Kpop Music Monday #30: KAACHI, “Your Turn”

What is K-pop?

Is it as simple as pop music created by Koreans? (How would you reconcile this idea with the knowledge that many Korean pop songs were originally written by non-Koreans and then purchased and tailored for a Korean audience?)

Is it as simple as pop music that has been tailored for a Korean audience and sung in Korean? (How would you reconcile this with BTS’ latest track, “Dynamite,” a song written entirely in English?)

Is it as simple as pop music sung by Koreans? (How would you reconcile this with the fact that many K-pop groups feature members who are non-Korean, but almost always Asian, e.g. Thai, Japanese, Chinese?)

It’s time we talk about KAACHI.

KAACHI labels itself as the “UK’s first Kpop group” but only one member is Korean. This was their debut song.

The quality is pretty poor. The vocals are lacking, the dancing is lackluster, and it’s all just a bit too cringey for my taste.

All is not lost, however, as a YouTube creator by the name of Johnny reworked the song and made it sound much better.

And the girls weren’t upset, because they went on to give him a cameo in their comeback single, as seen below:

So… is KAACHI K-pop? I don’t think so. K-pop is a machine, and they’ve not been through the trials and tribulations that K-pop trainees go through that produces idols. It isn’t about singing in Korean, or having a Korean in the group, or making upbeat pop music, or wearing Korean brands–it’s about being part of the soul-eating machine that makes a group “K-pop.”

As someone who doesn’t like the fact that the music she’s been listening to for over ten years is produced on the backs of young teenagers and is known to break them down and eat them alive, maybe, just maybe, K-pop can learn from KAACHI to be a little more easy-going; to let their idols live a little more instead of always fighting tooth and nail for YouTube views and award show wins. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be flawed. We love our idols because they’re flawed, one of the most ironic things of all.

What do you guys think? What makes K-pop… K-pop?

Café Review: Ob-La-Di

Tucked away in a building just off a side street in Uijeongbu is Ob-La-Di café. My friend Nora and I had no idea what we were in store for when we popped in one Saturday, and were excited to find out that not only does the café serve coffee but also….

The outside of Ob-La-Di.

Wait for it…

Cereal. Breakfast cereal. And not just Frosted Flakes and Oreo O’s (readily available in Korea) but many American flavors, including a no-name-brand Fruity Pebbles and French Toast Crunch. (!)

Many brightly-colored cereal boxes taped to the ceiling

Empty cereal boxes are glued to the ceiling and the walls are full of shelves featuring Disney toys, some of which are for sale. There’s a neon sign of Peter Pan’s silhouette reading “Never Grow Up” and all of the tables and chairs are bright and colorful.

Neon green silhouette of Peter Pan’s side profile with “Never Grow Up” written in yellow neon inside

I ordered an iced americano which was excellent, and the aforementioned French Toast Crunch. For “service,” one of the two baristas stopped by our table with stickers and a sample of Frosted Wheaties. “Service” is a Konglish term that means being given something outside of what you ordered. In English we would say something like “it’s on the house.”

It’s definitely worth a stop if you’re feeling like a nostalgic afternoon snack.

They are open Monday through Saturday, 9am to 9pm.

Follow them on instagram: luv_obladi

Address: 경기 의정부시 호국로1310번길 8 1층 카페 오블라디

Taking a Cat to Korea: Merlin’s Story

When I noticed that the director, putting my bags into his car, was a little careless in tossing my backpack on top of the purple pet carrier that Merlin was hiding in, I realized something was off.

As it turned out, the director was never informed that I would be bringing a cat with me to Korea.

Merlin as a baby. Merlin is an all black cat with then-blue eyes and has a little shaved patch on his front paw from being in the hospital for several days. He is sitting next to a stuffed animal plushie of a squirrel, both on a white fleece blanket. The edges of the photo have been overlaid with some fancy black lace graphic.

I learned early on in my interviewing for teaching positions not to ask if it was okay that I would be bringing a cat with me. Recruiting companies are looking for red flags, and asking if the school-provided housing will allow pets is considered a red flag because it’s one more thing they have to worry about on their end.

