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.

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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?

Go to Church, Skip Your Bible? Religious Incongruity in the News

As a Christian trained in sociology it’s sometimes difficult to “leave the statistics alone” when it appears in popular publications or sermons or adult Sunday school. Recently, several Christian news outlets noted a new survey finding, with bold titles like: “80% of Churchgoers Don’t Read Bible Daily.” Such a phrase is meant to provoke reading but the provocation is the interesting part. This claim assumes that Bible reading and churchgoing ought to go hand in hand, whereas survey findings suggest that this is not the case. This is an anecdotal example of what sociologist Mark Chaves argued regarding religious incongruity. His point was directed mainly at scholars and their work that makes this same assumption that religious people are supposed to be consistent in belief and behavior. In an earlier post, I showed that religious incongruity goes both ways: sometimes Asian American Christians appear less religious than expected, while Asian Americans with no religious affiliation can be surprisingly more religious than expected. Sometimes these expectations are built into surveys where questions are skipped based on a previous answer. This happened in the National Asian American Survey 2008 where those who reported “no religious affiliation” were not asked a question about church attendance.

The recent news reports about the incongruity of Bible reading and church attendance are based on a survey by LifeWay a publication arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Since I read academic articles and books that use very rigorous methods, I used to wonder “where did that speaker or publication get those numbers?” when the figures reported didn’t comport with what I knew in the academic research world. Groups like LifeWay who have a much broader audience get the ear of practitioners where the academics often don’t get noticed.

There are several ways one could figure out the accuracy of a reported relationship. One is built on reputation: what survey firm conducted the survey? Some survey firms like the Gallup Organization have built a solid record of reliable studies, and that name-brand recognition comes at a premium. LifeWay doesn’t report who conducted the survey in their methodology page. All we do know is that they defined a “churchgoing Protestant” as a Protestant who attends church once a month or more. Another tactic then would be replication. I first turned to the General Social Surveys, the longest running, most rigorous, and most comprehensive omnibus survey on American attitudes and behaviors. Sadly I discovered that there were only a couple of times in the past 20+ years of this survey that the question of Bible reading appeared, and none of these were in the 2000s. So I turned instead to the Baylor Religion Survey 2010, a solid survey conducted by the Gallup Organization every few years. As one of the contributors to the design of the survey, I feel confident in the findings since we work carefully to ask the right questions, and we work closely with a well-established survey group that provides us with the survey data of a large random sample of Americans.

So here is a screenshot of the graph that LifeWay posted to illustrate the reported Bible reading rates of Protestants who attend church once a month or more:

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Screenshot taken from website: http://www.lifeway.com/images/970a39c1-6dc0-4744-b63b-737885ea29b8.jpg

 

As they state, about 19% of Protestants who attend church at least once a month read their Bible every day. About the same percent do not read much if at all. How does the Baylor Religion Survey compare?

As you can see, we can’t make exact comparisons since LifeWay didn’t design their survey using the standard approach in academic social science research on the question of Bible reading. Indeed their aims are different. But we can make some approximate equivalence to draw some comparability. In LifeWay’s sample, 45% of Protestant monthly+ attenders read the Bible at least a few times a week. The BRS figure is lower: 34%. At the other extreme, the LifeWay survey found that 18% of Protestant monthly+ attenders read the Bible “rarely or never.” The BRS figure is nearly twice as high, 34%. The middle categories run roughly similarly in both surveys between 36% and 32%.

What this suggests is that while LifeWay’s main concern was to show that active church-attending Protestants are not engaging in sacred Scripture reading enough, the BRS finding suggests that they should be even more alarmed. A much lower fraction of active Protestants are reading a lot, and much higher fraction don’t read at all. Yet both of these findings show more support for Chaves’ argument. We’re surprised at the low congruity between different behaviors that we assume go together in the life of the Protestant Christian. But perhaps the incongruity is the norm, and that the exception is when individuals or groups are remarkably consistent.

