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Article. Randy Suh(Music Writer)

#Essay

 

 

This is the first time I’ve ever written anything personal for Weverse Magazine. I felt like that would be the best way to approach this topic. All the reviews and columns I’ve written to date have been opinion pieces, but this article will shed light directly on my personal thoughts and feelings.

 

I’m Korean, and I was born in Korea. Now, I live in a different country. When I was growing up in Korea, I considered myself to be Korean. Well, I didn’t think about it, actually. It was too obvious to even come to mind. Now I consciously think about the fact that I’m Korean. At this point in my life, I have celebrated more of my birthdays outside Korea than in it. That means I’ve lived more of my life as an overseas Korean. Where I live now, I’m a member of a minority race. The society around me constantly says, You don’t look anything like us—who are you? Where did you come from? In the United States, I’m an overseas Korean or a Korean American first. I am, in a manner of speaking, a marginal person.

 

A marginal person, according to the sociological concept of the marginal man, describes someone in a state of ambiguity left unable to determine their identity when existing between two different societies. It means that someone who leaves the group they originally belonged to and moves somewhere new can’t give up their old way of thinking or lifestyle, but neither can they fully integrate into the new world. Everyone is different, but nearly every immigrant is a marginal person. That shouldn’t apply to second-generation immigrants and later, then, right? Wrong. Later generations, too, experience a deep-seated sense of disparity between the culture their parents brought with them from the old country and that of the country those later generations grow up in. Not only that, but if they aren’t the most widely represented race of that country, even if they were born and raised there, they will invariably suffer discrimination. Ethnic minorities who can never fully integrate: We are the marginal people.

 

As a marginal person, sometimes I think it’s the discrimination that’s made me who I am today. 

 

Looking at that last sentence, it sounds very passive. It could be mistaken as justification for those who discriminate against others. But I really do feel that way. It was that discrimination that awakened me. I would have loved to have stayed as I had been and not been impacted by anything around me, but I’m only human, and therefore a social animal, so that wasn’t the case. The fact that my identity is subject to discrimination means there is a hurdle I can never surmount, no matter how I may try. Sometimes I feel so empty. Discrimination is a human-made concept, not a law of nature, so I can’t understand why some people are so stuck in their ways. There are other people who climb the social ladder to beat discrimination and put their blood, sweat and tears into convincing society at large that they, too, are fit to live among the rest. I was like that once as well. Actually, I still am, sometimes. But when that discrimination repeatedly arouses my ethnicity, it takes me back to basics and makes me think of my Korean identity—the kind of person they want to exclude.

 

BTS goes to Washington

In the US, May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month. The White House invited numerous notable people from the AANHPI community throughout the month of May to talk about the discrimination they experience. On the last day of the month, BTS visited as well. Unlike a normal day at the White House, a flock of reporters swarmed to the short press conference the group held before they held a discussion with President Joe Biden. The members of BTS went around and each made small remarks, sometimes in English and sometimes in Korean. Their messages were clear and concise: “I think equality begins when we open up and embrace all of our differences.” “Everyone has their own history. We hope today is one step forward to respecting and understanding each and every one as a valuable person.” As the group was leaving, one Korean reporter raised up their voice and wished them well with a familiar Korean rallying cry: “BTS, fighting!” What can I say about how I was feeling at the time? I felt a sense of camaraderie with that person, believing we were experiencing the same difficult-to-describe emotions.

 

Responses online varied. Many Asian Americans said they felt inspired to see this group of visibly Asian artists stand up at the White House, addressing the room in their mother tongue and holding a private meeting with the US president. At the same time, others wondered out loud whether the group could properly represent Asian Americans living in the US when BTS themselves are not residents.

 

People weren’t suggesting the group didn’t have the right, though. As mentioned before, BTS’s visit drew a lot of attention to the issues at hand, which was their entire purpose for being there. Considering the number of people watching the White House live stream jumped from its usual triple-digit figure into the millions, SUGA’s words from after BTS gave a speech at the UN applied in this case as well: “We came here to do that as a special envoy … If more people watched this because of us, I think we've fulfilled our role successfully.” BTS has also personally experienced discrimination in the mainstream US media since the late 2010s because the members belong to an ethnic minority. Discrimination in the US is not some indirect experience for them. They also issued a statement on Twitter using the #StopAAPIHate hashtag in response to the shooting in Atlanta last year motivated by Asian hate—the most retweeted tweet of 2021 in the world.

 

Joon Lee, a writer for ESPN and a member of BTS’s fandom, ARMY, was pleased to see BTS at the White House inasmuch as, “as a kid, [it] would’ve been unimaginable to hear Korean being spoken from the White House podium.” However, he criticized the way Koreans and Asian Americans (and, by extension, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders) are crudely lumped together, calling it nothing short of American racism. Koreans and Asian Americans are alike in appearance, but their roots and points of social reference can differ. Lee argued that BTS is now in a position where they have to call out discrimination in countries they don’t even live in specifically because of the same discrimination ignoring that distinction, questioning the validity of this “absurd burden that BTS needs to shoulder.” And Lee was not alone in feeling this kind of conflict.

