Falling deeply in love with BTS in 2019 opened the door for me to enjoy other aspects of Korean culture. When I’d tell people that I was a BTS fan, the next question I’d get is which Korean dramas I watched. Thanks to Netflix and recommendations from friends, I gave one a try. Now almost two years later, I have found the TV genre that speaks to me in so many ways and that makes me, a 35 year old Black Canadian lady, feel seen. Some of the best television I’ve ever watched have been Korean dramas.
I grew up watching soaps. Most people born in the 80’s have stories of watching Young and the Restless or Days of Our Lives with mothers and grandmothers as a child. On summer vacations where I’d spend the day at my grandparent’s house, our entire day revolved around the soaps — All My Children at 1 p.m., Passions or As the World Turns at 2 p.m. (I preferred Passions, my grandma ATWT), Guiding Light at 3 p.m. and Y&R at 4:30 p.m. Most of the time, the shows were on in the background. We’d chat, do other things, miss a few episodes but we could always catch up and quickly figure out what was going on. They were a master class in storytelling. Characters had decades worth of storylines and relationships, new characters were introduced, family dynamics were complicated and constantly changing and we kept watching. When my grandmother got sick, even from her hospital bed she’d ask me what was happening on AMC. Growing up on the soaps gave me a love of long form storytelling, a slow burn romance and epic love stories.
Korean dramas quickly pulled me in because they have all of the tropes I’ve grown up loving. Immediately they felt familiar. I watched Romance is a Bonus Book and Itaewon Class and enjoyed them. I liked the storylines, the cute boys and the fashions. They were cute. Then last summer in the days when it felt like lockdown would never end, my mother came across an article on Apple News (older ladies love Apple News) about Crash Landing on You.
And that changed everything.
In short, Crash Landing on You is about a rich, successful South Korean businesswoman who gets in a paragliding accident and ends up in North Korea where she meets a handsome soldier. Throughout the 16 episodes in the season, the two leads, Yoon Ser-Ri and Ri Jung Hyuk, go through so many adventures together trying to get Ser-Ri back to the South without anyone finding out how she ended up in the North all while falling in love. I became invested instantly for two main reasons, the writing and the acting. The premise of Crash is ridiculous but the show leaned in to that ridiculousness so well, it felt like as the viewer you were in on the joke. They took all of the tried and true romance tropes — a crazy meet cute (he literally finds her in a tree), enemies to lovers, a fiancé in the way, family members in the way and of course being from two countries currently at war with each other and made them modern and fun.
I was hooked from the beginning. I loved how independent and flirty Ser-Ri was. I loved how Jung Hyuk tried to act all tough and like he didn’t care about Ser-Ri but she’d say something, or do something cute and his face would just crack open and everything he felt about her was in his eyes. A lot of time the two of them didn’t even have to say anything to each other, their chemistry was electric. It makes sense that the two actors are dating in real life.
Every evening, my mother and I would sit together and watch an episode. Some episodes were as long as an hour and a half, entirely in Korean, but it didn’t matter. It was so fun trying to figure out what twists and turns the story would take and it was even better that most of the time I couldn’t tell where the story was going. I write and read a lot of fiction, I understand how stories are structured but Crash went places I never expected. It never felt stupid. We never rolled our eyes at any twists or turns in the story since from the beginning it was so far-fetched, we were along for the ride from episode one. For me, the slow burn romance hit me so hard. There were multiple times during the season where I just wept. Not just cried, but wept. There was even a point I looked at my mother and said “No one will ever love me.”
That’s good storytelling.
I love a slow burn romance. Whether it’s in a novel or a show, watching a couple go from enemies to friends to lovers is so fun, especially when you know they’re in love and are going to end up together but the characters don’t know it yet. In Crash there were so many romantic moments that were quiet and simple — the captain putting a blanket over Ser-Ri, the way he protected her from danger, taking bullets for her, putting his life in danger all without even admitting he had feelings for her. I kept thinking that in American shows, by episode three they would have already made out. Meanwhile, they didn’t kiss for real until probably episode ten. On Crash, and the other K-dramas I’ve watched, the romance is not about the physical — it’s about two people forming an emotional bond. As viewers we can assume they express how they feel physically but that’s not for us to see. Sex is implied and sometimes not even talked about and as someone that would want a romantic relationship most likely without the physical aspect, it’s very appealing.
