Once, as a preface to reading my poem “Bell Theory,” I jokingly told the audience that I had been teased for my English when I was younger, when it wasn’t trendy to be Korean, or rather, before the boy band BTS made Korean cool. A few people chuckled and smiled out of either discomfort or kindness, and I found myself wanting to cry as I read the poem about my clumsy English, colonized Koreans’ Japanese, and the cruel consequences of failures of tongue. I had never gotten emotional during my own reading before. I tried to control the quiver in my voice and fingers. If anyone noticed, they didn’t say anything, out of either discomfort or kindness.
I moved to Victoria, BC, Canada from Busan, Korea when I was just a few months shy of eleven years old. I knew only how to say, “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” when someone asked how I was doing. My older sister and my mother, who had quit her job to come with us, knew only that same phrase. There’s a joke that if a Korean gets hit by a car, or otherwise hurt, and an English speaker exclaims, “Oh my God, are you okay?” the Korean will automatically say, “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” So for a while, that is what we were, to everyone, always: fine.
My father stayed behind in Busan to continue producing income for our family. In a way, it felt like we had all sacrificed something, even me, who did not quite understand why we had to leave. Yet, undeniably, we were extremely privileged. The three of us had left for Canada because my parents wanted my sister and I to be educated in a system free of the intense cramming and competition that Korean students are infamously subject to. They wanted us to have more ease and less pressure to pursue our dreams, whatever those dreams ended up being.
Our language, however, marked us immediately as strange, even stupid or uninteresting. We were strange because people could tell we were from elsewhere. We were stupid because we could not express everything—this vexed my mother, who didn’t care that people treated her as foreign, but was frustrated by being unable to perform mundane tasks with full clarity and command. We were uninteresting because, almost without fail, we were asked if we were Chinese or Japanese. “Korean,” we would say, and (white) people would say “Oh” or nod in disappointment and stop talking. Even if we had been Chinese or Japanese, I don’t believe that any ensuing conversation would have been particularly more enlightened. But I wanted to be seen. I would have beamed enthusiastically if someone had mentioned that they had eaten kimchi. I would have said “Yeah” with as much eagerness as I could muster, because I didn’t know how to say much else. Unfortunately, I did want my identity to be a digestible unit of information, used to categorize me so that white people didn’t have to actually learn who I was beyond a stereotype. Because without even that, I didn’t exist.
By virtue of being very young, though, I picked up English quickly; within a few months, I had learned to understand and communicate almost everything. If someone asked how I was doing, I could be more than fine or not fine at all, and I could tell them why. Being able to talk to people meant, though, that now they could ask me if I could speak or read to them in Chinese or Japanese. The disappointment in their eyes stung. Nobody was interested in Korean. The fact that I did not know the hegemonic languages of the countries that had invaded mine countless times made me feel powerless, resentful, and, honestly, jealous.
In the early 2000s, K-pop and K-drama were gaining popularity in China and Japan (the phenomenon is called hallyu, meaning “Korean wave”), and the most attractive and famous people of Korea went on to collect fans in other Asian countries. By the late 2000s, it certainly seemed, at least on the internet, that many non-Koreans liked Korean music and TV. Although a couple Chinese Canadian friends told me that their parents loved the drama Dae Jang Geum (대장금, k.; 大長今, c.; Sept 2003–March 2004), I felt no increased awareness in people outside of Asian communities of where or what Korea was. By this time, I was also fluent in English, so much so that I could fool native speakers into thinking I was born in Canada. I was smug with the realization that I was no longer simply capable of communicating, but skilled at making arguments and writing. I had been the top of my class in English since eighth grade. Still, I would pronounce things incorrectly, and others would point it out, because it was funny. Apparently, I kept pronouncing “elevator” eleevator. I could, apparently, never even spit out “Goddamn it!” correctly—I said it too much like two words, like “got dam.” These were minor and infrequent errors, yet I became hypervigilant about the way I spoke. I couldn’t let it slip that I secretly wasn’t “from here,” that I didn’t belong. Goddamn, goddamn, goddamn, I would mumble, urging the syllables to mash together. Got dam, got dam, got dam. Despite my efforts, despite my youth, I possessed a dam that restricted my language.
