Probably not for the reasons you might think, but my recent KDrama habit has an unintended consequence.
I just finished watching “The Good Bad Mother,” a KDrama series that mixed family history, an unresolved murder case, and a love story into one, seamless narrative with dashes of comedy mixed in for good measure. So, essentially, your average, entertaining 14 episode story, set in South Korea.
I finished the series, went into my kitchen and started crying in earnest. My husband found my taking the sheets off the bed, nearly an hour later, with the tears still streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t want to tell him why. The reason was embarrassing.
South Korean episodic TV mixes in food and culture, fashion, comedy, suspense and genuinely heartfelt moments into one addictive TV cocktail. I’m never going back to American TV again.
Sometimes, I’ll discover a new actor I like, as in Park Eun-bin from “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” or Rowoon (Kim Seok-woo) from “Tomorrow” so I’ll look them up and find other stories where they’re part of the story. Invariably, there are fan commentaries about what they’re doing in real life, mixed in with the announcements of new projects or past work.
That’s where the problem started.
In South Korea, young men are required to enlist in the military for two years. So when you look up a South Korean actor in his 20’s to see what he’s doing professionally, there’s a good chance that what he’s recently finished doing or what he’s doing next is going into the military.
Couple that with the way most KDramas end in a resolution that, as often as not, includes making peace with everyday life, including unlucky circumstances, and death, and sooner or later, you are going to find yourself looking Korean politics right in the face. When you do that, unfortunately, what looks back at you is Kim Jong Un and, right behind him, Vladimir Putin.
If I had been thinking things through, I might have resisted the urge to peek into Korean culture. After all, day to day life in America is pretty insulated from the hard realities of war in the world, despite our military footprint. Having recently experienced months of insomnia over Russia’s cruel invasion of Ukraine, you might think I’d know better than to get attached to the people of a country who are directly in the cross hairs of a murderous dictator. But no, I didn’t think about the geopolitical situation, I just plunged right in.
And here I am, weeping inconsolably, over an actor I watched bring a character to life for 14 episodes of one KDrama who is now going off to serve in the armed forces of his nation. This particular show was his last before his two year mandatory service. I never gave it a second thought until the credits rolled and I realized that the actor is, literally, walking away into that Korean sunset to pick up a gun and learn how to kill, for a minimum of two years. And try as I might, as much as I tell myself to just get over it and be mature, I can’t find a way to feel better about it.
It’s not just one person I’m sad about, let’s be clear about that. It’s what that one person represents. Yes, I’m sad for Lee Ho-dyon but it feels more acute because I just watched him enact the story of a young man who suffered to bring justice to his family. He’s the representation of millions of others whose lives will be interrupted for exactly the same thing.
Millions of young men and women give their a portion of their youth and sometimes their health, to serve their countries in case of an invasion. In countries around the world, millions of lives, blooming like flowers, are captured, trained and sent to grow another way by the harsh reality of living somewhere “dangerous.”
It shouldn’t be dangerous. There is nothing inherently dangerous about Korea, or Ukraine, Taiwan, or Israel. They are all places that are blessed with beauty, wildlife, long traditions of art and culture, beautiful forests, deserts, gardens, all of them their own version of paradise on earth. Koreans are witty and funny and earnest and talented as much as anyone else, maybe more so. If we had the chance to look deeply into the daily life of Ukraine, or Taiwan, Syria or Iraq, I’d likely feel the same.
These countries live under a sword of Damacles, they live with the persistent shadow of the threat of war, some of them are already living in war. Bloodshed and destruction are the stuff of daily life. Next door to those places, murderous dictators armed beyond imagining, scheme to destroy the people, take the land, erase the culture. Their cruelty knows no bounds, they live to inflict suffering, or maybe it’s to accrue territory, like spaces on a board game. And for some reason, we, as a civilization, can not seem to figure out how to root out these monsters.
We can’t figure out how to kill off the Putins, Trumps, the evil Kims in North Korea. We just can’t see the signs in them as they rise, and so they flourish. And little by little they crowd out the good in humanity, or at least they try. Just like Trump does in our own country, right this minute, sowing hate every day.
What makes KDrama unique in this situation is that I am able to see some of the young actors in Korea exercising their talents before they’re snatched away and sent to do two years of military service. It’s made more poignent, more heartbraking, by the way KDramas usually end; with the characters getting justice and looking forward to a bright future and a long life.
Of course most of them will have a bright future and a long life after a two year interruption, but that’s not always the case. It changes a person to serve in the military. Military exercises are not without risk. Sometimes accidents happen, mines in the demilitarized zone go off, people get hurt. There is also psychological damage, to say nothing of the risk.
No one expected Russia to wage war on Ukraine. Now we hear daily about Putin talking to Kim Jung Un. Who knows what the two of them have planned? It bothers me that I can sit here in my living room, on my stationary bike, looking through the lens of the TV screen, watching these engrossing stories acted out by these beautiful people in this beautiful land knowing that any minute they could be snatched out of peace and thrown into war because of a few old men who want power over us all.
I don’t know what to do to help fix it, all I can do is hope, pray and cry. I’m publishing this for me, because I need to say it “out loud.” I need to find a way to put it into a smaller box in my heart and lean to go back to being the kind of person who can enjoy things without thinking about what they mean, or at least, it seems that way.
Since my heart medication was adjusted, the echoes of my surgery have flooded back into my life. I can’t be compliant. I can’t think only of my own comfort. The suffering of others feel immediate and tangible, in my body. It occupies my mind. Keeps me up at night.
This is what happens when a surgeon goes into your heart and literally re-opens it so that suddenly, it receives the full benefit of the flow of blood it had in childhood, or something close to that.
Those arteries that kept the world walled off are bypassed in me and the compassion threatens to overtake me like a high tide on a quiet beach.
I know I’m not the only one. I know I need to come to a conclusion, if only to end this little essay.
So here goes:
We wall off our hearts at our peril. We are all part of the same world and we can’t function without the ability to feel that truth.
Korean TV has brought an awareness of another part of the world to a lot of people. We should be grateful that borders are being blurred by TV, music and film. In the end it might be the only thing that saves us. I’m grateful. Because we can’t all travel, I hope we will always have access to the art created in other parts of the world. I hope this trend spreads.
It’s easier to numb feelings than to feel them. Feeling them makes a person look ridiculous to others and makes me feel embarrassed to be so niaive but maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s something we all need to do if we’re ever going to change our civilization’s ability to stand by in silence while others destroy the world.