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How K-dramas and K-pop made me, and many others, OK in a not OK year

By Don Carreon Published Dec 31, 2020 12:50 am Updated Feb 17, 2021 9:55 pm

I found myself crying uncontrollably one time this year. My wife was surprised. I did not really cry during our wedding and broke down for just a bit when my mother died a few years ago, so my sudden waterworks were unusual.

Because this time, I was heaving. And sobbing. The trigger? An episode of the 2015 South Korean drama, “Reply 1988.” Episode 17, to be exact.

I used to thumb my nose at K-dramas. But “Reply 1988” converted me into a passionate fan, with its scenes of community and friendship providing a warm reminder of the connections disrupted by the pandemic. But its most impactful scenes to me were those involving the parents. I felt myself relating more to them having a child of my own. Turning 36 this year also partly contributed to my kinship with those parents. After all, I’m now closer to 50 than 20.

Giving up on a dream
One scene in particular hit me hard.
It was a talk between the female lead, who was struggling in school, and her father. The daughter shared her fear of disappointing her family if she failed to get into college, and her shame of not knowing what career to have. The father assured his daughter that as long as she gives her best, he can never be angry with her and that she will eventually figure out what path to take. The daughter then asked her father what his dreams were. The father admitted that working at a bank was not what he wanted, but he had to do it to support his family. His dream now is for his children to be happy and healthy.

Reply 1988 is set in the titular year and revolves around the story of five friends and their families living in one neighborhood

That was it. That was the scene that left me briefly crying uncomfortably. The father’s sentiment was something I shared. I gave up my own dream to be a full-time journalist because life happened. Journalism was demanding and I wasn’t making the cut. I decided to get a more financially rewarding job. I’ve learned to accept this in the decade since I left the media industry, but I still have my what-if moments every now and then, which makes me take these writing gigs at times. I guess the pandemic made me more vulnerable to that tender exchange. In any case, I was thankful to have bawled at that scene. It was an incredibly tough time and unloading some pent-up emotions was helpful. As another popular K-drama gently encouraged, it's ok not to be ok.

As I asked around, I discovered there were many people like me.

Down the rabbit hole
Healthcare industry recruiter Ambia Abolucion was getting restless after the government imposed the lockdown in March to control the pandemic. To help ease her concerns, she went online to check how other countries were managing the crisis. She has been hearing that South Korea’s response was among the best and she wanted to know more. Google led her to a video of how a team of elite soldiers and civilian doctors sent on a peacekeeping mission were trying to contain an outbreak of a deadly virus. That clip was from the 2016 hit K-drama “Descendants of the Sun.”

Abolucion had been a fan of Korean dramas or K-dramas in the early 2000s, but stopped watching shows due to work and other personal demands. The clip pulled her back into becoming a K-drama fan.

“After watching that, I backtracked and went back to episode one to see how they ended up there. I ended up finishing the series in less than 24 hours. I got pulled back in this rabbit hole again,” she said.

Corny and cheap

Rej Pascua said K-dramas helped her cope while the lockdown kept her away from daughter Ohana

Rej Pascua, who works for an outsourcing company, hasn’t been in that rabbit hole before. She used to look down on Korean dramas as inferior to the US shows she was accustomed to.

“Nakokornihan ako. Ang cheap naman niyan. May ganun akong perception dati,” Pascua said.

But with little to do while stuck at home during the pandemic and curious about the hosannas being sung on Facebook for “Crash Landing on You”, a romantic comedy about an heiress and a North Korean soldier, she relented and gave it a try.

Start pa lang ng episode one hindi ko na matigil. Natapos ko in two nights. Tapos hindi ako maka move on so nag-research ako ng top 20 Korean dramas,” she said.

Rabbithole, meet Pascua.

But she, Abolucion, and I were not the only ones this year who fell into this hole or were gobbled up by this South Korean pop culture wave or “Hallyu.” There have been many others before, but the pandemic this year fuelled a more substantial growth.

'Shocking' spike
iPrice Group, a Southeast Asian e-commerce aggregator based in Malaysia, released a
study in June on the online search behaviour of Filipinos that showed tremendous interest in South Korean dramas during the lockdown. Among the key findings of the study was the “shocking” spike in searches for a number of South Korean dramas.

