Choi Siwon is a big deal, both as a key member of Super Junior, and as an actor.
How did I meet him? There was a conference, specifically on the Future of Korean Studies as a field, held at Stanford. I was invited to participate as a "rising star" in Korean Studies and my expenses were covered. I did not have a chance to speak on a panel devoted to cultural studies, or to hallyu, or something like that because although other panels addressed history, literature, Korean language education, and the social sciences, the panel for popular culture was given to Choi Siwon and Dominque Rodriguez, the head of SME's US branch office (the man who practically actualizes SME's vision for North American and Latin American expansion).
Thursday the conference started and I was no closer to an answer to my inner question "Do I take a photo with Choi Siwon?" than I had been in the weeks since I learned I'd meet him. Why would I hesitate? It's true that my favorite thing Super Junior ever did was a brief foray into trot (in other words, they are not my favorite group), but more specifically, Choi Siwon had shared an anti-LGBT tweet/link. When fans responded he defended himself, saying that because of his Christian belief he believed marriage was between a man and a woman. This exchange (deleted not that long after, but screenshots are always taken these days) had caused me to write off Siwon, and to an extent, Super Junior. There are so many other K-pop groups to like, and only so many hours in the day, I felt no loss at this decision.
Thursday night at our fancy reception (Stanford is fancy) Siwon was seated one table away from me, we were facing the same direction. Turning 90 degrees to my right, there he was, not seven feet away. I didn't ask for a photo. Some others did. I went back to my hotel room, knowing that my students would be impressed if I took a photo with him, but still conflicted. And I hatched the wild plan to make him record a video greeting to my students.
I didn't use zoom for this photo. Also, honestly, I was taking a photo of Shin Giwook, Stanford Sociologist and the man who made the conference happen giving an address to all of us. (Siwon is on the right, Shin is the man who is standing).
The conference room had space for 150 people, although some chairs were blocked from good view by SBS, which had set up a whole media center-- they're making a documentary on Korean Studies (airing in March 2019). On Thursday and Friday morning about 50 people were in attendance, a little more than the number at our reception the night before. But Stanford had let people register online and Friday afternoon as Siwon's presentation approached the chairs were all spoken for. I was still in my same seat for the entire conference-- 2nd row, center aisle. Mr. Rodriguez spoken, and then Siwon. I have a fair amount to say about what they said and how but I'm trying to make a different point here-- let's table that topic. However, suffice to say that I asked a very tough question, and instead of answering directly Siwon asked me "Saeji 교수님, .." yes, Siwon is that smooth. He knew my name, and used it. And then he sort of ducked my question, even though he had switched to Korean (as he did for all the complex questions). So we had this little exchange in the middle of the conference. He also ducked a question about his stance on LGBT, later in the Q and A. Oh and those many additional attendees? They were fans who had flown in from Boston and Ottawa to breathe the same air as Siwon (and ask some questions of their own).
Siwon, Dom Rodriguez and Dafna Zur (Stanford, literature).
Shin Giwook and Siwon after the conference posing for a photo with a lot of fans. Dom Rodriguez is next to Shin Giwook.
When the conference ended as Siwon was exiting (through a gaggle of excited girls) I jumped into the elevator (as the people around him tried to block me, and he said it was okay) and in the 1 floor elevator ride I told him he needed to record the video greeting to my students. And the elevator opened and despite people trying to rush him to his 'schedule' I directed him to stand in the nice light and told them it'd take 30 seconds. Success.
Siwon says, "Hello. Today, luckily I was able to spend a good time with Professor Saeji. Study han'gukhak, study Korean Studies hard. And please love Choi Siwon, Super Junior and many SM artists."
I kind of flew down the stairs, still not believing I had been that gutsy. I mean, the man sucked all the air out of the room, and I was less than an arm's length from him.
It took me several days to finish thinking through my experience. To realize that I was impressed by Siwon. That he had changed my opinion of him by being self-possessed, articulate (in English and Korean), funny, and seemingly genuine. And then I started to feel bad. I had judged this young man, just sort of put him on the 'bad' list based on a single two part social media interaction-- sharing the link, standing by the anti-gay marriage sentiments of the link. I literally wrote and published an academic article [link] with several really great former students and TAs about SHINee Jonghyun's suicide (although there is no way to know how much online criticism impacted Jonghyun's decision to take his own life, it was undoubtedly a factor). I know that idol stars' tiny missteps are blown up into giant controversies. I know (and lecture to my students) that many idols have poor educations-- they begin training as early teens, debut in their mid to late teens, and are kept constantly busy to such a degree that exhaustion and stress-related injuries are common. They don't have time to learn even the things that ordinary Koreans know. They are memorizing choreography instead of going to classes. They are learning new songs instead of listening to the Korean equivalent of NPR, CBC, or some smart podcast. They are body-building instead of reading up on social issues or hanging out with diverse friends. I also know (and teach my students) about various Korean positions on various hot button social issues-- I can talk to you for quite a while about homophobia in Korea, and I am well acquainted with the ways the Protestant evangelicals in Korea weaponize Christianity against sexual minorities. If those are the ideas you're exposed to, and you're too busy to learn more on your own, should it be surprising you think that way? And somehow, despite knowing all the ways that idols are held to insanely high standards, and all the reasons why Siwon might not know better than to be against marriage equality (or even, *gasp* that he has a right to have his own opinion even if it does antagonize part of his fan base), I had judged this man. Really, a young man, with very little life experience aside from an all-consuming entertainment career. Siwon is not much older than my students.