I didn’t mention my cat to the recruiter I worked with until I had a job offer on the table. The person in Korea that my recruiter was working with took a few days and got back to me, saying that as long as I am responsible for any damage that Merlin does, that it’s okay I bring him. Merlin is a very well-mannered cat and doesn’t damage anything. The worst is that his fur sticks to the textured wallpaper when he rubs his face on corners, so I have to wipe that down occasionally.

Merlin, laying on top of me with his front paws outstretched, facing me.

My director wasn’t informed that I was bringing a cat and the reason for concern is that the other new teacher would be living with me for our week of training. I moved into a male teacher’s apartment while he moved in with the other male teacher who was leaving, and the other new female teacher would stay with me for a week before taking over the other male teacher’s apartment. If she happened to be allergic to cats, there would have been a problem, and had the director known,  he would have had to plan around it.

Luckily, she wasn’t allergic and Merlin just hid under the bed from her for that week. I’m also lucky in that it turns out the director has two cats of his own and we sometimes trade cute cat photos through KakaoTalk.

When I was figuring out how to take my cat with me to Korea, some people on the internet told me I was an idiot. I knew I was probably going to be staying longer than a year and knew that I would never regret taking him with me, but I would forever regret leaving him with someone. Merlin has been through a lot of shitty situations, having been a rescue from the streets when he didn’t even weigh a pound, to spending days in the hospital with some kind of infection, to living through a hoarding situation that he needed to be rescued from. He’s my fat cuddly buddy and I can’t imagine life without him.

All this said, I would not recommend bringing your cat if you only plan on staying a year, or if your cat is older. The flight is hard on even the toughest of cats. Merlin didn’t meow at all, just kept looking up at me with sad eyes, and threw up the little food that he had been given before we left. The girls beside me thought I was crazy until I told them I wasn’t just whispering into the void underneath the seat in front of me but that there was an actual animal there.

Merlin looking out the window of my apartment on our first night in Korea. There are a bunch of neon lights coming in through the window and he is behind some ugly curtains, sitting on a ledge next to an ugly pig statue that was left from the previous tenant.

So what do you need to do to travel with your cat? Well, first off: your cat needs a microchip and a rabies vaccination. The rabies vaccination was $40 at my vet and he waived the health check-up that would have been $32. You need a rabies titer test, which ran me $200 with a sedation and overnight stay costing $50. You also need a full health check-up within ten days of travel that has to be apostilled by the USDA. The vet initially thought he could turn in the health check-up results online on a Saturday, but when he realized he couldn’t, he had to mail the results in and wait for them to get back to us. There was a Monday holiday that week that pushed everything back, so it wasn’t until 9am the day before my flight that I got back that piece of paperwork. (And you may have read that I was so reluctant to let go of it, the customs officer had to tell me that it would only be valid for thirty days and I’d need a new one for travel again.)

At the airport, he cost me a one-way $200 fee. So a breakdown would be:

  • rabies vaccination: $40
  • health check-up: $32
  • rabies titer test: $200
  • overnight stay and sedation: $50
  • one-way in-cabin flight fee: $200
  • cost of mailing the health check-up to and from New York: $??

That’s roughly $600 to have Merlin travel in the cabin with me. If someone told me that it would cost that much, I would have probably cried and wondered where I’d get the money. I’m glad it was spread out over a few months, and no matter the cost: you make things work for the ones you love.

Merlin snuggled up in my gray and purple fleece jacket.

As far as how Merlin has adapted, he’s pretty resilient and adapted right away. I tried to switch him to tofu-based litter but that smelled bad, so I found a brand comparable to what he was using in the States. Although he was initially a touch fussy with the new Korean brand food, he still ate it, just more slowly than usual. He doesn’t like the Korean cat treats that come in a little squeeze pouch for them to lick, but several of my local marts stock Temptations brand and Friskies brand treats. (And my mom sends me Greenies brand treats for him, spoiled cat.) He usually sleeps with me in my bed or on the second-hand chair I have in my room, which is something that he scratches at occasionally even though he has a scratching post. He is probably looking forward to winter, when I turn on the floor heating, because last winter he loved sprawling on the heated floor and sleeping.

I have no regrets taking butthead to Korea with me. I hope he’s my kitty forever.

