The picture of Korean fans that international fans can see is incredibly narrow: we know of Korean fandom based off of the seas of glowing lightsticks, the carefully catalogued fancam and fan photo collections, the mobs we see at airports and Guerrilla Date recordings, the extravagant gifts they buy for their favorite idols — and, of course, sasaeng fandom. From that, the conclusion that many international fans draw about Korean fans is that they take fandom way too seriously, and that they can be “scary” — or even dangerous.
What we don’t see, though, is how Korean fans act as people and as “fangirls” like the rest of us. We don’t see how they talk amongst themselves, how they organize those super-intense fanchants, how they “spazz” to their favorite idols…just like the rest of us. It’s gotten to the point where we are taken aback and surprised when we see translations of fan comments that are even the slightest bit funny or snarky or sarcastic, because gosh who knew those crazy Korean fans actually had a sense of humor?!
I wish it were as simple as just saying, “Hey guys, Korean fans are spazzy fangirls/boys just like the rest of us so maybe we should stop treating them like mobs of crazy people okay?!?!” but the issue runs much deeper than simply acknowledging the fact that Korean fans are sensible, regular human beings with minds of their own. When I first got into K-pop, the first thing I learned as a K-pop fan was that Korean Fans Are Crazy — crazy enough to start suicide petitions and chase an idol out of his own country, crazy enough to cause black oceans at concerts, crazy enough to submit legal “evidence” to the Seoul District Court in regards to a lawsuit that had nothing to do with them. (2009 was a great year, you see.) And, with the amount of English-language press given to sasaeng fandom, extravagant fan gifts, and other evidences of Korean fan “mob mentality,” it’s no wonder that many international fans are walking into the K-pop fandom with that very same assumption.
There’s a lot that can be said as to why international (namely, Western) fans are prone to stereotyping Korean fans in a certain way that is reflective of general Western stereotypes about East Asian culture (collectivism, loyalty, society over self), but what might be a more relevant point fact that these behaviors exhibited by Korean fans are in no way exclusive to Korean fans. The main issue with the post highlighted at the beginning of this article is the idea that foreign fans are somehow inherently “bigger” than Korean fans, and are thus fit to “protect” these idols because they regard themselves to have more self control and simply “know better.” This notion assumes that Korean fans are unfit to protect these idols in the same way because they are inherently subject to these inappropriate behaviors while foreign fans are not. This is a ridiculous assumption at best, and a racist one at worst.
To break this down a bit, here are three common assumptions/assertions that international fans make about Korean/Asian fans.
1) Sasaeng fans are a Korea/Asia-exclusive phenomenon; international/Western fans could never be sasaengs.
Number one: Sasaeng fans are not good and their actions should not be condoned. Number two: Most fans are not sasaengs. You are not a sasaeng. I am not a sasaeng. If you’re not too busy chasing down your oppa with a sasaeng taxi to read this article, you are probably not a sasaeng. Okay? Cool. (Considering that I somehow have a reputation for being a sasaeng fan apologist, I thought this disclaimer might be necessary. But anyway.)
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here’s a thought: Where do sasaeng fans come from? Are they a sect of mentally ill people with a thing for chasing down K-pop idols? Extreme behavior only becomes “extreme” if it is borne out of a “regular” behavior to begin with, and it’s widely understood that most sasaeng fans started out as plain old regular fans who later deviated from the main fold in order to pursue a more extreme form of fandom. The transition from regular fan to sasaeng fan requires four key components: location, resources, comradeship, and drive. Out of all four components, location holds the most importance. A sasaeng fan can have all the resources and information in the world, s/he can be surrounded by a large, tight community of other sasaengs, and s/he can have all the energy and willingness needed to hunt down idols day and night. But if s/he isn’t in close enough physical proximity to the idols to do any actual stalking, then s/he cannot logically be a sasaeng fan. In other words, a non-Korean international fan could have all the makings of a sasaeng fan, but if s/he’s not actually in Korea — where idols live, work, and spend most of their time — s/he can’t be considered a sasaeng fan.
Location is the reason why sasaeng fandom is largely concentrated in Korea, but think about this: apart from location, there’s literally nothing that can keep a non-Korean fan from pursuing sasaeng fandom. An international fan can easily find likeminded compatriots and gain the mentality and motivation to stalk idols; they can go so far as to learn Korean and start combing through existing Korean sasaeng fan resources for information. The only thing that keeps an international fan engaged in remote, self-directed “extreme fandom” from being a sasaeng fan is a physical barrier.
Don’t believe me? Then what about that time a few Super Junior members were on personal vacation in Europe, and European fans started analyzing Twitter photos and combing the streets in the hopes of tracking down the members’ locations? What about that time fans in California chased EXO by the masses around Disney Land? What about every single K-pop concert held in the United States or Europe, where camping outside of the idols’ hotels is considered a good chance to foster collective fandom camaraderie? What about the fact that international fans openly refer to their actions as “stalking” whenever they know they’re in the same city as an idol? Putting aside the fact that many Korean companies are still inexplicably enthralled by the idea of K-pop’s “foreign” fans and indirectly encourage such “stalking” (SMTown NYC’s hot pink buses, anyone?), why do international fans see this behavior as acceptable when they regard sasaeng fandom so severely?
One might argue that waiting outside of a hotel or searching for an idol when they’re vacationing in your own home city as a “once in a lifetime experience” is a far cry from extreme sasaeng fan behavior. But the objective here isn’t to call international fandom out for engaging in behavior that directly resembles sasaeng fandom, but to point out that the motivation is what can drive an otherwise unsuspecting fan to sasaeng fandom. The notion that “this is a once in a lifetime opportunity so I need to do everything within my power to get close to my idol because who knows when I’ll have another chance like this” is one that, if left unbridled, can lead to some very dangerous behavior. Defined simply, sasaeng fandom is fandom without boundaries, fandom without knowing when to say “enough.” Sasaeng fans in Korea engage in such extreme behavior and act with such disrespect because they have set up no boundaries for themselves. International fans are typically restricted by the boundary of physical distance, but experience has proven that there’s no such thing as “enough” once those boundaries have been lifted. Idols stay in the United States or Europe usually for no more than one or two days, which also limits what fans can do to track them down. But what would happen if these idols stayed around for a week? A month? What if they lived there and had to move freely about the city without being escorted in and out of hotel lobbies in order to function as normal human beings? What if fans had the time and the resources to track down these idols in their new locales? What would international fans do then if they were given so many opportunities to get close to their idol?
The reason why there are so many Korean sasaeng fans isn’t because Korean fans are inherently that much “crazier,” and it isn’t because Korean fandom or even Korean society condones sasaeng fan activity. The reason why there are so many Korean sasaeng fans is because K-pop stars live in Korea within a stone’s throw of their fans’ houses. Sasaeng fandom is not some sort of alien disease that only spreads amongst Koreans, and international fans really, really need to start rethinking the idea that they are “too good” to be sasaeng fans simply because they are not Korean.
2) International fans are “cooler” than Korean/Asian fans; Asian fans take fandom way too seriously.
Perhaps it comes to no surprise that the latest forum for K-pop fans to congregate and fangirl is Tumblr, Land of Macros and Funny Gifs. We love to love our idols by poking fun of them, and as someone who’s been accused of being a Minho antifan because of my track record for making fun of him (if only because he’s just so easy to make fun of), let me be the first to say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making jokes and editing silly photos of our idols as long as it’s all in good fun and it stays within the fandom. But there is something wrong with comparing our international fandom “culture” with our assumptions about Korean fandom culture and thinking that our fandom is more fun or more chill — and thus, better — than Korean fandom culture.
The problem in this isn’t that we’re hurting Korean fans’ feelings for not thinking that they’re funny, but because by assuming Korean fans take fandom too seriously and don’t know how to have fun like we do, it enforces stereotypes that, again, frame our view of Korean fandom in the context of these hysteric, hopelessly devoted masses composed of robot-like individuals who can’t think for themselves.
I keep bringing up the stereotype of these “Korean fan mobs” because it’s a stereotype of East Asians that pervades not just in fandom, but in society at large. The juxtaposition of Westerners as “individuals” who know how to “take it easy” versus the Asian “masses” who don’t know anything except hard work and loyalty reflects a kind of moral and cultural elitism that dates back to the era of Western military imperialism. It’s a form of oppressive thinking that shouldn’t be taken lightly anywhere, including fandom. The reason why we as international fans might think ourselves to be “more chill” than Korean fans isn’t because of what we do: make gifs, manipulate photos, write crackfic — but it’s because of what Korean fans do differently than us: spend time preparing fangifts, compiling fancams, planning events. We see our form of fandom as being “cooler” only because there’s a “less cool” standard to serve as a comparison. Rather than trying to convince ourselves that Korean fans can be funny “just like us” (and trust me, they can), we ought to acknowledge that our ways of engaging in fandom are not “cooler” or “better” than how Korean fans engage in fandom.
And also, try not to be so shocked or impressed whenever you see a snarky comment written by a Korean fan on the Internet. Koreans know how to be funny too.
