Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Dok Mis and Me

Enrique: You like being home that much? Doesn’t it feel suffocating to stay indoors like that all the time?
Dok Mi: It doesn’t feel suffocating. I like it, and I feel at peace in my tiny place.
I’ve always been an introvert, someone who values solitude and contemplation and doesn’t necessarily need a lot of people around me to be happy. (Extroverts, in contrast, find their natural habitat in large groups of people, where they thrive on interaction with others.) If you’re reading this, I bet you’re an introvert, too—watching enough Korean drama to develop a blog-reading habit seems like a fairly reliable litmus test for the mindset.

Another person who’s almost certainly an introvert? Go Dok Mi, the lovely, reserved heroine of Flower Boy Next Door. Or that’s my hope, anyway—Kdramas tend to see any deviation from the beloved cheery, outgoing character type as a sign of damage and weakness.

Take the drama Protect the Boss: Ji Hun, its male lead, starts off as a loner who prefers being by himself to interacting with other people. In one of the drama’s early scenes, he finds the thought of making small talk so distasteful that he ducks out of a business meeting at a norebang. This Ji Hun may be a chaebol brat, but I love him and his reluctance to be around other people. He approaches the world in a way pop culture rarely allows, and it was a way I can understand in my bones.

But by the show’s last scene, Ji Hun somehow turns into the preening, un-selfconscious star of a wedding attended by a hundred people. While there may be no such thing as a person who’s introverted all the time or extroverted all the time, this still felt disingenuous: It didn’t acknowledge the complex personality the show had established for Ji Hun early in its run. His standard-issue happy ending required that he become just like everyone else, rather than finding a way to be happy as himself.

Flower Boy Next Door’s Go Dok Mi starts off in a similar place. But while Ji Hun’s many fears and phobias literally paralyze him, Dok Mi has found a kind of comfort in her self-imposed solitude. She has a productive job and is able to be independent and make her way in life, however tentatively. Immersing herself in a world of her own devising is a defense mechanism, a form of protection against the unpredictabilities of parents who divorce and friends who betray. Dok Mi’s world isn’t such a bad place—it’s filled with books and dreams and all the other things she loves, and in it she has complete control. She manages every detail of life in her apartment with Godlike omnipotence: from the sunlight to the temperature to the amount of water needed to survive.

Dok Mi’s limited lifestyle might not be ideal, but my greatest concern is that the show—so sure-footed to this point—will eventually lose sight of the true Dok Mi, just as Protect the Boss lost sight of Ji Hun. Dok Mi could have responded to the mean-girl bullying of her high-school classmates in a lot of ways (including by committing suicide, which she considered), but she chose to take advantage of her introvert spirit and turn inward to find strength and shelter of her own manufacture.

My hope for this show is that it will ultimately acknowledge that being lonely is a different thing from valuing time spent alone. Dok Mi’s inward motivation isn’t a bad thing that needs to be fixed; it’s an unhealthy extreme that needs to be modulated. A happy ending for her should’t require that she overcome her personality to turn into an extrovert like Ji Hun. She’s already well on way to doing what’s truly necessary: finding a way to take steps in the outside world without fear.

Flower Boy Next Door has built something beautiful and rare in Dok Mi, a character in mainstream entertainment who is unmistakably introverted. To serve her well it must respect that for Dok Mi (and for me, and you, and lots of other people we know), liking to be alone is not a character flaw; it’s a character attribute.

*** *** ***

In honor of Kdrama’s greatest introvert, I thought I’d share some of my favorite characters with similar outlooks on life.

Amelie Poulain, Amelie
French movie, 2001

Raymond Dufayel: “You mean she would rather imagine herself relating to an absent person than build relationships with those around her?”
Words like “delightful” and “charming” don’t even begin to explain the giddy, fairy-tale wonder that is Amelie, probably my favorite movie. I suspect the creator of Flower Boy Next Door feels the same way—the commonalities between the two are marked: binocular-bearing peeping toms, artists known for making copies of other people’s work, and an introverted female lead who never quite knows how to relate to the people around her. Like Dok Mi, Amelie lives in carefully curated solitude, skipping stones and watching movies and eating dinner all on her own.

