[INTERVIEW] “K-Pop Dreaming,” The Korean Diaspora, and The Future of K-Pop

LAist Studios’ “K-Pop Dreaming” has provided a special look into the history of K-Pop through the eyes of the Korean diaspora. For Vivian Yoon, it created a space for her to insert herself in the history of Korean Americans in Los Angeles rather than just looking at it from an outsider’s perspective. In the episodes, Yoon talked about the history of trot, the U.S. military’s presence in South Korea shaping the beginnings of K-Pop, as well as her real-life connections to the genre as a Korean American.

The show was created by Fiona Ng, a senior producer for LAist Studios. According to Yoon, she was the one who originally came up with the concept of creating a podcast series that looked at K-Pop from the perspective of the Korean diaspora in Los Angeles. The podcast used the genre as a vehicle to look at the Korean American community in L.A. Yoon was brought onto the project after a mutual friend introduced her to Ig. 

Kpopconcerts.com had the opportunity to sit down with the podcast’s host, Vivian Yoon, to dive deeper into the podcast as well as the conversations about the Korean American diaspora in the sea that is the history of K-Pop. The interview was conducted after K-Pop Concerts went to the GYOPO event in Pasadena in April and Kpopconcerts.com’s initial review of the first two episodes.  

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity. 

K-Pop Dreaming, a special live event with GYOPO at LAist Studios. (Brian Feinzimer / LAIst)

KPC: You mentioned at the live [GYOPO] event that there was a lot of research involved. Were you a part of the research process? If so, how intense was it and how extensive was it?

Vivian: It was mostly Fiona who did a lot of the initial reporting. After I got involved, we interviewed people for a year. Every new person that we spoke to led us down a different path or introduced us to even more people, and that just kept expanding wider and wider that way. 

But pretty early on, we knew there were certain topics that we wanted to cover based on the initial research that Fiona had performed. So topics like trot and Moon Night, the club in Itaewon, that was like a hangout spot for black American soldiers who were stationed in Korea, we knew we wanted to tell those stories somehow.

KPC: What was the biggest lesson that you learned so far on the podcast? I know that you definitely learned more about your grandma and your mom. 

Vivian: Before working on the show, I had never seen myself as the product of all these historical movements that shaped Korean history. But through the podcast, I realized one of the reasons this history is so important is that they really did affect the real life choices that a lot of people made.

So, my grandparents immigrated to The States in the 1970s, and my dad joined the U.S. Army and then was stationed in Seoul because the U.S. had their military presence there. All of these different things are shaped by history. The most surprisingly powerful thing that really impacted me was really coming to understand how my life story is intertwined with this history. 

K-Pop Dreaming, a special live event with GYOPO at LAist Studios. (Brian Feinzimer / LAIst)

KPC: Are you first generation by any chance? 

Vivian: I’m second generation because of my grandparents and my dad. 

KPC: I feel like when you’re born in America and your grandparents or your parents are from another country and they immigrated here, it feels like for us, we’re almost too distant, but at the same time, not the same time. It’s familiar, but not at the same time. When you go to Korea, you know the language and you know the culture. But at the same time, you feel like a stranger in your own house.

Vivian: Yeah, totally!

KPC: Did you feel like that when you’re recording everything like, “Man, I didn’t know how deep that history is and how much it impacted me”? How did that feel?

Vivian: I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine how I lived my life before knowing these things because it’s been so impactful. To me, it just feels like a given now. It’s really hard to believe that before I started working on the podcast, I didn’t know a lot of this history. I didn’t even know that K-Pop had so much history in it. I grew up thinking that it was just like shallow pop music and there wasn’t really much to it. 

To learn that it’s been shaped by imperialism, colonialism, and all these different geopolitical forces, and then like the rise of hip-hop… it just blows my mind that there was a time when I didn’t know any of this.

KPC: Right? I think the most informative episode still remains to be “Moon Night.” I knew that hip-hop played a huge part in the genre, but to be able to see the military impact in that area and how literally one club got all of these music executives of today. It’s so mind-blowing they were all there.

Vivian: I know. Yeah.

KPC: Yeah. Are there funny moments that happened during the research process? I know you interviewed Danny Im from 1TYM and that conversation was pretty light-hearted. 

Vivian: He was really funny. He had a lot of great stories to share. 

One cool thing is that we actually got to talk to Producer 250. That was a pretty late decision [to include him]. While we had already written the trot episode, Fiona was able to find 250 because he had released an album that was titled “Ppong,” which is this musical concept that’s really important to the show. So we ended up talking to him and then we found out, “Oh, he’s actually the producer of this group called NewJeans!” This was right before NewJeans blew up on TikTok. 

Right after I did the interview, they blew up and they were everywhere. 250 went on to win “Album of the Year” and “Producer of the Year,” and all these different awards. He’s super, super famous, and a huge deal. It was one of those moments where it was just very serendipitous that we were able to catch him right before he blew up.

