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Train like a K-pop star, party like a rock star

(Confession time: As a world language teacher, my only real professional goal is to one day become a private instructor for a K-pop boyband.)

Anyone who’s followed Asian entertainment for the last ten years knows that DBSK eventually became one of the first non-Western foreign artists to completely dominate the Japanese pop scene, paving the way for countless other K-pop artists to lead successful careers in Japan. These guys were the pioneers. They left behind an explosively lucrative career in Korea to debut as complete unknowns in Japan: they played to tiny crowds, they went to record company offices and handed out free copies of their CDs, and most impressively, they became completely fluent in Japanese just to appeal to local audiences. Their efforts eventually paid off (quite nicely, actually), but at the cost of an almost unreal amount of sacrifice and hard work. There were easier ways to debut in Japan, but DBSK chose the past that was the most difficult, most taxing, and ultimately, most rewarding.

It’s hard to ignore the parallels between the K-pop idol system and the Confucian work ethic. I distinctly remember hearing once that the reason why an idol management company like SM Entertainment casts mainly for looks and not talent is because “looks are the only thing that can’t be trained.” The idea of the K-pop trainee factory goes completely against the typical Western pop ideal of the undiscovered starlet with the natural talent of a thousand suns. K-pop idols are not discovered, but created: they are handpicked, trained, trained, trained, molded, packaged, and marketed — all within a highly risk-averse system working to ensure that the resources originally poured into each idol are eventually earned back. The system regularly takes good looking kids with zero-to-average singing and dancing talent and turns them into pros.

No greater example of this can be found outside of Produce 101, a talent reality show that, in its first season, featured one hundred young female trainees (they aren’t professional singers yet!), all of them competing for a chance to actually debut (because, again, they aren’t professional singers yet!), their futures placed in the hands of voting audiences at home.

For all its dominance of the global pop market, I don’t think this show is something that could ever be replicated in America. To be clear: I don’t think that, amongst the US’ ginormous population, it would be difficult to find one hundred cute and talented American teenage girls who would be willing to compete on TV. But I don’t think it’d be possible to find one hundred American teenage girls who have exactly the right kind of skills and potential needed to become exactly the right kind of idol that supplies the bloodflow of an entire country’s taste in pop music. It’d be like trying to find one hundred Ariana Grandes.

And yet, South Korea — a country with less than 1/6 the population of the US and a culture that actively discourages kids from pursuing frivolous entertainment careers — was somehow not only able to pull this off once, but managed to do it again — this time bigger and better! — for season 2.

The debate on whether this culture of training and manufacturing is good or bad for the music industry (or, y’know, the developmental health of the children in it) is one that will live in perpetuity. But there is something to be said about how in Asia, even its pop stars are a product of hard work and determination, rather than mere talent and luck. Western cultures tend to use personal exceptionalism as a gauge for merit. Asian culture says, “Anyone can get there; they just have to work hard.” Western culture says, “Don’t worry, you’re naturally talented; you’ll get discovered in no time.” Audiences assign value to pop stars in a similar fashion: Western audiences tend to favor stars with seemingly God-given talent and are quick to dismiss anything that appears “manufactured,” while Asian audiences are more likely to respect and support stars who worked hard to train their skills to a level comparable to that of their “naturally talented” counterparts, despite having little natural talent of their own.

Obviously these cultural comparisons are not new. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how these two different value systems often yield two very different variations on the same product. The US music market stumbles upon a Demi Lovato or a Camila Cabello once every few years, while the Korean music market pumps out so many female idols every year that people have literally stopped counting. Granted, you’d be hard pressed to find an Camila-level talent in K-pop nowadays, but the point is that Western cultures are discovering only a handful of new stars every few years, because “true talent is rare.” And yet, Korea is able to churn out countless amounts of stars that might not always be as “talented” as their Western counterparts, but still manage to get the job done. I’m beginning to believe that this difference in work ethic is what principally defines the contrast between the “West” and the “East” — not the work ethic values themselves, but the products that they result in. If pop music is no exception to this phenomenon, then nothing is.

At least, teaching Chinese isn’t. My biggest challenge as a Chinese teacher right now is to figure out a way to teach Chinese to kids that exemplify neither the exceptionalism of the West (e.g. the few genius American kids who can memorize lists and lists of vocabulary without much effort) nor the pertinacity of the East (e.g. the millions of average Chinese / Chinese-American kids who, despite their lack of intellectual talent, are still willing to suffer through memorizing those same vocabulary lists just to achieve, er, basic literacy in their native language). So far, these are the only two kinds of teenagers that I’ve seen achieve any real success at learning Chinese. As for the kids who fall into neither category (which is the vast majority of kids in America)…well, it’s been really hard to find curriculum and set expectations that work for them, to say the least. Current trends in Chinese teaching don’t really seem to acknowledge the existence of this large population of kids, let alone provide materials for them.

So for the time being, I’ve been trying to treat my kids more like K-pop trainees than like Ariana Grandes, reminding them that “no one is born an expert, and anyone can do it as long as they work hard!” My Asian brain tells me that this is supposed to be more encouraging for them than discouraging, but reality has done a pretty good job of proving my brain wrong lately. Phrases like “I’m just not a math person” or “This AP class thing just isn’t working for me” have never sounded more grating to me. Like I can feel the spirits of my ancestors recoiling inside of me or something. Is this what “culture shock” is supposed to feel like??

And yet, I still need to remind myself sometimes that hey, I’m an American too, and I definitely have had those moments where I write off something as being unachievable because I think it to be beyond the scope of my “natural abilities” when it clearly isn’t, and the only things keeping me from pushing myself a little more is fear, laziness, and low standards. I mean if the sky wasn’t so limitless, it wouldn’t nearly be as inspiring, right? So here’s to reminding myself that we all ought to be more like teenage K-pop trainees in pink school uniforms rather than American pop divas, because that’s the real key to hard work, perseverance and, eventually, success. 😛