A tsunami of Korean culture struck Central Connecticut State University. Over a period of three days in April, international scholars presented research on contemporary Asian popular culture in digital media, film, and television. The title of the conference captures the moment, The Squid Game and Beyond: Utopia and Dystopia in Contemporary Asian Popular Culture International Conference.
The worldwide popularity of Korean culture has been increasing for years; now, it’s at an all-time high. Since 2021, the television show Squid Game has accrued over 2.1 billion streams on Netflix, briefly serving as their most-watched show ever. Korean-directed films–namely, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, winner of four Academy Awards in 2020–are gaining popularity and critical acclaim. K-Pop bands such as BLACKPINK and BTS have skyrocketed in popularity; BLACKPINK holds the Guinness World Record for most-viewed group music channel. The international conference was orchestrated to celebrate and discuss contemporary Asian culture in the media.
I talked with two organizers of the conference, Dr. Yeojin Kim and Dr. Karen A. Ritzenhoff, about the Squid Game and Beyond Conference, the world-wide interest in Korean culture, and the importance of having a scholarly dialogue about contemporary Asian popular culture. What follows is an edited discussion with the two organizers.
I’ll start with Dr. Kim, who presented her findings on this booming Korean Wave.
Dr. Yeojin Kim: “Hallyu” is a Korean and Chinese term. “Hall’” means Korean, and “yu’” means wave. So Korean Wave and “Hallyu” are the same term that represent the popularity of Asian culture. As a born-and-raised Korean and first-generation Asian American, I am used to Korean culture, Korean music, and everything Korean. But when I moved to the United States for my PhD degree at the University of Alabama, I never thought that I could communicate with non-Koreans about this topic.
Having served as CCSU’s East Asian Studies Coordinator for the past three years, Dr. Kim is proud that the school recognizes the importance of Korean and Asian culture in supporting this event. This was the first international conference at CCSU devoted to Asian pop culture.
Kim: I know that many students are interested not only in Korean culture but also in Asian culture and language. So, I thought this experience would be helpful to understand diversity. I think understanding culture is the best experience for everyone. I’m not just saying this about Asian culture, but any culture. If you look at the brochure (of the event), most of the presentations are from our students. I see their potential. They love this topic and this research.
After a successful trial conference in the spring of 2022, “Afternoon on Squid Game”, where students crafted replicas of the games played in the hit show, Dr. Ritzenhoff concocted the idea of making it international.
“I thought we had hit the sweet spot, a little niche that could attract people. “
Dr. Karen A. Ritzenhoff: When Squid Game was released on Netflix, students were really watching it, everybody was watching it. I started talking with students about Squid Game and noticed that it offers a lot of opportunities to talk about issues that are relevant in our contemporary culture: the social inequities inherent in gender roles, racism, ageism, violent crimes, and debt burdens, as well as the post-pandemic trauma associated with these. You have games that are produced like reality shows, where people fight with each other, but in this case, to their deaths. It’s similar to The Hunger Games, entertainment for the wealthy and the elites. I thought we had hit the sweet spot, a little niche that could attract people, not only from the United States and Canada but also from East Asia.
I think it’s different now with Squid Game and the other films, you can watch them in Korean with subtitles. It’s not that we need to adapt to dub them or we need to use Brad Pitt as the game master in order to make it work. The content is now easily consumable multi-nationally.
Kim: There should be two reasons “Hallyu” is so popular. First of all, because of the development of the internet and social media, people can consume media coming from outside the United States. In the past, how people could watch dramas and K-Pop doesn’t make sense. Secondly, the Korean government intentionally tried to export their culture outside Korea. The first Korean wave just targeted Asian countries—That’s it. And after realizing they gained a fandom, the Korean government thinks, “Oh, this is a soft power”. And that is great for improving the positive image of the Korean country. Exporting culture can be a useful tool in getting money and improving their image.
Along with over fifty international scholars, forty-five students from CCSU got a chance to be involved in this international conference on a large scale.
Ritzenhoff: What I found particularly exciting is that we had three student panels. It gave me so much joy to see that turnout on Thursday night. I have not seen anything like this in our department for a while. We’ve never had a three-day conference where students participated beside internationally known scholars, writers, and researchers.
Kim: For undergraduate students, it’s very hard to be involved in the international conference. It’s a rare experience, but they enjoy that; and they did a great job with their presentations. It’s a great moment for me, it was my most rewarding time as a professor here.
The hybrid nature of this international conference gave scholars from around the globe the opportunity to present. Without the development of video-chat technology, this type of conference wouldn’t be possible.
Ritzenhoff: The pandemic, as awful as it was for education, opened the door for this kind of international hybrid platform. I did something fifteen years ago, the equivalent of a Zoom call to an English-speaking university in Germany. It was a nightmare, a total disaster. Since then, I have participated as a virtual presenter at conferences in the UK. After one of them, I thought: Oh, they can do it; we can do it.
Nate Robida is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine
Header image courtesy of ccsu.edu.