Since Crash, my mother and I have watched two more Korean dramas that have hooked us just as much — Start Up and Because This is My First Life. And now after watching dramas that have emotionally wrecked me, there’s something I’ve noticed about them that sets them apart from the Western TV shows I’m familiar with. As a 35 year old woman that still lives at home and does not date, in Korean dramas I feel represented on screen.
It is not unusual for men and women in K dramas to be in their 30’s and have absolutely no dating experience. It’s normal for grown men and women to act awkwardly around each other, not know how to speak to each other or even admit they have romantic feelings. Sex is hardly mentioned, barely even alluded to. If it happens, it happens off screen or is never talked about at all. At the same time, the dramas I’ve watched have been very romantic, with the leads having chemistry and falling in love. Most of the dramas ended in a marriage.
Most of the female main characters are in their early to late thirties just trying to figure things out, whether it’s their career or finding a relationship. No one blinks twice if she’s never dated before, or even never kissed someone before. It’s perfectly normal — while on Western television shows it’s completely unheard of. As a woman in her mid-thirties that lives at home and hasn’t dated, it feels so affirming to watch K dramas and see parts of my life reflected as normal. It makes me feel like somewhere in the world the way I’m living isn’t strange. But I’m not focusing on the women — the main thing that’s hit me in the heart is the men.
I will use the example of Nam Do-San from Start-Up, a character I recently fell deeply in love with. Without giving too much of the plot away, Do-San is a computer engineer that has to work with a team to create a successful start-up company. When we first meet Do-San he’s got long hair that falls in to his eyes, he keeps his head down and is soft spoken. Throughout the show we watch him become more confident, wearing suits and speaking up for himself. He had never dated before and we watch him fall in love with the lead woman. The romantic attraction was shown by hugs, holding hands, going on dates that included the girl’s grandma, watching each other sleep, long, lingering looks and simply telling each other “I like you.” That was enough. They were dating.
It’s the way I want to date.
I’ve found on Korean dramas men are allowed to be vulnerable and emotional. It’s not uncommon to see men in dramas bursting in to tears, pleading with a woman to stay, crying in public, or just being uncomfortable in the presence of a woman they are romantically interested in. Western shows portray straight men as confident alpha males that go after the woman they want, charm her and eventually have sex — then the relationship starts. It’s so refreshing to watch a straight man be unsure of how to speak or show how he’s feeling, to make mistakes, to apologize, to show his emotions. It allows the leading men to be vulnerable and gentle and safe — which attracts someone like me that hasn’t met many men that have those characteristics. I’ve become so emotionally attached to the male leads in Crash and Start-Up that every profession of love they uttered made me burst in to tears. It was pure. It allowed me to imagine what it would be like to be with someone like that.
Korean dramas give me the romance I love without the sex. I don’t need to see graphic sex scenes to understand that the main leads are romantically attracted to each other. It’s okay that at the mention of sex some of them act so scandalized even though they’re in their thirties. Western culture focuses so much on sex. There are so many television shows about teens navigating sex, adults having lots of sex on screen or talking about having sex. As a kid that grew up on 90’s and 2000’s media, I naturally assumed that I’d go to high school, meet a boy that I’d kiss and date to the horror of my parents that would be convinced we’d be having sex. I’d have a heart to heart with my parents, maybe get on the pill or get some free condoms in health class and then lose my dreaded virginity on prom night. Then I’d lead a life having lots of sex with lots of partners until I found a man to settle down and have kids with. It seemed like it was already written for me. But then I got to high school and boys didn’t like me. I went to the prom with a group of friends. I didn’t have sex until I was twenty and it was awkward, painful and short.
Now that I’m halfway through my thirties, sex in not a part of my life at all. I’m not sure it ever will be but I’m a hopeless romantic. I want to experience what it would be like for a man to love me. Korean dramas give me an example of what that could look like, particularly from a man that’s able to develop an emotional connection.
The plot lines are outlandish, sometimes silly. Things happen that would never happen in real life but the Korean dramas I’ve watched have been funny, heartwarming, thrilling and most of all fun.
Maybe the kind of men I’ve fallen in love with on the shows are just as fictional as the plot lines but they give me hope that I can find a happy ending too.