In this book, students build from an examination of various U.S. American beliefs, values, and myths, applying those concepts to representative instances of U.S. popular culture such as popular music, sports, and movies. Students are also asked to consider U.S. popular culture in a global context, to take pleasure in critical analysis of particular instances of pop culture production, and to consider how pop culture might impact their own lives and social milieu, both positively and negatively.
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Topic 1 Who Is an American?
In order to consider who Americans are, we should be sure we know where America is located. Where is America on this map?
Some people might be tempted to choose just these parts of the map:
That would be incorrect. Those places are the United States of America only. Every place on the map is America: North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean are all parts of America, which is a pair of continents not just one country. The country called 미국 (miguk) is not all of America. It is one among many countries on the two continents of America. Often, when someone uses the word “America,” they are referring to the U.S.A., and that will be the case in this book at times, but it is important to keep in mind that the U.S.A. is not all of America. Thus, what or who an American is can be a complicated question.
To consider some complications, look at this photo of me:
Do I look like a Korean, or do I look like an American? The answer to that is probably pretty obvious.
Now, think about your college classes in Korea.
Q : How many students in your classes look like Americans?
Before I give my answer to that last question, I would like to tell a story. Before, I tell the story, however, I would like you to think of American geography again because that geography is important to my story.
Q : What are some of the most famous cities in the U.S.? See if you can locate them on a map.
Q : What is the capital of the U.S., the city with the White House, where the President and his family live, and the Capitol Building, where the Senate and the House of Representatives meet to enact laws?
That city is, of course, Washington, D.C. Washington lies between two states, Maryland to the northeast and Virginia to the southwest. In the area known as Northern Virginia is a suburb of Washington named Annandale, a city with a large Korean American population.
Once, a few years ago, when I lived in Virginia, I looked on the internet and found some Korean restaurants in Annandale. One day, when I was in Annandale with a Korean friend, we drove to one of the restaurants. Across the highway from the restaurant was a video-rental store, the 안방 비디오실 (Anbang Videoshil).
By the way, do you know what the 안방 (anbang) is? I am not asking about the contemporary meaning but about the traditional meaning from the Joseon Dynasty. In that meaning, the anbang is the women’s living space: “As the center of activity space for women, it served the multiple functions of dwelling, dining, reception, and housework during the daytime and sleeping at night.”
Q : Given the name of the store, what kind of movies and TV programs do you think were available to rent? (Those forms of entertainment are, of course, significant forms of popular culture.)
If you answered soap operas and “chick flicks,” you would be correct. A chick flick is a film that appeals to women: “chick” is a term for young wome...n, derived from the Spanish chiquita—it is often considered a derogatory, sexist term, and you probably should not use it because it may offend some people. The word “flick” is a slang term for movies. The films and programs available at the 안방 비디오실 (Anbang Videoshil) were created for a primarily female audience.
One thing we can note in this context is that pop culture changes quickly. The 안방 비디오실 (Anbang Videoshil) had many VHS (Video Home System) tapes; in July 2016, the very last VCR (Video Cassette Recorder) machines were manufactured. Videos were replaced by DVDs (Digital Video Discs), and DVDs have been replaced by downloading and live streaming as a way of watching movies without going to a movie theater. Indeed, it is hard to find a video store anymore, maybe it is even impossible, since online services have taken over video distribution. Obviously, technology has helped to change popular culture and the way we consume it.
But back to my story. My Korean friend and I went into the 안방 비디오실 (Anbang Videoshil) to ask about the Korean restaurant across the highway. My Korean friend asked the clerk in Korean if the restaurant was a good place to eat. The clerk replied, “외국놈 좋아하는데요. . .” (weyguknom joahaneundaeyo: Well, foreigners like it), implying, of course, that a Korean who knows the difference between good Korean food and bad Korean food would not enjoy the restaurant very much. Implying also, I think, that I might like it, since I was a “foreigner.”
