If you think about a classic Hollywood story, it often starts with a discovery: a young star being scooped up from nothing thanks to a benevolent eye. I have a child star story — and it began in Itaewon, Seoul Korea, a shopping district known for selling affordable knockoffs and international cuisine and providing cheap ways for young American soldiers and high schoolers to drink as much soju as possible.
I was 11 when a woman came up to me and my mother and said I could be a model. She was an agent, and she would put me on television, she said, if I rode in her car, went to shoots and made shows with her on the weekends. As a young gay child interested in fashion and acting, I was waiting for the world to realize I was special — and this woman had seen what I was waiting for everyone else to pick up on. She was going to make me a star.
But my mother looked at this woman sideways, trying to analyze this potential kidnapper who she thought was openly plotting to steal her kid. Their conversation was pretty stilted: My mother didn’t speak Korean; the woman only spoke a few key phrases in English. So my mom took the woman’s card and decided to consider whether it was a legitimate offer.
The situation was strange but unsurprising given what my family was doing in Korea to begin with: My father spent years of my childhood abroad for his military tour of duty, and from 1997 to 1999, my mother, three siblings, 18-year-old dog and I all made the trip abroad, too. There was a luxuriousness to life in South Korea, one that lent a specific importance to my dad. He said his job and the job of Americans living in South Korea was to be model citizens and ambassadors of our country. We were there to protect and help Koreans because “as long as the DMZ exists, dividing North and South Korea, the Korean War was still being fought.” That’s what my dad told us again and again when lived on the Yongsan Garrison military installation, which felt a lot like Central Park.
Coming to South Korea as a biracial but white-presenting family, we were familiar with the experience of being welcomed outsiders: My mother immigrated to New York City from Puerto Rico, where she met my father, and they started a family as they embarked on national and international military service. We carried our Puerto Ricanness with us openly, but perhaps because of our military affiliation, our Americanness often eclipsed our Latinx identity. This was exacerbated in Seoul, where Americans, specifically white Americans, were universally loved by Koreans.
People would stop and take photos with us and kiss us, and go out of their way to say hello. A family once offered my mother their baby, thrusting the child in her arms as they called people on cellphones to talk to her. A ride on the subway typically meant a stranger approaching me, lifting my shirt, kissing my stomach, offering adoration for being me. A walk would be interrupted by someone picking me up and telling me how beautiful I was as my mother smiled, giving her best kamsamnida, her best thanks, before taking me back. There was an appreciation for Americans that all validated my father’s notion of us being ambassadors.
At my prodding, my mother did some digging and spoke to a family friend, Sun Oben, in our neighborhood. She was from Korea but had lived in the United States with her family, who moved to Yongsan at the same time we did. This timing and proximity bonded us, with Oben kindly giving us insights into the language and customs. She explained that this interaction with an agent was indeed a common practice, that her children and my friends, Michelle and Michael, were doing these entertainment projects, too.
“Someone approached Michael and Michelle to see if they would do chemical company videos,” Oben told me on the phone. “What they were looking for was not really Korean kids but Western-looking, English-speaking kids.”
Oben saw this as a great experience for Michelle and Michael, under the condition that she was able to go with them to supervise and ensure their safety.
“If you really think you need my kids, you get me, too,” she remembered saying. “I would never send my kids out of the base without being present.”
Because Oben was bilingual, she eventually became an agent as well, liaising between English-speaking child actors from Yongsan and Korean production crews trying to create “Sesame Street”-style shows. Oben went on to get hired by productions, translating for companies like Adidas and public figures like Kobe Bryant.
With Oben’s approval, we gave Ms. Lee — the same agent who approached me and my friends Michael and Michelle — a call to figure something out. Ms. Lee agreed to bring my mother along and, nearly every Saturday for two years, we squeezed into a baby blue Oldsmobile Cutlass with other children at an entry gate to Yongsan. She’d drive us to various locations — a pond in Yeouido Park, an apartment in Gangnam, a classroom near Namsam, a sports facility north of the city — where we’d spend the day doing simple activities on camera while narrating the actions in rudimentary English. Some had a scripted storyline — a family walks, admiring birds — while others were strictly observational and process-driven, like sharing how to play basketball in exhaustive detail, down to how the textured ball felt on the fingertips.
The goal of these videos was to teach English, on shows narrated in Korean with English dialogue or broken into segments framed by educators explaining English in Korean. These were shows like “Billy the Bat” and “What’s Up Doogie” and “Hello English,” which were broadcast on channels like EBS, a dedicated public broadcasting service designed to complement education in Korea. These shows were all fun brushes with stardom, a venue for seeing yourself and kids from school on the few channels we were allowed access to on Yongsan.
