If you didn’t already know, we’ve got a special series to kick off the new year! Guests posts, by patrons on Patreon, sharing their personal drama stories, mostly around the topic of “How did you get into dramas?” and “What does your first drama mean to you?” – with flexibility to go off on personal tangents, of course. 😁 Feel free to share your stories too, in the comments!
This guest series is MC‘s brainchild (thanks MC! ❤️). You can check out the earlier posts in this series as follows: MC, Sean, Shahz, JJ, Martina, Beth, Uyen & Ella. After today’s post, there will be one last guest post by one last mystery guest writer, whose identity will be revealed when their post goes live. Woot! 🥳
Today’s post is brought to you by Leslie, who is as sweet, wise and thoughtful, as she is unassuming and modest. When we were planning the year-end awards series of guest posts, Leslie had demurred, saying that she didn’t feel confident to write a post. Now that she’s actually written one, though, I’m blown away by what a great storyteller she is! You rock, Leslie, and don’t let anyone tell you different (even yourself)! 😘
I hope you guys enjoy!
~ KFG ❤️
I’d had no intention of writing a post about my kdrama origin story, because honestly, the story seemed rather ho-hum.
But reading my fellow Patrons’ stories caused me to reflect on why I came, stayed, and still spend a lot of time here, in kdramaland. Insights emerged, and suddenly I couldn’t stop writing about it! Inevitably, I concluded: I’ve written it – so why not share it? (Gulp.)
So, thank you, KFG, for offering your platform for our stories. Thanks to all of you who have shared yours, and those of you who’ve cheered us on. Without further ado …
My Gateway Korean Dramas and How I Avoided an Existential Crisis
By way of introduction, I’m an inveterate traveler.
International travel takes me mostly to Europe and Asia, but I’ve also been to all 50 U.S. states. I lived in Taiwan for over a year, and spent an extended time in Florence. To my chagrin, I’ve missed visiting the entire continent of South America, so far. The pandemic quashed a trip to Argentina, but, surely, I’ll be able to get there… soon?
All of this to say, that ever since my first trip abroad when I was 17, as a summer exchange student near Dortmund, Germany, I’ve seen myself as a Citizen of the World, who has a corresponding world view.
With that, my kdrama arc begins.
Stand By Your Man, Jung Hae In, and Pretty, Pretty Costumes
On the one hand, my intro to kdrama was rather anticlimactic.
In 2018, I watched Something in the Rain, a Netflix recommendation, I presume. I know I wasn’t looking for a non-Western offering, and wasn’t the least bit aware of Korean entertainment, Hallyu, or soft power. But the story looked cute, and the actors cuter, so why not?
I was impressed with, but mostly, very surprised by, the high production values of the drama, the attractiveness of the actors, the quality of acting, and the modernity of the sets, and of Seoul. Who knew South Korea offered all of that? Not me.
I found the story engaging enough to see it through all 16 episodes. “Stand by Your Man” became an ice pick to my brain nearly every 30 minutes, however, so I fast forwarded through more than one scene when the song cued, especially scenes involving endless soulful walks in the misty night rain. I was disappointed that a Korean drama would use an American standard as a main musical theme, but reckoned that South Korea must not have a big modern music industry, so had borrowed from the U.S. – right?
I found the story intriguing, largely because I couldn’t understand the central tension of the drama – what I now know as, the noona story – and wanted to figure out what the problem was.
I kept thinking that if I watched just one more episode, I’d understand why it was so problematic for a younger man and an older woman, who really was not that senior, to be together. Eventually I took to Google to find answers to, what I finally realized, was a cultural rather than dramatic issue in my comprehension. And got some satisfaction.
But my research also opened Pandora’s Box. I found references to honorifics, information about South Korean economy, dating scandals, chaebols (chaebols?), education, why Koreans call someone else’s grandmother, grandmother… that just confused me more. Too Much Information.
I closed the Box, but not before I somehow, from somewhere, picked up the impression, from something I scan-read, that South Korea produced one, or two, 16-episode dramas a year, that were enthusiastically watched by a large percentage of the South Korean population. What a great little niche genre I’ve discovered, I thought.
Despite the underwhelming resolution of Something in the Rain, I did have some pretty intense feelz during the 16 episodes, so I made a mental note to check Netflix the following year, to see if it was airing the 2019 South Korean Drama Series.
🙄 (Eyeroll Emoji)
Fast forward a year, when, bored with my cable TV offerings, I remembered that Netflix might have released Korea’s 2019 Series.
Sure enough, after minimal exploration, up popped One Spring Night. And, cool! It was the same male lead – Jung Hae In. Gosh, I thought, he must be something special, to star – two years in a row! – in one of the 1 or 2 series that South Korea produced annually.
I enjoyed this drama more than the previous one. I found the leads well-matched, and the soundtrack was certainly superior. Although, I was still puzzled by why a young man, who chose to do the right thing and become a responsible single parent, would be considered risky, if not poor, husband material?