K-Pop Dreaming, a special live event with GYOPO at LAist Studios. (Brian Feinzimer / LAIst)

KPC: Community is such a huge thing throughout the theme of the entire podcast in which people who were just there at the right time. Do you think that without these connections, would K-Pop even be a global wave at this point? 

Vivian: It does feel like K-Pop is built on a lot of serendipitous moments. But I think a lot of musical genres and movements in pop culture history are built the same way. Even the way hip-hop started in reaction to what was happening, and in reaction to disco.

Nothing, no pop culture phenomenon happens in a vacuum. Everything is like a reaction and a response to something else. I feel like that’s how culture evolves. So it’s not surprising to me that K-Pop also has those moments. It just feels like they’re less known or less talked about. Understanding it requires so much backstory and understanding of Korean history that it’s hard to explain those things without first giving that historical context.

KPC: Sometimes people like to pull K-Pop away as if it’s not influenced by anything. Do you have any particular thoughts on that?

Vivian: It’s really interesting. I come from the worlds of TV and film. That’s more of my background. I’ve noticed that Hallyu (the Korean Wave) has brought such an immense spotlight on South Korean entertainment, specifically, through films, TV shows, reality TV shows, K-Pop, Korean beauty, Korean food, all of those things, it feels like sometimes Korean Americans have gotten left out of the conversation or get conflated with South Korea. 

Sometimes when I’m doing interviews for this podcast, people will be like “Oh, well, what do you think South Koreans think about XYZ?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, I don’t feel comfortable speaking for the South Korean community, because that’s not where I come from. That’s not how I identify myself.” I think that’s part of the reason why, in my mind, pop seems to exist as the standalone pillar. It’s because people don’t have as much cultural context for how it came out and for how it’s connected to the States and has been connected to the States. 

I have come to realize the actual, practical importance of making space and telling Korean American history. I didn’t really feel it was urgent before, I didn’t feel like it was necessary. It wasn’t until I started working on the show and started thinking about why we don’t know this history. It requires the Korean American community to also believe that our stories are important. Like, I think that’s where it starts. 

KPC: How does it feel to have the community coming out and being able to talk to the community about the podcast?

Vivian: It was really nice to see that people were fans of the show! They came out and we chatted afterward. The thing that really stuck out to me is that everybody heard the same show, and everybody was at the same event. 

But the things people wanted to chat about afterward were so different and diverse. It just showed so many different aspects of the show that resonated with different people. I thought that it was really interesting that Korean Americans really relate to the mixtape episode, and the very specific Korean American experiences trying to get the music and things like that. 

But then people who aren’t part of the Asian diaspora, but are, you know, children of immigrants, like they found something else. People who are K-Pop fans, who never knew about the history, find something else to hold on to. That was really, really cool for me to see all the different things that interest different people because of their lived experiences. That felt super compelling to me.

KPC: What are some of the highlights of conversations that you had?

Vivian: The thing that was really special to me, too, was there was somebody who was Korean American, but her boyfriend is Black American. She was telling me how she has a hard time trying to navigate these kinds of conversations and through the podcast, she and her boyfriend found new things to talk about. I thought it was really, really cool. Anything that brings it back to real people, real relationships, you know? 

There was another person who came up to me and they were telling me about how there was when I talked about occupying a third space as a Korean American person. They were saying how they felt that but to an even greater degree, because they were completely fluent in Korean and English. 

They would be the bridge between the two groups at school where they could hang out with either group of like, Korean Koreans who were really from Korea, and then the Korean Americans and see how the different communities spoke to and about each other. She was this bridge, whether she wanted to be or not. 

K-Pop Dreaming, a special live event with GYOPO at LAist Studios. (Brian Feinzimer / LAIst)

KPC: I feel like when it comes to within the Asian diaspora right now, Koreans are very hyper-visible, right? In terms of the culture, it’s really hard to see whether or not that is a good thing or a bad thing.

Vivian: Right. 

KPC: I have a friend who’s almost fluent in Korean. She also tells me sometimes it feels like she can blend between the two, but she can never be fully into one.

Vivian: Yeah. Always like an outsider in both camps.

That sense of displacement is very real. It is interesting when you look at hapas, people who are half-Asian and have something else. That feeling like you’re not Asian enough, but you’re not American enough, or whatever. But then to know that so many people who are fully Asian also experience and feel that in their own way.

KPC: Do you still listen to K-Pop? If so, do you listen to H.O.T? And in particular, what are some of the groups that you’re into? 

Vivian: I definitely still feel the nostalgia with H.O.T, mostly if “Candy” comes up. It’s just always going to trigger memories and good feelings. That probably will never change. 

I don’t know if it’s because I’m biased because of the podcast, but like NewJeans for sure is at the top of my list. It has this really fresh, old-school R&B like 90s and 2000s sound with that forward-thinking K-Pop sound that I find very, very satisfying. So I’m super into NewJeans. And I’ve been loving Taeyang’s new comeback. 

Huge thanks to Kevin and Mary Grace for making this interview possible. We also would like to thank Vivian Yoon herself for letting us interview her as a part of the recap for the podcast event! 

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