As an older Millennial, I’ve often felt that I was just a few years ahead of the curve. Not in terms of being more advanced, but rather in being interested in or wanting certain things that weren’t really available yet. As trends have gained steam, I’ve been surprised and delighted, but sometimes also caught off-guard, by how supposedly niche interests of mine have gone mainstream.
Korean culture is one of these areas.
Fourteen years ago, what I knew of Korea was limited to what I could experience firsthand in my Phoenix bedroom community of Glendale. My husband and I went on our first date at a local Korean and Japanese restaurant, Takematsu, where I tasted my very first kimchi and dolsut bibimbap. I had tried to do some research ahead of time, but because I couldn’t find good sites online dedicated to this topic (it was 2000), I resorted to the encyclopedias of culinary culture found at our local library, where I worked. (I may or may not have spent a bit of my afternoon shift trying to wrap my head around descriptions of fermented fish cake). Otherwise, my grasp of Korea was limited to knowing that there had been a war there, that there was a North one and a South one, and that my mother-in-law had some really pretty decorations in her house.
Things improved slightly when we lived in the Twin Cities. As someone who was studying Russia, I wasn’t learning more about Korea in school than the pitiful bit I already knew. In daily life, there weren’t really opportunities for engaging Korean culture, either. I don’t think it even crossed our mind to try. However, because we did not have my husband’s mother to cook for us, we had to venture outside our apartment and find Korean food for ourselves. Our journey took us to a gritty section of a St. Paul street called Snelling, which had two restaurants – Shilla and Mirror of Korea – and a tiny grocery store no bigger than a one-bedroom apartment. Although the intention was initially just to obtain some good food, the experience of going to this microscopic Koreatown was my first real experience of Korean America outside my mother-in-law’s home or a restaurant. And, I think it was a watershed moment in our interest in engaging Korean culture, both for its own sake and for what it meant to my husband and the identity of our family.
2003 in Minnesota: Korean culture seemed infinitely far away.
Stepping into the market, I saw another side of my husband – his Korean side – for the first time. I’m not sure whether this was because he was tapping into it more, and that is what struck me, or whether I was seeing what had always been there with new eyes, in the context of this new experience we were having together. In any case, that tiny store was a treasure trove of cultural encounters for me. It was the first time I had been anywhere where absolutely no English was spoken. (Even in parts of Europe, which I had been fortunate to visit, it seemed English was omnipresent). Where customer service meant frowning at me. (Did they hate me? Had I made them mad? Did they not like to smile?) Where I hardly recognized a single item for sale. (What were all of these mysterious cans and plastic containers?) Where I felt too big and too loud, somehow. (Why was it dead silent in here?) And where, amid what was to me a zone of total foreignness, my husband magically knew what to do.
He started pointing out what the different foods were – the bean sprouts, the red bean jellies, the dried seaweed – and while selecting what he needed from a suddenly accessible menu in his head, he began to tell me stories. He remembered Shrimp Crackers and Choco-Pies and the cherished moments of childhood bliss that went with them. He remembered having fish cake on a stick from a street vendor, and the joy he felt as a small boy as he drank the broth that came with it and dipped the stick into the available sauces. He said Anyonghaseyo and bowed slightly to the shopkeeper. And he chided me for counting my change in front of the clerk, explaining that it would look like I was accusing them of stealing.
It was an awkward experience (I didn’t understand why I was the one seen as rude when they were the ones scowling at me), but I was hooked. As the years passed, we found ourselves regularly going back. The grocery store became a locus of our shared discovery, where he remembered fragments of his childhood and I became acquainted both with the culture and this side of him. It also served an additional purpose: Amid a Midwestern landscape which we found isolating and alienating, this was our own little world on the prairie – one he belonged to, I was starting to get to know, and that we could explore together.
Our experience of Korean culture might have been limited to those monthly trips to Snelling and our sometimes vain attempts to cook Korean food in our apartment if it were not for a very important phenomenon: Hallyu. Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, is to much of the world what “The British Invasion” of pop music was to the U.S. back in the 1960s. And it brought us face to face with contemporary Korean television, movies, and music for the first time. This was in the early 2000s, before digital streaming, social media, and blogging became so widespread. To learn about top Korean titles, we therefore had to painstakingly scour English-language Asia sites for reviews, buy an expensive import version on YesAsia, and then hope we liked it when it arrived. While we had a few misses, most films, like Il Mare, were well-chosen. Swept away by the wave, we soon filled our shelves with everything from Windstruck, My Sassy Girl, My Beautiful Girl Mari and Yobi the Five-Tailed Fox to Memories of Murder, Tae Guk Gi, Old Boy, Dae Jang Geum, and Jumong.
