Candace Park knows a lot about playing a role. For most of her life, she’s been playing a role of the quiet Korean girl who takes all AP classes and plays a classical instrument, keeping her dreams of stardom-and her obsession with SLK, K-pop’s top boyband to herself. She doesn’t see how a regular girl like her could possibly become one of those K-pop goddesses she sees on YouTube. Even though she can sing. Like, really sing. So when Candace secretly enters a global audition held by SLK’s music label, the last thing she expects is to actually get a coveted spot in their trainee program. And convincing her strict parents to let her go is all but impossible…although it’s nothing compared to what comes next. Under strict supervision of her instructors at the label’s headquarters in Seoul, Candace must perfect her performance skills to within an inch of her life, learn to speak Korean fluently, and navigate the complex hierarchies of her fellow trainees, all while following the strict rules of the industry. Rule number one? NO DATING, which becomes impossible to follow when she meets a dreamy boy trainee. And in the all-out battle to debut, Candace is in danger of planting herself in the middle of a scandal lighting up the K-pop fandom around the world. If she doesn’t what it takes to become a perfect, hair-flipping K-pop idol, what will that mean for her family, who have sacrificed everything to give her the chance? And is a spot in the most hyped K-pop girl group of all time really worth risking her friendships, her future, and everything she believes in? Drop In with us to find out!
Stephan Lee is a journalist, author, and multi-fandom K-pop stan. He currently works as a Senior Editor at Bustle after a five-year stretch covering books and movies at Entertainment Weekly. At EW, he travelled to Seoul for three weeks to write a feature about Korean entertainment’s world domination, interviewing K-Pop idols, filmmakers, and drama writers. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing at The New School.Leave a comment for radio show guests
What’s the story behind the story? We’ll find out on Dropping In. Our guests are today’s original thinkers. Conversations that spark new ways of seeing what’s going on. We bring it all to the table. Diverse perspectives, controversy, loving and singular voices. Magically stories reveal the common threads that link us. Experience the joys, the fist pumps, the detours and the hard-won truths of those who blaze the trail so that we might do the same and now here’s your host Diane Dewey.
Diane: Welcome to Dropping In everyone. Today we’ll celebrate pop culture specifically k-pop culture with an inside look at the making of a girl band in the book K-pop Confidential written by our guest author Stephan Lee and published by Scholastic. Personally I’ll celebrate the freedom I had to eat potato chips while growing up that will become evident as we get into this. Welcome Stephan. Great to have you with us.
Stephan: Thank you so much Diane. It’s great to be here.
Diane: I want to say I feel that I am going to get tripped up at some points that I hope you’ll correct me in terms of understanding K-pop and Korean culture but I’m going to dive right in okay. I really just love to be enlightened at any foot along the way but to me the contrast was stark in K-pop Confidential. The Korean culture is built like so many cultures around the world on food delicacies that are lovingly prepared by our mothers and served to families as a gesture of love and togetherness yet K-pop, the idol industry for young girls in music, young boys in music requires that these young girls as young as 10 aged deny themselves this wonderful sharing of food in favor of rigid menus of sweet potatoes and salads, things to keep them slim and burn off calories. They’re sequestered from their families, a very family-oriented culture, deprived of this familial support. I was wondering if you might comment. What does this do to the fabric of culture and how has it changed family life in South Korea?
Stephan: That’s such a great observation Diane especially starting off with food because it’s so central to my life both as an American and a Korean and a Korean American as it is for basically every culture. Korea was a very impoverished country until very, very recently. It’s a small country in size so it doesn’t have very many natural l resources. For a lot of Korea’s history Koreans ate like very kind of cheap, low nutrient, nutrient poor foods. When that kind of changed and Korea advanced and there is more access to all sorts of different types of food. Food just became so important. Growing up in America but having parents who were born in Korea who remembered having their food rationed due to shortages like they would never ever, they wouldn’t understand the concept of dieting.
It was such a value for us to eat as much as possible. As much good food, lots of meats, lots of variety. You’re so right in that K-pop is not Korean culture. It’s a completely separate. I mean it’s not completely separate because it’s informed by Korean elements of Korean culture but K-pop culture is not Korean culture at large so it does feel kind of reversed of like so many values that most Koreans hold dear but yes, I think that’s because K-pop is an important export for Korea. These people, these kids who are chosen for to become stars or try to become stars they’re almost making a sacrifice for their country because they want to represent the country in a very important way to the rest of the world. They do sacrifice certain things including getting to eat what they want. It is a lot of pressure and food is a big, big driver of that pressure. That’s something that I really want to highlight in the book as well.
