How Not to Be A Koreaboo: The Fine Line Between Cultural Appreciation and Appropriation

K-Pop is a worldwide phenomenon: there are fans of K-Pop in Australia, America, and Canada, all the way to Nigeria, Argentina, and even Pakistan. As a Pakistani, I was very surprised when I learned of this!

When these K-Pop fans – who come from different cultural backgrounds – encounter Korean culture, they get easily excited about it’s newness. In their excitement, they often confuse cultural appreciation with cultural appropriation.

What is Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is, if you are unsure, stealing something from a culture without asking the people from that culture for permission, or acknowledging them in any way. It is an intense topic of debate these days because it seems like everyone – from Selena Gomez to Kylie Jenner to Katy Perry to Miley Cyrus, and even Beyoncé – is doing it. Black, culture, South-Asian culture, and Japanese culture are popular targets for cultural appropriation, but due to the rise of K-Pop, Korean culture has also joined the list.

Image result for beyonce hymn for the weekend
Above: In Coldplay’s ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ music video, Beyoncé wears henna and bangles that are commonly worn by South Asian women during special occasions.

Many people defend cultural appropriation by saying that they are “simply appreciating the culture,”  but there is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation.

Why is Cultural Appropriation Wrong?

Cultural appropriation is selfish and exploitative. Cultural appropriators steal elements of a culture and rework them for their own personal profit, without acknowledging the elements’ roots in any way.

Above: Miley Cyrus is a perfect example of a cultural appropriator – she appropriated twerking, dreadlocks, and black music, but failed to stand up for BlackLivesMatter or discrimination that Black women in the entertainment industry face

Cultural appreciation is respectful and mindful. Cultural appreciators educate themselves before engaging in cultural practices, and honor the practices’ history, culture, and people.

Above: Chrissy Teigen is a good example of a cultural appreciator. During her trip to Indonesia, she only wore traditional Indonesian attire after being invited by locals to do so, and acknowledged and credited the locals in her Instagram caption.

K-Pop’s increasing popularity – even in western markets, as evidenced by K-Pop boy-group BTS winning a Billboard Music Award earlier this year against Justin Bieber – has put Korean culture at the world’s forefront. Appropriating Korean culture has become the new ‘trend’ and when someone appropriates Korean culture, they are – as I mentioned in this post – known as a Koreaboo.

What does a Koreaboo do?

Koreaboo is a term derived from the word weeaboo, and describes non-Korean people who become obsessed with Korea and Korean culture, usually after having been introduced to K-Pop and K-dramas.

Koreaboos usually use random bits and pieces of Korean that they have learned through K-dramas, in their everyday, Non-Korean, conversations. Koreaboos sometimes give themselves Korean names and wear traditional Korean clothing. Koreaboos almost always idealize Korean men and women, gush about wanting to date people of Korean background, and fantasize about moving to Korea.

Koreaboos are obsessed with their fantasy of South Korea and its people, uncaring of the political and cultural problems they may face. Though not all K-Pop fans are Koreaboos, nearly all Koreaboos are K-Pop fans.

How to not cross the line into appropriation?

Step 1: Avoid Accessorizing

Koreaboos often begin appropriating Korean culture by accessorizing the Korean language. This means randomly peppering Korean words and phrases in Non-Korean dialogue.

Image result for koreaboos
Above: Though this post seems like a joke, most Koreaboos do talk like this.

Koreaboos then take it to the next level and try to wear traditional Korean clothing like hanboks. Due to their lack of familiarity with Korean culture, sometimes they even confuse Chinese and Japanese clothing – like qipaos or kimonos – with a hanbok!

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Above: Girl’s Generation wear hanboks to wish their fans a happy Chuseok – the Korean Fall harvest festival.

Saying saranghaeyo (‘I love you’ in Korean) and other random Korean phrases in a conversation that is not in Korean, is a bastardization of the Korean language. Treating clothes like hanboks as any other piece of clothing is disrespectful because they have a lot of significance and history in Korean culture. Both these actions reduce parts of Korean culture to accessories used to look cultured.

I’m sure there are equivalents of saranghaeyo and other Korean words in your local language – use them instead! If you really do love the Korean language, take a Korean class and ask natives if you can practice with them. Wear hanboks and other culturally significant clothing only if a Korean friend has invited you. Don’t reduce Korean culture to an accessory!

Step 2: Stop Fetishizing

After accessorizing, Koreaboos start gushing about Korean people and how beautiful they are. There are so many K-Pop fans who, after getting into K-Pop, suddenly start crushing on or wanting to date every Korean boy or girl they see just because they’re Korean. Sometimes the boy or girl doesn’t even have to be Korean, they just have to be East-Asian.

Koreaboos also start wishing they could move to Korea, or that they were Korean, just so they can date Korean people. I’ve – and I shudder as I type this – read many stories where Koreaboos have followed people around just because they are Korean, or have gone to Chinatown/Koreatown in their cities to ask out Korean/East-Asian people.

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Above: A search on amazon.com shows that there are numerous books that guide people to get Asian girlfriends and marry them. Creepy, to say the least.

This is called fetishizing and is just gross. There is no justification for wanting to date somebody only because they belong to a particular race/country.

If you find yourself wanting to approach a person of Korean/East-Asian descent, first ask yourself why you want to date them? If the only reason is that they’re Asian/Korean, stop! Go home! Learn to like people for who they are instead of the preconceived image you have of them in your head because they’re Korean/East-Asian!

Step 3: Start Realizing

Koreaboos often defend their cultural appropriation by claiming that they only do these things because they “love Korean culture and Korean people so much!”

Despite their love of Korean culture, however, Koreaboos never speak about the issues that affect Korean and East-Asian people when there are so many to choose from.

The desexualization of Asian men in North America, the ‘timid-schoolgirl’, ‘dragon-lady’, and  ‘geisha-girl’ fetishization and exoticization of Asian women, the ‘model-minority’ myth, Hollywood’s constant whitewashing of Asian characters, and the damaging ‘they all look the same’ narrative – among other harmful stereotypes – are all very pressing issues that Asians face. According to Koreaboos though, Asians have perfect lives!

Image result for death note netflix
Above: Netflix’s Death Note, based on a Japanese manga, series is one of the many Hollywood movies this year that has whitewashed Asian characters for no justifiable reason other than Asian stars not being ‘bankable’

Koreaboos  – and cultural appropriators in general – want all the good parts of the culture, and none of the bad ones.

Koreaboos need to start realizing that if they want to immerse themselves in a culture, they have to embrace the problems and issues of the culture, too. They have to be an ally and amplify cultural voices because this is not kindergarten – they can’t just lick the icing off a cupcake and then throw the cupcake away.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, there is a fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation, and the line is made up of a person’s intentions and attitudes.

If someone tells you that your actions are offensive towards their culture, don’t brush them off. Listen to them. It is important to know if you are doing something hurtful so you can check yourself before you wreck yourself.

What are your thoughts on cultural appropriation? Do you disagree with any of my points? Which ones and why? Tell me  in the comments below!

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13 thoughts on “How Not to Be A Koreaboo: The Fine Line Between Cultural Appreciation and Appropriation

  1. Pingback: I Watched a Video Called Mr. Simple, and Suddenly My Life Wasn’t So Simple – Bared Seoul

  2. Anonymous

    Hello! I am a girl that want to visit and study in Korea. Only! I watch Kdrama once in a while. Plus, watched some documentary about Korea. But I don’t find Korean men attractive or I want to even marry them. Although, I want to learn Korean properly. But I feel, like does that make me a Koreaboo?

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    1. Hello, so sorry for the late reply. I think what matters are your intentions–if you are just interacting with it because you want to look cool and cultured, that is iffy. However, if you want to visit Korea and learn the language because you want to genuinely interact with the culture, that’s awesome! Just make sure to think about your intentions when it comes to interacting with Korean culture!

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      1. Ziwei

        “Saying saranghaeyo (‘I love you’ in Korean) and other random Korean phrases in a conversation that is not in Korean, is a bastardization of the Korean language. ”

        This is such an Anglo-American thing to say! You are fine with bastardized English that everyone in the world speaks, but you cannot accept that any other languages reach such a status. Have you considered that for a smaller language it is a benefit to become more known globally? It is easy to critizize when you speak the language that is already a global lingua franca. Many smaller language groups would benefit from becoming recognized globally as it helps to keep the language alive in English-dominated world. In many non-English speaking songs there are English catchphrases etc. to make the song more accessible to the global audience. No one is calling bastardization here cos that is the only way to reach Anglo-American audiences…

        You should consider that most people in the world don’t speak English as native language and for a language be recognized within English-speaking community is quite an achievement. So stop your world-dominating mindset and let other people to use the languages they like. Maybe one day English stops being the lingua franca.

