On Dealing with Korean Pop Culture Shock: An Invaluable Guide for those Who Don’t Understand Value (And an OK Guide for Everyone Else)


Back in the United States, where, from what I understand, the fork is still a widely used utensil, things are happening that I have no knowledge of.  The more time I spend in Asia, the more I lose track of what goes on back home.  Now, I’m not talking about the search for the next great GOP candidate – that doesn’t interest me so much, although I do find Rick Perry amusing, in a dangerous, if-this-guy-is-president-the-world-is-gonna-end kind of way.  But when Perry’s hilarity doesn’t have me in stitches, I find myself worrying about the important stuff.  Namely, the alarming fact that I don’t know who most of people on the Billboard Hot 100 are.

Drake?  Never heard of him.  Luke Bryan?  No idea.  Cobra Starship?  If it doesn’t have anything to do with GI Joe or Grace Slick, I’m clueless.  Bruno Mars?  I feel like I’m on planet Mars.  Who are these people, and when the hell is Amy Winehouse gonna put out something new?

But then it dawns on me that I haven’t lost touch with reality; I’ve instead gotten in touch with a new reality, one with chopsticks and Kimchi.  In this new world, the things I used to enjoy have disappeared; there is no arthouse cinema, no hard rock music, and no cleavage.  People talk about culture shock, but what they don’t talk about is pop culture shock, the slow realization that you must try to adapt to an entirely new set of leisure time rules.

Seeing that I’ve lived in South Korea for over a year, I consider myself an expert.  An expert on everything, by the way, but right now we’re talking about Korea.  Below are just a few of the things that will happen to you – yes, you – should you come here as well.  I’m hoping that knowing these things ahead of time might help you transform into your Asian self, just as knowing he was part of the Matrix helped Neo learn kung-fu.

You Will Dance…A Lot

Koreans get widely stereotyped for being good at math, but these number crunchers are equally good at learning how to do a choreographed dance!  Dancing is everywhere in Korea.  People dance outside of stores, people are dancing in schools…they even dance at baseball games.  Yes, baseball games.  When I was a kid, my image of “going to the game” involved a lot of older white guys (some with gloves) sitting around in the stands, talking about statistics and hoping one of the players would hit a ball at them.  That image stuck for twenty-some-odd years.  Here it’s a totally different, zany experience.  All the players have theme songs.  While the crowd sings them, cheerleaders dance around on a big stage by the dugout.  And the crowd?  Half of it is little middle school girls…not old guys who will, at the drop of a foul ball, reminisce about how their father took them to see Joe DiMaggio play against the Brooklyn Dodgers at the tail end of the Great Depression.

Why is the crowd made up of young people?  One might say Koreans love baseball, but I choose believe it’s because of all the singing and dancing.

You Will Love 2ne1

Looking at Korean advertising, you might start to believe that a lot of Asian girls look the same.  This is not true; you just haven’t realized yet that it’s the same Asian girl in 60% of the ads.  She would be Sandara Park, member of the insanely popular group 2ne1.  Ms. Park is everywhere; she’s like a living version of the McDonald’s logo.  Similarly, 2ne1’s music is all over the place.  I’ve found that both the music and the girl are impossible to resist.  It’s pointless trying to fight it.  Yeah, when I first got here, I acted like I was too cool for 2ne1, but now, when I hear 2ne1 at a club, I can’t fight the urge to dance around the place like I’m Sally Bowles or something.

If you’ve never heard a 2ne1 song, I’ve embedded a video for your enjoyment.  Enjoy the wild colors, the crazy outfits, and the goofy spaceship finale.  Really, in many ways, this embodies all of the best qualities of South Korea.

You Will Hear English Songs with Offensive Lyrics in Strange Places

Over the weekend, a friend of mine was telling me that he was in the Samsung store recently.  While he and several others – including a few families – looked at electronics, LMFAO’s “Shots” blared out across the store.  Little kids followed their parents, while Lil’ John shouted:

“If you ain’t takin’ shots get THE FUCK OUT THE CLUB!”

