The Hallyu Wave is Drowning Me

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The Hallyu Wave is Drowning Me

Jaeeun Park, Staff Writer

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   I can clearly remember my childhood and the usual routine I would have after school. After finishing my homework, I would scramble up to my grandmother, lying next to her on our warm heated mat. I’d be intrigued by the cliche, dramatic plot of a rich, good-looking company heir’s tight-lipped mother pushing a briefcase packed with cash at his “average” girlfriend, telling her to take it, on the condition that she would break all ties with her son who “can do much better.” 

   My cynical grandma would then look at me and go, “Of course he can do much better, he has everything. He can find someone of his status,” while I looked at her wide-eyed. These were the days I enjoyed the most in my childhood, before I first heard of the term hallyu. 

   What is hallyu? The term refers to the metaphorical wave of South Korean culture (especially entertainment) that has swept over the world, enlightening people that there was a treasure trove of talent and innovation within the small East Asian country. 

   Products from South Korean beauty brands line the shelves of stores like Urban Outfitters. Samsung products are being called rivals to Apple’s. Korean music groups have been reaching international fame, making it to the Billboard music charts with new releases, and attracting attention for their unique style.

   Nowadays, everyone has heard of BTS, the boy band shattering world records left and right with their popularity, or BLACKPINK, the quartet of attractive 20-something year olds who were the first Korean act to perform at the famous Coachella music festival earlier this year.

   These are only two examples of the hundreds of idol groups out there, struggling to stand out and gain popularity to make a living. The basics of the K-Pop industry in South Korea, which quickly gained them attention from overseas, are perfectly-synchronized choreography every group has for their songs, stunning visuals of the members, and professionalism. In idol stages, every group follows a unique choreography to enhance their performance, and is expected to look flawless while doing so. 

   Most idols will naturally or artificially match society’s standards of an ideal Korean beauty: pale skinned, large-eyed with double eyelids, a delicate, pointy nose, a small face and a v-shaped jawline. Makeup and sourced designer clothing is used to improve the visual component of a stage.

   Korean dramas have also been received very well by global viewers. More and more K-dramas are appearing on Netflix, more stadiums being bought out for K-Pop groups’ concerts, and more beauty brands are being sold in cosmetics stores all over the U.S. People recognize the music I listen to and go, “I love that group! Who’s your favorite member?” There are more “People react to: K-Pop” videos on social platforms, and the cursed, painful repetitions of “hello” in Korean when people figure out your ethnicity.

   Not that I don’t appreciate all the hype about the country; all this attention makes South Korea’s economy better, and it’s nice to not always be in the shadow of its more threatening neighbors, China and Japan. 

   Though I feel that I should be happy that Korean culture is becoming more common overseas, I can’t help but to feel a bit uncomfortable from the attention.

   I don’t want my culture to be looked at from bigoted views. To some, listening to a certain genre of music made me one of those people. Labeled in their minds a fangirl that shrieks and screams. Stereotypes are inevitable, us being human, but people don’t have the right to look down on complete strangers for an interest they don’t share. 

   I fear being stigmatized. A similar spread of culture, last time from Japan, built anime and J-Pop a cult following, as well as an equal amount of ridicule and stereotypes.

   The term “weeaboo” paints a picture of an obese 34-year-old who spends all his time in his parents’ basement obsessing over 2-D anime girls. It’s usually used in a case where a person is unhealthily consumed with their addiction to Japanese culture, so that they lose social skills with a negative connotation such as above. 

   Nowadays the word “koreaboo” has become a term with the same definition but describes Korean culture. It has developed at least part of the stigma that surrounds Japanese entertainment.

   The open-minded way fans respond to the language, food and habits are a drastic change from what generations have experienced before us. To those who have faced discrimination in this country as foreigners to the natives, it must surely be unsettling to be received so warmly by others now. Even Ivy-League colleges offer courses to learn Korean, high in demand by the student population who before would have considered it obscure but are now signing up at a rapid pace to be able to relate to their favorite celebrities.

   Of course, this was inevitable, but I have to admit it’s a bit overwhelming when most of the world happens to butcher your language. Having a completely different sort of alphabet from the English one, Korean words are romanized in a personally unappealing way. Of course, since the English alphabet does not have the same sounds and lilts as the Korean one, it makes sense that direct translation would not be completely accurate. The Korean alphabet makes certain consonants sound softer than they are in English, and has a different structure entirely, so the romanized version ends up being accented in certain places and awkward.

   In Korea, I never find the words I say or hear grating at all, but seeing them changed into English words makes me cringe a bit. I don’t think I’m the only one who dies a bit inside when a complete stranger knows one word in Korean and calls me “oppa,” a word females use to describe a familiar older male or an older brother. 

   Am I allowed to be uncomfortable? This culture was built through the rich history of a long-overlooked country, and definitely doesn’t belong to me alone, but it feels like I’m the only one who feels this way.