I didn't plan to be a black woman into Korean entertainment. It started about six months ago on a bleak, snowy winter day: I googled something like "What to binge watch Netflix." I ended up on a list on Refinery 29 that had both Homeland and something called Boys Over Flowers on it. Homeland seemed depressing and stressful; Boys Over Flowers was described as the Korean Gossip Girl. I chose the latter.
I love teen dramas—from Buffy to Vampire Diaries to Skins and Misfits—and I'd seen a lot of the original Gossip Girl, so I figured I had nothing to lose. In fact, I gained a whole new obsession. It was the beginning of a deep dive into K-dramas—which are simply massive in Asia and gaining momentum worldwide; one series has been streamed more than 2.5 billion times— and subsequently a flirtation with K-pop, which recently culminated in attending the first-ever East Coast KCON this summer. Along the way, I've discovered that 3 years after Psy's global megahit "Gangnam Style"—YouTube's most watched video, with 2 billion plays—Korean entertainment is blowing up. And black women into Korean entertainment is A Thing.
Boys over Flowers is a rather silly series, though it does offer some social commentary: A hard-working lower-class girl saves the life of a rich boy and is granted a scholarship to an upper-crust prep school, where she encounters the wrath of—and eventually earns the loving admiration of—a slick clique of arrogant, high-cheekboned, wealthy young men. (For more info, and suggestions of other shows to watch, click here.)
The series has one season, so compared to multi-season American TV shows I'd been sucked into in the past, the 25 episodes went quickly. In the beginning, it was just a light-hearted way to curl up and spend a freezing night, using the screen as a portal to a completely different world. By the end, I was solidly emotionally invested: No wonder Ji Hoo is always playing his violin alone in the sunlight-dappled forest—he's completely neglected, his parents are dead, and he's too young to be living alone! And can we talk about poor Yi Jeong, whose father is a lech? Also, when Gu Jun Pyo punched and kicked that dude for disrespecting JanDi, my heart pounded.
After BOF, I watched The Heirs, another high school drama starring the same actor (Lee Min Ho) with a similar set up (poor, decent girl and pompous rich boy fall for each other against the setting of a stuffy, elite prep school).
Then I watched two gender-bending shows in which a girl poses as a boy, Twelfth Night-style (Coffee Prince and You Are Beautiful), one with an accidental one night stand (Fated To Love You) and one in which the female lead is a badass stunt woman (Secret Garden). Then came Mary Stayed Out All Night, Heart to Heart, and the gorgeous, funny, record-breaking hit My Love From Another Star.
They were all love stories, with strong, feministy women and broodingly romantic men, beautifully told, with tragic twists and dramatic turns, and comedic elements. Engrossing, delightful, blithely misandrist (a recurring theme is "men are the worst") and completely addictive. They were basically rom-coms. Sixteen- to twenty-hour rom-coms.
By the way, if you love rom-coms and are wondering where all the good rom-coms are, they're in Korea.
Each episode is a roller-coaster of emotions. Each episode ends mid-scene—often mid-conversation—in an epic cliff-hanger. The characters are multi-faceted, with plenty of issues; they're orphans, or working to help an in-debt father, or have claustrophobia, or anthrophobia.
Unrequited love abounds, pasts are full of secrets, families obfuscate truths, hearts are broken over and over, one person hesitates and misses the chance to confess his feelings, which changes everything. Every moment has the potential to be the highest high or the lowest low (see: How to tell if you're in a Korean drama).
Anytime anyone gets into a car, you're on edge: He just might crash and wind up hospitalized with a specific kind of amnesia in which he remembers everyone except his one true love.
I watched another, and another.
I couldn't stop.
And more importantly, I didn't want to.
As I watched these shows, I was posting hilarious/notable/melodramatic mini-clips from them on Instagram and Twitter—some of the scenes were too good not to share.
My Instagram posts prompted my friend Amina, who hosts a podcast titled Call Your Girlfriend and lives in San Francisco, to text me and reveal that she, too, was into K-drama. We'd known each other for a while, but I didn't even realize that, like me, she was black woman into Korean entertainment! Soon she was making suggestions for shows to watch, and we were swapping gifs and pics. One such long-distance discussion led me to a beauty counter at Bloomingdale's, where I dropped a not-insignificant amount of cash on an enzyme-based face serum from Korea, in an attempt to get that drama star glow.
But I started to wonder WHY? Of all the things we could be currently obsessed with, why this?
To be sure, the K-drama draw is the same for me as it is for those who consume tabloid mags and reality TV: Getting absorbed by someone else's problems makes you forget your own. And there's a bit of Cinderella-style fantasy at work; the men are all rich, stunningly handsome and just-troubled-enough to make them interesting. The women are fairly cute, generally smart, and always hard-working, determined souls who deserve much better than they're getting out of life. In other words: You. It's easy to put yourself in their position, to watch them dress down an arrogant rich dude and watch his face change from anger to admiration, and imagine that it's you, you who became not just another faceless pleb but someone special.
In addition, K-dramas have expertly-crafted narrative structures. Since there are a limited number of episodes, you're watching knowing that a resolution must be imminent—despite the fact that the characters have been put in a position that will seemingly never lead to a satisfying conclusion. The plot moves like a train hurtling down a track, and the writers go about twisting and turning and breaking the track, leaving viewers on the edge of their seats: how will they arrive at the destination?
You know it's a rom-com, you know there will be a happy ending, but everything's in peril, everyone's in danger, no one is speaking to each other, and you're left biting your nails. Watching the story fall apart and reassemble itself is a pleasure.