The study found that searches for “Itaewon Class”, a story of an ex-convict's successful effort to topple a food empire whose owner wronged his father, surged 9,990% compared to two months before the lockdown. Searches for “Reply 1988” ballooned by 456%. Searches for “Crash Landing on You” were already sliding from its peaks after its final episode aired in February, but again leaped by 105% after the enhanced community quarantine was implemented.

On September 25, the UP Korea Research Center (KRC) held a webinar to discuss the success of Hallyu in the Philippines. It was titled “Korea Landed on You”, a playful nod to the show that brought Hallyu crashing back into the country this year.


Erik Paolo Capistrano, an associate professor from the UP Virata School of Business and Principal Investigator of UP KRC, was among the panellists in that webinar. His credentials include several published studies on South Korea’s economy, relations with the Philippines and Hallyu consumer behavior. And, he is also the administrator of Soshified Philippines, an online fan community dedicated to K-pop group Girls’ Generation.

Additional boosts
In an email, Capistrano attributed the resurgence in popularity of South Korean pop culture offerings in the country this year to a confluence of factors, primary of which is the heavy use of social media.

“Intensified use of social media has been a key factor in the internationalization of Hallyu content, starting with YouTube, and then Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And allowing K-pop idols and K-drama actors and actresses to have Instagram accounts intensified it all the more,” he said

Crash Landing on You was the most searched K-drama on Google this year

Capistrano added that the rise of streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify also made Hallyu content more accessible, while growing interest among local influencers and celebrities gave these South Korean imports additional boosts among local consumers.

These make it unsurprising for South Korean imports to catch the attention of companies looking to get a lift during one of the most challenging business environments in the past few decades.

Among the biggest splashes this year was made by telecommunications firm Smart, which tapped Park Seo Joon of Itaewon Class, and Son Hye Jin and Hyun Bin of Crash Landing on You to star in its commercials. Not to be outdone, rival Globe recently dropped its own Hallyu bomb with an announcement that K-pop megastars Blackpink will be its own pitchladies. E-commerce Lazada joined the party by pairing Filipina actress Kathryn Bernardo with Lee Min Ho to promote a major sale activity. These choices were greeted online by hansamida from fans.

A sense of comfort
Some smaller entrepreneurs are also riding on this wave.

In the town of San Juan, Abra, nurse Jessa Bautista started offering South Korean goods in her sari-sari store in May, wagering that others like her who have gotten hooked on K-dramas would like to try the food items they’ve been seeing on screen. The quarantine made it difficult to travel to Baguio, which was about four hours away and where she got her fix. But Bautista was able to find a supplier to bring South Korean goods to her town. Her bet paid off.

Malakas yung mga mga Korean products, yung ramyun tsaka side dishes. Gusto nila i-try yung soju kasi parang ang sarap-sarap daw kasi tinutungga lang sa mga napapanood nila. Ngayon meron na akong iba-ibang flavors,” she said.

Jessa Bautista shows her South Korean goods in San Juan, Abra, a town about nine hours away from Manila.

While Hallyu content has provided a welcome boost to businesses heavily impacted by the pandemic, it has provided something of greater value to some individuals—a sense of comfort during this difficult time.

Diagnosed with a depressive disorder in 2004, Abolucion estimated that she watched about 50 K-dramas from March to June to help her cope.

I found them at the right time. It hit close to home. Back then it was taboo to talk about mental health issues. I found comfort that someone understands and shares that struggle. There was a time I did not do what to do anymore. I was working but I was uncertain about the future. BTS’ songs were uplifting and comforting. They gave me an insurmountable amount of joy.

“Watching K-dramas was nice. It was a quick escape from reality. Hindi mo napapansin na lumilipas oras. While doing chores, I was watching. While eating, I was watching,” she said.

Aside from K-dramas, Abolucion also became a fan of global K-pop group BTS after discovering that they openly talk about their own personal struggles in their songs.

