Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Drama Fiend: A Personal History


Korean drama and I are celebrating our two-year anniversary this month. I’m prone to random pop-culture fixations, but this one might be the most unexpected—and educational. In the course of watching a truly embarrassing number of Kdramas, I’ve learned more about Korean language and culture than I ever thought possible.

So in honor of this auspicious occasion and my constant curiosity about other people’s drama biographies, here’s a brief rundown of the chronology of my obsession.



Summer 2006—The first drama. What international fan can forget that first Korean drama they watched? Funny or tragic, good or bad, it opened a door into a new world. My introduction to dramaland was a DVD box set of My Lovely Sam Soon that belonged to the friend of a friend. When it finally found its way to me, I watched all 16 episodes over the course of one summer weekend. I loved the actors, the show, and the finite length of the series. But back then Kdramas were hard to find in the rural outpost I call home, so I made a mental note to keep an eye out for more of them and carried on with my life.




August 2011—The hook, line, and sinker drama. I have Netflix to blame for my current state of obsession. After deciding that I had been wasting money on a membership I hardly ever used, I vowed to watch something they carried before the new television season began in America. I was clearly defenseless against Boys over Flowers. In spite of its flaws, it checked all the boxes: It was a youth-oriented show featuring handsome young men, a scrappy heroine, and the most epic of Cinderella plot lines. I mainlined episode after episode, breathless with anticipation: would Jan Di choose nasty Jun Pyo or thoughtful, supportive Ji Hoo? In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that I was ever innocent enough to believe this love triangle’s resolution wasn’t foreordained. But the most important thing I learned from BoF was that I would never run out of romantic comedies, if only I looked beyond the borders of America. Girl-centered television series are relatively rare here, so it’s possible to have seen everything on offer at any given time. But the sheer volume of series produced every year in Korea ensures an almost constant supply of new shows, many of which are just my type.



September 2011—Drama in the wild. After burning through Netflix’s then-scant Kdrama offerings, I found the dearly departed Drama Crazy and Mysoju. (If you had told me then that both would be gone forever within two years, I would have laughed—at that point, they seemed as eternal and inexorable as Amazon.) With their impossibly encyclopedic offerings, these sites made me realize just how vast the Kdrama empire really was: I could never possibly run out of new shows to watch. And the first drama I watched on Mysoju was the only thing could have made me happier about this: Shining Inheritance, which introduced me to the genre of Korean melodrama. As disorienting it was at first to keep track of all the characters and plotlines, watching Shining Inheritance felt like coming home. It was like one of the Lifetime original movies I grew up watching—one with over-the-top backstabbing, family intrigue, and a girl doing everything she could to salvage a life gone horribly wrong. In the U.S., programming that revolves around a female leads is usually ghettoized on the outer reaches of cable. But in Korea? It’s prime time viewing.



October 2011—The soul mate. It seems that most everyone has that one drama, the one that they could happily watch on an infinite loop. Mine is a little show called Coffee Prince. (Maybe you’ve heard of it?) The only bad thing about Coffee Prince is that it’s one of a kind—funny and serious, sweet and thought-provoking, silly and genuine. Even though I’ve seen tens (hundreds?) of dramas since I picked Coffee Prince at random from of Drama Crazy’s list of popular shows, none of them have made me smile as spontaneously, squee as intensely, or want to come back to them quite as often. Coffee Prince also inspired my very first drama-related comment on the Internet: I was so woozy with joy by the end of the final episode that I posted about how much I loved Sweeper’s bath in Drama Crazy’s comments.

November 2011—No, this is the song of my people. Dramafever appeared in my life at about this point, like a playground crack dealer with the finest, cheapest supply on the block. Comcast probably misses me, but shortly after I signed up for a year of Dramafever I dropped my American cable package—possibly forever.


November 2011—The first sageuk. I thought I’d never watch historical Kdramas. The clothes seemed too crazy—men in dresses! mesh pilgrim hats! Women with deely bobbers woven into their hair!—and the episode counts were too high. Hungry for more cross-dressing shenanigans, though, I found the perfect introduction to the breed: Sungkyunkwan Scandal. In twenty (not so) short episodes, it made me fall in love with Joseon scholars, hanboks, and its cast of up-and-coming young actors. Its status as a fusion show allowed SKKS to explore gender and economic inequities in anachronistic ways (and also invited memorable scenes with elevators, couples’ rings, and primitive telegraphs). Nowadays the only thing that’s holding me back from becoming a complete sageuk hound is the extreme length of most historical Kdramas—any show longer than about 25 episodes feels like an unthinkable commitment, and sageuks are often much, much longer.



