K-Drama Blogging Report: Thanksgiving 2015 Edition

Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the States, my favorite holiday because it keeps it simple. Simple foods, and a simple purpose: saying thanks.

To that end, thank you K-dramas, and thank you, KDT readers!

A year and a half ago, I started this blog, not knowing if I wanted anyone to read my thoughts or not. I was an occasional but very cautious commenter at DramaBeans. K-drama fans are an insanely knowledgeable, perceptive bunch, and I didn’t want to look like an idiot. There are many good K-drama blogs, by writers who know way more than me.

But I did want to try my hand at writing reviews. It was hard to find quick reviews of the shows appearing on Netflix. My web searches often took me to dubious aggregating sites or to recaps. I was impressed by the exhaustive detail in recaps, but I didn’t want to read spoilers. What to do?

Eventually I found the year-end summaries at Drama Beans (a few indexed here, otherwise you have to search) and the wonderful review site K-Drama Love. I also found over a hundred English-language K-drama blogs scattered across the internet.

Discovering these sites was like finding buried treasure. They were treasure, of course, because the writers shared my curiosity. And they were also buried. A web search for “korean dramas” brings up pages and pages of sites devoted to ads and “scraped” (stolen) content. You have to sift through a lot of trash to get to the good stuff.

Coffee Prince poster showing the four baristas
My first drama.

My bad memory didn’t help. I found Drama Beans early in my K-drama odyssey. I was thrilled. But then, when I wanted to look at the site again, I couldn’t find it.

“It was coffee…coffee something…something about coffee and TV…”

That was all I could remember about this amazing grandmother of all Anglophone K-drama sites. I tried googling every variation of words related to coffee, Korea and television.

“Coffee and Korea,” “Korea and TV series,” “cappuccino and drama,” “Arabica, Ban Ki-Moon and soap operas.”

After half a dozen failed searches I gave up.

This happened more than once.

It was weeks before I stumbled across Drama Beans again. I swiftly bookmarked the site, but it made me wonder how any of us ever find our way into K-drama fandom.

Part of the charm of being an overseas K-drama fan is the enthusiastic, good-natured fan community. We speak our own weird language and hang out at sites with mysterious names. (If anyone knows what a “soompi” is, please drop me a line.) We’re on different continents, we come from different races and religions, but we’re united by our concern for important world issues, like when will Song Joong-Ki’s comeback project Descendants of the Sun finally air?

But this intense and sometimes mysterious fandom also encourages my family and friends to continue thinking that K-dramas are weird and watching them is vaguely shameful.

I'm a flower too poster
My second drama.

If you google one of Netflix’s American or British TV recommendations, you can immediately read half a dozen reviews, including ones by professional TV critics. If you google a Korean recommendation, however, you get some pretty dubious websites full of 2005-style flash advertisements. If I were less adventurous, I would have immediately concluded that the Korean stuff is poor quality, because of these poor quality sites.

Yet the shows themselves are anything but poor quality. So when I started this blog a year and a half ago, I wanted to write reviews like those I enjoy reading: reviews as good as the shows. They would be 1000 to 2000 words long, enough to go in depth, but spoiler free. Reviews that say something about who a show will appeal to and why. (I apologize for going over the word count in recent posts. Secret Love Affair was my Waterloo.)

I wasn’t sure about sharing my thoughts, however. It took Choi Jin-Hyuk and the show Pride and Prejudice last November to get me to share the URL with others.

I had sworn to myself I would never write recaps. I was in awe reading the Drama Beans recaps and thinking how time-consuming they must be. But how could I not write something about those great confrontations between Choi Jin-Hyuk and Choi Min-Soo? No one else was writing in English about Pride and Prejudice, so I had to start my “uncaps.”

As a result I’ve discovered it’s nice to have readers. I spent much of my twenties doing academic writing—which goes into journals that few people read. I spent much of my thirties doing literary and creative writing—which again goes into journals that few people read. Writing about K-dramas was the first time I felt like writing was doing what it’s supposed to—connecting me with other people.

