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K-pop contest increases interest in Asian Studies Department

First-years Mayumi Sayek, Genie Shekar, and Norma Reyes perform at the 2017 Korean Fall Festival and K-pop Contest on Thursday night.
First-years Mayumi Sayek, Genie Shekar, and Norma Reyes perform at the 2017 Korean Fall Festival and K-pop Contest on Thursday night.

Around 200 students, faculty and community members filled the Nelson Mandela Auditorium to watch K-pop soloists, duets and dance groups battle for first place in the Department of Asian Studies' K-pop contest.

Organized by Ji-Yeon Jo, an associate professor at the Department of Asian Studies, and her colleagues, the UNC K-pop contests have been met with larger audiences each time it has been held. K-pop night has quickly outgrown each venue they’ve had, starting with 50 audience members their first year and increasing ever since. 

The increased interest of UNC students in K-pop follows current trends in music types. The Korean boy band BTS hit the Billboard Hot 100 with their song “Love Yourself” in September.

“The popularity of K-pop is not just limited to the U.S., it's everywhere — Latin America, Europe, wherever you go. K-pop is mainstream youth culture nowadays," Jo said. "UNC has seen the influence of the global popularity of K-pop."

Korean professors have even started incorporating K-pop into their curriculum to expose students to this major aspect of Korean culture.

Eunji Lee, a lecturer with the Department of Asian Studies, said there was diversity among the students who performed. Most of them took classes with the department, but not all were Korean.

“K-pop is getting so popular, students are taking Korean because they like Korean music and want to listen to the music without any translations,” Lee said. “But now they actually know better than me — better than the teacher! To keep up with the students I have to listen and watch K-pop songs.”

Due to high volumes of students demonstrating interest in the Korean language, the Korean department has become overstretched, with one professor overloading her classes to accommodate all the students. Recently, at a past event on the topic of North Korea, more than 90 people were in attendance.

“We usually don’t expect that many people for just a talk,” Jo said.

Jo said the department believes the increased interest to study the Korean language is due to the popularity of K-pop, the visibility of South Korea and its economic strength, and geopolitical issues surrounding South Korea, North Korea and the United States.

First-year performer, Thy Le, was motivated by the extra credit of performing. She sang “If It’s You” by singer Jung Seung Hwan at the contest to take advantage of a good opportunity to overcome stage fright. An avid fan of K-dramas, with “I Can Hear Your Voice” as one of her many favorites, Lee explained her interest to travel to Korea is inspired by K-dramas.

 “I just came across a K-drama once and it drew me in, and I was like 'Oh, my God. This is good,'" she said. "When I started watching Korean dramas, I saw all the great food that they ate and I was like 'I really want to eat these foods,' and 'How do I eat these foods?' I have to go to Korea. And I felt like learning the language would be useful in that.”

During the interview, Le was gifted with a bouquet of flowers and showered with hugs by her friends calling her performance “amazing.”

Audience member and first-year Sai Ballew formed her passion for K-pop in a Chinese class she took as part of a summer program by her classmates. She now plans to study Korean during her years as an undergraduate and credits K-pop as a leading influence in her decision.

“I was really struck by how brave everyone was to perform. I should do something like this,” Ballew said.

Although there is not yet an audition process for performers, with the event quickly becoming a staple, Korean professors may have to start pressing buttons on their red chairs to turn around for the next K-pop star. 

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