Culture Feature

BTS Makes Being a Korean-American Adoptee (a Little) Easier

On a typical day, I'm BTS-fatigued, but I can no longer feel annoyed with this Korean wave in American pop culture.

The 7-member K-pop band's latest single, "Butter," has broken world records this past week, and I still don't want to have kids.

For context, I mean I'd rather walk from my Brooklyn apartment to my midtown Manhattan office in my bare feet than be responsible for parenting a child. That being said, my aunt-game is incredible. My seven-year-old niece thinks I live in one of the fancy NYC skyscrapers she sees on TV, and my four-year-old niece thinks she's Wonder Woman. What's not to love?

The seven-year-old says she looks like me, which is pretty accurate. I mean, I have freckles and I'm taller. She has straight hair, and mine is wavy. But with our black hair, pale skin, and broad cheekbones we share a resemblance, despite not having a single strand of DNA in common.

Although my nieces are still working on the simple geography of their small suburb where I also grew up, I've mentioned that both their dad and I were born Somewhere Else called "Korea" (I can't wait to explain that their dad is, literally, my brother from another mother).

As they get older, we'll get around to words like "adopted," "naturalized citizenship," and the grosser ones like "model minority" and "yellow face." At some point, I'm sure "banana" will be revised, too: "Yellow on the outside, white on the inside."

banana asian Urban Dictionary

But for now, they certainly don't know where Korea is… And these days I still wonder who actually does. Growing up in a rural, predominantly white suburb in the '90s, everybody I met was like my nieces, in that they had no clue what or where Korea was. During standard education's requisite five minutes of covering Asian history, this map was agonizing. Truly, take a guess where Korea is, I dare you.

korea map

But in the last 20 years, it seems every aspect of childhood has changed. Kids want to grow up to be YouTube stars (did you know some 10-year-old named Ryan makes $30 million a year by reviewing toys and yelling a lot on his channel?). Toddlers can ask Alexa to play "Baby Shark" until you shut off the Internet, and every toy ad these days looks like a diversity pamphlet compared to what I grew up with (RIP the unbearable whiteness of '90s candy commercials).

But of all the cultural differences that demarcate my childhood from that of my nieces, the most obvious one is BTS.

korea map

Second confession: I strongly dislike pop music, and I clearly have a fraught relationship with my Korean roots, but those seven boys of BTS have changed the way my nieces will grow up more than any classroom lesson, children's book, or Barbie doll with vaguely Asian features.

It started around 2008, when Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube greatly aided the cultural phenomenon of Hallyu, or the Korean wave. Today it seems like Korea's eminence is everywhere, from Korean skincare products hailed as holy grails within the beauty industry to Korean dramas populating on Netflix.

In 2020, Awkwafina, a half-Korean, half-Chinese actress, became the first Asian-American to win the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture–Musical or Comedy. Boon Joon-ho's Parasite was lauded as one of the greatest films of recent years, becoming the first Korean film to win the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture in a Foreign Language.

This year, Chloé Zhao was the first woman of color and first Asian woman to win the Oscar for Best Director. In a time when hate crimes against Asian Americans are breaking different, deplorable records (and doubling in March 2021 alone),

And then there's BTS, a juggernaut of the K-pop industry that's continually made history with its unprecedented success among western audiences. Aside from topping charts and breaking records, like the longest-charting album on Billboard's World Album chart, the seven-member boy band even holds 20 Guinness World Records, including gaining one million TikTok followers within the shortest amount of time (three hours and 31 minutes), for having the YouTube video to receive the most views within 24 hours (with "Butter" breaking their previous world record with 108.2 million views), and they were the first K-pop act to have the No. 1 album on U.S. charts.

But as I'm distinctly not a fan of pop music, I kept wondering: Why?

They're young, attractive people who execute highly-choreographed dance moves while wearing carefully styled, trendy clothing – but that's what every K-pop act is trained to become, thanks to dictatorial record companies who control every aspect of their image and sound (not to mention working them tirelessly, and inhumanely, at times). I gladly wrote them off as the latest empty eye candy popped out by the algorithmic pop factory, which I hate for its inauthenticity and sheer soulless capitalism.

