Hello, my name is Jade and I am a ’20-‘21 Gilman Alumni Ambassador. I studied abroad at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea in Fall 2019 thanks to the generous Gilman Scholarship.
After returning from Korea, my friends and family had a lot of questions about the country. “Are all Koreans obsessed with K-Pop?” The stereotype was understandable; K-Pop fandom is increasingly rising in the U.S. and there have been crazy stories about obsessed fans who stalked K-Pop stars and sent unwanted gifts. While most of my classmates revealed they chose Korea to indulge in their love for K-Pop, I had never heard of BTS until a smoothie shop aired one of their songs. My Korean boss and co-worker stared at me in shock. “You’ve never heard of BTS? The biggest K-Pop group in the world?” I never experienced die-hard fandom until I met my friends from the University of California Education Abroad Program. One girl awoke at 4 am, rode the bus for two hours, and waited in line with over 50 other fans ahead of her for the 10 am opening of the BTS pop-up store to post on her YouTube channel, which had gained an impressive following of BTS Army fans. At a free concert, I witnessed a platoon of army men keep their composure until MOMOLAND took the stage. As soon as the first note of their hit song “Bboom Bboom” vibrated in their ears, a thunderous boom of tenor frequency manifested an earthquake from twenty pairs of legs rushing to take a seat and admire the pretty singers.
Like American Pop, some people like it, some people love it, and some people hate it. Some of my American friends refuse to listen to the radio. Just as I debunked the myth to my Korean friends that all Americans love country and rap music, I debunked the myth to my American friends that all Koreans love K-Pop music. Their taste in the genre is just as fluid and dynamic as ours.
With bright-lit signs for restaurants, karaoke clubs, bars, arcades, and live music, Korea has a dynamic nightlife. A performance of cover bands, solo artists, dance groups, pianists, artists, and magicians can be found every afternoon and evening in the streets of Hongdae, Sinchon, and Daehangno performing ballads, jazz, rock, R&B, indie– you name it. As the days in my 4-month program passed by and the fall foliage beautifully illuminated Yonsei University’s campus ground, I began to feel homesick. I missed waking up to the crackles of my mother’s famous chilaquiles frying in the morning accompanied by a cacophony of my father’s Motown playlist and my corgi trying to out-bark the neighboring dog.
Then one night, the ache in my heart that longed for home soothed during my walk to my apartment, as I stopped to listen to a cover band’s performance of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White”. The lead singer’s lighthearted dance emulated that of my mother’s, where she’d be the star of any dance floor she entered. During the middle of the song, the lead singer invited musically-inclined audience members to join the band. A man stepped forward and took over the drumkit, keeping the beat as the cool guitarist sporting shades and the congo player from Spain performed their solos. I eyed the electric piano and felt a force propel my feet to walk towards it. Before I knew it, my fingers were dancing away on the keyboard to an improvised solo which earned cheers and applause from the crowd of strangers I stood in just minutes ago. After the song, I vacated my seat for the next musician to showcase their talents.
As I continued my walk home, I thought about how beautifully music connects people around the world. I told my then-girlfriend how my English tutee from North Korea is earning a Master’s degree in music for guitar and how they could one day meet and duet on the guitar together just as I had collaborated with a Korean cover band. One group of people are not homogenous; whether they like K-Pop or not does not indicate who they are as a person. But what love for K-Pop or music, in general, can do is act as a catalyst for friendships that transcend international borders.