Obama isn’t the only one swept up in the surge of Korean pop culture. Korean-Americans are, of course, catching the hallyu wave and it’s sending them right back to the muthaland.
Words by Oliver Saria.
“When we came, it was pretty lonely,” recalls Min Young Lee, one half of the pioneering K-pop duo, As One, who moved to Seoul, South Korea in 1998 from Southern California after being discovered by a talent scout. Though she was born in ROK, Lee immigrated with her family to the US as a toddler, so she considered herself a Cali girl through and through. She remembers feeling particularly isolated in those early days.
AS ONE – “Only You Won’t Know” MV
At the time, Seoul was about a decade away from mind-blowingly fast blanket wireless internet. K-pop had yet to become the global phenomenon that it is today; and Korean audiences still had not fully embraced certain genres of American pop music that would eventually help to define K-pop. “We weren’t accepted right away,” remembers Lee. “It took them a while to get into our R&B style of singing.” To make matters worse for the pair, they couldn’t find a taco to save their lives; homesickness inextricably linked to the food they craved the most.
Fast-forward 14 years. Billboard now tracks the Korea K-pop Hot 100 chart. A handful of acts including Sistar, Ailee and Big Bang appear poised for crossover success, and to Lee’s delight, “Even Jamba Juice came to Korea. There’s like everything now!”
“It’s the best time to come out and really pursue your dreams,” according to Lee, who hosts a weekday K-pop radio program, K-Popular (TBS-FM) with her bandmate Crystal Chae.
As the hallyu wave keeps encircling the globe, countless non-native Koreans are catching it, turning up on South Korea’s shores, hoping to launch music careers. While no one really knows exactly how many, Lee has certainly seen a difference. “Around early 2000, I started to notice more [Korean Americans in K-pop]. But it wasn’t like a huge thing like it is now. There’s like one [American] in every team pretty much,” she says.
The lure of Korean music and culture, however, isn’t relegated to aspiring rappers and wannabe divas. Musicians of all stripes are looking toward Korea for both inspiration and opportunity.
Bobby Choy, a 34-year-old singer-songwriter from New York City who goes by the nom de folk, Big Phony, originally planned on moving to Portland, Oregon, after a stint in Los Angeles. But while visiting Korea, Choy encountered the vibrant indie music scene in the Hongdae district of Seoul. “I didn’t even know Korea had an indie scene,” Choy recounts. “I had thought Korea was all about K-pop and when I was visiting Seoul, I happened to catch some bands play [namely Idiotape, Galaxy Express and Vidulgi OoyoO], and I was just really impressed and excited for them and the scene they were a part of. I either wanted to be a part of it or at least observe what was going on.”
Big Phony – “I Love Lucy” MV
During that initial trip, Choy also secured a licensing deal in Korea for his existing music catalog and a publishing deal, which lead to work as a lyricist. For the epic WWII Korean film My Way, he wrote the lyrics to the theme song “To Find My Way.” Sung by Andrea Bocelli, the song appears as a bonus track on the tenor’s Asian release of his album, Concerto: One Night In Central Park. Since moving to Seoul in the fall of 2011, Choy has also penned several more as-yet unreleased tracks for various artists.
Music, however, wasn’t his sole purpose for moving to Korea. He explains that part of his motivation was “to try to find myself, to come out here and learn a little bit more about who my parents are and what they left.”
Similarly, 16-year-old singer-songwriter-YouTube-sensation, Megan Lee, had personal as well as professional reasons for auditioning for Season Two of popular South Korean competition show, MBC Star Audition. During her first trip to South Korea in 2010 to audition for Season One of the show, the L.A. native relished the opportunity to explore her Korean identity and looked forward to the opportunity to come back. “For the second audition, I definitely had the desire to learn more about the culture.” Megan would eventually make it onto the show and finished in the top 13. She’s been in South Korea for over a year now, off-and-on, with her mother and siblings.
Jason Mraz ft. Megan Lee in Seoul
An actress/performer since the age of 10 (she’s appeared in national commercials and television shows on Nickelodeon and Disney), Lee eventually grew weary of being typecasted. “The kind of roles I get are always very stereotypical, like the nerdy girl. Or I get a lot of prostitute roles; it’s really crazy. But it’s not like I’m giving up on the American industry, I’m just trying a different path.”
For those non-native Koreans interested in following that path, Lee advises would-be pop stars, “If you come to Korea, you have to speak the language. It’s basically the most important thing. If you don’t speak the language, that’s when [Koreans] wonder what’s wrong with you.”
Neither Choy nor Megan spoke much Korean when they first arrived, but both say their language skills have improved. “It’s gotten better, of course,” says Choy, “but when I first got here and I had to speak to the audience, they found it hilarious actually, the very little I knew. But the fact that I was trying was what they appreciated.”
Megan, however, wasn’t so lucky. The youngster wasn’t quite prepared for the bluntness of one ahjusshi (older Korean man) who worked on the show and frequently berated her: “You have to learn Korean! You aren’t learning fast enough!” Her mother had to explain to her that she shouldn’t take his comments personally. “They’re just like that,” Megan realized.
It wasn’t the only cultural difference she quickly had to adapt to. The work ethic in Korea can be – to put it lightly – intense, and anyone thinking about moving there should be prepared for some long hours. Megan recalls her first day on set. It began at 5:00am and did not end until 4:00am the next day. As a child actress in the US accustomed to working under the Screen Actors Guild’s stringent child labor laws, “It was a big shock,” Megan attests. “It was stressful at first. Even though, I had a lot of fun with it.”
Choy also had a baptism by fire. When he was given the opportunity to write the Bocelli song, according to him, “They gave me 24 hours. In that day, I had to research that genre. I had never even heard of ‘Popera.’”
“The first six months I was here,” Choy recounts, “I got so little sleep because of overwork. That’s just their work ethic. Sometimes it’s 20-hour days, which sounds ridiculous, but a lot of people, they have to deal with that. I really respect how hard-working people out here are. It’s affected me in a good way, I think.”
Labor laws be damned, all three of the artists affirm that regardless of the difficulties, the rewards have been great. Megan states, “I fell in love with Korean music and the culture even though there was a huge language barrier. I definitely feel more a part of the culture. When I listen to Korean music, there’s a certain inspiration that I get. That’s when I feel most Korean, through the music itself.” According to Megan, she’s turned down offers to lead girl groups to focus on her solo music career. Though she laments missing out on a normal high school experience, she’s convinced that what she’s doing now “is my destiny. And I just believe that I’m going to keep doing this for the rest of my life.” She’s currently studying for the GRE, while she writes songs for a planned LP.
For Lee, her work in South Korea continues to revolve around music (As One recently re-released their early hit, “Day by Day,” featuring veteran rapper, Verbal Jint), but she continues to stay for other reasons. “We have created a life here, we’ve been here so long. It’s mostly the people now, not so much the music. Korea is pretty much home.”
And for Big Phony, after a year of acclimating to the culture, he feels he has finally hit his stride. “I’m more plugged in, things are clearer,” he says. “I have a better idea of what I want to do out here, not just to be inspired, but I do want to get some things accomplished,” in particular his forthcoming album. Though he came to South Korea with few expectations, certainly no dreams of K-pop stardom, the experience has been gratifying. “I don’t regret coming out here,” he says, “I really do think I was meant to be here, whether it be artistic or personal. I think I’ve been affected in a good way.”
As K-pop clamors for its first true cross-over success, aspiring Korean-American musicians will continue to flock to South Korea with dreams of stardom and success, but in the process they may find something equally worthwhile: themselves.