Not Your K-Pop Star

One of my first memories of America was rejection. As a kindergartener enrolled in
an almost all-white private Catholic school, I already knew that assimilation would be key to
my survival; although I had only emigrated from Seoul two years ago, I did my childish best
to master fluency and most of all, blend in.
Yet I couldn’t–no matter how small or articulate or docile I made myself–I looked
“foreign” to the nuns, and my presence felt like an intrusion. “God wouldn’t want to see
someone like you,” I can still hear my teacher’s deliberately whispered words that rang loud
with contempt–she then ordered me to the back of the Wednesday morning service line.
A decade later, I can still hear her hissing bigotry.
I felt like a parasite.
From that day, my attempts to fit in became an intentional rejection of my Korean
identity. I was scared, I was confused–I just wanted approval and invisibility. Nonetheless, I
have never been able to shake the label of “different”–in my case, always a pejorative.
When my family moved to a far more diverse school district in Boston during my late
elementary school years, I was ecstatic. I dreamed of a childhood filled with other Asian
American girlfriends to whom not everything had to be explained. But ironically, I now feel
more discomfort living in an area with a large population of Asians, specifically Korean
Americans who have asked me why I don’t hang out with the Asian group at our school. I’ve
always shrugged them off but in reality, I blame the sudden Korean trend, or as some like to
call it, the Korean Wave.

It’s remarkable how people ignored me because of my Asian culture but later chased
and begged me to teach them Korean. In particular, they wanted a recipe for my skincare
routine. So I tell them “three liters of water and an ounce of Aveeno”.
This new attention is smothering my own identity: I’m no longer Korean because I
don’t have a seven-step skincare routine but I’m also not American because of my Asian
features. Korea is becoming popular, but so is the life of a Korean-American woman, which
is already hypervisible. Our lives are exemplified to the extent where this hypervisibility is
fetishizing and renders us invisible.
Just yesterday, I found that January 13 is observed as National Korean American Day.
But it feels as though Korea has impacted American culture only recently with “white-gold”,
a nickname westerners in the eighteenth century gave to Asian porcelain (Cheng). Porcelain
skin, porcelain doll look, etc. Korean women are depicted to exhibit the fragility and
daintiness of ceramics. Once a “contested and highly valued” ceramic material, it is much
like the life of a Korean-American woman. We are considered to be “just Asian” or Chinese
until we expose the truth that we are not, in fact, Chinese but Korean and suddenly, we hold
a different value and are labeled exotic.
Koreans have been living in the US since 1903 so it’s quite surprising that we’re
considered “new”. In 2003, President George W. Bush had the US House and Senate pass
bills to honor us and our contributions to American society (National Day Calendar). But
honestly, I don’t even understand what these contributions are despite the fact Koreans
make a little over 8% of the American population (World Population Review). Us 8% have to
carry the burden of representing a trendy nation.

Hallyu is a term that media sources use to describe the Korean trend. In Korean,
“Hall” means Korea and “yu” means existence. Together, Hallyu literally means the
existence of Korea in foreign nations.
Although the seeds of this phenomenon started in 2001, it only became a hit in the
American market in 2018 with the South Korean boyband Bangtan Sonyeondan or BTS. On
June 2nd, 2018, BTS reached number one on the US albums chart and took the role of
number one on the US Artist 100 list (Romano). Then their song “Idol” beat Taylor Swift in
her world record title of “most viewed music video online in 24 hours”. BTS accumulated
over 45 million views, outnumbering Swift’s eight million (Guinness Book of World Records).
But it’s not just K-Pop that’s riding this Korean Wave. Korean beauty and other
sources of media contributed 16 billion dollars to the South Korean economy in 2017 and is
only growing. Kristen Ortiz believes that the reason behind Hallyu is that Korean media is
“idealistic and really attractive for a lot of people”(Maybin). Although raising South Korea’s
profile, popular Korean media only showcase the best of Korea and for myself as a
Korean-American woman, it only creates an impossible standard of Asiatic femininity.
With the rise of Hallyu comes the trend of Asian beauty, specifically Korean skincare.
A majority of people find that Korean skincare feels “clean” and emphasizes natural beauty
while Western culture doesn’t. Others describe it as more efficient despite the infamous
“seven-step routine” which is crucial to achieving the Korean “glass-skin” (Chae).
The truth is that the Korean beauty industry doesn’t represent culture but is just
driven by money. In fact, non-Korean brands labeled products as Korean and saw sales
increase by nearly $25 million (Russon). Entrepreneurs use “Korean” as a label, creating
impossible standards in order to expand their market. As a result, Forbes estimates that the

