Is Asian identity even a thing? Who cares, pass the popcorn for K-drama

Canada·First Person

Alone at home during the pandemic, writer Jan Wong shares why she can’t stop watching Korean Netflix, and what it taught her about being "Asian" in Canada.

Alone at home during the pandemic, writer Jan Wong shares why she can’t stop watching Korean shows on Netflix, and what it taught her about being "Asian" in Canada. (Nicole Jang)

Here's my COVID-19 confession: I'm addicted to Korean Netflix.

To be clear, I'm not Korean. As a third-generation Canadian, I'm barely Chinese.

Not that hate-criminals can tell the difference. During the pandemic, they indiscriminately stab, sucker-punch and spit on Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Chinese Canadians alike. This month, Bloomberg declared Vancouver the anti-Asian hate crime capital of North America.

Ottawa lumps us together, too. Asian Heritage Month (May) is the federal government's equivalent of: "You all look alike." It's as absurd as designating a European Heritage Month, as if the French, Brits, Poles, and Germans haven't — like Asians — spent centuries invading one another.

Asians usually stay in our silos. Some Toronto Asian grocery stores even segregate Chinese soy sauce in a different aisle from Japanese soy. To break down barriers, I recently co-founded the Asian Canadian Women's Alliance to speak with one voice when, say, some white dude in Atlanta hate-shoots eight people, including six Asian women.

In lockdown, two members of our group — neither of them Korean — recommended Netflix's and . Twelve years of living in Beijing did not make me a fan of Chinese cinema, which was predictable and propagandistic. So I was dubious about Korean shows.

But is an irresistible binge-worthy drama about a spoiled South Korean heiress who accidentally paraglides into the demilitarized zone. I was hooked, especially after learning the screenwriters included a North Korean defector.

I loved , too, an action drama about a Korean adoptee-consigliere to an Italian mafia family.

To date, Netflix has invested $1.2 billion USD in Korean films, including $500 million this year for original content. K-dramas are suspenseful, romantic and comedic, with a fistful of taekwondo and male leads who all cry. To accommodate audience feedback, K-dramas are filmed and aired in the same week, with some actors on IV drips to counter dehydration.

K-dramas can take 10 engrossing episodes to get to a closed-mouth kiss. Compare that to Netflix's , a Regency romance drama, with rutting in episode one. K-series' drawn-out romance and zero nudity enable it to flood the Middle East, China, Japan, and even Bollywood, where they are dubbed into Hindi, Tamil and Urdu. Indian viewership for Korean Netflix nearly quadrupled in 2020 over the previous year. Audiences find the fresh modern settings combined with traditional family values relatable, according to an Indian sociologist Otojit Kshetrimayum.

Last year, the South Korean black comedy thriller claimed the ultimate prize, winning the Oscar for best picture. Director Bong Joon-Ho used the moment to chide the North American movie-going audience's aversion to the "one-inch tall barrier of subtitles." K-dramas' popularity outside of Korea shows that languages aren't a barrier — at least for other Asian markets.

North Koreans are obsessed, too, but the penalty for watching smuggled DVDs is, um, death. (The current dictator's dad once kidnapped a South Korean star and her director ex-husband in a vain attempt to invigorate North Korean films.)

K-drama has changed the way she feels about herself, said Jan Wong, pictured at her Toronto home on May 14, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Listen, I do adore Netflix series about Orthodox Jews, Turkish hitmen and all-American drug lords in the Ozarks. But none of them tug at my heartstrings like ones showing Asians with other Asians — not even Canadian sitcoms like which is brilliant and funny but not relatable to me, because after 140 years of my family being in Canada, I'm not remotely connected to the immigrant experience.

Millennials, computers and Silicon Valley are three topics that leave me cold, but I'm currently loving set in Korea's high-tech industry. The leading man calls to mind Jane Austen's arrogant Mr. Darcy. And the food! I laughed out loud when his romantic interest walked into a bar and ordered "a bottle of soju and pork cartilage."

K-Netflix has changed the way I feel about myself. I didn't grow up in Montreal feeling Asian men were attractive, but these male leads are hot. Like me, the female leads have straight black hair, dark eyes, slim builds. Most gratifying of all, they're beautiful despite lacking cleavage.

As an invisible visible minority, I finally feel seen. In a weirdly comforting way, we do all look alike.


Jan Wong is a journalist and author in Toronto. Her most recent book is Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China.

    Illustration by Nicole Jang, a Chinese Canadian illustrator and designer from Vancouver.

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