We’d hear that we were on television from others on the military post or seeing friends on different shows and wondering who they were working with. It was a common part of being American in Korea. We taught English and shared American life through the TV. We never asked why, though, instead blindly taking our work as further proof of what my father kept saying: We were there to inspire.
For years I told friends about my brief brush with fame, but it was only in the past few years that I started to wonder about the English TV culture in South Korea. What was the obsession with the language? And why was television seen as a viable route to learning?
Doobo Shim, professor of media communication and dean of the College of Social Sciences at Sungshin Women’s University, studies communication in South Korea with an eye toward history and culture.
“Korea is known for its great enthusiasm for learning,” Shim said, noting how education is seen as capital in Korea, a tool to propel one’s social life and personal development.
Since Korea’s liberation from Japan in the 1940s, English has been seen as a way out and into the world at large. Institutions like Hagwon, a private tutoring school where English is often taught, serve as a supplement for second-language learning. Media-based education, along with teachers reading and re-reading sentences in English on EBS, helped bring language to those without the means of pursuing their education at places like Hagwon, or with private tutoring like in “Parasite.” This evolved over time and became more pronounced in a global economy.
“When President Kim Young-sam announced his vision of a new era of globalism in 1993, the importance of English was re-accentuated,” Shim said. “More and more students went overseas, especially to the United States, to earn degrees. When they returned to Korea, it was easy for them to enter good companies because of their English skills or the company’s expectation that they might have a good command of English.”
The command of English goes further than just helping one gain employment, but it is a national obsession, according to Nadia Y. Kim, a professor of Asian and Asian American Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She is the author of “Imperial Citizens,” which explores Korean immigration, culture and Americanization.
“English is everywhere,” Kim said. “Three-year-old kids are learning English because of this fear and need to keep up as global citizens, not only to be competitive in the global marketplace but to hopefully someday eclipse America.”
This obsession pre-dates the 1990s push for English language learning, embedded in modern Korea via American imperialism, the division of the Koreas after World War II and the introduction of capitalism.
“You have whiteness via white people en masse on the peninsula in 1945,” Kim said. “The discourse was that the United States was a savior, to help liberate us from Japan.”
What made the 1990s particularly precarious was the economic collapse and International Monetary Fund bailout in 1997, a crisis seen as equivalent to the Great Depression.
“Korea was in a state of shock and a state of insecurity,” Kim said, which created an environment for the country to restart and renew itself in the late ’90s and early aughts, much of which was done through a soft-power push ― and learning English. “Korea has aspired to superpower-dom. The 1990s were baby steps, laying the groundwork for what happened in the 2000s and onto the 2020s.”
Another factor, related to the whiteness and the flawed ideologies of America, is that English culture isn’t just about the language but about looking and being a specific way in the world.
“After the Korean War, you saw an attempt to aspire for white Western features,” Kim said, noting how American doctors, like Dr. David Ralph Millard, performed reconstructive surgery for soldiers, which resulted in ― and led to a desire for ― Westernized features and the double eyelid.
“It’s racialized, in some way, in relation to whiteness,” Kim said, which is complicated by Korean stars and public figures like Daniel Henney, who are biracial and speak English. “They may look part-Korean, but that doesn’t mean that whiteness is not a part of the equation. They speak English perfectly, having those markers of the white American superpower.”
Samia Mounts, a Colorado-based actor, singer, writer and producer, had a very similar experience to mine. However, Mounts continues to work in Korean media, largely in voiceover work.
“So much has changed in the past 20 years, obviously,” Mounts shared on a call. “But so much is still the same.”
While technology has advanced ― digital English-language channels to animation and video games offering new opportunities ― Mounts experiences the same ups and downs since she was “discovered” after moving to Seoul for her father’s Air Force assignment.
“As Korea aspires to be this global media presence, [the industry’s] gotten bigger, and there’s more work than ever,” Mounts said. “Every company, every university wants a native English speaker for their promo videos, for their commercials. Almost every brand name is an English word.… There’s this huge demand beyond education.”
Culturally, the weight of learning English is felt even from those on the outside, like Mounts. The pressures to learn are real, as Kim highlighted.
“For years I told friends about my brief brush with fame, but it was only in the past few years that I started to wonder about the English TV culture in South Korea. What was the obsession with the language? And why was television seen as a viable route to learning?”
“It’s all about raising Korea up on the international stage,” Mounts said. “If you don’t speak English, your options are limited.”
A lot of television programming is in conversation with that pressure, serving as an agent of cultural change in unsubtle ways. So it’s important to grasp how different Korean television is: Unlike in America, the focus on media isn’t on sales and commercials. Television’s coming of age in Korea is tied to the 1997 economic collapse, when the government agenda to rebuild the national economy included entertainment through media, such as K-dramas.
