At the first ever school-wide multicultural fair last year, the Asian Students in Action club blasted Korean pop music, or K-Pop, through huge speakers on the quad. As the foreign music, characterized by catchy hooks and punctuated with random English lyrics, played on, students started to dance along.
ASiA leader Lucy Kim ’19, a first generation Korean-American, is not an avid listener of K-pop and did not recognize the songs being played, but she said it was one of her favorite moments of the day.
“It was amazing just to see that connection with people and to find that they were actually welcoming and embracing of a culture that I had previously tried to hide and been incredibly ashamed of,” Kim said.
Kim was born in the United States, but her parents immigrated to the United States from South Korea just months before she was born.
“There was a time when I rejected everything that was Korean, everything that wasn’t ‘normal,’” Kim said. “That was a time when my family was trying our best to assimilate. We all had chosen or been given English names. We refused to speak Korean in our household.”
Many Korean-Americans struggle to reconcile different parts of their heritage, Kim said. But even within the specific subset of the Korean-American community, there is no universal Korean-American experience, Kim said.
Some Korean-Americans, like Kim, grow up speaking Korean, watching Korean television and struggling to become more American. Others, like Justyn Chang ’19, grow up without the same level of exposure to Korean culture and struggle to identify as Korean.
“When I was growing up, there were a lot of kids in my community who had moved from Korea or spoke fluent Korean,” Chang said. “I felt self-conscious about not being able to speak the language. I can’t fully identify as Korean, and I can’t fully identify as American. It’s like, yes, I’m Korean-American, but I’m a specific type of Korean-American, kind of stuck between the two.”
The increasing accessibility of Asian pop culture, specifically K-Pop, opens up new doors for Asian-Americans to connect to their personal heritage and see themselves represented.
Recent dialogue about broader Asian representation has centered on Asian-American representation in American media, like the recently released movie “Crazy Rich Asians,” which starred an all-Asian cast.
Kim said it is important to her to see the Asian-American experience represented in America, but seeing non-diaspora culture in Asian media is also culturally significant.
“Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu told IndieWire that his vision for the movie was inspired by his belief that “old, classic, Hollywood movies could have starred Asians with just as much style, just as much pizzaz.”
In the United States, especially in an industry with a decades-long history of whitewashing Asian roles, Chu’s vision has a place. But in Korea, Korean entertainers do not need to prove their abilities by playing “white” roles: instead, they play to a different set of cultural norms.
“There’s definitely a difference between Korean media and American media,” Kim said. “It’s inevitable because they have different cultures and audiences, so the nuances of the culture influence that.”
K-pop is not free of outside influences. The industry draws heavily from non-Korean cultures: it appropriates black hairstyles and dance moves, it employs Swedish producers, and it utilizes American slang in its lyrics.
However, it does represent Korean culture and speak to people in different ways than Asian-American entertainers in American media, Kimberley Kimura ‘19 said.
“The issue of representation is something that I’m more aware of in American media, where Asians are sometimes there to add color around the white main characters but don’t get to be the main characters themselves,” Kimura said. “I don’t have to think about that when I’m watching or listening to Korean media.”
Kimura is not Korean—she is half-Chinese and half-Japanese—but says that listening to K-Pop has encouraged her to explore her own Asian heritage.
“It has opened up my mind to Eastern Asian culture and learning more about my heritage, maybe learning more Chinese and Japanese,” Kimura said. “Part of the reason why I like K-Pop so much is I feel that it brings me closer to part of me that I never was really close to because I was born and raised here in America.”
Similarly, Chang, a former K-Pop trainee, was exposed to Korean culture due to his interaction with K-Pop. Chang was scouted as a trainee when he was 13 years old.
K-Pop, unlike American pop, is dominated by groups of singers rather than solo artists. Entertainment companies audition prospective singers, train them to dance and sing and ultimately put together the groups inorganically.
According to Chang, the industry both exacerbated and helped resolve his struggles with his identity. Chang was told to whiten his skin during the school year before training again in Korea to fit East Asian beauty standards, but also questioned for not being as loud and outgoing as the Korean stereotype of a typical American.
“People would ask me what my ethnicity is or what race I am,” Chang said. “I’d say that I’m Korean, and then they’d say that I wasn’t Korean, I was American. But does that mean that I’m a complete foreigner? I’m not white, I’m Korean. But I’m also not like the American celebrities on Korean TV who are super outgoing, so they’re kind of like, ‘Are you really American?’”
At the same time, it was while training in Korea that he started to learn how to speak the language and about the specific culture of respect in the country.
“Before I was scouted, I didn’t put much thought into Korean culture,” Chang said. “It was after I got scouted that I started watching more Korean shows and listening to Korean music. That whole experience kind of introduced me to Korean culture.”
However, Chang cautioned against taking K-pop as an accurate representation of Korean society as a whole.
“The K-Pop industry is so isolated, especially the trainee system, from the rest of Korea, that it’d be unfair for me to say that it helped me learn that much more about my Korean side,” Chang said.
“I think saying that I went to Korea and learned more about my Korean side wouldn’t be a fair representation of what I did [as a trainee]. I woke up at 7, I danced and sang until midnight and then I did it again.”
According to Kim, however, with the increasing popularity of K-Pop outside of Korea, there has been increasing objectification and fetishization of Korean people and Korean culture.
“I think there’s always a problem when a culture or a group of people become a trend,” Kim said. “People who were previously never exposed to Korean culture are all of a sudden listening to these K-Pop groups. They overlook the fact that these people are not just objects of consumption; they are people who have a culture and people who you need to respect. People think that it’s somehow entertaining to not understand the cultural significance or historical significance of what they’re saying and doing.”
Kimura also said that she has seen instances of cultural appropriation and insensitive approaches toward Asian culture.
But overall, she said she thinks that K-Pop’s increasing popularity is due to its value as audiovisual entertainment and not just because of its connection to Korean culture. Kim echoed her thoughts.
“Ultimately, music is music,” Kim said. “It just happens to be music in a different language. People decide to listen to music because they enjoy it, and that doesn’t change between Korea and America.”