This is America: ‘Squid Game,’ K-beauty and BTS – What’s so special about Korean pop culture?

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I’m back! this is Jenna Ryu, former Life & Travel intern, now promoted to Life & Wellness Fellow.

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You may remember me from my previous “This Is America” ​​takeover, where I confronted the Asian “model minority” myth and shared my experience facing these micro-aggressions. (if not, see Here.)

But today, I’m here to talk “Squid Game” The South Korean Netflix series that everyone can’t stop talking about.


I won’t lie: I was shocked to see the global obsession with this show. after a year Racial count during the pandemic, I pessimistically assumed that people wouldn’t crave “alien” series with minimal English dialogue (unless you watch with dubbing – in that case, we didn’t watch the same show. Sorry!).

This is not the first time that Korean pop culture has achieved success in this country. Psy’s “Gangnam Style” and the Korean Boy Group bts Introduced the world to the allure of K-pop. Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” Won Hollywood as the first foreign language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars. even korean cosmetic products Dominating the shelves of beauty stores like Sephora and Ulta.

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There’s K-Pop, K-Movies, K-Drama, K-Fashion, K-Beauty, and of course, KBBQ!But what caused this wave?

‘Squid Game’:Why are we obsessed with South Korean brutal horror series?

‘It still feels real’:BTS made Grammy history, whether or not they won on Sunday

But first: the race and justice news we’re seeing

Important stories from the past week from USA Today and other news sources.

The History Behind the Rise of Korea in America

Seeing non-Asian people taking the time to learn my language to sing along to BTS or making our Dalgona candy from “Squid Game” was not something I expected ten years ago.

Within a few years, Korean culture went from niche to mainstream in the United States. how?

Surprisingly or not, Korean culture is attracting Americans partly because it was heavily influenced by American culture (here’s a history fun fact: America had a strong military presence in South Korea). From Korean red ginseng in American skincare products to Korean celebrity fashion influenced by Western designers, what’s popular has been intertwined for decades.

Scholars also attribute the inter-culture pick-up to the geopolitical situation in Korea.

“Korea has always played the role of a cultural mediator between China and Japan for centuries and after the Korean War, between East and West – with a strong influence of Korean American culture,” he said. Inkyu Kang, Associate Professor of Journalism at Penn State Behrend.

Skincare brand Glow Recipe created the mask that introduced America to K-Beauty.

The United States is also a striking example of how a country can benefit from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. after all, One in seven US residents is an immigrant, according to research by the American Immigration Council.

“Nowadays, it wouldn’t be difficult to be an ethnic Korean person or at least familiar with things Korean,” says John Lai, Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The growing popularity of South Korean popular culture has normalized Korean culture for many non-Korean Americans, especially in the past decade.”

Korean movies and shows are not just entertainment. they are social critics

There is no doubt that “Parasite” and “Squid Game” were “good”. They included stellar acting and enticing plot lines. But what made it so difficult with audiences goes beyond these technological achievements.

It’s the deep, dark social commentary that sets Korean pop culture apart, says Kang.

Many of these movies and TV shows aren’t afraid to tackle complex, social issues that transcend geographic barriers: they deal with the terrifying reality of social inequality, the dark reality of youth unemployment, and even Korea’s high suicide rate. Addresses a taboo subject.

Take, for example, BTS’ “Whalian 52”, which discusses depression (in a country that promotes mental health stigma) or “Parasite”, which clearly illustrates the divide between rich and poor. shows from.

Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong) is the bored, gullible housewife who hires the Kims, unaware of their true motives or identity.

View:Why ‘Parasite’s Best Picture win was the diversity win the Oscars desperately needed’

For years, Korean entertainment has been doing what others have only scratched the surface. “Squid Game,” “Parasite,” and even the lesser-known “Train to Busan” (2016) and “Veteran” (2015) criticize society’s dark sides to create a disturbing story. I don’t hesitate. stop thinking about it.

This is not a particularly new phenomenon in Korean culture. According to Kang, this self-expression dates back to the 1970s and ’80s, when Koreans used music and art to protest during South Korea’s democracy movements.

“Social commentary became part of the DNA of Korean popular culture, while Koreans were fighting tyranny decades ago,” Kang explains. “Many songs were written to directly or indirectly convey a social message and were widely sung as protest songs.”

So when Korea finally achieved democracy in 1987, these young Koreans, introduced to activism and social awareness, made use of this “new found freedom in the cultural sphere, including film, television and music” that we articulate today. visibly looking.

‘Parasite’ making historyWhy ‘Parasite’s Best Picture win was the diversity win the Oscars desperately needed’

Korean culture is ultimately seen as cool. So why are we still being attacked?

Growing up in a predominantly white and homogenous neighborhood, I spent my childhood years being bullied for my culture: My food smelled “weird.” My language sounded “fun”. My eyes looked “different”.

Living in this environment that punished me for my differences eventually took a toll on my self-esteem and sense of identity – something to which many Asian Americans can relate. I found myself doing everything I could to blend in. I used to dye my hair lighter, swap my kimchi fried rice for bland pasta and eventually give up on my legacy for a glimmer of acceptance.

On the one hand, this Korean cultural wave feels rewarding: My traditions are finally being adopted. But something about this newfound appreciation feels strange. Close. almost superficial.

It’s because I can’t help but remember that Korean Americans and other members of the Asian American community have been brutally attacked and murdered. (were upf 9,000 anti-Asian hate incident reports From March 19, 2020 to June 30, 2021, Stop AAPI Hate reported.)

An anti-hate crimes law aims to prevent attacks on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have jumped amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’m ‘Afraid to Leave My Home’:Asian women living in fear amid rise in hate crimes

Caricature depicting BTS with cut faces criticized amid rise in anti-Asian violence, brand apologizes

“Appreciation for Korean culture may help people become more open to other cultures, but I don’t think it guarantees to reduce or eliminate anti-Asian hatred and discrimination,” Kang says.

After years of threats and insecurities, I am grateful that my culture is finally making waves in this country. But that being said, you can’t stain BTS, you can’t get excited about “Squid Game” without standing up for its people.

I hope readers remember that it is important to embrace all peoples, languages, cuisines and cultures – even if they are different. After all, “as humans we have far more similarities than differences. All humans are 99.9 percent genetically identical,” Kang reminds.

This America is a weekly take on current events from a rotating panel of USA Today Network journalists with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. If you are viewing this newsletter online or someone forwarded it to you, you can subscribe here. If you have feedback for us, we would love for you leave it here.

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