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In 2011, the same year my family moved from the rural, white town of Galesburg, Illinois, to the city of Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, seven teenage boys moved into a one-bedroom apartment unit in the Gangnam district of South Korea’s capital city, Seoul. These K-pop trainees had come from the countryside at 15, 16 years old to pursue music with a virtually unknown label called Big Hit Entertainment. The most intensive training would not guarantee a musical debut.
This was not the case for the “bulletproof boy scouts,” known in Korean as Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS). The group, consisting of members RM, Jin, SUGA, J-hope, Jimin, V, and Jung Kook, would later produce and release the first song written in a predominantly non-English language to debut at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Fans and critics would applaud BTS for diverging from the age-old “idol factory” model of K-pop, which uses attractive idols trained to sing, dance, and speak English by multimillion-dollar entertainment companies. The “bulletproof boy scouts” sang and rapped in Korean before crowds of 50,000, dancing to self-produced pop rock and EDM tracks and breaking the mold of Western music’s medium of delivery.
Any teenager in America who’s heard of South Korea’s most lucrative export – K-pop – would laugh at my ninth grade world history teacher who claimed that without “First World” benevolence and the numerous U.S. military bases spread across the bottom half of the peninsula, the country’s economy would easily collapse. Yet, even I, 10 years ago, would not have believed that a Korean boy band would grace the cover of TIME magazine and that my friends, who had never heard of Korea, would someday learn to rap in my native tongue. I wouldn’t discover BTS until years after I left Illinois. Then – and I say this without exaggeration – I didn’t know that their music would save my life.
In a January 2020 episode of NPR’s Code Switch podcast, the hosts Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby discuss the ways that race affects our friendships. While musing on recent sociological studies on interracial friendships, Meraji and Demby interview David Eng, an Asian American studies scholar, who co-authored the book Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation, a collection of case histories on the social and psychic predicaments of Asian American young adults. According to Eng, racial melancholia was inspired by an essay by Sigmund Freud entitled “Mourning and Melancholia.” While mourning is, in the words of Eng, “normal” (“You lose something – lose a boyfriend, lose a girlfriend . . . you get over it. You move on.”), melancholia is pathological (Demby & Meraji, 2020). It is a mourning without end, and racial melancholia is an ongoing mourning as it comes to identity – of the losses of homeland, of language, of culture.
According to Meraji and Demby (2020), children of color navigating friendships in predominantly white institutions often experience not only emotions of melancholy but also feelings of dissociation, with racial dissociation being the phenomenon when one has an experience that is racialized but doesn’t have the vocabulary to talk about racism. Where are you from? I heard that’s a third world country. Hey, I can tell you apart from Chinese people based on the slant of your eyes! I have countless memories in Gale Elementary School’s carpeted hallways and on the gravel four square court not knowing how to respond to these sorts of comments, not feeling hurt but rather suspended in shock. The hurt came from being the student singled out without a reading partner, the one who could be on the geography bowl team with the popular kids but never be invited to their houses – it came from showering naked in the YMCA locker room like people do in Korean bathhouses until a group of girls reprimanded me for making them feel uncomfortable. The music teacher who always snapped at me, even though I was never disruptive – did she dislike me because of my race? Or was it something inherent and indescribable about me?
“Melancholy and grief and alienation as a consequence of structural racism . . . that’s a lot,” Demby declares with a sigh near the end of the Code Switch episode.
The “They Don’t Know” meme of a man standing alone in the corner of a party went viral on social media platforms 10 months later in November of 2020 (Know Your Meme, n.d.). “They don’t know I’m mildly popular on left twitter,” user @urmomlolroasted tweeted, receiving upwards of 200,000 likes and 10,000 retweets.
A few weeks ago, a classmate of mine tweeted her very own version of the meme: “They don’t know I’m actually a 10 in the motherland,” she paired with the caption, “I’m not ugly, y’all are just white.”
If you look at the illustration of the meme itself, there is almost a funny awkwardness to the wrinkly-faced loner positioned in the corner of the party. Standing rigidly and grappling with a truth that the dancing partygoers around him do not know and will not bother to know, is he experiencing a dissociation similar to the one that the Code Switch podcast described? Or is there even a truth to this theoretical motherland where someone like this meme man can be considered a “10”?
I understand my friend’s cleverness and the truth embedded in her statement. But put simply, I’ve learned that the diminishing of the self transcends borders. Therefore, body dysmorphia can follow you anywhere.
A few summers ago, when walking through the Gangnam neighborhood of Seoul, I noticed multiple women wearing nose guards and bandages on their faces. According to my Umma, at the time, this was one of the busiest plastic surgery districts in all of South Korea, the country that boasts the highest number of cosmetic procedures per capita in the world (Lee, 2019). As a self-assured teenager, I complained to my parents about the pervasive culture of going under the knife to be “totally anti-feminist.” I’ve written angry poems about how Korean society’s obsession with double eyelid surgery is a direct result of U.S. imperialism: it was, after all, American military doctors who invented the double eyelid procedure and tested these surgical operations on Korean sex workers during the war in order to make their eyes less “slanted” and “oriental.”
Yet, no matter where I define “motherland” or what language I am speaking, my monolids, my flat nose, and my soft jawline feel so far from what most consider beautiful. If “sharp” features – a tall nose, big eyes – white skin, and a small face define Western beauty standards, then these same exact features belong to Korean idols, their skin pearly white and eyes enlarged by blue-colored contact lenses. Look no further than BLACKPINK, K-pop’s biggest girl group. For a long time, it was my dream to look like Jennie from BLACKPINK. According to some sources, the 23-year-old rapper is five foot four and weighs just under 100 pounds.
It is four o’clock in the afternoon on day 90-something of the pandemic, and I am lying in bed, two caps of Lexapro ingested, and listening to the unsteady palpitations of my heart. Antidepressants can feel like a farce. On the printed instructions that accompany all SSRIs reads the cautionary statement listing all possible side-effects: upset stomach, diarrhea, constipation, low sex drive, headaches, fatigue, weight gain, dry mouth, and in some cases – and quite ironically – increased depression and suicidal thoughts. Being medicated feels like a cruel process of trial and error, the newest meds I’ve been prescribed making me feel as if my body is wired on six shots of espresso. Is this what racial melancholia feels like? Some other kind of illness? It feels like I have been mourning my self-hate for a very long time.
Depression is stillness, a painful stagnation. Someone once described it to me as an enduring emptiness, no matter how full the glass or cookie jar. In their song “Blue and Grey,” BTS personifies depression as a “grey rhino.” The grey rhino is a term inspired by economist Michele Wucker’s book, The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore (Kim, 2020).
Sometimes it feels like grey rhinos will always be on my mind.
This lump of metal does feel heavy
A grey rhino that is coming toward me
Absently, I stand with vacant eyes (Kim, 2020).
It’s July of 2020, and it’s been almost four months since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus to be a global pandemic. It’s been nearly four months since universities across the country shut down, since social distancing and grocery stores running out of Clorox and toilet paper became the norm. Lying down on my childhood twin-size bed, I realize that it’s been five months since I first spoke to my therapist in New Haven. I had sought her out because my sadness had gotten to the point where I preferred to be asleep most of the time I was conscious. An ever-driven second-year Yale student, I was living the life my 10-year-old self had fantasized about, but with an extra 30 pounds and crippling burnout. Those were the hurts that mental health professionals were supposed to soothe and help solve. But I didn’t expect to cry when she asked me to describe my elementary school.
When I was 8 years old and my family moved from the Boston suburbs to rural Illinois, hallyu, or the phenomenon known as the Korean Wave – recognizable by the popularization of K-pop and K-dramas – was just starting to reach Western audiences thanks to the proliferation of 21st-century digital technologies and social media. Yet, in third grade, the only world I knew was classroom A3 of Gale Elementary School, situated in Galesburg, a railroad town hit by post-industrial decline. My teacher was Ms. Nichols, a tall woman in her late forties with grayish-blonde hair styled into a bob. I entered third grade a few days late because Umma and I had just gotten back from spending the summer with her parents in Daegu, and for those first few days of school in mid-August – when the Midwestern humidity was almost unbearable – my sleep schedule was still on Korea time.
