My Feelings About the Hallyu Wave

hallyu wave

Photo by HS LEE on Unsplash

Today I want to take a little break away from the book related post and wanted to talk about something that’s a bit more personal. If you don’t know what the “Hallyu Wave” is, it’s essentially the sudden spike in the popularity of Korean pop culture (ie Korean Dramas, K-pop, K-beauty, etc.). As a Korean-American, this is a rather strange, intriguing, and disheartening experience.

I grew up in Koreatown which is in Los Angeles, California. This is where I’ve gone with my grandpa to the market every Wednesday after school, pick up his rental VHS tapes, etc. etc. I grew up with a meld of Korean and American culture because my sister and I were partially raised by our grandparents. At the risk of feeling incredibly old, back when I was a kid Korean markets were the only place to get Korean food or Korean snacks. Even Japanese snacks. Koreatown was really the only place locally to get anything that’s authentically Korean whether it’s chips, comfort food, or maybe your Kpop CD (which, by the way, kpop fans now a days are so blessed. Those CDs are works of art sometimes.) I didn’t really notice that there was a kind of Hallyu wave until later.

In 2009 I moved to a beach city here in Southern California and since it was a good drive away from Koreatown, my family and I were kind of forced to look for new places to get our Korean groceries and such. Luckily where I live also happens to have a pretty dense population of Korean, Japanese, and Chinese people. This is mostly due to Korea, Japanese, and Chinese companies being relatively close by, but there’s a pretty dense Japanese population that were here since WWII (and probably far before). Now since it’s a bit harder to get things that used to be incredibly local, it’s easier to see the change.

At first it was a bit difficult to even want Korean products that weren’t food because while markets were readily available, shops that sold Korean wares weren’t. So if I wanted anything that was Korean in style, beauty, or entertainment–it was a bit difficult (and cost a lot in shipping). However, there wasn’t a demand either. When I went to middle/high school, no one listened to Kpop or watched Kdramas. Korean beauty products weren’t really taken that seriously (even though people praised Korean skincare, yeah I don’t get it either). Actually during that first few years of living in this beach town I really became quite detached from Korean culture because of it.

By the time I was a senior in high school in 2014, however, I realized that there was a slow shift. People were starting to watch Korean dramas more, people were listening to K-pop (thanks PSY. I know people don’t want to give him credit, but I mean… he hit over a billion views on YT), beauty gurus were now talking about Korean makeup and skincare brands. At first I have to say it was pretty exciting. As a Korean-American I’m neither Korean nor American. I’m in cultural purgatory. I’m neither but both at the same time.  So seeing people start to take notice of Korean culture, it was kind of exciting. Growing up it felt like Korea was left out of a lot of “Asian” things (granted this is because things are steeped on stereotypes) and usually the only time people wanted to talk about Korea or Korean culture was a. to ask if I’m North Korean or b. to tell me they know how to say “hello” in Korean (yeah… you know).

And honestly, I thought it was going to die out. I didn’t think it would get to this kind of level. It’s really taken a life of its own that I could have never seen. BTS has won a Billboard award, KCon is a thing that happens internationallyI Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo is literally a book about how a girl has a dating playbook based off of Korean Dramas. I see Nature Republic, Face Shop, Kpop stores popping up all over the place and now I can get the things I’ve been wanting without international shipping. Korean culture has suddenly become a lucrative business…

But at what cost?

Now that people are into “everything Korean” we have restaurants that are made by non-Koreans, selling “Korean fusion” at ridiculously high prices (ahjumas wouldn’t do that to you guys). KBBQ is something I hear all the time even though it’s such a small part of Korean cuisine. Actually, it’s not even that common. Meat is so expensive in Korea that it is a luxury, but people think “Korean food” and immediately want to go to Korean BBQ. People love k-pop, love k-beauty, love k-dramas… but I can’t help but feel that this is all very shallow.

I’m not here to trash on you if you are in Korean pop culture. You do you, but when I see someone’s twitter name being written in Korean and to find out that… it’s not a Korean… it’s a little upsetting. Partially this is because I’m trying to reconnect with Korean culture and seeing people use the Korean language and the alphabet as a kind of… aesthetic is incredibly bothersome and even insulting. Why? Because I’ve had my language be referred to, jokingly, as “moon runes”. It’s like living that experience all over again of some random white man telling me “annyeonghaseyo” to show that they’re “cultured”. There’s a reason why the term “koreaboo” now exists. They wear clothes that say Korean words on them, use Snow, watch Kdrama from Drama Fever, and listen all day to K-pop–but that’s it. If they want to learn the language it’s because they may one day be able to talk to their idol or they want to seem cool and cultured to South Koreans.