Then, towards the end of the year, I came across Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung, and, though a little surprised that Netflix was airing a second Korean drama in 2019, selected it for my first sageuk.
Of course, at the time, I didn’t know the word sageuk, nor any of the tradition (or history) behind Korean historical dramas. I was simply taken by the beautiful clothes (what must the costume budget be?!), the elaborate sets, and the stylized way historical people interacted with each other.
I wondered whether the central story, of women being allowed into the honorable ranks of Court Historian as early as the 1820s, was accurate (unexpectedly progressive!), and if the acute paleness of the male lead was actually considered attractive (also, wasn’t he tall for a Korean man? Maybe it’s his funny-looking tall hat, I mused.)
Wherein, An Existential Crisis (Since Averted)
Remember that, I started the previous section with “On the one hand”? Yes, I enjoyed my first three kdramas, but there was a lot I didn’t understand, nor appreciate, about them. I was not immediately in kdrama heaven.
And do you remember, too, that I viewed myself as an enlightened Citizen of the World?
So now, here’s the “On the other hand.”
These three dramas introduced me to a country, a culture, and an industry that was, quite literally, nowhere on my intellectual or cultural or TV screen prior to September 2018. And, I was intrigued, but a little shocked, as well, by what I didn’t know.
As I Googled, more and more frequently, to try and figure out why characters acted as they did, or what the context was, or who these actors were (Cha Eun Woo is an idol actor? Idol of what? Oh, South Korea has a thriving music industry, too?!), it became very, very clear to me that I was…
A total ignoramus.
I was ignorant not only about the Korean entertainment industry, that had been spreading its influence in Asia for more than 20 years (which was unhip, but not uncool, worldview-wise), but also about the hugely influential, highly developed, very successful, sophisticated, and complex country, that is South Korea.
I also realized, that if I had a blind spot about all things South Korea, I likely had more, for other countries and other regions of the world. I was humbled. I felt quite ugly, if you know what I mean.
I almost relinquished my Citizen of the World passport.
But – and I never thought I would say these words – luckily, along came a pandemic.
As I watched kdrama after kdrama throughout that year, I immersed myself in a new culture, learning about many of those things I had stuffed back into Pandora’s Box – and more.
The history! The culture! The geography! The politics! The food! The values! The k-pop! The scandals! The gorgeous clothes! The gorgeous men! The love.
I remember messaging Fangurl, around the time I joined Patreon in 2020, that I felt like kdrama had allowed me to keep on traveling, even while the pandemic kept me pretty much locked in my home.
Wikipedia, MyDramaList, AsianWiki, and of course, The Fangirl Verdict, at hand, I furiously Googled my way through 2020, growing my knowledge and appreciation of kdrama, k-ent, and South Korea in general.
Appreciating the new window into culture that drama provided, I began exploring Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, and Thai drama, as well.
My first non-Korean option was Taiwan’s Back to 1989, a time-travel romance, that’s worth checking out. Expanding my regional horizons, I tried to find a foothold in African dramas last year… without success, but it was a start.
I’m inspired by Shahz’s recent post, to explore Pakistani and Indian drama in 2022. I may head south of my border for a South American drama series – prep for a rescheduled trip, perhaps? Your recommendations are invited and appreciated.
Kdrama is likely to continue as the focus of my drama attention, partly because of its high quality and ready availability, but mostly because I just love the stories. Kdrama has given me an exhilarating ride. Emotionally and intellectually stimulating, it’s just so… satisfying.
And let’s be real. A good dollop of heat 🔥, served up on the regular, does not hurt, either. Here’s looking at you Gong Yoo 😉, Junho 😉, So Ji Sub 😉, Jo In Sung 😉, Yoo Ah In 😉, Ryu Jun Yeol 😉, Jang Hyuk 😉 … Oh! Oh yeah. I’m not writing for Fangurl’s post on the female gaze, am I? Joesonghamnida. 🙏🏼 I’ll wrap this up.
Something in the Rain, One Spring Night, and Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung, collectively, were a gateway into the whole wide world outside of Western TV, and, into the soul of Korean drama. They didn’t all grab me by the heart, but they each took hold of my imagination and my world lens. They humbled me, then allowed me to expand and explore the world in ways I had not imagined, before 2018.
My Citizen of the World passport has been renewed, and I wield it now, with more awareness.
Thanks for reading… and I sincerely invite you, fellow kdrama lovers, to share your kdrama origin stories, too! Let’s keep expanding our worlds!
Since 2020 was all about my kdrama and South Korea education, I’ll close with 6 shows that fueled my drama travels that year. These are the ones that ultimately opened my heart and mind to Korean drama – and began gobbling up my free time.
Coffee Prince (2007)
An iconic kdrama, Coffee Prince hardly needs description. I will share that, I kept referring back to the release date while I watched, because of how well it handled a, seeming love attraction between two men. I was impressed and endeared. I love the love stories of both main couples.
