Soft Power: Chinese boy band members deserve the love

Six men wearing white dress shirts pose in front of a black background.
Wu uses K-pop to discuss the cultural gap she experiences as a Chinese American in the United States. (Photo from IMDb)

I wasn’t always a die-hard EXO fan (known as EXO-L). In high school, I sank deep into the dark hole of K-pop and somewhat reluctantly jumped on the BTS bandwagon, which was my one and only ult group for the longest time. With discussions of K-pop boy bands among friends, however, conversations inevitably turned toward other groups and fandoms, namely EXO.  

At that time, I was a Chinese girl who, after saying that I liked K-pop, would receive derisive responses like “but you’re not even Korean.” 

My insecurities about being a Chinese K-pop fan eventually drew me to EXO. I loved that EXO had Chinese members: Kris, Luhan, Tao and Lay. I scrolled through K-pop profiles and EXO OT12 introduction videos, discussing them with friends. I decided my bias in EXO-M was Luhan. I listened to EXO’s “Growl” in Korean. I liked it, so I listened to the Mandarin version. 

Something clicked for me then, a language that I understood and the Chinese members at the forefront of the video. I listened to it again. Then again. Then again. 

I was almost unwilling to start loving EXO. I felt irritated that to others, my love of K-pop was perceived as less valid because I was Chinese, not Korean. It was so cliché, I thought, that a Chinese girl couldn’t love a music genre if there wasn’t some sort of tangible ethnic or cultural connection I could claim. As a fan, me loving the Chinese members began as a way of somewhat retaliating against that belief. 

Yet I couldn’t deny that there was a deeper connection that drew me to EXO. In many ways, I empathized with the foreign members. Even though I wasn’t a Chinese person in South Korea, I was a Chinese person in the United States, and sometimes I saw parallels in those experiences. 

I scoured Reddit threads examining the alleged differences in treatment between the Chinese and Korean members. I watched videos of Lay accidentally mispronouncing “Jurassic Park” in Korean and remembered the distinctly different ways I pronounced “salmon” and “iron,” a way of speaking I learned from my Chinese parents. I witnessed netizens’ xenophobic hate comments toward the Chinese members, implying that they should go back to China if they were just going to leave the group anyway. 

Although our experiences were quite different, they resonated with me. Sometimes, like the members, I felt like there was a cultural gap. In the United States, I wasn’t fully accepted for being Chinese. Whenever I saw comments that undermined the members’ Chinese-ness or questioned their participation in a South Korean group, I saw myself and the questions of belonging I’d faced all my life in the Chinese members. 

As I followed the Chinese members of EXO from South Korea to China, they were what eventually drew me to Chinese popular culture at large. I watched Luhan in the Chinese variety show “Keep Running.” I watched Kris singing about noodles and haters in his hit song “Big Bowl Thick Noodle,” inspired by Chinese culture, during the Bilibili Lunar New Year concert. I watched Tao mentoring idol trainees in China’s “Produce 101” and Lay in “Idol Producer,” and I was so proud of all of them. 

I saw the former Chinese members of EXO becoming successful soloists in their country. Even as I anticipated EXO comebacks, knowing that the three Chinese members who left were most likely not going to “come back,” I loved seeing all the members thrive. I loved that there were fans who cared as much as me about the former Chinese members of EXO even when they weren’t technically in the band anymore. 

I spent significant years of my life with EXO’s members. For my Common Application essay, I wrote about how K-pop led me to discover the importance of finding community through common ground. It’s an essay topic that I think could have been refined a bit more, but to me the sentiment still rings true today. 

On the day I was rejected from my dream school, the “Love Shot” music video came out. Ironically, my rejection felt like a “love shot.” I watched the Mandarin version over and over as I sobbed nasty tears over my dinner. In my first year of college, when I felt alone and homesick in my dorm room, I opened my laptop and played EXO-M interviews on repeat, thinking about how the Chinese members of EXO would have felt in a foreign country.

I became involved in K-pop because I loved the music, and along the way I discovered commonalities with the Chinese members that have informed my own understanding of being Chinese American. In a clichéd way, maybe that’s what boy bands are about: less about the fandom wars and politics, and more about finding yourself in others. 

A lot has been said about K-pop as Korean “soft power” (see what I did there?), and there’s truthfully nothing more I can add to the K-pop discourse. As a Chinese American, though, I can’t deny that paradoxically, it was the Chinese members of a South Korean boy band that helped me navigate what it meant to be a Chinese person in the United States. 

Their lives — or what I consumed of their lives, anyway — mirrored my own struggles with belonging and cultural identity, ideas that have always defined my own experiences. For that, I thank them. No matter how much I wish for it, I’ll never debut as an idol. But with the Chinese members, I “debuted” in a different way — a Chinese American one. 

Valerie Wu is a sophomore writing about the arts and pop culture in relation to her Chinese American identity. Her column, “Soft Power,” runs every other Monday.