When I grew up, I didn’t watch Korean dramas. My parents always did. Even now when I visit them, the television is always on the Korean channel. Growing up, I didn’t really wrestle with my identity as a Korean American. In some ways I had a negative view of my identity because of the bad experiences that I had at Korean churches in my childhood. It wasn’t until college that I actually grappled with my ethnic identity. I would join the Korean Student Association and take Korean language classes in college.
I went through a phase of listening to Kpop including groups like HOT, SES, Turbo, GOD, FINKL, and Seo Taiji. However, a few years later, I went through a Korean movie phase with classics like “My Sassy Girl”, “Joint Security Area”, “Shiri”, “Failan”, “Kick the Moon”, and “Hi, Dharma!” I didn’t get into Korean drama because I didn’t want to invest the time to watch 20 or more episodes. The one Korean drama I did watch (“Summer Scent”), I binge watched all 20 episodes in one day. This particular drama was ridiculously irrational with a man who finds a connection with a woman who he later finds out had a heart transplant from his dead lover.
However, a few years ago, I started to watch Korean dramas again to mostly connect with my mother. I wanted to have something to talk to her about. I first watched “Secret Garden” which is my all-time favorite Korean drama. The drama had all the hallmarks of common Korean drama tropes including a rich chaebol (chaebols are huge family corporations that dominate the Korean economy like Hyundai and Samsung) who falls in love with a poor girl and brings out the best in him, body swapping, amnesia, an evil mother, and the two main characters who met each other when they were younger and not knowing it.
The fatalism I would find in Korean dramas helped me understand my parents. They never got too high or too low. Even if something positive would happen, they would be cautious knowing that fate can deal them a bad hand at anytime. This would materialize in the advice they would give me. They always emphasized being careful and cautious. I had to prepare for the difficult times that were surely to come. When I was a child, I didn’t understand why they were like that. However, when I started to watch Korean dramas, I realized where they were coming from. So many Korean dramas deal with fate giving you a bad hand. There was this sense of two lovers who are meant to be together and yet they are not able to. In Korean dramas, lovers are blocked by evil in-laws, terminal diseases, memory loss, and death. The famous Korean folk song “Arirang” describes the tragedy of two lovers who are unable to get together.
This inability for two lovers to come together working out into a very sad ending reflects the Korean peninsula’s division between North and South which was a political division of the Cold War that was created by forces beyond the control of Koreans. This theme is throughout various dramas like “IRIS”, “Athena: Goddess of War”, “The King 2 Hearts”, and “Descendants of the Sun”.
This fatalism can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can lead to a despair where everything is out of your control. However, it can also give us a healthy humility in which everything isn’t dependent on us. From a Christian point-of-view, it can create a higher dependence on God knowing that you are not in total control of your life which is counter to what is vastly propagated in American culture.
Also, I have a deeper understanding of “han”(Korean concept of pain, bitterness, lament, injustice which has no English translation) and a deeper appreciation of “jung” (Korean concept of loyalty, friendship, connection, love for others which has no English translation). This yin and yang of Korean culture has had a huge impact on my life. I have had deep bouts with depression, despair, pain, loneliness, and sadness while also balanced out by intense experiences of happiness, joy, peace, hope, and love. Life guarantees both extremes and I have learned how to accept both realities.
I am still figuring out my Korean American identity. In ministry, I realize how my Korean American identity differs from my colleagues who are Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese American. There are definitely similarities between various the East Asian ethnicities. However, there are cultural differences that bring about both new possibilities and cross-cultural obstacles when working together. I also see the differences when watching Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese movies and dramas. However, that is a different post for a different time.
I don’t know if this post has a point. However, I look forward to watching “Doctors” with Kim Rae Won and Park Shin Hye, “W” with Lee Jong Suk and Han Hyo Joo, and “Uncontrollably Fond” with Kim Woo Bin and Suzy this summer! Good luck with your Korean drama binging!
PS: If you haven’t watched “Signal”, I highly recommend it. It was the best Korean drama I watched this year and one of my top 3 Korean dramas of all-time!