Squid Game is hot. Since the series was released on Netflix in September, it rapidly became one of the platform’s most viewed shows despite being a non-English drama. The impact it has left has been phenomenal. Those who raved about it were not only audiences who speak Korean, the show’s native language, but also those who speak English, the “official language” of the world’s cultural industry (and have shown unprecedented tolerance to subtitles and dubbing due to Squid Game); and even audiences from countries such as China, that are technically out of Netflix’s marketing scope.
Since Squid Game became popular in North America, I have seen countless English articles that talk about the show from either a language or cultural perspective. One of the aspects that I, personally, was irresistibly drawn to was the discussion, or rather, explanations, over the six games played in the story, and other games mentioned by the characters.
To those who haven’t watched the show, Squid Game is a South Korean survival drama series that’s typical for its genre. It’s a story of people seriously in debt or in desperate situations being put into a competition, where they have the chance to win the equivalent of more than $48 million Canadian. Participants are locked up in a camp on an island, and the way to compete is to pass all six of the games, all of which were popular children’s games in Korea late last century. For those who lose, the punishment is death.
Coming from an East Asian background, the traditional games involved in the show felt very nostalgic to me. Most of them were once popular not only in Korea, but also China and Japan. Before TV programs, iPads and Steam took over children’s leisure time, this was how the concept of “childhood” was defined: in the one or two golden hours after school and before dinner, children would gather in the neighborhood community space, team up and play games in the sunset until summoned back by the smell of food that filled the air. It was the childhood of my generation. It was the childhood of my parents’ generation.
This is why the discussions, questions and answers over these childhood games left me with such bittersweet emotions. In an English-dominant time and space, we are used to taking for granted of being the default, and are likely to assume that every child in the world grows up role-playing as American superheroes or British detectives, dressing up as Disney princesses and being scared on Halloween by Victorian ghosts. Little did we know about other cultures, and little did we care about them in such detail as what young children used to play for fun. Even I, coming from East Asia, have never thought about the traditional games in the other two countries, nor have I realized that we share this much in common.
The discussions made me realize that never in the history of North America has so much attention been paid to an Asian culture. This is the attention to not only the surface of “what they eat” or “how they dress,” but aspects in the shaping of a person’s growth and identity: the secretly shared childhood and cultural heritage that explain a nation or a diaspora’s mindset. Once the cultural barriers have been broken and these memories are no longer secrets, the understanding between nations, countries and peoples will strengthen, and that’s how the saying “celebrating diversity” can be realized. We are living in a time when these amazing things can happen.
And I hope in the future we can see more.
Some traditional games in Asia, many of which are not exclusive to one country: