“An African American’s Perspective of the Korean Wave” (Emanuel Pastreich in Chosun Ilbo English Edition) | The Asia Institute

“An African American’s Perspective of the Korean Wave”

Chosun Ilbo English Edition

I received an unexpected email in February 2013, from a young woman who was studying public health at Harvard University. Mariesa Lee Ricks explained that her mother was Korean and that she had a great interest in Korean culture. Mariesa said that she hoped to find out how K-Pop and Korean social media can play a role in bringing positive messages to youth around the world. 

Mariesa added that she hopes to visit Korea to carry out research. I wrote back to her telling her that I would be in Boston soon for a business trip and we agreed to meet up while I was there.

I did not recognize her at first. I was taken aback for a split second when she introduced herself because she turned out to be African American, and I had imagined a half-Korean, half-Caucasian woman who looked like my daughter Rachel. I was impressed that Mariesa did not display the slightest sense of discomfort or uncertainty in the few seconds that it took me to get over my embarrassment. She was clearly an extremely mature and composed woman with a strong sense of herself.

We sat down at the café for a cup of coffee and muffins and Mariesa started to tell me how her research was far more than academic interest, but part of a vision for her own cultural and ethical mission and an extension of her experiences since childhood. The Korean Wave was an essential part of a search for greater diversity and acceptance of both herself and others. She imagined it as something far larger than just the catchy songs of Psy.

“When I heard about social issues like bullying and suicide among young people in Korea, I was deeply concerned as someone who has cousins at middle school in Korea. But I was also aware of the increasing ethnic and cultural diversity of Korea, and of the explosion of innovation and cultural vitality to be found in that country,” Mariesa said.

She wanted to learn about how youth issues in Korea were being addressed and the potential for serious innovation. She sees in the Korean Wave a chance to reinvent the experience of youth, whether in Korea or the U.S.

That vision is linked to the critical role Mariesa’s Korean and African heritage has played in her cultural and intellectual development. Her Korean heritage was essential when she grew up in Atlanta. Her grandmother and mother maintained close ties with Korean culture and the Korean community, which was made easier by the burgeoning Korean population in the part of the city where they lived.

“My father’s family had a limited understanding of Korean culture, but fortunately my mother and grandmother were eager to introduce their culture, whether through funny stories from their childhood in Korea or through cooking kimchi jjigae (spicy Korean stew), for everyone, or teaching some Korean phrases,” she said. “So I developed an appetite to try new things and to explore new combinations of culture. That is the appeal of the Korean Wave for me.”

“Thanks in large part to my Korean heritage, I have developed an intense desire to honor my parents and family — a trait that has spurred me to be extremely aware of how my decisions and actions impact others,” she said. “At the same time, American values of individuality have allowed me to feel comfortable takings risks and exploring my own interests.”

Mariesa developed her own personal interpretation of the Korean Wave. Along the way she found many traits in common between the cultures of African Americans and of Koreans. Both groups had encountered cultural and political repression, whether slavery and Jim Crow in the African-American case, or foreign invasions and occupation in the case of Korea. Out of such pain emerged, she notes, “a strong sense of resilience, spirituality, and the importance of community which made the blending of cultures in my family seem more natural.”

That cultural melding let Mariesa see in Korea something immensely valuable. She notes that as the world grows smaller, the Korean Wave is a powerful means to find common ground between diverse populations through the appreciation of Korean culture.

Korea continues to be an inspiration for Mariesa as she works within American society to change assumptions and create a fairer and more open environment. Above all, Korea represents strength in the face of adversity for her. It is perhaps ironic that this testimony to Korea’s potential comes from a place where most Koreans would not expect it. But the Korean Wave today is not being made up by advertising executives or culture bureaucrats. It is a true movement of like minds around the world who wish to explore the tremendous potential of this third East Asian culture, one that hints at a third civilization for the global society.

(Mariesa Ricks is an associate of the Asia Institute)