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Wendy Gan | Longreads | October 2019 | 19 minutes (4,746 words)
If anyone had told me five years ago that I would become a Kpop fan, I would have laughed in their face. If anyone had told me I would be actually be learning life lessons from a Kpop idol, I would have been even more incredulous. I am in my mid-40s, 20 years into an academic career, a responsible mortgage-payer, and a survivor of a dysfunctional family. I am also in perimenopause, which might help explain why life has taken such a strange turn.
I had never heard of perimenopause before, but when a nexus of rather odd physical symptoms from arthritis to sleeplessness to abnormal spikes of anxiety began to plague me, I started to wonder if a new rhythm to my monthly cycle was to blame. Some research revealed potential connections, and the rather sobering piece of information that this shaky run-up to full-blown menopause could very well last up to eight years. If 52 is the average age when most women reach menopause, I would have, quite likely, a good seven years more of this hormonal instability and its physical repercussions to both endure and manage. While I am sure there are worse cases out there, I often do not feel quite myself, and it is disconcerting to say the least. The body that you used to take for granted begins to call attention to itself with various aches and pains, or with strange happenings, like a sudden rush of adrenalin that keeps you awake at night wondering why your heart is pumping with such fury. A work meeting that you would normally take in your stride begins to cause an unusual amount of consternation. Even meeting an old friend for a catch-up can leave you feeling nervous and on edge. Then there are the weeping fits. A sweet animal rescue video as you scroll through Twitter makes you keen in despair. A soppy ending to a television drama makes you sob as if it were the end of your life. And in the midst of the crying, something dislodges, sadness surges and sweeps over you, and it really does feel like the end of your life.
Did I say perimenopause was disconcerting? To be frank, it has been maddening. And hormone-induced depressions (thank you, perimenopause) that hit me unpredictably each month do little to help. Only Kpop keeps me sane.
The last time I was this into music I was an angsty teenager. I collected the vinyl albums of my favorite indie bands, stayed up late to tape John Peel’s BBC World Service radio show (my only public and free source of alternative music in Singapore), and feverishly and gratefully read copies of the New Musical Express that a well-off classmate shared with the few of us in class who were into this genre. Becoming an indie kid had come as a surprise. No one in my family was a music-lover, and in my early teens, my taste in popular music was strictly mainstream. I was a conservative, church-going, middle-class Singaporean girl — bright, earnest, with hardly a rebellious bone in my body. I was happy to be part of the swooning teeny-bopper herd. But at 15 something shifted. I was seeking out a different group of girls, hankering after other kinds of conversations, wanting something … something to match the emotional intensity I could feel brewing inside me. There was no guide to be found, so I was merely led by my instincts and serendipity. Luckily, the new friends I had begun to make — friends whom I had gravitated towards because I vaguely recognized something kindred in them — led me to the world of indie music. The music was a revelation and a lifesaver. All that unexpressed intensity within now had an outlet in the wail of Morrissey of The Smiths, or the discordant guitars of Throwing Muses. I found a soundtrack for the chaos inside. Sometimes it soothed, sometimes it spoke for me — perhaps by speaking for me, it soothed me. This music defined me just as I was struggling to define myself.
Now, my perimenopause soundtrack is Kpop — slick, catchy, carefully manufactured South Korean popular music designed to please the masses. For someone whose definitive years were shaped by the less mainstream sounds of alternative pop and rock, this is rather galling to admit, but here I am. What is perhaps odder is that my love of music has returned; for most of my adult life before this, music had been non-existent. I had grown tired of keeping up with the latest bands, and besides, the newer songs never sounded as good as those of my youth. Music had shepherded me towards adulthood and when I needed it no longer, I put it aside. I was thankful; I would always love The Smiths, the Pixies, Throwing Muses, but I had moved on. It would take another hormonal upheaval to make me reach for music again. Though this time, it was not musical dissonance that I yearned for but a palliative.