Queen of Reversals poster
My third drama. I know–who’s ever heard of it, right? But I loved it.

On November 21, 2014, I moved my site to its current address, one that would show up in Google searches. I wanted American K-drama newbies like myself to be able to type in a random Netflix recommendation and immediately get an answer to the question: should I try it or not? And I wanted the answer to show up on the first page of Google results, to show middle-class Americans—who take television very seriously these days—that subtitled television is also worth taking seriously.

Last Saturday was K-drama Today’s first birthday, the first anniversary of when I moved to this URL address.

And I’ve been fortunate. Last year on November 21, the site had 20 visitors, mostly reading about episode 7 of Pride and Prejudice. This year on November 21, it had 448 visitors. That’s thanks largely to spending a lot of time writing and studying the ins and outs of how Google works.

To my surprise and delight, most of KDT‘s readers come from outside the United States. In that first week last year, my visitors also came from India and the Philippines, Canada and Australia. Today, half of KDT readers visit from Asia, chiefly Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, India and the Philippines. In fact, I moved the site to a server in Singapore to speed things up for Asian readers.

(Nothing’s ever really fast enough, I know. But server time is expensive. And thanks to the proliferation of ad-blocking software, KDT doesn’t earn enough cash to even pay for its current servers. The days when bloggers could make a living are over and done.)

On this one-year anniversary, I want to take a minute to look back, and look ahead at the future.

flower boy next door english poster medweb
My fourth drama. I was hooked on Yoon Si-Yoon at this point.

Looking back, I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has visited K-Drama Today.

I’m grateful to have readers who take my ideas seriously and take the time to share their own thoughts with me. I would mention names, but it would be a long list. Please know that I adore you all!

I’m also grateful for everyone who stops by in passing to glance at a review. Most of the readers here come via a Google search and are visiting for the first time. I hope the site helps you find K-dramas you enjoy, with a minimum of effort.

I’m grateful for my favorite K-drama blogs: the ever-entertaining DramaBeans, the snarky Koala’s Playground, the thoughtful Couch Kimchi, the bold and brassy Noonas over Forks, the super-useful ratings resource Beatus Corner, the smart and opinionated Kaede+Jun, the idea-whose-time-had-come Worth the Drama, and the recently-expanded K-Drama Love.

I’m thankful for the emotional support at the Soompi forums, which got me through a few of those rough Kill Me, Heal Me cliff-hangers this spring.

I’m thankful for the talented subtitlers who translate currently-airing shows in impossibly short periods of time—the pros at Drama Fever (I hope you get paid decently) and the all-volunteer folks at Viki (you’re my heroes).

I’m thankful to the myriad geniuses who built the internet, invented streaming video (who would have thought it possible?) and designed the free software at WordPress so tech incompetents like me can publish our own websites.

And of course, thank you, thank you, thank you, Korean script-writers, actors, PDs and behind-the-scenes folks. I’d particularly like to thank the stylist who gave Park Hyung-Sik that snazzy new haircut in High Society this summer. Damn.

heirs episode 8 kim woo bin eyebrow love kdrama today
Should I admit that my fifth drama was Heirs? It was a brand-new show and I was a brand-new K-drama fan. And everyone was talking about it.

And now, looking ahead:

Daily and weekly recapping is every bit as insanely time-consuming as I thought it was, so I’m trying to avoid it these days. I have tons of other K-drama stuff I want to write, though:

  • Series reviews for shows global netizens should know about.
  • Analysis of dramas that flew under the radar at Drama Beans.
  • More of my Elements of Style series, which looks at how K-dramas are contributing to television as a medium.

But I have a bigger goal too, which is to shape some of my thoughts and research into a book for a general audience.

The rare general-audience books that mention K-dramas have disappointed me (Euny Hong’s The Birth of Korean Cool, for instance). For one thing, they’re condescending. American critics seem to think it’s a weird accident when a K-drama has a worldwide audience in the hundreds of millions—as if K-drama’s popularity is evidence that Asians have bad taste in television.

