Whether it’s in the form of music, TV shows, skincare products or marinated meat, Korean culture is everywhere. On TikTok, Korean American creator Priscilla Kwon, who once hid her culture to fit in, amasses millions of views by sharing whatever’s trending in Korea with the social media platform’s global audiences. But despite the rise in appreciation for Korean culture, Kwon says there’s a disturbing pattern among some who have grown obsessed with an image of Korea seen only in K-dramas and K-pop concerts.
”There’s just so much attention when it comes to Korea and Korean culture right now,” Kwon explained to NextShark in an interview. She speaks from firsthand experience, as her journey on TikTok started out as a means to keep herself entertained during the pandemic before eventually turning into a full-fledged career. With almost 900,000 followers now, Kwon puts out a steady stream of Korean cultural content that more and more people are eager to learn from.
Finding inspiration for these videos isn’t too difficult for Kwon, who is fluent in both Korean and English. She’ll either share the trending stories found on Korean news sites or come up with ideas based on everyday observations of a culture that her family has long preserved while living in the U.S. Her father especially wanted to keep the traditional Korean culture instilled within the family, even having her and her twin brother live in South Korea between the ages of 5 and 10 so that they would be able to experience the country that “their blood traces back to.”
Struggling with identity
When it was time to return home to the States, to a town where she stood out as one of a handful of Asians, Kwon found it more difficult to express that side of her identity. Her experience moving forward, all the way up until she was able to attend college in a more diverse city, is one that many Asian Americans growing up in predominantly white areas can relate to.
“There was definitely a time when I said to my mom, ‘Umma, I wish I was white. Why can’t I look like them?’” she recalled. “I remember one time when I was listening to K-pop, [the other kids] were like, ‘What is that? That’s so weird.’”
Fearing judgement and ridicule from other children, she began to hide the parts of herself others might see as foreign, such as the Korean dishes her mother cooked for her — a memory she looks back at regretfully. It wasn’t until her college years, when Kwon commuted to Washington D.C. and found a group of Korean American friends with similar interests, that she regained a stronger sense of self. “That’s where I felt like I found myself again. I feel more comfortable being who I am — I just feel more comfortable in my own skin,” she said.
“[Before,] it was a confusing time for me because I felt like I never belonged even though I am American and can speak English perfectly fine,“ she continued. “It was the sense of not belonging that was so difficult. And it was so sad that at the time, I didn’t know what to do about it. I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I have a twin brother and I’m pretty sure he went through the same thing now that I think about it, but we just never talked about it.”
Embracing both worlds
Now, at 23 years old and with a platform she describes as unlike anything that existed when she was in school, she senses just how much of an impact she can make by teaching others about her culture.
“I’ve heard so many stories, [including this one where] a Korean girl who was adopted into a white family reached out to me and said ‘Hey, I really appreciate your content. I don’t get the Korean experience, but through your videos I found different interests, and I’m more into things like K-pop and K-dramas.’”
Kwon is proud to see how her videos can instill a sense of pride in younger Korean Americans and encourage them not to hide their culture, but rather, to embrace it. She hopes they’ll recognize the unique ability to “get the best of both worlds” instead of “trying to fit into this one side that we don’t even feel like we’re genuinely a part of.”
Addressing the problems
As with anything that’s posted online, however, her content doesn’t always generate a positive response. With more Westerners gaining an interest in Korean culture, she’s noticed that there are more people who romanticize South Korea, entranced by all the beauty it has to offer.
“There’s just so many people who romanticize Korea, and they have this whole fetish, and they say, ‘Korea is where I want to be,’” she explained. “Every country has its own reality, and that’s why I’m using my platform to not just make cultural videos but also bring out the dark sides, the dark stuff that happens in the country. So in my videos I talk about these crazy things that go on in Korea like crimes and stuff like that. And then for some people it really is shocking because they see Korea as just a fairy land with good food, shopping, music, BTS, K-pop. But I also want to use my platform to show people that it’s not just this magical fantasy world.”
Among the many people who may be guilty of doing so, she says that Oli London — the self-proclaimed “trans-racial” online personality who argues that they are Korean despite being born white — is “the definition of fetishizing Korean culture.”
Koreans across the globe have expressed frustration with London for engaging in behavior under the pretense of cultural appreciation, such as altering their features to appear more “Korean.” London frequently uses their social media platforms to profess their love for Korean pop culture while affirming their trans-racial identity. But many have found the behavior to be mocking and disrespectful toward Koreans.
Kwon has seen how there are others, like London, who view Korean culture as something that they can pick and choose to fit their idealized version of it. Obsessed with the idea of a “magical fantasy world,” these viewers can’t bear to hear incidents of crime and injustice in the country. And when Kwon brings up these topics in her videos, she’ll be bombarded with hate for “making Korea look bad,” she says.
Some non-Koreans will even go so far as to discredit her authority to speak on these issues, claiming that her American upbringing diminishes her claims to her Korean heritage.
“If a Korean American voices something about Korean culture or anything Korean, non-Koreans dismiss them by saying things like, ‘Oh no, an American mad,’” she explained. “They assume Korean Americans lose their Korean roots when they’re in the U.S. and want to be white.”
But she’s long past letting others define who she is. Overall, as her videos continue to grow in popularity, her experience on TikTok is proving to not only be a successful career, but also a way of healing from the past struggles she faced with her identity.
“I feel like it’s made me a lot happier and confident in who I am,” she shared. “I just feel very proud to be Korean American, and I think that’s something that I never felt when I was in school here. And it just makes me really happy that there are people who watch my videos and are like, ‘I just binge watched your videos and it’s so fun!’ or ‘I feel so comfortable here!’ Comments like that really make me feel like ‘Okay, I’m doing the right thing.’”
Featured Image via Grace Kim (left), Priscilla Kwon (right)