POP CULTURE SENSATION: Korean pop star PSY performs his hit ‘Gangnam Style’ on NBC’s ‘Today Show’ at Rockefeller Plaza in New York. The video has surpassed 200 million views on YouTube. (Photo: Nancy Kaszerman/Newscom)
Perhaps you’ve been wondering what all the fuss is about “Gangnam Style,” the latest YouTube video-gone-viral with more than 220 million views to date. If you are one of the few remaining inhabitants of the planet who haven’t seen the video, then let me bring you up to speed:
• The rap/song features South Korean pop star Park Jae-Sang, who goes by the name “Psy” (short for “Psycho”), accompanied by a cast of South Korean celebrities who most of us will not recognize, all dancing to a driving, ear-catching techno beat.
• Unless you are fluent in Korean, you can expect to understand none of the words in the video except “sexy lady” (and of course, “Gangnam style”. By the way, “Gangnam” is pronounced Gahng-nahm — not “gang” rhyming with “bang” as I continue to hear many American media types pronounce it.) You can find a translation of the full song all over the Internet; here is one example.
• “Gangnam” refers to the wealthiest, most opulent district in Seoul, South Korea; it’s an area that is only 15 square miles but holds nearly as much of the nation’s GDP as New York state (that’s state, not city) does in the U.S. You can look at this infographic for some more details.)
• No horses were harmed in the making of the video, but they do inspire the dance move that is taking the world by storm.
So is “Gangnam Style” worth watching? I have seen it a few times now, and I admit the tune is catchy and the video visually arresting (albeit occasionally bizarre; Psy breaks down the song scene-by-scene here). I’ve now also seen countless clips of Psy’s appearances on the gamut of American television shows, from Ellen to SNL to the MTV Video Music Awards, each time with Psy doing his signature horse trotting from the song, each time with an exuberant audience laughing and loving every moment.
Yet with each time I see the spectacle of Psy, I feel like my soul dies just a little bit.
Surely I must be overreacting! As Psy himself says, this is a historic moment for Koreans, who have never had the chance to see one of their own experience this level of pop-culture fame and acceptance here in the U.S. Shouldn’t I, a Korean-American, be thrilled for his success and full of ethnic pride for his popularity? Or at the very least, can’t I just enjoy the song alongside his hundreds of millions of fans and try to master his moves like Britney Spears?
The easy thing to do would be to watch the video, have a few laughs, share it like everyone else is doing, then move on with my life. What’s the harm? But I think about an exhortation that Professor Rosalie de Rosset gave to Moody Bible Institute students recently, and it stops me short:
“Having a philosophy of leisure means that, as a Christian, you have thought theologically and biblically about what you do with the time you call your own, with what you choose as entertainment, what you do when you relax or you may fall into the moral problem of drift, of a ‘group think’ mentality which merely follows a leaderless crowd, falling into triviality but even more the great emptiness that can haunt us as we drift along by chance or by circumstance.”
(From Dr. de Rosset’s chapel talk entitled “Mindful or Mindless: A Theology of Leisure and Technology,” September 12, 2012, Moody Bible Institute.)
I think that it’s the descent into “group think” that has bothered me most about the “Gangnam Style” phenomenon. Most people can only discern that Psy is singing about “sexy ladies” and managing to get a whole slew of them to dance like horses. Few have looked into the song enough to understand that it is actually poking fun at the lifestyle and excesses of über-upscale Gangnam.
I imagine my ambivalence about the video’s popularity might be akin to what I’ve heard some of my African American friends say about certain black rappers or shows on BET — that they are unintentionally propagating old stereotypes in the manner of a modern-day minstrel show. The sad irony is that the more popular “Gangnam Style” has become, the more its actual substance has gotten lost amidst the spectacle. What began as a song that contained an interesting social commentary has become a “minstrel show” for the majority masses.
Moreover, when music becomes popularized, it takes on a cultish quality: people become converted, they evangelize about the songs (made easy these days with all of our “liking” and “sharing” and “tweeting” of media), and the artist is turned into an idol. In his book Listen to This, music critic Alex Ross writes that “audiences have routinely adopted music as a sort of secular religion. … Musicians find themselves, in a strange way, both enshrined and enslaved.”
As I watch Psy move from talk show to talk show, repeating his now familiar shtick of “dress classy, dance cheesy,” as much as there is a part of me that is happy for him and his success (and I admit I feel some of that for him), there is an equal or larger part of me that feels sorry for him. He cannot go anywhere right now without doing the same show, over and over, because that is what the masses desire and require.
