Let’s Go! My favorite K-Pop

The other day I was studying Chinese on YouTube when suddenly I stumbled upon this treat: A group of students paying homage to their favorite tunes and their heritage through a medley dance sketch called The Evolution of K-Pop. It made me smile, not only because I recognized a fair number of songs but also because it was great to see students enjoying themselves so freely.

It got me thinking – what were some of my old favorites across the past 15 years? (I wasn’t listening back in the mid 90s, alas. That was my Alanis Morissette phase). And with that, I went down the YouTube rabbit hole. Now I’m taking you with me on this whirlwind tour, starting with male artists. (Females will be another post. Otherwise, it will just be way too long and I may be lost to the world . . . if I’m not already!)

First, because we listened to their album Pieces over the weekend (in a nod to their upcoming L.A. concert, which we want to attend but probably won’t on account of the ticket prices just before China), let’s start with Epik High. For people who are only familiar with sugary girl bands or Gangnam Style, the grittiness and even darkness of this band may come as a surprise. Personally, I love their sound. It is infectious, but not in a saccharine way. It has a “Don’t mess with me” attitude combined with depth and contemplativeness (in certain songs, anyway) that just gets into my soul. One of their classic songs is One (below).

For something glossier (entertainingly superficial!) and packed with synchronized choreography, I turn to Super Junior. They try to be edgy but they’re just so pretty and stylish. This is still one of my go-to favorites when I need a little bounce in my day.

One of my top faves will always be Jang Woo Huyk – but sadly I can’t find any good videos besides concerts (which give you a good feel for how much the fans love him, but can be a little harder to watch for the first-time observer). Still, give it a try. You might notice the heavy influence of early 2000s hip-hop, before everything got so slick. Why else do I love it?  It seems like he really feels his songs, like he’s not just acting them out or performing them. With just enough grunge to keep it real.

If you’re curious, you can also just play his songs, like Let’s Go and F.A.S.T. Love. And Square Boy. These songs are my old friends, made for evening drives with the windows rolled down. Preferably after some Hae Jang Chon Korean BBQ (when we’re in L.A., anyway . . .) Probably this album, more than any other, provided the soundtrack to our first Koreatown adventures. It was the album that made us go “whoa” and want to hear more, more, more.

And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the King of K-Pop, RAIN. Here’s his hyper-produced It’s Raining (the beginning seems like a movie, so just be patient/skip ahead and you’ll see the actual song). Voted Time’s Most Influential Person in 2011 (for the third year!), he proved what Korean music could really be on the world stage. He is sexy, super smooth, and the definition of Korean cool.

A Softer Side

By now you probably think I only like the rebels. Okay, I kinda do – the music just pumps me up! BUT I also love the sweeter side, like 2AM’s Confession of a Friend. And it’s not just because Jingu (friend) is a Korean word I actually know. (Although I DO like being able to sing along, which is harder in the faster hip-hoppy songs).

And here’s Rain again, with I Do. See why the ladies fall for him? There are honestly so many songs I could post by him, but then this would turn into a Rain post and it’s not supposed to be that. Satisfy yourself with this one for now, and then go on your own online field trip later.

My fondness for Rain aside, I think the title of most romantic Korean crooner goes to Sung Si Kyung. Here he sings the Official Sound Track to one of my most beloved K-dramas, Secret Garden.

And here you can see him singing She (in English). Just let your heart soar. You know you want to.

Incidentally, Sung Si Kyung probably wins for the most times I’ve listened to all of his songs (that I know of) on loop. The reason is that he has an absolutely perfect voice to hear while I’m writing. And as far as I can tell, there are no bad songs.  For some reason, when I listen to him the time flies and my writing is better. So, thank you Sung Si Kyung. 감사합니다! (Gamsahamnida = thank you in Korean).

Silly Sappy Fun

And finally, let’s end with a video that represents the Korean love of silliness and happiness, Balloons by Dongbangshinki/TVXQ. I dare you to watch this music video and not be overwhelmed by the sheer adorableness of it. Something I seriously love about K-Pop is how it just basks in this feeling.

Okay, on that note it is time to stop this tour bus. I have a life to live away from YouTube! I hope this post either rekindled your fandom for some old favorites* or even introduced you to new ones. Of course, these are just the ones I’m thinking of right now, and are in no way a comprehensive or authoritative catalog of the best K-Pop songs. They’re just ones that I really like. And you should, too.

P.S.: If you’d like to keep up with the latest K-Pop (remember, these songs here are some older ones), check out All K-Pop. Personally I find their site a little overwhelming, but on Twitter they post a lot of new videos as they drop.