“I found them at the right time. It hit close to home. Back then it was taboo to talk about mental health issues. I found comfort that someone understands and shares that struggle. There was a time I did not do what to do anymore. I was working but I was uncertain about the future. BTS' songs were uplifting and comforting. They gave me an insurmountable amount of joy,” she said.

Lessons and sacrifices
Pascua is similarly thankful for the respite provided by K-dramas, sharing that the lockdown brought an unexpected difficulty. Her three-year-old daughter was then visiting relatives in Cavite, while she was in their home in Pasig. When the lockdown was implemented, her daughter could not go back and they stayed apart for three months. One K-drama that helped her release emotions was “Hi Bye, Mama!”, which was about a ghost brought back to life to settle unresolved matters with her family.

Hi Bye, Mama! tells the story of a mother who was reincarnated after a tragic accident

“Sobrang laki ng naitulong niya nitong pandemic. It kept me sane. With 'Hi, Bye Mama!', iyak ako nang iyak. Sobrang nakakarelate ako. Naisip ko anong gagawin ko pag hindi ko mahawakan yung anak ko in real life,” she said.

Pascua also deeply enjoyed “Reply 1988” for its focus on family, friendship and growing up, finding herself identifying with the show’s teenagers and their parents.

Pareho yung experiences ko in having close childhood friends who we lose paglaki because may different paths na. May lessons din sa sacrifices ng parents na hindi natin alam for their children,” she said.

Timeless themes
Capistrano said South Korea’s entertainment industry’s effectiveness in producing high quality content that tackles timeless themes have made these refreshing to local consumers. This is a big reason Filipinos have embraced these as a break from the dreariness of the pandemic.

“Our brains and our spirits yearn for something significantly different from what we experience day in and day out that causes us necessary and unnecessary stress and fatigue. And for some reason, listening to K-pop music and watching K-dramas effectively provide that significant difference we yearn for,” he added.

We need to listen to something that is empowering, soothing, or reassuring. We need to watch something that is relatable, but not too ‘in-your-face’ in the delivery. Even the cheesiest or the most cringeworthy of K-drama scenes and dialogues aren’t really that ‘in-your-face’ compared to other content.

Capistrano said that Hallyu content producers are able to package these messages so they would still feel fresh. “We need to listen to something that is empowering, soothing, or reassuring but not too heavy on the message delivery. We need to watch something that is relatable, but not too serious or not too ‘in-your-face’ in the delivery as well. Even the cheesiest or the most cringeworthy of K-drama scenes and dialogues aren’t really that ‘in-your-face’ compared to other content.”

Capistrano believes that this 2020 phenomenon has staying power. He noted that the September webinar was a serious discussion on Hallyu and yet it drew in 200 people who actively participated in the exchanges, which shows the deepening fandom of Filipinos. He added that original supporters hold much sway today, but the next generation of fans are also on their way to developing the financial muscle to support the sustainability of Hallyu in the Philippines.

“It is, and will remain, a trend, at least in the foreseeable future. Those who were considered as “first-generation” fans – the literal and figurative ‘titos’ and ‘titas’ of K-pop and K-drama fans, now have greater buying power to make commercially beneficial decisions,” he said.

Hallyu tita
One such Hallyu tita is freelance writer Venus Zoleta, who rediscovered her love for K-dramas during the pandemic after stopping a decade ago due to her hectic work schedule. Watching K-dramas was an opportunity to bond with her husband in place of their usual movie dates. She sees it being a regular part of their routine even after the pandemic has passed.

“Actually, marami na akong nakalistang papanoorin. Marami pala kaming hindi pa napapanood. Meron din ako mga napanood dati gusto ko i-rewatch. Magiging long-term siya,” she said.

When people look back at 2020, most will probably remember it as the year that should not be repeated, a time when a lot of things that couldn't go wrong, actually did. Many think pieces will come out about the legacies of this pandemic and there will be many.

During this difficult year, the author said that watching K-dramas helped him come to terms with the decisions he made in his life for him and his family.

But somehow during the height of this terrible year, when some of us thought that this might be the end, some drew strength, got a sense of joy, a brief respite and wonderful insights from those South Korean TV shows, movies, music which we needed one-inch subtitles to understand.

How you like that, Hallyu fans?