A MESSAGE BEHIND THE MADNESS: Those who understand Korean know that ‘Gangnam Style’ is actually poking fun at the lifestyle and excesses of an ultra-wealthy and exclusive district of Seoul, South Korea. But most viewers of the video are likely unaware of the song’s satirical intent.
The masses don’t care if the song has some deeper intent; they don’t want to know what all the foreign-sounding words even mean. They’re content with the novelty of it all (and with the horse dance). Likewise, the media doesn’t care about the opportunity the song gives to open a window — damning though it may be — into South Korean culture. They just use Psy to boost their ratings and then move on. Psy might be having the time of his life, but I wonder if there is any part of him that wishes he could just be free of all the madness.
So the popularity of “Gangnam Style” isn’t just a human-interest story of a K-pop (“Korean-pop”) star unexpectedly making it big. It also gives us clues about the world and culture in which we live. And we can either uncritically laugh alongside Psy’s legion of countless new fans, mimicking him with exuberance, or we can take a moment to ask ourselves if there is any downside to spending a few scant minutes of our lives watching the video, sharing it with our friends, and perpetuating the mass hysteria.
In that same chapel talk to the Moody students, Dr. de Rosset says, “What we do with our leisure can have more effect on us than what we do purposefully. What we do purely for pleasure may have the greatest and most insidious effect on us.” A YouTube video-gone-viral of a Korean pop star may just be a YouTube video-gone-viral of a Korean pop star. Or perhaps it is we who are infected, with an ailment that clouds our ability to even discern anymore what is worth watching and sharing, or what is not even worth watching at all.
HE GOT GAME, TOO: Knicks guard Jeremy Lin drives by Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant at Madison Square Garden on February 10. Lin Scored 38 points, and the Knicks defeated the Lakers 92-85. (Photo: John Angelillo/Newscom)
Even if you do not follow professional sports, you have probably heard that there is a whole lot of fuss going on about someone named Jeremy Lin. He’s the 23-year-old New York Knicks point guard who has transformed from last man on the bench to the team’s savior faster than you can say “Linsanity.”
A man of committed Christian faith, Lin has attributed his successes to God and directed all accolades towards his fellow teammates, prompting television commentators to dub him “the humble hero from Harvard,” which by the way is an unlikely source for professional basketball players. Born in Los Angeles, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, Lin experienced success at the high school and collegiate levels, yet was not drafted by any NBA team. Instead, he bounced around the league until he finally landed with the Knicks late last year.
Just a little over a week ago, Lin was sleeping on his brother’s couch and wondering if the Knicks were going to keep him on the team. But as injuries whittled down the Knicks’ roster, Lin’s number was called against the New Jersey Nets on February 4th. He scored an improbable 25 points, started in the next four games, and repeated the seemingly impossible by scoring in double digits each time, including 38 points in a prime-time, nationally-televised performance against Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant.
It’s an amazing, Cinderella-esque story. Some have even made parallels between Lin and Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow due to their shared Christian beliefs as well as their improbable success. But what truly sets Lin apart in his profession, besides his Ivy League education and unexpected rise, is his Asian American background.
Judging by the frenzied response of the Knicks’ multiethnic market of fans, it doesn’t matter that Lin is Asian American. Most see him as a superhero, swooping in from out of nowhere to save a seemingly doomed season. Others may be thinking he’s winning despite being Asian American.
But, make no mistake about it, Lin does mean something particularly special to those of us in the Asian American community. I have not seen Asian Americans galvanized in this way for anyone before Jeremy Lin. Not Barack Obama, not Tiger Woods in his pre-scandal days. If Asian Americans formed a political party, Jeremy Lin would clearly be the uncontested nominee for president.
The role of Lin’s ethnicity in this extraordinary narrative cannot be ignored. Coaches and scouts were quite likely unwilling to give Lin a chance purely based on his ethnicity. Phil Taylor wrote about Lin in SI.com, “I knew on some level that part of the reason Lin was so quickly dismissed was that NBA people had a hard time believing that an Asian-American could play point guard in the NBA.” It’s a testimony to Lin’s tenacity and faith that he refused to accept the reality that he saw around him. He had never seen an Asian American man play in the NBA, but he stayed fixed on his goal of being a professional basketball player, even when no one else was giving him the chance.
People have been describing Lin’s breakthrough as a “Jackie Robinson” moment, and perhaps one of the eventual results of Lin’s success is that in a decade or so, we’ll start to see more Asian Americans in the NBA. But what I find fascinating about “Linsanity” is how the Jeremy Lin story reveals racial and ethnic differences amongst us and illuminates assumptions that still persist.
For one thing, Asian culture is collectivistic rather than individualistic, which essentially means that it fosters thinking such as “we’re all in this together,” and “what happens to you, happens to me.” When an Asian American reaches a particular level of accomplishment and achievement, we all feel the sense of sharing in his or her successes (and the reverse is also true, such as the deep shame many of us experienced after Seung-Hui Cho went on his murderous rampage at Virginia Tech).
In Asian American churches, adults go by the appellations “Auntie” and “Uncle,” further communicating to the next generation that we are all just one big family. Given Lin’s clear profession of faith, Asian American Christians in particular embrace him both as fellow ethnic kin as well as a fellow believer. He is a “brother,” in every sense of the word. And so when he does well, it reflects positively on the larger family of Asian Americans everywhere.
MORE THAN BASKETBALL: Jeremy Lin's significance as an Asian American athlete playing at the highest level of his game goes beyond mere sports.
But why do Asian Americans need the collective ego boost that is coming from one, singular professional sports figure? Aren’t they already considered the “model minority,” rightly or wrongly? Don’t Asian Americans easily assimilate into the larger culture, just like Lin is fitting seamlessly into his team of non-Asians?
Often when I write or speak about matters of race, I invariably hear questions like this, implying that we now live in a color-blind society, that racial conflicts are relics from the past. But I think the excitement that Asian Americans are demonstrating over Lin reflects the exact opposite: that racial and ethnic differences still matter a great deal. As Michael Luo reflected in the New York Times on his own thrill over Lin’s success, “It boils down to a welter of emotions from finally having someone I can relate to enter the public consciousness.”
If you think race does not matter in the 21st century, you likely have never been that lone ethnic minority walking into a room. Asian Americans (and other minorities) know and feel it instantly when they are the only non-white face in any gathering. We feel it whenever we walk into a classroom, a conference room, a coffee shop … a church.
To add further to our sense of marginalization even in the Christian subculture, when none of the role models presented to us in Christian contexts look like someone we can relate to, little by little we begin to doubt that our voices will ever be heard, that we are valued contributors, that anyone even notices we exist at all. If all we ever see in the pulpits, at the podiums, or on the covers of magazines and books are the faces and names of majority America, then those institutions and places of influence are missing a significant part of the American story.
Jeremy Lin gives us a great story that we can all rally around — America loves nothing more than an underdog tale. And the fact that Lin has gained such widespread, mainstream acceptance has filled Asian Americans with a collective sense of sheer, unbridled joy and pride. Lin’s popularity has suddenly given Asian Americans a gift we have not always experienced: acceptance, from a society that still mistakes us as outsiders.
Talk to any Asian American, and you will likely find that he or she has a story to tell about being on the receiving end of a racist epithet or some racially charged comment. Just the other day, I was speaking with a Korean-American named Susie who recounted a recent experience in a Wal-Mart parking lot. As she walked toward the store with her family, a pickup truck sped by with its passengers yelling “Hi-yaah!” at her and her family in a cartoonish mockery of martial arts screams. The truck then passed them, turned around, and returned for a repeat performance before peeling away. On the night of Lin’s incredible 38-point performance against the L.A. Lakers, I watched my Twitter feed spew comment after comment celebrating Lin while still regarding him as a foreigner. “So excited #jeremylin speaks solid English,” read one such tweet.
Jeremy Lin’s recent successes won’t wipe away all the years of racial stereotyping, all the ways that ceilings and misconceptions still block the paths of Asian Americans and other minorities in countless institutions, the church included. But shared appreciation for his extraordinary story is binding together both his fellow Asian American “brothers and sisters” as well as his fans from every tribe, tongue and nation. I don’t think the fact that Lin’s team is located in one of the most multicultural cities in the world happened by chance. Behind all the amazing events surrounding this young man’s rise is a deeper purpose, and I believe there’s way more to this story than just basketball.
FAREWELL 'DEAR LEADER': Kim Jong-Il, the North Korean dictator who died on Dec. 17 at age 69, will be remembered for turning his impoverished country into a nuclear-weapons player. (Photo: Kcna/ZUMA Press/Newscom)
Since I am the daughter and my children are the grandsons of a North Korean refugee, the plight of North Korea is a frequent topic of discussion in our family. My sons are 9 years old and younger, but they have already formed strong opinions about the leaders of the nation that was once their grandfather’s homeland. Just a week ago, my 6-year-old prayed the following: “God please bless everyone, except Kim Jong-Il.”