 

Personally, I feel there’s not enough social consensus on this issue, even among us Asian Americans. To begin with, the Asian American identity is a very wide spectrum. The racist Western concept of Orientalism forcibly groups us together as Asians, or Pan-Asian people, but Pan-Asia is an incredibly inaccurate and careless concept itself (and was used, coincidentally or not, in Asia for Imperial Japan to justify its colonial rule). It wasn’t easy for Asian Americans to organize during the US civil rights movement. Was it because so many different people were forced into one box? With the recent exponential rise in hate crime against Asians, we must now hurriedly reconsider and redevelop the concept of civil rights for Asian Americans. But this remains a very difficult task. I feel as though our discourse around the topic remains somewhat half-baked. At the same time, I believe the efforts that many different people are making are moving quickly to make up for the parts most in need of attention.

 

There are, naturally, different viewpoints between Koreans living in Korea and Korean Americans, as well as other Asians living in their home countries and their Asian American counterparts. Even with all the animosity between Asian countries, Asian Americans ultimately unite together as one. The same goes for people of Southeast Asian descent, people from the Indian subcontinent, Southwest Asians, Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, because we need every last person we can get to unite with us in order to stand up to the discrimination we collectively face from others. BTS is also aware that their experiences are different from those of Korean Americans and other Asian immigrants. In an interview for Amazon Music, SUGA and RM mentioned how Lee Isaac Chung’s film Minari must have been particularly meaningful for their interviewer Jaeki Cho as he had lived in the US for quite a long time. BTS was ready to use their platform all the same if it was going to be helpful for Asian Americans. As a Korean and Asian immigrant, I’m learning now that, even though we exist on a spectrum—Koreans at home and abroad have their differences the same as among other Asian immigrants—we need to come together as one. It isn’t easy, but I keep on looking for hope.

 

The impact BTS has had on me as a marginal person

BTS’s popularity and success have had an enormous impact on Korean and other Asian immigrants like me. This is an indisputable fact for fans and non-fans alike. I’m sure seeing these Asian stars on the most popular stages in the US and the outpouring of love they have received—not to mention the influence they wield—is a spectacle Asian Americans never expected to see in their lifetimes, and an especially touching one. It’s especially touching for us in the older generation, who were never able to experience this when we were young, to see what BTS is doing for children and teenagers today. Gone are the days when I had to explain what Korea is like to every new person I met. While this is surely thanks to the advances made by famous people across a variety of fields, I feel like BTS has played one of the biggest roles among them all. Pop music forms a part of culture that is loved relatively uniformly by everyone in the world. There’s hardly anyone left who hasn’t heard of BTS. Pretty much everyone knows they’re Korean and that they have a talent for dancing, singing and rapping. I remember how, as identity politics rose in the 2010s and diversity and representation in the media became more important, I was finally able to see progressively more Asian characters in the mainstream media who were cool and complex, breaking away at last from stock characters like the Asian nerd or the mysterious martial arts master. And BTS embodied these new images. For Korean and other Asian American immigrants like myself, BTS is more than a famous boy band. As I watch a wall that seemed like it would remain in place for all time slowly come down thanks to their arrival, I can’t help but feel like we’re witnessing a very important moment in history.

 

But for all the spectacle surrounding their appearance on the scene, there was no way they were ever going to be able to avoid becoming a target of racism. They always delt with gatekeeping in the industry, but when the COVID-19 pandemic began and a cloud of hatred toward Asians and Asian immigrants hung over the world, BTS found their name on discriminatory lips more often due to their celebrity status. But what gave me strength was the impressive number of ARMY who passionately fought back alongside them. Some of the fans, like BTS themselves, were Asian, but others were not. But they were all saddened and furious over the discrimination BTS faced as though it had been directed at themselves instead. The more people there were speaking out, the better they were able to leverage their collective intelligence to find the right words. Some people probably even learned some language and concepts that they were previously unfamiliar with. ARMY around the world kept the rally going, sometimes leading to formal apologies from the offending parties. Those who were a part of the experience will inevitably have cultivated a different attitude toward racial intolerance than those who have never been a part of something similar. Just seeing this side of BTS and ARMY over the past few years has given me a lot of hope.

