Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha has cha cha cha’d its way to being my #1 pick this year for ‘K-Drama that will change your life for the better’. This, my friends, was therapy for a therapist. It came at a time when the world (including myself) was watching Squid Game. While Squid Game portrayed a dystopian society, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha was a utopia we needed to experience.
A highly anticipated series with Kim Seon Ho and the popular veteran actress Shin Minah, this show delivered health and healing not only for viewers, but also for the actors. Many of the cast members actors have shared in interviews, that they’ve experienced healing from being part of the drama and its idyllic filming location in the seaside city of Pohang, South Korea, known in the drama as Gongjin.
Hong Banjang or Du Shik (played by Kim Seon Ho) says in the drama, “Life isn’t a mathematical equation. It doesn’t have a clear answer. There’s no right answer either.” While I agree for the most part, when it comes to this K-Drama, I beg to differ that there’s a clearer answer on its mathematical life equation: Healing + Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha = Asian Joy.
Let’s break down Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha’s portrayal of an optimal healing environment (OHE). OHE was a term first coined by the Samueli Institute in California to describe a healthcare system designed to support the healing journey of people and their families and care providers.
The six part OHE system of health and healing in Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha (Spoiler Alerts ahead):
1. A Place to Heal
Let’s face it, any seaside village with gorgeous aesthetics and unlimited seafood is healing in and of itself. A bird’s eye view of sparkling blue-green waters in nearly every scene and in the backdrop from Yoon Hye Jin’s clinic to Hong Banjang’s home, washes away all your troubles. We all know how therapeutic water can be and why a beach vacation is so popular. That’s because the beach is considered a blue space, a water source like an ocean, lake, pool or pond. Research shows that being exposed to blue spaces like the beach leads to overall improved health, as well as the fact it’s associated with relaxation and happiness.
In this K-Drama, the townspeople are loyal to Gongjin and content with living there. Also, those who come to Gongjin find health and healing; from Yoon Hye-jin who starts a new dental practice to Hong Banjang who heals from trauma to Ji PD who finds the perfect filming locale for his show.
Plus, those who left and came back found peace like Cho-hui (the school teacher) and Oh Yoon, the pop singer turned single father. Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha introduced us to Gongjin, the happiest place on earth (no offense Disneyworld) where our troubles seemed to disappear into the sea of Pohang.
2. Community and a Sense of Belonging
The people of Gongjin are an integral part of an optimal healing environment. As a family therapist and systemic thinker who studies interactions on a day-to-day basis, I am all about Jeong. This unique concept in Korean culture with no direct English translation refers to affection, connectedness, kinship, fondness, attachment and bonding, to name a few. There’s a lot of Jeong among the Gongjin community to one another and to their quaint town.
Jeong is promoted in the community from their strong sense of belonging. This is critical to our mental health now more than ever due to social isolation in the pandemic and a social epidemic that existed pre-Covid. Having a sense of belonging is as critical to your health as water, food, and shelter. The community’s sense of belonging is fostered through town meetings where a feedback culture is in place to share about concerning issues (sharing is caring), they have regular neighborhood cleanings which you see as a joyful collaborative effort (volunteerism example which is so good for our wellbeing), and perhaps most importantly, the Gongjin community has your back.
At the end of the day, the Jeong of the Gongjin people allow for clear and healthy boundaries, which isn’t necessarily a cultural norm. For instance, they will give you the benefit of the doubt without judgement, not exclude you or make you feel othered, and validate what you’re experiencing. It’s refreshing to see. For instance, the three mysteries of Gongjin included the hidden reasons behind Hwa Jeong and Young Guk’s divorce and Du Shik’s whereabouts for five years after college graduation.
Sure, there were some rumblings and hypotheses surrounding the mysteries, but the Gongjin community chose to provide them a safe space, no questions asked and best of all, value the persons over anything else. Healthy boundaries equal healthy communication, which we get to see in Hometown Cha Cha Cha. Hye Jin sums it up well in episode 15 after Hong Banjang shares the story of how the people of Gongjin made him “Chief Hong.” She says, “Gongjin saved you. I finally get it and why you’re so attached to this small seaside town.” (Let the tears flow)
It’s the relationships that grip us in the first place starting with the highly anticipated romance of Hye Jin and Du Shik to the reconciliation of Hwa Jeong and Young Guk to the happy Halmuni trio that we all found endearing. Jeong galore.
First, let’s take a look at Du Shik and Hye Jin’s romantic relationship as well as Hwa Jeong and Young Guk’s marital woes, specifically when it comes to gender roles and role expectations which are outlined quite nicely. We first see Hye Jin as an independent, outspoken, and composed person. Then she starts dating and there’s a marked shift in her behavior.