And my students do say some darn uninformed things and I figure 'I'm going to move this student in the right direction by educating them,' I don't write them off. I separate their half-formed ideas, their poorly-thought through opinions from them as humans. I have a student right now who has expressed some MRA (Men's Rights Activist) ideas, but I think he's a super sweet young man, and he's hardly the first MRA-influenced Korean man I've met (in fact, MRA thought is convincing to young Korean men for the same reasons that the Yemeni refugees in Korea are getting the cold shoulder-- Koreans feel so panicked, so squeezed, so under pressure living in 'Hell Joseon' that they can easily feel there isn't enough to go around to share equally with women, or to be gracious and welcoming to the refugees).
And Siwon was smart, gracious, and sincere. He held himself well, and acted, so far as I could see, with grace and kindness. But as a celebrity anything he does (or his dog does when his dad is walking it) can become a controversy in moments. That his boss, his contract, his obligation to his group mates, his fame, his chance to star in dramas or appear in ad campaigns all keep him in such tight control that one wonders how much actual life he is able to enjoy. When I was his age I could still say dumb things without the world knowing b/c it wasn't on Twitter. And even now I can say dumb things and I'm just a person, really not very important at all (and I do say dumb things, my foot fits very well in my mouth, I'm afraid). I didn't let Siwon make a single mistake, even though I wasn't online writing nasty comments, I was still part of the problem. That was a very sobering, even humiliating realization.
Right now BTS is in the wringer for a series of conflated incidents that happened on different days in different places and for different reasons-- another bunch of boys in a public relations minefield. And I want to excuse them (why them and not Siwon? because I like their music, because they're so young, because I want to believe in fairy tales?). In my mind BTS are boys who put on the clothes they were told to wear, and months later find concerts cancelled as people curse them online. Boys that will bear the brunt of the anger, even if each of the separate incidents that has created this kerfuffle may not have been their mistake at all.
BTS leader RM wearing a Nazi hat from a 2015 photoshoot, posing at a Holocaust memorial, and the same shirt that member Jimin wore in the spring to set off the current controversy.
Will this one mistake by BTS (or three dating back to 2015) be enough to derail BTS's burgeoning popularity? This certainly is not helping. BTS was partially able to attract Western audiences for their social consciousness and actually holding (trendy) social positions (unlike most K-pop groups) as indicated by their work with UNICEF, famously culminating in their UN speech earlier this fall. The Nazi hat and H-bomb t-shirt (to Koreans the H-Bomb mushroom cloud is a symbol of freedom from the brutal Japanese occupation) have been written off as the responsibility of the agency and stylists, not the idols, but for those outside the Korea-sphere this shifting of responsibility is unlikely to work, especially since it runs counter to BTS's appeal that they are a different type of idol group (not controlled, not a formula).
Seeing online vitriol directed at BTS (and feeling my mama bear instincts activated) I realized that Siwon's mistake had pushed my own buttons-- by motivating my worries that idol's voices are too loud and youth too impressionable, while my Korean friends who don't fit the hetero-normative paradigm experience indignities, even danger in a society with no legal protections and a lot of prejudice (nor did it relieve my frustrations with the co-opting of Jesus for hate, or my annoyance with the unsavory behavior of evangelical Koreans in general). BTS's mistake felt like this one time when I was working and I was told to do X, and X was really a bad idea, but because I was told to do X, I just did it without stopping to question if it was a good idea, or what my own knowledge told me about the situation (X meant I got a truck stuck in a river and we had to winch it out, but the engine was not okay with the dunking, just in case you were wondering).
In other words, I am now embarrassed both that I condemned Siwon so easily, and that my instinct is to leap to BTS's defense when really they know the importance of the title 'idol,' and they have created a socially aware hype that is part of the problem (greater expectations=greater disappointment). Being an idol is not easy, being a young person with social media at one's fingertips is not easy, and learning to extend the same compassion I give to my students to even a celebrity who was a total stranger until the conference is not easy. I'm going to work on that last one and hope the idols and young people of the world work out the other two to be a little more self-aware, and a little more empathetic.