I Don’t Think You Get It: Squid Game Loses Meaning on its non-Korean Audience

Joshua Tae, Staffer

Netflix’s hit show “Squid Game” quickly grew into an internet sensation, becoming Netflix’s biggest original series launch in history. But as a Korean drama, with its original audio being in Korean, did it somehow lose its “Korean-ness”? 

Let’s start with the subtitles. Though it’s unfair to say every single person in the United States speaks English, let alone those with a Netflix subscription, there are only around 1 million Korean speakers in the country as of 2019. According to Duolingo, the number of Korean learners has increased by 40 percent. As a Korean-American, this warms my heart, even though I don’t know the language myself. But, as a child of Korean-American parents that have seen every single episode, I’ve been assured that many of the subtitles have been a miss. Although I’ve been the reason that the subtitles were needed (sorry Mom and Dad), many of the meanings have been lost in translation. An example being the lack of “형”, or hyeong, meaning “older brother” being replaced with a simple name removes the connection that’s grown between Sangwoo and Ali, therefore changing the dynamic. Part of Korean culture is having people become your family through words. We have names for uncle, aunt and older ‘brothers and sisters’ that we look up to. Whether it’s because word for word translations simply don’t exist, or it’s because the translators simply didn’t do it right, I think it’s fair to say that Netflix, one of the world’s leading entertainment services, can do better than a simple Google Translate.

“Squid Game’s” fame occurred pretty exponentially– slowly growing by word of mouth and becoming an internet sensation. It is a dystopian series that resembles “The Hunger Games,” where one would win and the rest would die trying, but with childhood games and a cash prize. So, did “Squid Game’s” “asian-ness” have anything to do with its success or did the show’s fame simply bring in the ratings itself? When I first heard that “Squid Game” was growing as much as it did, I was shocked. Growing up, Korean dramas were shows that I would watch with my grandparents due to the exaggerated drama and facial expressions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited that Asians are finally getting recognized in the media. Following the Oscar-winning movie “Parasite” that Donald Trump so publicly hated and the unprecedented success of Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”, did anyone stop to think about why? 

I think people have been loving something that’s different. It’s as simple as that. As an Asian-American, growing up I was always scared of being perceived as different from my peers. I didn’t have the same hair color, the same eye shape and definitely not the same lunches. And somehow, this fear of differences is still prevalent today. With the rise of Anti-Asian hate crimes this past year, I can’t help but wonder why so many people have grown to love forms of Asian media, yet the hate and stigma still exist. So I pose this question to all of you: Do you care enough about the Asian-Americans around you to love us just as much as you love our food, our music, and our culture?