Episode 6: Fandom or Obsession?

Jul 23, 2021


‘Hello Hallyu’ is a six-part podcast series exploring how the Korean wave captivated Indian fans, and forever changed our ideas of gender, fashion and romance. 

How much is too much? In the final episode, Nirupama and Sadhana discuss perceptions of Hallyu fandom, fan wars, and the future of the fan community in India.

Full episode transcript:

Nirupama: A few years ago, I sat in front of my therapist, very hesitant to ask her the question I had in mind. Will she judge me? Will she really understand how strongly I feel about this? I didn’t know. But I needed her help. So I asked.

I felt like I was at a turning point in my career: Should I do a master’s in development, which would open up lots of jobs in the development sector, OR should I learn Korean and see where it leads? I’m serious, I had to tell her several times. I’m really into this Korean stuff. 

N: Hi, I’m Nirupama.

Sadhana: And I’m Sadhana. We’re journalists, but more importantly, we’re fans of Korean entertainment. 

N: This is Hello Hallyu, the story of the rise of Korean entertainment in India. 

S: In the previous episode we looked at the role language plays in Hallyu’s popularity. In this final episode of the podcast series, we address one of the common questions that fans might be facing: how much fandom is too much? In thinking about this, we ask if there’s a healthy way to be a fan or is Hallyu fandom equal to obsession? We look at the activities of fan communities and see how fans are using Hallyu for their own creative expression. 

———— Music ————-

S: A couple of years ago, a cousin gifted me a Korean vegan cookbook. A few days later, I received a package from an aunt — it was Korean traditional cookies and green tea candy and, I have to admit, I was mortified. Like did they think I was that obsessed with Korean things? 

N: Hey, that’s amazing! I wish my relatives did that. But I know that’s the way people usually view K-drama or K-pop fans, especially parents. The other day, I overheard my aunt and my mom comforting each other that their children are not crazy, and this Kdrama obsession phase shall pass. Because they see it as a weird thing to be hooked to, I guess. 

S: I think one thing that we should realise is that when boys are too involved in football or when teens are superfans of the Marvel Universe, it’s often not seen as an obsession. The foreignness of Korean entertainment makes people wonder and worry without too much understanding. 

N: That’s true. But honestly, it’s completely possible to get a little too involved in all of this, right? Drown in the Korean wave, as we discussed in the first episode. 

S: Oh yeah, completely. There was one time where I had to take [a] leave because I was up till — I’m not kidding — 6 a.m., bingeing a show and I just couldn’t stop. 

N: Oh damn. But I’ve had some excessive binge-watching days too. But I believe that we’re not always so passive that we let it overtake our lives. and Rimi, the BTS fan and editor at Seoulbeats, shares her experience which throws light on why we may be consciously letting ourselves get sucked into it sometimes. 

Rimi: How I primarily got into it was at a time when — this is something that you might hear from a lot of fans’ discussions as well — when I was not doing so well overall in life, you know. And that’s when I happened to watch K-dramas, and it is really, I don’t know, there’s a lot of comfort to be found in Korean dramas.

S: And then like a lot of drama fans, she followed the rite of passage and got hooked to K-pop, starting with BTS. In fact, she liked them so much she flew to Singapore from Mumbai where she was living only to attend their concert — one she describes as a turning point in her fan life.

R: For me, the concert was also kind of like a turning point in my relationship with BTS. I think that until then, I hadn’t realised how attached I was to them and how close I felt I was to them. But when I was at the concert, there was a moment where Jin — I was, we weren’t like right in front of people, like three rows back, standing desk. And he walked up to right where we were and he was just looking at the crowd and, you know, I had this really strong urge to say “Hi.” Like I would reach out to you because you’re a friend.

And I realised that that was so…he doesn’t know me at all. And here I have this weird urge to say hello, like to a normal friend. And then I was like, wait a second, I think I’m too attached to them. I’m feeling way too close. I feel like I want to have normal conversations with these guys.

Obviously, they don’t even know who I am, so it’s a bit awkward. That feeling was really odd for me. So I think on reflection, when I came back, I kind of tried to reevaluate. Like I had thought that I didn’t feel any of this, and that, you know, I’m like a “perfect[ly] in control” kind of fan. But I think that made me realise that I was perhaps spending way too much time on BTS and maybe feeling a little too close to them. And I have to consciously work to distance myself. 

