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How Western Media Robbed My Confidence and How I Got It Back Through BTS

Erkki with his sister Aili

I used to imagine my genes shooting sorry glances at me when I begged them, in a slightly religious way, to highlight my Caucasian features that I had supposedly inherited from my German father, and to forget my maternal Japanese side. All I wanted was a straight pointy nose, high cheekbones and light skin. I looked up to my taller classmates, I aspired to become the white politicians I saw on TV, I attempted to play guitar like the Beatles; still, I saw my innate Asianness as the obstacle preventing me from realizing those dreams. It wasn’t until a few years ago, after stumbling upon the K-Pop group BTS, that I began to slowly approach that other half, finding a new me along the way.

Like most other people in the U.S. in 2019, I saw BTS as that Korean boy group from the Grammys. Apart from a few news stories here and there, BTS was background noise. That is, until my twelve-year-old sister came home with a ticket to a BTS concert which she had gotten from her friend. Following that, I heard BTS every evening, their performances and their appearances on late shows being projected on the TV late into the night. At first I dismissed these evenings as a phase in my sister’s quirky path towards adolescence. Then the mania gripped me too. It wasn’t necessarily their music or performance, but the confidence with which they walked, danced, spoke.

Suddenly inspired, I approached my mirror every morning hoping that my straight hair would submit into a middle-part that would at least partly resemble Taehyung’s. Later, their songs infiltrated my Beatles dominated playlists like soldiers would an enemy base camp. BTS wasn’t copying western pop, they were conquering it with their own originality. They employed their comedic skills to create their long running, endlessly funny “Run BTS” show. Another aspect of BTS that stands out are their dances, which are so engaging and tightly synchronized that even a horrible dancer like myself would want to join in. As I approached my junior year, I, with my hair newly parted and pants cuffed, began to feel confident in myself in my adolescence.

BTS launched me into the world of Asian media; I ingested Japanese “City Pop,” listened to Asian-American artists from labels like 88rising, and filled my bedside table with books and articles written by Asian people. Coinciding with all this was the release of Parasite, a movie by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, which blew me away with its intricate nuances in acting, style, and pace.

Amidst these new discoveries, I didn’t understand why this Asian “renaissance” inside me came so late—or why a renaissance was even necessary. I realize now that it was not me who was looking in the wrong places, but the regular disregard of Asian culture by western media that had robbed me of my confidence. I grow angry at the fact that other Asian people still don’t realize their own worth and potential because they themselves and their culture are dismissed. Only recently, did a German radio host write BTS off as “Knabe” (little boys in German) and compare them to the COVID-19 virus. Here in the U.S., award shows such as Video Music Awards, Billboard Music Awards, and The Grammys have completely ignored K-Pop, or created new categories specifically for them instead of nominating them for main awards.

Just last month, the movie Minari, made by Korean-American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung, was limited to the “Best Foreign Language Film” category. Why restrict an American-made film with American actors telling an unquestionably American tale of struggling immigrants from contending in the “Best Picture” category? Why nominate foreign White artists such as Shawn Mendes but pass over equally popular foreign Asian artists like BTS? As these stinging decisions made by western institutions and media remind us of the continued struggle Asian people and cultures face, these painful questions persist in my mind.

Erkki and his sister at Little Tokyo

The last year has been an especially difficult time for Asians, as blame for the COVID-19 pandemic shifted onto Asian people. According to the Los Angeles Times, anti-Asian hate crimes in Los Angeles doubled in 2020. The reality is that this hate and general disregard of Asians did not simply arise from the COVID-19 pandemic: It has been a pattern woven throughout history, from colonial India to Koreans who saw their land transform into a political battleground of foregin nations, to Chinese slave workers who built Los Angeles in the early twentieth century, to the Japanese-Americans who were forced to leave everything behind during the second world war, Asian people have been trampled over, forgotten and discounted by the western world. But, just as my Judo dojo in Sawtelle opened its doors once again as the former prisoners of Manzanar poured back into their homes after the war, we continue forward. BTS is at the top of the music world, Parasite won Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars, and for the first time ever, the U.S. has a vice president of Asian descent. Finally I am confident in myself, and so I say thank you, BTS, and thank you, genes.


*This article was originally published on the SAMOHI online, the Santa Monica Highschool newspaper, on March 21, 2021.


© 2021 Erkki Forster

BTS identity Japanese German K-pop United States