Viola Cohen



WHILE WESTERN POPULAR CULTURE HAS DOMINATED the entertainment scene across the globe for decades, since the early 2000s a new competitor has emerged: Hallyu, or the Korean Wave.

From TV programs and pop music to video games and films, two decades later the global circulation of South Korean popular culture is bigger business than anyone could have initially imagined; the country’s exports of cultural content almost sextupled from USD $2.3 billion in 2008 to USD $12.4 billion in 2021.

Now, words and phrases like Blackpink, BTS, Gangnam Style, Squid Game and mukbang are readily recognizable and synonymous with South Korea’s culture and success.

But how exactly does pop culture move from one country to the next, and why do certain cultures explode in popularity?

That’s what Dr. Kyong Yoon wants to find out.

A Professor of Cultural Studies at UBC Okanagan’s Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies, Dr. Yoon researches digital media, mobile communication, migration and Korean popular culture.

A giant statute of two golden arms crossed at the wrists. The move is symbolic with the Gangnam Style song, and the words are etched into the side of one of the arms. A round platform is under the arms, where people can stand.

The 2012 global hit “Gangnam Style” by South Korea’s PSY eventually inspired this statue in Seoul. Standing on the stage below the hands triggers the art installation to play the iconic song. The statue has also become the new landmark of South Korea’s now-famous Gangnam neighbourhood.

He says that South Korea is one of the few countries in the world that exports its popular culture to such a degree as a means of developing “soft power.” Soft power refers to the influence a country exerts through its image rather than through military or another coercive force.

“In the 1990s and 2000s, there was a rapid movement towards digitization. Videos and music could be shared more easily between people, which was further helped by the arrival of digital platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Netflix.

“All these factors combined at just the right time to help South Korea effectively export its culture.”

Dr. Yoon adds that compared to other Asian nations, South Korea is relatively small, which means its media and culture industries don’t have as large a domestic market as China or Japan. In response to rapid digitization, the country needed a new market, which turned out to be global.

As UBC Okanagan’s Principal’s Research Chair (PRC) in Trans-Pacific Digital Platform Studies, Dr. Yoon aims to advance the research on digital platforms that cross the Pacific Ocean like YouTube and Netflix, which are increasingly reshaping cultural production, distribution and consumption.

“My research over the last 10 years has found that cultural content and technology are very closely tied together. Technologies like the mobile phone and social media have been a definite component of success for South Korean content expansion.”

During his five-year PRC project, Dr. Yoon will comprehensively examine how media production, circulation and consumption are reshaped around major digital platforms and in transnational contexts. This will be done through an investigation of various platforms, the media content available on them and audience engagement with the platforms.

“These global platforms have contributed to the unexpected international success of non-Western media that otherwise would not have been disseminated globally.”

Dr. Yoon points to examples like the hugely popular Netflix show, Squid Game, as well as the growth of online videos like mukbang (known in English as an “eatcast”).

In these cases, viewers find the South Korean cultural content relevant to their everyday lives; “Squid Game depicts the hardship and insecurity that many people face in competitive capitalist societies, while mukbang offers the viewers a sense of eating together in increasingly individualized societies where people often have to eat alone,” Dr. Yoon says.

“These mukbang streamers sit in front of a camera and just eat. Sometimes there’s no communication, other times they tell a story. Some streamers also slurp and crunch and make all those noises that lead the viewer to ‘feel’ something while they’re watching.”

Research shows that watching mukbang can help viewers recreate the social aspect of dining with others; it can also open the door to enjoying luxury food or something not permitted on a diet, like binge eating junk food.

In exploring platforms like YouTube and other social media, Dr. Yoon hopes to use his PRC to explore this emerging field of digital platform studies, and move beyond the dominant Western-centric discourses about digital media.

“My goal is to contribute to opening up new areas of digital research, and enhance the interdisciplinary research capacities of UBC Okanagan, which has been a true space for inspiration for me.”

He adds: “The Principal’s Research Chair program has enabled me to develop global networks with leading scholars in the field of trans-Pacific digital media studies beyond UBC and Canada. I hope in the near future to host a first-of-its-kind international conference on trans-Pacific platform studies here on the UBC Okanagan campus, where a whole host of stimulating digital projects in the arts and humanities are taking place.”

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TUCKED AWAY IN THE CREATIVE AND CRITICAL STUDIES building at UBC Okanagan, Professor Michael V. Smith is doing more than just instructing students in creative studies.

For him, creating a welcoming space for all students is crucial to the concept of teaching and learning; somewhere people can find their voice, passions and interests.

While this sort of focus on inclusion may not be writ large in every classroom, it’s something Smith says openly on the first day of class. Not only because it’s where his research interests lie, but also because it’s what he truly believes in.

“I grew up in a blue-collar home in a small town, and I was quite regularly bullied and humiliated by my community for not presenting appropriately for the gender other people assumed I was,” explains Smith, who is gender fluid and goes by the pronouns he/she, him/her.

“My favourite colour is pink, and it’s hard to be a man who likes pink in North America.”

Michael V Smith is caught mid-sentence speaking as a student looks at him, intently listening

As a result, Smith says he always found the idea of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) a motivating theme because “through diversity, we understand there’s more than one way of being in the world. And then we also recognize that our way of being is unique to us, so we can’t make assumptions about other people based on our own experiences.

“That’s why I’m always trying to make space for other people in my classroom. I want to help them have greater access to language, ideas and tools, so they can articulate their own understanding of the world.”

A Professor in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies since 2008, Smith is renowned on campus for his work in the EDI realm, both through his actions in the classroom and his research work. A writer, performer and filmmaker, he examines issues of class, identity, community and belonging.

