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It’s been such a wild ride.
So, I know undergoing this ~K-Pop Awakening~ (I now say with a hint of an eyeroll @ myself) has been weird, not only for me but also for my friends and probably everyone I know as well. K-pop, as I learned, can pretty much completely take over a person’s life, and I now realize I am a living example of this. Where is my shame, though? Do I have any? I really don’t think so anymore.
I learned a lot by entering the k-pop community. First: there is rarely such a thing as a casual fan. You either hardcore stan a group (or more than one, in most cases) or you don’t. Gray areas don’t exist, and once you catch feelings for a group, there’s no turning back.
Second: k-pop fans have no chill. Contrasting to my last point, this can vary from fan to fan. You can show your love for your group in small ways such as wearing items of jewelry or clothing adorned with the group’s relative symbols or your bias’s name, whereas other times fan groups with numbers in the hundreds or thousands get together and purchase ad space in Times Square to honor their bias group’s anniversary or plaster their faces on a bus for their birthdays. How they manage to pull it off is beyond me, but there is no denying the love they have for these groups and members is real.
Third: the k-pop community is one of the most accepting communities I’ve ever been a part of. Aside from fan wars (which is a completely different story), every person I’ve met and disclosed my “I don’t know what is happening to me but I love it” spiel to has given me a look of sympathy and said “it’s okay, I’ve been there too and I know what you’re going through and you will be okay,” followed by an exchange of how we discovered our bias groups and/or consequently gotten sucked into the k-pop void. It’s comforting to know that having your entire mindset and lifestyle taken over by this stuff is not only not unusual, but it is rampant, and you form an immediate bond with everyone else who this has happened to. In losing yourself, you find others.
Fourth: K-pop groups don’t come to America very often, but when they do, everything happens so fast. I am used to western artists announcing a tour anywhere from several months to more than a year before they actually hit your city. This gives you plenty of time to plan when you can go, maybe save up for a ticket or at least purchase it and make the money back later, but for k-pop groups, you get maybe a month or two’s notice before they begin a tour. This is stressful as h e c k. Not only are you bewildered that your bias group is coming to America at all, can you actually go? And if you can, can you afford it?? (Ticket prices are no joke, even the cheapest seats are half of one of my minimum-wage pay checks). If you’re able to take off school or work (which many, if not most k-pop fans go to that extent to do), you’re set… that is, as long as you’re part of a major US city. Likely, if you live anywhere that’s not NYC, LA, or Chicago, among other factors (being underage/can’t travel by yourself, can’t drive, can’t take off school/work, etc), you have to face the agony knowing your favorite group is in your country for once but it’s impossible for you to go see them.
Being a k-pop fan is not easy, especially when your dream is to see your favorite groups live even once in your life. In stanning these groups, both your pride and your wallet often ache with frustration.
That being said, in a surprising turn of events…
I got to see both of my bias groups within a month of each other!! Something I thought I would never get to do in this lifetime!!! Especially considering I’ve only adopted this lifestyle for a mere few months, whereas most of the k-pop fans I’ve met have been into this stuff for years. I’d be lucky to catch even one group’s show, but for once the stars (and my bank account, miraculously) aligned and I managed to see both of the two k-pop groups I fell in love with over the fall!
When I began my descent into the ~k-pop void~ (self eyeroll once again), my bias group right off the bat was EXO. I was blown away after watching their breathtaking visuals and mind-blowing dance moves in their music video for their recent single “Monster.” Then I got stuck just as every other k-pop fan did: I wanted to learn their names. In doing so, I found a bias, and another, and another, and a bias wrecker, and one other bias wrecker in a viscous cycle of “what is happening to me” that didn’t cease for a moment. I watched countless episodes of variety shows and live performances and interviews. My friend/roommate/person I dragged down with me, Pearl, and I listened to the same handful of songs on a loop and tried to memorize the lyrics while we rode the CTA. I fell hard. I was on cloud nine. I had years of EXO content to absorb, and I never got sick of it.
So you can imagine the utmost despair I felt when I realized that EXO performed in Chicago just seven months before I found them.
The room was spinning around me. I literally lay down on the floor and questioned everything I had done in the past year to not know who EXO was or what k-pop was because of that discovery.
At some point, I recovered from that bout of sadness and existentialism, and numbed the pain with more variety show content and frequent music video viewing sessions. I didn’t know it was possible to love a group of people this much, and to literally not get sick of the stuff they’ve put out.
It was during one of these viewing sessions with Pearl another few months later that my life got wrecked all over again. After a couple cycles through the EXO music videos (possibly mixed with a few glasses of champagne…), a recommended video caught my eye. It was a group I hadn’t heard of before, BTS (방탄소년단 or “Bangtan Sonyeondan” in Korean, a name implying they will block the prejudices of people in their teens and 20s and protect their value through music), and the video thumbnail looked dreamy and pink and inviting. “Ooh, let’s see what this is” I said, thoughtlessly clicking on the video. My roommate and I found ourselves speechless and in awe of what was going on before our eyes: a rainbow of pastel hair, ornate aristocratic outfits, top-notch choreography, plus a catchy pop beat that enticed me right off the bat. It felt like the wind had gotten knocked out of me. It took me another two or three views to comprehend what was happening to me… all over again.
The unthinkable in my situation happened: I found another bias group.
Was this even possible?? How could I like a group as quickly as I liked EXO? Did I really have to endure an even deeper descent into the k-pop void all over again?? How could I lose myself again after only just rediscovering who I was???
