Illustration of Korean pop idols
Many Korean stars are being introduced to American audiences. (Illustration by Francesca Mahaney, Pratt Institute)
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Illustration of Korean pop idols
Many Korean stars are being introduced to American audiences. (Illustration by Francesca Mahaney, Pratt Institute)

K-pop and K-dramas might be expanding America’s cultural horizons, but does it come at a price?

Over the past couple of years, Korea has incorporated itself into mainstream America through an array of products ranging from cosmetics and food to music and television shows. The term “Hallyu” has been created to define the trending and influential Korean wave. Many others, including myself, enjoy listening to K-pop bands like BTS, Mamamoo and SuperM or watch the latest K-drama on Netflix or Viki, a streaming site of shows from various countries in Asia.

There is an issue, however, that arises in the midst of the wave — exoticism. Exoticism is the action of romanticizing what is foreign. People who demonstrate the behavior don’t purposely mean to, but it does become worrisome that fandoms travel to South Korea with the idea that it’ll be just like what they see on their favorite K-drama. But nothing is ever like what you see through a screen — it’s a completely different culture.

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K-pop in America

The American music industry has broadened its scope by adding in Korean pop music, commonly known as K-pop. Some bands, like BLACKPINK and Monsta X, have even signed with record labels in America to increase their influence and fanbase. K-pop, however, didn’t get its start until the ’90s, after South Korea became a democratic country. It didn’t become a big trend until 2012 when Psy released his hit “Gangnam Style.” Afterwards, BTS in 2017 received the award for top social artist at the Billboard Music Awards and became the first K-pop group to be featured for more than two weeks. The achievement increased the size of their international fandoms and they began touring worldwide.

Afterwards, other groups started receiving more recognition, being invited onto radio and talk shows for interviews about themselves as well as future projects fans could look forward to. It’s enjoyable to watch because it allows fans to feel more connected to Korean idols despite the separation of the screen. Additionally, groups chat with fans online through message boards or streaming on V LIVE to keep them updated.

Streaming K-dramas

Shortly after K-pop became a popular trend, Netflix acquired a genre of television shows from Korea, commonly known as K-dramas. And they’re just as addicting. K-dramas, as opposed to American dramas, appeal to a wide audience due to being G-rated while also being able to teach the language and extend one’s Korean vocabulary.

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Recently, the movie “Parasite” received the most awards at the 2020 Oscars for best picture, best directing, best international feature film and best writing (original screenplay). The moment is not only a great achievement but it also breaks down the barriers between America and foreign films, especially those from Korea. It’s recognizing talent and artistry that doesn’t fit the formula for American filmmaking.

Pros and Cons of Breaking Down Cultural Barriers

The concept of willingly incorporating another culture with America’s is pleasantly surprising yet expected. In modern times, accessing shows or music from other countries is possible through internet access on cellphones, laptops, gaming consoles and televisions. Plus, there are subtitles to translate and, in a way, break down the language barriers between two different countries; it is sharing cultures without borders.

Growing up as a Filipina in America, seeing others openly accepting Korean culture is a relief. Based on the ongoing issues of immigration, I had a fear that there would be more repulsion to the idea of a foreign culture infusing with American culture. I grew up watching foreign films from different Asian countries with my mom, reading the subtitles on the bottom of the screen. And I enjoyed it. But I always noticed that the selection of foreign films at my local library were always just a couple of DVDs on the shelf. I never understood why they weren’t popular. As I grew up, I became more aware of the foreign disconnect in American culture and hoped for a society with more tolerance. And it’s good that it’s been achieved.

Although there are many upsides, there is a significant downside that I feel most people are overlooking: exoticism. There is a difference between being accepting of one’s culture and romanticizing the ideas from a foreign country. With romanticizing, a person allows themselves to see an ideal image of something; it’s a real utopia. Obsessive fandoms, I believe, fall into this category. They watch K-dramas, listen to K-pop music and watch interviews of their famous idols or actors or actresses. They follow their favorite bands across the country or go to different countries with the possibility of running into them in public. They convince themselves that they must visit South Korea because of what they see on television. But not everything is what it appears to be.

Even though there are cultural differences between America and South Korea, remember that almost all acting is still playing a role in a fictional world that’s idealized for the general public. What happens in the show is intended to have wide appeal and should be treated as such. Certain aspects of each country’s media demonstrate cultural differences between Korean and American television, but they shouldn’t lead you to believe that one is a utopia and the other a dystopia: Everything has imperfections.

Recognizing Reality

South Korea has crossed into the mainstream in America, gaining recognition for their artistry. K-pop groups connect with fans through their music and keep them updated on message boards or streams. K-dramas and movies present new concepts and techniques for the filmmaking industry to adopt. In general, the borders between language, art and cultures vanish through the incorporation of the Korean wave. It demonstrates an acceptance of one another.

However, people must understand that foreign countries shouldn’t be exoticized for what is unknown to them. Exoticizing another country, I feel, creates more of a disconnect than a connection; it praises one more than the other. But television isn’t synonymous with reality. Actors are playing roles. Movies and shows are fictional scenarios created by someone else. The reason they are very addicting is because there are various elements that appeal to a large audience. As said before, nothing is what it seems to be.

Writer Profile

Janella Tibbetts

Framingham State University
English with Concentration in Creative Writing

Just a girl who loves to write and live life to the fullest.

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