Set in a whimsical, color-saturated dream Paris not so different from the Seoul of FBND, this story slowly lures Amelie out of hiding and into the arms of the equally quirky and fantastic Nino, an oddball who collects torn-up images discarded at railway photo booths. I daresay FBND’s outcome will be similar. Here’s hoping it’s executed with as much dignity and respect.

Angela Chase, My So-Called Life
American TV show, 1994

Angela: I’m not saying…see there’s thinking about him, right? which is what I do. All the time. Like this…
Rickie: Obsession.
Rayanne: Right. So?
Angela: So, it keeps me going or something. Like I need it just to get through the day. It…It’s just …
Rickie: It’s an obsession.
Angela: Right. And, and if you make it real, it’s it’s not the same. It’s not, it’s not yours anymore. I don’t know, maybe I’d rather have the fantasy than even him.
Rickie: I completely understand this.
Rayanne: I totally and completely disagree. You want Jordan Catalano in actuality because…there is no because. You just want him. Only you’re programmed to never admit it.
Rickie: That does have the ring of truth.
Angela has a bad case of adolescence: she’s nervous and moody and at odds with the world. But through it all she’s a thoughtful observer of the people around her, even as she feels fundamentally distanced from them. From hiding inside her sweater during class (see above), to her quiet voiceovers that explain things she would never say out loud, to envying Anne Frank’s years spent in hiding—with the boy she liked!—Angela is both a classic introvert and one of my very favorite characters.

Weirdly, My So-called Life features a character named Enrique (although he’s usually called Rickie). But the show’s real equivalent of FBND’s Enrique is Rayanne Graff, the wild girl overflowing with energy but utterly lacking in impulse control. Enrique may be less tortured than Rayanne, but his hunger for attention and appreciation rivals hers.

Beth March, Little Women
American novel, 1868

“There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.” —Little Women
Little Women famously revolves around the lives of the four March sisters, who live alone with their independent-minded mother while their father is off serving in the American Civil War. There’s spunky Jo, who wants to be a writer; beautiful Amy; and grown-up Meg. And the sister everyone forgets about? That would Beth, shy and quiet, who only wants to play the piano and help people.

Beth is all but a forgotten character in Little Women. But she’s still the one I looked for in every scene—just because she her personality wasn’t as forceful as her sisters’ doesn’t mean she didn’t experience the world around her, too. I think it’s time to reclaim this lost girl, who lived so much inside her head she was never even understood by the author who created her.

Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre
British novel, 1847

“I can live alone, if self-respect, and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”—Jane Eyre
This quote is taken a bit out of context—in it, Jane is acknowledging the religion that gives her an internal moral compass people with more frivolous natures don’t understand. Still, Jane is serious and studious and often silent, a dignified heroine who’s unyieldingly self-reliant and confident in her faith.

Her lowly social status as a nanny and mindful approach to life set her apart from most of the characters in this book, but it’s clear that she doesn’t mind this much: like any introvert, the company she likes most is her own. (I guess she likes that Mr. Rochester pretty well, too.)

Jane Eyre and FBND also feature a common metaphor:
“That woman believes that fate is when the thread of her heart connects quietly with another’s. She thinks that that invisible string is what allows people to feel and understand each other, even with the smallest vibration. That woman feels uneasy when one heart suddenly gets mixed together with lots of different ones. So, Fate, please—don’t pull my heart so hard…” —Dok Mi, Flower Boy Next Door
“I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you—especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly.”—Mr. Rochester, Jane Eyre


(P.S.: I promise that someday I’ll write about something other than Flower Boy Next Door. It’s got to give me my soul back first, though—either by taking a turn for the suck, or finishing up in a blaze of glory. In the meanwhile, bear with me.)


  1. Who meee? I'm not an introvert!! So what if I haven't really left my house except to go to work and back, haven't been to the grocery store in almost 6 months, and duck out early at super bowl parties because I'd rather see who's sitting on Skype across the world waiting to talk about dramas with me... :/

    Ok, I admit it.. though I'm a little jealous of how organized Dok Mi is in her introverted-ness. Once I shut out the world, I sometimes forget to even feed myself.

