Let me take you back eight years. Jeremy Clarkson has been suspended by the BBC over a row about a steak sandwich, Donald Trump has announced his intention to run for office, and South Korea is setting out for world domination in the music industry. As for the latter, I am, of course, referring to the international phenomenon of K-pop.
In 2015, I was entering my last year of high school. A little awkward and unsure of myself, I had no solid plans for when I left. But I knew I loved music. I was in bands in school and I was a singer in a Brazilian music group called Jubacana. The feeling of holding a mic and singing for a crowd is still visceral to me. To this day I can recall the nausea as I waited for my cue and I can still feel the goosebumps as I took a breath in and started the song. All of this becomes relevant once I tell you the other factor that dominated my life at the age of 15.
K-pop. Some love it, some hate it, and some have dedicated their lives to it (search Oli London, if you dare). I’d heard of the genre after watching a teens react video, a YouTube channel that made hilarious – at the time – videos of teenagers reacting to other viral YouTube videos. In this one they showed teens the song Boy by K-pop girl group Girls Generation, but I never really delved into it. Then, one day, that all changed.
My best friend had been banging on about this new band from South Korea called BTS. Back then, I had a limited music taste which didn’t venture far from Taylor Swift’s discography. My mate been pestering me for weeks to listen to a song called Dope, and for weeks I’d managed to avoid this four-minute task. But eventually she’d had enough. She came over, grabbed my laptop, sat on me so I couldn’t move, and queued up the song on YouTube. My teenage life was never the same again.
I have always been fascinated by different cultures, learning how other people celebrate, grieve, speak, eat, and everything in between. As a singer, I loved learning new songs so I was frustrated to find I couldn’t sing along to any of the K-pop music. So I did what any ordinary, sane, person would do: I found myself a Korean language tutor.
For four years I took lessons with a South Korean woman named Amy (보미) who lived in an apartment in Levenshulme with her little dog Champ. During that time, she taught me that Korea is much more than K-pop. Their language is beautiful, poetic even, but with a logic that isn’t always found in English. She hosted group lessons where I met people just as interested in learning new languages and cultures as I was. It was such a contradiction to the hatred and division I was seeing on TV as the Brexit referendum heated up.
Everywhere I looked there were people cursing the very thing I’d always thought made my home country so alluring – our willingness to embrace other cultures and the people from them. When the UK voted to leave the EU, it was around the same time that Amy told me she had to leave the UK and return to South Korea. The UK government, seemingly, no longer considered her an asset to the country. We both cried. I was losing a friend, but I also felt like I was losing my home country. Losing it to division and greed. It felt lonely.
I found solace in those lessons. At the time, they were a comfort that was hard to find anywhere else. When BTS were nominated for a Grammy a few years later, and I saw them, among other South Korean artists, performing on western award shows singing completely in Korean, I felt a sense of hope. It may not have meant much to other people, but to me it felt like we were beginning to reverse the damage caused by Brexit.
To have such a diverse group of people in my life at a formative age is something I couldn’t fully appreciate at the time. As I look back on it now, I see how lucky I was to immerse myself in a new culture. The fact that I met people along the way who are still close to me now made the journey even sweeter.
Main image by Beth Smith