I’ve grown up quite accustomed to racist comments, so I pushed my Korean heritage as far away from me as possible throughout my childhood. As a result, K-pop was never something I wanted to come close to. But with the rising popularity of the genre, overt racism gave way to a more ironic and subtle fetishization. All of a sudden, being Korean was… trendy. Interesting. The contrasting attitudes were certainly confusing; and while K-pop did help me accept my identity, that definitely didn’t stem from all the people suddenly obsessed with my ethnicity.
While I was uncomfortable with myself and the people who saw me as part of an aesthetic instead of a person, I finally decided to give K-pop a go in 2015. I was on a school break and terribly lonely, and I needed something to escape into, whatever it was. So I chose the music closest to me, since so many people I knew enjoyed K-pop, and I was sort of on the fringes of its various fandoms anyways.
In other words: I started becoming a fan in eighth grade, right as I was tumbling into the pinnacle of teenagehood. I hadn’t thought much about me before. I had always felt alone. But K-pop forced me to confront myself and the awkwardness which I had been stumbling through thus far.
While fighting back against my background, I had almost lost my handling of Korean, so I was listening to these songs feeling close and familiar with the words… yet also far away. I had trauma with my mother tongue, but listening to K-pop meant I no longer needed to block out the language, an overwhelming and life-saving experience. From then on, the genre as a whole became life-saving: I was actually hearing the words “you’re doing well” for the first time from such a familiar and close place. I knew I was—and am—just a fan, but I felt… “close” to the singers who kept me alive. I began to have hope. I thought that maybe my future could be hopeful, too, and that I could one day get out from the throes of my painful adolescence.
It definitely didn’t help that I was growing up with complex childhood trauma and other issues that set me apart from those my age as well. Because of this, I needed some sort of release. All my life, I had attempted to escape from my problems. K-pop was just another chapter in my escapism. Still is.
I’ve come pretty far since then. For one, I can actually talk now, which wasn’t something I did often before K-pop got me comfortable in my own skin. Simply put, I found my voice through these idols and groups. Since my journey in being a “stan” has involved translating, analyzing, and ascribing personal meaning to lyrics, I thought that continuing to do that for The Colorization Collective could be a good show of gratitude. So this will be a personal mini-series analyzing K-pop songs written by and sometimes even produced by idols that have kept me going in trying times. While not a complete list, everyone in the coming articles played a unique role in the acceptance of my identity as a traumatized and mentally ill Korean-American just trying to find my way through life via art. Each article will be composed of a different person or group, and parts of their translated lyrics will be analyzed in accordance to the overall theme of the hardships of youth and how, despite them, we aren’t alone and can learn to love ourselves. Included will be Mark Lee from NCT; Han from Stray Kids, as well as 3Racha and the rest of Stray Kids in two separate articles; BTS; and IU.
The journeys of these creators mirror the overall societal pressures that many young South Koreans have to face. Young people are constantly having to grapple for their own self-worth, and in South Korea, there’s a startling prevalence of suicide among students, largely due to an unrelenting educational system and a stifling emphasis on success and beauty. Also, given that K-pop acts as a sort of subtle escapism, it isn’t a stretch to see these artists’ songs as places of refuge when they are uplifting us in such obvious ways and even speaking out on societal issues.
I’ll also be adding articles that talk in length about the cultural appropriation that has been interwoven with K-pop. Since South Korea still has problems with overt racism, unfortunately this means that its music and entertainment industries also face the same issues. While Koreans now are being fetishized more than ever before—though that was an issue even before the globalization of K-pop—it is telling that other cultures and races are also being fetishized within the entertainment and music scenes, namely Black culture… while simultaneously being subjected to discrimination and oppression within South Korean society.
While this may be partly a personal account of how I came to find myself, I hope that this series can be useful as an introduction into the industry for potential new fans—namely anyone who’s in need of some help loving themselves and their identity. Perhaps it can even be helpful in realizing just how much fandoms can act as safe havens for various groups of people, too, since I know that that was exactly what K-pop did for me.
New articles will be posted biweekly. Stay tuned and join me on my journey of growing up and learning to love myself!