And the families went ahead with their business.  The Samsung staff assisted customers, oblivious.  Meanwhile:

“Now say ‘I’m FUCKED UP!’  (I’m fucked up)  ‘I’m TRYIN’ TO FUCK!’”

Luckily, none of the kids said it.  I’ve heard similarly explicit songs in clothes stores and at the gym.  It’s fun to watch everyone carry on like the store is playing Musak.

(One last note on LMFAO: they’re enormous here.  How many times have I heard “Party Rockers”?  A billion.  How many times have I heard the Korean national anthem?  I dunno…is there one?)

If Your Favorite Celeb Commits Suicide, it’s Up to You to Follow Suit

It took moving to Korea for me to learn about “The Werther Effect.”  This is, in a nutshell, when a famous person commits suicide, and then suddenly there’s an explosion of copycat suicides.  In a study titled “Research on the Werther Effect in South Korea,” reporter Yu Cheong-wha found that following the suicide of a famous person, 137 more people committed suicide per month than the normal suicide rate (this average was taken between the years of 1994-2005).  In 2005, a popular actress named Lee Eun-Joo hanged herself; in the next 23 days, 49 people offed themselves as well.  How did the “overwhelming” majority of them choose to end their lives?  You guessed it – hanging.

Another study, done by the Grand National Party in 2009, claimed that an average of 606 people in South Korea commit suicide after the “publicized suicide of a famous person.”  The stories of celebrity suicide and its aftermath are really pretty shocking: After a TV personality named Choi Jin Sil killed herself, two other celebrities committed copycat suicides soon after.  I mean, that’s not even fair.  If one publicized celebrity suicide is like taking an alcoholic to a bar, three is like taking him to freakin’ Mardi Gras.

If Sandara Park ever commits suicide, this country is going to suffer more casualties than it did during the Korean War.

All things considered, South Korea is a whacky and fun place to live.  It’s filled with dancing and suicide.  In other words, it’s a lot like life itself, full of ups and downs, highs and lows.  I think I love it.  Sorry Bruno Mars.



81 thoughts on “On Dealing with Korean Pop Culture Shock: An Invaluable Guide for those Who Don’t Understand Value (And an OK Guide for Everyone Else)

  1. I enjoyed reading this post! I live in the States and couldn’t tell you anything about the Billboard Hot 100 but I know who 2Ne1 is, Girls’ Generation, and Kara is..I do know Bruno Mars and Drake (don’t like him). That’s really cool that they like baseball, its a great sport! And in the States, each player has his own theme song, well on my hometeam they do and we have little cheerleaders that shoot shirts in the audience and dance as well. Still not as cool as how they do it in Korea, I’m sure!

    • Are you sure you’re not in Korea? Haha

      When I say “theme song” I don’t mean a song comes on each time someone hits – each player has a song written with his name in it. It’s like, his song. They don’t do that at US baseball games now, right? There’s no Kevin Youklis song, is there?

      Love Girls’ Genereation and Kara too! Thanks for writing, Goodbye Navi!

  2. Baker Bettie

    If it makes you feel any better I have never left the U.S and I didn’t know any of those bands either, except the late Amy Winehouse…

    I have a friend who was teaching in South Korea and he made a similar blog post about this culture shock. He talks about going to a baseball game for the “lotte giants” and how they take plastic bags, fill them with air, and tie them to their heads. This post included lots of pictures of this tradition. Pretty hilarious. Though I wonder what American traditions are hilarious to other cultures.

    He also refers to this website a lot: http://www.blackoutkorea.com...

    • Haha – that’s awesome. It’s a shame there aren’t more opportunities to put plastic bags on your head.

      I was trying to think of an American tradition and can’t…that’s kind of depressing. There’s gotta be something! I shall ask a Korean. : – D

  3. It’s so interesting to hear about other cultures like this. I really enjoy the way you write about things. It makes me quietly laugh to myself most of the time, even though I’m not really capable of laughing quietly, so calling it quiet is probably an understatement. Anyways, keep up the good work!

