Beyond the “Squid Game”
New Book by UCI Academic Examines Influence of Korea’s Global Pop Culture
By Christine Byrd
Signs of Korean pop culture dominance are spreading across all media platforms these days: The world’s most watched Netflix show is ‘Squid Game’, the first foreign language film to win the Best Oscar. movie was “Parasite” and the boy group BTS overtook Taylor. Swift internationally last year.
For decades, what Americans knew about Korea came almost entirely from the “MASH” TV show, about a team of medics during the Korean War. Now that has changed. So much so that one sunny afternoon recently, hundreds of students gathered outside the School of Humanities to learn ddakji, a popular children’s game that appears in “Squid Game”.
“I’m invited to talk about my childhood in Korea now, and it’s really strange,” says Kyung Hyun Kim, UCI professor of East Asian studies. “No one ever cared where I was from.”
Kim’s long-standing interest in Korean cinema and culture has grown from a niche academic specialty to being the subject of news articles and social media threads around the world. In the midst of this firestorm, Kim released her third book this month, Hegemonic mimicry (Duke University Press, 2021), which examines the historical, economic, and political influences of Korean pop culture sweeping the world.
“My job is to understand pop things better. To open it up and see if we can really get a critical understanding of the things that are relevant and popular today, ”Kim said. “It’s possible to historicize, theorize, and even politicize things that we tend to think of as entertainment.”
Growing up in South Korea, Kim remembers waiting for “Soul Train” on family TV on Saturday afternoon and picking up bits of English while watching “Sesame Street”. Beginning in the 1950s, generations of Korean children grew up with American music, television, and films as their primary source of entertainment, thanks to the more than 30,000 American soldiers stationed in the Southern Peninsula. Kim was raised on the same American music and television regimen as “Parasite” director Bong Joon-Ho and “Squid Game” creator Hwang Dong-hyuk, who both grew up around the same time.
“Speaking of our childhood, we all share similar stories about developing an ear for American music and cultural sensations,” Kim says. “This is where Korean popular culture was born. “
Part of the rationale for this is logistical: the strongest radio and TV signals came from American forces and broadcast popular American broadcasts. The first Korean rock stars launched their careers performing in front of crowds of American soldiers who paid to listen to music they were familiar with, whether it was country music or R&B. One of the complications of the military presence is that the soldiers brought the American racial dynamics of the 1950s and 1960s to Korea, including the occasional riot over which local pubs played music that was often a point of contention between white and black soldiers.
“Korean pop culture was incubated from this tension between black and white, which meant you understood who you were going to play for,” Kim says. “The Koreans had to integrate their experience of the overlap of the two ethnicities and the way of negotiating between two dominant forms of music. “
America’s cultural influence on South Korea is not only a product of geography and military presence, but also a reflection of Korea’s place in the American sphere of influence after WWII. global. In the 70 years since the end of the Korean War, three generations of South Koreans have had to learn not only the language, but also the manners, business rules and cultural innuendoes of America to be successful in their own right. country. Kim says this leads to a Korean “double conscience” that requires both accepting and rejecting subjugation by a foreign power.
“My biggest goal with this book was to see Korea not only as an independent nation, but as a very important junior cultural, political and economic ally of the Pax Americana,” Kim said. “Korea is essentially another ethnic group within the Pax Americana sphere of influence, which includes Germany and Japan.”
And by embracing American-style capitalism, as so many other countries have done during the 20th century, Korea has gone from one of the poorest economies in the world to one of the richest in the world. . “Because of this, it is a country that deplores a loss of values,” says Kim.
Korea’s love-hate relationship with capitalism is the source of storylines that resonate around the world. Kim points out that “Squid Game” and “Parasite” focus on the infighting between the poor and the excluded, not the conflicts between the haves and have-nots. It would be too much, he suggests, for Korean cinema and media to imagine overthrowing the ruling power; instead, they have to fight each other.
“Unfortunately, I think that’s a point of identification for a lot of people around the world that we’re just going to have to accept and fight for the last toilet paper on the shelf,” Kim says. “It is the energy that drives these plots.”
Kim’s first two books focused on Korean cinema, but Hegemonic mimicry expands to embrace pop culture more broadly, a development he says is driven by the changing interests of UCI students.
“Streaming TV and social media is the lifeblood of the 21st century, like it or not – and I hate it a lot,” Kim says. “But I really care what students enjoy learning and I’ve always been motivated by contemporary interests and concerns, and that’s what speaks to audiences today.”
Kim started teaching at the UCI in 1997 and even then says the campus was a hub for Korean studies, with a large student body interested in learning more about Korea. But from the early 2000s, Kim says he noticed an influx of UCI students from diverse backgrounds enrolling in his Korean literature, culture and media courses. This coincided with the start of Hallyu, a Chinese term for “Korean Wave,” in which Korean television, movies, and music began to gain popularity first in Asia and then abroad.
In 2016, students’ interest in Korean popular culture and society was so intense that the UCI launched the Center for Critical Korean Studies to facilitate and coordinate faculty expertise in Korean studies, and Kim was its leader. founding director.
Kim’s classes now easily fill 100-seat amphitheatres. The Department of East Asian Studies offers both a major and a minor in Korean literature and culture. Over the past five years, Korea has been the most popular destination for UCI students thanks to the overseas education program, and Korean is one of the most requested languages taught at the School of Humanities.
The phenomenon is not unique to the UCI. Language learning apps have reported a significant increase in the number of Americans trying to learn Korean since the release of “Squid Game”. But UCI students may well have been the barometer. Kim says he first met a student capturing Korean on television over 15 years ago, while watching the viral hit “One Night Two Days”. Kim told the story earlier this year when reality show producer Na Young-seok spoke at the Center for Critical Korean Studies – a conference that is the most watched event on the YouTube page. of the Center.
“I’m glad I was here for the ride with the students who grew up here in California and listen to K-pop, K-dramas, and K-movies,” Kim said. “Every year, I receive a new generation of students who arrive with an academic interest in learning more about Korean culture.”
Mimicry goes global
After decades in the United States, Kim vividly remembers the first time he heard the Korean language on popular American radio: it was Psy’s hit song, “Gangnam Style.” Kim’s reaction has been mixed.
“I was proud but insulted at the same time,” Kim recalls. “Because of his success, I was proud. But I was also irritated that there was a lot of self-mockery with this funny, chubby Asian man doing a horse dance.
Satire and self-deprecation are common themes in Korean culture, Kim says. But he clings to his own tension between love and hate as he explores the complexity of Korean culture and its growing traction around the world.
“Korean cultural producers need to have a conflicting view: I’m Korean, but I also need to make sure my music or show is popular abroad and readable to non-Koreans,” he says. “Koreans always insist on trying to appease the two things, and I was drawn to that.”
But as Korean pop culture gains popularity around the world, Kim sees a kind of reversal: Americans are now mimicking Korean culture, whether it’s Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” horse dance that is reminiscent of the movements. signature of Psi or American students playing ddakji.
“For me, it’s the idea of mimicry. You get closer to a greater political, economic and cultural force and try to emulate along the way. But still making sure there is that gap between the two and producing your own hegemonic expression along the way, ”Kim says. “It was, for me, a fabulous way to think about the success of Korean pop culture in the 21st century.”
Hegemonic Mimicry (Duke University Press, 2021) is available now.
Photo credit: Micherlange François-Hemsley