More often than not, people ask me whether in Korea or here I feel more at home. This is a question that I don’t think I will ever have a definite answer for. In fact, throughout my life, both personally and professionally, I always find myself somewhere between two worlds. On good days, I feel lucky that I am getting the best of both. On not-so-good days, I am reminded that I belong to neither.
I am also convinced that ‘bridging’ two worlds is what I do best. I am not sure which came first though. Do I get drawn to such in-between positions because that’s where I shine, or have I become better at it out of necessity? Dunno, so I have jokingly concluded that that must be because I was born on a cusp.
In-betweenness, of course, doesn’t mean an exact half point. More of sliding back and forth, I maintain. That said, it has recently struck me that my behaviour is that of a complete outsider when it comes to consuming Hallyu products. I have discovered that it is *addictive* fun to hang out among international fans of K-dramas. And the present post is to jot down a few notes from this accidental ethnography.
# The content is available outside Korea almost in real time – on video streaming sites such as Viki, but Korean TV stations upload soundbites one by one on their respective YouTube channels as the latest episodes are being aired within the country. No considerable time lag.
# Other important places include various social media platforms, particularly Instagram (where not only hashtags but also dedicated accounts newly emerge), and K-entertainment news sites such as Soompi (where relevant news articles are translated into English and reposted – again in real time). I see this as a typical example of how an ethnographic place is now “dispersed across web platforms, is constantly in progress and changing, and implicates physical as well as digital localities” (Postill and Pink, 2012: 125).
# Most fans who frequent those places do not understand Korean, and many cry for subtitles in the comment box under official YouTube clips, but in the end, the language doesn’t seem to be a barrier. There will always be some form of crowd-subbing. More importantly, seasoned ones are already proficient in the grammar of the genre.
# Related to the previous point, multiple interactions take place under each YouTube clip, and there is no one lingua franca. Sure, English does serve for that purpose to an extent, but only to an extent.
# So, we – and I say ‘we’ here consciously – don’t necessarily understand one another, but the bond is stronger than you’d imagine. Squealing and swooning together virtually while the main couple develop their romance is the core activity. Personally speaking, I find it even more fun than the drama itself! Reminds me of the participatory viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
# On whichever social media platform, several stock phrases recur across comment sections, such as “I can’t even”, “My heart can’t take it”, “I died today”, “This couple is the end of me”, “So sweet that I will get diabetes just by watching them”, “Relationship goals”, “Where can I find a man who looks at me like he looks at her?”, “How can I move on from these two?”, “What am I going to do with my life until next week?”
# If the story unfolds as they have hoped, they thank the writer-nim and the PD-nim for listening to them. The ways in which K-dramas are produced and communicated through YouTube seem to create this impression that their wishful feedback has actually been accommodated.
# Shipping a couple is not specific to K-dramas, but what seems to be unique is that viewers are clearly conscious that it is a make-believe world. Instead, what’s important to them is ‘off-screen chemistry‘. They like seeing the couple getting along well and enjoying themselves while filming romantic scenes. When they like what they see, they demand the behind-the-scene footage of it, a.k.a. BTS. It is a common practice that the production team doles it out, alongside the actual episode. To put it another way, the front and back of the house are no longer distinguishable. It is like taking the experience to a ‘meta’ level, with a curious twist of reality TV. This was the most fascinating discovery.
# Overall, I find non-Korean fans to be more expressive and more accepting. I hypothesise that they can afford to ‘bracket off’ the ugly social context surrounding those dramas. The industry’s cruel working conditions, sexism, and homophobia, to name a few.