 

On the music side of things, what was particularly impressive about BTS was that they long insisted on singing in Korean after entering the US market. Before BTS, it was generally considered a matter of course that Korean idols would start to think about releasing English singles when targeting the US. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Putting out English songs can sometimes be an occasion to try out something new. Throughout the 2010s, and up until the pandemic hit, BTS obstinately chose to follow a different path from the norm, however. And why was that? If I had to guess, I would say it was because BTS consider music with lyrics that send a message to be important. That made Korean a valuable resource for them: a more familiar language that allowed them to craft more beautiful lyrics and sing more skillfully and in greater detail. For RM in particular, although he had already proven numerous times his ability to write and perform long verses in English, he seems to be keener on making a name for himself as a Korean lyricist. In an interview he did with Weverse Magazine in late 2020, he quoted the painter Whanki Kim, who was born in Korea and breathed his last in the US: “I’m Korean, and I can’t do anything not Korean. I can’t do anything apart from this, because I am an outsider.” He said those words kept running around in his head. BTS has exceeded their original expectations, becoming the most popular singers in the world while continuing to perform songs in Korean. As a global artist, they must have had the option to go down the path of making music in English, the de facto global lingua franca (that is, the common language used in international settings where people speak different native languages; the influence of English in the modern day is unrivaled, likely a consequence of the colonial reach of the British Empire in the past and the US’s current cultural dominance the world over). In the end, however, what resonated with them the most and what they chose to explore was music in the language of the country they were born and raised in—Korean music.

 

There is a strong bond between language and ethnic identity. This is especially true for languages like Korean that are mainly spoken by people whose ethnicity is tightly intertwined with them. What good is having a stable ethnic identity? Nothing substantial. It just helps them feel less existential threat. This has no bearing on the lives of people who never feel threatened by that existential dread. But for a marginal person like me, who has lived a substantial portion of their life in a foreign country and feels they speak less than perfectly in both their first and second languages, losing parts of that first language comes with something of an identity crisis—like losing a part of existence itself. BTS never left Korea the way I did. They’re still Korean. They still hold Korean citizenship. But now that they’ve been called to the world stage, they must have experienced what it means to be marginal people. Surely they have encountered places all over that try to push Koreans out, and they must have faced pressure to erase their Korean identity and integrate into other countries' ways of life. (The key flaw in the American melting pot is that while it appears at first to be accepting of marginal people, it discriminates harshly against those who refuse to let go of their former identity.) I believe they must have experienced a similar feeling to me—that the discrimination served in part to make them who they are today. I imagine they, too, live thinking about the dilemma of the marginal person from time to time.

 

Different but connected

There’s an interview I really like that I keep going back to: Sharon Choi, widely recognized for her work as director Bong Joon Ho’s interpreter, held an interview with Korean Canadian-American actor Sandra Oh. In it, Oh says she was deeply impressed by the speech Bong gave while accepting the numerous awards for his film Parasite, calling it surreal to see a visibly Korean, or even just Asian, man up on that revered stage giving his acceptance speech without a trace of intimidation. (The whole interview is great—even the part where Oh says Bong “has not been raised in a racist society” and Choi softly corrects her by explaining that “he’s never been a part of the minority.”) Oh is a phenomenal actor and easily ranks among the most accomplished of her Asian contemporaries. So I felt sorry and sympathetic when even someone of her stature was taken aback by how confident an Asian person can be when they haven’t been subjected to discrimination their entire life. I take that back—someone like Oh who is famous and works hard would actually experience more discrimination, being right in the fray as she is. I feel something similar when I see BTS—that is, both the admiration Oh had for Bong Joon Ho, and the sympathy I have for her when she talks about it.

 

At the same time, I also believe BTS may have been helped along and influenced by those of us who moved to other continents to live there first. To be human is to fear the unknown. If we don’t intermingle with one another, we will other and fear one another without restraint, and in the end, hate or even try to erase each other. I think that Asians have even found a place in Western countries like the US thanks to the people who came before and struggled through living there as Asian people; that even the people there have made small steps toward thinking about diversity, including about Asians; that perhaps all of that had an influence on BTS as well. Sandra Oh’s recent conversation with Squid Game actor Jung Ho-yeon for Variety’s Actors on Actors demonstrates the kind of insight and tolerance that the Asian women who have already been down “that path” possess. Similar to what I said before, Jung also expressed concern over whether she can know these feelings “like [the] Asian American community” can and, because she “lived in Korea almost [her] whole life,” whether she is “allowed to represent them.” Oh, sympathizing with the sense of responsibility, had no shortage of useful advice for her. You can see how she takes her experience as an Asian person who’s already lived through all of it and uses it to help out those who come after her. There’s no need to wash out the differences between Koreans and Korean immigrants, or between Asians and Asian immigrants, to join together as one. There is a spectrum in which a person can feel a little closer to Korea, or a little closer to their adoptive country. We may have different identities, but we are connected by the mutual help we give one another as we do our best to live our own lives. It’s inevitable that we should be connected. And I think this, too, can be seen as another form of solidarity.

 

Even now, as I approach the end of this essay, I’m not sure how it will be received. Some people find it difficult to picture a spectrum of identities that fall outside their own, so this may not really reach them. Moreover, identities that are grouped together under one name like AANHPI have a tendency to be in flux depending on the direction political and social discourse take, so while I may be in the right to say these things today, the article could be very wrong five or 10 years from now. But until that happens, I’ll likely keep on thinking about BTS and their connection to marginal people. A show of solidarity, done my own way.

 

 

A big thanks to my friend Alice, who helped with the research for this piece.