All my life I have obsessively watched South Korean TV series, or K-dramas.
The term refers to the disparate genres of television dramas produced in South Korea, including mystery, crime, and romantic comedy. Regardless of genre, most K-dramas seek to elicit a visceral reaction from viewers – laughter, tears, anger, outrage. Series usually feature charming and neat actors who are in touch with their emotions.
When I was in elementary school in the United States, I regularly went with my parents to a Korean grocery store an hour from my house to borrow VHS tapes of K-dramas. Eventually, streaming services ended the need for VHS rentals, and I was able to watch my favorite K-dramas, such as the innocent manon platforms such as Rakuten Viki and Dramafever.
I turned my passion for South Korean television into a career by earning a doctorate in gender studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, where I researched the racial, gender, and sexual politics surrounding the worldwide popularity of K-dramas.
For my thesis, I interviewed women from different parts of the world who were inspired by K-dramas to travel to South Korea to experience the culture firsthand. To meet them, I stayed at guesthouses around Seoul, near K-drama filming locations and popular tourist destinations.
More broadly, I wanted to know what attracted them to South Korea. But I soon realized that a significant number of tourists were less interested in sights and sounds – and more interested in people.
The rise of K-drama
Some of the first K-dramas to attract audiences outside of South Korea were Jewels in the palace, Guardian: Solitary and Great God, and my star love, released in the early 21st century. People around the world watched them on legal streaming websites that offered subtitles, as well as illegal fan-run streaming sites where volunteers wrote subtitles.
In recent years, K-dramas have become mainstream. Today, streaming platforms such as Netflix and Disney+ not only offer a multitude of K-dramas to their subscribers, but they have also produced their own K-dramas, such as squid game and The affection of the king.
The worldwide popularity of K-dramas has occurred alongside the popularity of other South Korean cultural products, including K-pop, cosmetics and food. This phenomenon is known as “Hallyu” or the “Korean wave”.
“Hallyu Tourism” – with a twist
Galvanized by their interest in South Korean popular culture, more and more tourists visit the country.
South Korean locals call these visitors “Hallyu Tourists.” Many of them dine at restaurants and street vendors so they can try the food they see in K-dramas, visit K-dramas filming locations, or catch a live K-pop show. .
However, a significant subset – the group I’m most interested in – travel to South Korea for love. Drawn to the characters they see on their televisions, they begin to wonder if real-life South Korean men resemble male K-drama characters, both in appearance and behavior.
They come from all over the world – North America, Western Europe, Russia – but tend to have a similar profile: heterosexual women in their early to mid-twenties.
In 2017 and 2018, I stayed at the guesthouses and hostels that Hallyu tourists frequented when visiting South Korea. Tourists who were interested in Korean men quickly stood out. Unlike other tourists who woke up early so they could explore the city, these tourists slept or watched K-dramas during the day, then got dressed and put on makeup before hitting clubs and bars at night. They had one main goal: to meet a Korean.
For some of these tourists, the opportunity to date these men was a way to fulfill a fantasy. A German tourist told me that when she meets a Korean, she has the impression of “living in [her] own Korean TV drama.
Our discussions often took place over a meal. Occasionally I would interview them as we went to and from clubs and bars – or even in clubs and bars as the women tried to meet guys. Some of these women were fluent in Korean, while others were able to communicate by mixing Korean and English. Many of them claimed to have learned Korean by consuming hours of Korean popular culture.
In search of a “soft” masculinity
“Romantic”, “sweet”, “beautiful”, “knights in shining armor” are just some of the terms tourists used to describe their idealized Korean. It was a stark contrast to the men in their home country, whom they tended to portray as emotionally stunted and hypermasculine.
“I feel so safe with Korean men”, a Swedish woman said. “The men at home are so [sexually] aggressive. They grope me and try to have sex all the time. I do not like it.”
A certain type of man tends to appear in romantic K-dramas. They are usually portrayed as neat, romantic, and gentle – a type of masculinity sometimes referred to as “soft” masculinity. As Joanna Elfving-Hwang, an expert in Korean studies, explains:
“…men in popular dramas and romantic comedies are portrayed as attentive, sensitive, and ready to vent their feelings if need be. They are neat and fashionably dressed, accessorized with the latest men’s bag and excessively concerned about their appearance.
Some tourists have indeed found their ideal partner, marrying and settling in South Korea. Their photos and stories circulated among other tourists, giving them hope that they too could find and marry a Korean.
However, these successes were the exception and not the norm.
Most of the tourists I interviewed and stayed in contact with left the country somewhat disappointed. Some managed to have a short affair with a man, but in most cases these relationships – extremely difficult to maintain over a long distance – fell apart.
A Spanish woman I interviewed broke up with her Korean boyfriend shortly after returning to Spain. “You only gave me pain” she wrote in an Instagram post.
Other tourists left South Korea completely discouraged: the men they met had nothing to do with the K-drama actors they had seen on TV.
Interestingly, whether they left the country only partially satisfied or demoralized, many of the women I interviewed were unwavering in their desire to one day fall in love with a Korean man. They believed they were just unlucky this time around – that there was still the possibility of meeting the perfect man on a future visit to South Korea.
The power of media to move
In 2020, after South Korean director Bong Joon Ho won a Golden Globe for his film Parasite, he said“Once you overcome the one inch high caption barrier, you will discover so many more amazing films.”
To me, these K-drama fans turned tourists — and their desire for Korean men — signifies the power of media from other cultures to move viewers not only emotionally, but also physically. Researchers have documented how some japanese taking trips to the UK after watching British period dramas; other researchers have studied how Anime has boosted American tourism to Japan.
With entertainment from other cultures becoming more and more accessible via streaming platforms, I expect this kind of media tourism become even more common. Movies and TV series set in other countries can pique a viewer’s curiosity about distant cultures, new sounds and exotic foods.
But as my research shows, they can also fuel fantasies about love and romance that don’t always have a happy ending. – The Conversation|Rappler.com
Min Joo Lee is a visiting lecturer in women’s and gender studies at Wellesley College.