Diane: Well you did an excellent job of it and I can see that there’s a double-edged sword to this. Thank you for contextualizing this in terms of Korea’s impoverishment. For a little background for our listeners K-pop idols or groups and artists formed by various entertainment companies that create catchy Korean popular music and target younger audiences. The music formed from a group of people who are particularly talented at least one of the following genres singing, rapping and dancing. The idols often enter the entertainment company in their teens and then train hard for years in these areas of singing, rapping, dancing and foreign languages.
Then if they are lucky enough and talented enough by the end of their teens they’ll be picked for an idol group. An example of this would be Psy’s Gangnam Style and lots and lots and lots of others but I’d love to for you to speak to this because it is a meaningful export. It is a meaningful phenomenon and as you write in your book it’s an inspiration to millions all around the world. How do we resolve this double-edged sword of the cost and the price that we pay to have this kind of music?
Stephan: That’s really the conflict that I was wrestling with the whole book is that I didn’t want this book to be an expose just an expose of the dark sides of K-pop because I do really respect it. I do know the importance of it but at the individual level it can be such a horrible experience to give up your entire childhood for a very, very slim chance at being able to debut in an actual group is really it can be very psychologically damaging. The culture of K-pop can be pretty different from Hollywood in that a lot of the kids who enter K-pop, a lot of them are incredibly passionate about music and completely chose to pursue it themselves but in a way a lot of, it’s set up a bit differently because even if you don’t display huge amounts of talent.
As a child in Korea I think the philosophy is that if you practice enough like thousands and thousands and thousands of hours at anything. You can and you’re willing to work harder than everyone else. You can be good enough to enter one of these groups. The difficulty level is very high. If you’ve ever seen a K-pop music video the choreography is much more complicated than anything you ever see in American pop music. I do think that the messages of K-pop can be really, really positive but there is a negative side but I also wanted to make sure that I didn’t paint K-pop as a uniquely awful industry because I think the issues around in Hollywood and basically every entertainment industry around the world they’re always going to be tons of issues. Korean entertainment just has some very specific ones but I wouldn’t say that they’re any worse than Hollywood or any other place.
It really is difficult but because I think that the problem tends to be when young people have dreams they are willing to sacrifice so much and bend themselves to fit the rules of older people usually instead of kind of tapping into their authentic messages they want to share or what’s actually going on within them. I think that’s something that can be resolved around the world and that isn’t specific just to K-pop.
Diane: I think that is a beautiful sense of resolution. In the book we trace the life of Candace. I thought it was fantastically interesting that Candace is a female. I think this arose out of your being drawn to girl bands and listening to girl bands. I also just love how she internally wrestled with the idea of being an idol versus being an artist. She herself had the ability to write songs in a beautiful way and as you say this commodification is hardly unique. Look at the modeling industry. Look at Jennifer Lawrence being discovered at 13 in Rockefeller Center by a talent scout, Hollywood as well. I do think there is that kind of cautionary tale to the malleability of teenage sensibilities but on the other hand there may be a way through it if there are enough role models who do discover authentic messages and deliver them as a layer to their music.
Talk to us about writing in the first person as a girl. How you came to that and also how you researched the book? It felt like you were embedded, literally embedded in K-pop. You have a background in journalism and you have a master’s from the new school. I mean clearly you’re an extraordinarily talented writer but how did you get so internalized or inhabiting this character that’s quite different from yourself.
Stephan: Oh thank you so much. Well writing as a teenage girl was actually really, really natural to me. When I had the idea to write a young adult novel set in the K-pop world I never ever considered writing from the point of view of a boy. I think it’s just my natural interest and I do identify as male. If I put my pronouns on twitter I would say he is but I also just don’t think that the way people think and the way people speak which is basically what writing in first person is really always all that different down gender lines. I think my sensibility of I have always gravitated towards stories by and about female characters. I’ve always been drawn to female voices literally. I love pop music and I always have and I’ve always almost listened to female singers exclusively.
