When I told people that I learned Korean over the summer of 2013, they assumed I went to Korea, not that I lived with five other teenage girls in a cabin named for a North Korean work camp on the shores of Turtle Lake in Bemidji, Minnesota.
At Korean language immersion camp, we all wore hanboks at least once. We ate bulgogi and bibimbap, omelet rice and sundubu jjigae. We did taekwondo, sang Korean children’s songs, learned traditional dances and ate with chopsticks. Our counselors planned a pretend trip to Jeju Island, a street food tour, a casino night. We watched Wolf Boy and Taegukgi. We learned how to make patbingsu, and bought socks with embroidered images of our favorite Kpop idols at the village shop using Korean Won. At Camp Sup Sogui Hosu, Korean for Lake in the Woods, the name I was given at the beginning of the summer was Ju Ri. I’m a Jewish kid from Chicago and my actual name is Julia.
It’s humid in the North Woods in July and every day I wore jean shorts. The full face of makeup I put on dripped and smudged. I applied fuchsia eyeliner to my waterline and the little kids at the camp accused me of having pink eye. My braces had orange and blue rubber bands on them, and I had a multicolored hair wrap with a plastic bead at the end. There’s a photo of me from camp wearing a beige polyester button down with camels on it, presenting in front of the sixty or so other campers whatever Korean I had learned that week. I wore that shirt yesterday.
When you’re growing up you can’t choose your life, but you can choose your obsession.
When I was fifteen, I played the clarinet and piano seriously. I collected glass bottles and cardboard boxes and took painting classes. I did my trig homework and learned how to drive. I was in a mother-daughter book club, and when I went to homecoming, I was too awkward to dance. On weekends, I watched my brother’s friends play Call of Duty and Smash and for 2012 I threw an End of The World sleepover. On the one-year anniversary of my Bat Mitzvah my dad came out as gay and my parents got divorced. I wasn’t obsessed with any of these things.
Really, I spent my early teens tucked under the covers of my bed watching hours of subtitled music videos, live stages, reality shows, variety shows, hidden cameras and interviews. I was busy consuming the shiny world of Korean production companies’ perfectly manufactured celebrities, who are literally called idols. I watched members of Kpop groups ranking themselves by their looks, introducing themselves and their prescribed personas: the maknae, the visual, the leader, the rapper. I watched a reality show that gave teenaged idols a baby to raise. I listened to Kpop’s addictive EDM beat on repeat while backpacking in the Grand Canyon over winter break.
Growing up is deciding what you like and don’t like. When you decide that you really, really like something, maybe something that no one else likes, that’s now who you are.
I got into Kpop early, before Gangnam Style, before BTS. I spent hours combing kshow123, soompi and dailymotion for subtitled videos. I was literally there watching as each of EXO’s teaser videos dropped, as Gee became the first Kpop video to reach 100 million views. I was a member of fan clubs—a V.I.P, an ELF, a Shawol, an EXOL.
Kpop is a global phenomenon. In 1993 Jurassic Park featured Hyundai cars and the Korean company’s sales spiked by 1.5 million. The South Korean government noticed that pop culture can make a country a lot of money. By 2012, South Korea had allocated a billion dollars to fund Korean pop culture. The “Hallyu Wave,” the increase in South Korean culture’s global popularity since the nineties, exports Kpop as a significant portion of the country’s economy. Kpop videos have comments in French, Russian, Arabic, German and Hindi. In Peru, 2NE1 music videos play on TVs in department stores. Super Junior recently has promoted songs titled “Lo Siento” and “Mamacita.” Kpop groups release albums in Japanese and Chinese. Song titles are usually in English, and lyrics often have phrases like “move it,” “break it,” “under my skin,” “fantastic,” and “I love it love it.”
At the beginning of eighth grade a friend from orchestra sent me a link over Facebook Messenger of SHINee’s music video for “Lucifer.” I was instantly hooked. I watched the five beautiful, effeminate, men with bleached asymmetrical hair dressed in leather and mesh dancing in metallic spinning rooms over and over again. I practiced my scales resting my clarinet sheet music on my computer screen with SHINee playing in the background. I watched Kpop and pretended that my parents weren’t yelling at each other outside my door.
I tried being into One Direction or Sherlock or Justin Bieber like other kids I knew, but couldn’t find anything to grasp onto. Kpop was prettier and brighter, kitschier, more theatrical. It was all-consuming. When I finished watching Super Junior’s talk shows going all the way back to 2008, I moved onto 2NE1 and then Block B and then MBLAQ. Being a Kpop fan is having ten different biases in ten different groups. It’s memorizing the exact second of a music video your favorite member looks at the camera and winks.
When I was a teenager, the Hallyu Wave was extremely pure. It remains an industry where idols have no-dating clauses written into their contracts and a 27-year-old singer is assumed to be a virgin. Idols claim that their fans are their girlfriends. Idols often talk about their ideal type in interviews: a puppy-like personality, someone who smiles with their teeth and has a cute aura, someone who doesn’t wear heels. That’s literally me, fans say. They are fourteen years old and sheltered and naive and imagine that they are in love.
Camp Sup Sogui Hosu was populated by Korean adoptees, Korean Americans, kids who had Korean friends, kids who really liked Taekwondo, and, of course, the majority: Midwestern kids like me who were obsessed with Kpop who were not Korean. A lot of kids at camp wished they were Korean. They wished they dated a flower boy, that they could see SHINee perform live, that they could move to Seoul and teach English. One girl who had blond hair and did revolutionary war reenactments at home wore makeup to make her look Korean.
No one talked about it. We said we were all just there to learn a language. But the truth was that many of us weren’t there due to genuine interest in the history or politics or fine arts or customs of Korea. We dreamed about our lives being like k-dramas, where we’d trip and somehow fall right into the arms of a rich heir, who’d hate us at first, but we’d woo them with our endearing quirks and eventually fall in love.
Sup Sogui Hosu’s website says it creates “a place that is both culturally authentic and uniquely our own.” Bemidji, Minnesota, called “The First City On The Mississippi,” is the self-proclaimed curling capital of the United States and the alleged birthplace of Paul Bunyan. It happens to also be home to the Concordia Language Villages, fifteen language immersion camps clustered around Turtle Lake, all run by Concordia College. On the villages’ website, Concordia says that they are “builders of globally minded communities and guides to world fluency.” Each camp markets reasons why American kids should learn their language. Russian camp offers the chance to “enjoy great literature!” Why learn Danish? To “Unlock the secrets of happiness!”
Sup Sogui Hosu is not an authentic Korean experience. It’s Korea accessibly served to teenage Midwesterners as a fun summer activity. Sup Sogui Hosu is the digital world of the Hallyu Wave made physical. But it’s also an American summer camp. We canoed and played UNO and ate s’mores. All summer long, my arms were covered with mosquito bites and my face was sunburned and peeling. One weekend we all went to a laundromat in town and downloaded kakaotalk and sent little winking cats to each other. We went to a shop that sold drug rugs and incense in a nearly abandoned mall and I downloaded the Hangul keyboard on my phone and put my friends’ Korean names in my contacts. Then we ate at a Perkins, a family-friendly dining chain. I ordered meatloaf.
The camp’s representation of Korean culture was distilled down to Kpop. We wrote letters to our favorite idols, and formed our own Kpop groups amongst ourselves. The counselors organized a game of Running Man based off of the variety show. We did morning exercises just like Korean high school students in TV dramas. Before bed we played our favorite Kpop songs. The girl who slept in the bunk across from mine taped pictures of Bi, Siwon and G-Dragon to the wall.
I first went to Korean camp because my friends and I had decided to do something together over the summer. Rachel learned languages as a hobby and Joanna was Korean, so we decided on Korean. I was devastatingly embarrassed of my obsession and would have never learned Korean otherwise. I wanted to feel superior to the Kpop-obsessed koreaboos at camp who held up double Victory signs in all their pictures. That is not me, I said to myself, even though at that point all my YouTube ads were in Korean. At camp, I pretended to mispronounce the names of Kpop groups. I told inappropriately timed jokes and was loud and obnoxious. I was self-conscious and was confronted with the fact that I was a type: a fourteen year old white girl Kpop fan, and that no, I wasn’t unique or especially worldly. I felt the koreaboos embarrassed themselves by calling the boys “oppa,” by wearing shirts of their favorite groups, by doing aegyo, by saying “fighting!” or “daebek!” or “omo!”
After camp was over, the counselors who were from Korea flew out of O’Hare. Rachel and I took them to H&M and Top Shop on Michigan Avenue. We ate at the Cheesecake Factory and spoke in Korean. Won Jae told me that Sup Sogui Hosu was uglier than Seoul, that the food at camp was barely Korean. I told him that I would come and visit.
“Conjuring,” Won Jae commented on my profile picture a month after camp ended. I responded in Korean. I’m not sure if I ever spoke Korean again after that. I definitely haven’t visited.
In eighth grade homeroom, I wrote a letter to myself to be opened on high school graduation. When I opened my letter it read “please please please don’t forget Yesung and Jonghyun and T.O.P. You probably still love Super Junior and SHINee and MBLAQ. Hopefully you’ve learned Korean by now!”
But at the same time as I wrote that, I had nightmares about being in my twenties and still tucked in bed in front of the computer watching other people’s lives, yearning for a place I wasn’t in, imagining myself as someone else surrounded by different people. Growing up is boring and sometimes lonely. You look in the mirror and you have acne and braces and you’re wearing animal print and you have a middle part and your parents just got divorced and you wished things were different. At 3 a.m., as I started in on my seventh hour of a k-drama, I would be filled with dread that I’d never be able to escape the world of Kpop and be happy to just live my own life.
I thought something monumental would have to happen to pull me away from Kpop, but what actually happened was underwhelming. Kpop had always been the best thing in the world, and it still was, but suddenly, I found myself drifting away from it. By the end of sophomore year, passively consuming media didn’t make me happy. When I was sixteen, my dad married my stepdad and I started biking the fourteen miles to school instead of driving. I threw up in my friend’s car after a Halloween party, I cut all my hair off, I taught Hebrew school and started a klezmer band. Life went on.
And so did Kpop. At my high school graduation rehearsal the kids I had grown up with sat bored in the pews of Rockefeller Chapel and a friend and I watched EXO’s newest music video. My senior year, three friends and I drove to buy Dean’s album at a store in Chinatown. I watched Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bong Soo and Show Me the Money 4. Last year I made three different Kpop playlists on Spotify and deleted all of them. But now, as I watch a movie with friends, I don’t wish I was watching Kpop interviews instead.
Now, other girls from Sup Sogui Hosu have their names in Korean on their Facebook pages with profile pictures of the Korean children they teach or now are students at Yongsei University. I’m at a US college studying architecture and speak no foreign languages fluently. Kpop moved on without me while I moved on without it.
Still, Kpop is one of the things that I’ve spent the most time thinking about in my life, and I haven’t been able to just let go completely. Last year Jonghyun from SHINee committed suicide and I was devastated. On the Ring Ding Dong music video, a YouTube user named “x blossom” commented, “When you grew up with SHINee and you hear that Jonghyun passed away, that feels like you lost a family member. That’s how much it hurts. Rest in peace my childhood.”
That’s what Kpop was for me. Kpop idols were the characters that populated my childhood, and Korean camp was the last time I remember being treated like a kid.
At Sup Sogui Hosu, I liked pickled garlic the most out of all the side dishes. At the end of camp Won Jae led me up to the stage at the front of the cafeteria and crowned me “Miss Garlic” and put a sash over my shoulder. He fed me sixteen cloves of garlic in front of everyone while they sang and clapped. And no matter what I achieve in my adulthood, that will be my proudest moment.