Korea Fever

By: Rebecca Frager

Annyeonghaseyo!

About six years ago, I was perusing Netflix for something fun and light to watch when I stumbled upon a romantic comedy series called Pasta – a foreign show with subtitles about a group of Korean chefs working in an Italian restaurant in Korea.  It seemed intriguing.

SeptThus began my journey into the world of Korean television, Korean food, K-pop, Korean literature, Korean language – the word that opened this essay is how Koreans say “hello” to each other –  Hangul (the writing system), Korean markets, Korean skin care, Korean restaurants, and an overall love affair with Korea and its culture.  For the next six years, I have seldom watched American TV except for news programs, “Jeopardy!”, and the occasional series to give my husband a break, since he was now bombarded with Korean TV.  I was hooked on my K-dramas.  I purchased a Roku streaming device and subscribed to a slew of Korean streaming services like DramaFever, Viki, OnDemandKorea, and AsianCrush.

My husband – or Yobo, the Korean word for honey – who rolls his eyes every time he hears K-pop music coming out of the TV (yes, Pandora has a K-pop channel with my favorite artists), thinks I’m a fanatic, or at least mildly obsessed.

It’s true.  I can’t seem to get enough.  As soon as one K-drama ends, I’m on to another.  My watch list is now in the hundreds. There is something about them that I respond to.  The romantic stories are fun, the crime dramas are exciting and violent, and the medical shows are my all-time favorites.   Did you watch the 2017 CBS series “The Good Doctor” with Freddie Highmore?  It was based on a 2013 K-drama by the same name.  Yeah, I had already seen it.

I admit K-dramas are predictable.  For example, there is frequently a Cinderella story where the protagonist is a poor girl who is in love with a rich boy.  The boy eventually falls in love with her but not before being harangued by his mother to marry a rich girl who is a total bitch to the poor girl.  Yep, the typical love triangle thing happens a lot.  There are family secrets, a lot of cross-dressing (usually girls dressing up like boys to hide the fact that they’re girls).  Often, the main character is terminally ill, and there seems to always be an evil stepmother or stepsister, or overbearing father.  All of it is way over the top, but I just can’t get enough.  Why?

And let me mention K-pop.  I clean my house to it.  I work out to it.  I play it at school – I have a group of students who love knowing that I am a K-pop fan.  It really is a thing.  I watch “K-pop Star” – Korea’s version of “American Idol.”  Only you won’t find any slackers or jokers on “K-pop Star.”  I’m on my sixth season, and the participants are all excellent and very serious about their craft.  The judges might seem harsh, but the contestants take all the criticism respectfully with a “thank you” and then deferentially bow to the judges.

My husband wonders why.  My mother wonders why.  My kids think I’m a bit crazy.  My friends act amused.  I wonder myself.  What is it about K-dramas and the Korean culture that has me hooked?

I don’t know if there is a reason, other than I just enjoy it.

I was at a county-wide professional development session the other day, and our keynote speaker was a Korean author, Ellen Oh, who co-founded the We Need Diverse Books movement.  She was amazing, inspirational, and funny.  Even better, she was Korean.  I was mesmerized by her presentation.  I wasn’t the only one – she got a standing ovation at the conclusion.   But, even more important, she kind of answered my question for me.  I need diversity.

I was born in an all-white rural town in southeast Missouri.  We moved to St. Louis when I was 5, and for the first four years of school, I went to all-white schools.  The next few years I went to schools that at least had some semblance of diversity.  Even though St. Louis has a lot of diversity, during my adult years we lived in areas where there were few or no people of color.  Soon after my children were born, we moved to Idaho.  For 15 years, I lived in a region where I rarely saw a person of color.  During my time in Idaho, I would mention to my family that I missed the diversity.  It didn’t seem like I was living in the real world.  Everything was so vanilla.   Once when the children were elementary school age, we went back to St. Louis and took them to Six Flags.  I had to stop them from staring at people of color.  Seriously, they had barely seen a black person in real life.

Anyway, I’m not going to get off on tangents about white privilege and race in this essay – maybe in a later one.  But I do know that part of my Korean obsession stems from my need for having diversity in my life.  That is what makes me passionate about my job as a librarian.   One of my favorite aspects of the job is perusing and ordering diverse literature for my students.  I’m a huge fan of LGBTQ young adult lit, as well as disability lit and multicultural lit.

Students not only need to see themselves in the library, but they also need to see the diverse world.  We all need diversity.  We lead richer lives when we experience different cultures. Whether it is the food we eat, the shows we watch, the books we read, the places we visit, or the languages we learn, our minds become open to new ideas and we become more curious about the world at large – and, in the process, more tolerant of others, more accepting of all humans.

Time to make some Gimbap!

As they say to the judges on “K-pop Star,” gamsahamnida!

 

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