When we asked him why he prayed in this particular way, he replied, “He’s a bad, bad man. I don’t love him. I hate him.”
It doesn’t matter how many times we try to tell them that God wants us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48). My kids don’t understand what could possibly motivate a man to ignore the suffering of so many people that he is supposed to be leading and caring about.
When I heard the news on Monday evening about Kim Jong-Il’s passing, I found myself shedding tears not of sadness but of anger toward him, toward his father Kim Il-Sung, and towards all those in power in a nation that invests more in its nuclear and military armament than in feeding its starving population. And I realized that I am much closer to my kids’ sentiments than I might care to admit.
I think of my father, who was 13 years old when he left his home country on foot, traveling with his own father and his brother in order to avoid being conscripted into the escalating conflict between the Communist-leaning north and democratic-leaning south halves of Korea. Their trip took 15 days and included a 40-minute harrowing venture across chest-high, freezing water to cross the Taedong River in Pyongyang at night. (You can view an amazing Pulitzer Prize-winning photo here of Korean refugees trying to climb across the remains of the main bridge over the Taedong. This was taken on the same exact day that my father left North Korea: December 4, 1950.)
When he departed from home that frigid December night, 61 years ago, my dad said goodbye to his mother who’d stayed behind to try to convince her brothers to also head south, and assumed he’d be back home in a week or two. But he never saw his mother again. Theirs is a story all too common amongst Koreans in my father’s generation; countless numbers of Korean families were personally affected or were close to someone devastated by the effects of the Korean War, which left behind a tragic legacy of separated or permanently altered families. Officially, the Korean War is actually still ongoing; certainly in the minds and hearts of the Korean people, this conflict and its far-reaching personal consequences have remained far from forgotten.
My dad, who just turned 74 years old, is pessimistic about the prospect of any type of positive change in North Korea. He tells me, “My main worry is for the people who are innocent victims, all those people who just happened to be born in North Korea and who live there. No other country wishes to unify Korea or engage in any risky attempts to overthrow the regime. This all means I won’t be able to see any bright future in North Korea in my lifetime. It’s so, so sad!”
I will be honest: I cannot conjure even a shred of remorse or sadness about Kim Jong-Il’s passing. Although he personally had nothing to do with the circumstances leading to my dad’s family story, in my mind he represents the very worst of mankind, and how its evils can deliver countless decades of misery into the lives of ordinary human beings.
There is a part of me that is even glad for Kim’s passing, if only because it brings the tragic story of the Korean peninsula back into present-day focus. Regardless of what we may think of North Korea’s past and present leaders, regardless of whether we are of Korean descent or not, we all need to be aware that the North Korean story is not just one of a seemingly endless reign of despotic rulers, but also of countless numbers of families experiencing decades upon decades of grief and sadness.
I am grateful for organizations such as Crossing Borders and LiNK, which are both involved in the dangerous and critical work of assisting and advocating for North Koreans refugees, and The Saemsori Project, which is helping to reunite long-separated Korean families. (You can see Saemsori’s interview with my father on YouTube here.) These organizations may not be able to do anything to ensure humane leadership in the post-Kim Jong-Il era. But the work they are doing has eternal value as they strive for North Korean refugees and immigrants to experience both freedom and family anew.
Meanwhile, I will strive to teach my sons that the best way to “love the enemy” in North Korea is not to embrace hatred, but to support organizations such as these, and to continue to pray and press toward a future in which the North Koreans there and abroad experience no more dying, no more crying, no more hurting. It may not happen in my father’s lifetime, or in my lifetime, or even in my kids’ lifetime. But one day, hopefully sooner than later, we know that the old order will pass away, in North Korea and anyplace else where tyranny currently reigns over liberty.
And as we pray for justice to roll down, may we never forget the millions upon millions who have suffered, lost, and perished along the way.
Helen is currently editing her father’s memoir about his life as a North Korean refugee living in the U.S.
This year, a more balanced perspective on gift-giving, and a newly discovered respect for “Scroogenomics,” is saving my Christmas.
I recently heard a clip on NPR referencing a new book by Wharton economist Joel Waldfogel titled Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays. In the book, Waldfogel makes the claim that every year, billions of dollars are wasted in the holiday shopping season because gift-givers cannot perfectly predict the needs or wants of the gift recipients in their lives, resulting in Christmas mornings all around the country during which millions of people open presents that they never really wanted to begin with. “If you discovered a government program that was hemorrhaging money — say, spending $100 billion of taxpayer money per year to generate a benefit of only $85 billion — you would be outraged,” Waldfogel writes.