So this raises the question for both scholars and practitioners: if incongruity is normal, how should we restructure the way we model religious behavior, and how would religious groups alter their teaching and ministry with this foundational shift in their thinking?

Much gratitude to research assistant, Shelly Isaacs, for finding the LifeWay links and graphing work.

The Promise and Peril of Christian Solidarity: Lynching in the Christian South

In between teaching and professional conferences, I have recently embarked on a few trips to interview African American Christians in a large city for an ongoing study of how religion matters (or doesn’t) for everyday workers and entrepreneurs. In the process of meeting a wide array of churchgoers, I listened at length to the personal histories that informed their views on work and faith.

What struck me in some cases was the agrarian memories that quite a few folks recalled. They recounted stories of growing up on a farm in the rural South or visiting relatives regularly in those environments. Their parents were some of the first generation to enter into the big city. When I think back to the stories in my family, they resemble these same trajectories except that they took place in South Korea rather than the US. I think my father’s family still lived in one of the rural areas but he and most of his siblings had moved into Seoul or another large city. In the case of my father, he left the country entirely. He met my mother (who had left Korea as a single woman) in New York City and they moved together to Jersey City, NJ. These similarities suggest to me that many Americans and immigrants can likely relate to one another in the patterns observed in their family histories.

But even having similar rural origins doesn’t do justice to some of the profound differences that blacks faced in the South during the late 19th to earlier 20th centuries compared to whites and Asian immigrants. Southern rural blacks were not on equal footing with rural whites on access to a number of important institutional supports: adequate healthcare, reasonable housing, proper educational facilities and instruction. Many may have worked as hard (if not harder) than their white peers but the returns on that work were not always the same nor was their much legal recourse in the event of an injustice. The book, Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon, and the subsequent documentary, chronicles the kind of world that many of the grandparents of the men and women I interviewed lived through. It was the world of the Jim Crow South with formal and informal rules that circumscribed social life for African Americans after emancipation. Rural southern blacks (particularly men) would be arrested on trumped up charges in what is described as a “convict lease system” which effectively re-enslaved them for the benefit of white American society.

Under such conditions, it is not surprising that if there was an institution in which southern blacks had leadership, a sense of control, and community with fellow blacks, such an institution would hold a great deal of support and encouragement for a besieged people. Such is the institution of the black church. Indeed in the stories I heard, it was clear that the church had a significant role in the lives of the grandparents of the people I interviewed. The tie of the local black church in the midst of informal slavery, unequal treatment, and barriers to accessing basic institutional supports was critical for many. To borrow co-blogger Margarita Mooney’s book title, faith helped make them live.

It’s a rare thing to see research on religion in the most prestigious journals of sociology, much less one that focuses on religion and race. A sociological study that covers religion and race using Census data from over 50 years back is perhaps one of the rarest finds around. Such was Amy Kate Bailey and Karen A. Snedker’s examination of lynching patterns and religion in the South during the beginning of the 20th century and since it appeared in the venerable American Journal of Sociology, it also appeared in my “Top 11 of ’11” post.

Lynching is one of those practices that many of us as Americans haven’t reckoned with, and its impact in the memories of many African Americans persists to this day. Perhaps you didn’t know this, but one of Billie Holiday’s most famous songs (written by Abel Meerpool) “Strange Fruit” details this practice; listen to it and check out the lyrics.

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According to Bailey and Snedker, at least 2,500 blacks were lynched in the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, roughly one per week for 50 years. One per week. Imagine being a part of a visible minority community and hearing of someone killed by a mob made up of the dominant group nearly every single week. It’s important to remember that lynching was and is a means of social control. It was a demonstration of power. By killing one person in a bloody spectacle, the group in power conveys a message to others (particularly to blacks) that they are in control, and they will exercise that control through random yet coordinated acts of violence. Some describe this as domestic terrorism. Strikingly a fair number of lynchings were actually photographed and reproduced on postcards to be traded with other lynch fans around the country. One of these is pictured here from Waco, TX, the main city of my institution.

