Hallyu that bundled us together

Photo from the movie, "Kingdom"

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During lockdown, one of the topics that had the most coverage on the online entertainment news in Japan was Korean dramas. It seemed that people who could no longer enjoy the thrills of nightlife were finding new ways to entertain themselves.

Korean dramas aren’t just big in Japan, but in other countries in Asia as well, and, recently, the United States. When “Kingdom,” which was Netflix’s first original Korean drama, made its debut on the streaming platform in 2019, Korean dramas gained a new audience. After the COVID-19 pandemic put everyone home in March of this year, a door was opened connecting people across the globe to the world of Korean dramas, or should I say, Korean consumption.

The spread of Korean pop culture across other countries is a phenomenon referred to as Hallyu, a word that means “Korean wave” in Korean. I admit that Hallyu has certainly swept over my family during this pandemic, transforming our whole experience to a somewhat better one.

Right after COVID-19 cases started spiking in March, my entire family — I from the United States, my brother from Tokyo — headed back home and quarantined together. Almost no outside activities — drinking with colleagues, eating out at restaurants, going out to movie theaters — were encouraged, so we stayed home, as most people did, and spent some time together.

Interestingly enough, it was probably the first time we spent that much time together as a family. My brother and I had grown up leading the life of athletes as figure skaters, and we had very little time at home, since most of the time, we were either at the ice rink, school or in the car traveling. Even if we were to travel or have dinner together, it was always skating-related. Depending on the result of competitions or how we did in practice, our dinners transformed into a family meeting, where we made excuses for poor performances to my parents.

However, this time it was different. Having put an end to my skating career a few years ago and moved to the United States for college, each of us now has different stories, whether it’s school, work or gossip. Figure skating is no longer our common topic as a family.

Right at that moment, though, the Hallyu swept in, bundling us all together again.

Due to the stigma in Japan that Korean dramas are only for middle-aged women craving escapism, we were a little skeptical about the whole trend at first. We realized quickly that the hype was not for nothing, starting with the most trended “Crash Landing on You,” then “Itaewon Class” and “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay,” we binge-watched show to show, and soon, they became all we talked about at dinner tables.

Right at that moment, though, the Hallyu swept in, bundling us all together again.

My mother and I talked about how dreamy and handsome the main actors were, receiving backlash from my father and brother saying those figures are unrealistic. All of us were mesmerized by how beautiful, strong and independent the female leads were, and yet also scared by how violent they became when they fought — grabbing each other’s hair, yelling insults. We picked up a little Korean from those first dramas we watched, and we started to use simple Korean phrases with one another, reanimating our favorite scenes from the shows.

Soon, we became avid consumers of Korean culture. Responding to my desperate request, my mother made us Korean food a few times a week, always preparing kimchi on the side. When getting a haircut, my brother asked a barber to imitate the hairstyle of one of the characters in a Korean drama. My father bought us different kinds of Korean alcoholic drinks to enjoy together — soju, makgeolli and bomb shots (a mix of beer and soju). Fascinated by the glowing skin of actors in the dramas, I diligently windowshopped and ordered a few Korean skin care products for myself.

For me, Hallyu never stopped there. My interest was spurred on by the book “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982,” which describes the struggle of South Korean women who faced various shames, pressures and violences at the hands of a misogynistic culture. I then devoured Korean modern literature, especially essays and novels that dealt with the growing feminist movement in South Korea. Finding various similarities between South Korea and other societies that I belong to, including Japan, I imagined the same struggle my mother and her generation had gone through as women in the patriarchal system shared among Asian cultures. I was also touched by the courage of South Korean feminist writers who spoke up, hoping that a similar movement would start here in my country, where many women still undergo the same experience themselves.

In the difficult reality of the pandemic, the Korean drama genre looms large as a fantastical dream factory.

Witnessing a similar Hallyu phenomenon happening to many of my friends both in and outside Japan made me think that the Korean drama industry may be our new Hollywood — a dream factory that reflects both societal situations and our desires, often becoming a fantasy that we can always escape to. In the difficult reality of the pandemic, the Korean drama genre looms large as a fantastical dream factory.

Exhibition of these consumer dreams is, of course, part of the South Korean government’s strategy, in which the Korean drama and film industry accounts for 0.4 percent of the gross domestic product and is, at present, being further developed by a newly launched government department dedicated to Hallyu projects. South Korea now aims at attracting 20 million tourists yearly through the beautiful display of Korean products and locations, such as Seoul, Busan and Jeju Island, in Korean dramas.

Perhaps we were played by these governmental advertisement schemes. But maybe that’s OK. We desperately needed fantasy to fall into, and Korean dramas give us exactly that. A fantasy that, one day, we will be able to travel to those destinations and experience all the adventures with our loved ones in person. We needed the wave of Hallyu that bundled us together, making it easier for us to bear the stress of the crisis. At the end of the day, we may have been being gullible, but at least we were happy. Maybe in a time like this, escapism is not so bad.

One day during the lockdown, getting ready for the last episode of another Korean drama, we celebrated with a family dinner of kimchi hotpot. While being thankful for the health and safety of my family, I also daydreamed about a trip to South Korea. Raising glasses of grapefruit-flavored soju, we said to ourselves, “Everything’s going to be gwaenchanah-a (OK).”

Contact Eriko Yamakuma at [email protected].