But then, whenever I've asked, all the reasons people have for loving BTS sound reasonable: They actually write their own music (which is a sad rarity in K-pop, and too much popular music, in general); they're very appreciative of their fans; they use their global platform to advocate for self-love and acceptance, including sharing their own experiences with anti-Asian hate and condemning all hate crimes, and even speaking before the U.N. to advocate for youths to accept themselves more freely. Their lyrics are, apparently, thoughtful commentaries on social issues, like materialism and competitive peer pressure.

While Psy's 2012 global hit "Gangnam Style" satirized materialism and superficiality within the affluent neighborhood of Gangnam (and gave us all a weird horse dance and a song that will be drunkenly played at weddings until we die), Vox speculated, "If it's possible to ascribe a tipping point to a 'wave' [of Hallyu] that seems to be endless, BTS might be it; it certainly seems that the all-boy group has gone as far as a South Korean band can go in terms of making inroads into American culture."

On a typical day, I'm BTS-fatigued, but the K-pop wave has made it easier to grow up Korean in America...which is more important than ever.

Why have anti-Asian hate crimes broken records this past year? Why has a pandemic made it so easy for Americans to Other Asian faces? How has the Model Minority Myth insidiously inserted itself into how Americans are taught to see Asians, and how has that same myth been crafted and used to divide Black and Asian communities?

Perhaps most importantly, how do you combat centuries of orientalism and the intentional ignorance that most Asians weren't even allowed to become citizens until after World War II?

Perhaps it starts with a cultural phenomenon. One look at Twitter reminds me that online discourse about #Kpop constitutes over 6 billion tweets on the platform in a given year. Also, other celebrities love them. While appearing at the Golden Globe Awards last year, Bong Joon-ho was asked, "How does it feel...for your country to be leading the way in creativity and vision?" He responded, "I think Korea produces a lot of great artists because we're very emotionally dynamic people" and cited BTS as particularly influential artists that he appreciates.

I can't un-know any of these things, for which I'm very grateful. Looking back, in between the all white kids in the commercials for my favorite toys and the all white kids on my favorite TV shows, and the all white kids I grew up beside, I remember SukChin Pak. Anyone who remembers back when MTVNews had integrity (and actually won awards occasionally) will also remember Pak, the Korean-American news correspondent.

Years later, I looked her up and found that she was born in South Korea and her family moved to America when she was five. She's the only Korean individual (aside from my adoptive brother) I ever remember seeing until I was 18 and ran away to the Big Bad Apple.

Now my nieces have me, and I may be the first Korean female they've ever seen, but I am certainly not the only one. At six and two years old, they both know how to use an iPad better than I did when I received my first iPod Touch at sixteen. They Google, they YouTube, and watch TV (the universal babysitter, thanks very much), and the type of media they see today is vastly different than what I had 20 years ago.

And sure, while it's lightyears ahead in terms of inclusivity, there's still a demoralizing lack of Asian American representation in American media at large. But the aftershock of Korean-inclusive content after Hallyu, after BTS, is everywhere. In the last 10 years, Korean faces have become a part of America's cultural landscape. My aversion to K-pop most likely has to do with a lot of internalized baggage and cognitive dissonance that inevitably develops when you were Korean-American back in the wilderness of "What's Korea?" and conversations beginning with, "So are you Chinese or Japanese?"

It's cool that the "West" has figured out that Koreans are cool, but among all the new, strange, and complex words I'll be introducing to my nieces as they grew up, "BTS" isn't going to be one of them because they'll already know (hell, they probably already do). And that word's become a gateway to explain a lot of concepts that can otherwise be mystifying and alienating.

Their classmates aren't going to ask them what Korea is as if it's an invalid blank space on a map that's not attached to any culture, and they won't spend their formative years figuring out their identities in a giant game of One of These Things Is Not Like the Other. Because they'll have me, cultural icons who've shown the world how cool people like us are, and the otherworldly glowing skin of RM, Suga, J-Hope, Jin, Jimin, Jungkook, and V. (Plus, my oldest niece just discovered BLACKPINK...The revolution has begun...).

This article was originally published in Feb. 2020 and updated in May 2021.