Luckily, this time around I had enough experience to comprehend what was happening to me. Who’s that member? Boom, looked up his name and got it down. What variety shows have they been on? Quick browse on YouTube and dozens of recommendations come up. Oh wow they have their own channel where they upload mini behind the scenes videos of themselves learning choreography and goofing around? Rad. It was like I struck k-pop content gold. The k-pop wave may have swept me up again, but this time I learned how to tread water and keep myself afloat, and let the sweet embrace of the void consume me all over again.
Thus became my life for the next few months. For a good few weeks during Asian award show season, Pearl and I would wake up in the morning (technically just a few hours after the award show concluded thanks to time zones), had our breakfast, prepared our morning coffee, and queued up all the acceptance speeches and performances that our bias groups did. I found myself entranced by these performances on the screen, and could only dream of seeing either of my favorite groups come to America for a chance at seeing them perform in person before my very eyes.
It was around this time that fate worked in my favor: after finding out about BTS roughly a month after their most recent comeback, they announced a U.S. tour (with an intense, heavily CGI’d tour trailer, because k-pop has no chill) and tickets went on sale less than a month later!!! At first there were only dates announced for NYC and LA, but due to the high demand, a show date was announced in my own city of Chicago! Literally nothing could have worked out more perfectly.
It was a Wednesday, which was the same day Pearl and I did our show Midnight with Pearl Girl and Sonia Universe, so naturally we dedicated the entire day to our second kpop-athon and talked about our thoughts going into the concert. I explained that this was my first ever (!!) k-pop show and how I was nervous because I didn’t know how I was going to react. I honestly thought I wasn’t going to be able to hold in my emotions and I was going to be a crying mess throughout the entire 3-4 hour performance because this group of people I have come to love and support so quickly was finally going to be right in front of my eyes. After the show, we loaded up into a friend’s car and drove all the way up to Rosemont, buzzing and chatting excitedly about what songs we hoped to see BTS perform live.
Let me tell you, this show was an experience. Dare I say it was life changing. The entirety of the waiting period for the members to hit the stage (no opener, impressively) was filled with projections of every BTS music video in chronological order on the mega screens. Fans excitedly sang along (to the best of most of their abilities in a language that not every attendee spoke, such as myself) to every song, shouted out fan chants when appropriate, and screamed at the tops of their lungs when their favorite members appeared. I couldn’t help but fall into the hype and get super excited myself. The actual performance too was exceptional, their dancing was perfect and their vocals amazing. While only the leader Rap Monster, is fluent in English, every member did his best to communicate with us and say a few things so we could understand. I was so content successfully experiencing my first k-pop concert.
As much as I love BTS, I couldn’t help but still feel a hint of sadness in my heart; I didn’t know if or when EXO, the first group I fell for, would come come back to America any time soon. It had already been almost a year since they officially performed in most of the major cities in America, would they even come back for this album tour? I doubted it.
That was until they announced a U.S. tour!!!! In three cities!!! Only a month after I would be seeing BTS!
…but none of which were Chicago.
Must I endure this emotional torment once again? Why is one of my bias groups so close yet still so out of reach?? I didn’t know this would the pain I would endure when getting into this crazy world in the first place. Somehow, Chicago got skipped over for tour dates in NYC, LA, and Mexico this time around. I thought about how this comeback was my favorite even if I hadn’t actually lived through it, and how devastated I would be to never see a concert for this album’s promotions. It was an EXO-tential crisis.
Then a wild thought occurred to me: what if I just went to LA to see them perform? I lay the idea out on the table to Pearl, who looked back at me with a bewildered expression mirroring my own. Should we do it? Could we do it? Traveling to LA is expensive, and we were two working college students deciding if we should drop everything and go to the opposite side of the country just for a few-times-in-a-lifetime concert. But what better reason than that?
As luck would (once again?!) have it, this concert was just after our final week of classes at UIC, and would be followed by a long weekend before finals week. It was as if the clouds parted and a ray of sunlight was shining down on our fate, illuminating our path to EXO. How could we deny the universe’s intentions for us? Thus, within a few mere weeks prior to the concert, our flights were booked, a room reserved, and a ride to the concert secured. Nothing could have worked out more perfectly.
We showed up to the venue, and once again we were welcomed by EXO’s hits from throughout the years as we waited for the boys to take the stage. And the moment they did was indescribable. Once the lights went out, a 10-minute CGI introduction was projected on the mega screens detailing the history of the nine boys with superpowers who came from Exoplanet, the reason why we were there. Everyone screamed when their favorites came on screen as our anticipation escalated even higher, and I couldn’t help but get swept up in the excitement once again.
Two full hours of intense performing on the members’ parts and a whirlwind of emotions on mine, the members said their goodbyes as a cloud of confetti rained down over them, concluding their North American leg of the tour. My heart was so full to be in their presence and among my friends who shared the same sentiments for EXO as I did.
I felt like I had done the impossible: I had successfully seen both of my bias groups, and within only a month of each other. And I didn’t regret a moment of it. And that is when I learned one final thing about entering the world of K-pop.
Fifth: I rarely felt any emotion other than unbridled joy at a k-pop concert.
I didn’t know I could feel so overwhelmingly happy in any single moment until I saw BTS and EXO live. Maybe it’s because K-pop as a whole is still pretty new in the U.S., so before now I would have never dreamed of my favorite groups coming to my country. But it’s also because I’m so proud of all the group members I’ve come to know for working so hard to get to this point, and because I had people with me along the way to get to this point in my life as well. Now, I have those memories to hold onto as I replay their albums and music videos over and over, and wait for the day that they announce another comeback and North American tour again.
In the meantime, I’ll just agonize with joy at every vague hint and rumor at EXO’s upcoming comeback scheduled for sometime this month. Wish me luck for my first actual comeback experience ever!!