December 2011—Off the deep end. Like many Americans, I grew up eating ramen. But until I started watching Korean drama, I never ate it the right way (mixed an egg and lots of green onion) or in the proper position (off a saucepan lid while sitting on my living room floor). But one snowy afternoon during winter break when I was midway through Flower Boy Ramyun Shop, I broke down and gave it a try. It was a big day for me all around: it was also the first time I posted on the Friday open thread at Dramabeans, which led me to realize just how much I liked writing about Korean drama, which led me to start this blog.

December 2011—The birth of Outside Seoul. During my boring two-week holiday vacation, I had (perhaps too much) time to think about dramas. I’ve had an internet presence since the late 90s, and I began to think about creating a new spot to vent about my Kdrama obsession. It was high time: people in my life were starting to flinch reflexively whenever I said a word that started with the letter K, but I still could barely contain all the random fun facts I had picked up during my excursions in dramaland. It must have been like hanging out with an older, less cute version of Hermione Ganger: “It’s raining but sunny out? That’s fox rain.” “In Korea, it’s a compliment to tell someone they have a small face.” “You should never give shoes to someone you love, because they’ll walk away from you in them.” The one stumbling block to starting this blog was my acute awareness that I had nothing much to offer—I have no particular interest in film criticism, no knowledge of Korean language or culture, and no kimchi-making grandma. But if people wrote about only what they knew, the Internet would be a pretty quiet place. So I decided that maybe being utterly clueless had merits in itself, and Outside Seoul was born.



January 2012—The first inside joke. For the first six months or so, watching Kdrama was like wandering through Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory without a map. Everywhere I looked there were marvels and wonders, but I understood none of them. As I watched more and more dramas, though, my K-ent vocabulary grew and I started to see things for what they were: Sam Dong’s dream sequence in Dream High played off the epically effective scene introducing the F4 in Boys over Flowers. (Say what you will about Korean drama, but I can’t think of the last time any U.S. show had a scene as iconic as the “Almost Paradise” intro.) That first time I understood an inside joke was like a baby’s first steps—inevitably, it was followed by more of the same. When Ha Ji Won squealed “Binny!” at the sight of a Hyun Bin poster in King 2 Hearts, the scene was more than a comment about cute Korean actors—it was a nod to the spotlight she had shared with him in Secret Garden. 



February, 2012—The first drama drop. Early on in my drama career, it never even occurred to me that it was possible to stop watching a show after you started it. I even barreled through the entirety of Secret Garden in spite hating almost every minute of it. But then came Can You Hear My Heart, a series completely ruined by its profoundly annoying lead couple: Kim Jae Won, always uncannily pasty and wan, was so “milky” looking he actually creeped me out. And vacant-eyed, empty headed Hwang Jung-eum capered around like a dim-bulb cheerleader on speed. In combination with the drama’s bloated, pointless script they pushed me over the edge—I dropped the show by episode 14 and haven’t looked back since. These days I’ve realized that it’s not worth my time to watch shows I don’t click with. (Sorry, I Love Tae Ri.)


Ongoing—The extracurricular activities. To paraphrase a much-loved meme: One does not simply watch Korean drama. The food is too yummy looking, the places are too gorgeous, and the beauty products are too enticing. I’ve bought detoxifying face masks, ramyun, and even a cell phone based almost exclusively on my exposure to them on Korean television shows. (Learning how to use the Samsung Galaxy has been a snap. Thanks to all its product placement, I knew how to do everything before I even picked it up the first time.) Although an actual trip to Korea is probably never going to fit into my budget, I’ve read Lonely Planet’s guide to Seoul cover to cover, and my shelf of books to read contains a few volumes of Korean folk tales. (Unfortunately, I haven’t found much Korean fiction in translation.) I think the South Korean government is on to something with their campaign for “soft power”—global power gained through the cultural cachet earned by Kpop and Kdrama.

***

Two years is actually an incredibly long time to be obsessed with something. Will I be around for two more? I can’t say for sure—but it is just long enough for Song Joong Ki to finish his tour of duty. That’s a pretty powerful incentive.