  4. In Australia i’ve discovered a show called PopAsia and basically for half an hour, they play songs that are big in Asia by Asian artists. All the songs and groups are amazing and so much fun!
    I’d love to visit Korea

    • You should! Although, as much as I dig Korea, if you only get a chance to go to one or two Asian countries…maybe not that high on the list. I’m really enjoying Asia and can’t wait to see more of it (been here over a year and still haven’t been to China or Japan : ( )

      The K-Pop music is hilarious – it’s like the rebirth of the ’80s, but with a bigger budget. Plus, it’s not self-conscious at all; I love how it lacks the cynicism I see in a lot of Western music.

      Anyways, thanks for the comment xxxMissVxxx. To tell you the truth, when I first saw your name, I thought you were porno spam! Sorry Miss V! I’ll never think that of you again!!!

  5. Well this is just great! Since yesterday, I had been thinking of leaving the following message for you and you came up with this post.
    Since I was a kid, somehow I always used to be fascinated by Asians. (being Indian doesn’t count as part of Asia!) we used to have these Chinese shows dubbed in English and Hindi and I used wait the whole week to secure my place in front of television. I wanted to find a south Asian guy, only because their kids are so cute (Yes! Yes! We girls, dream of being mommy even before we are born). However with time I found out other things about them like eating weird food (I am a wanna be vegetarian), the cruelty against animals and other fellow beings. I am not sure how much of it, is true. But I know, I was scared enough to agree to live with my mother in law (MOTHER IN LAW), in case my husband took a long trip to any of these countries. I wanted to know how’s been your experience so far and above post seems to say quite a bit. Thank you for sharing.

    • Hi Bitter Charm!

      In terms of animal abuse, I haven’t seen anything…but you hear things. I haven’t eaten dog, but I’ve been to places that serve it, and the stories of how the dogs are slaughtered are pretty terrible. Also, eating live octopus is fairly common, and some people think it’s atrocious that they cut the octopus up with scissors while it’s still living. When I first moved here, there was a big scandal because the Korean government was burying pigs alive…there was a hoof and mouth breakout and that’s how they chose to “cull” the infected pigs. Apart from that, I can’t think of anything. It seems like most of the nightmare animal abuse stuff is rather old generation and getting phased out.

      Eek! Rather terrible reply I feel! Haha – you brought it up! : – D

    • Exodus

      trust me, Bitter Charm, the Mother-in-law scares the hell out of us Asian girls as well. also, watch out for the sister-in-law. but since you’re not Asian, those two lovely ladies will go easy on you.

      Vietnamese veggie dishes are delicious, that you can count on. ; )

    • Lol! I don’t know what it’s for. Maybe to claim ownership, I dunno. It looks hilarious, though. And what happens when you break up? Anyways, at least it makes it easy for me to know who not to hit on.

      Thanks for the laugh Solomon!

  6. Uhm, Amy Winehouse died a few months ago hence, no new songs released.

    Sandara Park used to be an actress in the Philippines for a few years and then she came back to Korea and made it big. So big. 🙂
    K-Pop and J-Pop has already invaded the Philippines among other Asian countries. I used to hate it so much, until I watched a music video of the girl group Miss A, Goodbye Baby or something. I realized that no matter how outrageous their hair color, and clothes were, they’re still awfully cute. Since then, I’ve been watching Kpop on music channels to await their dance moves and crazy colored clothes 😀

    I agree with the dance moves. I wanna dance like them myself. LOL

    PS. I made changes on my profile so that when you click my name, it will direct you to my blog. 😉

    • Yeah, Miss A “Goodbye, Baby” is a huge smash. Their earlier song “Good Girl Bad Girl” was also inescapable. Both are catchy and awesome.

      I have a feeling I’m really going to fall in love with the Philippines – can’t wait to make my trip there. : )

      Your blog is accessible now! Yay!

      • Manila (the capital of the Philippines) is getting invaded by the Koreans. You will see a lot of them when you visit here. It’s going to be like you’ve never left Korea. Haha. Kidding.

        Yeah, Sandara Park’s career started in the Philippines, she was famous here for a short period of time. She disappeared from the limelight. Now, she’s crazy famous.

      • Yeah, I’m actually going to the Philippines to visit my Korean friend who moved there, so there you go (although she isn’t going to live there permanently). I seriously can’t wait to go…don’t know that I’ll spend a lot of time in Manila, though.

