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BTS is the band
I've been waiting for my whole life
Welcome to At The End Of the Day! I’m Hannah Sung and I write this newsletter for perspective on the daily crush of news.
This was a big BTS week. You probably know that I’m Army, which is the nickname for BTS fans. But I haven’t really written in-depth about why I’m Army.
Here it goes, in three memories—from this week, from my baby days and from my first career job in television.
A big BTS week
Last weekend, I got up before 5 a.m. to watch BTS perform live in Busan, South Korea. I rolled out of bed and hit my sofa in pyjamas, grabbing my laptop and phone. My friends and I checked into our group chat. We were ready. True, it was a disgusting hour for appointment viewing, but if you want to know what dedication looks like, BTS fans are it.
A handful of songs in, the streaming link crashed. Of course it did—this always happens. I’m continually gobsmacked by the tech that enables this fandom, but maybe no IT department on Earth is ready for the demands of a BTS-sized global streaming event.
My group chat lit up with alternate links and we started to follow the bouncing ball, clicking away from the official stream on Weverse (deadsville) to an illegal YouTube stream (quickly shut down) to Naver to MBC, the latter two being Korean sites. My resourceful friends just kept dropping link after link.
I know this sounds weird, but following the links with my friends was the best part of this pre-dawn party. It felt like party-hopping. I was laughing the whole way. And every time we arrived at a link that worked, we celebrated. Then it would crash (party’s over!) and we’d move on again. BTS fans are incredibly online and connected. After all, in my chat alone there were at least half a dozen of us across different time zones, with two of us on separate international flights (yes, one of them kept chatting with us in-flight over the Atlantic). Alone but together.
48 hours later, still on a high from the shared experience of the show, I woke up to a text. It was a screengrab of news notifications from my friend’s phone. The eldest member of BTS, Jin, was preparing to do mandatory military service, effectively starting a cascade for all seven members. BTS won’t be doing any group activities until 2025.
Fans knew, or feared, a years-long pause like this was coming. Exemptions to mandatory service have been a political hot-button issue, debated by the government and in the Korean press, for years. But we didn’t know that last weekend’s concert in Busan, an incredibly robust, one-night only show, filled with choreography new and old, had been their send-off to us.
You know it’s their dance moves that got me hooked
My world taught me I’m different
Whenever a BTS story breaks through from fandom circles to mainstream news headlines, I consider again why I’m a fan.
I grew up in a white world. This is what happens when you’re born and raised in Canada by Korean immigrant parents in the 1980s. As a kid, I never saw myself out in the world. At home, we ate bap and kimchi with jeokkal, but I never saw Korean families on TV, in movies, newspapers, books, anything. If I ever saw an Asian-looking person in a movie, it was not good. Every single time, it was a racial stereotype. That’s not me.
My whole life, I’ve been trying to understand what that does to someone—to be completely invisible in reflections of the greater world around them.
I remember being in junior kindergarten, sitting around a circle as the teacher asked us to share what we had for dinner last night. I was an extremely shy kid. When it came to my turn, I mustered up enough courage to whisper, “Bap.”
“Pardon me? A little louder for the class?”
“Bap!” This was, of course, the most obvious answer for dinner. It means rice in Korean but it also just means food. In other words, I said I ate food, in the most basic way a four-year-old would answer, “What’s for dinner?” My white teacher looked puzzled and didn’t ask me to elaborate. She moved on without commenting or nodding like she did with the other children.
That was the first time it struck me that I was different.
This is a super-classic story of any immigrant kid. You just keep going on with life in a world where every teacher, sitcom actor, cartoon mom, prime minister, news anchor and dancing mannequin in your favourite children’s show is white, or maybe Black, but never someone like you. You internally normalize it.
And then I landed on TV.
What I wish I had
In the early 2000s, I was in my twenties and I landed an on-air job at MuchMusic. If you’re my age and Canadian, you know it was the TikTok of its day for its cultural centrality to teens.
I wasn’t the first Asian VJ (shout out Sook-yin Lee!). But I was the only Asian VJ during my time. That’s the way it was then. You could only have one.
I remember sitting in my job interview, my hair shorn on one side, my nails artfully painted in stripes, months into an auditioning process where I was now finally meeting the person at the top of the food chain.
“Why do you want to work in TV?” she asked. By that time, I was writing a regular newspaper column and co-hosting a weekly radio call-in show, but had no training or education in being on-camera.
I hadn’t really considered this question, so everything that came out of my mouth was unprepared.
“Power,” I said. “It’s the most powerful medium of all. You can connect with so many people.”
What was I talking about? I didn’t want personal power. But I did want to take up space and be my whole self in a world where that didn’t previously feel possible. That felt powerful to me on a scale that wasn’t about me.
