Generations and cultures gather around Korean dramas
by Jane Park
When most kids watched Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs after school, I watched telenovelas in Spanish with my nanny.
Though I couldn’t speak Spanish and Betty spoke little English, we made do with short phrases: Ella es mala, ella es buena. I learned to identify the villains and protagonists and the gist of various plotlines. I was seven, but I liked those soaps better than clichéd, cartoon cat-and-mouse chases.
More importantly, it was our hour to bond side-by-side while munching on Lay’s potato chips with hot sauce.
For the same reason, I enjoyed watching Korean TV miniseries, or dramas, with my sister and our parents in the evenings. We gnawed on dried squid. Sometimes we sat on the couch; sometimes we convened on their bed. I always loved it. My dad provided translation-on-demand – it was before the era of coherent English subtitles.
Today, my parents subscribe to the 24-hour Korean-language cable channel with access to dramas, sitcoms and game shows galore. And I can easily stream any program from online fan sites. Still, it’s a treat to sit down together to catch an episode or two of the latest romantic comedy or melodrama.
It’s a family phenomenon, really. All tensions from dinner-table conversation miraculously subside when we enter the world of Korean dramas. One click of the remote, and we’re laughing and commiserating with the dynamic characters in each comical and heart-wrenching situation. Middle-aged, 20-something or teenager, it doesn’t matter. We all fall victim.
So did Eddie Kim, a 20-year-old Korean-American junior from the University of Illinois. In fact, he can call out the writers before most stories unfold.
“The mother’s ill, and your sister ends up being your lover, the one weak girl is terminally ill and the guy ends up giving her his eyeballs,” he said glibly, poking fun at the predictability of the genre and certain obligatory characters and events.
Since high school, Kim has watched many Korean dramas with his parents, in their suburban Chicago home. Among some of his favorites are Autumn Tale, Winter Sonata and Stairway to Heaven – all epic romances.
“My mom and my sister would watch them every week,” he said. When he realized that it was a much-enjoyed pastime in his family, Kim decided he’d join.
“It was a means of spending time with her,” he said of watching dramas with his mom, who often provided sideline translations for him. They chatted about the actors and actresses together, too.
Kim said quality time with his mom over Korean DVD and VHS rentals made him feel closer to her, but conversely, farther from the Korean culture.
“They made me feel more American,” Kim said about unfamiliar depictions such as ancestor worship in some of the historical dramas.
Still, Kim said the cliffhangers in Korean dramas kept him coming for more.
While Korean dramas helped Kim narrow some generational divides between him and his mom, they reacquainted another Korean-drama devotee with a culture from her distant past.
Yoonmi Kim is a Korean-American adoptee – her adopted name is Rachel Udin, but she goes by the Korean name — from Buffalo, New York.
“Growing up, I could count the Asian actors on one hand,” the 28-year-old said. “There were no female Asian actors to count and my understanding of contemporary Korea was thin.”
Until she discovered Korean dramas.
“I always wanted to know what it would be like growing up in Korea, and the Korean point of view beyond what was the Korean War. Korean dramas gave me that,” she said.
Kim said those TV shows were a window to her roots, something she hadn’t fully understood growing up in an American household.
“Most of it felt like I was remembering things that I’d long forgotten,” she said. “I also grew more confident in my appearance as I saw people who looked like me and were called pretty.”
Today, Kim watches and writes online reviews of Korean dramas as a hobby. So far, she has compiled a list of more than 60 on her blog.
Although Eddie Kim and Yoonmi Kim both are Korean-American, Tom Larsen said Korean dramas hold a wider and ever-growing appeal across cultures and age groups. The reason? There’s something for everyone, young or old, Korean or not.
“It’s real human themes,” Larsen said. “Love. What is love? It’s tragedy and how you deal with tragedy. It’s family, the role of family, respect for elders, for the opposite sex, for teachers, friendship and loyalty.”
Larsen’s love for all things Korean started in the early 1990s, when he lived in Korea for a few years. When he came back to the U.S. to continue his college studies at Brigham Young University, Larsen signed up for a Korean language class for non-native speakers. To expedite learning, his professor showed Korean TV dramas every Friday. Larsen was hooked.
“I fell in love with the culture and the people and the food,” he said. “And I thought I can help to introduce the Korean culture through these Korean TV shows.”
In 2003, Larsen acquired the rights to publish and distribute Korean TV dramas with English subtitles and founded YA Entertainment. Today, the San Bruno, Calif.-based company distributes boxed DVD sets to mainstream stores including Borders, Barnes and Noble and Best Buy.
The 35-year-old entrepreneur attributes his company’s success to the “Korean wave” sweeping North America.
“What I’ve found is that people who are Korean drama addicts are looking for a new entertainment concept,” Larsen said.
“They’re just so turned off by what American standard programming has. It’s sex, crime, violence or a combination of the three. That’s fine for 18-to 25-year-olds, but there are a lot of people out there who are looking for substance in entertainment.”
Larsen said it’s the real people in real situations that make Korean dramas so refreshing for jaded viewers.
“In addition to those themes, the technical aspects are done very well,” he added. “The camera work, the lighting, the cast, the acting is really good.”
Moreover, Larsen said, Korean dramas portray family relationships that bridge young and old in everyday situations.
“Korean dramas involve family. A lot of scenes where the family eats together at the table. Those relationships are between generations, it’s right there at the dinner table. That’s really powerful,” he said.
In the Larsen household, dramas are an after-dinner family activity. Larsen, his wife and two children currently watch one episode of The Grand Chef each evening.
“It doesn’t really matter how old you are, there are aspects everyone can enjoy,” Larsen said.
The bigger impact, though, is not the great entertainment that Korean dramas provide, but what they can start among individuals, families and a multicultural society.
“They’ll try Korean food, they’ll pick up Korean words and the next thing is connecting and bridging cultures,” said Larsen.
For Eddie Kim and Yoonmi Kim, the Korean drama kindled a newfound appreciation for their roots that otherwise might not have existed.