“Squid Game” reveals the danger of fetishizing Korean culture

As a Korean American, much of my childhood to adolescent life consisted of being the butt of “Asian eyes” and “You’re not from North Korea, are you?” jokes.

Not only from my peers, but from my soccer coaches, my friends’ parents, and from my teachers. I was othered to the point of diminishment, where I was not a living, breathing person, but reduced to my nickname: “the Stupid Asian.”

I grew up in a world where my soccer coach could display clear acts of discrimination towards me and not one person on the 25-person roster would bat an eye. 

SEE ALSO: 5 K-pop fans on how girl groups helped them own their femme

Then came the rise of Korean beauty and K-pop in the 2010s and fast-forward to today, I feel dumbstruck. Suddenly, I am endlessly scrolling through the same people singing along to BTS on my timeline, posting their latest “Squid Game” theory, or buying Korean face masks in bulk. 

The Hallyu Wave, or the rising prominence of Korean pop culture globally, has been building for decades. Hallyu is strongly driven specifically by K-pop and K-dramas, but is fueled also by Korean food, skincare, and technology. While Western countries have been notoriously late to the party with K-pop, America got its first glimpse of K-pop with the Wonder Girls charting the Billboard in 2007 and Psy soon followed suit with ‘Gangnam Style,’ which became the most viewed video on YouTube with 3 billion views. Hallyu has only gotten stronger since then, adding Academy Awards, Golden Globes, Oscars, Billboard records, and millions of adoring fans of all ages to its resume.

Korean culture has made a big enough name for itself in America to have words being added to the Oxford English Dictionary. In day-to-day life, these phrases are now used on a frequent basis in Western culture. From companies creating presentations about the art of nunchi, to the most famous influencers in the world uploading mukbangs, many Americans are now actively participating in Korean culture without even knowing it.

I mean, how did we get from there… to here? And some may argue, isn’t this a good thing? People are finally excited about Korean culture! But something about this sudden shift in attitudes towards Korean culture feels less than fulfilling. 

I feel a sense of whiplash – Western culture once openly mocked people like me and in only a few years I now feel an uncomfortable level of fetishization. 

The fundamental difference between appreciation and fetishization is that fetishization is objectification, and objectification leads to violence. We’ve seen this in the Atlanta shootings from earlier this year and the entire history of American culture, perceiving Asian bodies as objects. Other than violence, another name for fetishization could be ‘unreasonable infatuation.’ Fetishizing should not be cloaked as a form of attraction; it strips those who are fetishized of a personal identity altogether. In fetishizing people, by making people less than equal, we are fueling the systems created to maintain white supremacy.   

Here are the four major indicators of fetishizing Asians. 

1. Racially motivated crushes

 Listen, I could really care less about who your current bias is or what Korean beauty hack you found on TikTok. There is absolutely no issue with having deep respect and even love for these things. The problem is when you assume I am too, or try to forge a relationship with me, only on the basis that I am ethnically Korean. 

Fetishization is really just another form of racism, which means culturally, we haven’t really moved on from racism more than simply put a sugar-coated frosting over it. “Yellow fever” is a phenomenon that has plagued Western culture for longer than any of us have been alive and has only intensified with modern technology. 

In fact, The Page Act of 1875 essentially banned East Asian women from immigrating on the basis that they were all prostitutes, otherwise having to undergo intense and humiliating interrogation to prove they were not. 

If Asian women are hypersexualized, then Asian men are severely desexualized. The rise of Asian male immigrants in the nineteenth century coined a period of Yellow Peril, where white men felt threatened by the increase of Asian immigrants. In what feels like an attempt to nurse the population’s collective fragile masculinity, the government decided to create legal restrictions on Asian men, to strip them of their rights, effectively emasculating them. This emasculation also painted Asian men as unsuitable and undeserving of their hypersexualized female counterparts.

This went beyond the legal realm into the social realm, where it still exists today. Starting with disgusting comical caricatures and depictions of Asian men in hit films like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” this view of Asian men remains prominent. Now, it comes in the form of nerdy best friend or token exchange student. However, with the rise of Hallyu, a stark distinction has formed, where many Asian men are sharply divided into either the nerdy sexless category, or the hypersexualized “you look just like this K-pop star” category. There is hardly any difference between these classifications; being obsessively attracted to Korean men is still a one-dimensional objectification of a real person. 