And economists and political scientists have taken note of South Korea’s success with cultural exports, but most of them have never actually watched a K-drama. They wouldn’t recognize Kim Soo-Hyun if he bit them on the ankle. (Note to overseas readers: it’s an expression. I’m not accusing him of anything.)

For real knowledge of K-drama plots and production, we have to turn to fans, but fans don’t always have the technical vocabulary for communicating with the professional critics. It helps to know your jump cuts from your dolly zooms.

In short, the success of South Korean television abroad is a story begging to be told. There’s a ton I don’t know yet, but my research is ultimately leading me towards a dead-tree format.

my-name-is-kim-sam-soon
Maybe Samsoon was #6. Catching up on the shows everyone talks about.

I have theories about why K-dramas have gained a large audience around the world—and an American audience that (blessedly) cuts across the usual racial and even linguistic cultural lines. It’s an uphill battle to convince American editors that the K-drama audience matters, though. K-drama viewers are, after all, mostly women.

So I’ll continue to work hard. (Whoa, that was a very Korean sentence.) I’d love to give Americans, in particular, a little awareness that “globalization” doesn’t equal “Americanization.” American cultural exports may dominate the world audience for some kinds of stories (superheroes and zombies), but Korea is building dominance in its own niche. Call it the Lee Min-Ho Free Trade Zone.

I also hope I can give insights to my fellow fans—a tougher mission. English-speaking fans have already written enough words about K-dramas to fill encyclopedias. You guys have watched shows I haven’t seen yet and know everything about actors I haven’t even discovered yet. You’re like the coolest reference library in the world.

Whether I can write a fan-friendly book or not depends on you, dear readers, on whether you’ll keep reading and giving me thoughtful feedback as I continue to develop my ideas. To that end, let me know what’s on your dream list for a book about K-dramas. I’m making a list of K-drama related questions I want to research, and I will include as many of your questions as I can. One of the coolest things about K-dramas is the internet fan community, and I want to include as many of our ideas as possible.

boys over flowers early episode fur collar f4
“Boys over Flowers” was possibly my 7th. At this point I could see why these shows are popular, but I hadn’t yet met my K-drama destiny…

Two months ago, I woke up suddenly in the middle of the night with one clear thought in my head, “If I want to write a book, I have to go to Korea right away.”

It was abrupt but obvious. As they say in the dramas, “If you draw your sword, you have to see it through to the end.” If you think about K-dramas as much as I do, the logical endpoint is going to Korea.

Or is it? K-dramas come from Korea, but they’ve rapidly spread across the globe during the past decade. Roughly half the world’s population gets K-dramas on their televisions. To understand K-dramas better, maybe you need to go to Malaysia, China or Iran. Perhaps I should be going to New Delhi to watch K-dramas with fans there. Or Singapore. Or Jeddah—or Tel Aviv.

But my thoughts keep coming back to Korea. I want to know more about the people who come up with these stories—the writers, in particular, but also the people of all stripes who are creating Korea’s unique mix of Confucian tradition and high-tech futurism.

So I’ve started looking for English teaching jobs in South Korea—with some trepidation. I have experience teaching high school, but I wonder what I will make of the Korean education system. And I wonder what the Korean education system will make of me. I think of myself as a K-drama heroine, of course, but from the Korean point-of-view, I’m just the walk-on cameo from a token foreigner.

kill me heal me episode 9 ji sung yo na
…my destiny. Ji Sung in bunny ears turned me from a fan to a fangirl. K-dramas, you have defeated my rational faculties. It’s love.

As any drama watcher knows, foreigners always get the dumbest dialogue. Why do I feel compelled to visit a country where I’ll be the comic relief? In the past few weeks, I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about Korean schools cheating American teachers out of their pay. I’ve had more than a few doubts.

But I’ve also heard of a couple good opportunities. So I’ve screwed up my courage and applied for jobs.

I’ve stepped up my study of Korean grammar and vocabulary. (Ironically, this has cut into my drama-watching time.)