Happy listening! And stay tuned for Part II – the next time I go down the rabbit hole . . .

*In K-Pop years, ten years ago is like twenty or thirty, so a song from the early 2000s is like a song from the 80s. I’m perpetually behind and my high-school mentees are always laughing at my outdated music references.

Wanted: An Intercultural Perspective

Five years ago when I started my Master’s in Intercultural Relations, I was especially interested in the experiences of multicultural families, primarily because I’m in one but also because it seemed like one of the most complex terrains where intercultural relations take place. However when I talked to different experts in the field (at least those accessible to me) and when I looked for research (mostly online), I couldn’t find very much. I also had a hard time finding other people who cared deeply about the topic, and even felt a little self-conscious that it appeared to be dismissed as an area for study – like, maybe academics thought it was just navel gazing?

Just a few years later, the landscape seems to have completely changed. Far from fruitless scavenger hunts, now I don’t even have to try. Even when I’m not looking for it, the topic seems to crop up everywhere – from hashtag conversations on Twitter to workshops hosted by the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication, and even in articles on major media outlets. For example, just last week there was an eye-catching piece, White parents, becoming a little less white. Personally, I was excited to see an article tackling this topic, and it definitely sparked a lot of responses. Unfortunately, it also showed that many people are more inclined toward knee-jerk reactions than productive dialogue.

Deciphering the Reactions

I know, you’re not supposed to read the comments, but I mention these because they illustrate the automatic responses I often see in discussions about multicultural families. On the one hand, there is the typical criticism that articles like this exacerbate racial differences, while plenty of others (who, we might assume didn’t read the article), lashed out at the headline. Yet beneath the surface we can also see that Americans are very much unresolved not only about the nature and significance of multicultural families, but also how to talk about them. Let’s explore some of the viewpoints.

  • I don’t see race/You’re making things worse by talking about it

On the one hand, we have the crowd that accuses people of making things worse by talking about race. Their view seems to be that if (liberals) would just stop talking about race all the time, it would cease to be an issue. In their minds, race is a thing because we keep making it a thing, and if we don’t want it to matter, then we should stop making it matter. They fancy themselves as the most evolved segment of society, because they don’t see/don’t care about race (and apparently don’t have to deal with the complexities that might come with it). With a dismissive wave, they sweep everything away. It kind of makes me wonder why they waste their time commenting on articles they deem irrelevant, since I don’t do this on every article I find unimportant, but whatever.

  • You’re talking about it wrong/You don’t get it

On the other hand, we have a group of people who think race and identity are very important concerns in today’s society, but who take issue with how they are presented, explored, or framed. In this case, they really don’t like the headline. I get that. It’s not a good one. I’m not sure if it was designed as clickbait, but if so it didn’t seem to work, since much of the outcry on Twitter appears to be from people who didn’t read the article (like the guy who pointed out the supposed fallacy of there being a Chinese guy in the photo. Uhm, that’s the author, dude).

But besides not reading the article, people who reacted to the headline still have a point. They are upset because it seems to promote the idea that skin color is something that white people can shed at will, which of course people of color never can. White people are generally not aware of this, but we really upset a lot of communities by acting like whiteness doesn’t exist, like we don’t have a culture, and like we are a neutral, universal baseline. We also upset people of color by exotifying and appropriating their cultures or using them as props for our own purposes. (See how these two go together? Whites deny that we have a skin tone and culture, and then we try to fill the void by sponging off another race or ethnicity’s culture. No wonder they’re pissed). Unfortunately, the headline hit these raw nerves and it became a barrier to people reading the article for what it was.

Of course there are also people who read it and still didn’t like it. Judging by their posts, the reason seems to be that they didn’t think this was a worthy angle on race and society, or they felt that by focusing on an upper class Chinese and white family, the article offered a very narrow portrayal of multicultural family life. That’s fair. In the first case, in light of ongoing social crises like police brutality, the school to prison pipeline, the shocking number of indigenous women who are raped and murdered, and the criminalization of ethnic studies, a piece on a white woman’s cultural adaptation might have come across as tone-deaf or irrelevant. Like: It must be nice to live such a cushy life where you can focus on things like seeing society from your spouse and children’s perspective. To continue this line of reasoning, does being a less ignorant white woman mean she deserves special praise?

In the second case, people react negatively when they feel like they are left out or left voiceless in an article that is ostensibly about them. People who are mixed in America rightfully have a lot to say about micro aggressions, the constant comments about who they are or where they are from, and the challenges in being accepted and forming a coherent identity in a society that constantly wants to classify them as either-or instead of both-and. To see an article about mixed families focus on a white woman could have made them feel decentered – like even in their own story, their perspective still played second fiddle to the white savior.

So where does this leave us?

I can therefore understand that there are a lot of reasons that people reacted to the headline, although in many cases their reaction seems to be more about them, their own lives, and their own perspectives than it was about the author’s story itself. But once we sort through the reactions, where does that leave us? And does the fact that so many people raged at the headline mean that there was something wrong with the author and his story?

I say that there is not. It was their story – theirs to live, and theirs to share. The fact that it involves a white woman doesn’t negate it, nor does the fact that it is not about every multicultural family everywhere. One article cannot be everything to everybody, and it shouldn’t try. I think it was pretty clear that the author was talking about himself and his experiences in an honest way, and in my view, we need more of that, not less, even when we don’t like or can’t relate to every aspect of what that person says.

I think the fact that I am a white woman in a mixed relationship with an Asian American man (the theme of this blog!) probably has something to do with my ability to relate to this particular piece. I admit that I even feel defensive for them. Having experienced a version of their reality myself, and having struggled to write about it for years lest I be shot down in all of the ways this writer was, I know it is tricky and nigh on impossible to do it in a manner that honors my own experience while also validating everyone else’s and making sure I don’t leave anything out while also advancing the critical conversation while also being brief enough for people to actually read. Rather than criticize this one article for not being a different article, maybe we just need more articles. Surely part of the answer (I’m borrowing from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) is to not limit ourselves to a single story.

I suggest that the New York Times might want to take a cue from NPR, which has done a great job expanding its coverage of race, culture, and identity these past few years, especially through its Code Switch program. It has given more people a space to contribute their own voice and has actively welcomed participation, input, and critique (although not always flawlessly), which has created a more equitable landscape for reporting and response. In this view, the problem is not so much that there was an article by a Chinese American writer describing his white wife’s cultural transformation, but that perhaps only people from particular socioeconomic milieus are afforded the access or invited to contribute articles. Even if this is accidental and unintentional, it is something a leading media organization should strive to redress.

  • An Intercultural Perspective

And yet, beyond the important task of making room for more stories, I think something more is needed: an intercultural perspective. Intercultural relations focuses on the process of creating understanding and meaning as we cross cultures. It is concerned with how individuals navigate difference, build relationships with people who are culturally different, and cultivate empathy to see situations as other people see them, even if (and especially when) we disagree. It is also interested in how people expand their repertoires of communication styles and behaviors as they adapt to new cultural norms. Additionally, it explores how people form third cultures –hybrids of the two (or more) original cultures that are being mixed together. All of this is relevant in any discussion of mixed families – but it is clear this idea of empathy was lost on many readers.

As one commenter on the Times website (named Jay) wrote:

Of [sic] my gosh, now that I have an interracial child I can acknowledge the impact of racism in our society? The amount of white privilege in this article is astounding. That’s like me “acknowledging” the impact of sexism in society only if I have a daughter. Nahh… not feeling it at all.

I’m sorry that Jay isn’t feeling the evolution that the writer’s wife has undergone, but I can relate to it completely. It is in many ways analogous to being an expat – where you leave your home culture and can never really return, or can only return changed by the culture you’ve been living in, which has rubbed off on you and altered your values, thoughts, feelings, expectations, behaviors, assumptions, wants, needs, social interactions, worldview . . . everything. And like moving to a different country, when two people from different cultures form a relationship, they create a third culture, which irrevocably metamorphoses both of them into people who – despite how they appear on the outside – are no longer quite their old selves on the inside.

The only difference is that while the experience of being an expat and repat are seen as fairly benign experiences (tough on those who go through them, but sort of insignificant for broader society), a lot of people have a stake in mixed relationships (which are tied not only to questions of identity and belonging but also to power, history, justice, and politics). Accordingly, a lot of people therefore have opinions about mixed relationships – but unfortunately, just because this topic is gaining public interest doesn’t mean the public is adequately prepared for the demands of these conversations. Woe to the author for not having the right vocabulary, and to the Times’ editorial staff for not guiding him better, as it created (somewhat of) a missed opportunity. Yet this piece also presents a learning moment.

