Writing Resources

Korean Culture: Not Kpop

Ah, the joys of being bicultural! I really do consider it a blessing. It means that I grew up with a wider scope of the world than some other individuals may have had the opportunity to. It means that I can better understand the concept of code switching and, in the case of identities as culturally distinct as Korean and American, it means that I have a wider pool of experiences to draw from in attempt to understand other societies.

Not only that, my biculturalism allows me to view both Korean and American culture from both an inside and an outside perspective. This doesn’t mean that I agree with both at once, of course, but it does mean that I can view things from a different angle. For example, when I lived in Seoul, the success of kpop in other countries was widely celebrated, a point of pride for South Korea. Initially, I was happy for the attention that the small little country my family is from was receiving – it finally placed Korea on the map, made it a place to talk about outside of political and business discussions.

Now that I am attending university in the United States, I am beginning to understand that this kpop craze may be a bit of a problem.

However, the longer I stay in America, and the more time I spend on the American internet, the more twisted up I get about all the attention ‘hallyu’ is getting. The problem lies in the fact that so many people believe that kpop and kdramas represent the whole of Korean culture. There are people who confuse expertise in hallyu with expertise in Korean culture, and as such, confuse appreciation for the entertainment industry with appreciation for the country.

There are people who believe that watching a few videos makes them experts in the food, or that watching a few dramas makes them experts in the fashion. A famous Buzzfeed video referred to kpop fashion as the Korean standard of male beauty, and everyone who knows me has heard me criticize this point for at least a quarter hour each. There are people who don’t realize that thinking kpop = standards and kdrama = life sounds about as stupid as saying One Direction represents western society’s standard of male beauty and One Tree Hill or Mean Girls is an accurate depiction of American high school lifestyle. It’s, simply put, ridiculous.

Now, for the aforementioned video:


I love videos like this, learning the fine details of other cultures and societies. However, when a popular channel such as Buzzfeed begins to feed into this misconception surrounding Korean culture, it forces me to doubt all their other content as well.

People who live outside of South Korea seem to forget that kpop and kdrama are both commodities – they are products that the entertainment industry manufactures, packages, and ships out. Like all products, kpop and kdrama have a purpose, and that purpose is not ‘true representation of Korean culture and values’. The purpose of kpop is in the name of the industry: entertainment.

Kpop and Korean Male Beauty Standards

I will note here, I am focusing solely on foreign perception of male kpop stars in this post as that is the largest misconception at hand. I may write a post on female kpop stars in the context of the gender binary/stereotypes in Korea at a later date. Further, as a disclaimer, I have not done any statistical surveys or research into this post. This is simply my perception and my analysis of my experiences as a bicultural individual living in Seoul, South Korea for ten years of my life.

In any case, Kpop is selling a self-aware fantasy where the consumers are aware that they are indulging in a fantasy. The soft features and makeup that the video describes are ideal for the kpop medium as characteristics that appeal to the usual demographics – teenage girls and middle-aged women – simultaneously. It is a combination that fulfills romantic fantasies for the younger demographics in the style of a romcom in real life while simultaneously allowing the older demographics to look upon the idols as children they would like to spoil or indulge in forgotten romantic fantasies from their own adolescence. Kpop idols are almost constantly in-character due to, what I believe, is the close proximity that Korean citizens maintain to the entertainment industry.

However, that is a post for another day (and an essay I already wrote for school.)

If we speak of Korean beauty standards as beauty is typically attributed, as a physical sign of desirability, things very much change. Physical attributes of traditional masculinity still dominate in terms of marriageability, and although perception is changing in the younger generation, in Korean society, there is still scorn for men who wear obvious makeup off-stage and off-screen.

For one thing, belief in physiognomy, or the art of ‘face reading’, is deeply rooted into Korean culture. Traditionally, it was the belief that one could tell a person’s personality and fate by the proportions and characteristics of their face. Although there are few proper practitioners in modern day, Korean society still does attribute much of a personality to appearance. We say that someone “looks poor” by the arrangement of their facial features or that someone’s face “gives a bad feeling”. We say that someone “has a promiscuous face” or that they “look like they’ll bring bad fortune” as if they were some kind of Korean leannán sí.