In writing, however, my language could be perfect. On the page, nobody could hear me. Perhaps that is how I became a poet—perhaps I longed for a space in which I could not fail, or more importantly, in which it was fine to fail. Poetry as a medium delivers affective responses in ways traditional narrative prose may not. Mores of grammar, syntax, and logic could be smudged without explanation or excuse, and there was beauty in that chaos and blur. In poetry, I realized again and again that “failures” were in fact openings to more possibilities.
Even though I wrote poetry in English, it felt like a celebration of my Korean language and identity. Being Korean and speaking Korean helped me perceive, notice, and maybe feel more—for there are concepts or expressions that exist in Korean but do not in English (and, of course, vice versa). For instance, iseulbi, boseulbi, and garangbi are common words that all translate to “drizzle” in English (bi means rain). Iseulbi, a compound word comprising “dew” and “rain,” means very fine, foggy rain. Boseulbi means fine and loose streaks of rain on a windless day. Garangbi is also fine rain, but thicker than the previous two kinds, enough to dampen you. There is a Korean proverb that says, “one doesn’t notice the clothes getting wet with garangbi,” meaning, even a seemingly trivial issue can turn into a bigger situation. These are subtle distinctions many Koreans may not know either, but writers would certainly be careful in choosing among those words, and knowing all three equips me with more descriptive precision and sensitivity when writing my own poems in English. Each rainy day is different. Each kind of rain paints a different kind of day. Is there a poet who does not revel in these subtleties? In this way, my perception, my English, and my poetic language is rich with Korean.
So I came to love and live in poetry. It was a safe and welcoming home for my “imperfect” language. My shame lessened, and I now believe that those who judge others by their speech are the ones who need to interrogate their own belief that language is a measure of belonging or intelligence. Yet I still find myself fascinated by the position that K-pop holds in countries outside of Korea. When I was growing up, I could not have imagined that K-pop would be popular in North American or European media. I understood the history and existence of racism and linguistic nationalism. All Asian Americans (especially non–East Asians) are underrepresented in Western media. But the Korean boy group BTS has become popular enough that they have even appeared on shows such as Good Morning America and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and I am trying to understand why.
Yes, of course, K-pop music videos have beautiful cinematography and puzzling stories, dazzling choreography, jazzy outfits, dashing looks, catchy tunes, and gender performances that maybe seem refreshing and hopeful to an American audience, along with that specific brand of babyish and corny mannerisms that I might facetiously coin “Korean corn,” et cetera. My question is, are these aspects of BTS, and K-pop in general, so engaging that fans outside of Korea like them despite the fact that the songs are in Korean? Or is the foreignness of language in fact part of the attraction?
I am no expert in musicology, contemporary popular media, or transcultural phenomena. There is also much to critique in the K-pop industry, the “idol” system, the songs, and Orientalist interests. BTS, for instance, though they are a group from a country that was never a colonial power, have established their ARMY (that is the name of their fan base) around the world. BTS stands for Bangtan Sonyeondan, meaning “Bulletproof Boy Scouts,” and ARMY stands for “Adorable Representative MC for Youth,” but it was reverse-engineered to explain the acronym. If BTS was bulletproof, then it only follows that they’d have an army. This raises difficult questions about our expectations of masculinity and the presence of the military/militarism in Korea. Still, when I see BTS singing in Korean on American television and when I see their American fans—many of them young people of color, I have noticed — chanting along to the Korean lyrics, I feel soft for all of them, and for my younger self. I want to believe that the younger generation appreciates the beauty in the chaos and blur of translation, that they delight in extracting meaning from sounds that were perhaps once simply melted into the melody. I want to believe that though they may be disappointed that translation cannot convey everything, they are also excited by the potential those gaps in transference hold. That they then, in turn, engage with translation, with imagination and creativity. That they find poetry in that process. That they find joy in the sounds of a tiny peninsula whose language was once robbed.
Again, there is much about BTS and K-pop that lends itself to cynicism. I know that. But let me have this. Let me have this moment. I picture my younger face lit up among the crowd of fans, surrounded by friends, shouting my language, not caring about their imperfect pronunciation in Korean or about mine in English—but rather, loving and celebrating the expansion of our languages and its possible poetic consequences. Let me lean into that tenderness.
Emily Jungmin Yoon is the author of Ordinary Misfortunes (Tupelo Press, 2017) and A Cruelty Special to Our Species (Ecco, 2018). She is the poetry editor for The Margins. Her poems and translations have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry, Columbia Journal Online, Pinwheel, and elsewhere.