As an interculturalist, I think the response to the article points to an ever-growing need for professional facilitators, trained not only in diversity, anti-racism, and critical theory but also in intercultural relations. Intercultural leaders can frame the conversation, offer research, provide much-needed vocabulary and clarification, and serve as referees, teachers, and healers in the contentious, confusing, and extremely complex topic of mixed relationships. Experts in our field are well-positioned to be at the helm – we just need to continue to find our own voices and engage in more creative, visible, and impactful ways. We also need to continually nudge the field to take a more participatory role in social issues – not to be divisive, but to be illuminative, and to make space for uncomfortable but urgently necessary discourse. After all, what is the point of all our knowledge if we don’t share it and apply it to make the world a better place?

Let’s keep going! And in the meantime, keep telling your mixed stories.

K Time!

Something wonderful has happened: We’re watching another K-drama (finally catching up on The First Shop of Coffee Prince!). If you haven’t watched any yet, you probably can’t understand why this is wonderful. But trust me, it is. Even when we’re an abysmal 8 years behind.

I watch them on multiple levels. First, they are entertaining. They’d have to be or I wouldn’t bother (although admittedly, they do usually take a few episodes to hook me). They are also a great way to learn more about Korean culture, and they offer me a closeness to Korea that is otherwise hard to come by in Phoenix. On a personal level, they quench my thirst and depict the Korean part of our reality that I (understandably) never see in US media. They make me laugh, they make me cry, they help me learn, they make me want to go back, and they make me feel at home.

But what about you? What could you get from watching Korean dramas?

  1. Participate in a global phenomenon. Seriously, how have you not seen one yet? They are on Netflix! Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, is major force shaping popular culture across Asia, the Middle East, and South America, with inroads in Europe as well. Countries that formerly looked to the US to define trends in fashion, youth culture, media, music, dance, and even commerce are now looking to South Korea. Aren’t you a little curious?
  2. Expand Your Horizons. Let’s face it, most of our stories follow formulas. That’s not a bad thing – to be fair, Hollywood follows formulas because they work. You don’t want to watch a show that’s just a big mess. However, it can be refreshing to watch shows that follow a completely different formula. By watching K-dramas, you can see shows with new (to you) tropes, archetypes, pacing, plot devices, and morals of the story.
  3. See Korea.Plane tickets are pricey, so why not see Seoul from your couch by watching a K-drama? Most feature the mainstays of Korean life across a range of social levels. You will go from (probably) not having the slightest clue what modern Korea looks like to being able to identify Cheonggyecheon, basically for free.
  4. Encounter Korean Culture. True, you want to be careful about not reading into shows too much. (To use a U.S. example, clearly not all Americans’ lives are like House of Cards or Duck Dynasty). The key is not to think you are seeing reality, but to mindfully and critically ask yourself what it is you are seeing.

Consider questions like these: How is life portrayed? What social issues are explored (or left out)? Who is given a voice and who is left voiceless? What tensions shape the characters’ lives? What ideas about gender roles, age, sexuality, ability, profession, family life, etc. predominate? What choices do characters perceive as being available to them, and what choices do they make? How do they perceive fate? What do they yearn for? What do different kinds of relationships look like? What kinds of people are considered villains and what kinds of people are extolled as heroes? What are the standards of beauty, success, and justice? What surprises you? What do you disagree with? What do you not understand? By keeping some of these questions in the back of your mind, you can start to develop an emerging feel for Korean culture.

  1. Open Your Heart. As you’ll soon discover, Korean dramas are about being human. The dreams that motivate us, the desires that undo us, the limitations that frustrate us, the fates that foil us, the special moments that elevate us, and the relationships that save us. It is not objectivity but subjectivity that matters here: the way that we interpret the things that happen in our own experience is our reality, and so it is with the characters as their emotions and feelings are given space to breathe. It can seem melodramatic to the uninitiated, but if you can set your cynicism aside, it can also be cathartic, restorative, and refreshing to let it all wash over you.

Are you ready to get started? Here are a few of our favorites (with links to Drama Fever).

Pack some snacks (and some tissue) and enjoy the ride!


Two years ago, we leaped at the chance to go to Japan and Korea. I had finished grad school at long last, prices were shockingly affordable, and we’d saved up enough vacation days to make it happen. After hoping and scheming for thirteen years about trying to go “some day,” we suddenly realized that some day was now. In the months leading up to our departure, I wrote about our trip research, the sites we looked forward to seeing, and what the trip meant to us as part of our journey together in a multicultural relationship. I also talked about what it meant for us to experience Asia together for the first time, including the concerns we had about being accepted or rejected, the glorious time we had while there, and the difficulty we experienced during re-entry.