There are even some oddly specific associations that persist even in modern society – thick earlobes mean wealth, a teardrop above the lip brings fortune, a strong nose means noble character. Physiognomy persists to the point where some people receive plastic surgery, not to become more beautiful, but to write themselves a better life by altering the prophecy in their face. It just so happens that a face of good fortune coincides with a traditionally good-looking face. Although it is not difficult to imagine the historic implications as to why this may be, the fact does reveal something  about Korean beauty standards:

It is difficult to identify Korean beauty standards as an outsider.

Heck, I didn’t grow up as a believer in physiognomy, nor did I study it extensively. However, by virtue of spending much of my life in Seoul, I have an instinctive sense of when someone has a prosperous face or not, and I spent enough time with foreigners to know that sometimes the idols they find attractive do not have the most ‘fortunate’ faces. These idols are the ones that Korean society will appreciate for entertainment, but people are unlikely to take them on as a romantic partner.

Also, in less academic language and just an offhand observation, Korean standards of male beauty are often better represented by our big-name actors rather than our kpop idols.

Kdramas and Korean Lifestyle

For all you people who think that kdramas represent Korean culture, take a step back and think of every B-list school or romance TV show from your country that you can think of. Think telenovelas. For Americans, especially, I am thinking of Easy A and Mean Girls and Greek. I am thinking of Legally Blonde. That is the level of realism a lot of kdramas are presenting you with. Most of the time, saying that Korean dramas represent Korean lifestyle and culture is about the same as saying that those accurately represent your own culture.

There are individuals who claim that they love Korean food just after watching kdramas. The problem with that is that kdramas do not accurately depict nor explain Korean food. For one thing, kdrama fans often mention Korean ramen, which is not a surprise as it appears in many kdramas, and it is indeed a staple in the diet of Korean youths. However, it is also a prominent example of why kdramas are not a good representation of Korean food: product placement.

Kdramas are sponsored by corporations, and like with American television, product placement is a powerhouse. In Korea, on-site filming is also a big deal because, especially in Seoul, the country is highly populated within a limited area. Trends travel faster and more absolutely in Seoul society due to the city’s dense population. What foreigners can pick up about Korean food and culture from kdramas is highly commodified and corporate depiction.

Further, kdramas are designed for the Korean population, and as such it assumes that the audience has prior knowledge about the culture. Thus, when there is street food or household food depicted in the show, there is no explanation as to what the foods on the table actually are. Yes, foreign fans can often identify bulgogi and duhk-bokki, but when they say they’re a fan of Korean food, they are usually not thinking of squash pancakes or iced noodles or kimchi fried rice. They’re not thinking of the simple staples, the grilled mackerel and steamed egg casserole with fermented soy bean soup.

And don’t get me started on Korean fast food, please, I’m craving it too much to talk about it. I want Korean Chinese food, with it sweet-and-sour pork and black bean noodles. I want Korean fried chicken, which I can’t begin to explain because it’s so different from what is available in America. Korean pizza toppings are a bizarre and adventurous experience that changes from season to season. You can’t claim to “know all about” Korean food without knowing these sort of cultural details, and you certainly can’t claim that you’re “basically Korean” without even a concept of these experience.

I focused on food here because this is what I, personally, have heard most often from kdrama fans who have never lived in South Korea. However, this misconception of “expertise” earned from binge-watching kdrama extends beyond the food. I have had kdrama fans come up to me with an intensely limited idea of the role of the music industry in Korean culture, the difference in celebrity culture shaped by traditional values and geographic proximity. I have had self-proclaimed lovers of Korean culture blatantly misunderstanding cultural norms – Korea is a society with many unspoken rules – or choosing to glorify the fictionalized representation of Korea without recognizing real Korea’s flaws and hardships.

A recent post on a k-culture website I saw was about how the United States should care more about the growing tensions between North and South Korea because there was a risk of war breaking out any day, and South Korea is where their kpop idols live. This post demonstrated both an ignorance of Korean politics and a disrespect for Korea as a nation.

Conclusion, because this is getting long and I have homework

Ultimately what it comes down to is a lack of awareness. Foreign fans of kpop or kdrama – and this goes for foreign fans of anything, really – often forget that an entire country’s culture, which is a product of centuries of history and socio-geographic evolution, cannot be reduced to a single representation, especially when that representation was designed to entertain an audience already entrenched within that culture.

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