Surfing the Korean Wave | Reading: ‘The Birth of Korean Cool’ by Euny Hong

WordSwag, Pixabay Images
WordSwag, Pixabay Images

As I scrolled through endless images of glistening bibimbap on Tumblr and performed frenetic renditions of my favourite kpop dance moves in my kitchen waiting for my kettle to boil, I’ll admit I hadn’t quite addressed how far the Korean Wave had swept into my life.

The Korean Wave, or ‘Hallyu’ in Korean, describes the swooping-in of Korean culture on not only its surrounding neighbours in Asia, but on the wider international pop culture community. Interestingly, the Korean Wave did have a helping hand from China in swaying me over to its brightly-coloured, eccentric world. Before living in China, and I’ll put my hands up here, the only kpop star I had heard of was of course Psy. However, it wasn’t long before the bustling, smoky clubs of Beijing thumped kpop’s catchy sound into my memory. Within months, I was a firm, poster-buying, ‘fighting!’-yelling fan. I even wrote a research essay on my favourite Chinese-Korean kpop band.

After four years of learning Mandarin, I had also considered branching out into Korean. Often, my research topics had tied in both North and South Korea, but I didn’t have the knowledge to reputablely include Korean sources. I had sometimes grumbled to myself for miming along to kpop songs without actually knowing what I was singing. In Seoul, friends introduced me to the delights of kimchi (I ate too much), guided me to the famed ‘Blue House’ of the South Korean President Park Geun-hye, and told me about their nation’s favourite stories and idiosyncrasies while I sipped my blueberry (amazing) latte in silent fascination. Was it our friendship drawing me closer to Korea, or the success of the Korean Wave?

For me, I believe it is a mixture of both. While the Korean Wave has definitely attracted me into the supposed modern Seoul city lifestyle of cafe-hopping in pristine clothes and shopping among Big Bang posters in Myeongdong’s glittering streets, most of my little knowledge of historical Korean culture, language, and traditions has come from my wonderful memories and still-daily contact with my friends in South Korea. Nevertheless, whatever the difference between these two aspects, one thing remains entirely clear: Korea is cool.

I first noticed this on a smoggy morning in Beijing on the way to class. A group of Korean students on scooters slowly meandered past, wearing thickly-rimmed black glasses, baseball caps, sports clothes and, most intriguingly, the worldwide infamous combination of socks and flip flops. However, instead of wincing in horror at this sartorial choice, I had only one thought: ‘Wow, they’re cool.’ And it wasn’t just me. Slowly, the whispers spread amongst the international students: ‘These jackets are from South Korea, so you know they’ll be good.’ ‘I wish I had a Samsung like the Korean students!’ ‘Korean makeup is so awesome.’ In fact, my decision to buy a Samsung phone was based on constantly eyeing them in the classrooms.

It was the memory of these exhalations that instantly drew me to Euny Hong’s book, ‘The Birth of Korean Cool.’ Finally! I thought, An explanation of how socks and sandals could be indescribably cool!

Unsurprisingly, I had barely scratched the surface of the story behind Korean cool. Fortunately, I feel lucky to have found Euny Hong’s insightful, informative, and most wonderfully, funny research into the history of Hallyu and its ever-changing pace, lapping at shores as far as the Middle East and France.

At the starting line of learning Korean, I feel overwhelmed at the amount of Korean cultural history that I am admittedly ignorant of, but The Birth of Korean Cool uses both concrete facts and personal accounts to tell the stories of the often obscured heroes of Korean culture, the internationally-unknown origins of Hallyu’s big players, and some more vivid details of a time when the ‘cool’ was comparatively ‘uncool’.

Euny Hong has written a thoroughly digestible account that remains page-turning, dipping and diving seamlessly from topics such as film and music to schooling and politics. The book contains the personal insights of both the author, from life growing up in both America and South Korea, as well as numerous experts, observers and participants of Hallyu. The addition of small cultural nuances was truly eye-opening and allowed me to learn so much in just a few pages. At first, I had foolishly wondered if I would know a lot of the subject matter already. Within 3 pages, I knew I was wrong.

To summarise, Euny Hong’s entertaining read has encouraged me to keep on surfing the Korean Wave, albeit while putting a bit more thought into that EXO video. Now I find myself thinking, what else is this video aiming to do? Is it just a coincidence that they all seem to eat that same ice cream in that clip? Why do I now have an uncontrollable urge to buy the ice cream?

After learning a bit more about where Korea is headed, I definitely want to join the journey. And I will definitely walk that journey wearing socks and sandals.



  1. I read that book about six months ago and loved it. In fact, I might go back to the library and check it out again….
    I liked how she talked about other aspects of Korean life besides just pop culture, such as the history of the college entrance exams and why students are always so stressed about them. Fascinating stuff.


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