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Sonn: Co-opting Korean culture

BY BARRETT SONN | MAY 09, 2014 5:00 AM

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I have a friend. His name is Kuper. He is white and knows more about Korean pop culture than I do.
Meanwhile, I’m Korean-American, and the only thing I know is that watching more than five K-pop music videos in a row can lead to cavities, diabetes, epilepsy, and a general sense of shame.

It can be both bemusing and embarrassing to meet a person who knows more about your culture than you do, even if that knowledge is extremely focused.

Kuper, for example, is not exactly proficient in the Korean language, just the foulest Korean swear words and a bunch of Korean foods such as kimchi and samgyeopsal (Korean bacon).

(I, on the other hand, am fluent at mixing Korean and English into the same sentences. I like to think of the technique as my own little Frankenstein. Take that, Kuper.)

On a global scale, cross-cultural curiosity and interest is only natural, but Korean culture in particular seems to be an exceedingly alluring target for non-Koreans. That fascination used to be nothing but an amusing observation for me, mixed with a little embarrassment and pride. It also made me wonder what the motives were for enjoying Korean culture so much.

Honestly, this question of cultural identity is probably something I need to flesh out Marc Maron-style, but the embarrassment I felt (and continue to feel) at this phenomenon was (and is) based on being a little embarrassed by Westernized Korean pop culture. Think about the song “Gangnam Style.” It was a parody, I think, as well as social commentary, but most people don’t know that.

Why were non-Korean people so fascinated by it? Was their amusement mocking and condescending, filled with a rising belief that South Korea is a massive Willy Wonka fortress? Maybe they just thought it was cloyingly catchy and fascinating to watch.

I guess I’m trying to say that overly bubbly Korean music videos are really a horrible introduction to Korean culture, which does, in fact, transcend K-pop. Still, I recommend seeing one, just so you know what a torturous experience it can be.

Another reason I get embarrassed (we’re going deep now) stems from the attitude toward international Asian students in Iowa City. Sometimes, it seems like they are viewed as extensions of all Asian cultures, and that’s just not true, just like I’m not representative of all Korean-Americans. They are also often viewed as some kind of quirky human display pieces, specifically regarding to fashion, exemplars of a bizarre foreign culture.

Granted, Eastern fashion is getting pretty abstract, especially in Korea. Russell Westbrook would blend in seamlessly, which should give you a good idea of what’s going on over there.

Anyway, regardless of my selfish and twisted feelings on the subject, I think interest and passion in another culture is better than being a racist jerk. It’s really an ideal alternative on the individual level and for the human race as a whole. It’s also progress toward more acceptance and understanding in the world.

I just want to make sure people are informed and not too focused on just one area that may not fully represent the other culture. So if you’re really into Canada, for example, don’t use “Trailer Park Boys” as the consummate informational guide. That’s not making progress. That’s just enforcing the belief that your culture is better.


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