In addition to introducing me to Gong Yoo – reason enough to make the show a favorite – I discovered Lee Sun Kyun, Yoon Eun Hye, and the loveable Coffee Prince team. I’m almost finished with Lee Sun Kyun’s Dr. Brain (2021), a 6-episode series, on Apple TV. It’s a cerebral thriller that’s worth the watch, if you already have Apple TV.
If you, too, are a Coffee Prince fan, My Dear Youth (Viki) is a worthwhile 2020 cast remembrance of the summer they filmed Coffee Prince. It’s a little trippy to see the cast 13 years later, and a lot of fun.
It’s Ok, That’s Love (2014)
This show knocked my socks off, especially the chemistry between our OTP. Jo In Sung was 🔥 in his role as writer, landlord, DJ, and ultimately, suffering patient. Gong Hyo-jin was great in her character as an intelligent, vulnerable-yet-strong, feisty-yet-compassionate doctor and partner/lover.
I love the sound track – probably because several songs are in English, and I understand the lyrics. 😆 I especially like The Once’s folksy cover of Queen’s, You’re My Best Friend.
Many kdrama fans were not a fan of how mental health was handled in this drama. I respect that perspective, and myself question how facilely schizophrenia is treated by the writers. My overall feeling, however, is that Show is hugely compassionate towards, and humanizing of, people struggling with their mental health.
Oh My Venus (2015)
Not going to lie, from the opening scenes of So Ji Sub doing sensual pull-ups and otherwise baring his lovely torso, I was pretty much hooked on So Ji Sub this drama. Cheeks aflame, I paused the video just one minute into the show, to quickly check the rating. I’d never heard of an NC-17 rating in kdrama, but… maybe?
Ultimately, the show serves up a sweet romance, with an improbable, but engaging, story. The chemistry between our two main characters is cracky. I became a Shin Min Ah fan, impressed by her portrayal of an overweight woman who loves herself, as she is, but dedicates herself to getting off medications, by adopting a healthier lifestyle. With So Ji Sub’s assistance, I think I’d be motivated, too!
I also remember Oh My Venus for being the first kdrama in which I heard the phrase “sexy time” – with the accompanying dive under the covers. Fu-un.
Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010)
Another near-iconic kdrama, I almost experienced cuteness-cum-hotness overload with Sungkyunkwan Scandal. But, no, not really. I lapped it all up. It was certainly a different kind of sageuk than Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung… but hadn’t I seen some of those costumes before?
I love the romance and the bromance in the show. It was fun and cool and touching and informative (it inspired a semi-deep dive into South Korean higher education.)
It also introduced me to three actors whom I recognized as full-fledged stars, in dramas I would later watch: Song Joong Ki, Park Min Young, and Yoo Ah In. They were such fresh-faced young adults back then. Now they’ve become cigarette lighter-wielding Mafioso, fangirling chief art curators, and dead-eyed cult leaders. How quickly kids grow up.
Park Yoochun, the fourth main cast member, became an early object lesson for me, of the celebrity scandal culture in South Korea. His story of poor (and illegal) choices, and subsequent ejection from the industry, helped me realize I would likely never know the whole story behind these kinds of scandals. Between media hype, fan reaction, management agency damage control, and legal and cultural differences from the U.S., a degree of “truth” is likely to always be obscure to me.
Hospital Playlist, Season 1 (2020)
Towards the end of the year, I watched this gem of a show which struck me as different from anything I’d seen so far. With its ensemble cast of five mature (at least in years) characters, long friendships, humorous repartee, musical interludes, and heartwarming patient and personal vignettes, it captured my heart.
On Patreon, I wrote about Hospital Playlist, Season 2 – which also holds for Season 1 – “These are the characters about whom I continue to muse, “I wonder how they’re doing? How are the wedding plans going? When will we get together again?” They were my dear friends, too, for a while.
My Mister (2018)
I’ve been resisting putting My Mister on this list, only because I have nothing substantively new to add to the accolades other guest writers have showered on it. But how can I ignore it?
This was the 15th, or so, kdrama I watched, and it set a very high bar for the many dozens that followed. It is the best drama, in any language, that I have ever watched (with Secret Love Affair a neck-and-neck second.)
I just completed my first re-watch of My Mister, with KFG’s Group Watch. I wept my way through the last half of the show – again. I wept not out of sadness, but because of the sheer beauty of the story, the storytelling, the OST, and the acting. I tell my friends, it’s the most beautiful and joyful, sad drama they will ever watch.
It seems right to end on that high note.
I hope 2022 brings you many new and wonderful kdrama discoveries, maybe even a drama that joins the equivalent in your rank of my My Mister or Secret Love Affair. Although not quite at that level, this month, The Red Sleeve is edging its way up my favorites Leaderboard to compete for third place. 🤞🏼 I’m only on Episode 14, so shhh.
What a great way to start the year.