Siena Yates on the joy of Korean pop culture and the freedom of taking off her cool
Remember when you were a teenager and you couldn't like anything?
"Liking" isn't an option when you're 16 and made of angst, hormones and energy drinks. You either hate something with all the rage you can muster, are completely indifferent, or you love something with your whole heart, all of your time and the entire contents of your parents' wallet.
Recently, I've found myself back in that latter space and I'm loving the feeling of loving something so completely again. I feel like "growing up" robbed me of this feeling by tricking me into thinking I was supposed to grow out of it because apparently with age comes only misery and bills.
But due to a recent obsession with K-culture, I now spend all of my days singing and dancing, and obsessively binge-watching whatever content I come across. It's going to sound a bit nuts, but it's genuinely made me a happier person.
It's changed the way I see the world, how I think about certain situations and how I define happiness.
I'm so in love, I've even accidentally started learning Korean and unwittingly bowing to people.
If you're not familiar with K-culture, it's the TV shows, movies and especially pop music coming out of South Korea. Its global popularity - which has been growing exponentially since the early 90s - has been dubbed "the Korean wave".
Media experts predict the K-wave has the power to reduce Hollywood to a puddle, and frankly, I think it should. What's coming out of Korea is easily on par with if not beyond where Hollywood seems to have stagnated.
I won't pretend I've been on the bandwagon this whole time. I, like many others, jumped on board following the success of the Oscar-winning film Parasite. I dabbled a bit but content was somewhat hard to come by and I wasn't sure where to start.
Then Squid Game happened.
I loved Netflix's viral K-drama for various reasons: the action and brutality made it a riveting watch but the premise of getting financially desperate people to put their lives on the line for a grand cash prize was exactly the right one for 2021. It came at a time where a lot of anti-capitalist sentiment is building - particularly among young people - on social media, the great resignation is in full swing and people everywhere are questioning the status quo after Covid lockdowns changed the way society functions.
A lot of K-dramas are similarly anti-establishment. They heavily criticise capitalistic systems and a Korean work culture that runs people into the ground, and the "bad guys" are often corrupt politicians, greedy corporations and dirty cops. That's what I love about them. They'll often challenge institutions and ideals that America lauds.
I recently re-watched Will Smith's The Pursuit of Happyness - and Christ, it was depressing. Especially because the messaging is "if you work hard, anyone can make it" - because apparently "making it" in America is just being able to house and feed your child without having a nervous breakdown.
The K-dramas I've watched aren't concerned with "making it". They seem to have accepted that for many people, you get the lot you're dealt and you have to make the most of it, because that's capitalism. But there's no defeatism; instead, the messaging is around the things and measures of success that really matter in life.
I've watched K-dramas in the action, romance, fantasy, horror and drama genres, and even a delightful show about four misfits who get powers to hunt evil spirits but also run a ramen restaurant (see: The Uncanny Counter).
Every time, there is an emphasis on doing the right thing, honouring your ancestors, providing for your descendants and focusing on the small things in life that make you happy, the most important of which - more often than not - is simply enjoying good food.
Even when people are being murdered en masse or a woman is single-handedly taking down a major drug ring, the themes usually remain hopeful and centred on morality, love and family.
These kinds of values shine through even brighter when we look to what is perhaps the greatest joy in the K-wave; K-pop, and in particular, BTS.
They're the biggest music act in the world and have won scores of awards in Korea and abroad, sold-out major stadium shows around the world - including Wembley - in mere minutes, released nine studio albums, produced a plethora of reality TV shows and amassed a dedicated global fanbase millions-strong, known as Army.
If you haven't heard of BTS, don't feel bad.
Until they recently released a string of all-English hits, they haven't had much air time here because they perform in Korean, despite the fact their music - an infectious blend of pop, hip-hop and R&B - transcends language barriers (I wasn't kidding about having accidentally started learning Korean).
Their music is an instant anti-depressant and their online content is filled with wholesome joy - in particular, seeing them in their reality shows really drew me in.
They're seven men in their 20s who couldn't care less about traditional ideas of "masculinity". They have long hair, wear skirts and makeup, use dance moves we're only used to seeing women do, and absolutely slay a falsetto.
They're physically affectionate toward one another, open with their emotions and insecurities, they don't overly sexualise themselves - not by Western standards, anyway - and they sing as much about politics, social issues and mental health as they do unity, self-love and friendship.
Their reality show In The Soop particularly affected me as a show about the members simply taking a break where, just like in the K-dramas, there's never been a more perfect reminder about what really matters in life.
Despite being "grown-ups" and global superstars, BTS members spend their days mostly just playing - another thing we're told to "grow out of" as adults, but something I have now resolved to do more of.
They play cards, sports and video games and if there are no games, they'll just make one up. They'll also go their separate ways and read, paint or write - whatever makes them happiest in the moment. Most importantly, they'll always regroup to share a meal and honestly, if pure joy had a visual, it would be member Jeon Jungkook shovelling food in his mouth like he's never tasted food before.
All this is to say that the values and ideals I've seen and heard in my - frankly obsessive - consumption of Korean media make me want to be a better person and live a simpler life.
It's a reminder to focus on what matters to us despite what society tells us "should" matter. That work, money and success are nothing and family, love and self have to come first. Perhaps most importantly, it's a reminder of how important and fulfilling it is to be of service to my elder family members and to allow them to care for me, too.
It's also a reminder to laugh, cry, dance, scream and play and give a middle finger to whoever dares judge you.
Something weird happened in Western culture where "being cool" became more important than being happy. We started glorifying having an "air of mystery" and not letting things phase us.
We're not supposed to cry but we're also not supposed to get too excited about things - especially as adults - because if people know you care, your cool, James Dean-style aloofness is gone. I hate that about us.
Riding the K-wave, I just want to play again and break into song and dance in public and get as much enjoyment out of running around in the rain or eating a good meal as I used to only get from landing in a foreign country or going to a live show.
I'm sick of trying to be cool. I've never been much good at it anyway.
I'd rather be happy.