[note: originally written in the spring of 2016 so some references may seem a bit old ><]
A Chromatic Progression (or: an essay on how Tony discovered KPOP and became comfortable with being Asian)
It’s happened a few times this past year: it begins as a murmur, slowly drawing my attention away from the pouncing red pandas on my phone. A familiar melody, a foreign voice. Still skeptical, I reach for the remote and increase the volume. On TV, disembodied hands dance across a Microsoft Surface, circling and spinning through apps and word processors, while a narrator touts the tablet’s capabilities. Despite their acrobatics, my focus is on the subdued synthesizer licks and foreign lyrics in the background. The commercial’s narrator eventually pauses long enough for me to hear a female vocalist boldly proclaim “내가 제일 잘 나가” ('naega jeil jal naga')(Korean for “I am the best”). Although it’s only a few seconds, I am still surprised and amazed to hear 2NE1, a Korean girl group, rapping in Korean,
on a commercial created by a large American corporation for an English-speaking audience.
Thanks to the internet and sites like YouTube, more and more Americans (especially young Americans) have started listening to Korean pop music or KPOP. The Surface commercial is just one of many examples of KPOP “popping up” in American mainstream media. KPOP performers have been featured on shows like Late Night with David Letterman, Today,
. As a Korean adoptee (KAD) who grew up in a predominantly white Missouri suburb, KPOP’s recent American popularity is somewhat bittersweet. I found KPOP not through a viral video or an eight minute newsbyte but in my search for identity--a search that began where most major life affirming (or destroying) events do, high school.
For some, high school was a time of adoration and praise; where good looks and athletic prowess netted you a seat on homecoming court, the cheers and envy of a student-packed gym and the leniency of school administrators. For others like myself, high school was just four more years of struggling to go unnoticed; where differences in appearance, mannerisms or achievements could lead to rumors and taunts from small-minded bullies. Social survival was less about building one’s own identity and more about acquiring or hiding behind fragments of others’.
Like any other high schooler, I wanted nothing more than to “fit in.” My carefully crafted public image was a reflection of the various trends throughout the halls of my high school--a veritable kaleidoscope of Airwalks, Doc Martens, Eddie Bauer bookbags, shell chokers and Old Navy tech vests. I hung out with class clowns, honor rollers, band geeks and athletes. Yet, no matter how vigilant I was in my vestments or purposeful I was in my politicking, I felt like I was always holding my breath, waiting for one of those moments. Those moments that shake your personal foundation (or delusion) and remind you that no matter how well you think you are fitting in, you will never succeed in truly blending in
While I was certainly no stranger to being mocked by pulled eyelids and exaggerated accents, not every delusion-shattering moment was so malicious. Many were seemingly innocent and might, in most white circles, likely be written off as a harmless faux pas--like my friend’s grandfather who wished me “おはよう” ('ohayō') (Japanese for “Good Morning”) at their evening
neighborhood BBQ, or like the woman who interrupted my dinner because she assumed I worked at the Chinese restaurant, despite my very casual attire. Even some of my friends have made the occasional ethnic joke assumedly in jest. To cope with it all, I did what hundreds of other teenage KADs have done (and continue to do) when entrenched in a predominantly white community: I downplayed (and purposely avoided) my “Asianness”, laughed off the stereotypes, and ignored the racial taunts. Still, whatever their nature or intent, deep down, these moments were blunt reminders that no matter how well
I spoke English, what food I ate or what hobbies I enjoyed, I was still the Asian outsider in a white community.
My love for KPOP was anything but sudden. Indeed, I wasn’t even a big fan of American pop music or hip hop at the time. The CD sleeve in my car was filled with the likes of Rush, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Guns N’ Roses, The Clash, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Incubus, Pearl Jam, etc. Although this may seem insignificant given today’s blurring of music genres and other social changes, “back in my day” (or at least at my high school) peer groups were practically built upon what you listened to. Marilyn Manson, White Zombie, Dave Matthews, Kiss, and Eminem each seemed to have their collective followings. Given how intertwined identity and musical tastes were then, it would take a series of steps for me to even discover KPOP.
