by Shari Soza ’23
In this paper I will be exploring how cultural appropriation and appreciation is experienced and perceived in both the USA and Korea. I will be comparing the two in an attempt to better understand their two different cultural contexts and how that affects how they view cultural appropriation. First, I will speak on appropriation in the USA, followed by examples of appropriation/appreciation in Korea, then I will compare the cultural differences between the two countries.
Appreciation vs Appropriation
Let’s first take a look at the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation happens when a majority culture exploits parts of a minority culture out of its original context at the expense of the original culture, and usually at the majority cultures gain. This is especially harmful when it adds to the marginalization of an already marginalized group.
Cultural appreciation on the other hand is when an individual honestly looks to learn about and experience another culture, while keeping themselves educated on the reasons and history behind another culture’s customs. There are very fine lines between appropriation and appreciation, and it is easy to switch from one to the other. The true difference between the two is made up of a person’s intentions and attitude toward the cultural experience they are participating in.
Cultural Appropriation in the USA
The USA has a long and messy history of the exploitation of minority cultures. I will elaborate on this later in the essay, but for the purpose of this paper I am going to focus on the exploitation of Asian minorities within the USA, specifically Koreans.
The Korean wave, or Hallyu, really took off in the United States in the 2000’s with the popularity of Kdramas and K-pop. In 2013 when Psy’s “Gangnam style” came out, K-pop became a word known between most Americans. As K-pop took off in the US and Korean media gained popularity, the inappropriate use of Korean culture also began to take place.
The term “koreaboo” comes from the word “weeaboo”, which indicates one who is overly interested in anime and Japanese culture. Similarly, to be a koreaboo is to be obsessed with Korea and Korean culture. Koreaboos often idolize Korean men and women, having a strong preference for them in dating and picturing them to be “perfect”. They will drop Korean words into their everyday language, accessorizing the Korean language, even when inappropriate and out of context. This little bit of vocabulary comes from the amount of Kdramas they watch and K-pop they listen to. The koreaboo will often fantasize about moving to Korea, as they see it as an ideal and perfect place. However, they have little to no knowledge of the history of Korea and the social issues it faces and fail to see it as a real and functioning country with difficulties.
A very famous koreaboo is Oli London, a British personality who is very well known for identifying as a “transracial Korean”. Oli is a white man, he has had many surgeries in attempts to look like BTS’ Jimin. While not American, Oli London is a prime example of extreme cultural appropriation. Many koreaboos attempt to defend their appropriation by saying they love Korean culture, but they are not likely to speak up about issues that affect Koreans. Koreaboos and other appropriators alike want all the good parts of a culture and none of the bad. A stigma has been kept that having any interest in Korean culture makes one a “koreaboo”, but this is not true; there is always a way to appreciate a culture appropriately.
The USA also has a history of deeply emasculating Asian men, pinning them as effeminate and weak. This largely comes from insecurities that were held about the male Chinese labor force during the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The de-sexualization of Asian men is a problem that has overly marginalized Asian men in the USA, often keeping their dating pool to just other Asian women. The States has also done the opposite with Asian women, fetishizing and over exoticizing them.
Cultural appropriation in Korea
Korea has been largely influenced by American culture and media, and nearly since its beginning the K-pop industry has had a bad track record of cultural appropriation. I will elaborate further on the causes of this but let’s first start by looking at some examples.
There have most commonly been several occasions where K-pop stars have been appropriative of black American culture. Many K-pop stars have worn their hair in black protective styles, dressed in hip-hop clothes, and worn grills on their teeth, all in inappropriate ways. Korea does have a large breakdance scene, and this could be an explanation of the interest in black American culture, which led to the birth of K-hop (Korean hip hop).
K-pop artist CL has had some appropriative cases in her music career. In her music video for “Hello Bitches” (2013), you can see her backup dancers in cornrows, wearing grills and chains and twerking. The group Mamamoo did a performance of Bruno Mars’ song “Uptown Funk” in black face in 2017 and later apologized for it. And finally, one of the worst examples yet, is when Bigbang’s Taeyang posted a video on Instagram where he had used a filter to combine his face with Kanye West’s and proceeded to wish his fans a “happy monkey new year”.
While nearly all these things come out of ignorance, many international fans are fed up with these things happening time and time again. Fans believe that it is the entertainment companies’ responsibility to educate their stars, as most of them come from racially homogenous countries where they may not have so much cultural awareness. As time goes on, fans are having less and less patience to let these appropriative instances slide.
Cultural Appreciation in Korea
Now we will look at how Korea has experienced cultural appreciation. Travelers coming from the United States to Korea are likely to be worried about the things that they can and cannot participate in, in worry of overstepping a boundary. One of the most common questions a foreigner coming to Korea has is whether or not they can wear traditional Korean hanbok.
While it is still up for discussion and the opinion of Korean people individually, it seems that the larger opinion in Korea is that it is quite alright for foreigners to wear hanbok, so long as it is done with clear good intentions. Visiting palace’s, there are many hanbok rental shops where foreigners are encouraged to partake. Times where it would be inappropriate for a non-Korean to wear hanbok would be for Halloween or at a music festival. It is in these cases that a traditional piece of clothing is made into a costume.
Generally, seeing foreigners in hanbok is a sense of pride for Koreans, as they enjoy seeing others partake in and appreciate their culture. Giving hanbok to foreign friends is also a fairly common practice.
Most foreigners coming to Korea and having the chance to wear hanbok are students. Many of the programs that bring these students in are hyper aware of the need to be respectful of the host countries culture and are sure to educate their students before allowing them to partake in the wearing of hanbok. Studying and traveling abroad is largely for the purpose of immersing yourself into another culture. This is completely possible to accomplish in a respectful way, so long as one has the right intentions and is sure to stay educated on the things that they are participating in.
Understanding Cultural Contexts
When traveling, it is important to investigate the history of the place you are going to understand how that country interprets things differently than your home country. Looking at the USA, America has a long racial history that is very unique to it. Being an American traveling elsewhere, it can be easy to forget that each country you visit has their own unique history, and likely does not view race the same way the U.S. does.
When looking specifically at the appropriation of black American culture by other majority cultures, the common problem is that people love black culture but do not love black people, and often don’t give credit where credit is due. While the U.S. has miles to go in their works against racism, it is generally a mixed country where seeing and interacting with people of a different culture than your own is not an anomaly.
Korea, on the other hand, is one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world, with 96% of their population as ethnic Koreans. Up until recently, Korea was not open to the world, and it was with their rapid industrialization period that they began to interact with foreigners.
Korea is also an incredibly nationalistic country, in result to Japanese colonization and the Korean peoples need to band together. While this keeps a strong Korean identity, it can also cause any non-Korean to feel extremely alienated and “othered” within Korea.
In conclusion, exploring and experiencing other cultures is a good thing, but it must be done with respect and integrity. It is important to educate ourselves on all parts of a cultural experience so as not to take anything out of context.
When looking at other countries and how they have appropriated or been appropriated we must also take into consideration cultural contexts and histories of each place, not to make excuses for them but to get an understanding of how and why these circumstances have developed.
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