“Many Korean people, generation to generation, watched K-dramas since the 1950s,” said Hyejung Ju, an associate professor at Claflin University’s department of mass communications.
Ju noted that the 1990s were a turning point, when the meaning of television changed from behind the scenes and at the behest of audiences, who wanted more from these “traditional” shows. What started in the late ’90s has built to hits like the 2019 Oscar-winning film “Parasite” and the Netflix series “Squid Game,” and musical acts like BTS and Blackpink, as there was a recognition that media had to move forward, not only as far as what was being created but also how media could extend the country’s reach. Entertainment could be another tool of globalization. What we’re experiencing now with international Hallyu, or Korean wave, started in earnest in the late 1990s.
This evolution meant educational programs transformed, too, from literal teachers standing in front of a screen teaching audiences English into shows with more entertaining elements, like kids shows designed to feel like Saturday morning television.
Lisa Kelley, a freelance announcer, voice actor and entrepreneur who has been working in the industry for decades, witnessed this change, working with English teachers on these shows to help teach language and culture.
“You cannot learn a language only by speaking and learning grammar,” Kelley said. “I’m teaching them culture, everything around [language], to learn context.”
This way of thinking helped push shows forward, in that someone like Kelley, who has a Western education and speaks Korean and English, can contextualize words like “slumber party” for an audience that doesn’t have a culture of sleeping over at other people’s houses. This enlivens the subject, offering a dimension to learning that goes beyond language alone.
Matthew Readman, an educator in Korea who worked for over a decade in this style of programming, also experienced this change and the fame that came with teaching English on television.
“It’s a unique thing,” Readman said. “You have these famous teachers, these household names, less so now, but you did at the height.”
Readman became one of these high-profile teachers, known for his work hosting popular children’s learning shows, such as “Ding Dong Deng,” along with associated traveling shows. Unlike a typical actor or on-camera personality, the audience saw people like him and Kelley as tools to advancing themselves.
“People would recognize me on the street,” Readman said. “They would say thank you for teaching me, in English, and switch to Korea and ask how to speak English better. That’s the key. The ‘How can I speak English better?’ That’s the power of the teacher on television.”
Where this gets complicated is that there can be a cultural supremacy in which monolingual white English speakers are celebrated for simply existing.
“It’s still very much a white man’s game,” Mounts said, as there’s a culture of white American male actors getting work in Korean entertainment with little training while women, actors of color and Korean actors face more hurdles.
Two bilingual Korean actors I spoke with echoed these issues, explaining that they often are cast in a part only to end up working as unpaid mediators, translating for non-Korean-speaking American actors. Change is hard to come by when one’s proximity to whiteness and Westerness is further away, and with a lack of unions, accountability and global standards in a multicultural industry.
“It’s always galled me,” Mounts said, pointing to these gaps in social progress and social justice. “The country wants so badly to be a big player on the international stage but, if you watch “Squid Game,” you’ll notice the misogyny, the way the one brown person is treated.”
When I share the story about my brush with television fame, it often doesn’t seem real. All the proof is gone, lost in a pre-internet time, with no paper trail or pay stubs as every shoot saw Ms. Lee driving me home, slipping me 100,000 Korean won (roughly $100) with a handshake. All my payments were under the table, and all my money went back to Itaewon, where I would buy clothes and toys from street vendors, living briefly as a semi-rich prince in a land that wasn’t my own. A different me would have saved that money, continued acting, tried to save a tape or script or some sort of media to capture this unique moment in international entertainment history.
Instead, there are these stories. There are those who saw these shows and ostensibly learned a phrase or two from actors like myself speaking in English on camera. There is the prevailing sense that we all hallucinated these shows, that they never existed because, although they were big for one country, at one time, it’s hard to track any information down. People instead turn to Twitter to ask if anyone else remembers these shows.
Everyone starts somewhere, with their life coming together as the result of so many influences and so much work. For a country, the process is more complicated but, in so many ways, is the same. This moment and this media were part of the growing pains of a country coming out of adolescence and stepping into its role as an international player.
The success of Korean shows, movies and music are directly connected to this late-’90s turning point for the country. Maybe Suga from BTS discovered basketball from a tutorial of mine. Maybe Park So-dam learned how to say “fork” from one of my lessons. I have no idea, but part of me likes to think my work had some effect — or maybe it’s just latent American exceptionalism slipping in.
Whether it was intended or not, my participation in these shows adds to a greater geopolitical landscape as countries like South Korea and America vie for power through entertainment, through language and through the things that make us human.
It’s a complicated experience that has made clear that art is never without an agenda. There’s always a message, always a motive, always something said silently, in a language that will take years to interpret.