Photo on left: Esquire Magazine, November 2020

Late to the ARMY Party: Confession of a BTS Obsession

Sometimes there is a whole universe alongside your own, bursting with color you’re too stubborn to see, bouncing with joy you think is for someone else, with a beat you thought you were finished dancing to.”
~ Dave Holmes, The Boundless Optimism of BTS, Esquire Magazine, November 2020

Listen while you read

I don’t remember fangirling when I was younger. Those were the days before you could take a phone out of your pocket and Google anyone’s Instagram, Spotify, YouTube, etc. in a second. My TigerBeat and BOP magazines were not to obsess over any stars in particular and the makeup tips didn’t make sense for my Asian eyes. 

“Who am I? 
The question I had my whole life. 
The question which I probably won’t find an answer to my whole life. 
If I were answerable with a few more words then God wouldn’t have created all these various beauties.”

Growing up as a KAD (Korean American Adoptee) between two worlds blurred my cultural identity, coloring my self perceptions with fuzzy lines. When my Asian friends spoke to their parents, they switched rapidly back and forth between English and Cantonese, Mandarin or Hindi. The intent and feelings of the conversations seemed clear even though the words were not.

“Gotta go insane to stay sane. 
Throw myself whole into both worlds. 
Can’t hold me down ’cause you know I’m a fighter.“

Babies can perceive emotions even in the womb, before they have language to describe them. And if you travel around the world to live away from the language of where you were born, it can be even harder to describe things that are locked away in the past. But the body remembers.

bts obsession
Koreatown, New York City

In the few times I went to Korean restaurants growing up, I barely noticed the K-Pop playing in the background. It was like elevator music you don’t pay particular attention to. I didn’t feel like it applied to me.

So, when a fellow KAD enthusiastically told me about BTS a few years ago I was perplexed. It surprised me to hear that an Asian group was getting so much wild international attention, drawing people from all around the world to pack into their shows and sing lyrics in Korean. 

What was going on? Why was everyone so fascinated with these seven guys?

“Throw stones at me. 
We don’t fear anymore. 
We are we are together, bulletproof. 
Even if winter comes again. 
Even if I’m blocked off, I will still walk. 
We are we are forever, bulletproof.

And then one day I didn’t need to understand the words when at 54 seconds into one of their songs, the progression from one musical note to another suddenly made me cry. As the soulful melody soared on, I yearned for something I couldn’t place. The unknowable words washed over me, leaving me surprised and shaken in a way I’m not able to explain.

When I looked up the translation of the lyrics, it was a call to love yourself, even with your past, all of your missteps and flaws.

Global LOVE MYSELF Campaign with UNICEF 
to end violence and promote self esteem and mental health

“Why do you keep wanting to hide inside your mask. 
Even the scars that were formed from my mistakes are my very own constellations.”

One regret I have is that it took far too long to fall in love with Asian men, but I can admit when I’m wrong.

My first Korean boyfriend was tall, dark and handsome, standing out in the middle of the the Great Hall at The Metropolitan Museum of Art where we met back in 2014. The lobby was so crowded with visitors I couldn’t even see in front of me until I got to the Information Desk and: BAM. It happened. 

My KAD girlfriends call it The Switch turning on, enlightening you to open your eyes and see the Asian man right in front of you. 

Brooklyn, New York, Fall 2014

I’ve heard chemistry defined as perceiving similarity and it was just like that: I felt like I was looking back at a part of myself.

It was a game changer. Korea was calling me.

“Perhaps the reason this night looks so beautiful is not because of these stars or lights, but us. 
You got me; I dream while looking at you. 
I got you inside those pitch black nights, the lights we saw in each other were saying the same thing.”

I told the story of our relationship at a live performance and I was hooked. People seemed attentive, interested and understanding. 

A few years later, I had the opportunity to re-tell a different story at a gala and wanted to surprise everyone this time by singing in Korean.

English, Korean romanization and Hangul

It took forever to learn only 2 lines from the song that had originally captivated me. I wrote out the romanized lyrics, separated them into segments that made sense to my American brain, taped the phrases to my bathroom mirror and tried to sing along. 

At the performance I wondered what my accent and pronunciation must have sounded like to Korean Americans and Korean Koreans; like I child I supposed. But I admitted to the audience that it had been hard to learn and the applause felt like a vindication.

2019 Korean American Story Gala

As I listened to more BTS music, read their lyrics, watched their choreography and learned more about them as a team, and as individuals, they became an inspiration and a comfort, hands to virtually hold during a pandemic where I’d never spent so much time alone. At least the face mask kept me warm and no one could tell I was singing while walking down the street.

They were about much more than their recent bubbly award winning pop.

“Nobody remains by my side and I’m fine on my own. 
These words that are easily said towards me quickly becomes a wall. 
Even loneliness turns into something you can see.”

