Being American by Being Korean? K-Pop and Korean American Identity

Growing up Korean American, it was taken for granted that Korean culture and politics would figure in family conversation with my mother and my aunts and uncles. Sadly, my Korean was so limited I could only guess what they were talking about based on how loud their conversation grew. And like many petulant second-generation kids, I would justify my ignorance by saying “but we’re in America now and we’re American!” This reasoning makes sense for some who have never migrated since they have no other contrasting memories to work against-and it makes sense to a kid who’s developing his self-identity to distinguish himself from his parents. Nevertheless, I was glad to have my relatives share with me that my Korean identity was important, our culture has value, beauty, much to be proud of. But back then I had little indication that Korean culture would be all that important or influential (at least not in the ways that matter to a teen). “Influence” in this sense was about consumption, what you wear, what technology you carry, what you listen to, what you read. Sociologist Murray Milner’s Freaks, Geeks and Cool Kids, illustrates the ways in which cultural goods function as a way to distinguish teen group boundaries. Preppie teens dress in Polo and khakis, while jocks wore Russell Athletic clothing or designer jeans. Back then the indication of Korea’s influence was that many of the clothing items and a handful of electronic products were manufactured there. Importantly, these products were typically more affordable than US-made or Japanese-made goods. The source of the goods made a difference to my relatives and my mother who sometimes bought items simply because it might somehow help the economy of their original homeland. Sometimes it was with a sigh that they used these goods only to discover they were shoddily made. All told this didn’t leave a positive impression about my cultural heritage since I mistook cultural goods in a particular economic context (South Korea at the time was still growing toward first-world status) for cultural values. Without ever stating it out loud, I made linkages in my mind that inferior goods = inferior values = inferior culture.

The link between consumer goods and identity is an important and fairly recent kind of dynamic we see in American society on a much larger scale. Much of the sociology of culture has paid attention to the ways that elites defined themselves from the masses. You can’t have popular culture without high culture. Elite culture requires networks of people who also participate in that culture, and it demands a lot of knowledge, much more than what the masses could afford given that they few can afford the leisure hours for formal education. But today, it appears that mass culture has gained more attention. While many of us still have identities tied a nationality, religion, or region, we also have identities built into the kinds of goods we consume. A few years ago, sociologist Lisa Sun-Hee Park provocatively showed how this works among second-generation Chinese and Korean Americans. In over 80 interviews with teens and young adults, she showed that their consumer decisions served a dual purpose: it was a demonstration of filial piety, and a means to prove their sense of belonging as Americans. This means that on the one hand, these young interviewees believed that by gaining more material goods, as well as high-paying jobs, they are showing gratitude to their parents, most of whom were small business entrepreneurs. On the other hand, they show how assimilated they are by buying high-quality products since expensive material goods are seen as “having made it” in America. It’s not unusual that patriotism is linked to consumption; what’s unique perhaps to some second-generation Asian Americans (and perhaps other second-generation Americans) is that this link is driven more from familial relationships.

So this brings me to PSY-what’s that you say? PSY is a Korean pop artist most known for his wildly popular music video “Gangnam Style.” “Gangnam Style” is entirely in Korean, and has suddenly garnered hundreds of millions of views on YouTube. PSY has been on Ellen DeGeneres (where he taught her and Brittney Spears some of the basics of his cheesy dance), Good Morning America, and most recently flashmobs have emerged showcasing collective dance renditions of the video. The popularity of this still baffles me, but it raises many new questions about culture and identity. PSY’s popularity is a new peak in the unfolding emergence of Korean popular culture or K-pop. K-pop includes the usual spectrum of musicians and performers but the most discussed are performers like Rain (who has been in American films and the Colbert Report), bands like Girls Generation (who appeared on David Letterman), and soap-opera-like dramas like Winter Sonata (aka K-Drama).


With the remarkable impact of K-pop, I wonder now how younger cohorts of the Korean American second-generation view their cultural background, and whether it affects the way they prove their American-ness. If one’s non-Korean peers know “Gangnam Style” or the latest gossip around the actors of this or that drama, does one now need to prove their Korean-ness in a way that previous cohorts had to leave behind? Does it perhaps reinforce a sense of foreignness, where one is now expected to know all about K-pop since one’s heritage is drawn in part from the country that produces these goods? Does one ironically prove one’s American-ness by proving one’s pop-culture Korean-ness?

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  • Christine Mahoney

    I will state that I have not read the referenced book by Lisa Sun-Hee Park, but I started to read it and I had a problem with the premise (which is mentioned in the article). I am not sure why she believes that pur
    chasing high-end goods is a second-generationer’s way of proving their “Americanness”. This is not unique to Korean Americans in the U.S., and neither is the type of items purchased. Koreans in Korea are purchasing the same high-end goods. It’s all part of the required status symbols to show off how successful someone is and how much they buy their parents is how much they love them (and many parents are often disappointed if their child does not come through because they cannot brag to their friends about what their child(ren) bought them). It seems to me, that status and DISPLAY of that status has always been important to Koreans, whether in South Korea or the U.S. Or did I miss something?

    There are certainly going to be those Korean Americans who will try to “fit in” with Caucasian American peers (and even with some of those, it’s just because they want to fit in with the most popular kids), but many of the ones I grew up with did not seem to have any particular desire to do so. Regardless of fluency in Korean or English, many of their close friends were/are Korean, and their social activity involved other Koreans. Even the ones I knew who had tried to fit in during high school suddenly “found” their “Koreanness” in college or early adulthood and then suddenly seemed to “stake a claim” on “how Korean” they are and “how Korean” other people are.

    I am zigzagging, but going back to some of the questions raised in the latter paragraphs, this is typical 2nd generation (and later) behavior, only it is more striking in Koreans because the culture and language is vastly much more distinguishable from Caucasian groups. How many people claim their Irish or French ancestry when many of them are less than 1/8 of that group? People come to America, try to fit in and succeed, then realize they are “different”. Like everybody else. They want to be unique so they “return” to their roots. For those who always remain immersed in (this case) Korean culture, language, activity, and/or friends, they have become accustomed to surrounding themselves with others who are like themselves, understand them, are similar. It doesn’t prove how Korean they are, except to non-Koreans who don’t have any other frame of reference for Koreans. If I met someone who wasn’t up on the latest American pop culture, I wouldn’t assume they are less American. I might even assume they spend their time in better ways than clinging to gossip magazines and the latest reality TV show.

    • Jerry Park

      Great points Christine, thanks for these great reflections. On the earlier point regarding Lisa Park’s book, I believe she limited her point to second-generation Korean Americans in part out of social science integrity. Her sample was only 2nd-gen KAs so she shouldn’t make larger claims aimed at “all 2nd-gen” or “Koreans in Korea” both of which may show exactly as you explicated.
      Your other point too makes sense, which might sort of explain why some of the 2nd-gen KAs get immersed in K-Pop- to return to their roots on their terms using the supply of KPop that they can access. And maybe we’re saying the same thing: this “returning” pattern of behavior is very American especially for those who are only 1 generation away from foreign-born status.