Hollister in Light of PSY’s Gangnam Style

Wrote this email to the child_lit listserv, posted it here around 11:52am, came back around 8pm to flesh it out and add some provocative images. Enjoy. Or not.

Not unrelated to the topic of children’s literature: recently Hollister opened up a new store in Korea, and some of their white imported models made inappropriate, racist slurs during the store opening and in other settings while in Seoul.

Here’s an image of one of the models trying to “look Asian.” This reminds me of Mickey Rooney attempting to play Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s:

Hollister is owned by Abercrombie & Fitch, which has its own troubling history of racism against Asian Americans (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/1938914.stm) and non-white employees ( http://www.afjustice.com/). My colleagues Vincent Pham and Kent Ono have written a great article titled “‘Of Artful Bigotry & Kitsch’: A Study of Stereotype, Mimicry and Satire in American T-Shirt Rhetoric” if you’re interested in reading a critical analysis of the racist T-shirt issue.

I think there’s also criticism that shorts are too short, clothes are too tight, and size labels are misleading and encourage young women to strive for a particular (and nearly impossible) standard of size and beauty, not to mention some of the very suggestive catalogs and advertising materials that border on soft porn. Hollister is aimed at teens, while a&f is marketed more toward college students, and I think a&f also has a children’s line. There’s also Gilly Hicks, the intimates line, which I think is patronized mostly by high school and college women. The GH store at the Mall of America has a poster of a male body where the shorts hang so low on his hips I’m embarassed to say I even know it’s there.

Hollister and a&f are hugely popular, and have also been popular among Koreans. Whenever I visit Korea, cousins have asked me to bring Hollister T-shirts, and I’ve brought UCLA T-shirts instead. That said, over the past several decades, Korean perceptions of all things American=awesome have been quickly waning, partly because the American military continues to commit crimes while stationed abroad, and partly because Korea has risen as an industrial and economic power in its own right, hosting the Olympics and World Cup games, and producing its own brands, popular culture, etc. Take, for example, PSY’s “Oppa Gangnam Style” music video – click the YouTube still below to watch:

What is it about “Gangnam Style” that has made it so hugely popular across the US? Well, honestly, who cares? As a Korean American, I’m proud that the country of my birth has produced a performer who made such a clever and catchy song and video.  Read this http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2012/09/14/korean-pop-star-conquers-us-gangnam-style/#axzz26SgIuBnE for a bit of background and THIS for a super smart analysis of the video: http://opencitymag.com/beyond-the-horse-dance-viral-vid-gangnam-style-critiques-koreas-extreme-inequality/.

Clearly, Koreans are pretty awesome people and make pretty awesome stuff. I just purchased a Korean car (Hyundai Tucson – totes love it), and whenever I go to Korea I buy as many clothes as I can because they actually fit my Asian body better than do clothes sold in the US. I buy Korean cosmetics because they match my skin tone, and heck yeah I eat as much Korean food as I can because it’s delicious (kogi tacos, anyone?). I don’t see it as being strictly ethno-nationalistic, although there is an element of that there, but rather, as buying products that fit my body and if it ends up that I also support companies in the country of my birth – win! I’m certainly not going to knowingly support companies that so egregiously put down my people. Yet when we lust after American-made goods, particularly the goods of a company that has a very clear history of anti-Asian production, structures, behaviors, and merchandising, we are doing just that, and we are permitting and perpetuating the US’ cultural and material imperialism. Did Korean people not know of the a&f t-shirts? Did they not known about a&f’s discriminatory hiring practices? Why did they want and allow a Hollister store to open?

Going back to the original reason I wrote this email/blog post: what does this mean for young people, their acculturation, consumption practices, etc? Borrowing Robin Bernstein’s words from her most excellent book, Racial Innocence, does wearing Hollister script particular desires and behaviors for the body? What are we teaching our young people by allowing them to grow up with this brand, a brand that repeatedly, continually sends unapologetic, controversial messages regarding size, beauty, race, etc? And for heaven’s sake, what are we denying them if we don’t share Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video with the world?


