Sherri Ter Molen got her first exposure to South Korea at an early age.
“In the 1970s my aunt and uncle, they adopted a daughter from South Korea and I remember the very first day that they brought her to my house. I was only three years old at the time, but it made such an impression on me that I still remember,” she said.
“Ever since then, Korean people just kept popping up in my life, even though I lived in a very white area, a suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan. And so, after I studied abroad in the Netherlands, which is my ancestral heritage, as an undergraduate, I decided to go to Korea to teach English because I was so interested in Korean culture,” said Ter Molen. “And once my feet touched Korean soil, I’ve been in love with Korea ever since.”
This year, Western Kentucky University is celebrating the International Year of South Korea with events, dinners, parties and guest speakers like Ter Molen who’s now an adjunct instructor at DePaul University in Chicago. She’s also doctoral candidate in Department of Communications at Wayne State University in Detroit where her dissertation topic is American fans of Korean Pop Culture.
“Now I’m finding more and more young people, like 18 or 19 year olds, and even high school students that are these 20-something year-old fangirls of K-pop boy bands and they’re watching Korean television dramas,” she said.
“When I got my first K-Pop CDs in 1995, I couldn’t really have a lot more access to Korean music when I came back from the states. I was going to a Korean market to borrow Korean dramas on VHS tapes, but they didn’t even bother to put subtitles on at the time because they didn’t expect us to be interested in them,” said Ter Molen. “But then, in 2005, YouTube launched, and that’s when I started meeting people who had actually seen Korean pop culture online. YouTube changed the world.”
Ter Molen says the way YouTube changed the world, U.S. military personnel changed Korean culture by bringing American music and films to the country during the war in the 1950s. The first Korean TV station was built with American technology. It wasn't until decades later, however, that the big business of Korean pop culture blossomed.
“In the 1990s, there was a big financial crash in East Asia and Koreans were looking for new ways to make money and that was right when the American film ‘Jurassic Park’ came out,” said Ter Molen. “They took one look at that film and they were like ‘you can make that much money with just one film? It would take us hundreds maybe even thousands of Hyundai automobiles to make that kind of money. Why don’t we start investing in our culture industries?’”
“So they kind of copied the way Hollywood does things. They make things that would translate well abroad and then they started sending it out throughout East Asia and then to the rest of the world.”
Ter Molen says most of the Korean pop culture enjoyed by Americans is from the South, although some does come from the North.
“Everything in North Korea is about propaganda. You can watch North Korean films and North Korean music online there’s plenty of that on YouTube, but it’s probably not going to resonate the same way that South Korean pop culture does.”
She says regardless of whether you speak Korean or not, you can still enjoy Korean language music and movies.
“Interestingly they’ve tried to produce albums in English and they don’t go over very well. Even for American fans that don’t speak fluent Korean they would prefer to listen to the Korean,” said Ter Molen.
“In fact, Korean language programs at universities across the nation are growing because of the Korean wave. I think for myself, I much prefer to watch something in Korean than to have it dubbed.”
On her visit to Bowling Green this spring, Ter Molen applauded WKU’s effort to help the campus community experience a different culture each year.
“You have to have a globalized perspective, so you have to come to appreciate and understand cultures. Even if it’s just through K-pop for instance, at least that will raise an awareness that people do things differently in another country,” she said. “Maybe you won’t deal with Korea, but maybe you're going to deal with Cuba in your job, or maybe you’re going to deal with Germany in your job, and maybe it will raise awareness that you need to look into what the culture is like before you go there.”