23 comments:

  1. Reading this was almost like reading my own kdrama biography. Well until you got to Can You Hear My Heart, it was my first ever exposure to drama and finished it in 10 days (i can finish 30 episodes in like 3 days now if i really work on it). But other than that one minor thing we have had similar 2 years. Happy kdrama Birthday! and i wish many many more...

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  2. BRAVO! Love your insight. Still amazes me that we all kinna have the same story. Which I have always found really weird. Can't say that about most other things. But in a way makes this, "whatever you want to call it", unique for lack of a better word. Commonality works for me!

    Oh.... I'd also add the day that I turned an innocent bystander into an obsessed fan... how can I forget when that "light bulb" moment hit her and she uttered those words that are ohhhh so familiar to all of us -"why is this happening to me? i can't believe i spent --hours watching the darn thing!"

    And " in regards to Song Joong Ki...

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  3. I started watching k-drama in August of 2011 on Netflix as well. Mine was the hot mess known as Lie to Me. I was bored and I think I had just completed watching an American series, and Netflix recommended Lie to Me. I passed over it for a few weeks before I decided to watch an episode one Saturday afternoon...I was fascinated with its strange and kitschy plotline, and I was fascinated by the language and the culture. I finished it in a matter of days, and then moved on to My Princess (the next one recommended on Netflix). I was so engrossed in its ridiculousness that I took my ipad on vacation and was spending every free moment watching the episodes poolside with headphones in (while my cousin was in the background wondering what in the hell I was watching!) In quick succession after that was You're Beautiful and Boys Over Flowers, and its been a joyride ever since! I think the first one I ever watching in real time was Flower Boy Ramyun Shop, and I still really adore that drama! I think I really started enjoying all the blogs around that time as well, simply because no one in my real life understood why I loved it so much!

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  4. My first was Prosecutor Princess after looking around Hulu for Bollywood or french shows. It was weird and did I like it? I didn't know but I had to watch more to make sure. After that was Coffee Prince and the rest she wrote! That was back in 2010 and it hasn't let up since. The only one I have dropped was Boys over Flowers, I just couldn't hack it, even Big I finished out of loyalty to Gong Yoo. Anything with Hyun Bin, Gong Yoo, Lee Seung Gi, Song Joong Ki and since City Hunter, Lee Min Ho, I have to watch no matter what. Don't leave the girls out, Kim Sun Ah, Yoon Eun Hye and Ha Ji Won, gotta watch them too. We are a weird group I must say....

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  5. I was smiling so much reminiscing about my own kdrama journey while reading this! Shining Inheritance was one of my first too, but Coffee Prince was my very first, and still my first and ultimate love as you already know lol.

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  6. I watched my first k-drama after hulu recommended 49 Days. It started out as mild curiosity and turned into me watching the whole drama in one weekend. I learned many things from my first drama. I found out that melodrama means the ending could very well ruin my day, or week, depending on how invested I was. This began my practice of mainly watching completed dramas so I know what to expect and I'm not antsy waiting for new episodes. I learned that I'm shallow enough to start watching a show simply for the male leads ( Jung Il-Woo call me!), and the term Flower Boy became part of my vocabulary. Needless to say, I love Asian dramas, and I'm glad I have all my internet friends that share in my much ridiculed obsession.

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    1. 49 days was my first Melodrama, I remember sitting on my couch sobbing loudly. My brother would walk by and asked me what was wrong ( he is used to it by now, so he ignores my sobs). Then the next day my eyes would be horribly bloodshot & I would asked myself. Why do I keep watching this? Anyhow, I try to avoid melos

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  7. I remember watching my first show Boys Over Flowers and I actually thought that Jan-Di would end up with Ji-Hoo..........those were the times when I couldn't tell who was the second lead x///x

    I'm glad you wrote this :) It's fun to hear other peoples stories and how they discovered Korean entertainment. It would be fun to tell my own when my blog is a year old ^.^

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  8. My first drama was "My Girlfriend is a Nine-Tailed Fox (Gumiho). And oddly enough, the first one I dropped was the same as you - "Can you Hear..". Since then I have probably watched somewhere around 150 k-dramas, and another 30 or so J and T dramas and movies. But after a while you begin to see a "pattern of clichés" in far too many of these dramas, and my addiction has mellowed out a lot - seems that now I am more likely to drop (or do a LOT of fast forwarding) for many of those I have not seen or are still airing in Korea. I have pretty much dropped any saeguk (historical) drama completely.

