Rediscovering the Awesomeness of K-Dramas Through my Ajumma Journey

A pleasant bonus surprise was that my children also started watching these Kdramas with me. They didn’t seem to mind the subtitles, and in fact, my teen-aged daughter begged me for weekly Korean language tutoring.

I blame the pandemic for many things, a long and sad list which includes my metamorphosis into a legit, full-blown Korean ajumma.  It began last spring when I first decided to plant a few Korean vegetables in my yard while sheltering-in-place, which then evolved over the summer into wearing a gargantuan Darth Vader-esque golf visor whenever I found myself subjected to the death rays of the sun. To be fair (no pun intended), the annoying appearance of several facial freckles from the intensity of California sunshine was also the culprit for my fashion proclivity. 

Ajumma garden
The author’s pandemic vegetable garden.

By fall however, I was spending inordinate amounts of time in my kitchen, cooking various Korean dishes from my childhood. Without any shadow of doubt, I know I crossed that final barrier into ajumma-hood when I started making my own kimchi.  

Ajumma kimchi
Making kimchi during lockdown.

I can’t blame it all on the pandemic however. After age 40, I unexpectedly started seeing glimpses of my mother – her expression on my face on a random photo or a video recording where my laugh sounded eerily like hers. It progressed over the ensuing years into catching myself using her same expressions, or nagging at my children using her same veiled threats and passive aggressive mannerisms. For inexplicable reasons however, the pandemic accelerated my transformation.

Perhaps, I was craving safety and security,  or a return to the simpler times of my youth. Because my parents were immigrants, their world was already small by virtue of the language and cultural barrier, and I may have been channeling that mindset. Regardless, I came to the shocking realization that I had become a version of my mother when I noticed I was spending most of my pandemic evenings folding laundry in our family room while watching…K-Dramas! Yes, K-Dramas –  those Korean soap operas my parents used to  incessantly watch on bootleg VHS tapes throughout the 80s and 90s. 

generations of ajumma
The author, back right, with her mother, grandmother, and daugher.

For the uninitiated, Korean dramas, aka Kdramas, are a series of episodes typically 60-90 minutes long. They rarely go beyond one season and are usually 16-20 episodes. During the pandemic, I basically devoured one Kdrama every 7-10 days. I got lured by a few Korean-American friends who swore these shows were nothing like the dramas our parents used to watch, and how right they were! These shows were full of eye candy including cool fashions, beautiful sets, talented actors, and most importantly, highly entertaining and creative story lines. 

“…there are plenty of awkward back hugs, wrist grabs and open-eyed, slow motion, multi-angle PG kisses. The male actors often wear lipstick and can look prettier than the female actors.  Just go with it.

It was so refreshing to escape into a world where I could drown out all the Trumpist racially-charged propaganda happening here in the US.  In Kdramas, a character’s ethnicity is refreshingly not even part of the storyline since the narrative usually takes place within the monoculture of South Korea. I loved seeing all the Asian faces on the screen and the character relationships evolve from the lens of a different culture, especially during a time when I was literally trapped at home.

A pleasant bonus surprise was that my children also started watching these K-Dramas with me. They didn’t seem to mind the subtitles, and in fact, my teen-aged daughter begged me for weekly Korean language tutoring. In addition to the cultural exposure to my heritage, I love watching K-Dramas for the consistent themes they imbue: strong family values, respect for elders, excellent boyfriend role modeling and the general gorgeousness of the acting ensemble. I couldn’t think of a better platform for showcasing Asian pride and validation. Asian representation isn’t even an issue in K-Dramas – it’s just the way it is!

Below is our suggested list of favorite family-friendly Kdramas:

1.  W  – Two Worlds Apart

The iconic style of the 80’s A-ha music video becomes a riveting story line as the real world and an alternate universe inside a webtoon collide. (Viki)

family kdrama

2.  Legend of the Blue Sea

A love story between a con-artist and a lovestruck mermaid who travels across the ocean as well as hundreds of centuries. (Viki)

family kdrama

3.  My Love from the Star 

A romantic comedy about an alien who lands on Earth during the Joseon Dynasty and finds love 400 years later just as he is about to return home. (Viki)

family kdrama

4.  Strong Girl Dong Bok Soon 

A romantic comedy about a girl born with superhuman strength who lands a job working as the bodyguard for a video gaming tycoon. (Viki)