It began sometime during my sophomore year in high school. Japanese anime was slowly finding its niche in the midwest, and as a someone who grew up with Voltron
in the mid 80s, it was familiar enough that many of the shows didn’t seem all that foreign. Unfortunately, as a high schooler, the terrible voice acting was much more apparent. After tracking down subtitled works to replace some terrible dubs, I quickly noticed the stark contrast between the US and Japanese theme songs. Unlike the U.S. versions which were performed by studio musicians with English lyrics forcefully wedged into the music, the Japanese versions were often written and performed by established musical groups, like L’Arc~en~ciel and X-Japan. Despite my inability to understand a single lyric, Japanese rock, or JRock, felt strangely familiar. The chosen vocalists and electric guitar riffs were reminiscent of many big 70s and 80s rock groups and hinted at JRock’s early classic American and British rock influences. Although JRock was my first foray into modern Asian music, it was at least reassuringly relatable.
Not too long afterward, broadband internet and certain music sharing software were made available to the masses. Almost anything could be found and downloaded in minutes. One day, after having searched for new L’Arc songs in vain, I tried searching for “Korean rock” hoping I would find something similar. As some readers may have guessed, this yielded few, if any, results. However, instead of ending my search there, I began researching modern Korean music. I quickly learned that I had been hunting in the wrong genre entirely. Popular modern Korean music was more hip hop and pop than rock. After adjusting my search, I found that groups like H.O.T., FinKl, G.O.D., 1TYM and S.E.S. were dominating the Korean airwaves.
Perhaps it was just the result of frustration from failed searches or maybe it was simply curiosity, but up to that point, I would never have considered looking for Korean groups, let alone hip hop groups. I was very comfortable in the color blind identity my peer groups provided. We were all about classic rock (some going on to form a KISS cover band in later years) and alternative rock. I doubt any of my friends, at the time, would have had any interest in listening to some Korean boyband rap in a language they couldn’t understand. I wasn’t even sure why I was listening to it. For the longest time, I had wished for others to see that I was “just like them” in their interests and tastes and to ignore what I happened to look like. Still, there was something about the music that resonated with me. While I had always enjoyed JRock for its musical familiarity, KPOP offered something else entirely. I had taken Taekwondo as a kid but, if anything, that was just another Asian activity I wanted to avoid. KPOP was the first time I thought of Korea in a modern sense, and it filled me with a small sense of pride. Groups like 1TYM and G.O.D. helped me appreciate that despite what stereotypes I had been fed by the American media, Asians (and Asian males in particular) could be considered “cool” and could draw the adulation of thousands of fans. Whatsmore one of the members of H.O.T., the first Korean pop group to ever sell one million albums, happened to be named Tony. It wasn’t long before my growing collection of KPOP CDS became my go-to driving solo music, and while I wasn’t quite ready to wave the Asian or Korean banner just yet, I was becoming more comfortable with the fact that I was Asian/Korean.
In the years that followed, I gradually discarded those fragments I once held so tightly for social survival. Instead of trying to blend in amongst the white student majority in college, I joined my school’s Asian-American group (albeit in my sophomore year). Instead of avoiding any and all Asian activities, I volunteered at the Asian Affairs center as a mentor for Korean national students and learned more about Korean culture. And instead of trying to ignore or forget who I was or where I came from, I took a break from my pre-med summer curriculum to study abroad in Seoul. With each step, I became more comfortable with the fact that I was, and am, Korean. Steps that may not have been possible but for my introduction to KPOP. I didn’t have to hide behind assumed personalities and interests trying to be someone I wasn’t. It never worked and would never work anyway. Those
moments--those reminders--that I’m a minority in a white majority are never far off. The difference today is that no worlds are shattered. No fragments need to be reexamined or pieced back together. I may not be who or what I longed to be when I was a young kid, but I am confident in who I am and what
I have become. It’s as CL says, “내가 제일 잘 나가.”