The first Korean drama I ever watched was a melodrama entitled Winter Sonata, arguably the one that kicked off what’s now referred to as the hallyu phenomenon: a sudden surge of popularity of South Korean entertainment. Like many others, I was completely drawn into ridiculous but addictive plots, full of colorful characters and more than a fair share of plot twists. In the 12 years since, I’ve watched countless episodes of the hundreds of new dramas produced each year. I knew that the shows were a time-sucking past-time—but it wasn’t until this past year that I began to see how these virtual worlds were seeping into my real world, and my personal relationships, more drastically than I ever could have imagined.
The most popular drama last year, You Who Came From the Stars, centers around an alien stranded on Earth who inevitably falls in love with the female lead. But Do Min-Joon, played by Kim Soo-Hyun, is no E.T: he’s attractive, fashionable, very fit, and fantastically wealthy. He has degrees from top institutions, possesses secret superpowers, and risks using them in order to protect the one he loves. In short, he’s a perfect being.
It started innocently enough. After I finished watching the show, I sent my boyfriend a photo of Kim Soo-Hyun’s stylish hair, for inspiration for his next barber’s visit. And how great would it be, I said to him, if he were to bike to work while wearing a slim-fitting suit, like the way Do Min-Joon does in the show? My boyfriend, a calm and straightforward fellow, was not pleased with this development in our relationship.
But he later found more reasons to be even unhappier about it. It’s not uncommon for people to compare their significant others to ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends, but having been completely absorbed in the show, I found myself comparing my real-life boyfriend to the fictional Do Min-Joon. When I got frustrated with my boyfriend, there were times when I couldn’t help but think: “Man, my relationship would be so much better if my boyfriend was more like Do Min-Joon!”
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Of course, I knew that my boyfriend could never have superpowers like Do Min-Joon. Nor could he be an extremely wealthy surgeon/historian/professor, or adopt a right blend of aloofness and passion that screenwriters had dreamed up. Still, I was unsatisfied—and I wasn’t alone. Other girls I spoke with echoed the same sentiments regarding their on-screen crushes and their expectations of love and relationships.
Somehow, we’d forgotten that these characters are fictional. We know that the producers haven’t addressed the less glamorous aspects of maintaining a relationship throughout the years. We know that they gloss over challenges accepting your significant other’s changing body shape or forgiving them for their stubborn habits. Still, when we see so many happy fairytale endings, however crazy the obstacles and miraculous the finales, that’s what we subconsciously start to crave.
It also doesn’t help when the actors themselves seem to be just as perfect as the characters they play, charismatic interviews and articles further blurring the line between production and reality. And what we often fail to see is that this all is, in fact, a production. Actors playing the characters have had extensive media training, and the Korean entertainment industry in particular has developed special training academies to create virtually perfect idols for fangirls such as myself. We often don’t get to see the real flaws, the real personalities, the reality.
So how did I finally come around? At one point, my boyfriend and I spent a bit of time apart, due to increasingly busy schedules. When I was alone, I found the time to really think about what I wanted in my relationship. How unsatisfied was I, really, that my boyfriend wasn’t fulfilling my drama-informed expectations? The reality was this: He had cheered me on when I decided to apply for grad school, though many of my peers believed I couldn’t do it. He once skipped his last class of the day to bring me medicine and my favorite sushi when I was hit with a particularly painful bout of cramps. And at the end of the day, I realized, that kind of support and love was what made my day-to-day better—not superpowers and perfect hair.
It’s not just about appreciating what you have in real life. It’s also about setting aside those fairytales, setting aside the perfect heroes for the perfect heroines, and remembering who you really are. What do you really need in life? What really makes you happy? We’re willing to bet the answer isn’t a shiny, rehearsed façade.