K-Wave splashes down, sweeps students

Courtesy of Ji Won Kim

The lines of sentences and words blurred on the screen, refusing to settle in my head. The application in front of me was one of 120. I had to conceptualize all of the applicants based on results from a digital survey, and then, like some sommelier of people, predict which upperclassmen applicants would pair well with which incoming first-years. The task made my summer more hectic than ever. 

This was all done as the Administrative Liaison of Vassar’s Asian Students’ Alliance (ASA). My Co-Administrative Liaison Jason Jin ’22 and I spent many days exchanging multiple Skype calls across 3,000 miles, carefully perusing bios for ASA’s “Big Sib Lil Sib” mentorship program. As someone who identifies as Korean first and foremost, I could not help but get excited every time I read applications from anyone indicating anything relating to Korean culture as their passions and hobbies, an unexpected phenomenon especially at a small liberal arts college with a relatively small Korean population. 

But more and more non-Koreans are getting exposed to and enthusiastic about Korean culture. So much so, in fact, that there is a name for this trend: The Korean Wave, also known as the K-wave or hallyu (한류). This new term encapsulates the increasing global popularity of diverse South Korean cultural exports, ranging from K-pop to K-cosmetics. 

Korean culture did not sweep the American public on a large scale until 2012, the year the music video of the famous Korean singer PSY’s “Gangnam Style” went viral. Although various K-pop idol groups had attempted to expand to the United States before, the popularity of “Gangnam Style” was unprecedented: It became the first video to hit over two billion views on YouTube. And naturally following, people from all around the world made tons of parodies. The song even played in several American TV shows. 

Seven years have passed since that breakthrough, and in that time South Korean culture has only become more visible worldwide. Vassar’s campus is no exception. 

Take the Korean Students’ Association (KSA), SORI, the Korean Dance Crew (KoDC) and Liberty in North Korea (LiNK). These student-led organizations, representing a varied basket of interests from music and dance performances to North Korean refugee advocacy, share a common spirit for Korean culture. Although the orgs are mainly comprised of students who identify as ethnically Korean, there has been an increase in the number of non-Koreans joining these orgs. “I am mesmerized by K-pop, as it is a complete package of addictive melodies and powerful choreographies performed by idols with a great sense of friendship amongst their members,” explained Srashta Maharjan ’23, a first-year international student from Nepal.

These orgs encourage all students to get involved regardless of their heritage. Adalia Wu ’21, a Chinese American student selected as this year’s KSA President, shared her love for Korean culture: “In my freshman and sophomore years, KSA hosted events that were always a blast! I made sure to attend if I was feeling particularly stressed…I wanted to continue to create that same environment for our underclassmen.” 

Wu chose the Korean music scene as her favorite aspect of South Korean culture. While it entertains her, it also helps her learn about a culture that differs from her home culture. Wu explained, “Listening to Korean singers is simultaneously fascinating and educational.” 

One of the most popular facets of Korean culture is in its entertainment industry, including K-pop and K-dramas. Some students have cultivated personal ties and valuable connections through shared interests in Korean culture. Stephanie Gull ’22, who hails from Florida and is a new President of KoDC, said, “A major aspect of my personal interest in Korean language and music are the communities built around those areas. I’ve established a significant number of friendships through bonding during the long, arduous rehearsals.” 

The effect of the Korean Wave appears not only in student extracurricular life, but also in academics on campus. Prior to the 2018-2019 school year, Korean language instruction was only available through the Self-Instructional Language Program, which provides an opportunity to Vassar students to study languages that are not offered through academic departments or traditional classrooms. Now, Vassar has opened official Korean language courses taught by a full-time Korean language instructor for the first time.

“The first semester Korean language courses were offered, I had 12 students in total. This year, there are 33 students in total, many of them from non-Korean backgrounds,” Korean Professor Claire Kang explained. 

Kang attributed a rapidly growing interest in Korean culture and language to the immense power of human capital in South Korea. “As a country that significantly lacks natural resources, Korea has emphasized the importance of human capital, producing highly skilled and talented professionals. Talented individuals came together and combined their efforts to build its cultural influence,” Kang added. This sentiment is a widespread one, and a source of pride for many Koreans.

As an international student living far from my home country, I have always been searching for places where I can feel at home—and quite desperately so—since my first year at Vassar. 

I would go down to Koreatown in New York City every other weekend to get Korean food, go to karaoke to sing my heart out, and watch K-dramas on the train back to Poughkeepsie. However, with the growing presence of Korean cultures and representation on campus over the past two years, going down to Koreatown feels more like a luxury than a necessity now.

Courtesy of Ji Won Kim

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