3) I can’t compete with Asian fans; they’d do literally anything for x/y/z and I wouldn’t ever sink to that level.
I said these exact words the first time I was trying to nab tickets to a K-pop concert in Taiwan. In the United States, getting K-pop concert tickets can be stressful, but it is by no means difficult: a few clicks on Ticketmaster at just the right time usually does the trick. In Taiwan, getting tickets involves waiting outside of a convenience store — sometimes for days — in order to buy tickets at a specified kiosk in the store. Fans make trips out to the countryside in search of a barren 7-Eleven just so they can ensure a front spot in line once the tickets are released. With a country like Taiwan where K-pop is almost synonymous with local pop culture, it’s no hyperbole to say that you’re essentially battling against an entire country in order to get concert tickets.
As international fans, it’s easy to take one look at this situation and become bewildered at the idea that anyone could be crazy enough to put up with all of that in order to get tickets, especially considering how comparatively easy we have it here in the West. It’s equally easy to make judgments on what Asian fans must be like if they’re willing to go through all that just for concert tickets: they’re desperate, self-sacrificing, they need to reconsider their priorities, they’re in too deep.
But just because Asian fans are willing to undergo this process, it’s not as if they’re enjoying it. The so-called “insanity” of Asian fandom — getting concert tickets, going to fanmeetings, attending music show recordings — it’s all a product of circumstance. If there are five loaves of bread at a bakery and five different people want one loaf each, then there’s no rush to go to the bakery to get the bread. If five hundred people want a loaf each, then you can bet that someone will begin lining up at the bakery’s front door a week in advance — not necessarily because he thinks a loaf of bread is important enough to merit spending a week in line, but because if he wants a loaf of bread at all, then that’s what he’s got to do.
K-pop fans in Europe and the United States are, in a way, fortunate that K-pop isn’t in huge demand like it is in East and Southeast Asia, but this also means that we can’t cast judgment on a fandom culture that we don’t fully understand. Lining up in front of a convenience store three days before concert tickets go on sale when there are thousands of other kids lining up four days before is completely different from setting up three different computers and four different phone lines and enlisting the help of seven other family members to get tickets to a K-pop concert in New Jersey that’s not even guaranteed to sell out.
In other words: Fans in Korea/Taiwan/other countries with extremely high volumes of K-pop fans don’t do the things they do because they think it’s fun or because that’s how fandom is “supposed” to be. They do it because if they don’t, they walk away with nothing.
This article isn’t meant to be a lecture or a long preachy rant about the evils of international fandom. At the end of the day, the issue of international fandom “elitism” just a matter of misunderstanding fueled by a lack of proper communication and exposure. If the bulk of international fans could openly communicate with the bulk of Korean fans in a common language, then maybe there wouldn’t be such a tendency to stereotype. But at the same time, lack of awareness or communication is no excuse for prejudice. International K-pop fandom first started out as a self-contained creature with little contact with Korean fandom and little acknowledgement by Korean media producers. Today, we still maintain our own distinct culture and our own ways of thinking as a fandom. But even though we are unique and separate from Korean or other East Asian fandom groups, we should not stereotype a group of people that we ultimately know very little about, and we certainly should not fall into the mode of thinking where we are “better” than any other fandom group, especially if the assertion of our superiority as a group is punctuated by the fact that we are “foreign” or “international” and if we’re pinpointing certain ethnic groups as being “crazy” or “out of control” as a foil to our supposed good behavior.
The reason why I found the post highlighted at the beginning of this article to be disconcerting was because it preached both foreign fan elitism and Korean/Asian fan inferiority, yes, but ultimately I was more bothered by the fact that over 2000 people were in support of this proposition. Many seemed to be quite enthusiastic about the idea of serving as EXO’s “bodyguards,” even going as far as declaring themselves a “representative” for their home country. Perhaps it’s worth wondering why this might be — why were these fans so excited about the prospect of “knock[ing] [Korean fans] on their asses”? Why did no one else question the assertion that all the Korean fans at the airport were sasaeng fans? Why did they think they would have the right to act as EXO’s personal protection service without EXO asking for their help in the first place? Why did they assume that the Korean fans weren’t capable of handling this issue for themselves? The fact that none of these questions seemed to occur to the fans who liked or reblogged that post shows that the international fandom should seriously reconsider the level of self-importance that we’ve allotted ourselves, and start giving a little more respect to Korean fandom — not because they provide us with pictures, scans, videos, and other fandom goodies, but because they are deserving of much, much more than the stereotypes that we have assigned them.