The West has influenced Asia in many ways - some more innocent than others, of course, but when you travel in Asia today, it’s interesting to look out for aspects of Western culture that have been reinterpreted. These fresh versions of familiar things help you to start understanding the unfamiliar culture that produced them. To see what I mean, head to the punk shops of Harajuku, where English 1970s irreverence re-emerged decades later in Tokyo’s most influential teen fashions - or to the street-food stalls of Seoul, to see how humble hot-dogs have diversified into a foodie fascination.
South Korea in particular has been strongly influenced by Western culture in recent decades, due in part to the American military bases installed there, but also because many South Koreans are educated abroad, and the country’s tech corps and creative studios have cornerstone roles in global phenomena like mobile internet, animation, cinema, video-gaming and robotics.
White bread was introduced to South Korea during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) and toast has emerged as a popular breakfast dish - ‘toast’, in inverted commas because, in SK, that one word refers to a whole toasted sandwich of fried white bread, egg, meat, vegetables and cheese. Pizza has become a firm favourite, but with regional twists, such as extra spices in the sauce, and kimchi (very popular fermented vegetables) adapted into a pizza topping. Cheese and kimchi actually go well together - if you think about it, pickled veg is a classic accompaniment to cheese in English cuisine. A stroll down any South Korean street-food market will reveal that hot-dogs have been spectacularly reinvented - look out for the long stick-mounted hot-dogs that have been coated in batter... and French fries... and deep-fried.
When words are adopted from one language to another, they’re called ‘loanwords’, and they can tell you something about how their original culture influenced the country which adopted them. A classic example is the arrival, in English, of the French word for ‘cow meat’. After the French lords invaded England, they demanded boeuf from the local peasantry; the old English word ‘cau’ survived as ‘cow, the living farm animal’, which the nobles did not dirty their hands with, but stopped meaning ‘meat of cow’, which was soon called ‘beef’ by everyone. South Korea’s English loanwords tend to fall into the categories of technology, fashion, selfies, gaming, food, dating - and feminism. Many, like ‘toast’, have come to mean something related to the English meaning, rather than a direct translation. Others take more of a tangent: ‘hiking’, rather confusingly, means a cycle ride. Click here for an excellent list of examples.
In the global gaming community, South Koreans are famous for being really really good at one game in particular - Starcraft, an American strategy game where winning depends on how swiftly the player can make and execute good decisions. The speed of South Korean Starcraft players is mesmerizing - these guys rattle out keystrokes and mouse clicks with mindboggling swiftness! This, along with the massive cash prizes involved, might help non-gamers to understand why televised video-games have become so popular in SK, with professional players competing for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Video-gaming is often a very sociable activity, and in South Korea this is amplified by the fact that much gaming is conducted in cafes, with private console ownership not as popular in SK as it is in the West.
South Koreans originally adopted Western clothing styles because they’re easier to put on than traditional Korean garments, but now SK fashion has put its own twist on the Western aesthetic and sent it back out into the world - witness Gangnam Style Psy’s tongue-in-cheek teddy boy look. Western pop culture has erupted into the massive popularity of events like KCON, a convention which takes K-Pop to America, and influential K-Pop stars are bringing in big bucks for Western designers by appearing in their clothes. We’ve also been told that the cheeky take on Western style can extend to couples dressing in matching outfits, but we’ve yet to witness this for ourselves!