[Changing Tastes] I came for the cultural differences and stayed for the commonalities
by Guest Beanie
The first Korean drama I ever saw was Full House. I remember sitting down to watch it with absolutely no expectations and no preconceived ideas of what dramas were. Over the sixteen episodes, I was blown away by tropes and cultural differences that made me realize other parts of the world were producing television that looked and felt nothing like the U.S. network TV I was used to. Undeniably, I was hooked, but I was also baffled. It was sixteen hours of culture shock in a technicolor package.
I kept watching, spurred on by the fact that my sister’s work as an English-language tutor for South Korean students studying abroad had also put me in the position of meeting and interacting with their expat community. I watched dramas like My Girl, My Name Is Kim Sam-soon, and Sang-doo, Let’s Go to School, all of which were recent productions at the time.
At that point, I had no idea what my preferences really were. I was barely beginning to understand what a K-drama was, let alone the difference between a good one and a bad one. I watched to try to understand cultural practices that baffled me, and my sister and I would have long conversations about the question of whether unfamiliar practices were dramaland conventions or genuine cultural differences. I was, essentially, a drama omnivore, willing to consume almost anything because everything felt like a buffet of new and different experiences.
Boys Before Flowers
Two dramas I watched in 2009 began to shift my taste and understanding of the impact K-dramas could have on me as a person: Boys Before Flowers and Worlds Within. Like many people, I got addicted to watching Jan-di and Jun-pyo and F4 every week, and the popularity explosion of Boys Before Flowers was like being swept along in a cultural zeitgeist whirlwind. The only problem was, at the end of it all, I felt strangely empty. I’d enjoyed myself, but I found that I had no defense for critiques of gender role portrayals or plot issues. I didn’t regret watching it, but my engagement with dramas was beginning to change.
In extreme contrast, Worlds Within was recommended to me in the latter half of the same year, and I binged it and found myself experiencing the story in a way I never had before. Cultural differences were still plentiful, of course, but by then I’d consumed enough dramas that I was able to get onboard without whiplash. Instead, for the first time, I strongly related to the heroine—to her trust issues, her stubbornness, her flaws, and when she finally chose love, it felt like a personal victory. There was no trend to get involved in; Worlds Within wasn’t much of a ratings success, and it was a year old by the time I had encountered it. But I wasn’t empty when I finished it. For the very first time, I realized that K-dramas could teach me something real about myself and about life.
Since my Worlds Within epiphany, I’ve experienced ebbs and flows in my watching habits, but I’ve never stopped seeking out dramas that teach me something about what it means to be human, beyond the bright lights and catchy songs, as fun as those can still be. I’ve watched my share of trendy dramas over the years, from Secret Garden to Oh My Ghostess, but as my cultural understanding has grown, I’ve found that the way I consume them is different. I no longer watch dramas like a baffled little league batter trying to connect with confusing cultural fastballs whizzing past my head. I now watch to find the commonalities, the expression of universal truths that underpin the human experience. I still sometimes see things that surprise and baffle me, but they feel like codes now, ciphers I need to crack to find the universal human truth that lies beneath them.
Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju
A decade into watching dramas, my favorites tend to be the ones that feel smaller in scope, human stories like Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju. These dramas remind me of the warmth I felt when I first watched Song Hye-gyo and Hyun Bin embody a relationship I could relate to, back in 2009. They’re the dramas that, when I finish them, make me feel like I’ve gained understanding instead of losing time.
I don’t know exactly when I fully shifted from watching dramas to find cultural differences to watching dramas to find human commonalities, but I expect it has to do with more than just viewing habits. Over the past ten years, I’ve experienced chronic disease, graduated university, become a published author, and survived cancer. My changes in viewing reflect the migration from child to adult, from a mentality of me-versus-the-world to seeing myself as a part of the shared tapestry of human experiences that interconnect to make up the world we live in.
These days, one of my closest friends is Korean-American. Dramas like Answer Me 1988, my best-loved of all time, don’t primarily highlight what makes us different; they provide entry points for deep conversations about coming-of-age, love for family, and finding identity—things we all experience, even if our ways of expressing and navigating them look very different.
In the end, my taste in dramas hasn’t changed nearly as much as my perspective. Ten years ago, I could never have imagined that an entertainment medium I once saw as entirely emblematic of cultural separation would one day become a warm reminder of the realities, challenges, and relationships that comprise the richness of the shared human experience.
Answer Me 1988
- [Changing Tastes] From the whole nine yards to the rom-com dreamboat
- [Changing Tastes] When your feelings have feelings
- [Changing Tastes] Rom-coms without the rose-colored glasses
- [Changing Tastes] From someone who doesn’t like change
- [Changing Tastes] My dad always said I’d learn to appreciate history someday
- [Changing Tastes] I’m sorry for ever doubting you, family dramas
- Theme of the Month: How have your K-drama tastes changed over time?
- What’s your dramaland catnip? Tell us your stories!
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