I still remember my first.
Later, I would realize it was not exemplary in the genre. Hell, it was pretty subpar for the genre. But your first is your first, for better or for worse.
My first was Boys Over Flowers.
I came to Korean dramas at the age of eighteen — late, if not late to the TV melodrama. My grandparents, with whom I spent my early summers, had General Hospital and One Life to Live on, every day, without fail. My childhood yaya, along with many Filipina women of her generation, was devoted to Marimar, the ’90s telenovela. With my teenaged smug superiority, I thought melodramas were dumb, shallow, smutty, and sentimental — the rap the “weepies” have gotten since the days of now-critical darling, “Hollywood Golden Age” director Douglas Sirk and his women’s pictures — even as I guiltily peeked at all the beautiful, wealthy white people falling in and out of each others’s beds (and down stairs) on General Hospital. I was too smart for these shows, I thought, too ironic, too hip.
It was a steamy June in the Philippines, my eighteenth year, when my branch of the family was back in the homeland. Clustered in an air-conditioned bedroom with my siblings, my cousins, and my cousin’s yayas, at first I was only vaguely paying attention when they popped a DVD in and started a show. The familiar strains of melodramatic music floated into my ears, and I glanced toward the screen and saw a wide-eyed girl staring at an admittedly extraordinarily attractive guy as he unbuttoned his shirt on a beach, waves crashing behind him.
“Ah, he is so handsome,” cooed my cousin’s yaya Divina, in that squealing tone I used to deride as both “overly emotional” and “horny” (I was such a pleasant adolescent to be around).
“This looks really dumb,” I said, my eyes drifting towards the screen in spite of myself. I don’t know exactly how it happened (okay: abs…fluffy hair), but my eyes locked there.
Boys Over Flowers, I later discovered, was a phenomenon of tsunami-like proportions in South Korea and the rest of Asia. Based on the Japanese manga Hana Yori Dango and earlier televised versions in Taiwan and Japan, the show tells the story of a spunky, poor girl named Jan-di who finds herself admitted into a super-swank school for the rich and powerful, where she draws the ire of Jun-pyo, powerful leader of the F4 (Flower 4 — just go with it; “flower boy” is a way to describe a pretty boy, particularly in South Korea and Japan), the school’s ruling clique. You know what happens next: They fight; he sics the entire school of frighteningly entitled and borderline-sociopathic trust-funders on her; he falls for her; she falls for his best friend (the infinitely nicer — and more boring and robotically acted — Ji-hoo); she eventually falls for Jun-pyo; his mom finds out and is pissed; they get separated; she gets kidnapped a couple of times and he rescues her; other love rivals pop in; he gets amnesia — the couple meet all the usual roadblocks on the way to a proposal on yet another beach, while the waves crash and romantic music swells.
It is not a particularly good show. The plotting is haphazard; less a series of character-driven choices and consequences and more an explosion of drama, with random kidnappings, amnesia, and near-drownings in waist-high water to drum up excitement. The music choices are repetitive, laughter-inducing at all the wrong moments. Most of the actors are either flat (Ji-hoo) or prone to overacting (Jan-di). You can see why Jun-pyo’s actor, Lee Min-ho, is the only one out of the cast who truly shot to super-stardom, as he plays an objectively horrible person but emits such powerful waves of charisma that he overwhelmed all my qualms. Furthermore, Jan-di and Jun-pyo, to be real, have all the chemistry of two sticks and kiss like it, too (which is apparently endemic throughout the genre).
Despite all of these flaws, the show was…amazing? To watch? I don’t know. At any rate, I found myself enraptured, despite the “rational” part of my brain railing against every single plothole. For all of Boys Over Flowers’s real problems with story construction and character development, it tapped into a well of primal, scream-y feelings that I had heretofore rarely let myself experience, lest I be confused with those shrieking girls at boy-band concerts. I never finished the show itself — while I periodically rewatch some episodes, I always stop about halfway through the 25-episode run of Boys Over Flowers, finally done with the sheer ridiculousness of what’s going on.
But Korean dramas? I was hooked.
I fiercely clung to the few Asians I could find on American TV growing up: Shelby Woo; the one Planeteer on Captain Planet; and most blessedly, Min, the little Filipino girl on Barney, who once sang “Happy Birthday” in Tagalog during an episode — an ordinary occurrence for me, but one I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else on American television. If I looked, I might find one or two Asian people in the background of a scene. I couldn’t even begin to imagine shows with entire casts whose faces resembled mine.
Until Korean dramas.