On my first day enrolled at Gale, Ms. Nichols ate lunch with me in the classroom because I didn’t know anyone, and perhaps she felt bad that she had almost led me astray that first day (I was so short that she thought I wasn’t in the third grade). Soon, I would claim my spot at the very edge of the nut-free “allergy” table, where I sat alone for months until my parents asked that the school pair me up with a buddy. At first, I was pleasantly startled to see all the white popular boys who played kickball during recess jump at the opportunity to eat lunch with me. Later, I would realize that it was because the allergy table was the first to be dismissed for our 15-minute block of recess.
I feel guilty turning this into a narrative of childhood racial trauma. I had two loving parents, my own room in a two-story house, and a knack for reading and writing, which seemed to prove to my teachers and classmates that I, as some derogatorily would say, was not “FOB.” At this point, amid the popularization of the often-parodied genre of “diaspora poetry,” ethnic lunchbox stories feel like a storytelling crutch too cringey to lean on.
In Minor Feelings (2020), poet and author Cathy Park Hong expresses her dissatisfaction with the common “immigrant talking points” about a sense of “not belonging” and “searching for some origin myth of the self.” Near the end of her part-memoir, part-cultural critique, Hong writes, “It seemed rigid and rudimentary, like I just need the right GPS coordinates to find myself” (p. 196). If this trope of not belonging amid white homogeneity – a kind of racial melancholia – implies a yearning for a far-off homeland, I wonder where that leaves me, a second generation Korean immigrant who despises the thin, white-skinned makeup sales associates who line the commercial streets of my Appa’s birthplace, Seoul.
Like Hong, I deny the existence of any perfect GPS coordinates that can point me towards an origin myth of the self that I can consistently love. There is no place that is safe, unblemished by the aspirational move towards Western ideals. In that sense, there is no clear remedy for racial melancholy. Although, as I sat in a sterile room a little over a year ago, recounting my loneliness to a woman I had just met, crying and confessing that I wasn’t eating right, I could somehow trace its origins.
After transferring to Gale, I struggled with socializing, but the one thing I really excelled at were my classes. Third grade was the first year we started receiving letter grades, and I never strayed from straight As. To my parents’ delight, I was featured in the Galesburg Register News for spelling bees, geography bowls, and piano competitions a handful of times. I loved being called smart by my classmates who otherwise would have never bothered to learn my name. Yet, underneath this pride festered a perverted fantasy: It was graduation day at Galesburg High School. At 18 years old, I was somehow brunette, blue-eyed, and popular and the only senior in the class of 2018 bound for the Ivy League. As I left the small railroad town and everyone who hated me, I would scream, “SEE? LOOK WHAT YOU FUCKERS GET FOR IGNORING ME.”
That day of validation would never actually come because in 2011, my family moved from Galesburg to Hawaiʻi, the move resulting from Umma being hired by the state university. The biggest selling point of Honolulu for my family was not the proximity to beaches nor the tropical weather but the population being majority-minority and 57.3 percent Asian (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020).
Lying in bed – my natural state during the pandemic – and scrolling through my Facebook feed, I think about how long I have felt lonely and how hard it is to differentiate between feeling lonely and being alone. While I know this isn’t true, I selfishly imagine that my parents decided to move 3,000 miles across the Pacific just for me, not for Umma’s promotion or the view from our patio of the ocean hugging the edges of Oʻahu, but for a new opportunity for me to make friends. If that was the case, however, I think I’ve failed them terribly. If I once wanted big eyes, a tall nose bridge, and perfect body proportions, this discontent with myself did not dissipate once I was surrounded by more people of the same race and ethnicity, the most popular of whom at school were extremely thin or closer to white, anyways. Whiteness was the common denominator behind my racial melancholia, and even in Hawaiʻi, it permeated in its physical absence. I continued to disassociate. Being back on this island, contained within the familiar walls of my bedroom, I feel close to my high school self – the girl who ate lunch alone in the school newsroom every day. I am still the version of myself who refused to take photos at the beach, who naively thought that college would erase her loneliness, and I hate it.
I can hear the steady hum of Umma vacuuming outside my door. I hear the indecipherable exchange between her and Appa, in a hybrid of Korean and English, as he folds a pile of finished laundry. Everyone in this house is busy and in motion except for me, the dead weight. Real or imagined, it isn’t lost on me that in the silence between my parents and me sits an unnamed tension.