        If I watch some TV while in the Philippines, I’ll keep an eye out for the next big Korean star.

  7. Karin Babin

    I tried, with an open mind, to get through the very poppy 2ne1 video. I lasted 2 minutes and 3 seconds, and then the impulse to slit my became unbearable, and I decided to hit stop. Instant relief. I’m going to have to disagree with you. It’s very resistible. Now I understand all the suicides in the country. Dancing on the other hand, I’m down for dancing, anytime, anywhere, with anyone. As long as it’s not to 2ne1 :s

    • LOL! Hilarious! Especially the comment on the suicides. : – D

      It wears you down, Karin. These songs are playing EVERYWHERE. In stores, in clubs, outside…you can’t escape it, and you find yourself singing along with it and you don’t even know how you know the (English) words. That said, I’m glad your first K Pop experience was unpleasant, and I hope it can stay that way for you. haha : )

  8. Interesting Post. The more you live at one place the more the things start growing on you.
    I listened to a 2ne1 song once. I did not understand even a single word but I liked it. They have catchy beats.

    • They’re amazing! They get the best songs and pull them off perfectly. It makes me ashamed, because I’m supposed to be into hip garage rock and stuff…there’s a real soft spot in my heart for 2ne1 though.

      Always great to hear from you, Miss Silent Myth! : )

    • Is SNSD the same as Girls’ Generation? If so, they are awesome as well. I used to work at an all boys’ high school, and there reward for being good in class was that I would show the “Hoot” video on the big screen. They were transfixed by it! : )

  9. It’s weird the songs that get picked to be in Korea’s English Song Rotation, and how they essentially don’t change for months of years at a time. I feel as though I’ve been hearing “Shots” since I arrived here, and I have no good concept of when that song actually came out. Every song that is sung in English here essentially becomes a sort of capsule of timelessness, emerging from the West with markers that we might recognize in style and era, but that for the populace just mean nothing.

    • This is SO true, bro! We’ve heard Shots since we got here, and there’s no end in sight. Meanwhile, I don’t think any new songs have made the rotation. Maybe “Moves Like Jagger” if you count that. And you’re right…when did Shots actually come out? No idea.

      Lemon drops! Shots shots shots shots shots…….


    • I asked my former girlfriend – who was from Taiwan – about that…how to tell Asians apart by looking at them. She said it’s impossible. I felt a lot better after that. If they can’t tell each other apart, then I feel okay about it.

      Although, that said, the people in Vietnam and Thailand looked distinctly different from the Koreans. But I’m sure a lot of that if due to environment. No one in short skirts and fancy heels riding little motorbikes around Hanoi!

  10. I EFFING LOVE 2NE1. Lollipop came out right when I first moved to Korea and it holds a major corner of my heart, wedged between by husband and unborn child. They are getting popular in the US, too! My husband saw a headline this morning that they had a big show in New York.

    • That’s awesome! When I came here the first time, Lollipop was just fading out and “I Don’t Care” was blowing up. Every song is really good, though. I considered posting the epic video for “Go Away” but didn’t…if you haven’t seen it, you should check it out!

      • They filmed the opening scene of “Go Away” in a cafe that we always went to in our town! We almost crapped our pants the first time we saw it. From there on out we always sat at the 2NE1 table and annoyed the waitress by singing the song the entire time.

  11. I don’t know most of the music artists, either, and I live in the U.S. I’m apparently just out of the loop.

    I think it’s so great that you took the chance to live in another country and take on a whole new experience. A few years ago, when I was getting “restless,” it was suggested I go teach English in another country, and that Korea would be a good place to do it. Alas, I did not, but it would have been really cool to do for awhile.

    • Yeah, I’m very happy that I finally did it. Whenever I go back to the US, I’m gonna be a confused mess.

      Hopefully Maroon 5 will still be big.

      What am I talking about? Why why I hope for that? Never mind. : )

  12. Thank you for turning me on to 2Ne1! OMG! I totally get it. Amazing. And you’re right that they don’t seem to have the hyper-awareness or have-to -be-cool factor of western music. It’s innocent and sugary sweet. I hope they live in that world forever! I guess I have to put Korea on my list now. Sigh, my list keeps getting longer. Malaysia, now I want to go to Malaysia first. You said Korea would not be in at the top of you list, where would?