After Boys Over Flowers, I got addicted to the oeuvre of the wacky Hong Sisters, a sister duo who write some of the hottest romantic comedies (or ro-cos) around: Best Love (A-Lister falls for a disgraced D-Lister — imagine something like Ryan Gosling and Lindsay Lohan hooking up, while D-Lister participates in a celebrity dating show); You’re Beautiful (nun-in-training poses as her twin brother to debut with a popular boy band while he recovers from botched plastic surgery and falls in love with the grouchy, guy-linered lead-singer); and Master’s Sun (sleep-deprived lady who sees ghosts finds practical guy whose touch chases away ghosts; they fall in love). Still rather emotionally stunted, still prone to cracking jokes and being mean to boys I liked instead of, you know, actually expressing my feelings, the Hong Sisters’ shows were my perfect gateway to still more Korean ro-cos. The sisters also dislike dalk-sal-ment, which more or less translates to “goosebumps caused by mushy romantic verbal goop,” and prefer to couch their characters’ terms of endearment in bizarre metaphors such as “pig-rabbit” and “blooming potato” (which totally makes sense in context!). I also tried my hand at watching serious psychological dramas like Liar Game and White Christmas, and got painfully obsessed with Shut Up Flower Boy Band (which also has a sexy quartet of boys, but is infinitely better than Boys Over Flowers and its F4 — and also Sung Joon is mine. Forever). My list of Watched dramas on YouTube and Netflix grew ever longer.
I do not consider myself a connoisseur, by any means. And yet: I peruse the recaps and reviews on Dramabeans, a website run by Korean Americans who helpfully explain cultural and linguistic nuances to non-Korean, English-speaking fans. I have watched enough by now to know that Boys Over Flowers isn’t truly representative of the Korean drama. There’s so much more than the romantic comedies and melodramas that those not in the know tend to associate with Asian television, if they claim to know anything about it at all: there are sitcoms, legal and police procedurals, sageuks (historical shows), variety shows, reality shows. Even within the romantic comedy and melodrama genres, Boys Over Flowers isn’t all that great. The show I’m obsessed with now, Marriage Not Dating, has deliciously witty writing, a fantastically acted lead couple with sparkling chemistry, and quirky visuals. (They kiss better, too.)
Yet despite the illogical plot twists, wrist-grabbing, frequently uncomfortable depiction of gender roles, and kissing with all the romance of dead fish, I am still all about the ro-cos. There are many reasons why: Korean dramas have a clear end-date, and multiple seasons are rare, so each show usually feels complete in and of itself after 12 to 100 episodes. Korean ro-cos and melodramas are inundated with romance and have the time to develop credible relationships, which ultimately makes them more satisfying. I would even argue that the sociocultural constraints on Korean broadcast shows can make the romances more interesting, as the Hays Code did for the Golden Age Hollywood screwballs, because writers and directors frequently have to feint towards sex without actually depicting it (otherwise, we’d just have the corpse-like kissing to look forward to).
But when I nudge at the long unexamined reasons why I scorned Korean dramas — and, to a larger extent, soap operas, old Hollywood women’s pictures, and romantic comedies — while guiltily consuming them in secret, like candy bars stashed in a sock drawer, I wonder if it has something to do with the twin burden of growing up female and Asian in the U.S.
“I wish my eyes were like yours,” sighed an Indonesian high school student to a white male colleague of mine as we sat in the school’s canteen together, when I taught in Indonesia as a Fulbright English teaching assistant.
My friend’s eyes were blue — a bright, searing, ocean blue. The student’s eyes were the duller brown of mine. I heard similar comments from other students:
“I like that she has white skin.”
“I like his pointy nose.”
I wished that I had blonde, curly hair as a little girl. I wished that I was white.
Before I found Korean dramas at eighteen, I had lived in a culture where the pictured ideal was white — or at least as white as it could possibly be. You rarely found girls and boys who looked like me kissing onstage, on the silver screen. You rarely found girls and boys who looked like me at all.
If Asian girls were present, particularly in a romantic scenario, they were usually a) in a relationship with a white man, and b) romanced on. They were the object of pursuit, often an accented, exotic, passive lotus blossom from the East — nothing like the American-born, mouthy Asian girls of my own extraction. Think Suzie Wong without her delightful, defiant tall tales. Think Liat from South Pacific, who barely speaks at all. These depictions of Asian women in romantic relationships were all created by white men and tinged, uncomfortably, with “yellow fever,” even if some were intended to critique the stigma against interracial relationships.
I sometimes wonder if that — plus the Catholic guilt and my conservative Filipino upbringing — is why I was so discomfited by overt displays of sexuality and bald yearning, especially in romantic films. That somehow, that expression of sexuality, of emotion, of pursuit was clearly not meant for me. I could never be the actor, I could never be the pursuer, I could never be the one falling head over heels.