As I’ve told K-Drama fans who thought she was acting all mushy with too much aegyo (Korean for cuteness), romantic feelings can change a woman’s behavior. Hye Jin is still the same person and we see this when she holds her own dealing with Du Shik’s trauma (more on that soon). Her acting lovey dovey and even needy at times is what we would expect to see. Sure, we’re in the day and age where gender identity and its roles are more fluid, but when it comes down to it and based on clinical experience, women want to feel loved and men want to be respected. There’s a love and respect cycle at play when it comes to couples.
The crazy cycle commences when women don’t feel cherished or loved, and men feel disrespected. However, couples are in the confirming cycle when women are feeling loved and in turn respecting their male significant other and vice versa. For example, due to the love and affection Du Shik shows Hye Jin in their early dating days, she has the emotional capacity to show Du Shik respect in giving him space and time to deal with what he’s struggling with later on in their relationship. It’s not easy for her, but Hye Jin provides him that autonomy, which men often need more than women.
Autonomy directly correlates to higher relationship satisfaction, greater commitment, and less relational conflict overall. Couples reading this, allowing autonomy takes consistent practice!
I refer to the cycles in my work when working with parents because this dynamic cycle also comes into play. This applies to the relationship between Hwa Jeong and Young Guk. For much of the drama, you see them in the crazy cycle assuming it has to do with their divorce. Hwa Jeong consistently disrespects him (you see this in her rudeness toward him) due to what we find out later is his disregard for Hwa Jeong’s feelings when they were married.
We see this in the latter episodes when he seeks a reconciliation telling her how hard he will work to make her happy and love her as much as she wants to be loved. That’s when she breaks down, finally allowing herself to be vulnerable, and to be loved. (Tearjerker). Hwa Jeong admits to Young Guk later that, “I finally feel happy.” He gets overwhelmed with tears which shows us he hasn’t ever heard that before. Isn’t that what anyone wants to hear in a relationship?
Although there are other relationships that can be discussed, I’ll wrap up this section by highlighting the happy Halmoni trio to stay focused on wellbeing and wellness. It’s a boost to our mood to see these elder women living their lives happily without regret, because it’s important to feel fulfilled at this end stage. While they’re close with the community and well respected and cared for, their friendship is most endearing and how much fun they have together.
The needs of the aging population can get ignored and we see this with Gamri’s son and granddaughter who don’t spend time with her. However, the Halmoni friendship keeps her mentally afloat. The takeaway here is to ensure long lasting relationships well into your life to be happy and avoid loneliness. We need to see the Halmonis happy for our own mental health giving us hope that we can live such a life in our older age as well.
Gongjin is an optimal healing environment because the elders in this community, as we see it, are the foundation as they should be. They provide emotional stability for the generations below them.
Speaking of generations, what I really thought was a healing boost of this K-Drama was the emphasis on intergenerationality – interactions among members of different generations. From the kids to the young couples to middle aged and married to the elders. We saw such dynamic interactions in play. This is healthy for us to experience and see as an example of what positive intergenerationality can look like.
Let’s start with the Gongjin kids, Juri, Bora and Ijun. It’s great to see the various life stages of identity through these kids. With Juri, it’s the preteen/teenage stage we can all relate to what with being an obsessive fan girl and talking disrespectfully without honorifics to the adults, especially squabbling often with her father. Bora and Ijun, the elementary schoolers are best friends (cute and touching they are). But, they also experience family life changes such as a new sibling (Bora) and parental strife (Ijun). Plus, add their eagerness to foster a hedgehog which prods us to recall when we wanted a pet to love and call our own. We can all relate to the Gongjin kids, can’t we?
This gives us nostalgia, which in turn increases feelings of social connectedness. There are psychological benefits from nostalgia, a crucial existential function that makes us feel valued and loved through recollection and memory of cherished experiences. We see examples of this in the interactions between Hye Jin and Juri, fangirling over DOS and Hye Jin’s relationship with Bora and Ijun over Seum Seum, the hedgehog. Also, the funny interactions between Juri and Du Shik trying to get in the last word. A trip down memory lane for many of us in adulthood.
Then there’s Gamri’s special relationship with many of the Gongjin folks such as Du Shik and later Hye Jin and Ji PD. There’s so much Jeong there that you can’t help but have those cathartic moments of crying. You watch thinking you want a Gamri in your life looking out for you, but also to scold you when you need to get your head back in the game. The intergenerationality plays out dramatically when we see the whole community gather for her funeral in the final episode.
The flip side of intergenerationality is displayed with the birth of Bora’s sibling in episode 13 where we experience a season of life – the birth of a child. The beginning of life and the end of life is displayed so beautifully showing us again life stages and the realities of self-conflict and family conflict that come with it. While K-Dramas do a great job of showing us intergenerational stressors and experiences, I love that Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha gives us a calm and peaceful outlook to interactions among generations.
