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?


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