What I Miss the Most
Debut: The 90s of South Korea
About five years ago, there was an astounding resurgence of nostalgia for 90s pop culture in South Korea. As a Korean-American viewing the phenomenon from the outside, this particular decade seemed to be immortalized by the cultural consciousness of the media.
The immense popularity of Reply 1997 is probably the most obvious example. By evidence of sheer ratings, the audience loved re-living the time of Generation One K-Pop idols, whose fandom would make today’s cower in fear.
I’m no historian nor sociologist, but perhaps the 1997 IMF crisis had something to do with it. In a context of severe economic turmoil, the youth of South Korea were exposed to the genesis of what would rapidly grow to become a multi-billion dollar industry — an empire of cultural assimilation that thrones the country as a top exporter of cultural products. They are only rivaled by Japan.
Now, South Korea is one of the fastest growing economies whose GDP per capita has tripled since 1997. Technologically advanced and economically stronger, the nation is doing much better than 20 years ago — and certainly much better than the post-Korean War era.
But of course, there is a nostalgia for simpler times. Before the internet. Before cell phones. Before twerking classes.
As Dave Chappelle had put it, it was a time when we didn’t know who was on the phone until we picked it up. It was a time when word of mouth was all that we had. It was an age of analog, whose incarnated consciousness would have rebuked the irony of the loneliness of today’s social media.
So…What does this have to do with me? Well, I’ll get to that. I promise.
Fast Forward to 2015
The nostalgia wave never really stopped. It arrived to a point where the most famous Korean variety show, Infinite Challenge, capitalized on the nostalgia of 90s music. They literally brought back artists of that time to perform on a single stage for a lollapalooza throwback experience.
A 3 hour special split into three episodes, you can imagine how much work it took to amass such a variety of people and organize their individual works. Only a few artists were still in the public consciousness, while most had dissolved into the private lives of regular citizens.
Watching the whole thing…it got me. It was one of the few times that I found myself — almost crying. Well, maybe my eyes got a TINY BIT…
The best way to explain my emotions watching the program is to say that it was like watching Rocky Balboa, which I will perennially call Rocky 6.
It’s really the same idea. Just like Rocky, you have these older artists coming out retirement feeling doubt about whether they can succeed or not. They’re scared that it won’t be the same anymore. They’re scared that they’re too far from anything remotely relevant. They’re scared that they’ll mess something up, perhaps that romantic image of the past.
Like Rocky, they’re asking the same question: Am I still good enough?
Not knowing whether people will receive them the same way, the program shows them working hard. They know just like how the audience knows that it will never be the same. But, they’re coming back for that something. That life that used to be there. That thing that made life so fun, exciting.
And after days of built-up nerves, feeling like rookies before a debut, they finally stood on stage. It was glorious. They were so happy when they were performing. They were so fucking happy that it made me feel cathartic. It was joy. Real fucking joy. They missed the stage. They missed being together.
Everyone was tearing up. Bada of Generation One girl group S.E.S. couldn’t stop her tears from feeling so happy. Even the ultra-manly Kim Jong Kook of Running Man was tearing up watching the others perform.
The idea of this special must have sounded great on paper. Give the artists another chance to perform thereby increasing the ratings by riding the nostalgia wave. It was an awesome idea, an idea that worked too well. They tapped into something larger. Something that required two decades in the making.
You know because I’m a nerd for these kinds of things, I actually watched a documentary on this special. They fact that they even made one goes to show that they were expecting something unprecedented out of the program.
I learned that they had thoughts of aborting the special because they were unable to bring definitive, marquee performers like H.O.T., Secshskies, and S.E.S. rival Fin.K.L. These were the legends of K-Pop that built the grounds for what exists today.
Thankfully, they didn’t, and the executive producer was glad that he continued on with the great cast that they were able to get. He was happy that he was able to do something like this for people like Shoo.
There’s footage of Shoo with her two little twins, showing off her old moves. She wanted them to know that her mom was somebody. That she was pretty. That she was their mom.
My Nostalgia: From 1998 On
By the time I was poking my fingers into other people’s birthday cakes, H.O.T and Sechskies — the pioneers of modern K-Pop — had already debuted and were involved in a fierce rivalry that resulted in consecutive album releases. This was before streaming and digital downloads forever changed the game for all music markets.
While all these cool things were going on in South Korea, I was just a little kid living in a suburb on the outskirts of Philadelphia. The above footage is the church that I used to attend up until about the 4th grade.
I had my own memories of nostalgia from that old place. Whenever I drive by the church, I always feel this good feeling and that other feeling that I can’t put my mental finger on.
As you can probably tell, I was a troublemaker. And, I loved every second of it.
I remember throwing water balloons in the church hallway, pooping in the women’s bathroom, making stupid faces all the times, getting yelled at all the time, and even ruining this guy’s suit. He was holding some coffee in his hand, and I ran into him by accident.