N: This incident she talks about is beautifully bringing out what it feels like to be a fan in all its complexity. We seek comfort, community and so many things from our fandom that it becomes a very important part of who we are. While that’s how most fandoms are, in Hallyu, it’s even more tricky because the industry is built to encourage hyperconsumption and this deep level of engagement.

S: Absolutely, the emotional investment that you find yourself putting into K-pop or K-drama actors is…  something, unlike anything I’ve experienced before. 

N: I get it. But a lot of non-fans don’t get it. So we thought we’d talk to someone who tells us about this. We spoke to Advaita, a practising psychologist in India, who also follows K-pop and K-dramas.  

Advaita: We all consume media because it offers a distraction from our everyday troubles. I think if you are aware of the fact that I enjoy this and I am following this actor and I follow this group because it’s something that I bond over people with, I think it can have positive consequences for your mental health. If you can draw the line, and draw the boundary saying, “this is my reality and this is my entertainment,” there’s nothing wrong with using it as an escapist fantasy. 

The worry is that maybe younger people can’t do that because they get really involved in it. Yes. I watch a K drama [for] one-and-a-half hours every day because it’s enjoyable. But if I have responsibilities and I spend the entire day watching 10 episodes, then obviously that is affecting your functioning. Or I spend all my time daydreaming about a particular character, and I believe this was the kind of partner I want, and this is the life I want, and this is what was shown in a particular song. And this is exactly how life will play out — I think that’s where you’re unable to see the difference between what you’re being, what is being sold to you and how reality really pans out. 

S: Yes, drawing the line becomes very important. And to some extent, that depends how much else you have going on in your life. If you have college or work and you have real people to check on you and spend time with — be it, parents or friends, then you’re not very likely to slip into that kind of an obsession. In fact, fandom can help with the last part. 

A: There’s been some research that has shown that any kind of, any topics, for example, people bond over sports, and they bond over their love for, let’s say a particular kind of sport, a celebrity or a sportsperson, like cricket in India has an obsessive following even today. Similarly, K-pop is something that has fans, and they have multiple fans. They’re just very vocal, very opinionated, very welcoming. That’s how they describe themselves. And, I think that, yes, it’s a good way of feeling less isolated, or of making new friends across the world.

N: Yes, there’s so much that people get people out of their Hallyu fandom and the first is the community, isn’t it?

S: Yes. To Hallyu fans, connecting with others in the fan community is very important, since it was not, and still is not the mainstream, at least outside of East Asia. One extremely popular way to connect with other like-minded fans is via reaction videos. Emma Chang, the creator of the “ReactotheK” YouTube channel which has over 700,000 subscribers, explains the resonance. 

Emma: [When] K-pop videos or reaction videos were born, people from all around the world who didn’t have a friend in real life to talk to about the music with, flooded in to [watch] that one person reacting so that they can converse with them. And so why, [I] think reaction videos are so special is because it’s hard to find a group of friends who love what you do. And so when you see a reaction video, it’s someone to talk with almost, it’s someone to support the artist with, it’s someone to connect with.

The K-pop reaction world has become very important.

N: Yes. In India, there are communities of all sizes for this — WhatsApp groups to gigantic Facebook groups — and they do activities like holding donation drives and tree plantations. I find that very interesting. Don’t you?

S: Absolutely. To see fans take inspiration from the idols’ own charity activities and their messages and donate to causes that match that intent, and undertake tree plantation drives – all of which has been done by K-pop and K-drama fans in India – is really heartwarming. 

N: This is so interesting to see [for] me, as one of the older fans. It used to be just a bunch of us in college and we used to exchange the drama files, send each other songs and wallpapers. We used to gather in this one spot in college after classes end to discuss and gush over dramas or watch K-pop videos together. As we were from a small town, there wasn’t much else we could do. And social media wasn’t as pervasive back then. 

S: Oh, weren’t there any meetups like there are now? 

N: So in Chennai, which was the closest city to Madurai and had an Indo-Korean cultural centre, there was one fan group at that time. And I used to wish I was in Chennai so I could take part in their meet-ups. It was called the “Dorama Club” — for both Japanese and Korean Drama fans. 

S: Oh, did you manage to join finally? 

N: Yeah. It’s been over eight years. And while researching for this podcast, I was actually curious [about] what had happened to them. So I searched a bit and found out that they’d become a much larger group now, aptly called “K-Wave India”. So I finally reached out to Sanjay, the founder of the group, after all these years. 