    • I’m still making my Asia rounds, but I completely loved Thailand and Vietnam and would put them ahead of Korea. I haven’t been to Malaysia – that’s kind of a funny place to want to go first! Why Malaysia? I only hear bad things about Singapore – that’s it’s just a big mall basically – although I hear Kaula Lumpur and Borneo are pretty great.

      • Ok don’t laugh, the reason I want to go to Malaysia…and it might not even be true….is that I heard that they greet you with, not “how are you” but “have you eaten”. How awesome is that? A country as obssessed with eating as me!!! And I heard their food is pretty damn good.

      • Haha – That’s a good reason to move there. If I go visit and run into you, I’ll greet you with “Have you stopped eating?”

        Just kidding! Merry Christmas Delicio!

  13. Maybe I’m just too old to appreciate 2Ne1..but I gotta admit the girls are cute and well..kind of like being Lady Gaga with no effort..and in a nice way.
    I know Korean TV drama’s are a hit in Malaysia and so is the fashion…but, the problem is the sizes..it’s like for stick figures 😦

    Korea does sound like an interesting and exciting place to live in though.

    • Yeah, I wanted to mention the dramas because they’re so popular, but I haven’t actually watched one ever. I should just to know what it’s all about.

      Second straight comment about Malaysia…hmm…maybe I should go to Malaysia now. : – D

      • LOL..well..hmmm..Malaysia does come with it’s challenges..but it is a great country to be in, as long as you don’t read the newspapers or are a citizen..I’m Malaysian actually and not really very good for our tourism. I roll my eyes constantly and wanna hit a lot of people on the head most times…but then, that’s just me being a miserable old fart. HA!

  14. To relieve some stress, if you don’t respond to my comment, I will not be offended and continue to read your blog!

    I was reading this post and agreeing but the bit about inappropriate songs made me laugh aloud. I read it to my boyfriend too because this phenomena is one we cannot get over! I’ve lived here since August 2010 and am still shocked by all the uncensored song lyrics.

    Party Rock Anthem….. oh god. Have you seen the video of North Korean propaganda footage set to that song?

    • Sup Alexa!

      Yeah, I was in the gym one time and they were blasting some song that dropped the n word like 100 times…I was sooo uncomfortable! The Koreans didn’t mind though so it’s cool. haha

      I have not seen this video, but now that I know it exists, I will absolutely check into it!!!

  15. Korean pop culture is really sweeping SE Asia. I mean, I live in Singapore and I get hammered in the face with Girls Generation all the time. How does a music industry accept super groups of 20 or more girls? Haven’t they heard of backup dancers and singers? Or does it just make things easier for each girl to only need to learn the lyrics to one song per new album?

    Plus, it’s not exactly a bad thing that you don’t know who Bruno Mars is. I’d like to do a “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and un-know Bruno Mars and his songs. Korean pop songs might have equally inane lyrics, but at least you don’t know what they’re saying due to the language differences. Well, unless you understand Korean…

    • Haha – This cracked me up. Love the line about backup singers. Yeah, there’s like a thousand people in Girls Generation. And I don’t understand Korean, so for all I know, ‘Hoot’ has really deep and profound lyrics.

      Also love the Eternal Sunshine Bruno Mars bit…perhaps I’ll stay away from him after all…

  16. Oh, my, as usual, I’m late for the party. darn, Topicless, since you’ve been featured, I always have to get in line to speak to you, hahaha. You’re pretty famous now, eh?

    Anyways, I’ve been a fan of Korean drama. ( and Japanese drama, of course.) You know, it’s true about the Philippines having a lot of Korean residents. My parents own a condo there, and the tenants are Koreans, always have been , for 10 years now. And the neighbors there, in our subdivision, right across from our house, are also Koreans. I met the children when I went there on vacation.

    • Renx! You never have to wait in line, chica. You’ve been missing for awhile, but I just assumed you were reading Thomas Pynchon novels and couldn’t put them down.

