It’s me back! It’s Jenna RyuFormer Life and Travel intern. Now, Life and Wellness Fellow.
You might remember me from the “This Is America” Takeover where I addressed the myth of an Asian “model minority” and shared my experiences with these microaggressions. You can also see the rest of this article.
But today, I’m here to talk about “Squid Game,” the South Korean Netflix series that everyone can’t stop talking about.
I won’t lie: I was shocked to witness the global obsession with this show. After a year of racial reckoning during the pandemic, I pessimistically assumed people wouldn’t be craving a “foreign” series with minimal English dialogue (unless you watched with dubbing — in that case, we didn’t watch the same show. We are sorry!Sorry!
This isn’t the first time Korean pop culture has made a breakthrough in this country. Psy’s “Gangnam Style” and Korean boy group BTS introduced the world to the allure of K-pop. Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” conquered Hollywood as the first foreign-language film to win best picture at the Oscars. Even Korean cosmetic products are dominating the shelves of beauty stores like Sephora and Ulta.
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America’s history and Korea’s Rise
Seeing non-Asians taking the time to learn my language to sing along with BTS or create our dalgona candy from “Squid Game” wasn’t something I would’ve expected ten years ago.
Only a few short years later, Korean culture has become mainstream in the USA. You might be wondering how?
Surprisingly or not, Korean culture is appealing to Americans in part because it was heavily influenced by American culture itself (Here’s a history fun fact: The U.S. had a strong military presence in South Korea). From Korea’s red ginseng in American skincare products to Korean celebrity fashion influenced by Western designers, what’s popular has been intertwined for decades.
Scholars also attribute the inter-culture pick-up to Korea’s geopolitical location.
“Korea has always played the role of a cultural mediator between China and Japan for centuries, and after the Korean War, between the East and the West — with a strong influence of Korean American culture,” said Inkyu Kang, an associate professor of journalism at Penn State Behrend.
America is a great example of how countries can gain from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. According to the American Immigration Council, 1 in 7 Americans are immigrants.
John Lie from the University of California at Berkeley, a sociology professor, said, “It’d be hard not to have at minimum a passing acquaintance avec an ethnic Korean person/things Korean.”
“The growing popularity of South Korean popular culture has normalized Korean culture for many non-Korean Americans, especially in the past decade or so.”
Korean shows and movies are more than entertainment. They’re social critiques
It’s clear that both “Parasite,” and “Squid Game” are “good.” They included stellar acting and enticing plot lines. It was more than technical feats that made this show so memorable.
Kang states that Korean pop culture is distinguished by its deep, darker social commentary.
Many of these films and TV shows aren’t afraid to tackle complex, social issues that transcend geographic barriers: They address the nightmarish reality of social inequality, the dark truths of youth unemployment and even the taboo topic of Korea’s high suicide rate.
Take, for instance, BTS’ “Whalien 52,” which discusses depression (in a country that fosters mental health stigmas), or “Parasite,” which bluntly depicts the divide between the rich and poor.
Opinion:Why was ‘Parasite’s best-picture victory so important?
Korean entertainment has done something that no one else can do. “Squid Game,” “Parasite,” and the even lesser-known “Train to Busan” (2016) and “Veteran” (2015) don’t hesitate to critique the dark sides of society to create a disturbing story you can’t stop thinking about.
This phenomenon is not new to Korean culture. According to Kang, this self-expression dates back to the 1970s and 80s, when Koreans used music and art to protest during South Korea’s democracy movements.
“Social commentary became part of the DNA of Korean popular culture while Koreans were fighting tyranny decades ago,” Kang explains. “Many songs were written to deliver social messages directly or indirectly and were widely sung as protest songs.”
So when Korea finally achieved democracy in 1987, these young Koreans, newly introduced to activism and social awareness, used this “newfound freedom in the cultural sector including film, television and music,” which we’re clearly seeing today.
‘Parasite’ making history:Why was ‘Parasite’s best-picture victory so important?
Korean culture has finally been accepted as cool. So, why is it that we are still being attacked?
Growing up in a predominantly white and homogenous neighborhood, I spent my childhood years being bullied for my culture: My food smelled “weird.” My language sounded “funny.” My eyes looked “different.”
Living in this environment that punished me for my differences eventually took a toll on my self-esteem and sense of identity — something that many Asian Americans can relate to. My attempts to fit in were futile. I’d dye my hair lighter, swap out my kimchi fried rice for bland pasta and ultimately abandon my heritage just for a glimmer of acceptance.
On one hand, this Korean cultural wave feels rewarding: My traditions are finally being embraced. However, there is something strange about the newfound appreciation. This is off. Almost superficial.
This is because Korean Americans, as well as other Asian Americans are constantly being attacked and killed for their existence. (There were upwards of 9,000 anti-Asian hate incident reports from March 19, 2020, to June 30, 2021, reported Stop AAPI Hate.)
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“An appreciation for Korean culture can help people become more open to other cultures, but I don’t think it guarantees the reduction or elimination of anti-Asian hatred and discrimination,” Kang says.
After years of bullying and insecurity, I’m grateful that my culture is finally making waves in this country. But with that being said, you can’t stan BTS, you can’t rave about “Squid Game,” without also standing up for its people.
I hope readers remember that it’s important to embrace all people, languages, food and cultures — even if they are different. After all, “we as humans have far more similarities than differences. Kang reminds us that all human beings have 99.9% identical genes.
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