I’ve been reading Korean travel guides and taking note of the cool Buddhist temples I want to visit.

And perhaps most importantly, I’ve started washing my face a lot. The Koreans have those amazing skin-care products and those radiant complexions, next to which I will look truly dismal. They’re going to tell me I have dark circles under my eyes, I just know it.

Yes, just thinking about going to South Korea is giving me vaguely Korean neuroses. Maybe I should stick to watching Korea on TV. Don’t I like these shows because they take me away to another world, a world I don’t have to deal with every day?

But to understand K-dramas better, I should try to understand the Korean experience, even if it means worrying about my dark circles. K-dramas are increasingly designed with international audiences in mind, but they still come out of a uniquely Korean set of worries. I need to know more—maybe even worry more—if I want to write my K-drama book.

I’ve put a ridiculous amount of time and energy into this site during the past year, with no particular goal in mind. Now, I need to either reclaim my time and write less, or go all out.

Like a good drama heroine, I will, of course, go all out. ♥

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Let me know what you want to see more of at K-drama Today. Do you want updates on the Korean travel project? What series or topics should I be focusing on right now? What do you look for in a K-drama blog, and what do I need to include in a book? And does anyone have any time management advice? Or a time machine so I can watch dramas and study Korean and still have time to write?

7 thoughts on “K-Drama Blogging Report: Thanksgiving 2015 Edition

  1. Hi, Odessa. Happy Thanksgiving to you. I am so glad and thankful for your blog. There are tons of sites about Korean dramas out there but yours is truly unique in a way. You have your preferences like all of us but you try staying subjective and try talking from a neutral point of view which I love. Its so cool that you’re actually thinking of going to Korea and perhaps working there. I have a few bucket list items like yours but haven’t had the courage yet to fulfill them but what you wrote today makes me wonder whether being scared is a good enough reason to not even try them. So good luck and I hope to read about more shows and more of your thoughts here.

    • Thank you for reading, Ironsky! I spend a lot of time being afraid of a lot of things, which is why sometimes I have to do them anyway. And then reward myself with some shows. 🙂

  2. Hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving Odessa! About your decision to go to Korea … wow. That sounds like an epic adventure in the making. It’s certainly a great set up for a K-drama : ) We definitely have to hear more about your plans as they unfold—yes please on the travel updates. I’d love to visit Korea too, but I’m also a bit scared; K-drama Land is such a lovely fantasy that I would hate to undermine or taint it, and (not that it needed saying) a Korean friend already cautioned me that K-drama Korea is nothing like real-world Korea. Still, I’m dying to eat/slurp some Korean food (particularly the street food), get drunk on soju and do embarrassing things (in classic K-drama heroine fashion … hopefully I’ll wrangle a piggyback ride from my husband and perhaps puke on him), and walk through all the scenic places and coffee shops I’ve seen in the dramas while taking peace-out selfies and flashing hand hearts along the way.

    About your plans to publish a book … wow again. That’s such a great idea. Would love to see you include a section on classic K-drama tropes, plot devices, and “things” that we love to hate; here are my favorites:

    Love triangles, amnesia subplots, noble idiocy, time jumps, gender-swapping, guy-liner, ramen slurping (and general stuffing of the face), engrish (really bad English … abnooormally bad), back hugs, wrist-grabbing, piggy-back rides, bug-eyed kisses, staring intensely at sleeping love interests and almost touching their hair, stalking as a form of courtship, drunken heroines embarrassing themselves, swoony second leads that you break your heart over, flower boys and idols, evil mothers, wily but cuddly grandmothers, fan-girling and bullying gone major league, students who love their teachers a bit too much and vice versa, noonas getting their groove back with hot young things, flashbacks that keep flashing back, people yelling “you want to die” at each other or “fighting!”, and just yelling in general. If there is a pool, someone will drown in it. If the heroine works too hard (and she usually does, as a consequence of holding three dozen part-time jobs) then she will have a nosebleed. If there is a ladder then the heroine will fall off and invariably land on the hero’s lips. If someone’s heart is breaking (this is inevitable) then they will exhibit flu-like symptoms, get hospitalized and get hooked to an IV … because the flu is a serious thing in Korea.