It was very, very natural to write as a young woman. I have also been writing another book that’s written from the point of view of a boy, completely different not involved with K-pop at all. The voices are different but they’re not different because one’s a male and one’s a female. They’re just different individuals. It was actually pretty natural to me. I’ve had some questions about like oh why did you want to write from the point of view of a girl or a girl would never say this or that whereas other people, other women will come up to me and say yes, girls do think that. It’s all a matter of individual experience.
As far as research goes in making Candace’s journey feel realistic and relatable I did do definitely a lot of research into K-pop and the Korean entertainment industry. I was sent by Entertainment Weekly where I worked for seven years as a writer and editor. They sent me to Korea for three weeks to report a story that actually never ran and that I never ended up writing because we had a editor switchover literally while I was flying back from Korea after doing all my research but in addition to all that research there actually it isn’t that much that’s known about the K-pop trainee process. A lot of it is really under tight NDAs. K-pop idols don’t really talk about their trainee days and all its gory details.
Diane: Is that because, sorry. Is that because Stephan they are bound not to or do they sign confidentiality agreements? How is it that they don’t speak about the experience?
Stephan: I think once they debut usually what idols say in public is really quite controlled and choreographed. There are former trainees who do speak out about their experiences but there aren’t that many of them. A lot of them don’t share everything about it. I also think that the culture in Korea isn’t as confessional as the west maybe or America maybe. A lot of that is held kind of off limits. We don’t get as in-depth about the trainee experience although there are always lots of rumors and there is kind of a mythology about K-pop trainee programs.
I always tell people that it’s kind of the closest thing to the Hunger Games in real life as you can get because they’re all these young people. They’re training very hard for a very, very, very slim shot at success. They put everything, their whole lives into it. It’s incredibly, incredibly competitive and high pressure and very public and broadcast to the whole world. It really is just like an incredibly extreme atmosphere but there isn’t that much known about the day-to-day. I did use a lot of my imagination and I also thought just put my, I tried to think of it universally as in okay what would someone think about when they were going to sleep at night if they were in a training program. What emotions would they have? What thoughts would they have?
I actually ended up using a lot of research into other types of extreme competition that young people are put into such as elite gymnastics or even sure cheerleading in Texas. It’s interesting because I know a former trainee at a K-pop program, a friend of mine who I will not name and they actually said like oh my God like how did you know about this one detail. It’s a very specific detail in the book about how at the at Candace’s trainee headquarters in Korea the cafeteria is divided among boys and girls by a glass wall. Candace thinks that was done on purpose so that girls would eat less if they knew they were being watched by boys.
I completely made that up. I just thought it kind of made sense with the culture and just the rigidity and also the kind of gender double standards in the industry. This person actually said that’s exactly what they did. I was like I completely made that up just based on what I would think emotionally might happen. I really think that by being specific you actually become universal. I think that anyone who’s ever been in a very competitive situation as a young person can actually relate to this very specific story.
Diane: Absolutely and it’s a very visible microcosm, visible in the sense that it’s structured and spelled out but less articulated is the fact that we’re all kind of in these competitions. We just don’t really know about it. It’s kind of we’re training hard. We’re doing everything we can. We’re polishing our ourselves in terms of the way we look, feel, act, think, eat. There’s not a whole lot of difference. It does work on a continuum and there is extremes. If we want to look at Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears, you can’t say these people are not packaged to within an inch of their life.
I think I think that’s very interesting that this is kind of merely an articulated microcosm of this intensity. I love that you allude to the non-binary nature of female and male. I really think you captured Candace and quite authentically actually having been a young girl. We’re going to need to pause for a break now but when we come back we’re going to talk about some of the things that are a little less flexible, some of the knee-jerk reactions to Korean culture like sacrificing and giving up for the common good versus individual gain as we do here in the west. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back with Stephan Lee on Dropping In.
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Diane: Welcome back everyone. We’re here with Stephan Lee author of K-pop Confidential. It’s a great young adult novel. I enjoyed reading it myself, fell in love with Candace, felt her um her desires to triumph. Stephan, she does actually have moments where she not only is expected to sacrifice for the common good of her girl group. She’s in group too but she does so with the deference and supplicants that is a little foreign to us in America. She endures a kind of hazing ritual in the dorm room that is pretty unpleasant because there’s garbage in her bunk bed. There’s all kinds of stuff. We won’t give spoiler alerts but the guitar becomes involved. There’s a lot of personal damage and sacrifice and yet she soldiers on.
