Our Great Korean Adventure began the way many great adventures do: with a misunderstanding. I was driving my 14-year-old daughter to school, as I do most mornings, steering our Subaru while sipping coffee from a tumbler, with her beside me, head down, transfixed by the flickering lights of her smartphone. On this day, for some reason, I decided enough was enough. My parental foot was coming down—hard.
“Sonya,” I barked. “We’ve got six minutes together. Stop texting your friends and talk to me.”
“I’m not texting my friends, Dad,” she said.
“Well, what are you doing on your phone?”
“I’m learning Korean.”
I nearly sideswiped a mailbox. “You’re doing what?”
At a stoplight, she handed me her phone. Sure enough, it was opened to an app with unfamiliar-to-me characters: the Hangul alphabet. My daughter was teaching herself Korean. Why?
“K-pop,” she said, as if it were obvious and I were clueless.
Her brief, hyphenated reply surprised me, confused me—and set in motion a 7,000-mile journey from our home in Silver Spring, Maryland, that, in ways large and small, altered the trajectory of our relationship.
K-pop, of course, is Korean pop music. But that’s like saying the Beatles were a band, or David Beckham a soccer player. Technically accurate, but woefully inadequate. K-pop is a cultural phenomenon and a multibillion-dollar industry. K-pop is performance art, as much visual as musical. It is a manufactured cultural product that is also fan driven. It can celebrate virtues such as hard work and moral probity yet has been rocked by scandals.
Pinpointing K-pop’s origins is tricky. Many say it was born in the early 1990s when a band called Seo Taiji and Boys made a splash. Some say it was in 2006 with a solo performer named Rain, one of the first to break out internationally. The dispute comes as no surprise; everything about K-pop is conflicted, which seems fitting for a peninsula politically carved in two and officially still at war.
K-pop is, above all, the sound of a country finding its voice, like a gangly teenager blossoming into adulthood. Fans around the world may not know how to read Hangul, but they do know BTS and Blackpink and dozens of other K-pop groups dancing and singing their way into young hearts everywhere.
K-pop is an alternative universe, and, unbeknownst to me, my daughter had immersed herself in it. At school basketball games, she and her friends danced to bouncy K-pop tunes during halftime. Between classes, they traded K-pop music and gossip.
How did I miss all this? The short answer: adolescence. Sonya was pulling away from me, as teenagers do. The longer answer: I wasn’t paying attention. I had responded to her withdrawal by withdrawing too, retreating to my books and single malt rather than risk rejection This was wrong, I realized, and I vowed to do something about it. I would join her in K-pop World. But how?
Sure, I could listen to K-pop songs, watch K-pop videos, buy K-pop merchandise. Instead, I decided to do what I always do when confronting a mystery of epic proportions—get on an airplane. One morning a few weeks later, on our drive to school, I pitched my crazy idea to Sonya. Let’s journey to the mothership of K-pop: Seoul.
She hesitated, and I thought I knew why. Our previous trips together, to France and India, hadn’t gone so well. I spent most of the time dadsplaining about one historical site or another. She spent most of her time eating McDonald’s and texting friends back home. The problem, I realized, is that they were my trips, with Sonya accompanying me—involuntarily. I wanted this trip to be different. I wanted it to be her trip.
A few months later, as we board the plane, pre-pandemic, I nervously contemplate the balancing act that lies ahead of me. On the one hand, I’m eager to convey my love of travel, and of participating in life even if it means making a fool of yourself. Yet I know I can’t push her too hard, lest she rebel and become a—gasp!—homebody. I want Sonya to be a traveler, like me, but she is not me. I’ve overlooked this obvious fact during our previous trips and am determined to get it right this time.
Trouble brews the moment we check into our hotel in Seoul and discover our room is the size of a subcompact car. She demarcates her side of the room, erecting a wall of pillows as impenetrable as the DMZ. I am not to cross that line under any circumstances, she says. I retreat to the lobby and crack open Untangled, by psychologist Lisa Damour. “Healthy adolescent development requires certain conditions—one being parents who can handle rejection.” I sigh audibly when I read that. I am a writer. I cannot handle rejection.
My solution: escaping our subcompact hotel room and immersing ourselves in Seoul. In our corner of Seoul, to be more precise. You never visit a city. You visit a slice of it. Bits and pieces that, taken together, constitute your Paris or your Bangkok.
