I’m Korean, I Don’t Relate To The K-Wave, And That’s Okay

Naeun Kim
With my grandma
Once upon a time, BTS meant behind the scenes, a parasite was something you learned about in biology and a green light followed by a red light only caused panic if you were on the road. Back then, the only Korean making headlines was for all the wrong reasons and someone I have no relation to — Kim Jong Il became the reason I had to constantly explain that "Kims" are the "Smiths" of Korea. 
Countless K-pop groups and one Supreme Leader later, something changed. The K-wave rippled across the world — K-pop, K-dramas and K-beauty became mainstream. A full 26 Korean words were added to the Oxford Dictionary just last year. 
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Squid Game is now Netflix’s most-watched show, Parasite is the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, and BTS has broken as many Billboard records as they’ve broken hearts. They’re now the reason why my white colleagues ask for Korean restaurant recommendations, my hairdresser plays Dynamite in the salon, and strangers perk up in excitement when they learn I’m Korean Australian.
But I have a confession to make: I’m a fraud. I suffer from Kim-poster syndrome. At face value, I’m Korean to the core. I eat kimchi every day, adhere to a 10-step skincare regimen, and drink soju like it's water. But asking me which Korean show you should watch next or who Lee Min-Ho is dating is like asking a guard from Squid Game for a clue in the next challenge.
I had flirted a little with Korean pop culture in high school, but the fling was disappointing and born out of curiosity, compulsion and conformity. Every song sounded like a carbon copy of each other and celebrities looked like they were churned out of the same factory. Over-the-top storylines in dramas were as predictable as kimchi at dinner — a tragic accident or malicious person standing in the way of true love were a staple that quickly became stale.
Yet, the K-wave began to swell, seeping into nearby countries like Vietnam and Japan. Eventually, the phenomenon became global and during that time, unbeknownst to me, many had overtaken me in the Koreanness category. 
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This shortcoming was soon pointed out to me at a friend’s birthday party last year.  
“There’s someone who’s dying to meet you,” he declared. 
Intrigued and flattered, I was dragged over to the corner to be greeted by an enthusiastic “annyeong!” She was small, brunette, wore glasses — and white. She began to spurt out perfectly crafted sentences in Korean and named all the members of BTS in order of attractiveness. She had just finished her beginner Korean course and was planning her third trip to the country. I was extremely impressed, but also very intimidated. 
I have only been to my mother’s homeland once. It was in 2009, just after high school and a short enough trip to discern that I was as foreign as Vegemite to my fellow Koreans. Shopkeepers would greet me in English, or even Japanese, and locals I met would politely tease me about my minimal and very outdated knowledge of Korean celebrities. 
Ever since then, I began to notice how un-Korean I was. One of my white colleagues shares and introduces me to various Korean snacks. She's managed to unearth a Korean supermarket near our office (one I didn’t know existed) and her latest find was Maxim coffee mix, a staple she’d spotted in the kitchens of many Korean dramas. She still enthusiastically talks to me about the latest series she’s binged, even though she knows I haven’t pressed play on a K-drama since DVDs killed the video star. 
I had a 13-minute conversation with a Maori Uber driver who has watched every Korean series on Netflix. She had even gotten her husband onto them. Boys Over Flowers was his favorite so far. 
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Another colleague, also white, is a keen cook and lover of Korean food. He often makes Korean at home and brings in a dish for me to sample and provide feedback. I was enjoying this transaction until he asked me how to make kimchi. I’ve always identified as a connoisseur, not a cook. My kitchen skills are capped at grilled sandwiches and I don’t have the patience to wait three days for anything to ferment — that’s what grandmas are for. 
But it turns out grandmas are also good for other things. As my grandma’s official taste-tester and sous chef, I would spend hours in the kitchen passing her ingredients as well as passing the time, exchanging stories as well as looks whenever mum tried to chime in. She’s now been employed as my casual Korean tutor, helping me polish my language skills as I devour her special of the day. Admittedly, this is all a ploy to spend more time with her, but the arrangement is a win-win. I help empty her fridge while tapping more into my heritage. 
Since then, I’ve unashamedly jumped on the bandwagon whenever I've felt like it. It wasn’t until Parasite came out in 2019 that I came crawling back to Korean culture. Full of pride, I swapped my iPhone for a Samsung and even added a K-pop playlist to my Spotify. Perhaps it was a juvenile act of rebellion, like not wanting to hang out with your parents when you’re young. Then one of your friends compliments your dad’s car and another approves of your mum’s song choice and the oldies aren’t so embarrassing after all.
I’ve since come to terms with the fact that many non-Koreans may outshine me in my own culture, but I’ve also accepted that my tastes are always changing. And as long as the K-wave continues to age like a fine kimchi, I’ll continue coming back for seconds. 

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