Since then, though, I’ve only written haphazardly. I guess I had a hard time summoning the enthusiasm for ordinary life that so easily gushed out of me when thinking about our life-changing and life-affirming trip. Well, that, and we’ve been busy with grad school #2 – my husband’s MBA program, which started just after we returned from Asia a year and a half ago. We also moved, had some job changes, some family illnesses and . . . voila, here we are – already a quarter of the way through 2015!

Well, today I am finding renewed vigor for my Sonoran Hanbok project, not only because I have missed it (I really have) and because I have more to say (I think I do!) but because we are preparing for another trip to the mother continent. And this time, we are going to where much of pan-Asian culture and civilization truly began: China. March 23, 2015, Missy with Goat

China! We’re going to China! So far, we’ve purchased our tickets and received a Year of the Goat plush as a thank you present from the airline. He sits on top of our couch and reminds us every day about the adventure that awaits us in a little more than two months. I don’t know yet exactly which sites will be on the itinerary, but we’ve narrowed our destinations to three very different cities: Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai. I’m anticipating that at the very least, we’ll see the Great Wall, The Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army, and The Bund. But beyond that, I still need to do some research. And study Mandarin. (Today was my first lesson via Pimsleur!) I’m hoping we’ll get enough under our belts to at least ask for directions on this one. And of course, we also have to apply for our visa.

One thing at a time. Everything at the same time. Between work and school, we don’t have a lot of time to spare, and the trip will soon be upon us. It’s a lot, but it’s just the kind of “a lot” that I love most. A chance to break out of my comfort zone and see the world from a new perspective, to feel new breezes, taste new dishes, learn something, grow a little bit, and share in a discovery together.

I’ve already got goose bumps. Ready or not, here we come!

Where is Chuseok?

Back in 2007, before we moved to Poland, I scoffed at the idea of celebrating Thanksgiving overseas. While some people get misty-eyed at the thought of family togetherness and brined poultry, I personally never cared that much about the holiday and didn’t think I would miss it. I was therefore surprised and humbled to see what a few months abroad can do for one’s nostalgia. It felt strange as weeks passed in the month of November following All Saints’ Day (instead of Halloween) and Polish Independence Day (instead of Veteran’s Day) and enormous Christmas trees went up in the medieval square. Even if I didn’t particularly enjoy pumpkin pie, I had never experienced the lead-up to Christmas without it. And without the energy, for better or worse, of U.S. consumerism. As holiday tunes piped through the loudspeakers, I felt like Christmas had jumped the gun somehow. My calendar had lost its bearings.

What did Thanksgiving feel like when it wasn’t Thanksgiving and there weren’t paper cutout turkeys and tacky orange bunting everywhere? Of course, we could be privately thankful within our own flat. And, just like in the U.S., they had harvests in Poland. Furthermore, given that I was in an international program, maybe we could have gotten together with fellow expats to celebrate. Yet, we didn’t. Unable to have it the way we had always known it to be, it would have seemed like a half-hearted sham. Most of the foods at the feast are not only New World foods from a European perspective (not a lot of yams and squash on hand in Krakow), but they are also derivative by design. My family makes them a certain way, every year, because. From boxes and cans. And so, to painstakingly craft them from scratch would strangely have made it feel even more artificial. We didn’t end up celebrating, but instead went to class just as if it was an ordinary day, because it was. For dessert that night, I slurped kiesel, a kind of soupy Polish gelatin, and called it good. But as I went to bed, I felt a little sad that my holiday was happening, without me, on the other side of the world.

Where is Chuseok?

I often think back to this experience when Chuseok rolls around on the lunar calendar. Every late summer we debate whether we should observe one of the most important Korean holidays of the entire year. We could technically do part of the ritual, since sadly we have a gravesite to visit. But beyond cleaning it, we wouldn’t be able to do much more because rules at this cemetery expressly forbid any kind of pouring of alcohol or bringing food or leaving objects. Also, given that it’s Phoenix, the entire cemetery is basically dirt. And it is still 110 degrees F (over 43 C). Not that we couldn’t bow our heads anyway – we certainly feel enough love and devotion to go out there and sweat in the dust – but we would attract a lot of attention and I don’t know that I, as the European American spouse, should push for this if my husband and his family aren’t.

My husband & Halmonee (Grandma) on Thanksgiving, 2008.

My husband & Halmonee (Grandma) on Thanksgiving, 2008.