Our slice of Seoul is called Hongdae. “You’ll hate it, but your daughter will love it,” said our interpreter, Jeong-eun, when I sought her advice early in the planning stages. So be it. If this was going to be Sonya’s trip, not mine, it seemed like a good opening concession.
Stepping onto the busy boulevard that fronts our hotel, I instantly see what Jeong-eun meant. Hongdae feels as if it were designed by teens for teens, with little adult supervision. I count no fewer than three gaming cafés within one square block of our hotel. Thrift stores nuzzle alongside a flashy Air Jordan flagship.
We’re walking down a pedestrian street chockablock with noodle restaurants and stores that have names like Tomato Library (a clothing store without a single tomato or book) when we hear it: a pulsating beat, layered with electronic melodies and cheery, campy lyrics that alternate between Korean and English. K-pop. Back home, Sonya would have to seek out K-pop. Here, it finds her. It’s in the air, and on the streets. It’s the soundtrack of Seoul, whether you like it or not. Sonya, dropping her teenage guard, says simply, “This is awesome.”
The music emanates from giant speakers erected by a group of street performers. Clustered in teams of two or three, they dance with an agility and synchronization that belie their busker status.
“I wish I could dance like that,” I tell Sonya.
“You’re so weird,” she says.
I’m about to ask her whether she means good-weird or bad-weird but stop myself. For teenagers, eager to fit in, there is no good-weird, only bad. What is travel, though, but an exploration of the weird, an attempt to make the strange familiar? I’m tempted to say but don’t. She has to come to that realization on her own timetable.
On the way back to our hotel, we notice an alley running behind it. The tiny street is teeming with more life than you’d find in other cities’ widest boulevards: barbecue restaurants, coffee shops with names like the Yellow Elephant, and, best of all, convenience stores. In this part of the world, convenience stores are not merely places to inhale an oversize soft drink or microwaved burrito. They are the heartbeat of neighborhoods. This is where people go to meet, have a beer, escape the heat.
We buy a Gangseo beer and a Sprite and plant ourselves on two plastic chairs abutting the curb. It’s time to plan the rest of our stay, I announce, neglecting my intention to make this her trip. Unfurling a map, I explain our options. East and across the Han River lies Gangnam, the neighborhood made famous, or infamous, by the singer PSY in his megahit song “Gangnam Style.” The video version, featuring PSY singing and prancing, amassed more than 4 billion views on YouTube, greatly expanding K-pop’s global appeal. There are stores selling K-pop merchandise and cafés run by entertainment companies where we might, might, spot an actual K-pop idol. The wild card is a K-pop concert. I thought scoring tickets would be easy. I was wrong. I have a contingency plan: a hologram “concert” in a shopping mall. I hope it doesn’t come to that.
The next morning, after a brief but animated tussle over bathroom counter space, we head for Gangnam. Stepping aboard the subway, Sonya is impressed with the sleek and spotless cars and the robust Wi-Fi signal. Korea is one of the most wired nation in the world, with better connectivity underground than most nations have on the surface.
Sonya is less impressed with my navigation skills. I’ve misread the public transit map, confusing bus and subway lines, dispatching us far from our intended destination.
“You have no sense of direction,” she says, before correcting herself: “No, you have a negative sense of direction. How do you travel the world?”
Good question. I’ve lost my way in Brooklyn and Bulgaria, New Jersey and Nepal. Undeterred, I charge ahead, oblivious to my wayward ways. Gumption is my GPS. All good travelers, I tell Sonya, know the value of getting completely, hopelessly lost.
She’s not buying it. She commandeers my smartphone and with a few swipes of her finger gets us back on track. She is in charge now. Ah, I think, as we trundle under the Han River, so this is what reverse parenting feels like.
South Korea has grown up, too. In a few short decades, it has gone from cultural importer to exporter. People across Asia gobble up Korean music and television and video games and beauty products. It’s all part of the Hallyu, the Korean Wave that has swept across Asia, and the world. The Wave is partly organic, partly manufactured. The South Korean government has nurtured the Wave, creating a $1 billion investment fund to help cultivate and export Korean pop culture around the world and establishing a government division devoted to the effort.
Gangnam has grown even posher since PSY gently mocked it nine years ago. Its streets, lined with high-end stores and pricey cafés, are crowded with Lamborghinis and Maseratis.