    Awww, Beth March. I always loved her the best! Jo was too tomboy-ish for me. Shame though that I don't generally like the book (or any of its adaptations). Not enough Beth perhaps? I'm also not a great fan of Jane Eyre. I think she's too resourcesful that she makes me feel like a bum, even if we'd end up having a lot in common.

    I need to catch up on FBND, but I'm still trailing along in a mini drama slump.. This sucks.

    1. OMG. Super Bowl parties marry so many of my least favorite things: socialization, sports, and beer. Ick. If it were possible for me not to go to the supermarket for six months and not literally starve, I would do avoid that, too.

      I liked Jo well enough, but was freaked out that she ended up with an old guy and not my beloved Laurie. Little Women isn't my favorite book ever, but that might have something to do with the fact that I didn't read it until I was an adult. (Oh. And all that Pilgrim's Progress talk.) The movie version with Claire Danes was decent, especially because it featured babely Christian Bale at his most normal.

      I wish I was in a drama slump, but my problem is more in the realm of too many dramas, too little time. Have you tried In Time with You? It might be Taiwanese, but it's so Coffee-Princy and good...

    2. You're right. What IS it about that Pilgrim's Progress talk that was always so weird?

      I'm still geering up for a Taiwanese drama fest. Right now I'm attempting to knock out some Jdramas, to mixed success and almost 3 dropped Jdramas later. I think I will wear out soon, and get started on these TWdramas. I just need to get some momentum going first.

  2. Jane Eyre is my favorite of all time! I have seen every version of the book made into movies that exist as well as the BBC mini-series with Timothy Dalton as Rochester. Swoon!!! I've read and seen Little Women and heard of Amelie.

    Enough about "foreign stuff". I'm currently watching Sweet 18. It is really cute and good. The second lead from Lovers in Paris is the lead in this one. Is he dreamy!

    Just read where Lee Seung Gi and Suzy are preparing for their new drama which begins in March. It's the one where he is the male guminho. I don't like Suzy but I've only seen her in Big and I really thought she was awful. But because of LSG I'll be watching anyway.

  3. I totally agree about your comment about how liking to be alone is not a flaw but an attribute. I admit to being an introvert most of the time and i don't find anything wrong with this, however it can be annoying though when certain people find you 'boring'. I also feel that i can relate to Dok Mi so much sometimes. From changing a text 10 times to avoiding small talk as much as possible.

    However with the plot development, i feel the same way too! Dok Mi is starting to live a more healthier lifestyle but at the same time i feel that if she continues this change she might turn into an Enrique!! Who i personally have a slight dislike towards. *Shrug*. Let's all hope that by the end of the drama Dok Mi's character can be kept and that we learn that it "doesn't mean i'm lonely when i'm alone". Teehee.

    1. I know what you mean about quiet people seeming "boring." I was once was a group of friends and everyone else was talking, and I was just quietly listening. Someone stopped in the middle of everything to comment, "But Amanda, you haven't said anything." And it just occurred to me that we were from different planets: I didn't need to say anything. Listening was enough.

      I think that Enrique's speech to Jin Rak about giving Dok Mi time to herself was a sign that the show really is going to let her stay who she is, rather than turning into an extravert. I can't wait to find out, though ;)

  4. Great post. I'm thinking, though, that the lines between introvert and extrovert aren't always so clean cut. And there is a big difference between a true congenital introvert and someone who has been wounded by life. Dok Mi has been devastated in high school. She's a recluse because of human cruelty and is in emotional pain whereas true congenital introverts aren't really running away from life. Also there are introverts who are very extroverted when among friends. And there are extroverts who behave like introverts when they're among folks who make them uncomfortable or people who are different than they are..racially, socially, etc. Also, some introverts are not necessarily brainy types who love books, music etc. And a lot of extroverts are very intellectual.

    1. Definitely. It's silly to think that anyone needs to be some specific way all the time. Something one of my a psychology professors said has always stuck with me: "Consistent characterization is for fiction. Real people are the sum of their circumstances." I think there's some truth to that.

    2. I was totally just thinking this! I am definitely socialable, and I can be a willing and active participant in a conversation, but I am most definitely an introvert. I need the time to recharge. A lot of people actually don't believe me that I'm an introvert.

