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?

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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