I must confess that even in my snobbiest indie music days, I had always loved pop music. Publicly I sneered; inwardly I bopped to the irresistible hooks. Pop music in its commercial glory is an unadulterated joy. Pure sugar to my ears, it lets sweetness seep into me, lifting my mood. For the really rocky perimenopausal days, only the most upbeat Kpop will do. With melodies that shape-shift in ways that astonish and sometimes bewilder me, Kpop keeps my unsettled mind away from the seething darkness inside me and occupied with, well, something light. It helps too that the genre is more than just about the music. It is a highly visual medium with bold, expensively produced videos that tantalise, and, in keeping with the importance of social media in the 21st century, it is a YouTube rabbit hole. This is especially enticing on days when you do not want to be found. Find yourself drawn to a particular Kpop group and want to learn more about them? There are fan-made compilation videos on YouTube that provide a quick primer on each member (and given the tendency for Kpop groups to be large, there are lots of members to get to know). There are also the reality shows that the Korean entertainment companies produce featuring their artists playing games, travelling to holiday destinations, or just accomplishing some sort of silly mission that will ensure laughs and good fun. Fascinated by the sharp choreography in a music video? Then there are performance videos and dance practices to watch, live performances on music shows to compare, compilations of the hardest Kpop dances out there, lists of the best Kpop dancers in the business, and compilations of their best performances. You can lose days of your life this way, but that is part of the pleasure. If my adolescent hormonal imbalances had been about defining myself, this phase felt more about avoiding myself.
I am now 46, one year into the perturbations of perimenopause. It is a Sunday in Hong Kong, where I now live, and I have gone for a walk. I have learned that exercise helps. My walk is desultory, aimless, but suddenly something comes back to me.
There are secret, magical spaces in Hong Kong. One night seven years ago, trailing a small stream of people through what looked like an entrance for an industrial wharf, I wandered into one such place. It looked like a workman’s site — rough, unpromising, presumably unsafe for the ordinary passer-by. Yet, there were elderly couples, solo dog-walkers, even sometimes families with small children walking in without a care. They seemed to know something I didn’t.
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Curious and emboldened by their nonchalance, I entered into an amber-lit industrial playground. There were rusty containers in red and blue, like Lego blocks, a pile of large plastic barrels, scattered wooden palettes, some flung onto the concrete as if abandoned by an angry toddler, others stacked in a tower, Jenga blocks arranged for a giant to come and play with. I began to catch sight of ships moored — large cargo tankers, bobbing slowly up and down in the water, tired slumberers after many months at sea. The breeze picked up; I could smell the sea. It was surreal to trespass on this space. And yet, everyone else there was strolling along as if they were in a neighborhood park.
I rounded a sharp corner and from there I could see the U-shaped design of the wharf. Standing on the bend of that U, I marvelled at the glistening waters and the view. But there was still the other arm of the U, and I could see figures there outlined against a dark, velvety sky. From where I stood, the view seemed already incredible. I picked up my pace.
That last stretch … to your left, the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island are arrayed like silent watchers; to your right, the distant hills and buildings of Kowloon and the stunning, necklace-like bridge to Lantau Island. The way ahead — lit by a row of street lights, strange sentinels — leads to nothing but the open sea, a shifting, sinuous ink-black sea. You can make out the outlines of an island here and there. The bright lights of some of the settlements on the larger islands glimmer mysteriously. A large island ferry sails across the scene. A small fishing boat zips across, bouncing off the waves. A wild wind whips through your clothes. You stand right on the edge — there are no railings, no barriers. There is nothing to stop you from stepping off the edge and walking straight into the sea. I felt unbound, exhilarated. Then I went home and promptly forgot about it all.
Now, in the middle of a walk, it all comes back to me and I wonder if the wharf is still there; if anything has changed since that night. It is a Sunday afternoon and I soon spot the steady stream of people filing through the entrance. It looks forbidding as usual. I slip in.
It is still splendid — a rough, industrial wasteland full of strange beauty. Now, in addition to the barrels, palettes, and containers, are stacks and stacks of bamboo poles. They are carelessly arranged, but still look as artful and mesmerising as an installation in a gallery. The Instagram generation is out in full force. (I later learn online that the wharf has garnered a new name: Instagram Pier). Who could blame them? It is such a remarkable place that I myself become busy with taking photographs on my phone, all the while listening to Kpop. A burst of creative energy pulses through me. For a hot summer’s day, the breeze is strong and refreshing and I feel my spirits lift. I have been so taken with photographing the accidental beauties of wharf life that I had forgotten the gloriousness of the view of the open sea. It is waiting for me, that wide expanse of nothing and everything. I march down the concrete runway until I stand on the edge, letting the wind shake me down. My dress flutters purposefully, like a flapping wing. I feel free.