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  9. My addiction started in October 2011. A cousin visiting from the US wanted to get hold of a Korean drama. I had never even considered watching anything so obscure but I dutifully found her drama for her, and then my interest was piqued. After she returned to the US, I started searching around for a good drama to watch and eventually chose Coffee Prince. However, I got that and another drama called Coffee House mixed up so I ended up watching that first. I really enjoyed it, but probably enjoyed it more that it warranted because it was my first and it was all so exotic. I am a bit more discerning now, perhaps a bit jaded, but my addiction for Korean drama has not diminished. I find that the dramas that constantly draw me back are the 50+ episode weekend family dramas.

    I don't think that my cousin ever realised just exactly what she had done to me when she introduced me to Korean drama. She never expected that I would end up studying the Korean language(nearly 20 months now, making real progress), having Korean friends both in the UK and in Korea, that I would go on holiday alone to Korea (last May/June for 2 weeks), that I would book another holiday to Korea (next March for 3 weeks, 205 days away and counting)and that I would begin to consider Korea my second home. All from her casually asking me to find a drama for her that she had heard about. Life is funny.

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    1. Anna, I have been thinking about doing the same thing. I have 3 years until retirement. Maybe we'll meet up in Korea some day!

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    2. Ha! Who knows. Maybe we will.

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  10. My gateway drug was Boys Over Flowers, then Secret Garden, then Lie to Me---sort of like drinking Boone's Farm before you know any better, I guess. Then, I found Dramabeans. They, along with other blogs of good taste (like this one), became my sommeliers. So I found the real gems: Coffee Prince, My Name is Kim Sam Soon, Joseon X Files, the Hong Sisters' oeuvre. Now I understand how to tell a rich, full-bodied fusion sageuk (Arang and the Magistrate) from a sparkling rom com (Flower Boy Next Door). I can identify the rich soils of time travel (Queen In Hyun's Man), noona romance (Dal Ja's Spring) gender-swapping (Sungkyunkwan Scandal), and, most recently, sixth-sensing (Master's Sun and Who Are You?)

    Now, I've branched out across Asia. I've been in love with Bollywood for over a decade, so this has been a wonderful expansion of my palate. Thanks, Kdrama!
    -Jen

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  11. Two years for me too. What was it about 2011 that just captured everyone? I can so relate to everything you said. As other commenters have said, it's like we all have the exact same story. I'm not as obsessive now as I once was, and I'm better at putting my laptop down and actually going to sleep, but I very much remember the early days. How i managed to stay awake at work during the first few months of my drama obsession, I have no idea.

    I'm also curious as to when this phase will be over. I do tend to go through phases, but 2 years is the longest for me as well. Is this a phase that isn't a phase, or in another two years, will we be wondering what all the fuss was about?

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    1. I don't think the phase will ever be over for me. For me, Korea, it's drama, language and people are all in my blood now.

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  12. Wow I've been obsessed with kdramas for 2 and half years and I can relate to all you have said, I still remember the first drama I watched, my friends make constant fun of me for watching and being obsessed by korean dramas. My family is tired of hearing all about Korea, my mom the other day thanked me (in a sarcastic way ofcourse) for teaching her all about Joseon era. Where I live Kdramas aren't really famous, net is the only way for this obsession. The only thing I can not relate to your post about is Can You Hear My Heart, thats the drama I started blogging about kdramas for. It is well acted, maybe you should give it another try, for nothing else than maybe for the amazing supporting cast and the last 4 episodes.

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  13. Hello, I just re-discovered your blog while trying to find kdrama fans who live in New England. I live in RI and don't know anyone from this region who is into kdrama. I first discovered kdramas around 2006 after discovering Rooftop Roomcat and My Lovely Samsoon on late night television. I absolutely loved them but didn't know how to find more shows like them. My passion reignited in 2011/2012 once I discovered the kdrama online community that allowed me to re-watch those shows. Since then, I jumped right in and have marathon watched many more dramas! Throughout the year or so since then, I must have come across your blog while trying to find kdrama info but didn't realize you were from the same part of the US as me.

    I would love to chat more about your kdrama journey as a New Englander and learn if there are any other kdrama addicts in the area. I think there are many similarities between your kdrama history and mine and I hope to share my story as well. PS I'm happy to say that Coffee Prince is one of my all time favorites too!

    (I'm new to posting on blogs and recognize that I'm posting without leaving contact information but would love to connect via email, twitter or some other way. Please let me know if you are interested. Thanks!)