Sanjay: So Dorama Club started in 2007, 2008, and it was a very small group. You know, people from Ireland , there were some across India. But the special back [then], you know, the rare, such a rare thing to find somebody who likes, you know, dramas and Asian culture too, so rare, and especially Korean dramas.

So we used to all meet up in small restaurants, like five of us, ten of us, in Chennai. And they called my God nice to meet yours. I can’t believe it was you. And the only person I know apart from me who likes to do the soil and, you know, we used to meet up and we used to eat all the Korean food or Japanese food. Then, slowly, we started having small meets and events at Inco centre. We had like 20, 30 people — you’ll get in there and you play some K-pop music and with everyone just dance around. And it was like, Oh, Hey fun. And from there slowly, just from 2012 –we started in 2012 — and from 2013, 2014, [we] started growing up, higher and higher.

By 2014, we got the Korean consulate’s support, you know, the Korean embassy’s support. [00:07:32] So that’s when we made the K-wave in India. That’s when the Hallyu was speaking up in India, you know, and it was more focused in Korean. So on Facebook, we decided to still have the Dorama Club people who still have the end that we wanted to have the K Wave of India in Instagram and forward.

I remember the first time we had a meet with the Korean Councilor sponsor. We had about 60 people in that team. I was like, “wow. Oh man. 60 people, like, I can’t believe this.” And then as the years progress — 2015, 2016 — [people] could be becoming a hundred, 200, 300, 500, 1000 and it kept growing. 

S: So yeah, I think there’s been a change in how Hallyu fans operate overall in India – previously while there were a few groups, it was more like a niche activity. Now, fans are constantly in contact with each other, hold events to celebrate the birthdays of their favourites – it’s a very different sort of fan culture that’s more community-focused. 

N: And you know how we discussed that there are many active fans of Hallyu in the Northeast? Because of this, the sense of community is even bigger there and much more heightened. And when the majority of fans are women, it also makes for such an enjoyable and liberating experience – where women can be themselves and enjoy themselves without worrying about the male gaze. Something that our Mizoram University research scholar Veewon explains.

Veewon: So it is very significant because the fans are girls mostly. So it has become more of, you know, a girl or youth culture in some senses. And then there are a lot of boys into that, but you know, very small. And then how the older generation, because of K-drama. So in that way, it’s significant because it is mainly concerned with the girls in some ways. There was a huge, you know, concert, and then thousands of girls coming up to work towards a concert in the evening, late evenings. It was a spectre, a very different spectre there was created because it was all girls.

When we talk about concerts and everything at night in Manipur, in the Northeast, it is mostly about boys coming out at night and then enjoying the concert and then jumping, shouting everywhere. But here, it’s girls. Here it’s girls who are making a choice of what they should like and how they perform their own agency — you know, to come out at night and then enjoy a concert, and create a space, a very comfortable space where they do not have to be scared of any guy touching them or a drunk guy in the middle of the concert bothering them or disturbing them. But it’s all girls and enjoying and shouting. 

So it’s a very different, a very new concept of a public square or space is created in this because of K-pop culture. That is really interesting. 

S: There’s this image of fans as being mindless consumers, especially when it’s mostly women — young women. But fans actually have multiple ways they engage with the media. Fan studies — which is an academic discipline in its own right — talks about how a fandom, in general, is really a participatory process. 

N: Like writing fan fiction, creating fan art, or making covers of songs. 

S: Yeah, we are one in an ecosystem of fan-creators I like to think who are taking the thing they are a fan of — K-dramas, or K-pop or even fashion or beauty — and applying it and explaining it in their own contexts and what that means to them. Fan studies call this process “textual poaching,” where fans make meaning out of the media they consume. 

N: It’s super interesting that almost all the people we spoke to have done that in one way or the other. There’s Rimi, who started writing about K-dramas and K-pop and is now an editor at Seoulbeats. And Miranda, who went from a fan to a researcher of fandom. There’s Emma, of course, who’s gone beyond making reaction videos alone, to include interviews of people from the K-pop industry. 

S: Yeah! Sanjay and Jennifer Thomas, who started learning Korean as fans, now do translations for Korean companies. 

N: Oh, and of course, Jen and Sarah Chung, the founders of Dramabeans and now The Swoon! 

S: Yeah! Being such an involved fan where you’re engaging with not just the music or the shows but also where you’re exploring their culture can lead to this – and I’ve seen it quite a bit – this fandom for the entire country and race even. 

