Tuesday, 24 June 2008

A little more about the Korea Herald Hallyu Circle-Jerk: Final Entry in the Series

[THE HIGH TIDE OF THE KOREAN WAVE(36)] The Korean Wave and Korean-Americans

The epicenter of the Korean Wave was East Asia, but gradually Korean popular culture has reached the shores of other continents as well.
Although its popularity in non-Asian regions is not as pronounced as it has been in East/Southeast Asia, the growing interest in and visibility of Korean popular culture in different parts of the world signifies its emerging position in the global cultural landscape.

In this increasing dissemination of Korean culture, the role of overseas Koreans is noteworthy since they are usually at the center of the consumption of their culture in foreign countries. Before the emergence of the Korean Wave, it was mostly introduced to the local population by Koreans living in other countries.

Since the Korean Wave has grown internationally, overseas Koreans have become crucial forces behind its promotion, as they are probably the most enthusiastic and closest followers of Korean pop culture in most non-Asian countries.

Korean-Americans' role in the spread of the Korean Wave deserves attention. Their residence in the United States, the center of the global pop cultural industry, their close connection with Korea and their extensive travels enable them to effectively take part in trans-Pacific cultural exchanges.

Some of them, including Korean "yuhaksaengs" (students who study abroad), have been creative forces behind the Korean Wave as they became successful pop stars or influential producers in Korea. There have also been indications that they may become effective bridge-builders between the Korean and U.S. entertainment fields. A few Korean-Americans have had promising receptions in Hollywood in recent years.

Since the United States is the most coveted market for ambitious Korean entertainers and production companies, Korean-Americans' success and their potential mediating power in Hollywood are considered significant. Let us focus on their roles as consumers, disseminators and creators, and discuss how Korean-Americans have been involved in the trans-Pacific flow of Korean pop culture and what that means to the pop culture world.

It is common for immigrants to make an effort to retain their heritage. Often they consume news and cultural products from their countries of origin. Hence, long before the emergence of the Korean Wave in Asia, Korean-Americans had extensively enjoyed Korean pop culture, at least in metropolitan areas where access to it was relatively easy.

Ethnic media including TV, radio and newspapers, as well as ethnic video stores, proliferated in big cities where Korean-Americans have been concentrated and provided a variety of cultural information from Korea on a daily basis. In this sense, Korean-Americans' consumption of Korean pop culture is not a new phenomenon.

However, the success of the Korean Wave attracted new groups of Korean-American followers (such as the U.S.-born young Korean-Americans who previously showed little interest) and facilitated the circulation of Korean pop culture beyond the boundaries of ethnic Korean-American communities.

Their consumption is related to several factors. The first is the increasing availability of Korean pop cultural products and the amazing speed of information sharing. As mentioned earlier, in U.S. metropolises a variety of ethnic media is available depending on the region and the size of the ethnic media market. In addition, various ethnic businesses such as ethnic video rental shops, bookstores, and different types of ethnic cultural spaces (including cafes, clubs, clothing stores, hair salons, etc.) contribute to Korean-Americans' easy and extended access to "homeland" popular culture.

Then there is the internet, which offers completely new possibilities. Through the internet, simultaneous and interactive consumption of pop culture has become possible. For instance, some Korean-Americans consult with their friends and family in Korea for their selection of pop cultural products through online communication and are actively involved in cultural spheres through their online interaction. (Many young Korean yuhaksaengs have blogs or home pages on the Web, which are important sources of transnational connections and cultural flow. They also tend to actively participate in various online communities.)

Information is shared at the speed of a click, and the delayed cultural gap caused by time lag is a matter of the past for the internet generation. Korean-Americans who are not familiar with the internet may still rely on traditional sources, such as ethnic TV or newspapers. Yet the speed of information transmitted by those media has also accelerated, so they are not far behind in getting the latest news from Korea, either.

Second, the development of communication technology and transportation has reduced the distance between Korea and Korean-Americans not only in a physical, but also a psychological sense. Visiting Korea has become much easier than ever before and contacts with family and friends in Korea have increased significantly through phone calls, online chatting, and home page postings, as well as actual visits.

Thus, despite geographical separation, Korean-Americans and Koreans have multiple means of reducing the gap. The common cultural references created by the shared consumption of Korean pop culture across borders provides a foundation on which they can construct a sense of a transnational community.

Third, for some Korean-Americans, their consumption of Korean pop culture is related to their search for an identity and a community. As minorities, many Korean-Americans experience a sense of marginalization. Even those born and raised in the United States often feel that they lack full-fledged cultural citizenship in the United States.

Moreover, it is difficult for Asian-Americans (including Korean-Americans) to find a positive role model in the "mainstream" U.S. media because Asian-Americans have long been almost non-existent or portrayed stereotypically. In this light, Korean popular culture could provide them with a way to learn about their heritage and, to some extent, a reference base on which they could build a sense of identity and belonging.

Korean-Americans also take an important part in the dissemination of cultural information and products across the Pacific. For example, ethnic Korean TV channels, which are mainly geared toward Korean-Americans, unwittingly attracted non-Korean viewers. Indeed, when the Korean Wave became a phenomenon in Asia, the programs became important sources for curious viewers to get a taste of Korean pop culture.

Moreover, at school or at work, Korean-Americans expose their friends, classmates and co-workers to Korean culture. Among the younger generation, in particular, the dissemination of cultural information is a natural and widespread practice, so young Korean-Americans and yuhaksaengs are pivotal in the spreading of Korean pop culture among American youths.