I wondered and I know she has this incredible family background with Uma, her mother, enormously great traditions and bonding. I wondered how that helped her and also whether you can comment on in general terms or if that’s appropriate. Is Korean culture simply more willing to acquiesce to conformity for the sake of the common good versus individual gain? If you will.
Stephan: Yes, I love this question. I think what you’re saying is very true and gets to the heart of a lot of the conflict that Candace feels internally. I think that a lot of Korean Americans or people of Korean descent who don’t live in Korea or weren’t born in Korea feel all the time in that she’s a bit foreign in America as a Korean American as a minority but she’s even more foreign when she goes to Korea for the first time in her life to train. She realizes just how different she is from these people who do look more like her than her friends at home.
She has to walk this line because she has to decide how much of speaking out and speaking her mind is actually just cultural unawareness in Korea because I do think that in general speaking your truth or saying the first thing that comes to your head is more valued in America than it is in Korea for sure. There are things that she disagrees with, that she sees in the K-pop headquarters where she’s training and living. She also has to respect the hierarchy of it because in Korean culture you do defer to people who are older than you way more, even if they’re only a year older. The way you speak to someone who’s older than you is completely different from the way you speak to someone who’s even a year younger than you. You also have to weigh how long someone’s been at a company.
In Korean corporate culture you have to go by who’s senior to you, who’s been at the company longer than you in addition to worrying about who’s older than you. There’s a lot that she has to juggle when she’s at this company. When the other girls are hazing her it’s like are they just cruel or is this almost just what you have to go through. She has to balance that really well. I think that her what she doesn’t realize at the beginning of the book is that the way that she was raised by her Korean mother actually has prepared her really well because she has been raised in a fairly typical Korean-American immigrant way in that academics are prized. Her interest in singing and songwriting is definitely not really prized by her parents but who don’t really trust it as a practical means of getting ahead in America.
She does know that she’s extremely loved but maybe her passions aren’t very valued by her parents. Her actual desires aren’t really listened to so when her parents do manage do end up allowing her to go to Korea to pursue becoming a K-pop star which is a big surprise to them as well and it’s also a surprise to Candace that she had the courage to assert this because she’s always been kind of go along type of person. She knows at least that she is always loved. She has this well of unconditional love from her upbringing whereas any sort of praise or love if you can call it that that she finds in the K-pop facility is so conditional. It’s all about how well you perform, how you behave, how well you conform to exactly what they want. She really has to dig in, dig deep into that well of self-worth that she’s kind of built up through her whole life. When she does end up speaking up about what’s right and what she really wants.
Diane: I felt like the whole arc of the story was hinging on that that she had in herself a sense of self-worth of almost saying you’re always enough just as you are where these poor girls and this is where again I don’t want to be patronizing but these poor girls who through this objectification process believe that their worth only comes from how well they can perform. There is no center. There’s no center to hold it all together. There’s no center to speak from. They much more willing to compromise and even give up whatever budding identities they had in order to accomplish this success in this realm but ironically it cheapens it because in the end Candace obviously she is an original voice. She comes across in a stronger way.
Really I thought to myself this is really almost, you’d really lose it if you didn’t have that. Candace so that for listeners, I mean I did love this aspect as well. Candace finally convinces her family to let her go because it’ll make great material for a college essay since their evaluation is academics. For those of us that are first-generation immigrants it’s always about assimilation and getting ahead in America. It’s all prescribed in a different way and in a kind of performance way but with the love at the center which is what I think you described beautifully.
Talk to us a little bit about this idea, I mean I think this is where the subtlety comes in the book too. It’s not an expose as you say. It’s not black and white. I think it urges us to introspect, to ask ourselves where are our feelings about identity coming from as westerners. Can these people be developing a true identity? Are they attaining an identity through a sense of belonging to a K-pop culture? I want to ask you about the idea of exploring K-pop culture through Candace’s lens instead of piling the information onto us in an authoritarian way. We discover it along with Candace in the voyage. You’ve then blended your journalistic career with a novel writing career. I wondered how they inform one another. How you were drawn to tell the story through a singular identity as opposed to an expose?
Stephan: Oh my gosh Diane. I feel like you’ve kind of read my mind because this is such what I’ve really what I was grappling with even as I was writing the book and thinking about my own experience even though I’ve never been a teenage girl and I’ve never been a K-pop trainee or idol or even a singer or a dancer. I do think that in my own career being a writer is what I always wanted to do. I was always passionate about film and TV and basically any form of escape. I did do the whole AP track myself and I went to Duke University. In a way becoming an entertainment journalist even though that’s not really practical at all it felt like a practical way to do some version of my dream which was always to create pop culture.