Lynch advocates were quite often religious, specifically Christian. Their brand of faith placed whites at the top of a racial hierarchy with blacks at the bottom. Chillingly, the practice of lynching, according to Bailey and Snedker, was a “fully ritualized, solidarity-enhancing event” (p.850). In other words, killing a human being through lynching helped bond the group together, often to reinforce their beliefs in racial superiority, justified through religious language. This happens in part because of the tacit cooperation of churches that legitimize such acts of violence in their practices of creating community.

The authors proposed 3 hypotheses concerning the role of religion and lynching. They predicted that when there is religious diversity (or pluralism), lynching will increase since the diversity of religions poses a threat to some communities that have strong boundaries. Second they proposed that the greater presence of African American churches will also be linked to a higher incidence of lynching. Finally, in counties with a large mixed-race church population will exhibit lower lynching rates.

Using data from the only 3 years in which the US Census recorded religion (1906, 1916, 1926), along with over 2800 documented lynching cases in that same time frame, they found support for these three hypotheses. Greater religious diversity (i.e. Christian denominational diversity) and the greater presence of African American denominations in a given southern county was linked to greater incidence of lynching in every decade in the former, and 2 out of 4 decades in the latter. The larger presence of mixed-race denominations lowered lynching in all four decades (see p.862-863). Subsequent analyses suggest that the strongest of these three characteristics is religious diversity. It’s curious to think about what this might have looked like in real life. Imagine a county that was predominantly white Baptist. White Methodists, Anglicans, and Catholics along with Missionary Baptists start new churches in that same county. As this diversity picks up, so do the lynchings. As a means of setting themselves apart, and to symbolize their power in the area to these newcomers, the lynchers (who are mostly white Baptist in this example) wind up killing blacks in this bloody ritual. Interestingly, where interracial church groups appear, lynching levels drop.

These findings leave a lot for reflection on the impact of church participation. For some the church was a space for some in the dominant group to justify the brutal and unequal treatment of racial minorities. For others, the church was the strongest institution that advocated for those racial minorities. And in a few rare instances, the church was a community of believers of both the dominant and minority groups.

The experience of lynching is not only the subject of historical sociology. Lynching has recently been argued as having theological significance. Theologian James Cone recently published a work that surveys the significance of lynching in African American culture and its overlay with the significance of the Christian symbol of the cross. In both instances a man treated unjustly is hung from a tree or the main product of trees. What powerful imagery in comparing these practices. In doing so Cone reappropriates the significance of lynching as a symbol not only of white supremacist terrorism but also as a reflection of a Christian South that subconsciously replicates the Passion by re-enacting the ritual of human sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people. It suggests empowerment of marginalized African American Christians, particularly those whose ultimate end mirrored that of Jesus. Putting these parts together, the stories of faith, family life in rural America, and racism have helped me better understand the role of the black church to many African American Christians.

Panda Express(ions): Commodifying and Constructing Pan-Asian-ness

With the start of the new semester comes the renewed search for interesting examples to provoke good conversation in the classroom on race, class, and gender. One of the persistent themes in contemporary sociology of race research is the manifold meanings of the term “Asian.” What is “Asian” anyway? And by extension what is “Asian American?” I published a paper a few years ago where I explored this very question with undergraduates I met at several universities. They explained to me that “Asian American” has a multitude of meanings but they seem to hinge on whether one plays up the internal diversity in that word, or the externalized same-ness imposed through that word. As I have shared in other posts, Asian Americans are highly diverse ethnically and religiously, and yet there remains in our society an insistence that they share something in common that gets summarized in the term “Asian.”

