After receiving a letter and snacks from a Korean fan, Conan O’Brien flew to Korea for a quick and dirty tour of the country and its culture. I thought it was a joke, but he actually visited Korea — there’s proof of the Conan Korea adventures online. His awkward journey through the country ranged from bizarre adventures (his cameo as a fish in the Korean drama One More Happy Ending) to political gambles (cracking jokes at the DMZ), and he seemed quite aware of his outsider position, cautiously straddling the line between offensive and satirical.
In attempts to be more culturally acceptable in the foreign country, he invited a culturally relevant sidekick: Steven Yeun. The Korean-American actor was supposedly his “tour guide,” but in a country that was unfamiliar to both of them, Steven was as much of an outsider as Conan was. The tall ginger Bostonian man was at least a head taller than every person in Korea while Steven blended in seamlessly with his Asian features, but both were viewed as Americans. Steven was just a different version of American who spoke Korean and looked Korean.
Writer Euny Hong recently responded to Conan O’Brien’s unintentional exposure of this Korean and Korean-American culture gap, claiming that there’s a growing gap between these two subcultures. I agree that these two cultures are two distinct entities, with no definite overlap. The gap is even more evident on college campuses, where cultural groups are divided into international and hypenated-American groups. Korean international students rarely mingle with Korean-American students, and Korean-American students realize that their experience is not “Korean” enough to sympathize with native Korean students. It’s a matter of cultural specificity that creates these two discrete groups. But in general, I think the trend is going in the opposite direction. I think the gap is shrinking between these two cultures.
With an increasingly interconnected world through globalization, our realities and cultures are colliding. Korea prides itself on Hallyu (한류), also known as The Korean Wave, which refers to the spread of Korean culture. The increasing popularity of Korean culture is apparent on both ends — more foreigners appear on Korean TV shows, and more American TV personalities find themselves in Korea, as with Conan and Steven. But Korean-Americans are still identifying their role in Hallyu, and Koreans have yet to figure out the value of the strange hybrid of their species, other than their mastery of English and the American lifestyle.
Steven Yeun embodies this Korean-American limbo, a place where compensation for both Korean and American culture is never enough to satisfy either end of the spectrum. He’s the token Asian-American in The Walking Dead, in a role that never had a race or ethnicity attached to it until the TV series cast a Korean-American. His character is just neutral enough — with limited cultural specificity — to allow the American public to breathe a sigh of relief. But his character is a little too distant from the Korean identity to relate to the Korean audience. Yes, Korean-Americans and other Asian-Americans are making great strides, but rarely at the real intersection of their identities.
The Conan and Steven adventures in Korea left many more unexplored implications of Korean culture and identity, but it also confirmed the true essence of Hallyu: K-pop. So I leave you with a delightful and overstimulated parody of K-pop, featuring renowned Korean artist/producer Park Jin-young and the two misfits in Korea.