Writing about pop culture felt like a really great dream for a very long time. It’s something I put everything into and really enjoyed but at a certain point I knew that it was kind of the second best dream or the second best version of my dream. In a way the second best is actually more dangerous than your tenth choice in career because it feels almost good enough. You can kind of get trapped in it for a very long time. I actually left Entertainment Weekly which was such a great dream job for such a long time to and I now currently have one foot in editorial and one foot in marketing actually. I do branded content now which I write articles like I used to but they’re always sponsored by a brand or a company. Even though that’s not as cool as what I was doing before it’s actually a nice separation. I don’t have my ego wrapped up in what I do during the day. When I close the laptop or when I used to leave the office it’s over and I can focus on writing.
I think I wanted to put into Candace that realization a bit earlier at the age of 15, 16 that maybe what she was doing would keep her content enough but she does have this desire to blow up her whole life and do something completely different, really surprise people. That’s also why once she actually gets to Korea and gets to the um training facility she actually lies to her family and covers up what’s happening inside so she can keep doing it even though it is making her kind of miserable on some level. She’s also having the best time of her life as well and feeling like she’s finally reached her dream or is very close or is on the cusp of it. She will find ways to actually continue some of the suffering. I think that’s very relatable. I feel like I’ve done that myself when there’s something I really want to do even though I know that’s not always fun I will actually convince myself that it’s the only way or the cost of doing business. That’s also something that she really has to weigh in that I’ve had to weigh in my actual life as well.
Diane: Well it’s personal and we are collaborators in our own being subjected and whether or not we are aware of it at the time we undergo a lot of self-deception and then we perpetrate it on others to keep the whole thing going. I love this idea of the second best. You’re bolstering it up. You’re trying to manufacture it into something that ultimately it’s not sustainable. Candace, as you say is on the cusp of that. We’re on a sort of cliffhanger ledge along with her. She does lie. She lies to Uma her beloved mother and of course Uma being a mother knows something’s all wrong. Look at the color. Look at her skin. Look at her eyes. Look at the way she meets your eyes. Look at how her body’s changed. Candace hides her bruises, her blisters, her bloody feet, all of the impacts of this this intensive training but I wondered about this instinct to move in that direction like that intensity to just be kind of ruthless even though you sacrifice all the psychic space between you and your beloved mother.
I found that to be powerful, very relatable that when you are on a trajectory you just have to give up certain scruples in order to keep it all going. I wondered how that fracture felt with the family. If it’s something that you’ve ever experienced as well. I mean you’re an author. You don’t have to comment on that if you don’t want but does it create a schism at all?
Stephan: I think that’s really something that almost any creative person has to face in some form or another. I do think that it can be even more pronounced when you are a first generation immigrant because there is so much pressure to that and so much expectation to that. Her, I actually made Candace’s parents sort of thwarted creatives as well. They do have a music background but it actually did blow up in their faces especially when they moved to America. They realized oh we have to do things that are very practical in order to survive. What I think is interesting and that I sort of didn’t state outright but I wove into the book is that actually it’s funny because the product of successful assimilation or successful immigration is that the children of the ones who made the move kind of have to become a little bit foreign to their parents.
There does have to be a bit of a separation because that’s actually progress but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like rebellion but Candace does feel that she has some freedom to take risks and do something very bold and unexpected whereas her parents did not have that luxury because they were the ones who had to lay the groundwork. The things that the parents actually worked for which is giving their kids freedom, giving them choices, giving them the space to make some mistakes is exactly what Candace is trying to enjoy but it feels like disrespect and feels like rebellion. I think that’s something that I also had to go through with my parents as well because I think they would have loved for me to be for whatever reason my mom always thought I would make a really great judge.
Being a judge is extreme like that’s the pinnacle of respectability or just why would anyone not want to be like a Ruth Bader Ginsburg or something like. I think if she really thought about it she would know that my personality was uniquely horrible for that kind of life. I’m indecisive. I like to be a little silly. I like to kind of buck rules when I can get away with it. She should have known very clearly about that that would be horrible for me but it just seemed like such a path to respectability. There are steps that you can take to get there that are very prescribed but now I think she really sees that like my path is exactly what I should have been doing and it’s something that she realizes that she wish that she could have been a bit more like me. It’s like kind of a reversal that I think is a really healthy thing but it does lead to a lot of drama.