But the Korean culture is so much more complex, as is any culture, and simmering it down to… pretty much new stereotypes is insulting and hurtful. I have no qualms if this Hallyu Wave has brought on an intrigue for Korean culture. I have nothing against it, because I am the same. I want to explore cultures all over the world and it’s a dream I’ve had since I was a child. I admit that I also like listening to kpop, I watch Korean Dramas, my family go to KBBQ quite often, but we also know that our culture is much more than that.

In the end, I have a lot of qualms about this. On the one hand, this gives an amazing opportunity to Korean Americans who are born in America to reconnect with their Korean culture and have more exposure to it, but at the same time there is also a wave of people who will fetishize, commodify, and use it as an opportunity to capitalize. I’m just saying if you are so “into everything Korean” but side eye when I want to take you to eat some kalguksoo I’m going to side eye you pretty damn hard.

What Others Are Saying…

I reached out to fellow Korean Americans in the blogging/book community and had their thoughts on this specific topic. Here’s what they had to say:

Theresa Park @theresa_plum on Twitter said:

“I think the best way to combat the negative effects of the Hallyu Wave is representation. There needs to be more books, movies, and media on Koreans with greater diversity, especially among Koreans living in the Western World (with the benefits and consequences of the Hallyu Wave). This way, it’s possible to increase awareness and respect for Korean culture, as well as avoid the danger of a single narrative. Because [when] you think “Gangnam Style” is how every Korean lives, we have problems.”

Elly Ha @elly_hahaha on Twitter said:

“The Hallyu Wave has benefited Korean Americans, but it has also done us more harm, I think. It has exposed the West to Korea’s surface culture and introduced some of our foods, but I think that’s the extent of the pros. I’d say I’ve encountered more random “annyonghasaeyo”s in the past few years than ever, because as you said, it probably makes them feel more cultured to know foreign words. “Har har, I’m not a close-minded American dumbass! Nihao and ching chong chang, right?” 

Koreaboos that appropriate our culture are the devil’s spawn of the Hallyu Wave, however. So deeply absorbed in K-Pop culture, I constantly see koreaboos using Korean honorifics on… non-Koreans. And the wrong honorifics, too. Many times, purposefully. They’re always proclaiming their desire to be Korean, or K-Pop stars. I get jaded when they use Korean words like aigo and omona and spell english words as if they were konglish (like hearteu and shit). And… that’s not your lane, and you’ve made no effort to ease your way into this lane. There’s no respect for the culture. Why did you assign yourself a Korean name? Why do you wear those clothes with random Korean on it? What is the reason you do this stuff? If your answer is, “Because I love Korean culture,” then why don’t you respect it? Why don’t you respect something as simple as our rules of honorifics? Why do you fetishize us?”

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3 thoughts on “My Feelings About the Hallyu Wave

  1. I’m not Korean, but I feel like I can understand your feelings. Being black and living in a country that loves to take and use things from black culture, yet not show black PEOPLE any respect is bothersome. When you stated that you had some random white man come up to you and say “annyeonghaseyo” it reminded me of a time where my dad was standing in line at a store behind a white person; the cashier was also a youngish white guy. He handled his business with the first guy as he was supposed to: in a very professional manner. But when it came to be my dad’s turn to be taken care of, all of a sudden the cashier turns “urban” and starts calling my dad “bro” and “brotha”. Like, what??
    My dad put him in check. Quickly.
    I will admit that I didn’t start learning about Korean culture until I started my skincare journey. I used to have horrible skin and so many times I was pointed in the direction of Korean skincare so I looked it up. I became very interested in Korea in general after that and would love to learn the language (I have a huge love for languages!) but I have also never seen a kdrama and I don’t listen to kpop. Mostly for the reasons you listed above: the people who do are more on the verge of being a “koreaboo” and they rub me the wrong way. Like, it seriously makes me uncomfortable and I kind of don’t want to be associated with them (sorry if that’s mean).
    This was a long reply and I’m sorry if you don’t really care about anything I’ve said lol. I just wanted to say that I understand you and hope one day you can start to feel respected again. Everyone and their culture deserves to be respected and treated as humans. That’s it.


    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story!
      I’m glad that you were able to find your interest in Korea based on your needs. I will always argue that Korean skincare is one of the best out there haha. I also love languages which is why I’m constantly learning them and being raised bilingual helps with picking them up quickly. I honestly don’t think not wanting to associate with Koreaboos is a bad or mean thing. I just got a taste of it first hand this past weekend and honestly I’m so bitter about how my culture is being treated. Hopefully there will be a world for both of our people to have respect and have our culture respected.
      If you want to learn Korean, I would really advise watching Korean dramas and variety shows, however. They’re a really good source.

      Liked by 1 person

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