Black Kdrama Lives Matter
Blacks around the world have become fans of a beguiling foreign media format: the Korean drama. I first started watching them during the Covid-19 pandemic at the recommendation of Netflix, given the global diversity of my viewing habits. Since then, not only have I become an avid watcher of Korean dramas, but I have also fallen into a community of Black women from around the world who are “Kdrama addicts.”
With no one to talk to about Korean dramas, I did a quick Google search which revealed there were people on Clubhouse, the audio social media app, discussing them. I asked my Millennial younger brother to send me an invitation. Suddenly, I fell into communities of English-speakers from all around the world who wanted to discuss classics like Sandglass and Winter as well as recently-released dramas like Vincenzo and Startup. I joined The Kdramatics, a group led by Millennials and Gen Z’ers, including several Black women. They hosted watch parties and “Name the Kdrama” song trivia nights. I was also involved in The Kdrama Club, a group created by Gen X Korean Diaspora members. Moving between the two groups I became used to hearing Black women around the world describing our love/hate relationships with particular shows.
As I began to hear familiar voices, I started paying attention to the names, pictures, and profiles and started to befriend people in the rooms. I recognized the voice of one of the organizers of The Kdrama Club, Bina Lee, author of K-POP A To Z: The Definitive K-Pop Encyclopedia and culture writer for Soompi, a website for all things Korean waveI soon realized that YouTubers The K-Three-- Marisa and Jen—were also regular attendees in these rooms. I religiously watched their videos about Korean dramas throughout 2021. I also laughed along with Jeanie Chang, one of the organizers who creatively incorporates Korean dramas into her work as a licensed therapist and is the host of the podcast Noona’s Noonchi. Through these connections, I found and became a fan of Black Girl Seoul, a podcast by Song Rae and Something Else, involving two US Black women sharing their thoughts about Kdramas. I also listened as Kat Turner linked the overwhelming presence of orphans in Korean dramas to her own experiences as one of thousands of Korean adoptees living abroad. These women all became part of my community of Kdrama watchers.
When Jeanie came to Chicago for a speaking engagement, we had brunch in which we did silly product placement videos and chatted Korean dramas. She shared that she has some clients with origins in West Africa. Many tell her they identify with the culture depicted in Korean dramas, often more than with American television. When she said that, a light bulb went off! I had noticed how many Black women with origins in the Caribbean and Africa as well as Black Americans who travelled extensively were on Clubhouse talking Korean drama! Like me, they appreciated the intricate storylines from outside of the Western gaze, unrealistically beautiful people (Seoul is the plastic surgery capital of the world), and (unlike me) crossovers from Kpop to Kdramas.
As vaccines became available and pandemic lockdowns waned, these Clubhouse rooms waned with organizers largely moving to Instagram as a social media app of choice. I initially did the same, until I realized video editing and producing content is not my favorite thing to do. Through Instagram, I met another Kdrama friend in person, Katherine Bourne Taylor, who created a one-woman show about Little Orphan Annie as a grown-up. In Los Angeles for the American Sociological Association, I met her in Little Tokyo next to a conference reception. We gleefully exchanged our favorite Kdrama moments over ramen and drinks. (I also hung out with my UCLA grad school friend, Jenny Lee, who took me to a Koreatown dining hall where I had my favorite non-Nigerian food, jjajangmyeon—a Korean-Chinese black bean noodle dish I thirsted after while watching the Let’s Eat Kdrama franchise.)
In 2022, I joined a Facebook Kdrama group specifically for Black and “darker-hued” women. In addition, I have become friends with several Black women who regularly watch Korean dramas. Occasionally we form Clubhouse rooms in which we restrain judgment as we link the meanings we give to Korean dramas to BTS “thirst traps,” Autism Spectrum Disorder, anti-Black racism. I interviewed Traci, “Pumps and Gloss,” and Jennay about the show Snowdrop starring “my” Jung Hae-in and have spoken to my friend Lenora about a number of dramas. When together, we jokingly scoff at “long-time” Kdrama fans who pronounce Choi as it is written in English, not even attempting its Korean pronunciation (more like a “Chae” or “Cheh”). There are some actors and shows (like Lee Min-ho and his breakout show, Boys over Flowers) that must remain nameless due to the very strong feelings they often elicit. Also, we know Big Brother is always listening. Although we have not met in person, we have managed to maintain a community of Black Kdrama lovers.