Diane: When it’s happening, when the paradigm shift is happening from the expectation to the reality that’s one of Candace’s songs too. I did become a stan of hers. Interesting though that this confluence of who you are outerly and innerly can converge. We need to take a break but I do really love to think about this idea of guilt, the role of it and the role of playing with your identity a bit and how you can actually go about finding it through an experience like this where you’re actually shedding many skins to find it. We’re speaking with Stephan Lee author of K-pop confidential. Don’t go away. When we come back I’m going to give you some lyrics of Candace’s song. My very favorite one from K-pop Confidential. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back on Dropping In.
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Diane: Welcome back everyone. We’re on the fine line between cult and culture, how these entities form, how they live and coexist with one another. I think you brought up a great example Stephan Lee when you mentioned extreme gymnastics and what an intensive lifestyle that is. We look at it from the outside and we appreciate the performance. We congratulate the athletes. It emerges what they’ve actually gone through to get to that place. You have to kind of almost dissociate in order to be part of it because again like with Candace in K-pop Confidential the great YA novel that you wrote. She can’t have a boyfriend. They’ve got the glass gender wall in the cafeteria where the girls feel so self-conscious as adolescents do to not eat one more piece of celery because the boys might be looking but they’re so tantalizingly near yet so far.
They’re not allowed to associate. I understand that that also happens in gymnastics. It used to be quite a topic for Olympians as well. I mean these kinds of paradigms exist in different cultures and different areas of professionalism. I did want to talk about another knife blade edge that I really loved when Candace well she got the opportunity to meet her male idol Juan Jay and he was kind enough to nurture her music, her songwriting talent. She went ahead and followed his advice to scribble even though she was exhausted at the end of the day. One of her songs is this. If you don’t mind I’m going to read. It’s my favorite. The Yeou song which will correct my pronunciation.
It goes like this. “When I’m polite you say I’m not a warrior. When I’m forward you say I’m not a lady but I’m neither. I’m a yeou. I’m sweet when I need to be. Fierce, when I need to be don’t underestimate me I’ll turn your traps back on you because I’m a yeou. That’s right. Yeou da.” Speak to us about this creature, this mythic creature that you materialized for her and how that related to her experience.
Stephan: Yes so yeou actually means wolf, actually fox in Korean. I’ve heard it used in some dramas almost as kind of a compliment but kind of not. It’s sort of the equivalent of saying someone’s a she-wolf almost. That’s like a cunning woman. When it’s used as a compliment it’s kind of like oh you’re smart, you’re wily. You can figure things out. Then when it’s negative it’s almost the equivalent of saying the B word. Candace gets called yeou in this very ambiguous way by the CEO of the K-pop company after she does, after she’s kind of cornered into sort of throwing a member of her team under the bus, one of her biggest competition.
She has very complicated feelings about this afterwards and kind of digs into it. It’s interesting because there is a big feminist movement going on in Korea. It looks slightly different from what it looks like in America but in America I think right now it’s very popular to call yourself a feminist. It’s widely more accepted than it used to be. A lot of the negative connotations are at least in some areas of the country falling away. People are very willing to call themselves that. Whereas that’s still a bit more complicated and still maybe a smaller minority in Korea.
This is her sort of embracing this negative sort of negative word and making it a positive which I think is sort of a natural thing for any underprivileged type of person to do to take on that identity and wear it proudly. That’s a moment for Candace even though she’s still unsure at the time that she writes that song. She actually performs that song when she should be performing a different one. She does it in the spur of the moment. That’s just a sort of edging towards being more outspoken and being more of an authentic artist not just as a songwriter but as a person and facing that honesty that’s within her and actually letting it out which takes a lot of courage of course. That’s something that she edges towards throughout the whole book.
Diane: Absolutely she walks through a door almost or a series of doors where she has the option to remain contained, to submerge herself. She is that hybrid. She has a little bit of American in her. She also knows that her parents had incredible music training wound up as the uber popular Korean deli operators. She maybe vicariously as you alluded before wants to take that step of differentiating, going towards something as opposed to holding back. I think it also is brilliant, it’s a brilliant metaphor also in the sense that it’s so instinctual. The cunning of the fox. She’s inching along instinctively. She’s going along in fits and starts.
