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There was a time when my American classmates would ask where I was from — Japan? China? When I answered “Korea,” they’d get a blank look on their face and say, “Crayon? Where’s that?” Today, from K-pop and Korean barbecue to Samsung and Hyundai, you can’t not know about Korea. And in Euny Hong’s new book, The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture, I’m getting a crystallized version of my life as a Korean in America — from absolute obscurity to hailing from just about the trendiest place on the planet.
After spending her childhood in Chicago’s suburbs, Hong, at the age of 12, moved with her family back to Seoul’s tony Gangnam neighborhood (yes, that Gangnam; in fact, Hong’s parents went to the same school as Psy’s). In 1985, Korea was still a developing country with regular brownouts, reused vaccination needles and squat toilets. (I remember when I visited Korea in the mid-’80s, I had to bring used clothing and loads of Sanka for my relatives because coffee was difficult to get there; today, Seoul has the most number of Starbucks in the world.) Through an interesting and often funny analysis of corporal punishment in Korean schools, Confucian ideals, that very Korean concept of han and the birth of irony (epitomized by Psy’s hit song), Hong makes the case for a perfect storm of circumstances — along with not an insignificant boost from the government — that eventually led to Korea’s rise as a worldwide “soft power.”
Details: Paper, $16, picadorusa.com, eunyhong.com.
This story was originally published in our Fall 2014 issue. Get your copy here.