We also lack the family spirit of the holiday. Although we could gather with my husband’s Korean mom, aunt, and grandmother, they haven’t observed the holiday with any regularity since moving to the U.S. 20 – some years ago. If we showed up in hanbok (which we don’t actually own) and began bowing, it would be seriously strange. They probably don’t even realize that it is coming up this weekend, so disconnected from the Korean calendar are they after all this time. Plus, given how they were dislocated during the Korean War and then struggled (like most of the country) for decades following, I don’t know if they ever really celebrated this holiday in its modern form. So, our attempt to perpetuate the holiday traditions of my husband’s family would have to take place despite his family, in a way that they might have never experienced themselves, and that feels weird. Especially when, as the elders, it should be more about them than my own desire to participate in their culture. Moreover, even if we did complete the duty part of the holiday, we would, sadly (and somewhat selfishly) also miss out on the fun part.

This drives home the realization for us that a holiday is a social phenomenon, not a private act. Without experiencing the atmosphere, the festive décor in stores, the tantalizing holiday products on offer, the food and traditional activities, and even the ungodly traffic of the weekend, we have to wonder if it is possible to really call it observing or participating at all. After all, there is actually nothing to participate in, and nobody to participate with.  (Maybe it would be different if we joined a Korean church, but I don’t think we should do that just to go to cultural events). So, there will be no official, standard Chuseok happening here.

And that’s okay. Instead of our all-or-nothing mentality from Poland, we will reach for what we can grasp, which will probably be some jap jae and songpyeon, washed down with baekseju. Maybe we’ll go to Gogi, our favorite local Korean restaurant, or to Asiana market. Or maybe, in a non-traditional twist, we’ll just give it a nod by curling up for another episode of our current K-drama. When living between cultures, one  must compromise and make modifications. Sometimes events happen without us, and celebrating out of context with whatever we have on hand, the best we can, might be all we can do. And as we go to sleep, we can hope that one day we’ll see ssireum and ganggangsullae live, and maybe even brave the seesaw. In a hanbok. Maybe even with Halmonee by our side. For now, we simply embrace the holiday in our hearts, and plot our next visit.

To those celebrating, and those who wish they were celebrating, Happy Chuseok. Wherever you are.

Korean Culture: Obscure niche to mainstream cool?

As an older Millennial, I’ve often felt that I was just a few years ahead of the curve. Not in terms of being more advanced, but rather in being interested in or wanting certain things that weren’t really available yet. As trends have gained steam, I’ve been surprised and delighted, but sometimes also caught off-guard, by how supposedly niche interests of mine have gone mainstream.

Korean culture is one of these areas.


Fourteen years ago, what I knew of Korea was limited to what I could experience firsthand in my Phoenix bedroom community of Glendale. My husband and I went on our first date at a local Korean and Japanese restaurant, Takematsu, where I tasted my very first kimchi and dolsut bibimbap. I had tried to do some research ahead of time, but because I couldn’t find good sites online dedicated to this topic (it was 2000), I resorted to the encyclopedias of culinary culture found at our local library, where I worked. (I may or may not have spent a bit of my afternoon shift trying to wrap my head around descriptions of fermented fish cake). Otherwise, my grasp of Korea was limited to knowing that there had been a war there, that there was a North one and a South one, and that my mother-in-law had some really pretty decorations in her house.


Things improved slightly when we lived in the Twin Cities. As someone who was studying Russia, I wasn’t learning more about Korea in school than the pitiful bit I already knew. In daily life, there weren’t really opportunities for engaging Korean culture, either. I don’t think it even crossed our mind to try. However, because we did not have my husband’s mother to cook for us, we had to venture outside our apartment and find Korean food for ourselves. Our journey took us to a gritty section of a St. Paul street called Snelling, which had two restaurants – Shilla and Mirror of Korea – and a tiny grocery store no bigger than a one-bedroom apartment. Although the intention was initially just to obtain some good food, the experience of going to this microscopic Koreatown was my first real experience of Korean America outside my mother-in-law’s home or a restaurant. And, I think it was a watershed moment in our interest in engaging Korean culture, both for its own sake and for what it meant to my husband and the identity of our family.

2003 in Minnesota: Korean culture seemed infinitely far away.

2003 in Minnesota: Korean culture seemed infinitely far away.

Stepping into the market, I saw another side of my husband – his Korean side – for the first time. I’m not sure whether this was because he was tapping into it more, and that is what struck me, or whether I was seeing what had always been there with new eyes, in the context of this new experience we were having together. In any case, that tiny store was a treasure trove of cultural encounters for me. It was the first time I had been anywhere where absolutely no English was spoken. (Even in parts of Europe, which I had been fortunate to visit, it seemed English was omnipresent). Where customer service meant frowning at me. (Did they hate me? Had I made them mad? Did they not like to smile?) Where I hardly recognized a single item for sale. (What were all of these mysterious cans and plastic containers?) Where I felt too big and too loud, somehow. (Why was it dead silent in here?) And where, amid what was to me a zone of total foreignness, my husband magically knew what to do.