N: Oh my god, I know exactly what you’re talking about. It happened with me too, in the beginning. And I still am super fascinated with everything Korean, right? And going to Korea is one of my goals in life. 

S: I am fascinated by the culture too but — and this is, I think, a line that the people we’re talking about don’t really draw –, is that Korean culture or society is not what you see in the dramas or music videos. It’s like thinking Bollywood represents all of India exactly, which sounds so ridiculous right? But that distinction I feel some people fail to make when it comes to consuming South Korean media

N: Yes, I know that SO MANY people learn the language hoping to study or work in Korea. Or even [to] find a Korean partner and get settled there. Have you seen those YouTube channels of Indians living in Korea or Indians married to Koreans? Some of them have lakhs of subscribers. 

S: Yes, there’s this one video called “Indian Korean couple how we met” and it’s got some 15 million views and 59K likes. And one of the comments on it really encapsulates what we’re talking about here. Let me read it to you: Username Nitu says, “Me after watching this video. Maybe one day I can also date a Korean Oppa. #neverlosehope”  

N: Yes! The comments sections of these videos are so amusing. You know what else I like watching? Videos that are talking about India’s connection to Korea! I’m sure over a hundred people have made a video on this and each one of them gets so many views. Do you know the ones I’m talking about?

S: The mythical origin story? 

N: Yeah, so there is this half-historical half-mythological story about an Indian princess who went to Korea in the 1st century AD. She went on to become a famous queen and the entire Kim and Heo clans are said to be descendants of her. That’s like half of Korea. The accounts about her supposedly say she came from the distant land of “Ayuta”.  There are two theories: one that says Ayuta is Ayodhya, because duh. And another nuanced theory is that Ayuta is Kanyakumari in Tamilnadu which was earlier called that. And you know which side I’m on. 

S: Well, according to Wikipedia, legend also says King Suro, the king she supposedly married, was one of six princes born from eggs that descended from the sky in a golden bowl wrapped in red cloth. So make of that what you will. 

N: Wikipedia is not to be blindly believed. Don’t you know that? I strongly believe that she was a Tamil princess. How else will you explain the 500 common words between Tamil and Korean?

S: Just because you want to justify your obsession to your parents saying, “look Amma, this is Tamil only,” — what Nirupama! ANYhoo, let’s move on. 

N: Haha, but seriously. There are so many people for whom their culture’s connections to Korea mean so much. Some would say this is a kind of exoticisation of all things Korean. Advaita, our psychologist-Kpop fan, mentioned it too. 

A: It’s interesting to study it, but definitely an element of exoticism exists and we have to be a little bit more aware of it. 

N: But I don’t think we really need to see it as an obsession, really? Hear her out. 

A: I do think there’s a cultural element here. That’s the interesting bit which is making everyone take notice. If you look at artists that have exploded in the last 50 years, the  Beatles are one example, then you have Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift. They’re either American, British, white, mostly cisgender and heterosexual. So the exoticism that you’re talking about, I think again, is pushed by the West.

I do think that Western countries are very self-consumed so even if you generally read Twitter and you read a lot of best commentators from South America and Africa and India and the Middle East and Southeast Asia, if you really are a little bit more perceptive [than the] average American fan or the British fan is — although they have diversity — they’re still very closed. They’re very consumed by themselves. For other countries, it’s easier for us to, you know, learn about another culture or learn about the food they eat in their life. It’s so diverse. So, not that we’re the most accepting, not at all, but at least we are aware that there are different dialects and, you know, different cuisines and within the same country.

N: Exactly! Indians have been watching Western movies and shows for much longer and learning the lingo and aspiring to live in New York, London or Paris. But nobody thinks that’s unhealthy. So I think the question of whether this is a new obsession people are having is misplaced. 

S: I’m actually rooting for Korean entertainment to become more commonly acknowledged so that its fans are not “othered” by the people around them. 

N: I’m going to start on this awareness/acceptance project right now. In a way, this podcast was the first step towards it, right? Oh, and there’s also our website Hello Hallyu, where you and I, and other fans like us, are going to be talking about all things Hallyu. I’m really excited about what lies ahead for Hallyu in India!

S: Me too! But I think people shouldn’t be having to go to such lengths to justify their interest in Korean entertainment or have others around them demand these justifications – the stories are fantastic, the music is catchy, and the idols and actors look good, so why not? 

N: But if someone’s still not convinced, send them this podcast series. Annyeong!


The latest in health, gender & culture in India -- and why it matters. Delivered to your inbox weekly.