My Korean-language skills are not great, but I do know that it is not very polite to refer to someone standing in front of you with the word “놈” (nom), which is often considered a derogatory term to use of another person. In order to indicate to the woman working at the store that I realized I had the opportunity to be offended, I responded in my not-very-good Korean, “그저 그래요?” (geujeo geuraeyo: only so-so?). The clerk was surprised and made sure that she referred to “외국사람” (weyguksaram: foreign people) for the rest of our brief conversation, since the word 사람 (saram) is more polite than 놈 (nom). In fact, she became extremely helpful and showed us how to get to the best nearby Korean restaurant, one that even Koreans liked.
That is my story.
Q : What are your reactions to the story? What do you think is strange about the clerk’s response to my friend’s inquiry about the restaurant?
Some people might see the woman as rude because she called me weyguknom rather than the more polite weyguksaram, but the former is fairly common among Koreans and probably was not intended to make me feel bad. She may not even have considered the language impolite until she heard my response. For her, it may have just been what she was used to saying and hearing. It was not a strange response, and it was not one that offended me, although it was fun to let her know that I understood.
Perhaps some might see it as strange, or at least ironic, that an immigrant (the clerk) would call someone who was born and raised in the U.S. (me) a “foreigner.” It might seem especially strange since the story takes place just outside the capital of the U.S., the political center of the country in which I was born—in my country. Who was the foreigner in the story? Some people might say that she was the foreigner. What business did she have calling me a foreigner in my own country?
Those are two possible responses to my story. I prefer a third way to understand it: I would say that there were no foreigners in the story. The clerk in the video store was also an American, even though she spoke Korean and probably was born in Korea. America is a country with great ethnic and racial diversity. That diversity is the first principle of American culture and society that I want to emphasize. Yes, the U.S. is my country, but it was hers as well.
And that brings me back to the question that preceded the story: How many students in your Korean classrooms look like Americans?
My answer is that every single student in those classrooms looks like an American. Americans are not just “Anglo-Saxon” like me. For some people, that is the stereotype of the American, but stereotypes are not reality. Americans come in many colors, creeds, and religions. Some of them speak Korean as a first language and refer to non-Koreans as 외국사람 (weyguksaram).
I suppose I do not look very Korean, but everyone in a Korean classroom looks like he or she could be an American. The U.S. is, for the great majority of its people, a nation of immigrants or of people descended from immigrants. No one in the U.S. who does not have Native American heritage can trace their American family line back before the 16th century, and most people cannot trace it even that far. My own ancestors came from Germany in the middle to late 19th century. My grandfather, who was a third-generation German-American, grew up in a German-speaking home, and he never lost his German accent. He was an American whose first language was not English, just like the woman in the Anbang Videoshil is American.
Americans are a diverse people, and that diversity is embraced with pride by many Americans. Even the word “foreigner” is sometimes considered too exclusionary. Most colleges and universities no longer have foreign students; they have international students. Using the word “international” rather than the word “foreign” implies a more inclusive attitude. Foreigners are different, strange, outsiders. Interna- tional students may have differences, but they are not strange and they are not considered outsiders.
Q : Why are Native Americans called “Indians”?
Not every American shares an open perspective on American diversity, however. Some people insist only those who are born in the U.S. and speak English are “real” Americans. Some of those people might even think that only white people are fully “American.” Indeed Americans of Asian ancestry (Asian Americans), who might be fourth- or fifth-generation Americans, often report that some people express surprise when they speak English clearly and with no foreign accent.
Here are just a few examples of Americans who reject diversity in language.
ㆍ A Philadelphia food stand owner posted these two signs next to one another: “This is America. When ordering ‘Speak English.’” and “Management Reserves the Right to Refuse Service.” That is, if customers do not speak English, the owner may refuse to serve them.
ㆍ Sometimes, a person might see bumper stickers and signs with slogans like “I Want You to Speak English or Get Out” and “Welcome to America, Now Speak English” and “Your in America, Speak English.”
The last one (“Your in America, Speak English”) shows that the writer himself cannot use English correctly. The writer uses “Your” when the correct word is “You’re,” the contraction for “You are.” It is ironic that the writer wants others to use English when the writer cannot use it properly.
Here are other signs with the same kind of irony.
Q : What are the errors in the sentences below?
ㆍ A previous mayor of Crestwood, Illinois, once posted a sign that read: “English is Our Language. No Excetions. Learn it.”