Kpop Music Monday #29: Lee Suhyun, “Alien”

Lee SuHyun already knows fame as part of Akdong Musician (aka AKMU), the brother/sister duo that took Korea by storm as winners of K-pop Star 2, a televised music competition. This time, she’s back as a soloist and her solo is a-freaking-dorable.

I love a lot here: the short blue hair, the rainbow sleeves, the simple yet effective choreography, that sparkly dress at the end of the video and the animated bits of the video. What really shines, however, is her heavenly vocals. Girl can hit the high notes with an ease Mariah Carey would envy.

I’m going to say it: this is probably my favorite release of 2020. I love all the credits that she gives at the end of the video, because it really does take a lot of people to create a music video.

Café Review: Orange Elephant

Situated north of the downtown cluster of Uijeongbu cafés (of which there are enough to caffeinate a modestly-sized writing group), and next to a beautiful park, is the Orange Elephant café.

View of a corner café called Orange Elephant, which features several panes of large windows. You can see my friend Nora leaning out the front door waving a peace sign.
Two tall glasses of iced drinks, one being milky and having long dark streaks of sugar in the glass and the other being an ombre iced americano, with a diner mug of black coffee in the middle just behind a plate with a lemon scone with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and some berry jam. Photo credit: Leonora Balajadia

When my friend and I visited, there were no other guests in the café. Our drinks came out promptly and the café staff were very accommodating, even though they mentioned that they did not have any available outlets to charge electronics. (So make sure you’re juiced before heading their way!) The sunlight filtered in the windows at just the right angle to warm the Saturday morning. There is a display of locally crafted goodies, from rings to notebooks.

Interior shot of Orange Elephant featuring several round tables and chairs in various hues, along with a big leafy plant in the background. Photo credit: Leonora Balajadia

If you’re planning on visiting, make sure to come Tuesday-Saturday, as they are closed on Sunday and Monday.

Follow them on Instagram: 5range.elephant

Address: 218-29, Uijeongbu-dong, Uijeongbu-si, Gyeonggi-do 1F 경기도 의정부시 태평로155번길 36 1F

Kpop Music Monday #28: Twice, “Like Ooh Aah”

You know what I love? Kpop. You know what else I love? A good zombie. Put them together and you have Twice’s debut song, “Like Ooh-Aah.” While not the first kpop music video featuring zombies (that, I believe, goes to T-ara’s “Lovey Dovey”), it’s arguably the best, as Twice went on to become one of the best-selling kpop girl groups ever.

Having a debut song that doesn’t take itself too seriously is a breath of fresh air while some debuts are overwrought with special effects or tricky dance moves. You can’t really see it in this video, but their main dancer, Momo (the girl with the long blond hair who is on the school bus during the dance break) is actually one of the best dancers I’ve ever seen.

Did I mention that she’s dating Heechul from Super Junior? And that their leader, Jihyo, is dating Kang Daniel, a soloist? And they’re both doing so publicly? And Mina was allowed to rest after becoming diagnosed with an anxiety disorder? These things are pretty ground-breaking in the kpop industry.

While I wish they did more “girl crush” concepts instead of pandering to their predominantly male audience (allegedly, a lot of men in the military listen to their music to “cheer up”), I still look forward to their comebacks.

moar zombies plz

Kpop Music Monday #27: Girls’ Generation, “Gee”

Sorry for the skipped week of Music Mondays. There’s a lot going on cough BLACK LIVES MATTER coughs

Eleven years ago (to the day, no less), one of the most iconic kpop songs/fashions/videos/dances/everything was dropped: “Gee” by Girls’ Generation.

I don’t want to talk about how many collective hours that I have spent listening to this, practicing the large arm flourishes and the pointing dance. There was something so damn catchy about the song and its dance. We saw the beginning of the 10s fashion with those insanely brightly-colored pants and shorts. We saw the beginning of Choi (“man standing next to Melania Trump”) Minho of SHINee’s career, and the beginning of the force that was… Girls’ Generation.

They’ve been through some shit. The Black Ocean scandal, the dating and plastic surgery rumors, the whole situation with Jessica (was she or wasn’t she kicked out of the group?) and the fact that several members decided in 2018 not to resign with SM Entertainment, pretty much signalling an end to the group as we knew it. A second sub-unit group was created with the five remaining SM members but in my eyes, Girls Generation has passed on its crown as the “Nation’s Girl Group” to Twice.