Before that day, I had not realized how unfree I had been feeling. The revelation surprised me. My parents, unlike the stereotypical Asian parents, had given me a great deal of latitude in choosing my major and my eventual career. There was no uproar, no emotional blackmail, not even a raised eyebrow when I decided to study English literature at university. Likewise, they didn’t bat an eyelash when I wanted to do a PhD. Becoming an academic was something I chose for myself.
But before I wanted to be a university professor I had wanted to be a writer. With student loans to pay, however — and a father who had just been made bankrupt, and whom I had to help support financially, on top of my own uncertainties about what kind of writer I was — academia seemed a good solution. I would get to live a life of the mind, a life focused on reading and writing, and it would pay the bills. The work would not be creative exactly, but I convinced myself I was better suited to academic writing. I am not really a poet, though I have written and published poems, nor do I have the story-telling instincts of a novelist. I have always been drawn to essays and non-fiction (my PhD dissertation was on women essayists), but 20 years ago, I had never heard of creative nonfiction. I had no conception that one could just write essays without having been a novelist or poet first. Journalism never crossed my mind; it seemed part of the world of current affairs and politics and I had little interest in those fields. Going into academia thus made perfect sense.
But a university career as a professor had not been my original ambition, nor was academia itself exactly what I had hoped for. The space to reflect and write was already shrinking as I began life on the tenure-track. I made it work though, complying with the university’s demands of ‘publish or perish’, putting aside my misgivings about writing articles that still felt tenuous, that lacked the finesse I wanted. Even after being tenured, little changed. There was no let up; the publications still had to be rolled out and in quick succession. I had become a publishing robot in a university-turned-factory. I was a successful academic, and I was burning out.
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We often forget who we are as we journey through life. This is especially true if you tend to make pragmatic choices. The compromises I have made may have been small at first, a matter of a seemingly insignificant angle of divergence from my initial passions, but 20 years down this path I find myself astray, bewildered, having arrived at a destination I am not sure I really wanted. The business of adult life — livelihoods and careers, responsibilities and security — has turned the living of my life into a kind of business as well: revenue and expenditure, outputs and impact. I was sensing at last how I had let myself be warped. Improbably, it would take a Kpop idol to reconnect me to myself.
The irony of this is not lost on me. The Kpop industry is notorious for being a brutal pop music machine, but perhaps I needed to learn lessons from someone who has survived an industry more grueling than academia. The life of a Kpop idol is intense. Training can start when you are as young as 8 or 9, though most usually start in their mid-teens. Trainees attend classes, and are subject to regular evaluations of their singing, rapping, and dancing. If they have not yet fallen by the wayside from the rigors of the training and the cutthroat competition, they are shuffled in and out of groupings combining vocalists, dancers, rappers, and the striking beauties who will become the “visual” of the group. A trainee can be easily swapped out for another, just to get the chemistry right. No one is indispensable. Endure all these uncertainties and you might just be the latest idol sensation to be launched. But this is only the beginning. After debuting comes the glamour and grind of being a Kpop idol: the photo shoots, the recording of your album, the filming of the music video, the practicing of the intricate choreography to your title track, the performances on music-chart television shows, guest appearances on variety shows to draw attention to your group, events to develop relationships with your fans, sometimes even your own reality TV show.
All of this leaves little time to breathe. The Korean pop music industry thrives on frequency. The promotion cycle for each song is short and it is not unusual for a group to release two to three singles or even albums (mini or full) in a year, especially if they are not yet established. The idea is to keep the group in the public’s eye and hope that a song will be a breakout hit. There is, as a result, little respite. The pressure is on for them to make an impression on the public, because if they cannot do so within a few years, the prospects are not good. An entertainment company is not likely to keep investing in a group that does not gain traction. The groups who have achieved a measure of public recognition or gained a sizable fandom have things slightly easier, as there is less need to keep staging a “comeback” (as the Kpop industry lingo goes) more than once or twice a year, though they are not exempt from the stresses of the entire process of launching a new song. Successful groups also have live performance tours to fit into their schedules (important because this is a major revenue source for idols), on top of preparations for a new album and other individual gigs members may have picked up. Some branch out into acting; a few become variety show regulars, or guest on a few episodes of a reality television show; some DJ on radio shows. It is not uncommon for idols to subsist on as little sleep as an hour or two a day.