Turning a corner, we nearly collide with a statue commemorating Gangnam’s favorite son: two giant bronze hands, posed in the riding style PSY memorialized in his music video, with Gangnam Style etched into an enormous forearm. Sonya and I stare at the statue in silence, dumbfounded. It must be 16 feet tall. When PSY first saw it, he reportedly said, “This is too much, even for me.” Everything has its limits, even Gangnam excess.
We continue our stroll, enduring the swampy August air, plump with moisture and money, when we stumble across a pop-up store for a band called Twice. Sonya’s favorite. Photos of the girl group adorn the entrance. They are all smiles and sweetness. Very chak han—clean-cut, innocent. One of the images carefully crafted by the recording studios.
The store, spread across two floors, is packed with diehard Twice fans pawing the merchandise: passport cases, photo albums, phone chargers, cutlery, disposable cameras, body lotion, all emblazoned with the Twice logo. Sonya is taking it all in, awed. “This is kind of crazy,” she says, her voice indicating she means good-crazy.
She chooses a Twice spoon and chopstick set, and we join the line of fans happy to pay dearly for merchandise like this, another reminder that K-pop is big business. Many of the customers here are foreigners like us: a Japanese father with his teenage daughter, a Chinese woman stuffing suitcases full of merchandise.
The store manager, a smiling woman named Cho Sunghi, has actually met Twice, a fact that clearly impresses Sonya, judging by her wide-eyed expression.
“Twice is very special,” Sunghi says.
“What makes them special?” I ask. “Is it the music?”
“Sure, the music is really great,” she says, half-heartedly, but explains that it is their fan outreach and work ethic that sets them apart. “They never stop communicating with their fans. They never take a break. They are so hardworking.”
Forget the Western trope of the talented but lazy rock star. That doesn’t fly in Korea, a nation that honors hard work, sometimes to an extreme; witness the hundreds of cram schools that cater to ambitious parents and their diligent children. Only hardworking K-pop idols rise to the top.
Hard work, I’ve learned, is also needed to land concert tickets. My efforts have, so far, proved futile. Even my fallback plan, the hologram show, has hit a roadblock: The virtual idols are experiencing technical difficulties. I vow to persevere.
By day three, I realize Sonya sees more than I do. She notices the small, such as the incongruity of American rap music playing in a Korean café. She notices that waiters always bring you a pitcher of ice water the moment you sit down, and that some tables contain a small hidden compartment for chopsticks. She notices, and appreciates, that Korean doors open in both directions, by either pushing or pulling. She’s right, but I wonder aloud why this is advantageous.
“Think about it,” she says. “You don’t have to worry about making a fool of yourself—by pushing when you should pull or pulling when you should push.” Korean doors are embarrassment-proof, and for a teenager there is no better virtue.
We don’t like the same things about Korea, Sonya and I. She likes the thrift stores. I like the bookstores and libraries. Not only their ubiquity, but their aesthetics, too. One library, located smack in the middle of a shopping mall, features towering bookshelves three stories tall, stretching skyward like a cathedral for books. If it were up to me, we’d spend all day there. That is, in essence, what we’ve done on our previous journeys. In my mind, they were collaborative. They were not. And apparently, I’m not doing much better this time. “I follow you everywhere,” she tells me as we leave the bookstore. Her words land like a body blow. Clearly I’ve failed to cede control and make this her journey.
This must change, I decide. So when she suggests we go shopping for vintage clothing, I agree, even though it’s the last thing I want to do. Doing something you wouldn’t normally do, and doing it with gusto—that’s another aspect of travel I claim to embrace. So we shop, and I take my own advice, making the strange familiar.
As preparation for our trip, I had read books about K-pop, studied its origins, mapped its global footprint. I had not, however, actually listened to K-pop. When, on day four of our journey, Sonya points out this obvious oversight, I take her advice and binge-listen. I like what I hear. I like Twice and their unapologetically upbeat lyrics: You gotta know you’re one in a million… One in a million, the only one in the world. You’re a masterpiece, you are perfect. I like the way the wildly successful K-pop group BTS tackles subjects not typically tackled in Korea, such as sadness and loneliness. Even loneliness turns into something you can see. As I listen, I silently thank Sonya, and vow to express my gratitude soon. She has opened a new and wonderful world to me, one I never would have discovered on my own.