And then what I never thought would ever happen did: I found members of my birth family. 

I’d tried long ago to make peace with the hole in my heart and history, to not wonder too much about things that could never be found.

“Yes, I hate you, you left me. 
But I never stopped thinking about you, not even a day. 
I miss you, honestly, but I’ll erase you. 
’Cause it hurts less than to blame you.”

Suddenly my name was Park Mi-sook, 박미숙, and I had Aunts, an Uncle, Cousins and half siblings; kind and welcoming people related to me by blood who had missed me, or never known about me. They were happy to try and fill in the blanks of things I’d never dared to be curious about.

“Listening to BTS’s music and lyrics, and getting to know the members, I began to feel a sense of belonging, kinship, and understanding. The more I fell into the fandom the more I felt a connection and pride with my birth country. Add to that the amazing community that is ARMY, in particular KAD ARMY, which is unique and significant because we are connected by loss. We know what it means to walk between worlds and belong to neither. With BTS we have found comfort, belonging, humor,
and an amazing community of support.”

Korea was beckoning even louder now, holding onto me as it always had been, invisibly at times, but always there, calling me to come back home,

I blasted this song in my office, alone at 3 a.m. startled, grateful, scared and excited.

Censored video blurring tattoos and skin
“Cuz’ I’m comin’ back home. 
What am I trying so hard to find now? 
Where am I continuously drifting to? 
I’ve seen the end of my life. 
I feel suffocated inside my heart. 
What is blocking my life is my fear towards tomorrow”

If I’d stayed, who would I have been? 

If I’d had Asian role models like BTS, what would I be?

“Who says a dream must be something grand? 
Just become anybody. 
We deserve a life. 
Whatever, big or small, you are you after all.”

So, I’ve jumped down the BTS rabbit hole and every time I think I’m done falling, the bottom drops out and there’s further to go. And I’m in deep. 

“Would you believe me if I said that I was scared of everything too?
All the sincerity, the remaining times, 
all your answers are in this place you found 
in your Milky Way, inside your heart.”

There are way more comprehensive sources that detail their origins and challenging road to smashing success, growing from boys to men.

Perhaps the most organized, mobilized, loyal and appreciative fandom ever, the worldwide ARMY (including members I didn’t expect) has created far superior tweets, memes, lyric translations, documentaries, gifs and summaries of awards, streams, sales, Guinness Book of World Records, live appearances, songs on TV, K-Dramas and movies for adults and kids, their humor, glee, collaborations with other artists, solo tracks, reality TV and web series, empowering philanthropy and social consciousness, dissections of the intriguing storyline running through their music videos, webtoons and a game, inside jokes, a dictionary and recently, each member’s personally created products, which crash servers and sell out in seconds and inspire ARMY to make their own.

“Too busy, my one body isn’t enough
Even if I die now, I’m damn happy”

As the friend who introduced me to them says: “There is not enough time in one’s life to see all the good BTS videos.”

“It doesn’t matter if it hurts
Tie me up so I can’t escape
Hold me tight and shake me up
So that I can’t come to my senses
Kiss me on the lips
A secret just between the two of us
Deeply poisoned by the jail of you
I cannot worship anyone but you
and I knew the grail was poisoned but I drank it anyway”

There isn’t much I can add to the lexicon, except my own story of getting to know and love them, their incredible talent and drive as singers, songwriters, dancers and producers who craft authentic and relatable music and dance with diverse international styles, poetic lyrics (in more languages than just Korean and English) about romance, fear, anger, rebellion and above all, a profound encouragement to love yourself and speak yourself passionately and earnestly.

“We have learned to love ourselves, so now I urge you to ‘speak yourself.’
What is your name? 
What excites you and makes your heart beat?
Tell me your story. 
I want to hear your voice, and I want to hear your conviction. 
No matter who you are, where you’re from, your skin colour, gender identity: speak yourself.
Like most people, I made many mistakes in my life.
I have many faults and I have many fears, but I am going to embrace myself as hard as I can, 
and I’m starting to love myself, little by little.
What is your name? Speak Yourself.”
~ Kim Nam-joon / RM / Rap Monster

They generously share their day to day lives in group activities and personal livestreams that feel genuine, sincere and charming, baring their unmade up faces, rehearsals, clumsiness, pets and plant babies, along with feelings of vulnerability, inadequacy, depression and even accidents and serious injuries, all while looking right at and engaging with viewers, at ease like a private conversation, and often hilariously showing their bond as a group and how they take care of each other.

Their live shows dazzle thousands with their tireless athleticism (just try one of their dance routines), confetti, fireworks, flying, art and literary references, traditional Korean costumes and dances and respect for the directors, cinematographers, producers, publicists, managers, lyricists, composers, choreographers, camera and lighting technicians, electricians, hair and makeup artists, wardrobe and set designers, editors and all of the people who make them look and sound exceptional.

