All my life I’ve been obsessed with watching South Korean TV dramas, or K-drama.
The term refers to the various genres of television dramas produced in South Korea, including mystery, crime, and rom-com. Regardless of genre, most K-dramas try to evoke a visceral response in the viewers – laughter, tears, anger, indignation. The series usually features charming, well-groomed actors who are in touch with their emotions.
When I went to elementary school in the United States, I regularly went with my parents to a Korean grocery store an hour away from my home to borrow VHS tapes featuring K-drama. Eventually, streaming services stopped the need for VHS rentals, and I was able to watch my favorite K-drama, which “The innocent man“on platforms such as Rakuten Viki and Dramafever.
I turned my passion for South Korean television into a career by pursuing a doctorate in gender studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, where I researched racial, gender and sexual politics around the global popularity of K-drama.
For my dissertation, I interviewed women from different parts of the world who were inspired by K-drama to travel to South Korea to experience the culture on their own. To meet them, I stayed at the guest house around Seoul near K-drama filming locations and popular tourist destinations.
More generally, I wanted to learn about what drew them to South Korea. But I soon realized that a significant number of tourists were less interested in the sights and sounds – and more interested in the men.
The origin of the K-drama
Some of the first K-dramas that attracted people from outside South Korea were “Jewel in the palace“”Guardian: Lonely and great God“and”My love from the star“which aired in the early 2000s. People around the world watched them on legal subtitle streaming websites, as well as on illegal, fan-driven streaming sites where volunteers wrote subtitles.
In recent years, K-drama has become mainstream. Today, streaming platforms such as Netflix and Disney + not only offer a plethora of K-drama to their subscribers, they have also produced their own K-drama, which “Octopus game“and”The king’s affection. “
K-drama’s worldwide popularity occurred alongside the popularity of other South Korean cultural products, including K-pop, cosmetics and food. This phenomenon is known as “Hallyu” or the “Korean wave”.
“Hallyu tourism” – with a twist
Galvanized by their interest in South Korean popular culture, more and more tourists travel to the country.
South Korean locals call these visitors “Hallyu tourists“Many of them eat at restaurants and street food vendors so they can try the food they see in K-drama, visit K-drama movie theaters or participate in a live K-pop performance.
But a significant subset – the group I came to be most interested in – travel to South Korea for love. Drawn to the characters they see on their TVs, they begin to wonder if real South Korean men resemble the male characters of K-drama, both in appearance and behavior.
They come from all over the world – North America, Western Europe, Russia – but tend to have a similar profile: heterosexual women in their early to mid-20s.
In 2017 and 2018, I lived in the guest houses and hostels that Hallyu tourists visited when they visited South Korea. The tourists who were interested in Korean men soon stood out. Unlike the other tourists who would wake up early so they could explore the city, these tourists would sleep in or watch K-drama during the day and then dress up and put on make-up before going to the clubs and bars at night. They had a primary goal: to meet a Korean man.
For some of these tourists, the opportunity to date these men was a way to fulfill a fantasy. A German tourist told me that when she meets a Korean man, it feels like she’s living in [her] own Korean TV drama. “
Our chats often took place over a meal. Sometimes I interviewed them when we went to and from clubs and bars – or even at the clubs and bars when the women were trying to meet guys. Some of these women spoke fluent Korean, while others were able to communicate by mixing Korean and English. Many of them claimed to have learned Korean by consuming hours of Korean popular culture.
In search of “soft” masculinity
“Romantic”, “gentle”, “good-looking”, “knight in shining armor” are just some of the terms used by tourists to describe their idealized Korean husband. It was a stark contrast to the men in their home countries, who they tended to describe as emotionally devastated and hypermasculine.
“I feel so safe around Korean men”, a Swedish woman said to me. “The men at home are like that [sexually] aggressive. They grope for me and try to have sex all the time. I do not like it.”
A certain type of man tends to appear in romantic K-drama. They are usually portrayed as well-groomed, romantic and gentle – a type of masculinity that is sometimes called “soft” masculinity. As Korean researcher Joanna Elfving-Hwang explains:
Some of the tourists actually found their ideal partner, got married and settled in South Korea. Their pictures and stories circulated among some of the other tourists, which gave them hope that they too would find and marry a Korean man.
However, these success stories were the exception, not the norm.
Most of the tourists I interviewed and kept in touch with left the country somewhat disappointed. Some managed to get a short fling with a man; but in most cases these relations disappeared – extremely difficult to maintain at a long distance -.
Other tourists left South Korea completely abandoned: the men they met were nothing like the K-drama actors they had seen on TV.
Interestingly, whether they left the country only partially satisfied or demoralized, many of the women I interviewed were adamant about their desire to one day fall in love with a Korean man. They thought they were simply unlucky this time – that it was still possible to meet the perfect man during a future visit to South Korea.
The power of the media to move
2020, after South Korean film director Bong Joon Ho won a Golden Globe for his film “Parasite”, he said“Once you overcome the 1-inch barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing movies.”
To me, these K-drama fans who became tourists – and their longing for Korean men – signify the power of media from other cultures to move viewers not only emotionally, but also physically. Researchers have documented how some Japanese take trips to the UK after seeing British period dramas; other researchers have studied how anime has spurred American tourism to Japan.
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With entertainment from other cultures increasingly available via streaming platforms, I expect this type of media-inspired tourism to become even more common. Movies and TV series set in other countries can arouse a viewer’s curiosity about distant cultures, new sounds and exotic foods.
But as my research shows, they can also inspire fantasies about love and romance that do not always have a happy ending.
Author: Min Joo Lee – Guest Lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies, Wellesley College