Ayesha Al Jawadri loves South Korean culture. But it's not just about K-pop. She adores the culture as a whole: she watches Korean movies and is even learning to speak the language via YouTube. She practises new phrases with a friend in the UAE, and with her sister – both of whom are also learning Korean.
Al Jawadri is one of a growing number of Emirati women who are becoming obsessed with almost every aspect of culture from South Korea – leaving Hollywood and Bollywood in its dust – and it's a phenomenon that is now central to a UAE-based study.
But before you go thinking it's all about K-pop culture, the research from UAE University states that Emirati fans are much more than "mindless zealots" of the South Korean culture. Instead, it points to the fact that the two societies have shared values, and Emirati women, who may be struggling with complex identities, use K-culture as a sort of "escapism to an idealistic world".
Urwa Tariq, a doctoral student at UAE University, has just completed a study called Say Hello to the Hallyu Phenomena in the UAE and, as Tariq says, what began with television and K-pop has grown into an "obsession". The word Hallyu refers to the rise of South Korean culture across the world.
"They are getting extremely obsessed with food and fashion, but the highlight goes to Korean TV shows and K-pop bands," she says. Young girls are also learning the language to better understand and immerse themselves in the culture.
"The Korean wave is thriving in the UAE and it seems to fill the void, which the western industry fails to do. The Emirati women learnt to love Korea. They feel that Emirati and Korean cultures share common grounds."
K-dramas deal with romance in a 'cute' and 'shy' way, unlike in Hollywood
The qualitative study was a small focus group of 12 students, but she says this reflects a much wider community. She plans to expand the research, beginning with the government universities, where South Korean clubs are also hugely popular.
"For our parents' generation, the interest was Hollywood and Bollywood movies, but this has changed now," she says. "The participants felt that the Korean dramas were clean in terms of language and content, compared to the western shows. They spoke of romance with words like 'simple', 'loyal', 'cute' and 'shy', which was, they said, missing in the western content.
A trailer for popular K-drama 'My ID is Gangnam Beauty':
"K-dramas mostly deal with topics related to family members, differences in social classes and love triangles. By showing situations that comport with Islamic beliefs, such as the emphasis on family, K-dramas raise awareness of shared values among the Arab viewers.
“Middle Eastern audiences are also drawn to beautiful images, sensitive approaches, romanticism, and storylines where good triumphs over the evil.”
Al Jawadri, 22, is a medical student at UAE University. She was part of the focus group and claims to spend several hours each day engaged in South Korean entertainment.
She has been interested in the culture since 2015. "I found the Korean entertainment quite new and fresh and their plots never failed to have the excitement factor as they leave you on the edge wanting to see more and more," she explains.
Regional shows 'too exaggerated'
"Unlike the Korean entertainment, the foreign entertainment, be it Hollywood or Bollywood, seems to be kind of out of ideas and they just keep repeating the same old stories just with different characters, and it's like they spend more time in doing sequels of stories than actually thinking of new stories."
Other participants agreed, and said regionally produced dramas were too exaggerated, too gloomy and were unrealistic, in addition to being too much an imitation of western shows and lacking the unique and entertaining aspects the girls crave.
Al Jawadri says K-pop and the surrounding entertainment is "a big craze" among the younger generation in this country, with around 35,000 known fans in the UAE connecting on platforms such as the BTS ARMY fan pages on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. "Obviously, the younger generations are going to be more familiar with Korean media because they are more exposed to it, unlike the older generations, who are more into the Arabic series due to the language barrier in some cases and due to the difference in the culture in other cases. On the other hand, some older generation individuals prefer to watch Bollywood movies or series," she says.
So when did the UAE's K-pop obsession begin?
It's hard to pinpoint exactly how the K-pop craze first arrived in the UAE. But it's been around for a while – K-pop bands such as Super Junior, Big Bang, 2ne1, SHINee and TVXQ were big in the mid-2000s, after becoming popular on YouTube.
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One of the first major K-pop performances in the country was in 2011, when pop star Seo In-young and girl group Nine Muses performed as part of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix celebrations. Five years later, there was the game-changing KCON held at du Arena.
The event brought big names to town, such as BTS (who were less famous then but still a big deal) and solo artists Taeyeon (formerly of Girls Generation) and Kyuhyun (a former member of Super Junior). It was also the same year the Korean Cultural Centre opened in the capital.
Why has Hallyu appealed to women more than men?
This phenomenon has affected girls much more than boys. "Emirati girls tend to stay more at home compared to the Emirati boys, which makes them more prone to watching foreign programmes and discovering new cultures, either through television or the internet," Tariq says.
Tariq points out that women across the globe have “often gained pleasure by virtually travelling to new, foreign destinations through their media consumption. This is exactly the case in the UAE, too. Participants highlighted the physical appearance of the South Korean characters, which attracts them. They used words like ‘cute’, ‘adorable’ and ‘fresh’ to describe both South Korean women and men. They described men as ‘visually appealing and noble’ and women as ‘polite and loveable’.
"In both cultures, poetry, romance, social relationships and friendships are highly valued, especially by women. Therefore, this gratifies the young Emirati females that they are still in touch with their culture, regardless of it being foreign. The Emirati fans are not mindless zealots of Korean culture – instead, they are cultural agents struggling with complex identities. South Korean culture evokes escapism to an idealistic world to which they can relate to, psychologically and culturally. This indicates that the young Emirati females' cognition of the Hallyu is conscious rather than passive," she says.
This song by BTS has had more than 600 million views on YouTube:
It was Tariq's personal encounters that inspired her project, convincing her to move from marketing to mass communication for her doctorate.
“When I came to UAE University to study my PhD, I was surprised to witness the popularity of Korean culture,” she says. “I was approached by many girls who wanted me to watch Korean series.
"Moreover, when the university opened a Korean language course in their curriculum, there were no seats available. Be it in the bus, classrooms, canteen, corridors, and even hostel, all I could hear was conversations about Korean actors, K-pop, dramas and recent updates of their idols in social media."
Maryam's story: learning about the culture through 'word of mouth'
Her research has so far been presented in a local conference, and will soon be presented in Paris. Maryam Abdulsalam M Al Awadhi, 22, was another of the participants in the research. She has been fascinated by South Korean culture for three years now.
"I got interested in it after coming across a Korean movie poster that seemed interesting, and the movie itself turned out to be marvellous," she says. "I like the high-quality and high-standard visuals, themes and concepts portrayed by the Korean celebrities; magnificent production work; and the Korean language itself is a beautiful language. The Korean courtesy and manners are humble and respectful."
“I have started self-learning the language through various apps and YouTube videos and I try to practice the language as much as possible by having small talks with my friend who is actually learning Korean from a native speaker and my sister who has recently started learning the language.”
Tariq says the nature of how the popularity of Korean culture has grown is interesting in itself, as it has relied on social media and word of mouth alone, rather than spreading through more traditional means.
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