One of the things that does befall her is the sense of guilt because Freud is right to borrow from a completely different culture. Freud, the way she is resented for getting ahead, for being chosen. I have two questions for you but you’re very good at tracking. I love that you can do that. First the guilt and is there such a thing as Korean guilt the way there is like Jewish guilt or catholic guild or Irish guilt. Is there such a thing? Then the second part of the question is what happens to these poor souls who like are not chosen? What if you’re not chosen and then you feel not only guilt but shame and failure? Does that spin off to a kind of subculture of people who’ve like declared themselves losers? I mean I don’t know that’s a very Americanized version of things and very linear. It’s not like that at all.
Stephan: I think that’s very much like it. I think you hit the nail on the head. I think these two questions are very well paired because well I think there is a sense of guilt about and also one thing that I wanted to kind of explore which I don’t think is talked about very much is a sense of embarrassment. I think it is embarrassing to tell people exactly what you want to do because by saying that you want something you’re really just showing people exactly who you are on the inside or who you have been for a very long time but haven’t made very clear and that’s something that I felt growing up just because I thought of myself as very kind of a nerdy, shy, Asian kid.
I thought I should do nerdy, shy, Asian kid types of things. Although on the inside I felt very different from that. It took a much longer time for me than it did for Candace to start inching towards declaring that because it’s embarrassing to say what you want to do especially if that’s not how people see you. I think paired with that embarrassment is paired with guilt. This is something that I also explore with Candace getting the yes from her parents which is what she saw is almost impossible but she actually gets the yes a lot faster than she thinks she will to go and become a K-pop trainee. Getting the yes is very scary. It’s almost easier to lose because for instance so even though these kids put their whole life into training for this very, very narrow chance it’s actually scarier to win, to be one of the few chosen ones because then you actually have to follow through.
If you fail it is also hugely devastating and you have to put the pieces of your life back together but at least you get to move forward kind of anonymously. You don’t have to shoulder that burden of winning. I think what is the case in Korea maybe more starkly than America is for instance the system of getting the college in Korea is extremely brutal. There’s a nationwide test that’s similar to the SAT but it’s even harder. It’s an all-day thing. The whole country kind of shuts down for those two days because they want to make sure that those kids get to the testing place on time.
It’s incredibly important to their college acceptances. That basically dictates what kind of job you get. That’s the case in America to an extent but it’s much more stark in Korea. The people who don’t do well in that like what did they do? They have to do something else. They have to maybe embark on a life long journey to find some sort of self-worth outside of that. I think that’s also the case with people who do win, the few who do get it, get that thing that everybody seems to want. I think they have to embark on that journey anyway but maybe they embark on it later because there’s that illusion that you got everything that you’re supposed to in life. I think we’re all kind of in the same boat and at the end of the day.
Diane: That’s the universality of this book K-pop Confidential. It really is something that anyone could read and kind of tune into not just as a piece of escape but as a way to tune into the voyage that we’re on in life. I have to thank you very much Stephan Lee. We’re out of time but I have enjoyed our conversation very, very much.
Stephan: Oh thank you so much Diane. Your questions were really, really incredible and thank you for that compliment because that is something I kind of run up against with this book being on the world is that just the way that the title K-pop Confidential. People think oh I’m not a K-pop fan so I won’t enjoy this but there is so much more there. I really hope that people continue to discover the books and the sequel coming out in April 2022. Thank you so much for this time.
Diane: Lovely. I’m glad to hear there is one. I want to read more from Candace. I just have to say this idea of asking for something, vulnerability, what it creates. Stephan Lee has a twitter handle and an Instagram account. S-T-E-P-E-P-H-A-N and twitter is Stephan M. Lee. You can find K-pop Confidential wherever books are sold. We’re delighted to have you. We thank you and we thank that our engineers Matt Weidner and Aaron Keller and most of all to you, our listeners. Robert Giolino, our producer but most of all to you our listeners. Sorry, I’m just drifting here for a moment but the noon whistles blowing. I just want to say thank you to those of you who are out there who are wondering and wondering how to keep it real. Pick this up and you’ll find out. Till next week on Dropping In. thank you for listening.
Thank you so much for dropping in. Please join Diane Dewey again next Friday at 8 AM Pacific Time and 11 AM Eastern Time on the Voice America Variety Channel. We’ll see you then.