What K-Dramas Taught Me About Myself
I spent a good part of my childhood wishing away my black hair and Asian eyes. The little girl from Poltergeist was my 7 year-old self’s idea of ultimate cuteness. Creepy, yes, but, seriously, the blonde hair and blue eyes? My dream.
It’s a tired and worn out trope, I know, but it’s the truth. After all, when your own second grade teacher tells you you can’t play Fern in Charlotte’s Web because you’re not white, it’s hard not to internalize it. (P.S. Don’t worry, my much more progressive classmates voted for me during casting and I made my theatrical debut as that sweet, pig-loving girl afterall).
Racist teacher aside, the main reason I so desperately wished to look like someone else was because all I ever saw were people who looked like someone else. I almost never saw anyone who looked like me represented in books, in movies, or on TV, and when I did, it was almost always a caricature or stereotype.
Last year, I wrote about reclaiming what I had chosen to lose. Part of my reclamation involved watching more K-dramas, which I had previously pushed aside as being too Korean for my Korean American self. The watching started out as a half joke during the pandemic in Summer 2020 when my husband and I lamented the fact that we had watched pretty much everything on Netflix and we reluctantly (and much to my mother’s delight) turned to watching K-dramas.
About halfway through the first episode of Reply 1988, we were hooked. And we’ve never looked back since.
Because before our eyes, not only did we see people who looked like us, but we also saw our food celebrated, heard our heritage language spoken, and experienced, for the first time in our lives, onscreen representations we had barely considered conceivable.
People who looked like us weren’t relegated to playing the smart kid or the convenience store owner. People who looked like us were everywhere. We were the stars and the supports. We were the whole damn show.
And let me tell you, watching K-dramas for the last two years has taught me more about myself and my people than the last four decades of watching Western media ever could. And in a lot of ways, that learning has been so healing.
I learned that people who look like me are beautiful. In so many different and diverse ways. Obviously, I know and have known many gorgeous Asians — I just never saw that represented on screen. Remember that trend in the early aughts where people shared their celebrity doppelganger? I hated that. There was no (Western) celebrity with whom I could claim lookalike status because there just were so few East Asian celebrities Americans knew of. As I watch K-dramas, I’m continually remarking on how beautiful everyone is and, funnily enough, I keep seeing these Korean actors as doppelgangers of my Korean friends, family, and acquaintances. It’s rare that I can get through an episode without pointing out an actor who looks like an aunt or an ahjeosshi I knew from church or even a grown-up version of a friend’s kid. I swear, Ahn Hyo-Seop, the male lead from Business Proposal looks just like an adult version of my friend’s three year-old.
I learned that my people have a rich and deep mythology that influences modern fantasy and sci-fi stories. As a child I loved reading fantasy and often consciously thought that genre was reserved for white authors and American and European legends and mythology. It was so refreshing and enlightening to see stories from my culture take new, modern shape, even, and maybe especially, in ridiculous ways like in The Uncanny Counter. Grim Reaper Demon Hunters who run a noodle shop? Yes, please!
I learned that people who look like me can be hilarious. While I appreciate Asian American comedic actors like Ken Jeong and Ali Wong, the subtle and more nuanced humor delivered by someone who looked like me within a well-written show was welcomed on a new level. And hearing that humor in my heritage language was even more endearing and familiar. I will forever have a special place in my heart for Jo Jung-suk and all the ways he made me laugh in Hospital Playlist.
I learned that people who look like me are flawed and live incredibly complicated lives often influenced by our complex history. I, of course, knew and understood this in a real world context, but seeing stories of classism and poverty and hatred and family conflict played out on screen by actors who looked like me was something else. Beyond the Asian American stereotypes, beyond pigeonholed roles, watching these complex stories unfold gave me new understanding and appreciation that further humanized the lives of my people. The international popularity of Squid Game and American-produced Pachinko have made this understanding clear for so many across the world.
And finally, I learned that people who look like me can be both the hero and the villain. I grew up longing for a protagonist who looked like me, and too often what I saw was a side character who was flat and less than desirable. Now, after seeing dozens of well-developed protagonists and heroes in K-dramas, I’ve come to embrace the wide variety of personalities and traits available for the portraying. Having seen many heroes who look like me, I can now fully value deliciously evil villains who also look like me and I can hate on them with passion. Yoo Jaemyung’s character in Itaewon Class may be one of my favorite villains of all time — talk about deliciously evil!
Before my deep dive into K-dramas, I certainly understood these ideas as possibilities, but didn’t truly internalize them until I saw actual representations. It may seem sad that it took me this long to come to these realizations. It is a little sad. For too long I spent my time wallowing an absence of Asians in Western media instead of celebrating the existence and beauty of Asian media.
Perhaps we’re beginning to enter a new era where Asians can be celebrated in both Eastern and Western media. I’m so grateful for a recent rise in representation of Asian Americans with movies like Shang-Chi and Turning Red. Make no mistake, we still have a long way to go, but perhaps the existence of films like these will have my children understanding my new realizations as reality. Perhaps these films and similar Asian American representation we see in books we can intentionally bring into our classrooms and homes will have my children’s peers understanding these realizations as reality, too.
It makes me wonder how different my outlook might have been had I had these representations as a child. Maybe instead of wishing for blonde hair and blue eyes, I would have fully understood that I could look like me and (at the risk of sounding like an after school special) be anything I wanted.
At the very least, maybe I would have understood that I was pretty freaking cute, too.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by David Rice and Julieta Corpus(and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).