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When TIME Magazine awarded BTS the title of Entertainer of the Year 2020, no one was surprised.

For the past two years, BTS has dominated in a way the world hasn't seen since The Beatles. Perhaps it even seemed that BTS came out of the void, perfectly formed, an Adam given the spark of life by the God of all-that-is-swoon-worthy in pop music.

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Hip hop has overtaken rock as the United States' best-selling music genre, yet artists like Tyler, the Creator, have brought up how Black artists are labeled as only "rap" or "urban" acts by the Grammys. BTS is just as popular as Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish, but this year the MTV Music Awards created a new Kpop category instead of adding them to the pop category.

"All artists need to be validated on some level, and until Black artists get full validation for all their contributions to popular music, none of these industry awards mean shit," says Anthony Baber, a Black American DJ who plays a diverse range of music on his radio show in South Korea. "Everything you hear is just the next group/culture discovering black music (soul, gospel, whatev) and fitting it to their style, without giving credit to where it came from."

There's a lot of stereotypes that still exist about music consumers as well, such as the notion that Black music fans don't listen to "white people" or "non-Black" music. Meanwhile, Black YouTube creators are constantly breaking these stereotypes, reacting to genres as diverse as Kpop, thrash metal, and opera. In fact, young Black men are some of the most enthusiastic fans of Kpop, although mainstream media tends to paint Kpop stans as white and Asian teens.

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Culture Feature

The Boomer's Guide to Online Activism in the Age of TikTok and K-pop Stans

Gen Z online activists are flexing their ability to outfox Boomer politicians and police

Boomers may write them off as trolls.

But Gen Z has reclaimed that word and is forging a new breed of "pop activism," which remixes the earnestness of Millennial social justice warriors with the zeitgeist of dank memes, hashtags, and K-pop fancams of Jennie from Blackpink, winking.

For instance, June was supposed to be a glorious comeback for President Trump, with his first public rally since America went into COVID-19 lockdown. But over the weekend of Juneteenth, the White House learned the hard way: You don't want to piss off the dance-meme dragon that is Gen Z (AKA Zoomers) or their K-pop stan partners in crime.

A Tik Tok video of young people dancing while text on the screen says "Doing the macarena in front of my confirmation for 2 tickets to Trump's rally so these 2 seats will be empty" Doing the Macarena while fake-registering for Trump's June 20th Tulsa Rally

We all know the embarrassing aftermath. Trump's rally, which originally had "almost a million" ticket RSVPs, was attended by a scant 6,200 people. CNN, Washington Post, and the New York Times hailed these Zoomers as wily activists. K-pop stans, who had also mobilized en masse to reserve tickets, were heralded as "anti-racist heroes." Glowing articles were shared with glee on Facebook. On Twitter, Millennial leaders like AOC gave their stamps of approval.

Tweet by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, responding to Trump's campaign manager Brad Parscale. AOC's tweet reads:  "Actually you just got ROCKED by teens on TikTok who flooded the Trump campaign w/ fake ticket reservations & tricked you into believing a million people wanted your white supremacist open mic enough to pack an arena during COVID  Shout out to Zoomers. Y\u2019all make me so proud." Congresswoman AOC giving a shout out to Gen Z

Meanwhile, there arose a subset of Boomer and Boomer-adjacent minds (note: usually NOT Trump supporters), who simply could not understand what these gosh-darned kids were up to.

The typical lookey-here-we-can't-stoop-to-their-level Boomer comment:

Screenshot of a Facebook comment that reads: "not a good tactic. Profoundly anti-democratic. The other side can do these kinds of tricks, too. Plus it's never a good idea to poke a stick at a rabid dog." Boomer Exhibit AFrom a Boomer on Facebook

The I-could-have-done-it-better-than-these-whippersnappers Boomer comment:

Screenshot of a Facebook comment that reads: "I submit that it would have been a better strategy if Tok Tok teens and Kpop fans had not revealed what they did, and that they should have covertly continued to reserve seats at each and every rally from now till the election" Boomer Exhibit BFrom a Boomer on Facebook

At least one journalist bemoaned Gen Z's methods, sounding the this-is-what Russian-hackers-would-do-omg alarm: "...Those who pioneered them and who exploit them today often take pride in valuelessness," wrote Molly Roberts in her opinion piece for The Washington Post. "Surely it is better to troll to disrupt racism than to promote it... The whole story is cute and clever, but more than that it's sad—sad that this is the activism that feels most normal and most natural to those who grew up in the Internet age, sad that many believe it's the activism most likely to succeed in a battlefield already full of falsehoods, and sadder still that they may be right," she continued.

But let's consider: The humiliation of Trump, the crashing of a Big Brother-esque police app, and the drowning of racist hashtags on Twitter...are those things valueless?

Contrary to what Boomers may assume...Gen Z isn't just playing around.

"We may live in a digital world that allows us to create fantasies on the Internet. But we're also aware of how to take these fantasies and make them reality," says CD + The Players, a rising influencer on Alt TikTok. "My local BLM protest is being led by high school students...a group of minors got on the Internet and made a plan."

Gen Z hasn't just played a huge part in documenting the protests; they've unapologetically recorded their conservative family members berating them and sometimes even kicking them out of the house. An oft-told joke in the comment sections: Gen Z is too scared to say anything when the barista f*cks up their drink, but has NO PROBLEM telling cops in riot gear to go f*ck themselves.

"It's hard for the older generations to understand it, because it's like a whole separate culture online," says Will Mahony, the brains behind #mannyflag, a wildly viral TikTok campaign.

Recently, Mahony whimsically mused to his 1.3 Million followers about how Gen Z could troll Fox News by starting a petition to change the American flag. Within 24 hours of the original TikTok, he and a friend decided to create the Manny Flag, featuring the mug of Manny Heffley of the Diary of A Wimpy Kid series.

A flag that has yellow and white stripes, as well as a black box with the white drawing of Manny from "Diary of Wimpy Kid" The Manny Flag

Kids quickly began changing their profile pictures to the Manny Flag, repeating the mantra: "Whenever you see the #mannyflag, go and sign a petition"

"In a lot of ways, we...mess around and...make a lot of memes...but in the end we know that we are the future and we fight for what's right." says Mahoney. "We are able to unite millions of us under a common goal in literally hours with the power of social media."

It's precisely that swiftness, made possible by the viral nature of pop activism, that disorients many people. While virality definitely has some predictive markers, it's never 100% guaranteed that a certain meme will gain mass popularity. Even less guaranteed is whether the meme will remain similar to its original form or wildly mutate. Unlike the white-knuckled world of political spin and A/B-tested marketing (what Boomers are used to), pop activism is mutable, sometimes maddeningly so.

For Manny Flag, the initial idea has evolved in several ways, generating some tongue-in-cheek versions:

A tweet where a young person compares the American flag and the Manny flag Gen Z is not feeling the American flag

The Manny Flag has also become paired with other political movements (such as #ACAB), which led to an official statement on the Manny Flag website that clarifies the flag is "a symbol of PEACE, and NOT to be radicalized."

But one of the hallmarks of Gen Z pop activism is that anyone and everyone can (and is implicitly encouraged) to build on previous successes, much like one would surf on the momentum of a meme. Much like works of art, in the world of memes, the audience's gaze becomes as much a part of the piece as the artist's initial intentions.

This horizontal authority (rather than top-down hierarchy) has often been denigrated by Boomers, who say it's no match for the juggernaut of traditional institutions of power such as cash-rich lobbying groups and political action committees.

"Trump and the media are very aware of us," says Ashley Vee, who has helped push forth a renewed #RIPTrump. "I personally think it's hilarious that some of his most formidable opponents can't even drive yet."

These young people have watched Vee's #RIPTrump Tik Tok over a million times. The video advises fellow activists to claim that any current footage of Trump was pre-recorded and that he actually died of an hydroxychloroquine (an antimalarial drug that Trump swore to be a cure for COVID-19) overdose.

Activism or Trolling?

For Boomers, this youthful pop activism often looks like mere trolling. Though trolling can be "valueless," it can also be wildly powerful, a tool used by either dystopian misinformation pirates in Siberia or by stoner mumble-rap fans who are spending quarantine in the basement of their mom's house.

Of course, that leaves a deeply incomplete picture of Gen Z pop activism.

"Older people never listened before, so now we're forced to use troll techniques," says Vee, expressing a sentiment echoed by many in Gen Z. Essentially: Don't hate the player, hate the game.

Screenshot of a tweet from @YourZoomerNews which says: "In honor of our recently deceased president  @realDonaldTrump  I\u2019d like to share this patriotic picture of him hugging our beloved flag. #mannyflag #themannywillnotbetelevised #blacklivesbetter #GenZ" Donald Trump hugging a Manny flag

Boomers will decry "fake news" generated by Gen Z, all while laughing heartily at reruns of The Colbert Report. Boomers would never confuse biased reporting from Fox News with political skits on SNL.

And yet, they view Gen Z's over-the-top hashtags and Doja Cat dances annotated with political messaging as too similar to Trump's fake-news tweets. Virality is seen with suspicion because it seems "too easy" to manipulate, to share, to headline-skim.

Meanwhile, one of the biggest supporters of these rascally kids? The OG of online guerilla activism and radical transparency: the "hacktivist collective" Anonymous. With their Guy Fawkes gravitas, it may surprise Boomers how deeply Anonymous cross-pollinates and supports TikTok teens.

Screenshot from a tweet from Anonymous that says: "There is currently an ongoing effort to report all Trump accounts for hate across platforms ranging from Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and others. #riptrump #opFanCam" Even Anonymous is grooving to BTS

The Intersection of K-Pop and Activism

In particular, K-pop stans have been written off by many online denizens as being a bunch of screeching, vapid airheads who create toxic silos where one group of K-pop fans will attack another group of Kpop fans over which group reigns supreme. Few would have guessed that these warring factions would unite for recent Black Lives Matter activism.

"Kpop fans are passionate about this sort of activism because the message that a lot of groups have is to express themselves and be themselves." says Ai⁷, a Kpop stan who was involved in boosting BLM activity on Twitter, as well as donating to the Match a Million effort for One in an Army⁷.

Screenshot of a tweet from @oneinanarmy that reads: "BTS fans match BTS' one million dollar donation to Black Lives Matter. #BlackLivesMatter #ARMYMatchedAMillion #2MforBLM" Kpop stans have raised over $1Million for social movements

For Boomers, activism is a very narrowly defined sort of public action. Because K-pop stans are partaking in what many would consider "feminine, immature" activities, sexist and age-ist judgments have labeled them politically unaware (at best).

And yet the pastel stiletto nails of K-pop stan activism are formidable. Unlike paid-for-hire trolls and bots that move in mercenary ways, K-pop stans are tirelessly devoted and emotionally invested in their favorite K-pop stars.

"A lot of K-pop has political messages, a lot of artists discuss mental health and societal expectations," says Ai⁷. Also, "A lot of groups are acknowledging their influence and roots with American Black music... [Many K-pop artists] spoke out regarding BLM. Psy participated in Black Out Tuesday...because the groups acknowledge it, their stans acknowledge it."

Casual fans may not realize it, and Boomers definitely wouldn't know it, but to be a K-pop stan is inherently political. And add to that: "K-pop fans are literally the epitome of online organization, both in Korea and around the world," says CD + The Players. "This is something that has existed since the early 90s when...fandoms were mainly offline. The only thing the Internet did was just give them a bigger platform to do what they were already doing beforehand."

Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game

This is a brave new world, where constant WiFi has erased the boundaries that have previously defined "activism."

In this sense, Boomers are thinking like the redcoat officers of the British Royal Army, befuddled and horrified at the guerilla techniques of underdog Patriots during the Revolutionary War. The trolling techniques are not just for giggles, or even mischief. They come from a place of extreme practicality. Don't hate the player, hate the game.

Gen Z knows how to exploit algorithms in order to make mainstream media pay heed.

So you can call them: trolls, pop activists, online guerilla soldiers.

Just don't underestimate the sheer f*ckery that Gen Z can wreak.

The labels aren't the point for Gen Z.

The labels aren't the point for K-pop stans.

Because they will do what it takes.

And that's on periodt. (note to Boomers: periodt is spelled this way on purpose).

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