“Gee” is so iconic people are still performing covers of it to this day… some even cross-dressing to do so. If you listen to kpop and don’t know “Gee,” then… then what are you even doing??

Kpop Music Monday #26: Dreamcatcher, “Scream”

Like your music a little heavier than pop? Check out Dreamcatcher. While not quite k-rock or k-metal, the band’s backing tracks incorporate a lot of heavier-sounding guitar riffs and drum solos. I love the darker image that the band has, and it certainly sets them apart from the “cute” concept of other girl groups, or even the edgier “girl crush” concepts.

I’m just getting into them so I don’t have anything else to say, so take a listen!

Review: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

“That’s what I am: gum someone spat out.”

In 2019, the film “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” swept Korean cinemas to mixed reviews. Not surprisingly, this tale of an ordinary woman in her 30s polarized audiences among gender lines: the women loved it, and the men hated it. But why?

I have yet to see the movie, but I did pick up the ebook as soon as it was released. One of my Korean co-teachers, when I told her that I was reading it, commented that “Jiyoung” was a popular name for those born in the early 80s, making it similar to calling a girl from my generation “Sarah” or “Brittany.”

Beyond the plot line, this book is interesting for the facts that it weaves into the story, such as “women working in Korea earn only 63 percent of what men earn; the OECD average percentage is 84.13.”

I find that this article from the BBC does a good job reviewing the book and its importance. I do wish that more had been explored concerning “molka,” or the practice of secretly filming women and posting the videos online, as it’s become a huge issue in the last few years as part of the Burning Sun scandal. Sadly, as time goes on, there will only be more and more issues that women in South Korea will have to endure.

“Jiyoung became different people from time to time. Some of them were living, others were dead, all of them women she knew. No matter how you looked at it, it wasn’t a joke or a prank. Truly, flawlessly, completely, she became that person.


Kpop Music Monday #25: HA:TFELT, “Life Sucks”

The life of a kpop star isn’t easy, even though music videos and reality shows often make it seem like it. There has been more than one occasion where a family member has used an artist’s name in order to scam people.

Unfortunately, the usual story is that of an estranged father who begs money from someone using his connection to his well-known daughter and then defaults on his promises. This is the story of HA:TFELT, aka Yeeun/Yenny, who started her kpop career as one of the original and long-term members of the group Wonder Girls.

You can read an article about her father’s fraud and alleged sexual assault here. You could also just listen to the song and read the lyrics below, as it’s full of gut-wrenching emotion.

For the first time in my twenty-nine years
Daddy sent me a letter
Never knew how wack his handwriting was
I guess I should've known better
That's why mine is so ugly, too
That's why mine is so ugly, too

For the first time in my twenty-nine years
Daddy wrote me a letter
How's your mom? How's your sis?
I really miss ya, but you better not come here
I'm sorry, but don't you worry
'Cause I'm prayin' for your health and future

Oh dear, sweetheart
Things have gone a little South
My girl, need your help
Could you bail me out (bail me out)

Life sucks for everybody
(No need to cry no no no)
Life sucks for everybody
(Act like no child no no no)
I'm just survivin' everyday
Right at the edge of losing my mind
Life sucks for everybody
Just let me find peace of mind

If only I could go back and tell myself
"Don't you trust him, he already hurt you"
When you cried on you knees, showing some regrets
Wish I could've known better
People don't change so easily, nah
People can't change that easily
If only you meant all you told me that night
But, guess I'd better blame myself

How's your night? How's your sleep?
Have you ever woken up by your conscience?
Well I'm sorry, I've got no worries
All I have are wrath and disgust

One time, you said,
"Must obey or be cursed"
You were right, I am cursed
Running your blood in my vein (my vein)

Life sucks for everybody
(No need to cry no no no)
Life sucks for everybody
(Act like no child no no no)
I'm just survivin' everyday
Right at the edge of losing my mind
Life sucks for everybody
Just let me find peace of mind

I might pull the trigger, you know
I might do it for good, you know
I might pull the trigger, for both of us
I might do it for all, you'll see

I might pull the trigger
I might do it for good, you know
Pull the trigger
Do it for all