The Art of South Korean Emulation

To the typical North American mind, the word Asia strikes up images of deep peace through Buddhist mediations, Japanese simplicity and an over-populated world that lives in constrained, yet harmonious circumstances. The Confucius ideals fostered throughout the last 800 years, seeped in the very social fabric of most Asian societies, is what forms their rigid social behaviours. It is a society that is the great antithesis to the North American individualistic way of life. In a clichéd photo, the stereotypical North American eye would want to see small people with slanted eyes wearing large straw hats while eating rice from a steaming bowl in the blazing sun. However, thanks to the principles of advanced capitalism, the aftermath of the Second World War and the general sense of prestige devoted to American principles, Asia (and Northern Asia in particular) paints a different picture. In South Korea, for example, Confucius ideals are etched in society, but Americana (not Americanism, but the ideal of America) is seen as something so prestigious for the betterment of one’s self that it is predominant in every cultural facet of their world.

The distinction between cultural assimilation and cultural devotion is called cultural emulation. It would be like wanting a Louis Vuiton purse to look rich and famous like Tyra Banks, but settling for faux goods on the street and not understanding the history behind the French leather goods dealer. South Koreans have been well-versed in the art of American cultural emulation since the American troops introduced M&Ms during the Korean War.

With over 400 English hagwons (language education centres) that specialise in American social integration (from the teachings of Thanksgiving to the joys of buying things from a garage sale), and with television programming resembling American ‘80s variety shows, South Korea is happily one of the most Americanised cities in the world. Built on the idea that money, fame and power can bring you much happiness, as American movies have demonstrated, Koreans have managed to create a surreal world where Burger King restaurants and Baskin Robins billboards with a smiling Drew Barrymore stand next to historical palaces and Buddhist temples. Korea has managed to create a kitsch art form out of their love for the United States. For those who would consider having to eat at McDonald’s a crime, or wearing polo shirts from the GAP as a total act of American assimilation, Koreans would rather feel as though they are privileged just knowing about the luxuries North America has to offer.

What is fascinating with cultural emulation is the fact that it is mainly just that – a superficial cultural mask voluntarily veiling the true identity of a society.

What creates emulation is the idea of wanting to imitate something so desperately and quickly that many important details, either aesthetic or historic, have been left out. Because things have been done in such a hurry, it creates a snowball effect that eventually evolves into a blurry image that no one really understands.

The idea of emulating another culture can be quite entertaining for those who enjoy a sense of irony and satire. It has become predominant in a day and age where national borders have fused together and languages have melted into a silly sounding dialect. Just ask those who speak “franglais” in Canada or “konglish” in Korea [and Canada, too – just go to North York (Cdn. reference) –Ed.].

In retrospect, cultural emulation could be the next step in our social evolutionary process. Its superficiality and limitless styles are a haven for those who would like to escape from their dreary world and live in a fantasyland, like in a reproduction of a nation at Disney World’s Epcot Centre. Just ask Gwen Stefani what she was thinking when she decided to use Harajuku girls as her latest accessory, or what the entire Generation Y (those born after 1990) are expressing when they act and dress like those cool entertainment personalities from the ‘80s.

Usually the word Americanism brings out the labels “cultural assimilation” and “social oppression”, but now one can add “happy cultural emulation” to the list.

Justin-Barry Mahoney

Latest posts by Justin-Barry Mahoney (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>