I also wonder if this is why I specifically derided Asian dramas for a long time. Throughout my life, I have struggled with wanting to be accepted, “cool,” in American society. Korean dramas frequently don’t traffic in the conventions that make for “good” Western television. There’s little irony in a lot of the shows, and the most popular ones tend to unabashedly revel in romance and big emotions, even the cheesiness-averse Hong Sisters’ programs. While there are anti-heroes in darker dramas — like the lauded Gaksital, which takes place during the Japanese occupation of Korea — those aren’t the shows mocked on MADtv. There is violence, sometimes, but restrictions do apply on Korean broadcast TV; again, overt sexuality is kept to a minimum, especially with female characters. I wonder if I saw Korean dramas as uncool because, to a certain extent, I saw being Asian as uncool.
That is, until I started watching Korean dramas and finally saw them as they were.
I am not saying that Korean dramas are all that progressive in terms of gender, class, or depictions of romance. People who are far more knowledgable about the genre and Korean cultural mores than I have criticized the colorism that pervades Korean celebrity culture, the way heroines are often written passively, the frequently disturbing and unequal relationship dynamics, and noted how resolutely heterosexual dramas tend to be (with all that wrist-grabbing, goddamnit!). That being said, as the times change in South Korea, the dramas sometimes change with them. What once was popular (the semi-incestuous yet chaste tear-buckets like the “She’s my sister! Wait, she’s not!” of Autumn in My Heart) is being pushed aside by sexier, wittier ro-cos (like cable drama Marriage Not Dating, whose leads actually kiss with tongue).
I am also not of Korean descent, though as a Filipino-American we share a continent and a few cultural behaviors and beliefs. I cannot claim Korean culture or claim to understand it. I’m a consumer of its pop cultural products, that’s all.
But the fact remains that my first Korean drama was also the first time I saw a) two reasonably well-rounded and developed, human Asian characters b) falling in love on screen c) in a way that was not filtered through the Western world’s view of how Asian characters should act. I saw, for the first time, an Asian man falling in love with an Asian woman, and the Asian woman falling in love with him right back, as regular, rounded people. I can’t help but feel grateful for the arrival of Korean dramas in my life, grateful that I was finally able to see women who looked more like me than the pleasingly blonde Meg Ryan, Kate Hudson, and Katherine Heigl getting the guy onscreen. Grateful that Korean dramas were there to help me on the tentative way to owning my sexuality and my romantic feelings; to help me see myself as a sexual, emotional being who could be an agent, not just an object.
There have been rumblings of a change in American TV on the horizon: Twenty years after Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, we have two sitcoms with Asian American casts, Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken. Despite M. Night Shyamalan’s whitewashed The Last Airbender movie (may we erase it from our collective memory, Amen), we still have Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra (with its groundbreaking depiction of a lesbian couple in Korra and Asami, though the revelation of their romance came only after the show aired). We had Sun and Jin on LOST and we still have Daniel Dae Kim on Hawaii Five-O. We (briefly) had John Cho in Selfie, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has a Filipino American romantic male lead. Aziz Ansari, Priyanka Chopra, and Mindy Kaling are headlining shows, portraying complex lead Indian characters with agency, even though all of their characters’ serious romantic relationships thus far have been with white or white-coded characters.
Even if this current explosion of shows that take the lives of Asian Americans seriously is only a flash in the pan, it’s a welcome change in the television landscape. On the other hand, we still don’t have that many Asian people loving people romantically, sexually, on American television screens — much less loving other Asians or other people of color.
When I think of people falling in love on TV or in the movies, my thoughts first pop to Casablanca, to Castle, to Twilight, to Moonlighting, to the uber-white Holly Golightly and Paul kissing in the rain while, in the background, we see Mickey Rooney in bad yellowface play the desexualized, ridiculous buffoon. When I want my throat to catch, when I want my heart to swell, when I want to swoon, I have to turn to Viki, to DramaFever, to Netflix, to YouTube, to black-market DVDs procured in crowded markets overseas. If I want to feel like I, too, can be the center of a love triangle — or be proposed to on a beach with the swelling of waves and orchestral music — or be Cinderella (or better yet, Candy) and everything I once derided, everything I thought I could never get or ever be, I have to turn my eyes away from the glittering white lights of Hollywood and look across the ocean, to a country that I hold no claim to and never could.
It’s not ideal. But it’s what I have. As too many brown girls like me know, you take what you can get, and maybe it’ll be enough to keep our shriveled hearts warm until the day when our princes or princesses arrive, and we can kiss and live happily ever after like our favorite stars — the ones who look just like us — do in the movies.