By Catherine Hervey
I must begin with a twofold confession:
I am past thirty and have two children, and I have somehow managed to retain a taste for cheesy high school romance. I don’t regret having missed out on the reality of such a ubiquitous and often painful experience as High School Dating, but I must admit to a certain wistfulness for the fictional tropes of it that reality never had a chance to cure me of.
It’s a proclivity I don’t indulge too often, but apparently it’s often enough that Netflix has noticed and now curates its suggestions accordingly. One day it decided I would like A Love So Beautiful, a 2017 Chinese high school romance drama. I watched it, and then I watched it again. Then I watched another Chinese drama. Then I discovered a whole universe of Asian television. I have watched Taiwanese dramas, Thai dramas, Korean dramas (so, so many Korean dramas). And I am still, as of this moment, going strong.
I like to consider myself a literary type. I read, like, good books. I watch TV, sure, but to relax or have fun with my friends. If someone were to ask me what sort of media has most shaped who I am, what has opened my mind and my heart to the wider world and taught me the most, I would say African American literature, Postcolonial literature. Toni Morrison. Petina Gappah. You know, serious stuff.
I’m used to being an outsider in these books. There are always lots of things I don’t understand, and when I come across them—a city in Nigeria I’ve never heard of, for instance—I feel like maybe I’m not as well-informed as I want to be. I go look up the town or the article of clothing or whatever it is and then I’m glad that now I know.
Watching Asian dramas has been a fundamentally different experience. I’m still an outsider, but the feeling hits me in a completely different way. I don’t know what suburb they’re talking about or what that food is made of, and if I opened my mouth and tried to say that person’s name I would sound absolutely ridiculous. But instead of just sending me to google to rectify my ignorance, this lack of understanding kind of makes me feel like a loser.
The thing about these Asian dramas is that like most television shows, they’re aspirational. The people are beautiful, their clothes are beautiful, their problems are exaggerated beyond reason but always solved in a satisfactory way. Every female lead is desired by multiple people. If you watch enough dramas (and I certainly have), it starts to feel like being cool, being beautiful, being desirable means being Chinese or Korean. Every small indication that I exist outside of that world then ceases to be an intellectual problem I can fix with Wikipedia and becomes a piece of evidence that I am not and will never be quite that cool.
It’s a new sensation, this feeling that my people, my places aren’t the standard of desirability. When I was growing up, the beautiful people with interesting lives were American or European, like me. Always. This reality remained unexamined for me, as did its implied negative—that it’s a little less desirable to be anything else.
Art dealing with this question of desire and aspiration, art that makes you want to be like someone, is the sort of art that those of us who like to consider ourselves literary or artistic usually disdain. Glossy TV, chick lit set in the fashion industry, billionaires falling in love, that sort of thing. There can be many different reasons for this, I think. It’s frivolous. It doesn’t present the world as it is, which is necessary for anything to be impactful. It’s vain, or it’s materialistic. It appeals to parts of ourselves we would rather didn’t exist.
If all that is true, then this new sensation I have of being displaced in the world’s social hierarchy wouldn’t matter very much. But I am confronted with such an immense change in the way I see the world after watching these shows that I cannot ignore their power and significance in my life and, it follows, their power and significance in general. I am no longer the center, and everything looks different. A whole region of the world I never thought about much at all is suddenly more interesting and vibrant than my own. My friends from China and Singapore have a glamour about them I didn’t notice before. I walk into HMart not with anthropological curiosity but with the same feeling I used to have walking into English tea shops when I was a girl—that this is as close as I can get to where the stories are.
Asian dramas appeal to the most basic aspirations, and our most basic aspirations are embarrassing—to be cool or attractive or included or desired. We don’t want them to have power over us. We hide these parts of ourselves, set them aside, lose track of them. We have the idea that we ought not take seriously anything that appeals to them. But for good or ill they do still exist, and if we wall them off and let nothing touch them, if a diversity of influence is only present in our consumption of the “highest” forms of art and literature, then they can never be altered.
I, personally, would rather pretend this part of me did not exist. I’ve gone ahead and made this obvious by pretending, a few paragraphs ago, that it did not. Rather than something about wistfulness for certain fictional tropes, the clearer and truer thing for me to say would have been this: there is an unchosen sixteen-year-old who is somehow still with me.
And it’s that sixteen-year-old who wants to watch A Love So Beautiful. It’s that part of me that is vulnerable to this outsider feeling—not understanding the language, looking all wrong, knowing there is nothing I can do to make myself really fit in. It’s the part of me that is still, even now, hungering for an answer to the question, “What is desirable? What is the cool thing to be and do right now?” These dramas have presented this part of me I usually try to ignore with a different answer to that question than the one I’ve been getting all my life. I’d never been shown a world where being Korean was the coolest, most desirable thing you could be, and Asian dramas have now shown that very thing to the part of me that most wants to be desired.
My imagination has been re-populated, my internal posture toward the rest of the world altered. This girl I still carry dwelled in a place in my heart no prize winning 600-page literary family saga was going to touch. I have come to believe that these parts of us are instrumental in changing the way we see, because they are foundational to us. And the art that appeals to them, as frivolous and silly as it may sometimes be, is instrumental in giving us a new chance at seeing. Watching Asian dramas, as embarrassing as it may be for me to admit, has shifted my foundation. It’s been well worth it to be hooked on them.
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