Who Are Koreaboos?
The idea of people who love Korean culture so much that they want to become Korean has been around for a few years.
"How do I make Oppa sarang me?" It's the title of what appears to be a Yahoo Answers post making the rounds since at least 2014. "Oppa is so kawaii, but Oppa sarang another unni :-(" (This Korean man is so cute, but he loves another woman [who is older than me]), the writer shares, mixing Korean words with English and even a Japanese term (kawaii).
"I really Sarang Oppa, what should I doooo? :3 ><" (I really love him, what should I do?)
No one can verify if this post is genuine since Yahoo Answers shut down last year, but the cringe-inducing nature of the appeal hasn't been lost on many readers, and that must be why it's still circulating online, prompting one anonymous netizen on the online forum OneHallyu to troll the author as a "Fucking koreaboo".
That term, Koreaboo, entered the Urban Dictionary lexicon around four years ago to mean "someone who is obsessed with Korean culture so much they denounce their own culture and call themselves Korean." (In fact, the person behind the Yahoo Answers post begins by saying "I am a Korean", as implausible as it sounds given the strange command of the Korean language.) To that, one might add love bordering on obsession with Koreans.
Are they for real? Critical commentary about Koreaboos definitely pops up everywhere, including in Korean, suggesting there are more than a handful of them around. And loving a certain culture so much that you want to be a part of that country isn't a new thing. France has long been one such place, attracting legions of admirers who move there (just think of the Netflix show Emily in Paris as the latest expression of this Francophilia.)
Japan, too, has been known to have that effect on some non-Japanese, as a Japanese studies professor friend liked to tell me in the aughts ('I saw yet another white guy walking around downtown Kyoto in yukata with a folding fan', she said with an eye roll).
In fact, the term "Weeaboo" predates Koreaboo, denoting a "person who retains an unhealthy obsession with Japan and Japanese culture, typically ignoring or even shunning their own racial and cultural identity". Twenty years ago Japan was unquestionably the it-Asian country before Korea took over that position. As a Korean person studying Korea, I felt a pang of envy (Korea specialists had trouble finding academic jobs back then while Japanese studies was booming).
Now it's Korea's turn to shine, and with that glory come Koreaboos as a side effect.
A popular definition of Koreaboo lists the following characteristics, which are admittedly somewhat disturbing: they try to look and act like a Korean, are overly obsessed with K-pop and K-drama, use chopsticks on everything, want a Korean boyfriend or girlfriend and mix their native languages with Korean words and phrases.
I have yet to meet such a person, but some of these traits are out there to be noticed. On YouTube videos of non-Koreans with Korean partners, comments like "I need a korean boyfriend. Please help me." and "Any single korean boys are here I want korean husband" are common. And some large channels are built around the concept of showing off Korean boyfriends, clearly aware they are inviting admiration for having Korean men in their lives.
One woman goes so far as to give hugs to random Korean men she meets in the streets. A "subliminal" music claims to make your desires for Korea come true, with one listener testifying: "I listened to this for like 2 weeks. I had a dream in an airport. I was traveling to south korea. It was so freaking beautiful".
Then there are so-called "Koreaboo cringe compilations"—video montages that purport to show Koreaboos at their most shameful. Most feature clips of young non-Korean women pretending to have phone calls in beginner Korean in girlish, squeaky voices, or dancing and singing to K-pop music. While the intent of the original creators must have been to express their affection for this country (or a K-pop group) or generate views by being humorous or showing off skills, such content gets reframed by critics of Koreaboo as something to disapprove of and look down on.
In many cases I see women who look too young to be conscious of how their actions may be judged, and criticism goes too far. Problematic, though, is a certain type of remark from time to time, for example: "I just love Korean men, and since I look really different to them and I am white and I fit their beauty standards, then they are just gonna worship me, they are gonna love me, I am gonna be like a goddess [in Korea]."
It has echoes of a condition on the interracial dating scene dubbed critically a "yellow fever" by the Asian-American community. It concerns white people who seek validation from being in a relationship with an Asian because they do not find it in their own community or existing circumstance. They also don't see an Asian as an individual and speak of "Korean men" or "Chinese women" as a collective entity without the need to distinguish one from the others.
To be fair, this tendency doesn't afflict only white people. The popularization of Korean culture worldwide has had a curious effect on how Korean men are perceived. Eleven years ago I moved to Bangladesh for a teaching job, and unbeknownst to me my potential students were googling my name because I was to be the first real Korean man they would ever come into contact with.
When one of them told me about this belatedly, I asked, "Why?" Being Korean is nothing special.
She replied, "You know, they watch Korean dramas. They have this fantasy about Korean men."
More than anything else, it may be this fantasy that ultimately defines a Koreaboo. There is nothing wrong with consuming K-pop and K-dramas or having a little fun while learning a language. But a fantasy about Korea reduces the country they claim to love to a set of stereotypes, and it's fascinating to watch some Koreaboos performing 'Koreanness' on the basis of what they believe to be an 'authentic' way for Koreans to act: putting on makeup in the 'Korean' fashion to resemble Koreans, speaking Korean as they believe Koreans do (even though it sounds more like exaggerated drama dialogue), and lately, receiving plastic surgery to 'look Korean'.
Eight years ago a Brazilian man made headlines for having multiple plastic surgeries to look more like a Korean pop star. But the most prominent Koreaboo today is undoubtedly a white British influencer named Oli London, who wants to become Korean so badly that they say they are willing to undergo a penis reduction surgery (London identifies as non-binary in addition to Korean). "I’ve been transitioning, and now I’ve officially come out Korean," they proclaimed in an interview last July with a British broadcaster.
The obvious want for attention notwithstanding, they do raise an interesting question about identity, which is performative at its core. When gender is a social construct, who is to say ethnicity isn't to a degree? What is an authentic Korean person anyway when we reject the idea of "pure" Korean blood, which has long governed how Korean identity is defined? And are naturalized Koreans born to other ethnicities not real Koreans?
London, who has multiple music videos on their YouTube channel, is at least partly self-aware, titling one of them Koreaboo in a clear dismissal of their critics (of which there are many just in the comment section alone). But that's where the buck stops: their other masterpiece Heart of Korea is a pastiche of Asian-looking elements of no determinable origin against footages of Seoul in that firmly Orientalist tradition of Western cultural production.
It also underscores why Koreaboos can get so much hate—for appropriating culture of which they have little understanding.
Cover: a scene from Oli London's music video Heart of Korea