5. Workplace Wellness
I plan on uprooting my clinical practice in the USA and moving to Pohang after the pandemic subsides. Kidding, not kidding. I seriously wish, because Gongjin has proven to be a wonderful place to work because it gives people the desire to inspire and psychological safety. My friends, that is workplace wellness in a nutshell. Happy workplace, psychological safe space. It’s not about creating or having the perfect workplace because there’s no such thing, but is about promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for the sake of feeling psychologically safe to be accepted for who you are in a place where all workers can have the chance to succeed.
For example, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha’s Gongjin provides a safe space for Ji PD who found it by accident, and realized it was the perfect location for his reality show. Ji PD shows us just how much he enjoys his workplace by learning how to surf, asking Hong Banjang (Du Shik) to be their guide during filming, and loving the cuisine especially made by Gamri and Hong Banjang.
He finds joy in experiencing this workplace and though it’s temporary he’s emotionally invested and comes back often enough following the conclusion of filming. Most importantly, he finds value in the work he did at Gongjin, which all of us for workplace engagement and productivity. Ji PD watches the airing of the first show with the Gongjin community giving them all credit for making it a great experience for his team.
Let’s not forget that Gongjin created “Chief Hong” and his line of work which gave him the psychological safe space to heal. Better yet, he’s able to sustain his line of work. Because he feels valued and appreciated for what he does, Hong Banjan finds joy in doing these odd jobs that he is overqualified for but doesn’t see them as beneath him. Now that is workplace wellness. Then there’s Hye Jin who of course is valued for her work since she’s the only dental clinic in town.
However, it’s important to point out how she maintains integrity in the quality of her work. She confronts Nam Sook for getting cheap dental work by someone else who isn’t a legit dentist. Here, Hye Jin displays self-confidence and pride in her work. Plus, she claims ownership that she feels like she has the right to be in Gongjin and do the work she can do with her clinic.
I also want to point out the charming police officer, Choi Eun Chul who, despite winning the lottery (the third mystery of Gongjin), he asked himself what he was passionate about doing and chose to be a police officer to fulfill meaning and purpose in his life. What a wonderful reminder for all of us. Why do we do what we do? How does our work bring us joy? Being a native of Gongjin which fosters a happy workplace, Choi Eun Chul was able to make the confirming decision to pursue what he really wanted to do with his life.
6. Grief and Trauma Recovery
In my expert opinion, trauma and grief recovery is the central mental health theme of Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha. This drama does an excellent job of showing a trauma informed outlook. A trauma informed perspective looks at trauma as a part of all our lives assuming everyone has some traumatic experience. This is realistic. It also incorporates the healing process in our lives and promotes the understanding that trauma doesn’t have to define us. Grief is an aspect of that since it’s about loss and longing. How does this play into an optimal healing environment?
It goes back to showing support for allowing healing to happen naturally. Grief and trauma recovery have no timeline since nothing in mental health is linear. This is hard for us to grasp, but important to understand for the sake of validating our experiences good and bad. Grief and trauma are complex and there’s no one way process in healing. What makes Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha a healing K-Drama is that it shows us how various characters deal with grief and trauma in their own unique healing recovery process. The key word here is unique because we’re all unique and experience emotions differently.
For Hye Jin, her grief was in the form of anger most of the time, whereas Du Shik was in shock and denial stages due to his guilt. Then we see Nam Sook struggling with depression after the death of her daughter, another stage in the grief cycle. Cho Hui also grieved the relationship she never had with Hwa Jeong and we see her in the bargaining and acceptance stage. A most poignant example, however, comes from Ijun, the precocious little boy. He was grieving the entire time over his parents’ divorce. However, we didn’t really see this until that tearful scene on the playground when he’s crying because he’s so happy about his parent’s reconciliation.
Talk about a cathartic moment for all of us and brilliant acting. This little boy, for so long, suppressed his emotions in the grief cycle to show acceptance for the sake of his parents. In that climactic moment at the playground, he releases it all for us to experience and express with him. That is why this scene in episode 15 promotes healthy emotionality. We need to express ourselves in our own way; validate what we’re feeling because what we’re feeling is what we’re feeling and that cannot change.
In summary, finding Asian joy in your healing recovery is summed up beautifully by Hye Jin in episode 15 when she comforts Du Shik, “You can cry if you want. It must’ve been so hard for you, holding onto such a burden. You can be sad when you’re with me. You can show me your pain. You can cry.”
The ability to experience happiness and joy is crucial for good emotional, social, and psychological wellbeing. It comes from building resilience and having hope in our unique journeys of healing stemming from grief and trauma in our lives. As we reflect this holiday season, feel free to turn to Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha for health and healing to experience Asian joy.