These “positive” forms of racial prejudice are undeniably entangled with a dehumanizing, psychologically damaging, and violent history. When complaining about such fetishizations, people have often told me “I would be thankful that people are attracted to me if I were you.” Calling it attraction is a grossly inaccurate oversimplification of what it really is: objectification and dehumanization.

2. Pushing an idealized agenda onto the country

Korea is not a fantasy land. And if you find yourself seeing it as one, you have already crossed the fetishization line, my friend. Being obsessed with Korean food, music, culture, then crossing the line at real Korean people – remaining generally unconcerned with real issues the country may be facing – is, well, inappropriate at best, and colonization at its worst. 

An unfortunately major example of this is the blind support and justification for Korean idols, athletes, and high-profile stars who have been accused of bullying. A quick five-minute Google search will inform you that bullying and school violence is a leading cause of Korea’s high suicide rate and often causes long-term psychological damage. However, those who choose to fetishize Korean culture will blatantly ignore this and spam comment sections of rumored and confirmed bullies with the two Korean words they ever bothered to learn: “Saranghaeyo oppa!”

Loving the people of the country you so love means seeking to understand its socio-political fabric with deep sincerity. In Korea, saying you are a feminist can get you fired from your job while the gender pay gap is still at a whopping 34.6%. The elitist education culture leads to an unhealthy work-life balance, where people stay at work until 4 am because their superiors told them to and 6th graders are studying for nearly 60 hours a week. 

This is the reality of Korea’s current socio-political culture, and if you are going to interact with our food, technology, entertainment, and culture, then you must also be conscious of how you could incidentally contribute to or boost these issues while consuming and indulging in our culture. Forcing your own idealized fantasy of our country erases these issues from the hot seat and instead paints Korea as a country free for your taking while real people continue to suffer.

Expecting a K-drama-like experience onto a whole country is unrealistic. Forcing such a limited and unrealistic expectation of Korean people is unhealthy for both parties. Not to mention you’re only setting yourself up for heartbreak when you’re expecting every guy to be like Park Seo Joon. 

3. Disregarding cultural and historical context

Falling in love with a different culture requires educating yourself. Just like if you fall in love with someone ethnically different from you, it is crucial to understand their cultural context as a token of respect and appreciation.

Going to Korea because of your interest in a certain aspect of Korean culture is fine! It is a beautiful nation and we take great pride in it. Our history is also one of deep and generational pain, including a near cultural genocide until 1945. A near extinction that happened less than a century ago remains a painful memory that loudly exists in every household and family. 

For a country, culture, and language that nearly ceased to exist, respectful admiration, not fetishization, is absolutely necessary. Fetishization is how stereotypes advance, burying our stories in its stead. It should be no surprise then, that fetishization also has deep roots in colonization with BIPOC folx.

4. Being a bystander to Asian hate crimes

If you appreciate Korean culture, you have a moral imperative to stand up against Asian hate. What kind of nonsense is it when Yoon Yuh-Jung wins a well-deserved Oscar, but is warned against going to receive the award in real-time because her family is afraid for her safety amidst Asian hate crimes? 

Because the truth is, if you enjoyed “Parasite,” “Minari,” invested in a K-beauty regime, watched Korean gamer streams, or sang along to ‘Dynamite’ at any point within the last year, that support should go beyond your personal enjoyment. There is no such thing as an uninvolved spectator; the audience is always either on the side of the oppressor, or the victim. 

Liking something only when it is convenient for you is a dangerous habit. So next time you’re at a bar, surrounded by drunkenly loud and occasionally racist opinions, consider that you have the gift of choice. In the face of an America where anti-Asian hate crimes have risen 145% while overall crime drops 7%, your response to xenophobic conflict will tell you what side of the line you have chosen to step onto. 

How to avoid fetishization

At the end of the day, it’s about intentionality. The point of this post is not to shame anyone into living inside of a box. Rather, my hope is that anyone reading this post can understand why a lot of normalized behaviors are harmful. And if you slip up, then simply listen, acknowledge, and do better. If your heart is in the right place, you will always be learning and growing.