  5. Having responded earlier in a light tone I feel the need to respond about the issue of being lonely or like to be alone. I find I am my best friend and companion. I have family, friends and co-workers around me all the time but they don't necessarily enjoy the same interests as I do (mainly my Korean mania). Because of that I try not to talk about it all the time even though that is what I would really like to do. So I get a little upset when other things infringe on "my time". I've been a widow now for 8 years and have kept myself very busy to keep from facing the fact that my husband is no longer with me, he's just somewhere else right now. I feel a bit of guilt but have made it known that this is now "my time" and I've become a bit selfish. I don't see myself as an introvert or extrovert, I'm just me. I really like me.

    1. I'm sorry to hear about your husband :( I think it's healthy for people to have hobbies, and have never understood how non-obsessive people make it through life. There's nothing better than the unconditional happiness something abstract like a band or a genre of TV show can give. Real life is great, but Korean drama (or Nascar or One Direction) can make it all the richer.

  6. I hope it won't sound banal but I think it's really great how your article about one (on first sight) simple kdrama can be a beggining of a serious discission. That's why i think your blog is one of the best I've ever come across :)
    Maybe I'm not a 'full-time introvert', I don't really like being by myself all the time, but I think you made me realise some important thing about my best friend who I used to worry about sometimes. Thank you!
    Only now, I noticed this scheme introvert-into-extrovert-thing which happened in Protect the boss and I also hope it won't occur in FBND. I hope Dok Mi will find her own, comfy way of living.
    And I don't want to be just an anon anymore :D but because I'm rather slow with this all account stuff below I will just use my name instead. I want you to know that you have one more regular reader out there! ^^
    Poor English speaker

    1. It sounds awesome, not banal! Thank you for commenting. I always really appreciate it when people go out of their way to write something, especially when English isn't their first language. It's amazing that people from all around the world share an obsession with Korean drama.

      I also used to worry about one of my friends because I didn't understand how she thought—she's hardly ever alone because she always wants to be with people and out doing things, while I really need time to myself to function. I guess everyone really is different.

  7. Have you seen this guide to the introverted?

    A friend of mine posted this on facebook, and it's the best, and most concise explanation I've ever seen of how I can explain that yes, I can be outgoing and engaging on some occasions, but for the most part, I'd rather be left alone. It's not that I don't like interacting with people, but because it costs me something, it needs to be worth it.

  8. Amanda, thank you for the kind words.

    Kikidee, your last sentence sums up perfectly how I feel as well.

  9. I don't know... I think you make Dok Mi's life style sound a lot healthier than it is, at least from my point of view. I'm an introvert, too, so I don't talk about Dok Mi's need for quietness and spending time alone. However, in her case, it has a lot to do with simple fear of life. If a person chooses not to go out because it's just so nice & comfy at home and so on, ok, that's fine. But it's clear that in Dok Mi's case she's very afraid of the outside world and very anxious even of the thought of interacting with people. So in my eyes her total seclusion is not a choice made of freely but a desperate survival mechanism that needs to be set aside so that she can truly live. Yeah, I do think that she's an introvert and I couldn't imagine her transforming into party animal, but I could imagine her traveling with Enrique in some quiet and atmospheric places.

    Also, I'm not sure what you mean by "sometimes introvert, sometimes extrovert". I see it more as a level - we people are more or less introverts/extroverts. There are few who are almost totally self-sufficient to the level of not needing even friends or family (I don't think Dok Mi is one of them) and other extreme are people who can't stand being alone almost at all. I'm saying this because I don't think that being an introverts means you cannot spent time in company, even in parties, and enjoy yourself. It simply means that for introverts those social events are energy drainers while extroverts get energy from them.

  10. FBND was the very first kdrama I ever watched. I've only realized how unique Dok Mi's character is now that a have a few (or 15) kdramas under my belt. It seems that there's a preference for the plucky female who shows a lot of personality (but strangely lets herself get wrist-grabbed and dragged everywhere, what the--). So now, thinking back, Dok Mi is one of a kind. Glad someone wrote up a character like her. It's quite refreshing.

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