It's K-Pop Week! Teen Vogue is exploring the popular music genre with articles that explore its origins, biggest stars, and intricacies.
My first foray into K-pop was as a teenager in the late ‘00s. Before I was bumping BLACKPINK at parties in Greenpoint basements or begging DJs at weddings to play a BTS bop, I was just a wee adolescent in Southern California who stayed up too late trying to teach myself the choreography from SUPER JUNIOR’s “Sorry, Sorry” music video and driving to school with 2NE1’s “Fire” blasting from my car’s stereo.
K-pop has been around for decades, but there’s no doubt that the genre has seen a recent explosion in popularity with Western audiences. The rise of K-pop in the U.S. has made me nostalgic for my teenage years, the time of my life when my Asian-American identity felt uncomplicated by the world around me. As I listen and sing along to today’s biggest K-pop sensations, I feel reconnected to that part of my identity more than ever — it feels like home.
Half-Filipino, half-Mexican, I grew up in Southern California, a place where I was constantly surrounded by different cultures and races. My friend groups throughout the years were always fairly diverse and down to try the food and music from various worlds. By the time I could drive, it wasn’t uncommon for us to stop to get boba before ultimately ending up at Albertaco’s for a late afternoon snack of taquitos or carne asada fries.
There’s a huge Korean population where I’m from; according to the 2010 U.S. Census, Orange County had the second-largest Korean population among U.S. counties. Korean culture felt like home because it was inherently part of my hometown. The first time I forgot lunch during elementary school, a kind classmate shared her packed lunch of Korean food. I swapped cuss words in Spanish for curses in Korean with the boys on the playground, and we giggled at having these expletives added to our vocabularies. After major high school milestones like dances or finishing the SATs, we often celebrated with Korean BBQ, with whichever friend who knew Korean making the orders because that often granted us better service. Korean culture, and especially the language, was constantly around me during my childhood and teen years in north Orange County. So, it only makes sense that I’d be introduced to K-pop before it hit the popularity it has today in 2019.
What really opened up the floodgates was Girls’ Generation’s viral track “Gee.” That chorus was just so damn catchy (“Gee gee gee gee baby baby baby”) paired with the bright, pop melodies. I loved the song so much that some friends and I even dressed up as some of the group members, me paring a simple white V-neck with bright red jeans I bought from Hot Topic. Soon, I was asking my Korean friends for other groups to bop along to. After listening to the iconic boy group BIGBANG, I stumbled upon 2NE1 thanks to the groups’ collaboration “Lollipop.” 2NE1’s song “Fire” had two music video versions, Space and Street. I sang along during the English parts to these songs and tried learning the Korean parts even though I had no clue what I was saying (a number of my friends were kind enough to help with pronunciation even though I never fully nailed it). I was already a lover of Western pop during high school, but K-pop seemed more innovative than what I was listening to on the radio. K-pop artists were bending genres, adding elements of EDM and R&B to their music before many Western musicians were. I loved K-pop so much that I was even featured in our senior yearbook for a section about K-pop fans (yes, I wore my “Gee” outfit). Undoubtedly, K-pop was part of the soundtrack of my life during those last few years of teenhood.
Then I ended up at Northwestern University in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, which was a culture shock in more ways than one. I went from my high school, which was mostly of people of color, to a post-secondary institution that flipped the scales. Not only that, but I was around a level of wealth that I had never experienced before. Kids that mentioned “meal plan hacks” involving their parents’ credit cards, classmates that had second homes they were spending Thanksgiving or Winter Break at, something called ski trip where you didn’t even really ski you just drank Natty Light and got in hot tubs. Northwestern opened my eyes up to an entirely different world than the one I grew up in, one that I would largely be navigating the rest of my life and career as I pursued a career in journalism and entertainment.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I was whitewashed by my college experience, but lots of people of color know what it’s like to have to assimilate in certain ways to these white spaces. There were cultural affinity groups I could have joined, but I was largely focused on other organizations I became involved in, such as the student newspaper and the residential college board. However, many of the friends I made were also Asian-American or people of color and there were the little things that we did that reminded me of home in Southern California: going down to the Argyle Red Line stop to get pho, buying handmade tamales at the Evanston farmer’s market, and eating out at one of the numerous Asian restaurants near campus when we needed comfort food. Every once in a while, when high school memories were indulged, I’d bring up my love for K-pop. To my surprise and delight, every so often another friend knew what I was talking about when it came to Girls’ Generation, SUPER JUNIOR, or 2NE1.
Fast forward to today, as groups such as BTS, BLACKPINK, LOONA, and more dominate stan Twitter and charts, I can’t help but feel sentimental about my early days with K-pop and my youth back home. Back then, I felt so secure in Asian-American identity thanks to the community that was fostered at school and in the cluster of cities pocketed in north Orange County. College in the Midwest at a predominantly white institution made me more aware of my race than ever, in a way that uprooted some of that certainty that I once had. That awareness continues today — in high school, there was often never a classroom I was in that didn’t have another Asian person other than myself. Today, there are certain bars I go out to or conference rooms for meetings I step into that I am the only Asian in the room. But the phenomenon that K-pop has become grants me strength, reminds me just how strong that culture is, vigorous enough to nab today’s K-pop stars wins at award shows or performances as some of the biggest music festivals.
I might not be as into K-pop as I once was as a teenager, but putting on BTS and hearing the Korean makes me gleeful, it transports me back to a time where my Asian-American experience was easy, essential, and nuanced. Sometimes when I’m having a rough day, all I need is a little K-pop to pick me up and remind me of where I came from.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue