Korean pop culture aka the “Hallyu” has spread and increased exponentially over the past few years, gaining attention not only in South Korea but all over Asia and the world. Given the growth of its popularity, there has also been a growth in the international fanbase of Korean creative art including Kdramas, Kpop, Khiphop and Korean Variety shows. Kpop fans also make up quite a large portion of ‘netizens’ as the internet has become one of the most popular tools for interactions among fans. Kpop fans are drawn into the tide by different things varying from music bands, Korean vloggers, international vloggers based/teaching/visiting Korea, dramas etc. I, for one, having given into the Hallyu just last year, have learned so much from this experience and new culture which I would like to share.
- Clash of the Cultures
The first interesting thing I realised as I watched Kdramas was the fans who often got into arguments about what kind of values were represented by the characters. Many international fans complained about the unrealistic PG13 chemistry between love interests while many Asians insisted that this is what is realistic and culturally acceptable for them. On the other hand, music fans also engaged in arguments about whether or not certain idols (Korean word for celebrities) were too raunchy or sexual in their videos, and whether or not lyrics were too bland or vulgar. Often, we make generalisations, at least based on my interactions, such as “It’s 2016, I can and will wear whatever I want” or “argh, modesty is so old-fashioned” but these conversations (also known as comment section wars) showed me just what different values we have because of our various upbringings and the different societies we’re socialised into. This certainly opens one’s eyes to cultural differences & internal prejudices and teaches a thing or two about assuming that the rest of world has undergone and holds the same cultural consciousness that we have.
2. Clashes of fandoms
In Korea, many music fans on the internet are organised into fandoms. If this sounds childish and foreign – think of the Beyhive (Beyonce’s fandom). Now imagine hundreds of bands that each their own equivalent of a Beyhive, who live on the web and make it a personal mandate to protect and uphold the dignity and image of their idol(s). I learned that fandoms are not always hormone-crazed adolescents who have nothing better to do, but they also consist of people in their 20s and even 30s from all walks of life who simply appreciate, admire and support the hard work and creativity of Korean artists. Being a Kpop star, I realised, is extremely demanding and competitive because there are simply SO many other people who share the same dream and are equally or more talented than the other. On the downside, some people take this too seriously and there can also be a lot of hate among netizens regarding certain stars and they are known antifans. Antifans can terrorise actors and musicians to the point of suicide, assaults, stalking and other obsessive behaviour. Such events have shown me that some people really just take celebrities too seriously and forget that they are human too – a fact which not only Korean fans seem oblivious to. You can read more about this in the article below.
3. We’re more similar than we think
Discovering the similarities among Kpop fans has probably been one of the best things I have learned. I found this out from meeting two other Kpop fans on campus at Stellenbosch University (the last place I would have thought I would find fellow Hallyu fans). The connection is instant, almost like finding fellow survivors in an post-apocalyptic world. There is incessant chatter and babbling about what actors and musicians each have seen and like, which bands, concerts, newest debuting artists, upcoming dramas and tours…etc. until later when the excitement dies down, maybe, they might eventually exchange names and other personal details. One common thread incident which united more international Kpop fans was the fact that while the rest of the world was recovering from Beyonce and Drake’s surprise album drops, the Kpop world was only just entering a frenzy around BTS’s (Bangtan Boys) and the upcoming Monsta X albums. In our everyday lives, we international fans are often isolated from other Kpop fans and have very few people to share our excitement with – so our virtual existence on the web is validating. Seeing the reactions of various fans from around the world, sharing in your excitement is one of the most thrilling experiences.
4. Learning platforms for cultural exchange
The diverse cultural backgrounds of fans has given way for conversations around sensitivity to arise. Many Asian countries do not see too much cultural/racial diversity and as a result, there have been one too many incidents of idols behaving insensitively and being called out on their behaviour. Because Kpop has brought so many different cultures together, what people would have previously regarded as acceptable can now be put in the spotlight, open for debate and learning can take place. The reality is that many Koreans seldom see or even interact with foreigners and international fans do not have many opportunities to interact with Asians, let alone, Koreans. I for one, used to have the “all Asians look the same syndrome” before watching Kdramas and listening to Korean music. Today, however, my ability to identify different singers, rappers and actors has improved so much and I have realised that it all really comes down to exposure. We see Asians as “all the same” because we have very limited exposure to diverse Asian groups and vice versa. A nuber of Asian people have also claimed to truggle to differentiate white people too as shown in the video below.
5. Downside (Appreciation vs Appropriation/Exoticising)
Where there’s a growth in the fascination for a certain foreign culture or aspects of it from the outside, there is always a possibility of insensitivity. Such is the case with K-entertainment. Koreaboos is the term given to”someone obsessed with kpop and a small aspect of Korea to the extent of it becoming viewed as downright creepy” as explained by one blogger. The problem with Koreaboos is s that “most of their knowledge is based on Korean pop culture in the form of k-pop, k-dramas and k-variety; and while these mediums do give a glimpse into the Korean zeitgeist, one must bear in mind that while popular culture reflects the wider issues a society faces, they are not always the best source of information and not to be treated as gospel truths when in fact they are sorely misinformed/skewed”.
At first, I viewed this as xenophobic or possessive complex from Koreans since I had witnessed the kind of attachments people have to their culture, until I recalled similar relatable experiences. In New York, a man said to me in a conversation, “Oh wow, you’re from Africa?! I love Mandela! God Mandela is the best!” and other oblivious perpetrators had said things like, “Wow, Africa? Geez, I loved The Lion King. I haven’t been on a safari though but I would love to” and parted with a “Nice meeting you, man. God bless. Hakuna matada!”Then it made perfect sense. I remembered a particular Buzzfeed video about Indians who hated it when people always mentioned that they absolutely love Shahrukh Khan and chai tea or how much they cried through Slumdog Millionaire. In short, much like with any other culture, there is a very thin line between appreciating a culture and being ignorant and insensitive in how you express this appreciation.