I turn back to my phone screen. A few months ago, I discovered the song “Epiphany,” which was released by BTS in 2018 as part of their record-breaking Love Yourself album series. Given how triggering the aesthetics of K-pop idols can be, I kept an arm’s length from any sort of K-pop, especially the girl groups. Anyone with surface-level knowledge of the industry knows that suicides among idols are rampant. Korean netizens are known to be especially hateful. Most trainees are ordered by their management companies to lose weight and undergo plastic surgery before they debut. But something about the lyrics to “Epiphany,” which was queued on my YouTube recommended, felt extremely tender to me.
I’m the one I should love in this world
빛나는 나를 소중한 내 영혼을
이제야 깨달아 / shining me, precious soul of mine, I finally realized
so I love me
좀 부족해도 너무 아름다운 걸 / not so perfect but so beautiful
I’m the one I should love
(Genius English Translations).
The perfect song to listen to when learning how to sit in solitude in a way that isn’t lonely. I don’t remember exactly what compelled me to search “BTS music” that day at the onset of the pandemic and in the depths of my loneliness, but for the next few weeks, I would listen to their entire discography, compiling their songs and seven-year career into a nine-hour Spotify playlist. I would watch specials hosted by late-night American talk show hosts like Jimmy Fallon and James Corden, where the members seemed unashamed of cracking jokes in their broken English. I wrote out and translated their songs in a journal as I attempted to learn the meanings behind BTS’s lyricism, which unlike the stereotype of “bubblegum” K-pop, touches upon vulnerable and often-stigmatized emotions like depression, anxiety, and burnout. I binge-watched award shows and live performances, reveling in their ability to cross over into the Western music industry, all while donned in makeup and dressed in anything ranging from sheer lace gloves and collars to black leather bomber jackets (Rooks, 2021). Amid the stagnation of depression, the soft strum or hip hop beat of a BTS song through my earbuds was something that felt steadying and alive – a reminder that I was living, breathing, and absorbing those melodies. It was as if they were talking back.
My favorite BTS song, “Magic Shop,” is dedicated to ARMY, the acronym for BTS’s 40-million member fandom – “Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth.” Written as a pop ballad, the track’s chorus goes:
On the days I hate being myself, days I want to disappear forever
Let’s make a door in your heart
Open the door and this place will await
It’s okay to believe, the Magic Shop will comfort you
While drinking a glass of hot tea
And looking up at the Milky Way
You’ll be alright, oh, this here is the Magic Shop
(Genius English Translations).
“Magic Shop,” which alludes to the autobiography Into the Magic Shop by neuroscientist James Doty, is a real psychodramatic technique that uses fantasy, role play, and escapism to replace an individual’s fear with more positive emotions like love, self-liking, or patience (Rubin, 2019). Many fans have interpreted “Magic Shop” to reflect the band’s desire to replace listeners’ sadness and pain with a sense of comfort.
My psychiatrist once told me that suicidal ideation often stems from anger – of feeling like one’s pain is unseen and unrecognized by others around you, no matter how hard you try to express it. Last summer, when I felt so deeply unseen, I would listen to “Magic Shop” on loop in bed, thinking about psychodrama and replaying calming memories in my head, wishing to stay alive, even if a part of myself kept telling me otherwise. There’s so much to be said – and that has already been said in articles, academic papers, and even an annual global conference – about the social and cultural impact of BTS’s music.
One beautiful, yet often unnoted, aspect of their lyricism, however, is the auditory imagery of their songs: the oscillating beat at the beginning of “Spring Day” feels like a yearning for the past; “Blood Sweat & Tears” is temptation personified into sound; the instrumental music shared in the intros of “Save Me” and “I’m Fine” reflects the songs’ oppositional meanings; and the acoustic melody of “Butterfly,” a song about loving someone who is suicidal, sounds like the delicate fluttering of a butterfly’s wings. In tracks like “Butterfly,” BTS will address what I am afraid to verbalize; they are willing to go to the darkest places with me when I donʻt trust the safety of my own mind. And they do it all in their native language. They are their own place – neither the West nor some mythical motherland – and through them, I try to understand this depression. Listening to them is not a harkening back but still feels like going home.
Through BTS’s Love Yourself series and sonics of vulnerability, they became an aspirational friendship – perhaps that unknown line I was treading between living within a culture that was never mine and a homeland that was never pure to begin with.