I’m not done parenting, though. Not yet. One of the lessons I want to instill in Sonya is to get involved. Don’t be a passive traveler, a mere observer. Do something. I urge Sonya to use her Korean, even if it’s only a few words, but she won’t. She’s afraid of making mistakes. She’s not buying my “mistakes are how we learn” line, so I decide to teach by example. I sign us up for a K-pop dance lesson.
Day five, we find the Real K-Pop Dance Academy tucked away in the basement of a nondescript building in Hongdae, not far from our favorite convenience store. The studio has mirrors and wooden floors. It looks like a disco relic.
There are eight of us: a group of college students visiting from California, a couple from Japan—and me. Despite much cajoling and bribing, Sonya refuses to join the class. “I don’t dance,” she declares, as if it were a congenital condition. “It’s not what I do.” The possibility of embarrassment is too great.
Our instructor is perky and ridiculously fit. She makes each of the moves look easy. They are not. I try my best to keep up, but soon fall hopelessly behind. When she dips left, I dip right. When she pirouettes, I spin like a drunken dervish. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice the Japanese couple and immediately wish I hadn’t. They’re much better at this than I am.
Afterward, I ask Sonya, who saw everything, where I went awry. She suggests it was during the warm-ups.
“You have no shame,” she says. “I think you need some.”
“Was I really that bad?”
“Let me put it this way,” she says. “I would not pursue this as a career path.”
Okay, so I can’t dance. But I participated. I was willing, and able, to make a complete fool of myself, and that is a valuable lesson—one I hope will rub off on Sonya, if not today, then someday.
The seventh and final day of our journey: My persistence has paid off. Concert tickets, at last. That’s the good news. The bad news is it’s not tickets to see Twice or BTS or some other red-hot group. We got tickets to see PSY. In K-pop World, he’s an outlier. At 43, he is a generation older than most idols. But he helped put K-pop on the global map, and somehow it seems fitting that we’re going to attend a concert by the old man of the business.
We arrive early, but others have, too. Tens of thousands of Koreans, mostly adults in their 30s and 40s. And us. Outside, the Korean equivalent of a tailgate party is under way, with giant inflatable PSYs floating alongside food trucks selling kimchi and dumplings. (The latter is of great interest to Sonya, who never met a dumpling she didn’t like.)
As we enter the stadium, staffers hand us each a poncho. How nice, I think, a souvenir. Sonya, for some reason, is concerned by the ponchos.
I soon discover why. When PSY appears on stage, the water cannons are let loose. We’re instantly soaked. We should care, I know, but we don’t. Why? Partly because it’s 100 degrees outside but mostly because we’re in Korea at a PSY concert and there is a very real possibility of dumplings.
Plan your trip with the AFAR guide to Seoul.
PSY is, like me, shameless. Unlike me, he has talent. He grinds his hips and prances across the stage, accompanied by 10 dancers. Gold streamers and sparklers fill the air, mixing with the streams of water. He’s singing in Korean, then suddenly switches to English, and I hear: “Right now!” People are jumping and pumping their fists in the air and screaming, “Right Now!” I can say that, I think, so I do. I jump and punch the air. “Right now!” Is it campy? Sure, but K-pop owns its campiness, celebrates it, and that makes all the difference.
Sonya is several yards away, huddled under her poncho. No air punching for her. She’s drenched, but even from this distance I can see the expression on her face. It is the look of pure joy.
PSY still hasn’t performed “Gangnam Style,” and we figure he won’t until the very end. Tired and soaked, we decide to leave early. We’re in the parking lot behind the stadium, eating kimchi and steamed dumplings when we hear, faintly, in the distance, “Ehhh—sexy lady”: “Gangnam Style.” Oh well. The dumplings are delicious, Sonya informs me.
Later, as our taxi crosses the Han River, I ask Sonya what she thought of the concert.
“It was fun,” she says surprising me with her articulation of something other than annoyance.
“So you enjoyed it?”
“I enjoyed it internally. Most people enjoyed it externally.”
Maybe, I think, with the bright lights of Hongdae filling the taxi windshield, this is what adolescence is all about. Internal enjoyment, but external coolness. Any other way would be, well, weird.
After the long flight home, we’re walking across our front yard, luggage in hand, only a few yards from the front door, when I say, “Well, eight days together and we didn’t kill each other.”
“Not yet,” says Sonya, without missing a beat. “We’re not home yet.”
I smile. The kid has a sense of humor. My work here is done.