Two years ago, when novelist and journalist Euny Hong was commissioned to write an article about her childhood in Korea (“Growing Up Gangnam-Style: What the Seoul Neighborhood Was Really Like”), little did she know it would launch her on a rich exploration of “Hallyu,” the widespread exportation of South Korean pop culture also known as “The Korean Wave.” The resulting book, The Birth of Korean Cool, is very funny and combines Hong’s remembrances of growing up in the poor and fragmented post-war state with her sharp observations on the cultural changes that created this behemoth of an industry.
When she moved back to Seoul from America in 1985, Hong was 12 and the transition did not go well for her.
“Because I looked Korean, they had this idea that I was genetically predisposed to speaking the language and behaving like them,” she says. “The idea that someone who lived in America would come back was unthinkable.”
It’s Hong’s voice, a funny, smart, often conflicted and witty combination of personal essay and observational journalism, which makes the book unique.
“I wasn’t sure whether the personal stories would be off-putting to readers,” she admits. “As I wrote the book, I became more and more sure about it, and I’m grateful to my editors for steering me in this direction and having faith in my story.”
And yes, Psy gets a mention or two.
“ ‘Gangnam Style’ was a very prominent example of social media’s ability to bridge gaps, not just in culture but in accessibility,” Hong explains. “For a lot of people, this was the shot heard round the world. It was significant not just in making Korea cool; It was the first time anybody realized that you could achieve global penetration, irrespective of countries, borders, language or the context of the video. I really think this movement will have global economic consequences, not just in Korea rewriting their whole economy based on Hallyu, but also in people realizing that America no longer has a monopoly on pop culture content.”
In the book, Hong also lays much of the cultural confusion of South Korea at the foot of Confucianism, which she dubs “the most stressful belief system on Earth.
“People don’t use the word Confucianism but they don’t have to, because it’s in the air and the water,” Hong says. “It’s in the way you eat and dress. Everything is dependent on your ranking. It’s not like peer pressure the way we understand it in the West, like not wearing white after Labor Day or something. You will destroy your life, your career, and embarrass your family irreparably unless you pay attention to these rules one hundred percent of the time you’re in the presence of another human being. This all had ramifications that made Korea’s transition to globalization very difficult.”
The book also features a rich discussion of “Han,” a cultural belief based around vengeance that informs violent cinema like Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy.
“In the original draft of the book, I said that Korea has been fate’s bitch for 5,000 years,” Hong laughs. “My editor made me take it out, but it’s true. Han is a very culturally specific feeling. I’m not aware of any equivalent in any of the languages I speak. Nobody owns ‘wrath,’ but if you pay attention to Korea movies, you realize they take it to another level. It’s almost like they’re channeling the wrath of their ancestors.”
Hallyu encompasses many mediums, among them films (k-cinema), bubblegum pop songs (k-pop), cuisine and technology, but Hong gives readers a peek behind the curtain, discovering that the exportation of Hallyu is a multi-billion dollar enterprise backed by the South Korean government.
“Here’s the analogy I would draw,” she explains. “Cities like Toronto want filmmakers to make movies there, so they give tax breaks. Now imagine a country, namely Korea, creates a similar system, but instead of being for film, it’s for every single thing in the world. They’re spending billions of dollars marketing songs without any self-doubt about whether anybody wants it. They don’t care if anyone wants it. If you throw enough money at something, it happens.”
Asked who the book was written for, Hong is taken back for a minute.
“I’m a bad author in that I never really think of who the target audience is,” she says. “I really think it’s for smart people who are wondering, ‘Wait, what the fuck just happened?’ Even though there are aspects of Korean culture like Han that cannot be reproduced, I like to think that this book will be viewed as a guide. It’s for people who want to understand how to manufacture ‘cool,’ when by definition ‘cool’ means you don’t care. It can be a guide for countries or corporations who are trying to pull off something that seems impossible. How do we get from there to here? And how do you do something that seems impossible through sheer force of will and never doubting that it’s possible?”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.