The more I think about the premise of this book, the more convicted I feel about my own Christmas spending habits. Sure, it may be true that the dollars I spend help to boost a sagging economy, but is potentially wasteful spending really the best use of our family’s funds? I confess that as the mother of three young boys, I enjoy thinking about ways to brighten Christmas morning with gifts that they will find memorable and enjoyable; I tend to keep a file all year of ideas for presents that they might like, things a little out of the ordinary or that cost a little more. But to be honest, even I, the keeper of all relevant information with regards to my sons’ likes, dislikes, and preferences, am hit-or-miss when it comes to their gift selections.
The Sesame Street DVD that I was certain my three-year-old son would adore last year? He’s watched it once. The car design drawing set that I was positive my auto-obsessed eldest son would spend hours using? He’s pulled it out twice in one year. The toy guitar I bought for our music-loving youngest son? He much prefers the real piano we already have. I’m sobered to realize that, shipping and tax included, that’s $75 of waste right there — and that’s in the context of selecting gifts for people I know best. Imagine how much more potential for waste there is for recipients I don’t know nearly as well. Multiply that experience millions of times over, and you get the idea that Waldfogel is on to something.
What if every individual or family with the means and inclination took a moment this Christmas season to think about whether the money they are using is truly being well spent? What if we all took a portion of the money we typically spend on gifts and instead allocate it to a cause that would truly make a difference in the many local and global needs that surround us? I don’t mean to dampen people’s Christmases and throw gift-giving out the window entirely. For many people, gift-giving is a way of communicating and receiving love from their family and friends, and I have certainly appreciated many gifts that I have been given over the years. But for every good gift I’ve received, I can think of another three or four that I have either never used or don’t need. And I am sure the reverse is true, too — that I have given many gifts that have ultimately ended up in a trash dump somewhere.
So this year, I’m thinking about ways in which our family can reduce the shopping waste, create a climate around Christmas that is less about the gifts and more about the Giver, and help inculcate in our children a perspective about Christmas that frees them from ongoing cycles of holiday consumerism.
My kids are now old enough to have expectations about Christmas, and despite our reminders otherwise, most of those expectations have nothing to do with celebrating Jesus’ birth (although they are clever enough to answer the “Why is Christmas important?” question in a way that would make any Sunday school teacher proud, even as visions of presents dance in their heads). Just today, my seven-year-old son said to me, “I think you have Christmas presents already hidden all over this house. Lots of them!” This expectation is, of course, entirely my own fault. I love watching my kids’ gleeful faces when they emerge from their rooms on Christmas morning, stunned at the sight of a tree under which presents have mushroomed overnight. What parent doesn’t enjoy gift-induced moments of our children’s gratitude, even as we know the joy they’re experiencing is fleeting at best? What parent can successfully counter the false gospel that material possessions are a source of contentment if we ourselves are perpetuating that fallacy with our lifestyle choices, particularly at Christmastime?
So I shared with my son that actually, I’d like for us to handle Christmas differently this year, and think about giving more of our previous Christmas spending to those who desperately need it, as well as taking more time to understand what Advent is all about. I explained that as his parent, I definitely wanted the chance to give him something special just as God gave his children the best present of all that first Christmas, but that we would tone things down from this year onward and have a different perspective about gift-giving at Christmastime. I felt a bit Scrooge-ish saying this, and I admit that I was worried that this news would deeply disappoint him, but after taking a moment to ponder my words, he answered, “I totally agree with this plan!” (Children, I’ve come to learn, often embrace spiritual truths so much more quickly than those of us who are supposed to be older and wiser.)
So we are beginning the process of change in our household this Christmas — small changes but hopefully in the long run, significant ones: we’re letting friends and family know that we’ll be giving a gift to One Day’s Wages in their name as opposed to buying them a gift, and asking that they consider doing something similar. My husband and I have agreed to not give each other gifts, but to instead jointly choose something we both need and can use. We will spend time shopping for gifts together as a family for needy children in our area, and yes, we will get some gifts for our own kids as well, but I’ll stick to a plan of fewer and more meaningful gifts.
My hope is that over time, our family and especially our kids will think of Christmas as the time of year when we primarily strive to make a difference in others’ lives rather than benefiting our own. Who would have thought that a little dose of Scroogenomics was just what I needed to reclaim the true meaning of Christmas?