Smith can trace his passion and conviction for the themes of EDI to his own experiences growing up in a culture that clung to stereotypes and preconceived notions of gender. This awareness about the power of stereotypes and exclusion became a starting point that still infuses Smith’s work to this day.

Michael V Smith is dressed in pink as a clown wearing rabbit ears. He looks sadly at the camera

A still from The Floating Man shows Smith dressed as Peanut, a “genderqueer clown in love with pink,” having a reflective moment.

“A mantra of mine that came out of the 1990s AIDS crisis was, ‘silence equals death and action equals life.’ Whether it’s in the classroom or my own writing and art practice, I’m always looking at voicing the silences in the world.”

He adds: “That’s an equity piece because, as a queer person, I’m trying to make more space to allow me to be my best queer self in a culture that doesn’t like queer people. My work in teaching and research—and who I am as a person—aims to give voice to those experiences that have gone unnoticed or unwritten about.”

One such experience not often discussed by society is the complex and multifaceted relationship between body and gender navigated by those who transgress gender signals.

In his 2022 film The Floating Man Smith examines the false narratives he’s faced about his body over his lifetime; his students are also featured in the film and share how Smith’s work and teachings in class have helped them through their own gender journeys.

A Rorschach-type photo in which Michael V Smith is in a black body suit against a white backdrop. He is making shapes with his body that are meant to be interpreted. Two such images are shown here

Made in partnership with photographer David Ellingsen, these images show Smith in a body suit creating ‘concrete poems’ which are meant to be read. As Smith says, “All language and all meaning are first and foremost of the body.”

Another project, The Body of Text, involved Smith wearing a black body suit and posing against a white background, simulating a Rorschach-type test.

“It’s the same body making different shapes, and we’re reading those shapes,” explains Smith. “There’s imagery and assumptions associated with those shapes, just as there are with gender. I’m interested in how to undo those assumptions and humanize the idea of otherness.”

For Smith, sharing such stories makes for a far richer and more complex understanding of the world. It’s something he’s trying to emulate in his teaching while creating a space where everyone belongs.

“We’re not a monoculture. And even though we may feel safer when we’re a monoculture because there’s less to negotiate and it’s easier to navigate, we’re not healthier because of it.

“As a society we need a robustness in diversity because, ultimately, that’s how we’ll thrive.”

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Why did you choose economics as your area of study?
I’m originally from a minority group in a small border town in Punjab, India. There I witnessed how poverty—especially among women—and the dependence on male household figures led to abuse and the oppression of their choices. I would repeatedly ask questions like: what makes someone rich or poor, what is the role of governments in uplifting these individuals, why aren’t minority women like me represented, what leads farmers from my community to commit suicide, leaving behind their wives without any means of survival?

Economics, political science and history are where I started finding answers. I first worked as a Research Assistant with the Rural Health Equity Social Enterprise and Technology Synergies team, where I focused on the comparative analysis of various social enterprises, especially those led by women. I also helped explore the challenges faced by women in Canada and other countries of the world. Currently, I’m working as a Research Assistant in collaboration with BC Agriculture Climate Action Research Network on a project for drafting enterprise budgets for farmers in Southern Interior BC. This project uses best management practices like cover cropping and relay-cropping to help the environment while also leading to profits for farmers.

My research reminds me every day of the reason I started on this journey. I wanted to learn about public policy and economics so that one day I can be a woman of colour from a minority Sikh community, representing the interests of my people on a level where our voices get heard.

Puneet Kaur Aulakh standing in front of a Canadian flag, with japanese characters on the wall behind her.

Puneet Kaur Aulakh at the 2023 Japan-Canada Academic Consortium, held at the Canadian embassy in Tokyo, Japan. At the consortium, Aulakh and her team presented research on “Environmental sustainability through a cross-cultural and Indigenous lens.”

You’re the recipient of an International Community Achievement Award. What does this mean to you?
The International Community Achievement Award (ICAA) is prestigious to me. It recognizes international students who are contributing to the university community while maintaining excellent grades.

My video call with my parents turned into a teary-eyed conversation when I told them I was selected as an ICAA recipient. If it wasn’t for the awards and scholarships from UBCO, I could have never imagined studying in such a big institution. ICAA came at a time when my younger brother was starting his first year at UBCO but my family was struggling to afford both of our tuitions. ICAA gave me hope that we both could make UBCO our home and that it valued me and my hard work.

What’s the best advice you have for new undergraduate students?
Take vastly different courses in your first year, like history and computer science, or creative writing and math. These diverse courses can help you realize what you really want; even if you think you want to be a computer science major, you never know. There could be an artist hidden inside you.

Why is it important to get involved on campus?
It’s important to devote time to courses, but also join clubs, do extracurriculars, attend university events and just generally be part of the UBCO community. Each of these activities will give you life skills and memories to cherish. Getting involved on campus helps you meet people who have similar interests and offers you different support chains.

What are some challenges you’ve faced so far in your academic career?
The biggest challenge I’ve faced in my academic career is discovering what I really want to do. Even though I believe I know my purpose in life, figuring out how to achieve that purpose has led to a lot of thinking. This challenge, however, has taught me that it’s okay if you don’t have everything figured out right away—the journey teaches you a lot. Another challenge has been managing an adult life all alone, thousands of kilometres away from my family. Nostalgia, longing, sickness and feeling overwhelmed due to work have been a real struggle.

What do you think makes UBCO great?
I think the most valuable thing that UBCO has given me is a sense of belonging and home. I’ve found my community here and I’ve been welcomed and accepted; I have my own voice and feel heard. My hard work has always been valued and appreciated, whether it is through academics, extracurriculars or my jobs at UBCO. The warmth that UBCO provides makes it more than just an educational institution; it makes it home.

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