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From 'bad Korean' to 'shifting Korean': Cooking show contestants navigate complex terrains

June 1, 2016

Reality cooking and travel shows highlight the limitations of Asian stock characters, a recent study by an Indiana University researcher finds. Korean American contestants on reality cooking shows are active cultural producers, not passive consumers of both Korean and American culture.

chi-hoon kim

After following “Top Chef” as a fan since its launch in 2006, Chi-Hoon Kim noticed the lack of Asian Americans on the show. She collaborated with Timothy August, professor in the Department of Cultural Analysis and Theory at Stony Brook University, who had previously researched the portrayal of Vietnamese Americans on season three of “Top Chef.” | PHOTO COURTESY OF CHI-HOON KIM

Rather than relying on stereotypes, Korean Americans featured on two shows take on iconoclastic portrayals of either a “bad Korean,” a male in his late 30s who exudes an edgy, bad-boy vibe within the Korean cultural context; or a “shifting Korean,” the female counterpart based on Beverly Kim’s character on “Top Chef.” The “shifting Korean” uses racial stereotypes to her advantage to advance in cooking competitions.

The adoption of these gendered tropes creates a new space for diversified Korean American televisual images, according to the study co-authored by Chi-Hoon Kim, a Ph.D. candidate in food studies in the IU Bloomington Department of Anthropology.

Published in Television and New Media, "The Turn to ‘Bad Koreans:’ Transforming Televisual Ethnicity," focuses on contestants on season nine of “Top Chef” and the chefs and consumers featured in Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” episode on Los Angeles’ Koreatown.

After following “Top Chef” as a fan since its launch in 2006, Chi-Hoon Kim noticed the lack of Asian Americans on the show. She collaborated with Timothy August, professor in the Department of Cultural Analysis and Theory at Stony Brook University, who had previously researched the portrayal of Vietnamese Americans on season three of “Top Chef.”

“We found that for both of these shows, rather than conforming to Asian stock characters, Korean Americans navigated complex racial terrains to create alternative narratives to explain the Korean American cultural presence in the U.S.,” Kim said. “The introduction of these alternative Korean American televisual images helps to differentiate Korean Americans from other Asian Americans' experiences and expose the limitation of Asian stock characters.”

Korean American "cheftestants" transform and reanimate traditional depictions of Korean Americans on television, the study found. Cast members assume the roles of “bad Korean” or “shifting Korean” and become active cultural producers. In the process, they adopt cultural practices both Korean and American and old and new.

Current portrayals of Korean Americans on food and travel television split along gendered lines. But male counterparts may adopt a “shifting Korean” identity, further diversifying Korean American depictions.

“We recognize that the ‘bad Asian’ is a male-dominated trope, so we are interested in conducting further research on the ‘shifting Korean’ as a persona for both genders,” Kim said. “Since the ‘shifting Korean’ is based on an individual performance on ‘Top Chef,’ we wonder whether this model can expand the ‘bad Asian’ to broaden the possibility for a diverse range of Korean American televisual images.”

These ethnic boundaries and opportunities that Korean Americans navigate on TV point to broader ways Asian cultures are depicted and appropriated in the U.S., Kim argues.

The shifting Korean persona does not reflect an established Korean American character. Characters like the Chicago chef Beverly Kim expose the limitations of a Korean American stereotype or trope, like that of the “bad Korean.” By pointing out these limitations, the “shifting Korean” allows for varied depictions of the Korean American experience.

Going forward, Kim hopes a more rigorous study of Korean American racial politics would help determine the significance of the “shifting Korean” and “bad Korean” in shaping America’s taste for Korean culture.

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