But, the people of the church always had my back.
I used to play around with my lanyard a lot. I would swing it around in circles and throw it up as high in the air as possible. I was often doing things that consisted of doing things as “something” as possible. One Sunday, however, I failed to swing my lanyard straight up and got it stuck up on the church roof.
People got out a ladder and put in a lot of work just to get my tiny key. For some reason, they weren’t mad that time. Perhaps, they just knew. That I was that kid. The pastor’s kid who always did something wrong.
Not that impressive, right? Probably not. But, I still remember it. The feeling of belonging. The feeling of knowing that people were there to help you, always. I miss them, wherever they are now.
And of course, The Church Five.
We were like the Jackson 5, except not really. For one thing, we didn’t have afros. We had something more fun than afros — our imaginations. But before we get to that, I should probably let you know who was in the Church Five.
There was Dan, David, Brian, me, and maybe Eddie. I’ll be honest. I named this the Church Five because I simply like the number 5. Big man Eddie, whom I’ve always thought of as a scary giant as a kid, was close friends with another person at church.
(So, it’s really the Church Four…kind of.)
We used to play imaginary…um…what the hell should I call them? They were RPGs or something. To put it most simply, we acted out stories. We were each characters with superpowers suited to our own personalities and drew inspiration from the shows we watched on television — shows like Dragon Ball Z, Yu Gi Oh, etc.
David was the mastermind who created the scenarios, our powers, and the villains. He was always the smartest out of all of us. Dan was the most loving. Brian the most socially intelligent. And, I…I was just a ball of ADHD.
But, the dialogue? We, of course, came up with our own corny lines, and there was a lot of yelling. Lots of yelling. If there was one thing that DBZ taught us, it was that yelling made you stronger. Unfortunately, it made anyone looking at us question…
But, theme. In every variation of story we acted out, there was always the same theme: friendship.
(Okay, you English majors. I know that theme isn’t a single word. Just let it slide.)
Every Sunday and every Friday night, we would try to protect each other from our foes. Sometimes, one of us would act hurt and injured, and the other would come to the rescue — by first yelling — then fighting the enemy with our newly gained powers.
These memories of fighting for each other.
Each and every one of them, I appreciate them as gifts. Pure good. Pure joy.
I miss these the most.
A Generation of Peace
I know what you’re thinking. This guy was just talking about K-Pop and now Syria?! I apologize for the random jump, but I promise it’s all connected…somehow. I promise.
After all, this is what inspired this post to finally be written after all of these months.
A few days ago, I was talking with a friend who asked me why I cared about all of this. In my novel, the characters even have to save a Syrian refugee as a means to save the world. And at the moment, I didn’t know the answer to the question.
Why do I care?
After giving my subconscious mind some time to sort the answers out, I think I know why to some degree.
I care because it’s unfair.
Previously, I referred to those childhood memories as gifts of pure good and joy. Often when I am down, I think about what I am grateful for in life. And, I end up looking back at the peace and goodness of what I experienced as a child. I draw strength from those memories, and they inspire me to provide the same for others.
But, where are those memories for these kids? When most of their early life is marred by dusty rubble, broken bodies, unsanitary conditions, and pure indifference.
When they are weak, where will they draw strength from? Why does it have to be this way?
A whole generation of peace taken.
And, we watch.
I get angry at God a lot more these days. I never question his existence. But, his goodness. That part of my faith is the entirety of my doubt.
But perhaps, all is not lost. Perhaps, there are things that cannot be stolen. You and I see it. In that picture above, they’re smiling. I don’t know how. But, they are.
Or the unbreakable will to fight for each other — against all odds…
It was just imaginary for us. For them, the bonds that they’ll make. I can’t fathom.
In a way, I feel like a member of a Generation One K-Pop band. But, the thing is that we’re still in a state of retirement. The members of the Church Five haven’t all been gathered in one place for more than a decade.
Really. I want to feel that again. That happiness of just pure good. Maybe, it won’t be like the way it used to be. No, it definitely won’t be. But, it’d still be nice if we all got together for one last ride. Just one last performance after all these years.
Who knows? We could be like Sechskies who came back last year after their own Infinite Challenge special. Talk about special treatment. Also, did you know their 20th anniversary was yesterday?! And, it’s Eddie’s birthday today!
The timing. Impeccable. We should all learn how to dance and sing too. It’ll be the funniest thing the world has ever seen.
And, I’ll cry like a fucking baby.
Extra Detail I didn’t know where to put:
If you’re wondering how I could know so much about K-Pop as a Korean-American, it’s because well — I’m a nerd and a nostalgist (you won’t find this word in a dictionary). It turns out that I used to be babysat by someone who often watched Korean music programs on VHS tape recordings. In other words, I’ve been listening to K-pop before I was able to speak full sentences. I don’t have memories of certain songs, but it explains how everything feels so familiar.