After Parasite won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2020, I decided to watch it. I felt annoyed at myself when I turned off the movie halfway through. A similar shame has come back to haunt me more than a year later — whenever I scroll past a parody of Squid Game on TikTok, all I can think about is how I couldn’t make it past the show’s first episode.
Although I come from a Chinese family and have lived in China for most of my life, I’ve found myself growing increasingly distanced from East Asian popular media. With genres like K-pop and anime recently gaining popularity internationally, I can’t help but feel guilty for not identifying with their fanbases. It’s as if I’m somehow betraying a part of my identity.
It would be a lie to say that I’m not interested in any East Asian media. There are one or two K-pop songs in my playlist and I enjoy the occasional Studio Ghibli film — but I wouldn’t dare call myself a fan. Even though I’ve tried — repeatedly — to get into these genres that suddenly seem so popular among my peers, I’ve never been able to stay engaged. And although China is a completely different country from Korea or Japan, I still feel like I should appreciate their media more than I do — they’re closer to my home than Hollywood is.
One of the biggest barriers to my enjoyment is language. Maybe it’s the literature student in me, but if I can’t appreciate how something is written, I can’t appreciate it at all. When I’m listening to a new song, I have to understand the lyrics before I can really enjoy the music. With most K-pop, that’s not exactly easy to do. Even though I usually find it sonically appealing, it’s more in the sense of background or elevator music — objectively pleasant, but without a meaning understandable to me. I tend to view everything as a text first; I read the lyrics when listening to a song for the first time, and — although it sounds ridiculous — I’ll read the screenplay before watching a movie if it’s available.
My habits probably come from my mild yet deeply rooted insecurities about language proficiency. Although I am technically fluent in Mandarin, I have the approximate conversational capabilities of Google Translate, so I tend to miss a lot of the subtler meanings. When I wanted to watch a local play — performed in Mandarin — I would be discouraged by my parents, who would make comments like, “You won’t be able to understand everything,” and “Don’t waste your money on something you won’t be able to fully appreciate.” Their comments made me feel like I needed to fully understand the text itself to be confident in my enjoyment of it.
The rational part of me says that I’m allowed to dislike some media that’s presented to me. I don’t consume a lot of popular media to begin with, and I’m very particular about what I actually pay attention to. Still, when representation is as rare as it is in the North American market, the fact that I don’t consume the mainstream East Asian media here feels like rejecting something handed to me on a silver platter.
I faced similar problems when I lived in China. When I lived there, I spent most of my time studying an American curriculum at an international high school, effectively distanced from the culture around me. So maybe some of the guilt comes from feeling like an impostor in the place I lived in for over 10 years; for not being ‘Chinese’ or ‘Asian’ enough to have those stories appeal to me. It’s hard to not feel like an outlier when seeing the popularity of K-pop café events and the BT21 pop-up store here in Toronto. It seems like the entire world is enraptured by these forms of entertainment. Why can’t I be as well?
As someone interested in the arts, and as someone who used to want to work in the entertainment industry, I really want to be more appreciative of the well-deserved attention that media from outside the Hollywood machine is finally getting. It’s incredible that there is East Asian representation in mainstream Western culture; I simply wish I could be less picky about it and actually find a way to enjoy it.
I feel pretentious for not understanding what media is popular right now, but I think I would be happier if I did. On occasion, I wonder if being caught up with East Asian popular culture would help fill in the missing piece of my identity.