He started pointing out what the different foods were – the bean sprouts, the red bean jellies, the dried seaweed – and while selecting what he needed from a suddenly accessible menu in his head, he began to tell me stories. He remembered Shrimp Crackers and Choco-Pies and the cherished moments of childhood bliss that went with them. He remembered having fish cake on a stick from a street vendor, and the joy he felt as a small boy as he drank the broth that came with it and dipped the stick into the available sauces. He said Anyonghaseyo and bowed slightly to the shopkeeper. And he chided me for counting my change in front of the clerk, explaining  that it would look like I was accusing them of stealing.

It was an awkward experience (I didn’t understand why I was the one seen as rude when they were the ones scowling at me), but I was hooked. As the years passed, we found ourselves regularly going back. The grocery store became a locus of our shared discovery, where he remembered fragments of his childhood and I became acquainted both with the culture and this side of him. It also served an additional purpose: Amid a Midwestern landscape which we found isolating and alienating, this was our own little world on the prairie – one he belonged to, I was starting to get to know, and that we could explore together.


Our experience of Korean culture might have been limited to those monthly trips to Snelling and our sometimes vain attempts to cook Korean food in our apartment if it were not for a very important phenomenon: Hallyu. Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, is to much of the world what “The British Invasion” of pop music was to the U.S. back in the 1960s. And it brought us face to face with contemporary Korean television, movies, and music for the first time. This was in the early 2000s, before digital streaming, social media, and blogging became so widespread. To learn about top Korean titles, we therefore had to painstakingly scour English-language Asia sites for reviews, buy an expensive import version on YesAsia, and then hope we liked it when it arrived. While we had a few misses, most films, like Il Mare, were well-chosen. Swept away by the wave, we soon filled our shelves with everything from Windstruck, My Sassy Girl, My Beautiful Girl Mari and Yobi the Five-Tailed Fox to Memories of Murder, Tae Guk Gi, Old Boy, Dae Jang Geum, and Jumong.

As we watched, we witnessed steady improvement in production value, and came to recognize patterns in storytelling, plot devices, relationship tangles, and challenges for the characters to overcome. We fell in love with stars like Jang Dong-Gun, Lee Young-Ae, and Song Kang-Ho. We relished the opportunity to see Korea in a modern light, to better appreciate its regal past through court dramas, and to be exposed to unresolved parts of its history through films like Silmido. Most of all, we saw something we had never seen before: Male characters who reminded me and my husband of himself. Not simply because of surface similarities in appearance, but because of the portrayal of different kinds of Korean masculinity. I can’t overstate what it meant to see a leading man – the hero, the love interest – be someone other than a square-jawed all-American bro. And to see Korean men playing complex, multidimensional parts other than the eccentric sidekick to the “normal” white dude. Guys who felt affection, anger, surprise, and worry with the same expressions and reactions as the ones I so often saw on my husband’s own face. It was like discovering a piece of our authentic selves and the world we were creating together, arriving in a box from thousands of miles away.

Streaming the mainstream

Koreatown, Los Angeles. Our go-to for all things Korean.

Koreatown, Los Angeles. Our go-to for all things Korean.

When we returned from Minnesota in 2005, little had changed in Glendale, but Korean media had become even more accessible thanks to Amazon and Netflix. By the time we returned from additional sojourns in Poland and Atlanta in 2008, technology had improved even more. BluRays, smartphones, consoles, and streaming services were all taking off, and soon we were able to watch Korean media on-demand through sites like Drama Fever and Crunchy Roll. We also began taking our first trips to Los Angeles’s Koreatown, where we discovered the wonders of Korean malls. After pigging out in the ridiculously delicious food court, we could buy dual-language books, ingenious home goods, and of course, more media. Soon we were making regular pilgrimages so we could fill our bellies, rejuvenate our souls, and stock up on essentials like Epik High and Rain. Thus, as we entered the second decade of this century, it seemed that as long as we knew where to look, we could find nuggets of Korean culture. And yet, for all of our interest, it still seemed to be something peculiar that we and we alone were interested in, at least as far as other Americans were concerned. Our embrace of Korea was just one more exotic thing that we were interested in as strange globe-trotting people.