$445 billion beauty industry is the most prevalent place for women to succeed, limiting the
potential of Korean American women to beauty (Sorvino).
Korea is working itself into Western culture but lacks representation. Although there
is more diversity in American cinematography, people claim that the roles given to Asians
feel forced and are underrepresenting (Chae). Sandra Oh describes this invisibility as a
“heartbreak… for my community of Asian Americans.” Oh agrees to play major roles in
popular American shows such as Grey’s Anatomy in an effort to make a difference but she
also finds that people “pooh-pooh Hollywood” for creating the minority roles to seem fake
(Thorpe). Hollywood projects misconceptions about the minority of Asians, driving attention
to us while hindering our identity.
Previously, I had to be “American” to be respected but now my reality is that I have
to act Korean in order to be accepted as a proper Asian. This sudden contrast in the culture
that is expected from me created my desire to defy “cool Korean culture” because I don’t
want to feel pressured to behave like a “proper Korean girl”. The truth is, I don’t feel like I
belong in either box labeled Korean or American because the magnified lives of Korean
women create impossible standards for us.
It’s not accepted by our society to not meet the expectations of these extremes.
I want to rebel against my own culture.
Because I am not your K-Pop star.

Works Cited
Asian Population 2020. World Population Review, Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.
Chae, Mina. Do You See a Lot of Diversity on Screen? Social Media Application file, 20 Jan.

  1. Infographic.
    —. Have You Heard of Korean Skincare? Social Media Application file, 20 Jan. 2020.
    —. What Are Your Thoughts on Cinematic Diversity? Social Media Application file, 20 Jan.
  2. Infographic.
    —. What Makes Korean Skincare So Special? Social Media Application file, 20 Jan. 2020.
    Cheng, Anne Anlin. “Yellow Skin, White Gold.” Asia Art Archive, 9 Jan. 2020, Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.
    Choi, Mary H. K. “Seoul Survivor.” New York Times, 29 Aug. 2014,
    g.html. Accessed 9 Jan. 2020.
    Kestenbaum, Richard. “The Biggest Trends In The Beauty Industry.” Forbes Media, 9 Sept.
  3. Forbes,
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    “KOREAN AMERICAN DAY – January 13.” National Day Calendar, Accessed 20 Jan. 2020.
    Le, C.N. 2020. “14 Important Statistics About Asian Americans” Asian-Nation: The Landscape
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    Maybin, Simon. “The other big Korean drama right now.” BBC News, 14 June 2018. BBC, Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.
    Romano, Aja. “BTS, the Band That Changed K-pop, Explained.” Vox Media, 17 Apr. 2019.
    Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.
    Russon, Mary-Ann. “K-beauty: The rise of Korean make-up in the West.” BBC News, 21 Oct.
  4. BBC, Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.
    Shen, Jane. Instant messenger interview. 20 Jan. 2020.
    Sorvino, Chloe. “Why the $445 Billion Beauty Industry Is A Gold Mine For Self-Made
    Women.” Forbes Media, 18 May 2017. Forbes,
gold-mine/#41267bc12a3a. Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

Stiles, Matt. “Mapping the United States’ Korean Population.” The Daily Viz, 23 Jan. 2018,
Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

Suggitt, Connie. “IDOL earns BTS record for most viewed music video online in 24 hours with
45 million views.” Guinness World Records,
iewed-music-video-online-in-24-hours-538964. Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.
Tang, Estelle. “Sandra Oh On Killing Eve, Obsession, And Asian-American Representation In
Hollywood.” Elle, 1 May 2018. Hearst,
Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.
Thorpe, Vanessa. “Killing it: Sandra Oh’s rise from ‘quota’ Asian to Hollywood star.” The
Guardian, 6 Jan. 2019. The Guardian/Observer Archive,
Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

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