean’: Non-Korean identities in U.S. Korean Meetup groups,” PhD diss., Wayne State University. Not all of the 77 participants who completed emailed or face-to-face in-depth interviews were introduced to Korean culture through Hallyu as Jeff was. Many of these participants who belonged to 11 different Korean Meetup groups that were located in sporadic metropolitan areas of the United States became interested through interpersonal relationships that they had formed with Koreans or Korean Americans. Regardless, all of the Koreanophiles in this ethnographic study professed that they consume various types of Korean pop culture, and they touted its hybrid nature, combining Eastern and Western elements along with pre-modern and contemporary themes, as the reason that products such as K-dramas captured their initial attention. Of course, some of the participants called attention to the attractiveness of Hallyu stars as one reason for their fervor, but many of their narratives disclosed much less superficial and certainly more personal reasons behind their heartfelt affinities.

In fact, four distinct hermeneutic themes emerged that help to explain why these non-Korean members consume Korean media and why they choose to participate in Korean cultural activities. The first of the four themes was an admiration for Korean history and spirituality. In regards to the history aspect, for example, Claudia, a 22-year-old Latinix woman who was introduced to Korean culture through K-dramas praised the country that produced them as follows: “I really admire how [Koreans] overcame so many attempts of colonization.” She further related the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula to the U.S. control of Puerto Rico, verbalizing her wish that her island home would expel the United States as Korea expelled Japan. Claudia was politically minded, but the three other themes that came to light were associated with perceived relationships in Korean culture. The second theme was an admiration for respect such as the reverence afforded to elders; the third was an admiration for the chastity that is often demonstrated in K-dramas since it sometimes takes several episodes for the first kiss to occur, and the fourth was an admiration for the perceived depth of relationships in Korean culture. A 29-year-old Latinix man named Marcus, for example, told me, “Koreans make strong relationships and really care about their friends and family. Not to say that American culture doesn’t have that too, but it is much more ingrained into the Korean culture in my experience.”

Marcus was not the only participant to allude to a feeling that mainstream American culture does not fulfill his needs. As Tony, a 29-year-old man who is married to a Korean woman, put it, “Being a white male in America, I am not used to there being any sort of unity in our society.” In other words, it is the homogeneity of U. society with its mosaic of ethnic groups that inhibits his feeling of cohesiveness and national belonging. Thus, non-Koreans join Korean Meetup groups in the United States to share their passions for Hallyu, but some, like Marcus and Tony, also join in order to experience jeong (정), a set of positive emotions that are shared in close relationships, and to feel that they belong, not just to a group, but to an adopted ethnic culture.

A K-pop fan shows off her newly painted nails, with special recognition of the “boy band” Go7 (갓세븐) on the ring fingers. | Image: Sherri Ter Molen

Since culture is learned and shared,3)Sarah Trenholm, Thinking through communication: An introduction to the study of human communication, 3rd ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001). it is not uncommon for non-Koreans to incorporate cultural practices such as eating with chopsticks into their lives, but coming into contact with Korean culture does not necessarily change every Koreanophile’s physical appearance as it did with Jeff. Rather, some encounters with Korean culture change the ways in which Koreanophiles think about themselves. There are non-Korean members of these groups who are solely interested in learning the Korean language, but there are also members like Robert, a 64-year-old white man who is studying the Korean language because he finds Korean culture so “completely absorbing” that he dreams of moving to Korea once he retires from working. Yet, there are others like Jennifer, a 31-year-old white woman, as well as Corrina, a 58-year old black woman, who both believe that that they might have been Korean in past lives because they feel so strongly that Korean culture reflects who they are on the inside. In addition, there are members like Diane, a 53-year-old white woman, who has considered having eye surgery in an attempt to look Korean so that her physical body would match the internal Korean identity that she has developed since coming across the K-drama, Secret Garden (시크릿 가든), on Netflix.

The Koreanophiles in this study are not just fans of Korean pop culture. As Joseph Nye asserts, when people find a country’s culture or ideologies appealing, they tend to support that nation. To illustrate, a 31-year-old Chaledean American named Dena proudly showed me her Samsung mobile phone, which she purchased since Samsung is a Korean brand, and a 46-year-old black woman by the name of Natasha who first encountered a Korean science fiction film told me that she streams Korean news on networks such as MBC because she now cares about Korean current events. Dismissing these Koreanophiles’ narratives as Orientalist drivel or to accuse them of cultural appropriation might lead scholars to overlook the interplay of factors such as these individuals’ own ethnic identities, their political outlooks, and their cultural preferences, all of which might very well determine their brand loyalties or even their national affiliations, regardless of whether these affiliations are reflected on their passports, in the years to come.

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1. Ryoo Woongjae, “The case of the South Korean film industry: The political economy of the global mediascape,” Media, Culture & Society, 30 no. 6 (2008): 873-889.
2. Sherri L Ter Molen, “’Black American, heart Korean’: Non-Korean identities in U.S. Korean Meetup groups,” PhD diss., Wayne State University.
3. Sarah Trenholm, Thinking through communication: An introduction to the study of human communication, 3rd ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001).

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