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  14. Hello Amanda...

    I just happened to chance upon your blog while googling for K-drama blogs other than dramabeans, and I must say your insights are a delight to read. I am from India and was introduced to the world of Korean dramas in 2011 through a friend of a friend (pretty much like your DVD case). And since then, there has been no looking back. What started as a mere crush with 'You are Beautiful', first grew into a love affair and then culminated into a happy marriage!! I am proud to say that I'll be celebrating my two-year marriage anniversary by December this year. Here in India, I don't get enough opportunities to watch K-dramas. Most of the sites don't work in India and DVDs are hardly available in any major city of the country. So reading episode recaps on Dramabeans is my major source of entertainment when it comes to K-dramas.

    Reading this article of yours made me nostalgic. It's good to find someone who feels the same way you do for K-dramas. Otherwise here I am at a complete loss trying to find people who even know about Korea leave aside K-dramas.

    Keep writing such wonderful articles. They are great!

    Regards,
    Sweta...

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  15. Hi! first time poster!
    Yet I can never resist a "How I started K-dramas" post. Happy 2 years by the way! I just turned a year in May.
    So my addiction can also be blamed on Netflix. I was bored on a Sun afternoon and it recommended "Lie To Me". I had nothing better to do and said why not? I started it and could not stop. Monday morning my coworker asked me about my weekend, and I a bit a shamed told her what I done all Sunday. I had actually finished the show in one sitting! It turn out that she was a fellow k-drama addict and she proceeded to give me a "must" list. So BOF came next, then my first 2 true drama loves "You're Beautiful" and "Coffee prince". The rest is history, I have watched way too many dramas since then. An unhealthy level. I have a lot of "First".
    First drama to never finish: BOF
    First to watch as it aired: To the beautiful you
    First to k-drama that I hated with a passion and I wished I never watched: What Happen in Bali
    Anyhow.. Lets see how long it takes for me to get bored?

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  16. My first...this feels like sharing the story of my first crush, my first kiss. But how wonderful to be able to do so with people who are as passionate about Kdramas as I have become in the last 17 months! No need to deal with raised eyebrows, superficially patient sighs and almost patently visible tapping of the foot. OMG, there she goes again... Anyway, after having spent 13 months watching all the Bollywood flicks I could find on Hulu, YouTube and purchased from Eros, I chanced upon Baby-Faced Beauty. I no longer recall how I felt about it - other than disbelief that the 33-year-old heroine was considered practically unhirable - but after that I went on to gobble up everything I could find. The length appealed to me - like delving into a novel, rather than a short story. At this point I have a hard time taking seriously an hour-and-a-half drama...and have only turned on my television perhaps 2-3 times in the last 15 months. Sound familiar, anyone?!
    By the by, on August 13 I received an email notifying me that I'd achieved DramaFever Elite status. Wow! I assume that someone must have noticed my marathon DF sessions. :-)
    Anyway, I'm a happy camper...especially cuz tomorrow DramaBeans will be in Seattle - hurray! And also because on Wednesday I start taking a Korean language class and on Thursday I attend the first session of a course on Korean dramas. Yup, an actual course. Isn't that too cool for words!

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  17. Hey guys,

    Just wanted to share my story. I'm from Canada, Toronto, so in Canada, we don't have hulu.

    However, I grew up watching anime before there was crunchy role. My family never had cable, so the only english shows I ever watched was on the free channels, like xfiles and jerry sienfield.

    Anyways, growing up in the 1995 I was watching anime, had to download those using mirc , and irc servers. Not as easy as it is now. Back then there were only hardsubbed . Anyways, By 2000 I think I got bored of anime, with the reptitive story lines, and I think I just grew out of it. Althought I still love a good anime once in a while, that's when I started watching Jdrama, and thats when I started downloading a lot from d-addicts a lot of jdrama.

    Kdrama back then weren't as popular as they are now.

    So I've been watching Jdrama for awhile, and then I started to get bored of it too, mostly because it seems Jdrama is having a lot of detective stories.

    As a guy, I like romantic comedies, i Just love them!

    First real kdrama was 49 days, that I downloaded from d-addicts maybe 2 or 1 year ago, and now I've watched most of the popular kdramas.

    It's kinda of lonely, because it seems not alot of guys are into kdramas, or the type of kdramas that I like, which is mostly romantic comedies.

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