As we watched, we witnessed steady improvement in production value, and came to recognize patterns in storytelling, plot devices, relationship tangles, and challenges for the characters to overcome. We fell in love with stars like Jang Dong-Gun, Lee Young-Ae, and Song Kang-Ho. We relished the opportunity to see Korea in a modern light, to better appreciate its regal past through court dramas, and to be exposed to unresolved parts of its history through films like Silmido. Most of all, we saw something we had never seen before: Male characters who reminded me and my husband of himself. Not simply because of surface similarities in appearance, but because of the portrayal of different kinds of Korean masculinity. I can’t overstate what it meant to see a leading man – the hero, the love interest – be someone other than a square-jawed all-American bro. And to see Korean men playing complex, multidimensional parts other than the eccentric sidekick to the “normal” white dude. Guys who felt affection, anger, surprise, and worry with the same expressions and reactions as the ones I so often saw on my husband’s own face. It was like discovering a piece of our authentic selves and the world we were creating together, arriving in a box from thousands of miles away.
Streaming the mainstream
Koreatown, Los Angeles. Our go-to for all things Korean.
When we returned from Minnesota in 2005, little had changed in Glendale, but Korean media had become even more accessible thanks to Amazon and Netflix. By the time we returned from additional sojourns in Poland and Atlanta in 2008, technology had improved even more. BluRays, smartphones, consoles, and streaming services were all taking off, and soon we were able to watch Korean media on-demand through sites like Drama Fever and Crunchy Roll. We also began taking our first trips to Los Angeles’s Koreatown, where we discovered the wonders of Korean malls. After pigging out in the ridiculously delicious food court, we could buy dual-language books, ingenious home goods, and of course, more media. Soon we were making regular pilgrimages so we could fill our bellies, rejuvenate our souls, and stock up on essentials like Epik High and Rain. Thus, as we entered the second decade of this century, it seemed that as long as we knew where to look, we could find nuggets of Korean culture. And yet, for all of our interest, it still seemed to be something peculiar that we and we alone were interested in, at least as far as other Americans were concerned. Our embrace of Korea was just one more exotic thing that we were interested in as strange globe-trotting people.
Imagine our surprise, then, when Psy’s Gangnam Style started playing on the Top 40 radio station in that very same Glendale. When I suddenly realized I was no longer the only white girl at the Korean spa. When columns at major news outlets started devoting space to Korean businesses, social life, fashion, music, and movies alongside the typical pieces about North Korean saber-rattling. When books about how Korean pop culture was taking over the world started being discussed in Marie Claire. When articles extolling the hipness and irresistibility of Korean culture starting populating my Twitter feed. When blogs about Korean culture started springing up everywhere, exploring and critiquing not only media, but also social issues like multiculturalism, poverty, and racism. When schools and companies started asking me to help them better understand their Korean students and clients. When other white women started expressing jealousy and admiration that I was with someone who was part Korean (a refreshing change from the remarks I’d had previously).
Ahead of the curve or catching up?
Although this transition has been a long-time coming, in some ways it has caught me off-guard. After so many years of having to painstakingly search for and learn about everything from its food to its pop stars on a journey that was part scavenger-hunt, part research thesis, it is a bit weird and strangely irritating to see newcomers have so much information and access at their fingertips. Like an old person, I think, “where is the hard work?” in this era where one simply clicks on the next show in the Netflix queue and never has to go through protracted inquiry and deliberation, making hard choices about which expensive imported show to watch next. Not only that, but it is also strange to have this part of us – which society formerly seemed to reject – now be upheld as the wave of the future and the epitome of cool. Of course, I’m thrilled for Korea. It deserves its time in the sun, and its success and popularity have nothing to do with me at all. But, on a personal level, after enduring disinterest, rudeness, hostility, and rejection for our embrace of Korean culture – which is not something exotic to us but is a real and living, breathing part of who my husband is, and by extension, what our life is like – it is a little odd to see it suddenly become a fad.
A bite of happiness at the bakery in Koreatown Plaza.
It’s a paradigm shift that we like, and which definitely benefits us as it provides ever-increasing access and also more approval from the mainstream. However, it also reorients our own relationship to Korean and American cultures and how we see ourselves occupying the sometimes contested, uneasy space in between. What does it mean to us, now that it is perpetually available? No longer an act of rebellion, but now even more cherished, has anything really changed at all? I don’t know. Yes? Maybe? No? I’m not sure we have to know. But it’s something we think about with a combination of bemusement and appreciation as we laugh uproariously while streaming Rooftop Prince. While we sound out Korean lessons streamed from Pimsleur. As I listen to the Secret Garden soundtrack – streamed over Xbox Music. As I prepare to give a short talk at the office about my recent trip to Seoul and the photography I did there. As I reflect on my work with my Korean students and consider ways that I can continue to help them during their transition to the U.S. school system. As I help those in the film industry better engage with directors and producers from Korea, who they feel would be a great visionary fit for their projects. And as I munch on dried gim seaweed snacks from Costco and Trader Joe’s.
Maybe the answer is that Korean culture is simply here to stay, that it is finally a legitimate global influence, and that it’s not about who liked it first. (At any rate, there are certainly, many people – Koreans first among them – who appreciated it long before I walked into that grocery store on Snelling so many years ago). Perhaps, like long-fermenting kimchi (or maybe a fiery bulgogi), it is finally ready to be enjoyed by the masses. With such richness and so much to offer, it’s about time.
We’re just lucky to be a part of it.