While everyone stayed up until midnight on Jan. 1 to make their toasts to 2018, my family waited for K-Pop sensation BTS to perform its hit “MIC Drop” on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. Certainly, I was proud to watch this group perform on live television, just how its impressive YouTube statistics completely shocked me. However, this moment’s significance extended beyond that. Generally speaking, I was impressed by each member’s distinct personalities, as they didn’t seem to feel relegated to one characteristic, a problem that the group helped me resolve recently. Indeed, BTS helped me acknowledge my Korean heritage after I distanced myself from it.
Every New Year’s, my family meets with our relatives. I remember eating tteokguk, a rice cake soup, and listening to everyone talk in Korean. Because I don’t speak the language, this annoyed me, as they never seemed to connect with me in English. However, I enjoyed visiting their businesses because they spoke English to their customers. It obviously wasn’t their first language, but I appreciated it when they spoke the same language I did.
During high school, I became heavily involved in activities related to my Korean heritage. One summer, I flew to Washington, D.C. to advocate for North Korean refugees; another, I walked 40 miles in support of Liberty in North Korea, an organization that smuggles North Koreans refugees to safety. My Eagle Scout project even involved interviewing Korean War veterans about their personal experiences.
After a while, I began to feel like these activities were forced upon me. The problem was not the activities themselves, but rather the extent to which people overemphasized their importance. While I prepared for my black belt test, a family friend said to think about the North Korean orphans that didn’t have this opportunity, but her words failed to inspire me. I wanted to find a balance between my American and Korean backgrounds, but I felt my family pushing me to associate myself with the latter.
My inner conflict culminated this past summer when I broke down in tears in a parking lot. What began as a simple conversation between me and my parents transformed into an hour of verbal sparring, as I let out everything that bothered me about my Korean-centered upbringing. My parents calmly clarified why they emphasized my heritage so much. In the end, I understood their perspective.
Although I found peace with my heritage after this conversation, I still felt distant from it, as I intentionally avoided joining any Asian groups last semester. However, when I discovered BTS, my appreciation for my heritage was rekindled. It didn’t come from the fact that they were a group from Korea, but rather from the fact that I discovered something related to my heritage that genuinely interested me. This past break, for the first time, I asked my mom to teach me Korean, as I tried reading the lyrics to BTS’ hit songs “DNA” and “MIC Drop.”
It seems fitting that this group led me back to the culture that I’ve avoided for so long. For the first time since 2012, I’m incredibly proud to be Korean American. And as we start the new semester, having finally settled into USC as a transfer student, this renewed appreciation could not have come at a more perfect time.
Ryan Song is a sophomore majoring in business administration. His column, “At Song Last,” runs every other Thursday.