K-Love, Korean-Style

[안녕, 친구! … Your first lesson in Korean, actually called Hangul 한글, is Hello, Friend! or Annyeong, Chingu!]

The Fascination of K-Dramas & K-Pop – reaching beyond Americanism

If you ask me if I have seen the latest episode of such-and-such, my answer is likely no – unless you are asking me about a K-drama (Korean drama). Then the answer is probably 네 (yes, in Hangul).

I quit watching American television and movies in 2008 when the remake of Knight Rider premiered. The opening scene of the show faded from black to a pair of women’s feet under the covers at the foot of the bed then panned right to a pair of men’s feet under the covers… and then panned yet again to a third set of feet… and during prime-time no less. That was it. I was tired of Hollywood pushing their social views in my face, so I searched alternative shows – something clean – a new culture.

In most K-dramas, you won’t see more skin than you’d see on a daytime soap in the U.S. Physical contact in Korean culture – skinship – is a big deal in the country, so when a male and female make physical contact on a show, either accidentally or on purpose, the plot will advance. It may be a brush of a hand against another hand, a slip & catch, accidentally sharing a straw, or even a piggyback ride (you’ll find this in almost all K-dramas, even with the elderly!).

However, Korean males have a very strong brotherhood and don’t have problems hugging each other, sleeping in the same beds, lending an arm-pillow to their dongsaeng (동생), primping each other’s hair – even going to a public bathhouse and scrubbing each other’s backs. It’s really as simple as that – but it’s unfamiliar to Americans who often add hidden undertones to the gestures. There is a dominant hierarchy in the Korean culture. The guys believe themselves to be brothers to each other, either a generation apart or several centuries removed. You will hear them call each other “hyung” (형 in Hangul), sometimes even “brother” or “bro.”

One common K-drama theatrical device that newcomers to K-dramas have difficulty accepting is the always-included “wrist grab” – a male grabs the wrist of the female love-interest and drags her away from a situation.

The double-dog-dare-ya wrist grab from “Heirs” – Kim Woo Bin, Park Shin Hye, Lee Min Ho

Korean culture has been in existence long before America was founded. And when you are learning about a new culture, you’ll often find behaviors you don’t fully understand: bowing to one another, subservient kneeling, being responsible for a family member’s debt, not making eye contact with someone “above” you, the hierarchy in groups, to name a few. So here’s where I challenge you for a moment to learn the beauty of another culture and their history while suspending your personal beliefs.

Based on some shows I’d previously watched, Hulu recommended a Korean drama called Pasta. I thought, “Yippee. Subtitles. Well, I can get sleepy reading this stuff.” I started watching the first episode, and I have to confess, I did fall asleep. But something caught my attention and made me want to go back for more.

The show is about a chef and his staff, and they were cooking Italian food. Hmmm, maybe I could learn something about cooking. It took me a bit of time to get through the entire 16 episodes (each about an hour long, typical of K-dramas that have a definite beginning and an end, unlike a soap opera), and I really enjoyed an actual plot line and character development over the gratuitous shock value that television here in the States is obsessed with providing.

From a Western perspective, watching K-dramas does require some cultural understanding. After over a decade of watching hundreds of K-dramas, it’s still awkward for me as an educated, employed American female to see arranged marriages, how women are treated in the workplace, suicide depicted as a plot-line when the country has the 10th highest suicide rate in the world, and the ease at which someone will slap or pour a glass of water on another person, just to name a few.

But, the other side of the coin is how thankful Americans should be of our own freedoms and protections. It also reinforces the significance of our country to the rest of the world, and it is likely why “Miguk” (America in Hangul, 미국) is mentioned in almost all K-dramas as a destination for someone.

Finally, the Korean shows have wonderful stories, great characters, beautiful relationships, captivating OSTs (original soundtracks) and resolve in a nice, tight bow. [Sidebar: if Gummy, 거미, is singing the soundtrack, this storyline is gonna be a heartbreaker – afterall, she IS the “OST Queen”!]

Once I was done with Pasta, I was eventually led to Iris where the ruthless assassin Vic was portrayed by Choi Seung Hyun (aka T.O.P., the rapper from the mega-group Big Bang). TOP’s acting style and strong features intrigued me so much that I had to research more about this Big Bang, and that led me to discover his bandmate G-Dragon and his music. It was like an avalanche… G-Dragon and Big Bang, then quadruple-threat Rain (Bi), then OSTs (original soundtracks) from all the K-dramas that will hook you and make you sing or hum them at night, in your sleep, in the shower… aahhhhh… addictive.

And thus began my passion for K-dramas and K-pop.

When I discovered Korean music, I downloaded dozens of songs and listened to them on my 45-minute commute to work. The tunes and language were so catchy that I decided to start learning Korean so I could understand the dramas and music better as well as sing it in the car. I certainly didn’t want to offend someone by mispronouncing something or singing gibberish.

I love to learn foreign languages – they are like a puzzle. From high school through college, I had taken six years of French, two years of Spanish, a year of German, two years of American Sign Language, but the Korean language was a bit of a challenge for me, mostly because there are formal, historical, and casual versions. Plus, the vowels and consonants are similar to English, but also… not. For instance, the Korean letter that is similar to the English “m” is called mieum (written as ㅁ) and can sound like an “m” or a “b” – think of saying “mom” with a stuffy nose. So, recognizing “mianaeho” (sorry) and the casual version “bian” took a little time to comprehend, but I soon started being able to understand key phrases. Ok, so I digress…

If you want to discover another world of fantasies, old history, new cultures, dramas, comedy, and other entertaining videos, you can watch subtitled Korean dramas on Viki as well as a slew of other providers. But where do you begin? Read my post on Top 10 K-Drama to Watch for Newcomers.

If you want to explore different kinds of Korean music and try a few well-known artists, read my Top 3 Idols/Groups post.