When I was growing up in a mixed race family, my Korean ethnicity always felt like it was second to being White.
I’d only see Hangul, the written form of Korean, at a church where I went to Korean school on Saturdays or on the menus at the handful of Korean restaurants where I’d eat with my immigrant Korean mother and sister. Most of the predominantly White community in my part of Pennsylvania knew very little about Korea, let alone the Asian continent. Growing up, most people would ask whether I was Chinese or Japanese, as if all Asians were the same. This may explain why Korea is commonly characterized in American history as the “hermit kingdom” or “the shrimp between two whales.” But despite how seemingly tiny Korea is, it has brought about monumental contributions to society that people must learn to appreciate, not appropriate.
Korea has come a long way from being a former Japanese-occupied colony and a war-torn nation, into which my mother was born, to now the 12th largest economy in the world. The country’s major successes come from the recent emergence and popularity of Korean smartphones from Samsung, high-end luxury cars from Hyundai, K-Pop music from BTS or award-winning films like “Parasite.” Everyone, including Koreans, has benefitted from its worldwide success.
But as a result of its success, non-Koreans have become obsessed with anything Korean, claiming the very historical and traditional parts of our culture that date back 5,000 years. People have worn traditional attire of the Hanbok in a lot of places I’ve never seen before – proms, fundraising events and dinner parties that have nothing to do with Korea or have Korean people in them. This phenomenon is so widespread that this group of non-Koreans has been dubbed “Koreaboos” around the world. While non-Koreans are allowed and should be able to appreciate Korean culture, they by no means have a right to appropriate centuries-old clothing or use certain Korean catchphrases like it’s an accessory for their daily fit of the day.
As a Korean American, I find it negligent and disrespectful for others who don’t know much about Korea to exploit components of my culture like it is a trendy phase. My culture deserves more respect than watching non-Korean people spit out Korean phrases as a means to annoy other non-Koreans on TikTok for views and likes.
Take, for example, the Hanbok – the term for a traditional two-piece attire that Korean men and women used to wear daily centuries ago, now in present day for ceremonial purposes, festivals or other events of great significance in their community. Wearing the Hanbok inherently shows a sign of respect to other attendees at the event as well as for the event itself. It is not offensive when a non-Korean person wears a Hanbok to events at places like historic Korean palaces, or are posting about the Hanbok itself to recognize its great significance. But if someone is taking a selfie or wearing it to a party for people to tell them they look good, it’s disrespectful. If you took the time to purchase a Hanbok to wear at any kind of event, you should’ve looked more into what it was before treating it like another Halloween costume.
Instead of rushing into things that social media would condition you to think are fashionable, slow down for a second and consider the implications of your choices. Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance or advice online or from a friend. You won’t know what you’re truly doing unless you acquire the knowledge to make these kinds of informed decisions like wearing a Hanbok warrant. Replace the impatient, defensive tone of “what’s the big deal?” to “how can I listen and do better?” when someone is trying to have a meaningful dialogue with you about changing questionable behavior. Be a better ally by separating appreciation and appropriation, and remember Korean is more than “funny sounding” words or memes that go viral on the Subtle Asian Traits page on Facebook.
My own grandfather was a starving teenager because of both World War II and the Korean War, dealing with the unforgiving fallout in Korea. To redeem a seemingly obliterated land, he among many hard working Koreans grappled back to prosperity and would be ashamed to see how fetishized his culture is by the West today. Determined people like him helped make Korea what it is today, and that should never be trivialized. While Koreans, including myself, are indeed here to laugh with you and unite us all as we openly share Korean culture, I think we can all agree that Koreans deserve the same respect my people constantly afford others.
Liam Studer, a junior majoring in political science and sociology, is a columnist.