Imagine our surprise, then, when Psy’s Gangnam Style started playing on the Top 40 radio station in that very same Glendale. When I suddenly realized I was no longer the only white girl at the Korean spa. When columns at major news outlets started devoting space to Korean businesses, social life, fashion, music, and movies alongside the typical pieces about North Korean saber-rattling. When books about how Korean pop culture was taking over the world started being discussed in Marie Claire. When articles extolling the hipness and irresistibility of Korean culture starting populating my Twitter feed. When blogs about Korean culture started springing up everywhere, exploring and critiquing not only media, but also social issues like multiculturalism, poverty, and racism. When schools and companies started asking me to help them better understand their Korean students and clients. When other white women started expressing jealousy and admiration that I was with someone who was part Korean (a refreshing change from the remarks I’d had previously).

Ahead of the curve or catching up?

Although this transition has been a long-time coming, in some ways it has caught me off-guard. After so many years of having to painstakingly search for and learn about everything from its food to its pop stars on a journey that was part scavenger-hunt, part research thesis, it is a bit weird and strangely irritating to see newcomers have so much information and access at their fingertips. Like an old person, I think, “where is the hard work?” in this era where one simply clicks on the next show in the Netflix queue and never has to go through protracted inquiry and deliberation, making hard choices about which expensive imported show to watch next. Not only that, but it is also strange to have this part of us – which society formerly seemed to reject – now be upheld as the wave of the future and the epitome of cool. Of course, I’m thrilled for Korea. It deserves its time in the sun, and its success and popularity have nothing to do with me at all. But, on a personal level, after enduring disinterest, rudeness, hostility, and rejection for our embrace of Korean culture – which is not something exotic to us but is a real and living, breathing part of who my husband is, and by extension, what our life is like – it is a little odd to see it suddenly become a fad.

A bite of happiness at the bakery in Koreatown Plaza.

A bite of happiness at the bakery in Koreatown Plaza.

It’s a paradigm shift that we like, and which definitely benefits us as it provides ever-increasing access and also more approval from the mainstream. However, it also reorients our own relationship to Korean and American cultures and how we see ourselves occupying the sometimes contested, uneasy space in between. What does it mean to us, now that it is perpetually available? No longer an act of rebellion, but now even more cherished, has anything really changed at all? I don’t know. Yes? Maybe? No? I’m not sure we have to know. But it’s something we think about with a combination of bemusement and appreciation as we laugh uproariously while streaming Rooftop Prince. While we sound out Korean lessons streamed from Pimsleur. As I listen to the Secret Garden soundtrack – streamed over Xbox Music. As I prepare to give a short talk at the office about my recent trip to Seoul and the photography I did there. As I reflect on my work with my Korean students and consider ways that I can continue to help them during their transition to the U.S. school system. As I help those in the film industry better engage with directors and producers from Korea, who they feel would be a great visionary fit for their projects. And as I munch on dried gim seaweed snacks from Costco and Trader Joe’s.

Maybe the answer is that Korean culture is simply here to stay, that it is finally a legitimate global influence, and that it’s not about who liked it first. (At any rate, there are certainly, many people – Koreans first among them – who appreciated it long before I walked into that grocery store on Snelling so many years ago). Perhaps, like long-fermenting kimchi (or maybe a fiery bulgogi), it is finally ready to be enjoyed by the masses. With such richness and so much to offer, it’s about time.

We’re just lucky to be a part of it.

In a bite, a dream

Something beautiful and delicious happened tonight, at the most ordinary of places. A trip to Whole Foods yielded not just a head of red cabbage but a 4 pack of mochi. We rarely buy this Japanese treat in Phoenix for the simple reason that it is often dried out, due either to our extreme desert climate or the time-delay effects of shipping the top stuff from California. After tonight, though, we stand corrected. Apparently, quality mochi does exist here. We just didn’t know where to look.

The incredible mochi we bought at Tokyo's Tsukiji market.

The incredible mochi we bought at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market.

These mochi were soft. Supple. Moist. Delicate. Bursting with flavor. And as we drooled over each bite, we were reminded in avisceral way that we must find a way to get back to Japan. Because even if we can find these particular treats here, doing so only reminds us of all that remains out of reach. For although globalization allows us to sneak tastes and glimpses of faraway places, there is nothing like actually physically being somewhere. To hear the breeze whistle through the trees at Meiji Jingu. To feel the pulse of humanity in Shibuya. To stand before the wonder that is Asakusa. And to do it all before jetting off to Seoul, which has an even tighter grip on our hearts.

Such dreams cost money; alas we do not have a trip on the horizon. But tonight, in an unexpected but appreciated surprise, we were temporarily transported back. Three months to the day that our feet first carried us through customs at Narita. And for that, we are certainly lucky.