Pleasure is key. A huge part of it. Since I cover entertainment for a living, watching American TV has become a kind of homework or classroom group project. I seldom just watch a show. I live-tweet, read other tweets, peruse opinion pieces, critiques, and take downs—and sometimes even hate-watch. With popular shows like Game Of Thrones or Scandal, people—friends, family, Facebook acquaintances, TV critics, folks I follow on Twitter, randos on the subway—are constantly dissecting the plot, opining about characters, and weighing in.
No one is ever talking about Mary Stayed Out All Night on the subway. It's my thing.
It's important to note that since Korean is a language I don't understand, I have to put my phone down in order to read the subtitles. Which means that I actually focus and enjoy.
That's not my usual way of watching TV. It feels special. Call it self-care, call it indulgence, call it self-soothing. K-drama has become that mind-quieting private pleasure I turn to during snowy weekends (or nowadays, restless, dead-TV-zone summer nights).
And look, to be honest: There's a little bit of a burden in being a black woman who watches American TV shows. I'm always on black alert! If the cast isn't diverse enough, I'm wondering where the black people are. If there's a black character with a love interest, I get upset if the love interest is black (are you saying black people have to date their own?) and I get upset if the love interest is white (why is he dating a blonde, are you saying black women aren't good enough?). If the black person does something wrong—steals or lies—I feel like it's an indictment of the entire race; if she does something good—saves a life, launches a business—I start thinking about Magical Negro tropes. It's exhausting. K-dramas disrupt this thinking, break me out of the binary, and set me free to just savor and revel in it.
K-drama led me to K-pop when I found out that one of the androgynously attractive pillow-lipped actors who played a wealthy, mopey teen in Boys Over Flowers had a music career. One thing led to another, and soon I was learning about BigBang, TeenTop, Girls Generation, Vixx, Got7 and Super Junior.
With K-pop it's all about the vivid videos. Incredibly high production value. Precise, hyperkinetic dance moves (the guys are 100 times more in sync than *NSync ever was) flavored with Michael Jackson and American hip-hop. Candy-colored hair, men in makeup, lurid wardrobe choices. Some of it's brightly optimistic; some of it's slightly emo, some of it is pretty familiar (see: Taeyang's clip in which the singer basically channels D'Angelo). All of it is mesmerizing. Hypnotizing. Cinematic. Three minutes of eye candy. And again, wildly popular: 51 million—wait, no, 165 million views—can't be wrong.
Obviously I had to attend KCON, held in Newark on August 8. I saw incredibly stylish fans of many different races, and there was definitely a strong black girl contingent. One panel, about Korean hip-hop, was moderated by Salima Koroma, editor-in-Chief for a K-pop website called The One Shots. She's black, and a K-pop fan.
Then, waiting on a line at KCON to get inside the concert venue, I met two more black women, one of whom, 20-year-old Paige Morris, a student at Brown, informed me that she would be writing a paper on black K-pop fans.
Paige's interest in K-pop hasn't always been easy. At college, she found others like her; she said it feels "like a secret society."
That's the essence of the exchanges I have with my friend Amina—we've been texting and tweeting back and forth about K-dramas, talking about the characters and plot points, and it feels like a language only we can understand. I called her and asked if she'd ever thought about why she loves K-dramas, and what it "means" to be a black woman into Korean entertainment.
Part of the appeal is that these shows are from a distant land, she said: "You get to travel and explore a different culture from the comfort of your couch. I’m sorry, you can’t beat that." It's true: From the food they eat, to the booze they drink, to how they dress for weddings and funerals, to what kinds of beds they sleep on, to how they view men, women, love and relationships, the characters in my K-dramas have given me a crash-course in Korean culture.
And of course, when talking to Paige and Amina—and in exchanges I witnessed on Tumblr—a lot of the discussion is about how hot the male stars of the K-dramas are. There's no underestimating the intense, irresistible, magnetic pull of chiseled cheekbones.
After I posted snaps from KCON on Instagram, yet another black friend came out to me as a black K-pop fan. Then I spoke to another fan I got connected to through Black Girl Nerds. Next someone suggested I talk to black YouTube comedian Miles Jai, whose 2014 video about being a K-pop fan has over 168,000 views.
Apparently black K-pop fans are everywhere.
Despite the K-entertainment lovefest, everyone I spoke to had one big issue with K-Pop: the racism. This blog post titled "Kpop’s Top 10 Racist Moments of 2013" lays out some examples; there are gold grills, afro wigs, cornrows, gangster-style bandanas, and actual blackface.
G-Dragon of BigBang is a repeat offender, and a couple of people I spoke with also mentioned CL, a Korean singer/rapper who is making moves in the U.S. right now. She's got a single with Diplo and stars on the September cover of Paper magazine, and, from time to time, dresses in the accoutrements of a SoCal gangbanger.
But when chatting with other black fans of K-pop and K-drama, the overwhelming vibe—which was tangible in the atmosphere at KCON—was one of positivity. Videos are full of smiles, bright colors, gleeful swagger, experimentation and joie de vivre. Dramas are heartbreakingly romantic, have silly moments, and the thrill of watching a poor girl holding hands with a brooding, well-coiffed conglomerate heir is heightened by the fact that it's shot in slow motion from three different camera angles. It's all just fun. All the people I spoke to about Korean entertainment gushed with a glowing, blushing pride, as though they were speaking of a secret crush.
So now it's six months later. I've successfully decided on the best looks from BigBang videos, watched the mind-boggling fancy footwork in TeenTop dance rehearsals, and picked a favorite K-pop star (Taeyang) whose face now hangs around my neck on a pendant purchased at KCON.
While I didn't set out to be a black woman into Korean entertainment, I'm thrilled to have discovered K-dramas and K-pop. They've taken me on an informative, entertaining and exciting escape, a thoroughly satisfying journey… albeit one taken lying down, eyes glued to a screen.
Want to see what all the fuss is about? Wondering what shows to watch? Here's everything you need to know.