The main groups of people who show interest in Korean pop culture are usually other Asian-Americans. Like many Korean-American youths who are knowledgeable of Korean pop culture, many young Asian-Americans are also well-informed of what is going on in their countries of origin.

If the Korean Wave has been big in their countries of origin, Asian-Americans youths tend to develop interest in Korean pop culture through their transnational connections and sometimes seek information from their Korean-American friends. Hence, the popularity of the Korean Wave in Asia is transmitted to the United States through transnational Korean/ Asian populations.

Korean-Americans' dissemination of cultural information and products does not flow only one way, however. They also disseminate American pop culture to Korea - from food to even drugs. In particular, the yuhaksaeng and their family members (especially mothers) play a key role in the trans-Pacific cultural flow because they are truly "footloose" transnationals who frequently cross national and cultural borders.

The role of overseas Koreans as creators is not as clear-cut as their roles as consumers and disseminators. One the one hand, it is undeniable that Korean-Americans have been crucial creative forces at least in certain genres of Korean pop culture. On the other hand, it is arguable whether their contribution to and role in Korean pop culture is truly creative rather than merely an interpretation and dissemination of U.S. (to some extent, Western) pop culture.

Since the 1990s, Korean-Americans and yuhaksaengs have left remarkable footprints in Korean pop music. R&B, hip-hop and rap were either introduced to or popularized in Korea by Korean-American musicians starting in the mid-1990s, and many Korean-American and yuhaksaeng musicians have been the leading voices in those genres ever since.

The limited opportunities Asian-American musicians face in the U.S. pop music industry, combined with the Korean music industries' active recruitment of Korean-Americans (they are viewed to be more familiar with the previously-mentioned genres), resulted in their proliferation, especially in groups such as H.O.T., G.O.D., Drunken Tiger, Shinwha, and S.E.S., just to name a few.

Solo acts such as J, Lee Hyun-woo, Lee Jung-hyun and Crown J are also from the United States. Additionally, transnational Koreans educated in American institutions or strongly influenced by the American music style have played a crucial role in the construction of Korean music trends. Seo Tae Ji and Boys, Cho Pd and Psy belong to this group.

Moreover, some aspiring actors and actresses who face serious obstacles in the United States due to the lack of opportunities and role models for them have headed for Korea and become successful. Some even gained international fame in Asia due to the Korean Wave.

They have then utilized their success in Korea/Asia as a stepping stone to enter the U.S. market as a Korean or an Asian star. Kim Yunjin, who appears in American TV series Lost is a good example of this.

As these examples demonstrate, Korean-Americans have played an important part in the making of contemporary Korean popular culture. However, if we ask whether they are truly creative agents of Korean pop culture, the answer is somewhat dubious because, thus far, what they have done is not too far from disseminating information (for example, hip-hop and rap) from the United States to Korea.

They largely remain students or imitators of Western artists in the same genre instead of independent artists with their own voices and styles. Of course, this maturation will take time and it will be interesting to see if they can come up with innovative cultural products. Until that is accomplished, the evaluation of Korean-Americans' creative role in the Korean Wave remains open-ended.

Korean-Americans and other Asian-Americans have long tried to establish their niche in the U.S. cultural scene. In recent years, such efforts came to partial fruition as the visibility of Asian-Americans and the representation of their own voices, based on their unique experiences and heritage, began to improve. The U.S. media's increased featuring of Asian-Americans is partly related to domestic changes such as multiculturalism and the increased purchasing and cultural power of Asian-Americans.

Perhaps more importantly, the media conglomerates' interest in the Asian market, the hottest media market in the world in terms of its potential and size, propelled the increasing presence of Asian/Asian American entertainers.

The interest also facilitated Hollywood studios' selection and appropriation of Asian themes. They shot films on Asian locations, added more Asian characters (though many of them still stereotypical), and even remade successful Asian films and texts (including animation and comic books).

Asian and Asian American stars are hired as lead characters in movies because of their marketability in Asia and beyond. In this environment, Korean/Korean-Americans actors, actresses and other cultural workers have increasing opportunities to expand their horizons in the United States and eventually in the world market. Yunjin Kim, Rick and Karl Yune and John Cho are just some names with whom U.S. audiences have become familiar. In Wolverine, the upcoming X-men spin-off film, Daniel Henney will test his luck in the U.S. market as well. Then there is Rain (Bi), whose Hollywood film was recently released and another is in the making. In the fashion world, too, a growing number of Korean/Korean-American designers have begun to attract the mainstream fashion industries' attention (take Doo-Ri Chung, for example).

The door has opened, although still only for a selected few. But such a possibility is a crucial one, and how this opportunity is seized and how the momentum can be developed into a system of reliable networks could determine whether more Korean/Korean-American faces and voices can be represented in the global media.

Of course, the success of individual entertainers is not equivalent to the success of Korean pop culture. It is possible that they could become mere tools for Hollywood to more effectively sell its products to Korea and Asia. At the same time, however, it is true that they have great potential to become significant bridge-builders and cultural agents between Korea and the United States (and the East and the West) and even creators of global pop culture.

Considering the fact that we are living in a transformative time in which Western cultural hegemony continues to linger, but, simultaneously, local/regional cultures' power and influence are growing, their potential is indeed quite great. If this potential materialized, Korean/ Korean-Americans may contribute to the spread and development of the Korean Wave in a new way.

By Park Jung-sun


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