In a racialized society, all minority groups (and the majority as well) get this kind of treatment. Historian David Hollinger argued that in the contemporary US we effectively have a “racial pentagon” which includes “white” “black” “Asian” “Hispanic” “Native American.” So racial same-ness is a key component in our culture, and minorities often struggle with maintaining ethnic particularity (“I am Korean, not Asian”) or giving in to racial generalizations. One of the common examples of this is to dine at a pan-Asian restaurant like “Panda Express” or “Pei Wei.” The menu is usually focused on “Chinese” cuisine – the quotes are intentional because, if you’ve been to a locally-owned Chinese restaurant with a full menu, very little resembles what is served in these mainstream establishments. They have to make the dishes more appealing to largely white customers. But in addition, there are often notable course options that signal a pan-Asian palette by use of phrases that are somewhat recognizable to more cosmopolitan Americans: “Thai,” “Bangkok,” “Korean,” “teriyaki,” “udon.” These too don’t often resemble dishes prepared in restaurants with single-ethnic cuisines. So “Asian” in this example is a combination of both reducing ethnicity to something more palatable to American (read: white) appetites, and to symbolic displays of internal diversity.

Just because a society has a tendency to create a controlling concept like race doesn’t mean that individuals and groups are without a certain degree of freedom. Notably, a lot of Asian Americans proudly call themselves by this term. Most of the people I interviewed said so, but less than a quarter of Asian Americans surveyed by Pew and less than half of those surveyed by political scientists like Janelle Wong, Karthick Ramakrishnan, Taeku Lee, and Jane Junn also identified with the label. If you’ve been on a college campus there is often an “Asian Student Association” or an “Asian American Christian Fellowship.” Sociologist Russell Jeung explored over 30 different pan-Asian Protestant congregations in the US across the west coast and detailed the ways in which these Christian communities understood what this term means. For many, describing oneself as “Asian American” is quite intentional – they believe that Asian Americans, regardless of ethnicity, experience some of the same trappings and dynamics that are particularly unique.

Perhaps not surprisingly, adoption of this term is not limited to the US, and its expression appears most readily in popular culture. A recent evident example I came across recently was a documentary called “Project Lotus: The Search for Blush.” This series chronicled the development of the first pan-Asian girl group called “Blush.” It was on one of those cable channels that you don’t normally run across, and as it turns out, this talent search began way back in 2010 but the story is only now reaching American markets. The series detailed the drama behind the production of the first ever pan-Asian celebrity group. Contestants came from five major nations: China, India, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. Apart from the absence of Vietnam in this group, these nationalities represent 5 of the 6 largest ethnic groups in the US among Asian Americans. The final group would consist of one performer from each of these nations. This struck me as oddly uncontroversial, but it led me to ask: are there pan-Euro girl groups? What about pan-Latino? Pan-African? I don’t have an answer for that, but I leave it to readers to send me your reflections. This was the first element that got me thinking about the pervasiveness of “Asian-ness” in my own thinking which draws from participating in a popular culture that also commodifies this term.

Like most talent search contests, the judges met with contestants based on location. But unlike most American contests, each location entailed individuals of one specific and visible nationality; and that’s where things start getting tricky. Some contestants for example were ethnically one group but their nationality was of another group. Is a contestant of Korean heritage who grew up in Japan a representative of Japanese or Korean culture? The judges, almost all of whom were white (except the choreographer), struggled a lot over these issues of identity.

As I watched the series I kept looking for ways that internal diversity came out, but instead the focus was largely a conventional talent search: lots of arduous training, physical and emotional strain, performative excellence. Since the aim of this band was to appeal to American and Asian audiences they had to select a language that was universally acceptable across multiple nations: of course that would be English. Dance moves were not reflective of Bollywood or K-Pop or any Asian culture. Instead it seemed like conventional contemporary pop dance from Lady Gaga and the like. Perhaps intentionally, the only characteristic that stood out as particularly ethnic was the difference in their physical appearances.

The effort to create a pan-Asian ethnic girl group that is accessible to American and various Asian audiences seems to follow the same pattern as I mentioned earlier regarding food: there’s symbolic gesturing of diversity with Asia, but its core is aimed at appealing to American sensibilities. Much like mainstream pan-Asian dining in the US, Blush is an example of displaying diversity while essentially conforming to the dominant market. It helps a lot that the nations represented in this band all think highly of America, but the concern here is that conformity for the sake of profit winds up saying “culture doesn’t matter” to audiences that don’t realize how much it actually does.


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