By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month and we are taking a look at the influence of various Asian countries and cultures in American society. We begin our series with…
Korea. A land of tiger lilies and green mountains topped with temples. A land of spicy food, sleek sedans, and compelling tunes. It’s a land divided and yet still with one beating heart.
The people of Korea remake the world in their image. South Korea, for instance, lifted itself out of economic downturns in the 1980s and 1990s, via governmental incentives, and gifted the rest of the world with Korean culture. Samsung. Hyundai. LG. These are purposeful cultural exports that, along with music, TV, and movies, comprise the “soft power” of the “Korean Wave.”
“It is said that the number of foreigners studying Korean [language] has increased significantly in recent years, as they have become interested in Korean dramas, pop music, and movies,” John Seungyoon Lee, CEO and Founder of Unilab Hub, which helps foreign companies expand their businesses between U.S. and Korea, and president-elect of the Korean-American Scientists and Engineers Association in Seattle, told the Weekly.
“It’s not uncommon to see foreigners wearing Hangul T-shirts…The fact that 26 Korean words were registered in the Oxford English Dictionary last year is a surprising and exciting cultural phenomenon.”
Korean pop music was the first in Asia to successfully reach western ears. It started with “Gangnam Style,” and now it’s BTS, Black Pink, and more. Korea is “in.”
“Recently, people’s initial exposure to Korea has been mainly through Korean dramas like “Squid Game,” “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” and Korean movies like “Parasite,” Lee remarked. Netflix, one of the major conduits of Korean culture today, recently committed to double its production budget for Korean TV and film in coming years.
“It is incredible that the love towards Korean shows has led to a wider interest in Korea…Their stories are now at the heart of the global cultural zeitgeist,” said Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, during a meeting with South Korean president, Yoon Suk Yeol. Korean digital games are also taking the world by storm. Gaming companies like NEXON and NCSoft are household names in the U.S., as are game titles such as “Black Desert.”
One cannot talk about the influence of Korea on the U.S. without discussing food, which you can even find at Seattle Costco nowadays, commented Lee.
“Many Americans enjoy Korean food, and some pursue more authentic ones than Korean Americans.” Foods such as kimchi, or spicy fermented cabbage, and soybean paste “are naturally healthy, and their flavors and aromas are so rich that once you try them, you’ll be hooked,” Lee said. “Once people are interested in Korean culture and food, the next step is to visit Korea…Korean history is truly unique.”
Throughout its history, Korea has been invaded by foreign countries, such as Japan, or during the Korean War, “and has fought back tenaciously.” Lee continued, “What is unusual about this process is that Koreans have never waged a war of aggression to conquer another nation. They are gentle and docile people, and…they have always been able to get back up after a long period of hardship.”
The U.S. State Department relates that the U.S. and Korea first established diplomatic relations in 1882. At that time, Korea was ruled by the Joseon Dynasty. An American diplomat first set foot on Korean soil in 1883. In the reverse, some Koreans came to the U.S. in the late 1880s; however, the “First Wave” (appropriately titled, as it turns out) occurred from 1903 to 1949, and mainly consisted of pineapple plantation workers arriving in Hawai’i—which means we can’t really even count that as the “United States” yet, since Hawai’i was not a state until 1959; but no doubt, many Korean Americans in Hawaii, the state, now, count their ancestors back to this time.
The “Second Wave” of Koreans came to the U.S. during the Korean War (1950-1953). The U.S. became involved in this War, and still today we send troops to our bases in South Korea. The Weekly spoke to Eric Bowker, a former U.S. Army soldier, now living in South Puget Sound, who was posted there with the Armed Forces Network some years back.
“I got off the plane, and the first thing that hit me was…it smells like kimchi.” Although he never developed a taste for this spicy staple, Bowker said that the prevalence of grilled meat and vegetables stayed with him. He remembers traveling via helicopter over rice fields to a station on Hwaaksan Mountain — “right on the DMZ” (demilitarized zone). Bullet holes were still lodged into the station walls then. “It brought home how real this thing was.” Bowker could see both Koreas from the top. “You wouldn’t have known if you were coming from America, the difference from looking, but the Koreans knew.” Bowker commented that “populations seem to adapt to whatever the reality is on the ground…I expected them to be bitter and resentful” about the Korean War and “having families split apart, but they had adapted to that…as a way of life.”
The “Third Wave” of Korean immigration to the U.S. took place in the 1960s, at which time more white than blue collar workers began to arrive to make their living here. According to 2018 numbers, there are almost two million residents of Korean heritage in the U.S. today, putting them fifth in size amongst Asians. Seattle hosts one of the largest Koreatowns in the U.S., along with Dallas, New York City, and Los Angeles; while H-Mart, headquartered in Bergen, New Jersey (which has another large Koreatown), has 84 locations nationwide.
With the Fourth “soft” Wave, Korean culture has become more prevalent. Korean beauty products, for instance, such as Innisfree and Tony Moly, are becoming very popular here. Lee still uses Korean products in his home, and patronizes local Korean eateries.
“I have a Korean brand rice cooker, Cuckoo, and a Navien hot water mattress, which is helpful for deep sleeping in the cold weather. There are many excellent Korean cuisine restaurants [in Seattle].” Whether you range out to Federal Way or Lynnwood, or stay in Seattle, places to partake of Korean food in King County range from upscale spots such as Joule, rated one of the New York Times’ favorite restaurants in 2021; Paju, in Queen Anne; Watson’s Counter in Ballard; or Exit 5 Korean BBQ in Renton. You can even get Korean red bean shave ice in the U-District at Snowy Village.
“2023 is a very important and meaningful year for Korea and the United States,” Consul General Eun-ji Seo of the Republic of Korea for Seattle told the Weekly, “because 2023 is the 70th anniversary of the Korea-U.S. alliance, and the 120th anniversary of Korean immigration.”
Information about events related to Korean culture and traditions can be found on the Consulate’s website or Facebook page.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.