Riding the Wave

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April 18, 2013 by travelinggrits

The biggest rocks on my bucket list for Korea focused on experiencing this country’s rich cultural history, whether through visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites or learning to play traditional music.

The ebb and flow of the past certainly affect the churning waters of the present, but there’s an entirely new current rising: the Korean wave, or Hallyu.

Korea’s popular music, movies and dramas. It started as a gentle undertow in the 90s — a hit song there, a blockbuster movie there. It took off in the early 2000s with the drama “Winter Sonata,” and the waters haven’t stopped rising since.

Some say that Korea’s biggest exports are not the products of Hyundai, Samsung or LG — they are the creations of the entertainment industry. After all, few are likely to make banners, scream and run in the streets over an electronic good — it’s pop culture that captivates people. In Thailand, Taiwan and Japan, Korean music groups and shows have often overtaken entertainment, and the major tours hit countries on every continent, sometimes even with separate offshoot bands that sing Chinese or Japanese covers of the groups’ major hits. If you’ve heard of Psy or Gangnam Style, you might say you’ve been a part of this worldwide wave as well.

It’s good for Korea. It draws greater interest in Korean food, language and tourism. It creates a positive vibe for a country often characterized merely by its ill-tempered neighbor. Korea is immensely proud of its ability to stir demand for its work from other world heavyweights.

And for a short-term resident of Korea like myself, it might be just as important to stay afloat in this tide as it is to be familiar with its lengthy history. Knowing current TV shows and popular tunes helps break language barriers as easy subject matter for small talk. No matter the message conveyed by the lines and lyrics, it also shows basic respect and appreciation for Korea to connect with its objects of pride and adulation.

I was barely treading water before my arrival — I knew next to nothing about Korean pop music other than Big Bang’s “Fantastic Baby.” During orientation I scribbled extensive notes during a workshop on pop culture, and I familiarized myself with the latest hits while studying or relaxing in my dorm room.

I still don’t know many specific singer names or song lyrics, but I have a basic association of major songs and their bands. By contrast, my students are diehard supporters of select music groups, and arguments can quickly escalate if the best one is contested. As for me, I’m more attached to particular songs than groups, and I am most fascinated by the music videos and dance moves. I wish I didn’t look quite so ridiculous trying to imitate them.

So maybe attending a K-pop concert wasn’t on my bucket list before… But if the opportunity comes, you ought to snap it.

For some of the biggest groups, if you haven’t staked a claim for a computer at a PC room and prepared your index finger for a speed round of clicking through Korean ticket purchasing websites, you don’t stand a chance. To be honest, I still don’t really know how I ended up with one of these golden tickets. I expressed an interest in seeing an upcoming K-Pop concert to a friend, who said, “Let me see what I can do.” The next morning, she sent me a message: “I’ve got you a ticket, girl.”

Super Junior Super Show 5. I was going!

I took a break from lesson planning to jam out to the group’s latest hit single.

Title? “Sexy, Free and Single.”

I was thus initiated into a group of fellow Fulbright teachers who were making the pilgrimage to Seoul for the big event. Directed by the mega-fans, I commenced a crash course in all things Super Junior to prepare for the show, listening to hours of music files and watching several Korean comedy shows that featured band members. I even painted my nails sparkling sapphire blue, the designated color for the group’s fanbase. My level of excitement was rising exponentially.

I had attended a small performance in Busan for soloist 커피 소년 (Coffee Boy) in the fall. It was a mellow, feel-good acoustic show featuring ballads and soft lighting. Super Junior was an entirely different animal. The Olympic stadium in Seoul was crawling with girls decked out with neon signs professing love for various group members, laminated masks with the members’ faces, flashing lights and other merchandise.  Super Junior is unique in that it has a larger fanbase outside Korea; from my seat, Chinese, Japanese and Korean chatter simultaneously washed over me.
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The lights dimmed. The intro video began to play.

I went crazy. Four hours of screaming, head bopping, light wand waving — I was exhausted by the time I debarked from the last subway train and stumbled back to my room for the night.

Honestly, I still have a bit of disdain about the story lines of some of the dramas that my host family enjoys watching. But my playlist for working out and walking around town is all Super Junior; my ringtone is “Go.” It still puts a smile on my face to look at that light wand hanging up in my room. I think I just had to dip my toes in the water myself rather than being dunked in by someone else.

Maybe it’s a little late in the game, but I’m proud to say I’m finally riding the wave.

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Super Junior faves: Go, Sorry Sorry, Superman, Breakdown, Spy, A-CHA, Andante, It's You
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