Spent my last few days in Seoul with friends and family. Am still somewhat ambivalent about leaving, but growing increasingly sad about my departure. Really enjoyed being here, especially spending time with people I haven’t seen in 3 years, but alas, it’s time to go home and resume life. Enjoy the photos~

With my cousin YoungSoo. Note: I permed my hair!
Mocha 팥빙수
Korean kids enjoy the sprinklers in 세종대로
My friend SeHyuk wearing an authentic Twins cap ^^

Far Away Home

I just wrote a super long entry about how I have less than one week left in Korea, and that I feel ambivalent about leaving Korea and going home to Minnesota… but it got erased. It was sort of a reflection of how I love being here but how being here isn’t easy – silly stuff such as loving having constant access to Korean food but really missing Mexican food; not-so-silly stuff such as enjoying time with friends and family here, but really being homesick for people at home; and not-at-all-silly stuff such as having challenging yet productive research experiences. I don’t have the mental or emotional energy to write it all up again, so instead, please enjoy some photos of my post-Gathering time in Korea:

With my 둥생 (younger brother/friend) Zach at 남산 (NamSan) Tower
Saying good bye to my new Norwegian friend Jon
경복궁(GyeongBok Palace) with Dr. Melanie Kimball
@ 경복궁 (GyeongBok Palace)
Friends 경선 (Kyung-Sun) and 윤진 (Yun-Jin)
With Christina @ 청계천 (CheongGyeCheon)
My cousins 우민오빠 (WooMin) & 경민오빠 (KyungMin)
A twilight view of 남산 (NamSan) Tower
At the 지화자 (JiHwaJa) restaurant, just before eating a Royal Cuisine Dinner

IKAA Gathering 2010

2007 Gathering Gala with some pretty awesome ladies

This week I’m attending the IKAA Gathering 2010, which is the 5th overall Gathering (DC, Oslo, Seoul, Seoul, Seoul). I had the privilege of attending in 2007 – what an amazing learning experience. I’m looking forward to listening and learning this time as well.

Being back in Seoul for the first time since 2007 has also been a trip. It seems like Korea changes every year – more and more apartment buildings going up, more and more shopping centers (recession? what recession?), and more and more foreigners walking the streets of Seoul. I’ve always seen white (and a few black) people in Korea and assumed they were probably American military, but now I’m definitely noticing more Southeast Asians. Korea is definitely changing – and yet how much is it not? We may think Korea is becoming more globalized because so many more foreigners live here, but I wonder how easy it is (not) for them to live here.

What hasn’t changed – Korean girls are still wearing high heels everywhere they go. I tried this yesterday, and they weren’t even spiky heels, but oh boy my feet hurt. Cute flip flops for me, thank you very much. Also, the food is as good as ever. Where else can you get 냉면 for w4,000? Some days I’ve had 팥빙수 once after lunch and once after dinner. I know, I know. Rough life.  Public transportation (the subway, buses and taxis) are as accommodating and accessible as ever. Traffic jams aside, I love how it’s so easy to get around Seoul. And one of my FAVORITE things about Seoul – cafes on every single corner. I’m writing this blog entry from a doughnut shop across the street from the Myeong-dong Lotte Department Store – sitting on the second floor, next to a huge window, watching as the people and cars rush down and across the street. I could sit here and stare out the window all day.

Social Change in Modern Korea

Yesterday was awesome on several levels: hung out with my former UCLA TA (Dr. Paul Y. Chang), guest lectured for his class *Social Change in Modern Korea* on the topic of *Transracial Korean Adoption: History, Issues & Representations*, ate 팥빙수 with my dear friend Kyunghee at 청계천 (see image header and read “about the header” on my about page), and had dinner with my cousin Banghee’s family. And then ate 팥빙수 again. Awesome, I tell you.

I gave my website address to Dr. Chang’s students, so I’m posting this entry just to say HELLO to you all! I really enjoyed chatting with you during the break and after class. For more information about transracial Korean adoption, check out the links on the left sidebar (under Adoptee Organizations and Adoptees Speak) or feel free to email me (spark@stkate.edu) with questions.  Study hard and good luck on your finals! ^^