To be able to survive this bruising Kpop world without losing your sense of self is a major achievement. Enter Song Minho (also known by his stage name, Mino), lead rapper of the popular Kpop group Winner, who at the tender age of 26 has had two failed attempts at stardom, been exploited by an unscrupulous agency that denied him copyright of his own lyrics, and survived the trauma of a reality TV show produced by YG Entertainment to find their next boy group. Given the trainee system, any idol’s journey to stardom is difficult, but Mino’s journey has been especially epic.
In 2015, Mino joins a rap competition show, Show Me the Money 4. In the semi-finals, in a bleached buzz cut that makes him look like Eminem, he performs “Fear,” the song that will become the standout track of the series. It is deeply personal, the lyrics detailing the raw emotion of what it has felt like to travel thus far in his life. Given his success at becoming a part of a Kpop group under a major label, the song is not as celebratory as one might imagine. Instead, it is a catalogue of his insecurities and vulnerabilities, a monologue on steeling himself in spite of his fears to keep going, with an anguished plea to his father to tell him how to be an adult in a harsh world. Mino’s group, Winner, at this point, is in the middle of a long hiatus, which, in an industry that insists on frequent releases, is an ominous sign; the group’s future must have been precarious. Mino, who is fast becoming an expert participant in survival reality shows, is rapping about surviving in the biggest survival reality show of all: life, itself. There is no hip-hop braggadocio, only vulnerable bravery. The chorus, sung by YG label mate Taeyang of Big Bang in a thin but powerful wail, speaks of wanting to shut his eyes, wanting to stay silent out of fear, but forcing himself to keep his eyes wide open, to speak up in spite of his terror. Mino is afraid, but these emotions do not paralyze him; they propel him forward. The fear of not surviving trumps all other fears.
“Fear” has become an anthem for many; its honesty captures the uncertainties that South Korean youth feel in approaching a ruthless adult world. Are they strong enough to survive the fight for their future? Should they follow their dreams? How much sacrifice is too much? Rapping about the single-minded pursuit of his ambition to become an idol, Mino’s lyrics must certainly have resonated: “I dug in one spot so much I feared it would be my grave.” I am too old and too established to share these fears. Instead, what pulls me in is the unabashed emotional nakedness transmuted into song. Mino in “Fear” has dug so deep into himself he has found not death but life.
I was not a Kpop fan in 2015 when “Fear” put Mino on the map, so it was only when he was on It’s Dangerous Beyond the Blankets, a more recent, curious Korean reality show about celebrity introverts, that he caught my eye. The premise of the show is to bring a group of introverts together in a holiday home each weekend and watch them awkwardly interact. Mino arrives late one night for his appearance on the show, astonishing his new housemates with the amount of luggage he has brought for a one-night stay. Known to be a fashionista, he has packed a stylish array of clothes, including a purple jewelry box stuffed with gaudy baubles. His bags, however, are mostly taken up with his journals, cameras, and art materials. While he good-naturedly joins the others in outdoor group activities, he seems happiest when he is taking photographs or quietly sculpting with some clay. As he’s playing with a small lump, a three-eyed alien slowly materialises in his hands. He is only making a small, trifling piece, but his aura changes as he works the clay. He is tapping into himself, connecting with the strange recesses of his mind where tiny aliens live. I find this incredibly mesmerising. I become obsessed with Mino.
Developing a crush on an idol when I am old enough to be his mother is frankly embarrassing, but even the seemingly irrational has something to teach us if one cares to probe it. Yes, some of the attraction is physical: Mino is handsome and I am certainly not immune to his charms. Some of it is sheer admiration for how good he is at what he does: the versatile flows, the witty lyrics, his charisma on stage. I take pleasure in watching his sultry performances, in listening to the subtle rhythms of his raps and his word play. But it is really envy that draws me towards him, envy for that ease with which he inhabits his creative self.
Mino is first and foremost a wordsmith. Naturally, as a rapper, there are other facets to his artistry — his ability to ride a beat, to switch it up at will — but the care with which he crafts his lyrics suggests that words mean a great deal to him. His raps are dense with clever puns and allusions that often defy translation. He is the only Kpop artist I know whose fan translators have to insert multiple footnotes to explain the levels of meaning at play in his lyrics. I don’t understand Korean, and even with the help of some of the most intelligent volunteer translators out there, I am quite sure I am only capable of appreciating a fraction of his linguistic inventiveness. But even that little is enough to convince me that he is an astute wielder of words and rhythm. As a worker of words myself, I do enjoy this side to him, and I sometimes wonder if he feels the frustration of not being able to capture what he wants in language. Is this why he turns to the visual arts so often? For Mino has not only a way with words, he is also extraordinarily skilled as a visual artist. I have no feel for drawing at all, so this particular gift of his amazes me more than his wordsmithing. Caricatures, cartoons, black and white line drawings, surrealist sketches, enigmatic figures painted in acrylic and oils on canvas, even large-scale art installations — he has done them all and with panache. Even a sketch including random items suggested by fans — carrots, a trophy, a mountain — results in no odd assortment but a strangely captivating work. Drawing is a conduit to his unconscious mind and that ease of access makes each piece, even a throwaway one, distinctively and recognisably his.