    These things have become the familiar signposts of my K-drama experience, and as frustrating as they are, when done right they’re really a thing of beauty. Other possible topics I’d love to read about: hero and heroine archetypes used in K-dramas (especially this Candy chick that I keep hearing about), second lead syndrome (which I didn’t really get until I watched Sungkyunkwan Scandal and fell in love with Moon Jae-Shin—you have to watch this one Odessa, if you haven’t already, Yoo Ah-In will steal your heart all over again here), K-drama OSTs and the use of music in K-dramas (‘80s and ‘90s pop ballads seem to have found the perfect roosting place here), first loves and destiny as recurring themes in K-dramas, gratuitous shower scenes and the objectification of the male body (no complaints here), the ubiquitous time-jump as drama epilogue and how it relates to the concept of Han, addiction and binge-watching as endemic aspects of K-drama viewing, and how K-dramas ultimately represent the victory of romance and sentimentality over nihilism and sarcasm. And of course, you have to include (and expand upon, with lots of examples) your excellent analysis of the K-drama Kiss.

    On the topic of gratitude. Thank you Odessa for your fantastic blog. Reading your reviews and analyses, as well as the comments of your awesome fans, has been a vindication of sorts. We can have intelligent and though-provoking discussions on K-dramas and they in turn shouldn’t be dismissed so easily as low-brow entertainment or fluff (or as soap operas!) by other viewers and critics.

    Good luck on the time management … my advice would be to skip sleep … don’t suppose that would work? : )

    P.S. I loved Queen of Reversals too, especially when they switched the male leads and focused on the redemption arc.

    • Ah, someone else has seen Queen of Reversals! I think one reason I got interested in K-dramas is that the first three I watched (Coffee Prince, Me Too Flower, and Queen of Reversals) all revolved around women trying to succeed working in male-dominated jobs. The career stuff gets so much screen time in them, particularly in Q of R, where I love the sad but realistic way the divorce is connected to problems with the economy. And that surprising lead switch! It’s a smart show. Funny you should mention SungK Scandal. I watched it this month as part of my post-Secret Love Affair Recovery Project. Like you, I don’t often fall prey to Second Lead Syndrome, but Sung K Scandal gave me second and even third lead syndrome. Yoochun puts me to sleep whenever he steps on screen, but Song Joong Ki and Yoo Ah In are among the most delightful heroes ever. I swear. Despite seeing them as first leads in other things, I had no idea SJK could be that cute or YAI that sexy until they had to play second (and third) fiddle to Yoochun.

      As you say, we learn a lot about Dramaland from K-dramas, but very little about actual Korea, which is why I’m feeling very cautious about this Korean thing. But I can’t wait to find out things like “do they really keep hooking themselves up to IVs?” (apparently, Koreans living in New York City do drive health inspectors nuts with informal IV clinics) and “does anyone in Korea ever actually yell at anyone else, or is that just a dramaland fantasy?” I’m expecting a LOT of culture shock, and very few piggy-back rides. (Though I’ll keep my eye out for flower boys and wily but cuddly grandmothers.)

      I’m so glad you’re reading and commenting–and I’m hanging on to your wishlist. Noona romances and shower scenes are something in particular that I want to tackle soon. I was going to write about noona romances back in October, but then Secret Love Affair side-tracked me. Not. Enough. Time. Sleep may be the thing to go. 🙂 Take care, Rouny!