Thus started four-and-a-half years of feeling intensely looked at. I wasn’t prepared for that (can you ever be?) nor did I have peers at work who knew what it felt like to have Asian racial representation thrust onto you. Even if I had, would we have had the language to articulate this?
Almost all my viewer emails came from Asian young women who said they wanted to be like me. That didn’t feel the way I thought it would. Sitting in the manager’s office for my job interview, I thought it would be gratifying to be the thing I didn’t have growing up. In reality, while doing the job, it felt very, very lonely.
What made you different is now your superpower
Do you know how exciting it is that the world’s biggest band is Korean? They aren’t Korean-American or Korean-Canadian. They are Korean-Korean. They didn’t grow up like me, bridging cultures.
They don’t need to pretzel themselves into something acceptable, explaining themselves or their very existence, for the world stage. I mean, sometimes they get asked dumb questions by interviewers (as someone formerly in this job, I have some compassion). But they don’t need to explain themselves to their fans. Their fans do the work of bridging cultures for them, en masse. Many hands make light work.
Fans translate BTS’ live chats for other fans as well as the band’s remarks during live shows. Fans create events for each other. They even organize a self-driven international census so they can know themselves and their community.
That’s what is most exciting to me about BTS – those communities. Perhaps that’s what all fandoms are about but I’ve never known of one that can stitch together chasmic differences in language, culture, geography and lived experiences in this way, in real time. Fans do the bridging work, explaining to one another, giving each other context, translations, hot takes and smart perspective. During the pandemic, when I fell into this rabbit hole, I was alone at home but I didn’t feel lonely, if you know what I mean.
We’re never going back to a pre-pandemic, older-tech world. And if you romanticize that past, like the feeling of old jeans, consider the gatekeepers who kept it alive – Hollywood and record label execs, radio programmers – rarified individuals with decision-making power in their fiefdoms.
BTS doesn’t need passage through the old gatekeepers to climb to the top of the world we now live in. True, there are new gatekeepers that take different forms (I’d never have become a fan without streaming sites, their algorithms and translated captions). But the way BTS can connect with individuals, diasporic and otherwise, across languages, while continuing to use their own, is unprecedented. And I love it.
Language is what makes us human. And it’s been totally unexpected, in my 40s, to reconnect with the language of my baby years through following a band.
Today, I don’t begrudge all the years I spent feeling invisible in the larger world around me. Nor do I resent the years I felt hyper-visible on TV. Because feeling different back then is what gives me the energy to be part of this fandom now. And learning how to bridge between cultures is a superpower.
Twenty years ago, forty years ago, being of multiple cultures was isolating. Just living everyday life meant compartmentalizing without even realizing you’re packing parts of yourself away into a closet.
These days, when I follow the bouncing ball of BTS links, I see that the power I was looking for in my MuchMusic job interview isn’t something that can be achieved solo. No one person can represent. You need numbers. There is power in numbers.
Through BTS, I’ve made friends, learned about history and politics and mulled over many observations of how our world has changed for the better (how often do you get that feeling when you click on the news?).
A lot of Western media coverage of Jin, BTS and their pause for military service I’ve seen revolves around economic losses for South Korea. It occurred to me that a financial focus rests with the fact that actual job descriptions for reporters include covering global markets. But are there reporters whose jobs it is to cover global entertainment culture? There should be. But I can’t name any.
So fans take it upon ourselves to make sense of it all with knowledge translation. BTS Army is made up of women of the global majority and I love that. White supremacy in entertainment culture can take a backseat here.
Don’t let me take away from the band themselves —BTS are absolutely Olympian in their skills, the best at what they do—but what keeps me glued is that this global phenomenon encompasses all the best aspects of tech-enabled community and culture. (A dark downside exists of course, as with all online communities, but that’s for another day).
My fan experience is an appreciation for the connections that get forged, nice, kind ones, that feature empathy. I’m talking about friendships with my BTS crew but I’m also talking about simply connecting with that four-year-old me and that 24-year-old me, too.
In a world that’s often lonely, I can’t think of anything better. A working BTS livestream link comes close, though – so close.
Thanks for reading. Take care and borahae
✨✨✨At The End Of the Day is edited by Laura Hensley✨✨✨
Laineygossip, October 17, 2022 This is a great primer on BTS’ decision to give up a possible exemption to mandatory military service in Korea
South Korea’s Criteria for Military Exemption is Outdated, Jae-Ha Kim Another great primer
BTS performs emotional concert in Busan, South Korea, as uncertainty hovers over group's future, NBC Love a story with this much context. This was published during the brief window between the Busan concert and their announcement about military service
Media Girlfriends in the news
Media Girlfriends is the podcast company I started with my friends Garvia Bailey and Nana aba Duncan in 2020. Read about us in this Globe and Mail story. We had a great time in this photo shoot, which was a rare chance for all of us to get together in person.