family kdrama

5.  Memories of the Alhambra 

A successful CEO and a hostel owner get entangled in a series of mysterious incidents from an intricate augmented reality game. (Netflix)

family kdrama

6.  It’s Okay not to be Okay 

A psychiatric hospital worker and an antisocial children’s book author heal each other’s emotional wounds when they cross paths. (Netflix)

family kdrama

7.  Itaewon Class 

In a trendy Seoul neighborhood, an ex-con and his friends fight a ruthless enemy to make their ambitious dreams for their street bar into a reality. (Netflix)

family kdrama

8.  Start-up 

A woman with dreams of becoming an entrepreneur gets embroiled in a love triangle between her first love and another man pretending to be her first love. (Netflix)

family kdrama

9.  Hospital Playlist 

A story about the lives of five doctors who have been long-time friends and their patient stories. (Netflix)

family kdrama

10. Crash Landing on You 

A successful, wealthy South Korean woman winds up in North Korea, and an army officer helps her to hide and eventually return home. (Netflix)

family kdrama

Viki is an app that has a wide range of Asian films and dramas. It’s free, though you can also pay a monthly fee to avoid their repetitive and annoying ads. A few words of warning: the acting from virtually any and all Caucasian actors is terrible on Kdramas. I suspect this is done on purpose so the Korean audience can better understand the English.

Love scenes are pretty much non-existent (hence the family friendliness), but there are plenty of awkward back hugs, wrist grabs and open-eyed, slow motion, multi-angle PG kisses. The male actors often wear lipstick and can look prettier than the female actors.  Just go with it.

Finally, last but not least, Korean dramas don’t always have to have a happy ending. Koreans enjoy feeling remorse and suffering – trust me on this. It’s just how they were raised. They even have their own word for it which has no English translation: Han. Anyhoo, because of Han, Koreans don’t always want a satisfying ending. To me, it doesn’t make the Kdrama any less entertaining or interesting, but it can be unexpected and frustrating for American audiences. 

If you are looking for a smaller time investment than a 16+ hour Kdrama, I recommend checking out the following movies which are available in the US on Amazon Prime, Netflix, Viki or other streaming services. Another word of caution: often, some of the best Kdramas and/or Koream films have the dumbest titles as there are definitely some things lost in translation.  Go by the ratings, not the title name.

1. Parasite: Oscar-winning film about class discrimination 
2. Train to Busan: Zombie apocalypse on a high-speed train
3.  Be with You:  A dying wife makes an impossible promise 
4.  My Brilliant Life: A boy with a rare genetic disorder teaches his parents about life
5.  The Beauty Inside:  A man who wakes up every day in a different body
6.  Mood of the Day: A womanizer unexpectedly meets a woman on business trip
7.  The Dude in Me: A high school student and gangster accidentally switch bodies 
8.  My Sassy Girl:  A young man meets a drunk woman and goes down a rabbit hole
9.  Werewolf Boy:  A girl moves to countryside and meets a feral boy orphan
10.  A Taxi Driver: Based on a true story, a taxi driver becomes an unexpected hero in the Gwangju political riots of 1980

Along with my secret stash of kids’ Halloween candy, Kdramas have been my Covid guilty pleasure. However, it seems I haven’t been alone in discovering them.  Netflix, which opened two new production facilities in Korea, recently announced an additional $500 million investment to create more original Korean content in 2021, on top of the $700 million it has already spent between 2016-2020.  Disney+ and Chinese streaming service iQIYI are also investing heavily in Korea, and Apple+ as well as HBOMax have also announced plans to enter the world of K-Drama streaming. Apparently the fiefdom of K-Dramas is highly lucrative and growing. 

My recent dive into the world of Hallyu (nickname for Korean Hollywood) has coincidentally matched up nicely with what appears to be the golden age of Korean film and TV. As Korean movies such as Parasite and Minari are winning multiple Oscars and finally getting world-wide recognition, Korean content seems to be entering the Western mainstream. To my juvenile eyes, my mother’s K-Dramas highlighted her provincialism and exaggerated her FOBness (Fresh off the Boat). However, the world has since changed, even more so as we emerge from this pandemic, and the globally interconnected nature of our societies cannot be denied. I might be turning into my mother and a K-Drama convert to boot, but I don’t really mind (much).  Apparently it’s now cool to be an ajumma.

Grace Yang resides in California and is a busy mom of two opinionated teenagers. When not moonlighting as her kids’ uber driver, she works as a financial consultant. 

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