  3. I read this post like two days ago and just a moment ago I realized, I didn’t hit the post comment that time, haha
    Happy thanksgiving to you…. ^^
    As I remember, my 1st Kdrama is Endless Love but I didn’t like it at all, I was like in 6th grade and they all crying on screen so I questioning the motivation to watch the tragic love story in my age (at the time I just watch anime). Before that I actually catch up in Meteor Garden craze and Winter Sonata but I don’t really pay attention.
    My 1st complete Drama is Dae Jang Geum which is fantastic and still awe me to this day, I bought the second hand DVD, I can’t find the original with eng sub (I am ashamed T.T). Then I watch BOF which at the time run in late night on tuesday or thursday and I am pretty much the 2nd person on my class (or just up to 5 in entire school) to watch it, I just hummed Almost Paradise with one of my friend and we became the hummed weirdos since we can’t even sing it properly. I didn’t finish it because it stopped run on the network (what a year….) so I start reading the Japanese recap in hoping it actually related, turn out f its not, but it introduced me to SHINee.

    Year after that, Hallyu was started getting momentum and I watch Queen Seon Deok and pretty much cry every time I remember the ending for a week even if I can’t catch in on TV, I had an academy at the time, it was late and me+my friends (including boys) run home after it end, at the end we just read recap. Then the hallyu was booming and they re-run BOF which just make me laugh at my experience before. After that I pretty much watch Anime, K-Drama and J-Drama with some Western TV series.

    You’ll go to Korea? waaah, I suggest to check EatYourKimchi, they provide some good information and also the reality beyond Kdrama, the traffic is kinda bad as I watch and you can’t make U-turn suddenly like in drama, hope you have great experience.
    I think I write more two days ago but whatever….
    here’s virtual hug for you
    (づ ̄ ³ ̄)づ
    ───==≡≡ΣΣ(っ´▽`)っ
    ((((/ ̄∇ ̄)/\( ̄∇ ̄\))))

  4. Your smart, well written essays are my favorite part of the blog. I wish you success in your plans to write a book about the K drama phenomena.
    I think there is a gender prejudice that devaluates dramas, at least in the Western world, because of their focus on relationships, both romantic and familial. Men and women equally read these types of stories 150 years ago during the heyday of Victorian literature. Modern Western men are shamed to be thought sentimental. The American manly hero is a loner like Shane,Rambo or Jason Bourne. While most women do appreciate a good romance, it is the stories of relationships between connected people that interest them the most. It is who we talk to and what we talk about: our families, our friends, co-workers and neighbors. Drama characters are just these sorts of people, only leading more exciting lives.
    I have recently been watching some Chinese/Taiwanese romances, especially Shan Shan Comes To Eat and Mr. Right Wanted. I made a comment to my husband about how different the television target demographic must be compared to the US or Asian men are all out drinking in bars after work. In the US, women are offered horrible reality shows or shuffled off to watch low budget movies on Hallmark and Lifetime. While I can appreciate the effort that went into creating CGI spectacle that is a Transformer movie, it will never cause tears to stream down my face or an actual pain in my heart like a well written scene between two human beings trying to connect with words.
    While I think Korean culture is interesting, what I would be most interested in reading about in a potential book is a behind the scenes look at drama production and a history of it’s rise in popularity world wide. What is different in the creation that has produced something not found in Western entertainment today? I read somewhere that the majority of writers are female in contrast to the US. Perhaps that is one of many reasons.

    • You’ve expressed the gender issues very well, and gotten at things that I think about a lot. Something that strikes me as fascinating is that entire nations are increasingly specializing by genre. In the 1930s, Hollywood produced many genres, with many audience demographics in mind. Today, 70% of US movie revenue comes from overseas, and the movie industry is skewed towards producing a certain kind of action film for teenage boys around the world (and the teenage boys inside all of us). American TV is also male-oriented (and 80% of TV pilots are written by writing teams without a single woman on them). I read somewhere that Korean producers believe that 40-something-year-old women control Korean remote controls. I suspect another reason K-dramas have gotten so good at female-oriented melodrama is that the Korean industry doesn’t try to compete with American “product”–no one can beat American expertise at zombies and superheroes–but focuses on selling something distinctively different. From an economist’s perspective, Korea has developed comparative advantage at melodramas. But does this mean that Korean stories will become more geared towards international audiences, like American super-hero movies already are? In the absence of a research budget, I’m just going to have to go to Korea and track down some drama makers and ask them what they think. Which is daunting! Thanks for the encouragement!

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