      It’s strange that there seem to be NO other Asian people living in Korea. Even our Chinatown is predominantly Korean – as opposed to being full of Chinese people. I could be totally wrong here and someone will correct me, not sure.

      Hey, if I watch a Korean drama – like download it – what should I watch? I trust your taste. I think – I loved that story you talked about where the girl thinks she’s being cheated on but really she’s never even met the guy. Blew me away. Anything like that?? Huh?

      • Ah, there’s actually a site where you don’t have to download the movies. Downloading is a pain and it messes up the computer. I can’t remember the name of the site at the moment, but I’ll get back to you. The nice thing about it is the movies are subtitled.

        That one where the girl thought she was being cheated on was a Japanese manga. You know, we actually have a few Korean dvds here at home. Just two, he he he, and they are both violent and perverted, @__@. They are made by a famous Korean director.

        I honestly don’t know why Koreans have chosen the Philippines as first choice for migration. My aunt is also renting out a house to a Korean family, and according to him, the Philippines has potential for small entrepanuers. ( spelling?) Korean is like, filled up , so there;s no more room for small businessmen like this Korean family. In our subdivision there in the Philippines, there are about 100 houses, and 3 of homeowners are Koreans. I’m thinking, where else will they migrate in Asia ? The rest are Muslims, they will stick out like sore thumb in India, Singapore is too small and filled up, too, and I don’t think they would want to be in Burma and Cambodia . Vietnam has potential, but it still is Communist, so yeah, where else will they go.

    • That’s a good point…no real place to go other than the Philippines.

      I’ve probably seen whatever movies you have. One of the reasons I wanted to come to Korea in the first place was the crazy movies. My favorite Korean director is easily Kim Ki Duk, who is brilliant. My favorite Korean movie is called “Oasis” and is directed by Lee Chang Dong; I need to see more of his work because I’ve read that he’s brilliant as well. Just sharing all that for the sake of sharing. : D

      Later Renx!

      • I’ve been on a Korean movie watching spree and so far they all seem to be hyper violent and bloody! What is up with that?! I’ll have to check out Oasis. “The Man from Nowhere” was pretty good and Silmido was kinda interesting as well.

      • It’s kind of funny – I was really into South Korean cinema until I actually came to South Korea. Totally out of the loop now…don’t know “Man From Nowhere” or “Silmido.” I will have to get updated. “Oasis” is a beautiful movie but still rather unpleasant to sit through – it contains, though, what I think is the best performance I have ever seen by any actor/actress. Some Korean actress named Moon So Ri (who I haven’t seen in anything else) plays a woman with cerebral palsy and she’s absolutely great. Anyways, I blather. Two other favorites are “3 Iron” and “Save the Green Planet” (which is super violent and bloody!). Cheers delicio!

      • My EPIK application was rejected by the office in Seoul due to my “medical history.” (-__-) I didn’t even think I HAD a “medical history.” This sucks monkey nuts.

      • I’ve been reading a lot about how taking anti-depressants is stigmatized in Korea. Many people on forums and such recommend just omitting that part from the application because pretty much 10times out of 10 you’ll be rejected if you are or have ever been treated for depression. My meds are used to correct a chemical imbalance that causes the symptoms of depression (thanks for the inheritance of this trait, mom). I’m super fine if I just take that little pill but Korea is having none of it. Check it out: http://waygook.org/index.php?topic=12878.0

        Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.

    • Haha! Yes, don’t forget! And make sure your liver is in good shape, cause you’re going be working that thing out big time. Just trying to be helpful.

      Thanks for comment and the ‘likes’ John – appreciate it buddy.

  17. Deb Brown

    Great post, Topiclessbar. FYI, Bruno Mars sings, “I’d take a grenade for ya.” Very uplifting. Keep writing and I’ll keep reading. Deb B.

    • Ok, I’m having my first Bruno Mars experience…it’s okay. I appreciate any song where the guy is upset about a bad girl. At the same time, taking a grenade is a bit silly. What is she, living in a foxhole somewhere? Who’s he dating, GI Joe? But I understand the sentiment, and I’d take a grenade for you, Deb Brown!

      Thanks for the sweet comment at the end there. : )

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