Just forget the stereotype of Asian men as marginalized, emasculated or not desirable and sexy. I’m thrilled for my male Asian friends and their children to have a bountiful amount of proof flourishing around the world.

“Smooth like butter, like a criminal undercover
Gon’ pop like trouble breaking into your heart like that
Cool shade, stunner, yeah, I owe it all to my mother
Hot like summer, yeah, I’m making you sweat like that“

We’re in a new era: global, inclusive and fluid in cultures, genres, languages, races, genders and sexual identities, where we can be our authentic selves and wear whatever makeup, jewelry, hair and eye color we want; an androgeny that I find particularly attractive.

“Standing in Sofi stadium with 70,000 people from all backgrounds, I was in awe of how everyone could sing the lyrics in Korean. The audience was the most diverse group, from African American, Latinx, Asian American, and White. BTS’s messages of love and respect really resonate with me and millions of their fans, and the crowd at the concert was so kind and looked out for each other.”
~ Jennifer Brower, KAD, ARMY and lucky concertgoer

We can all join the party, and it’s such a welcoming one.

“Disobey the hell of a society, grant a special pardon to your dream. 
Ask yourself what is your dream’s profile. 
Become the subject of your own life that’s always been suppressed.”

Plus they work so damn hard. They didn’t happen overnight. It’s been nine years since their debut in 2013, and three years of training prior to that.

If you’ve gotten this far, the list of their accomplishments will already be outdated. 

Banned in South Korea:
“Okay, we’re dope from head to toe
Over half of the day, we drown in work
Even if our youth rots in the studio
Thanks to that, we’re closer to success”

How are they still so modest, grateful and humble enough to recognize that this could all go away for them at any time? Will they ever win a Grammy, get married and have kids, have to join the military despite adding $5 billion to the South Korean economy each year?

And when do they sleep?

“A day may come when we lose. But it is not today, 
Today we fight. Flowers wither eventually. But no, not today.”

I lose myself in their voices, sometimes soft and sweet, sometimes aggressive, that remind me to love myself and their choreography that embodies the righteous anger I was never allowed to feel. 

“Rage? Of course you need it
When it burns up there’s always a reason
Mayhaps it’s our history
Sometimes it changes the world…
Someone gets hurt at someone’s actions
Someone becomes gloomy at someone’s speech and behavior
Someone’s spur of the moment becomes someone’s moment
Someone’s rage becomes someone’s life”

The sound of the Korean language sometimes breaks my heart, and then the lyrics segue into English as my childhood friends did and I wait for a sudden understanding, as if I’ve solved the Rosetta Stone.

And bonus: my favorite accent ever is a native Korean speaking English.

The next lines I’m learning in Korean:
“By chance, do you know it? 
There’s a side of you that only I know 
Like the first snow of a midsummer night 
An incredible moment, an unbelievable miracle, it’s you 
Someday again 
Even if your heart is flying in the wind that blows 
I’ll be waiting”

Their words may still be foreign to me, but the themes they symbolize are universal: you don’t have to be perfect to be loved, or in person to feel connected.

“No matter what you call me I don’t care, I’m proud of it, I’m free
No more irony cuz I was always just me, whatever the reason for your criticism is
I know what I am, I know what I want, I never gon’ change
You can’t stop me loving myself
24 hours isn’t enough, can’t afford to be confused
I do my thang, I love myself 
There are hundreds of me’s inside of me, I’m facing a new me again today
It’s all me anyway, I’m so fine wherever I go
Even if it takes a while sometimes it’s okay, I’m in love with myself, it’s okay, I’m happy in this moment”

I’m so proud of them. I’m so proud of being Korean. They’re my ambassadors of hope and acceptance from my birth country and the pure joy we all need right now.

“You know those days, those days where you’re sad for no reason
Those days where your body is heavy, and it looks like everyone else except you is busy and fierce
When the minute and second hands overlap the world holds its breath for a little while
Zero o’clock
And you’re gonna be happy, like that snow that just settled down
Let’s breathe, like the first time, hoping that tomorrow I’ll laugh more, for me
It’ll be better, for me.
When this song ends may a new song begin hoping that I’ll be a little happier,
I hold my breath for a very brief moment
And give myself a pat today, as well”

Thank you, BTS; we’ll all be watching.

Esquire Magazine, November 2020

Selected excerpts are included from performances in The Moth Community Program with Also-Known-As, Inc. and the Korean American Story ROAR Story Slam and Gala

bts obsession

Jen Kim is a filmmaker, writer, and vegetarian living in Hoboken, New Jersey, with 2 cats, many plants, and more baking and craft supplies than could ever be used.

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