Since realizing that I had sublimated my desire to write into academic discourse, I have attempted to return to writing. But the blank page would stare me down and, after a while, it became a mirror, reflecting the blankness I felt within. Academic literary criticism depends on a chosen primary text. If I study it enough, I will have something to say about it. This was what I was good at; this was what I had been trained to do. Creating my own body of work demanded I study myself, and this was much harder: I did not want to be an object of study. I was afraid to be. It might call into question choices I’ve made. There might be deep regrets. The process would not feel good. The path to that part of myself where I had anything real to say was blocked off from fear, but also from disuse. It had been many, many years since I had scrutinized myself; getting through adult life seemed to have depended on not examining my feelings too closely. Even as a youth, access to that emotional core had been patchy, available only through distress and depression. Now, after decades of neglect, it felt like a distant continent within myself, with a wide sea barring my way. What I recognized as I first watched Mino sculpt his little alien on that television show, and what I see each time I watch him draw or paint, is someone who lives on that continent of the hidden self as if it were as familiar as his bedroom. “Fear” showed me a Mino unafraid to admit his fears; his art-making showed me a Mino unafraid of his own unconscious. This man is fearless when it comes to digging deep into himself.
As a creative person, you need a certain intimacy with your unconscious self. I believe that Mino has survived the ragged ups and downs of his career precisely because he is attuned to, and equipped in, multiple ways to express his emotions and the repressed parts of his being. His lyrics for Winner’s songs are romance-related as befits a mainstream group, but there are occasional glimpses of a different reality in his solo material: his emotional exhaustion, frustrations with stalker fans and online critics, melancholy from the paradoxes of celebrity life. What he cannot quite articulate in words works its way into his visual art. His best pieces are surreal and enigmatic. A serene-looking figure is contorted as a balloon tied round his waist wafts ever upwards, almost breaking him in two. Yet another figure, whose head is like a cookie encrusted with coloured M&Ms, sits (as if for a portrait) looking at the viewer with doubtful eyes and a queasy smile. An otherwise bold and colorful painting of yellow twigs emerging snake-like out of a vermillion vase unnerves when you notice an eye calmly observing you from the center of the container. Even more curious is a random, drifting eyeball placed at an angle to the central eye. These are uneasy works that speak eloquently of what cannot perhaps be comfortably said.
As for me, what I cannot say has been too long left unsaid. When I chose to be a pragmatic adult and entered academia, I muted a part of myself. That is why entering perimenopause has felt like a reckoning as well as a period of mourning. It has pulled me up short and made me realize how wildly unhappy I am, in spite of all external signs of success. It has shown me how muteness does not become me. The difficulty is that after having lived one way for 20 years, change is hard. Digging deep is unpleasant; learning to speak again is painful. Kpop has been my candy-colored distraction from the angst of feeling trapped, but it has also, in the person of Mino, rather unexpectedly led me to a glimmer of an answer.
Going back to writing has been terrifying, but learning from Mino, I have been exploring other creative arts — embroidery, tapestry, sewing. I am following these threads until they lead me out of the labyrinth of my old self; I am weaving my way back to that distant continent within myself, and I am playing Kpop as I journey.
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Wendy Gan is a writer and academic based in Hong Kong.
Editor: Sari Botton
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Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
An Introduction to Death
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl
Elegy in Times Square
Every Day I Write the Book
Johnny Rotten, My Mom, and Me
Everything is Fine
Bracing for the Silence of an Empty Nest
To Grieve Is to Carry Another Time
Game of Crones
Father’s Little Helper
Conversations with My Loveliest
What is Happening to My Body?
Keeping my Promise to Popo
Hello, Forgetfulness; Hello, Mother
Old Dudes on Skateboards
I’m 72. So What?