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      2. “You are fine with bastardized English that everyone in the world speaks, but you cannot accept that any other languages reach such a status.”

        You are completely ignoring the violent colonial and assimilation-minded history of English that made it a lingua franca. Entire languages and cultures were destroyed so English could reign.

        So people saying English catchphrases is not the same as people casually peppering in random Korean phrases in their speech for no reason, especially when they are not learning the language. This is because their “admiration” of the language comes from completely different places.

        Reverance and usage of English is rooted in colonialism, so when people use English words to make themselves seem cool, it is because they have internalized the colonialist mindset that English is “better” or “cooler.”

        Using random Korean words is rooted in fetishization rather than admiration; if one thinks Korean is “cooler” or “better” than their native language, then they should learn it rather than using random words without context to Korean and non-Korean speaking people alike.

        I am not Anglo, nor American. I am not fine with people feeling forced to learn English over their native language. I am a nativevpeaker of Urdu and it pains me how many people in my home country barely speak Urdu because English is deemed the superior language.

        I do not think that Koreaboos are going to make Korean a better-known language because they are not bothering to learn the language and only treating it as an accessory! Korean will become a better known language because of people (who may or may not be fans of K-Pop or K-Dramas) w
        ho take their time to learn the language and practice it rather than just learning a few phrases and using them to look cool.

        Korean becoming a better-known language IS an achievement but its credit goes to K-Pop artists and K-dramas who have managed to create a global audience, and inspired them to learn their language–not Koreaboos!

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    2. K Lee

      1987 a Korean guy asked me out.We dated. It didn’t work out.. He taught me to write and read Korean. 1991 Another Korean guy asked me to marry him. (I said no). Then I went to University, lived with Asian students. Worked in a Asian American club. Another Korean guy told me he wanted to marry me. (Nope). I taught ESL and many of my students were Korean. My roommates were Japanese, Korean, White, Indian ECT. I volunteered to teach students English. I watched Korean dramas before they were popular. I went to an international church and lived next to a Korean section of town. I married a Chinese guy.( Because he was nice!) I have not worn Korean clothes but I love, the food, and the people! I don’t think I am a Koreaboo. My life just happened to be around lots of 1, 1.5 and 2 generation Korean people. Some people have a life calling to be around other cultures to help, humbly learn and be a friend.

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  3. Caboose

    I agree with almost all that you have stated except for the language part. Many cultures add English words and phrases into their everyday use. Koreans do this as well. You can find countless videos of kpop groups or kdrama stars playing a game where they try not to use any English. When kpop groups come to Texas they like to say Howdy a lot and it’s not uncommon to see one of them in a cowboy hat. No one cares that it’s a stereotype, because it’s cute and we appreciate that they learned a smidge about Texas. I don’t think adding Korean words into your vocabulary makes you a Koreaboo, but it can make you annoying, especially if you are overdoing it like the example given in the post.

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  4. MaryVS

    I enjoy watching historical dramas and especially South Korean and Chinese. I find I respect them more. One of my favorite lessons is how they respect their elders.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Arshia Mazumder

    Hello! I have a question. If someone is not invited to wear the clothing of a culture, but they understand its significance after research, is it still cultural appropriation?

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    1. Hello! I would like you to clarify, because this depends on context. For example if a non-South Asian person understands the significance of a bindi, but still wears it whenever they want, that is cultural appropriation because if you know that it is a religious/cultural symbol that people don’t just wear as an accessory and are often shamed for in the West, why would you treat it like an accessory or a costume?

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  6. anne

    I love the culture, the music and their shows, since I want to be an interpreter for many different languages i’m learning hangul right now. I don’t do the koreaboo stuff because it’s really weird. But, I have a BTS poster in my room and I also have pictures of BTS on my phone, I also have a crush on a nice Chinese boy in my class. Does this make me a koreaboo?

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    1. It is natural to appreciate BTS (I do too!) and have pictures and posters of them because they’re a group you like. It is also completely fine to learn the language! It gets a little iffy if you only have a crush on the boy because he’s Asian and not because of his personality, if that makes sense. But if that’s not the case, then you should be fine! 🙂

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