Korean Americans and Korean Pop Culture

Dear Korean,

There are people who are Korean but were born in America and don't really have any fellow Koreans around them. Later, they would be introduced to "Korean world" in high school and college, beginning watching Korean dramas, trying to become fluent in Korean, trying out Korean fashion, logging on to Soompi.com forums to get the latest news on Korean celebrities, etc.

Why is it that even completely American Korean-Americans get one whiff of Korean culture and then are obsessed with it like there is no tomorrow?

A Confused Friend

Why is Korean pop culture so attractive to Korean Americans? Why is it that, despite having spent most or all of their lives growing up in America, why do they gravitate so strongly to pop culture generated out of Korea, which can often be significantly different from the American pop culture in which Korean Americans grew up?

Why do Korean Americans stream to the Madison Square Garden to see SHINee?
Short answer: there is nothing quite like seeing yourself in an idealized form.

Believe it or not, a very similar question was raised a few years ago, albeit in a different area and with someone who may appear very different from K-pop idols:  in the NBA, with Omri Casspi. The Sacramento Kings drafted Casspi, a small forward, with their 23rd overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft, making Casspi the first Israeli first-rounder in NBA history. Casspi had a decent rookie season with the Kings, averaging 10.3 points per game.

Now, here is the parallel:  when Casspi began playing, the Jewish Americans absolutely loved Casspi. ESPN sportswriter Kevin Arnovitz captured it perfectly:
Ever since Omri Casspi hit the scene, I've had two general conversations with people I know: The first is with Jewish family and friends, few of whom follow pro basketball very closely. They've heard about this Israeli kid playing for some team in California. This is the greatest thing ever! Have you met him?! When is he coming to my city? What's the best way to invite him to Shabbos Dinner? Is he observant?
The second conversation occurs with non-Jewish friends, each of whom appreciates that Casspi carries great symbolic importance for Jewish folks. But, in the politest way possible, they want to better understand why the fervor over Casspi in the Jewish community is such a phenomenon. After all, there have been Jewish ball players before and, fifty years ago, they had a major presence in the league. Today, current Laker Jordan Farmar is a rotation player for the reigning NBA champs. There are a number of Jewish NBA owners and the league's front offices are filled with Jews. So--and we mean this in the least offensive way possible--why are NBA arenas packed by ecstatic Jewish fans every time the Kings show up?
Omri Casspi and Jewish masculine identity [ESPN/Truehoop]

Arnovitz's answer to the second question is extremely insightful: Casspi was popular among Jewish Americans because Casspi touched upon an important aspect of American Jewish psyche. To paraphrase Arnovitz's point, Jewish Americans adored Casspi because he came from Israel, a special place for the Jewish diaspora worldwide. This "specialness" is not necessarily a result of Judaism as a religion. Rather, Israel is special because it is the place in which idealized Jewish manhood can be realized.

In America, Europe and elsewhere, Jews faced antisemitism, one of whose many forms is a stereotype about being physically weak (while being smart and conniving.) As an ethnic minority, Jews could never completely defeat such stereotype. But not so in Israel, the Jewish State. Indeed, Maccabi Tel Aviv (Casspi's former pro team) was a product of the "Muscular Judaism" ideology, which sought to prove that Jews had the physical strength to overcome the oppressions of the 1930s. From here, the Korean will have Mr. Arnovitz explain:
One of the funnier snippets of Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" is American Jew Alexander Portnoy's arriving in Israel toward the end of the novel, in absolute awe of the virile Israelis: "And that's the phrase that does me in as we touch down upon Eretz Yisroel [the land of Israel]: to watch the men. I love those men! I want to grow up to be one of those men!"

There's a little bit of Alexander Portnoy in the American Jewish men who can't wait to watch this Israeli man fly around the court, shoot 3s, harass ball-handlers and run the break. Yes, some of that fascination is a simple expression of nationalism, but Casspi personifies something deeper for American Jews. The fact that he's not a slight, cerebral point guard but a rangy, explosive -- sometimes even careless -- young swingman makes him all the more appealing.
The central insight from this need not be confined to Jewish Americans, nor does it have to be confined to basketball and masculinity. It is about being able to see, in real life, our idealized selves--the ability to picture ourselves to be more beautiful, more powerful, more talented, more everything.

Korean Americans may not face the exact same type of discrimination that Jewish Americans face. (And certainly not the type that Jewish folks generally faced in the early 20th century!) But Korean Americans, living in America, nonetheless face marginalization. It would be easier to use negative stereotypes against Asians in the American media as the prime example of what causes such marginalization. However, the Korean thinks that the bigger driver of marginalizing Korean Americans (or Asian Americans for that matter) in the American media is the near total absence of Asian faces. For an unformed identity that desires to take form, even a negative portrayal is a step up from no portrayal at all. Thankfully, many pioneering Asian Americans (Margaret Cho, Daniel Dae Kim, Grace Park, John Cho, etc.) have somewhat eased that deficiency. But still, it only takes a little bit of watching American television and movies to make one realize that Asian faces are not really relevant in American pop culture.

Korean pop culture--which is now easily available in the United States thanks to the Internet and other technology--rushes in to fill that void of relevance felt by Korean Americans. Just like a Jewish American can visualize the idealized Jewish man through Omri Casspi, a Korean American can visualize the idealized Korean men and women through Korean pop idols, actors and actresses, performing in an ecosystem in which they are the main characters, not a token sidekick. Seeing those beautiful people performing great feats of talent represents a total validation of Korean American's ethnic identity. As the questioner described, only "one whiff" is quite enough, because the desire to see the greater form of self is just that strong.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.