What "Gangnam Style" Really Means -- From Someone Who Lived There

Millions of people have now watched the Gangnam style video; most have no idea that the song mocks the Gangnam lifestyle: the excessive pursuit of image, good looks, success and affluence.

Oct 23, 2012 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

Apparently, in the 16 years since I was in Gangnam, the aspiration for a Western lifestyle has not changed much. If anything, it's on full display in the hit song “Gangnam Style,” by Korean pop star Psy. But of the millions of people who have now watched the Gangnam style video, most have little to no idea of the Psy's subtext -- that the song mocks the Gangnam lifestyle: the excessive pursuit of image, good looks, success and affluence.

Sixteen years ago, after graduating from college, I started my first job as an English teacher at a public high school in Seoul, South Korea. I got the job after replying to an ad listed at my college's career services department: "Native-English speakers wanted to teach English in public schools in Seoul."   

I was placed at an all-girls high school in the wealthy neighborhood of Gangnam in Seoul. On my first day, the school's second-in-charge informed me that my predecessor (another Korean-American girl) had slacked on the job. He said Koreans "work hard" and don’t have "sick days." 

That rule applied to my students as well. They attended class all day, every day without exception. After school, students went to "hak-won," or a paid private academy, until early evening and did their homework sometimes through the night. 

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My students.

Though English fluency was coveted, most of my students were limited to, "Hello," and, "How are you?" followed by an eruption of self-conscious laughter. One girl's English sounded like mine.  When I asked “Jenny” how she learned to speak so well, she told me her parents had sent her to the States to help her get an edge. 

I met class after class of girls neatly dressed in crisp white shirts, ties, blazers and pleated skirts.  By the end of my first week, I thought I'd hit a groove –- until I got to the tenth graders' classroom.

I walked in to row after row of swollen black-eyes and dark glasses. Out of almost 30 girls in the class, two-thirds bore some facial trauma. The student leader, or "ban jjang," of the class stood up and called the others to attention. In unison, they bowed and gave me a salutation in Korean. No one acted out of the ordinary.

Later that day, a colleague explained that many of the tenth grade girls got "sang-ka-puhl-soosuhl" or plastic surgery, during the school's summer break. In Gangnam, I learned, this was a rite of passage. Most girls elected for double-eyelid surgery, which made the eyes bigger and more “Western.”

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The attraction to Western culture is nothing new to Koreans. In the early 1950s during the Korean war, it was believed that some Korean women bleached their hair to attract American GIs. Yet those who did were considered prostitutes. In the post-Cold-War era, South Koreans have embraced aspects of the West, and at the same time fought its influence.    

To find a pizza or ice cream in any neighborhood in Seoul, one orders a “pi-ja” or “i-suh-cream.”  You can find American movies at any “vi-de-o” store.  

The use of "Konglish” (English words adopted by the South Korean language) is a pervasive yet controversial example of American influence. Some “Konglish” words are literal translations -- bus is pronounced "beo-seu" and shopping, "syo-ping." Other words have taken on new meaning like Burberry, or “Buh-buh-rhee,” meaning trenchcoat.

“Gangnam Style” is the obsession of pretending to have it all, and the subtext that having “it” means being more Western.

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In the video, Psy plays a "Gangnam" guy who describes the "sexy lady" he's looking for -- a lady, by the way, who has strawberry blond hair. The horse stables, tennis courts, and yoga classes are all Western imports -- signs of wealth and affluence in South Korea. 

Psy raps about the kind of guy who can "one-shot" coffee; his ideal is "a classy girl who knows how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee." Sounds kind of weird until you uncover the history of a cuppa in South Korean. Coffee, another decades old Western import, is mentioned repeatedly in the song because of the status it symbolizes.

Coffee shops, or “keo-pi syop," in Gangnam cater to a clientele who can afford, or at least appear to afford, a ₩10,000 (roughly $9) watered down cup of coffee. But when I lived in Gangnam, my friends and I knew that a lot of the clientele at these coffee shops would easily pay $9 to be seen in a keo-pi syop, only to go home later to eat a $2 bowl of ramen because they couldn’t afford anything more.

For decades in South Korea, cultural influences went mostly one way –- West to East. Now, many Koreans and Korean Americans have a deep pride in the popularity of this song.  Even so, many in the Korean community are left scratching their heads as to why this song became so popular outside of the country.

NPR claimed that South Korea and K-Pop was primed for a hit with its “wired” technological advancements.

But that doesn't explain why we love it.  When I watched it on YouTube for the first time, I thought, “Are you serious?” but even I had to admit that I liked it. At first, I explained it away -- obviously I was only drawn to the social commentary.  I wholeheartedly agreed with Psy's social satire on Gangnam culture and its obsession with affluence and appearances.

But thanks to my kid, I figured out the real reason I couldn’t stop watching.

As the video starts for the umpteenth time in our house, my five-year-old's torso starts to shake and her little arms cross. She gets on her imaginary horse. She can't stop herself and she's not alone. 

Everyone from the “Oregon Duck” to the Naval Academy has gone “Gangnam Style.” There is a common thread in many of these parodies -- a willingness to look utterly ridiculous as long as the group is doing it together.

Perhaps what Psy bring to the West is the Eastern ideal of connection. 

One of my favorite aspects of South Korean culture is that you are made to feel that you are a part of a bigger whole, that you belong. There’s a Korean idea called "Jeong" which very loosely means having a deep and meaningful connection or bond. It's not a feeling or an action, but it describes the space that occurs between two or more people. It’s not an easy concept to understand or to translate.

But if one looks, there is Jeong among the people who collaborated on these Gangnam videos. They are connected by a joyful camaraderie and unabashed ridiculousness, and it's infectious. 

Perhaps we in the West are all drawn to an idea that's well-defined by Koreans -- but that is by no means unique to them -- that people are wired to join in and connect.  When given the opportunity, maybe we all want to be that five-year-old again, the one who gets on her imaginary horse and joins the fun.