Engaging With My Identity in the Context of Korean Media & Society

The story of me getting in touch with who I truly am deep down began last year with the cancellation of my ISA program to Sydney, Australia. Yes, really. My pre-pandemic life had been a continuous tunnel of go, go, go. I had everything planned for the program. My plane tickets secured, all paperwork completed, and then….poof. I had nothing in the foreseeable future except for time stuck indoors, trying to get through the awful year that all of us had to experience. For me, it was a time for me to really sit down and think about my own identity and come to conclusions about myself that I never had spoken aloud: that I am, in fact, bisexual. The next step was to embrace this new identity in the context of my country’s own society and figure out what that meant for me going forward. A society that is laced with legal acceptance of LGBTQ+ marriages and a good amount of positive attitudes. A society that has very similar attitudes to that of my original intended destination of Australia. 

One program cancellation and a location change later, I was ecstatic to learn that I would be able to travel in summer 2021 with ISA to Seoul, South Korea. South Korea is a country that I am excited to be in, but I know their society has different attitudes about the LGBTQ+ community than my home country of the United States. The country lacks the total legal protections for legal partnership and marriage that the United States and Australia have both adopted only within the past six years. Naturally, I know through openly expressing my sexuality that I may face some challenges, but I wanted to dive in and learn more about my own community in the context of Korean society. I just had no idea how to go about doing so. 

Fast-forward to my mandatory two-week quarantine in Seoul. A week into my Mass Media and Pop Culture in Korea class, I had been assigned to work on a group project in order to explore an aspect of Korean media that is not discussed in class. After much deliberation, my group settled on exploring the portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters in Korean dramas. We connected the treatment of these characters by other characters, and by the writers of the dramas, to how individuals of particular identities in the LGBTQ+ community are viewed in society. I realized that this is the way that I can try to connect with my identity during my time here. 

Through my group’s research on dramas such as Itaewon Class and Where Your Eyes Linger, I have discovered that LGBTQ+ characters are written into more and more programs in Korea, which reflect possible changes in attitude of the society. Many times, LGBTQ+ characters are usually treated as side characters in comparison to heterosexual characters in the programs, and their sexuality is typically one of the few things that any plot written about them centers around. I realized that even though the United States has legal protections for LGBTQ+ marriage, LGBTQ+ characters in American programs are treated similarly to that of Korean characters.

To me, this means we have so much work to do globally on how we go about representing LGBTQ+ characters and telling their stories, especially with bisexual/pansexual characters, who rarely make an appearance in any programs, regardless of country. Making this conclusion made the world feel a bit smaller, and made me a lot more passionate about media portraying these characters in a more true-to-life manner. Connecting more and more with my own identity is something I never expected for my study abroad experience, but I am so glad I get to do so.

Kelsey Eihausen is a student at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She is an ISA Identity & Inclusion Blogger and is studying abroad with ISA in Seoul, South Korea.

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