A few weeks ago, a friend and fellow ARMY sent me a picture of SUGA practicing Korean traditional sword-fighting for his “Daechwita” music video set against the backdrop of the bisexual pride flag. The meme reads, “Get behind me bisexuals, I’ll protect you.”
Perhaps the best thing about BTS other than its members and the music they produce is the international fanbase they’ve created of queer, gender nonconforming people of all ages and ethnicities who are loved by the band for being who they are. I love this meme not only for its creativity but because it is a reflection of how, despite the homophobic norms within Korean society (gay marriage is considered illegal in South Korea, for one), BTS has allowed for ARMY to project queerness onto their artistry. And it’s not only present in meme culture – RM has openly discussed the group’s efforts to write love songs in gender neutral language (Benjamin, 2017), and V’s first solo song, “Stigma,” has grown into a symbolic track for many fans about uncovering one’s suppressed sexuality. I laugh and text my friend back, whom I have gotten closer to through our shared affinity for the band. I think about my parents and my love for them, and the fragile silence – about my depression, my queerness, my racialization – that is holding our relationship together. Leaning into my pillow, I turn on “Magic Shop” again. If this isn’t a radical way to love myself, I’m not sure what is. Melancholy, racial isolation – there is no place safe from it, except maybe in BTS’s music.
The next time I walk through the tourist-packed Gangnam district in Seoul, I’m not sure what I will feel. I’m going to graduate college in a year, and unlike the rigid dream of ivory towers I clung onto at 10 years old, I am ready to leave school, at least for a while. I think it’s even accurate to say that I don’t have a dream right now. The only thing I really want to experience is to go back to Korea for a while, not because I want a glorified return to the motherland but because I want to witness the beauty store fronts blasting BLACKPINK and Red Velvet, the notorious hagwon cram schools, the barbed wire lining the military bases, the sloping green mountains, and my grandfather’s family farm – and somehow find a way to hold it all together. I also want to go to a BTS stadium concert, feel the rush of adrenaline I’ve felt hundreds of times before but in real time, with light sticks waving in the nighttime air and 100-decibel beats pulsing through the speakers.
A few weeks ago, I started the habit of journaling again and reflected on what it means to be transient:
I am finding a lot of comfort in impermanence right now. As in, bonds and friendships can last way beyond the institutions and circumstances they are formed in. In this individualistic world, it’s everyone’s goal to leave a permanent legacy, reach tangible dreams, and immortalize themselves through their achievements. Impermanence used to scare me a lot because I used to associate it with mortality and every time I’ve wished to not be alive. But there is beauty in knowing that the present is always changing, and in its incompleteness is the potential for something better to be written.
I think of the BTS song “Paradise”: It’s alright to stop / there’s no need to run without even knowing the reason / it’s alright to not have a dream / if you have moments where you feel happiness for a while (Genius English Translations).
This personal essay was initially written for a cultural criticism assignment. Through this piece, I connect my own experiences navigating my racialization, queerness, and depression to BTS’s message and music, which I fell in love with during the pandemic. It is my hope that other ARMYs, especially those struggling with their mental health, can find comfort in my words.
— Isabelle Rhee
Isabelle Ji-hye Rhee is a Korean poet and storyteller from Honolulu, Hawaiʻi studying Ethnicity, Race, and Migration at Yale University (USA).
Illustration By: Circa, @circadraws
I am indebted to Professor Claudia Rankine and Professor Leah Mirakhor, along with my classmates in Auto-Criticism: Writing the Self in the World, for providing invaluable feedback on this piece and for constantly nurturing a safe, open, and creative writing environment. I am also extremely thankful for Mariko Rooks, Tulsi Patel, and Cathy Duong – for being the best ARMY friends I could ever have.
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Rhee, I. (2021). Counting grey rhinos. The Rhizomatic Revolution Review , (3). https://ther3journal.com/issue-3/counting-grey-rhinos.
Rhee, Isabelle. “Counting Grey Rhinos.” The Rhizomatic Revolution Review , no. 3, 2021, https://ther3journal.com/issue-3/counting-grey-rhinos.
Counting Grey Rhinos by Isabelle Rhee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
@Isabelle Rhee, 2021