(Secretly) K-POP Changed My Life

“Why did you start learning Korean?” is a question that instills fear in me, right down to the bone.


It’s not such an easy question to answer. After becoming involved in Hanwoori, meeting foreign exchange students, and participating in the general Korean community here in Hawaii, I have learned firsthand that answers to this question can generate both positive and negative reactions from Koreans. The latter is more frequent.


-Answer 1: I had friends in grade school that were Korean and by becoming their friend I really started to become interested in Korean and Korean culture.

-Answer 2: I went to a Korean culture day/Korean event and was inspired by what I saw.


These answers will in general receive positive reactions from Koreans and those deeply interested in Korea as a whole because it shows the impact of making connections with Korean people and the actual value of Korean culture.


-Answer 3: I like K-POP.

-Answer 4: I like K-dramas.


In my experience (and the experience of many of my friends) the two answers above are generally judged by Koreans, due to the learner’s singular focus on the popular/mainstream side of Korean culture. These answers can indicate a superficiality in the reason why someone started learning Korean and reasons why they may still like Korea and Korean people. This is due to a common thought that many people want to learn Korean only because of the attractive men and women of K-POP and/or sing along to songs.

The Real Reason I Started Learning Korean

I will admit, the reason why I wanted to start learning Korean was due to KPOP. One day, on a warm, spring night in 2011, I opened my favorite website, YouTube, and saw a new music video under the most watched videos list.

It was that fateful click that changed my life forever.

“Love Song,” by Big Bang, happened to be the most watched music video during that moment, back when YouTube had a ‘most watched’ video link. What’s interesting, however, was that I actually got hooked on K-POP when I clicked on Seungri’s song “어쩌라고 (What can I do)” in the recommended videos section. I was mesmerized by it all. Immediately, I was a fan of Big Bang and my favorite member transferred from Seungri over to TOP before I knew what hit me.

Deeper into the World of KPOP

I soon found SHINee, 2pm, Infinite, MBLAQ, and Teen Top. The utterly gorgeous facade that is the K-POP world kept my dream to go to Korea alive. I would like to add here, however, that I was not a completely head-over-heels fan. I didn’t buy groups’ CDs obsessively, I didn’t write fanfiction, and I have never called any K-POP boy band member my husband, and that’s saying something.

Beyond KPOP

When I graduated high school, my fixation on K-POP had died down substantially, but it was still a part of me. I still listened to my favorite groups and watched their music videos. I could keep a conversation about new groups that came out, but not the names of the members. As I became more serious about learning Korean, I really started to look into the cultural aspects of Korea which caused that facade of Korea only being a place of song, dance, and attractive people to disappear. I began to see Korea for the valuable nation it is, priding its rich culture and history.

The moment I came to college, that dreaded question, “why did you start learning Korean,” often found me, and I quickly realized that if I answered with anything related to K-POP, the reaction would be somewhat negative. I was ashamed.

I quickly learned to curb acknowledgment to the mention of K-POP. Someone once said their name was 양요섭 (Yang Yoseob). He shared the same name as a member in the group, Beast, and I had to pretend like I had never heard of Beast before. I started feeling guilty for liking K-POP. As the years went by, I watched K-POP music videos less and less. Now, I can barely keep up a conversation about it. My song tastes have changed as well. I now listen to the likes of Zion T, Bumkey, Crush, Verbal Jint, and Primary.

Reality: Liking KPOP Makes You Look Like a Crazy Fan

I know some people who keep up an act of not liking KPOP/K-dramas in front of others, when in reality they are extreme fans. They must hide a real and vital part of their personality because of the perceived judgement they think they will receive from Koreans.

Sometimes, I too just want to jam out to Fantastic Baby or talk about the 2pm concert I went to this summer. I want all the reasons I started learning Korean to be accepted. I’ve become more than just a girl that likes K-POP and I see Korea for more than that now, but I can’t just let that old part of me die. It helped me come to where I am today. I’m sure it’s done that for many people. I know it has pulled them out of depression, celebrated with them, comforted them through break ups, and accompanied them on car rides coming home from a long day of school.

Moving Beyond Others' Judgements

I believe K-POP or K-dramas shouldn’t be anyone’s constant reason for learning Korean because the language holds so much more meaning than the lyrics of a KPOP song, but it’s not a terrible reason to begin wanting to learn the language. It should be a perfectly valid answer to that daunting question.


**Note from Raquel: All of the opinions I have on how people who like KPOP/k-dramas are viewed by the Korean community are merely based on experiences from myself and friends. As of December 4, 2015 I could not find any any data/research on this topic. I am not trying to generalize all Korean people by saying that they judge people who like KPOP. There are some Koreans I have met that have quite the opposite opinion. This piece just comments on a trend that I have noticed in the Korean language learner community. There will always be outliers, people who are exceptions and bless the heavens that they exist. A note above all: You do you, and don’t be too ashamed of your past; that’s what got you to where you are today.**



Raquel “Rocky” Reinagel is a MA candidate and graduate assistant in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa; former president of Hanwoori Hawaiʻi; and Co-President of the Second Language Studies Student Association (SLSSA) at UHM.