ㆍ “This is America and our only Langogueage is English”
ㆍ “Respect are country, speak English”
The rejection of linguistic diversity has its roots in a rejection of racial and ethnic diversity that is an unpleasant aspect of American history and of parts of contemporary American society. Through much of American history, there were separate water fountains for white and black people. Often, black people could not go to the same restaurants, hotels, and schools as white people, and they were not permitted to sit next to white people in movie theaters. For many years, black people were forced by law to sit in the back of public buses.
1. Who Is an American? / 15
2. Why Study Pop Culture? / 26
3. Diversity in Action: Korean Americans / 37
4. The Idea of America / 48
5. American Ideas / 53
6. American Exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny / 63
7. Sports in America-Ⅰ / 74
8. Sports in America-Ⅱ / 84
9. Sports in America-Ⅲ / 101
10. Images of Women in American Popular Culture / 111
11. Images of Men in American Popular Culture / 127
12. Images of Gender Difference in American Popular Culture / 141
13. Holidays in America / 150
14. Music and Society-an Introduction / 160
15. Music and Society-the 50s / 169
16. Music and Society-the 60s / 181
17. Music and Society-the 70s, 80s, and 90s to the Present / 193
18. The Movies and American Popular Culture / 210
19. Re-Imagining American Exceptionalism in the Movies-Avatar / 215
20. The Past in the Present in the Movies-The Great Gatsby / 218
This book is written specifically for the Korean college classroom, so there will be many connections to contemporary Korea. Most university classrooms in Korea have a good number of international students, and the book is written with that fact in mind. I hope that the ideas here can serve to inspire many cross-cultural discussions between students from many different countries.
I ask students to engage in critical thinking about popular culture as texts that reflect U.S. American beliefs and values; therefore, much of the first six chapters establishes a foundation for those beliefs and values at the same time as it begins the practice of critical engagement with cultural texts such as popular songs. Those U.S. values are common but not universal, and they often conflict.
The ultimate goal is to make students better consumers of popular culture, to help them understand how popular culture influences how we think and what we value, to help them to become more critically and analytically engaged with their own lives in society. This approach toward popular culture responds to that ageless Socratic dictum to “know yourself.”
Interspersed throughout the chapters are brief interludes titled “QUESTION.” Not all of these are formed as questions, but all are brief pauses for thought in the midst of the reading. For some of those questions, I have suggested answers. Readers should always try to answer the questions for themselves before moving on to my answers. For other questions, readers will have to come up with answers for themselves.
A section titled “FOR FURTHER CONSIDERATION” concludes each chapter. These sections introduce topics, websites, songs, and various other popular culture texts. Students can use those topics and texts to explore the ideas developed in the chapter. Most of these further considerations require somewhat deeper thought than the questions interspersed through the reading. These considerations can be used for class discussions, group presentations, writing topics, or in other creative ways. When I teach the class, I often ask students to submit regular journal-type responses on topics and texts from the further considerations. Those do not have to be formal writing assignments but can be a way for students to practice writing complex ideas in English without much pressure for grammatical and idiomatic perfection.
If students answer the questions and/or address the topics for further consideration in class discussion, it is helpful for students to consider their responses in small groups of three to five students. If a class has many international students, I suggest placing at least one international student in each group. That way, people in the groups will need to have discussions in English. Since many students will take this class as a way to improve their English, even groups with only Korean students should try to speak in English at all times. Since English-language ability may vary widely among the students, I... often ask those Korean students with high-level ability to assist those of lower-level ability by explaining concepts in Korean, as much as time allows.
I point students to many websites to enhance their learning experience. The internet is an essential aspect of today’s popular culture. The URL addresses were all current when I wrote the text, but sometimes they change, and students might have to use a search engine to find some of the resources.
Instructors will have to pick and choose which chapters or parts of chapters that will work best for their own interests and teaching styles. I have used the material presented in each of the chapters, but I have never used all of it in a single semester. For instance, I do very little with March Madness when I teach the class in the Fall, but I spend more time in the Spring because the students can actively participate in following the tournament results.
I could have included other topics, or given greater emphasis to topics such
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