K-pop group TWICE (Photo courtesy of CJ ENM)
UC Berkeley

Escaping in the world of KCON

It was supposed to be easy — freshman year of high school. The formative mere moments before the inevitable distress of who goes to what college, and worrying about grades, money, standardized testing. It was meant to be a dip into the sebum pond, a tentative exploration of a sudden taste of what it meant to be a teenager. You were still floating, still an entity not quite finding ground in any sort of identity. Not yet having to face head on the woes of hormones and SAT tests, yet at the same time it wasn’t acceptable to watch “Girl Meets World” instead of doing your Algebra 2 homework. Dark times.

Nervous. I remember nervously scrolling through Amazon in search of the absolute perfect backpack, that expressed all my identities in one piece of luggage. It needed to express my “edgy” side, while needing to announce I was a Potterhead. At the time, I lived and breathed “Harry Potter” (again, dark times). Even if J.K. Rowling would probably call me a chink without hesitation, in 2014 if she told me to shove “Chamber of Secrets” down my throat, I’d instantly take my scrawny legs and run to Barnes and Noble.

It goes without saying, new beginnings are nerve wracking because it meant change, especially the change of the people in your life. Whether people are going to different high schools, or hauling ass across the country for college, each evolution of freshman me got nervous at the prospect of a clean slate every time a “hello,” was muttered. The constants in my life, my family, were unreliable, with my tumultuous relationships at home. I wanted new energy, new beginnings, even if every “hello” was a shaky utterance, filled with sweaty palms, and my greasy (almost reflective) forehead taking center stage.

Contrary to the norm, my freshman year of high school was not easy. Not effortless, not seamlessly integrating myself into my yeehaw of a high school, where Trump supporters ran amok. My home life didn’t magically accommodate to the unease I had entering this trial run of teenage-hood. Darkness clouded my mental health, and all I could understand was loneliness. I stopped talking to my family, and subsequently severed any relationship, figuring everything was teetering to the end anyways.

I distinctly remember it — October of 2016, when typing out Buzzfeed.com was a nearly daily routine, and mindlessly scrolling for hours followed. “Songs You Need to Listen to Right Now.” I think the demanding tone of the article title drew me in a little. Mentioning “her boys,” and their new song “Blood, Sweat, and Tears,” the picturesque 7 person group BTS instantly drew me in, mainly because it was a name I was used to hearing.

My younger brother had tried convincing me to listen to their 2015 release “Dope,” which I scoffed at. I wasn’t convinced by the overtly white BB cream, or the flashy dance moves. All I saw were the legions of seemingly brainwashed fans, with a cult-like chant, and their lives wasting away obsessing over their idols.

I ate my words. BTS instantly made me their bitch, with their agonizingly beautiful music video, with a refreshing song swathed with layers of uninhibited passion and unique production value, I was hooked.

It’s always been something that effortlessly bonded my brother and me. Even if we barely spoke for a year and a half, the influence of Korean entertainment drew us together. It sounds ridiculous, to those who haven’t had the chance to experience the life of a K-pop fan. We stayed up all night talking theories, and I quickly learned the cult-like fan chant. I was hypnotized by the catchy songs, the sheer hard work put into the creation of each and every group. It’s mesmerizing, watching artists tackle seemingly the most impossible of performances, all while uniting fans of every walk of life together over lyrics some don’t understand.

Fresh off our BTS tour experience, we decided to go to Kcon in 2017, and again in 2018. Since its inception, KCON has become an essential stop for every international K-pop fan. With their favorite groups not always touring internationally, attending the convention not only allows thousands of K-pop fans to see their top groups in concert, but also to connect with fellow fans.

What exactly is Kcon though?

KCON 2018 USA presented by Toyota, is an annual Korean music festival held in a multitude of locations throughout the world. From LA to Thailand, KCON brings itself to numerous countries around the world to cultivate an immersive experience for fans of Korean media. This year, the convention hosted a jaw-dropping 94,000 fans to KCON 2018 LA at Staples Center. They closed out the summer with a total of 147,000 of K-pop fans attending in LA and New York. With groups like BTS beginning to take over music charts around the world, becoming a fan of K-pop is increasingly the norm. A ticket to KCON is a must have, whether you’re a diehard fan of Korean entertainment, a budding beauty guru, or a fanatic foodie.

Entering the chaos that is KCON can be a bit overwhelming. The convention center blends organization with chaos happening at all ends of the enclosed space. Once you enter, you see the large booths set up by Toyota, where the hottest K-pop songs are played, and people who knew the choreographies by heart stand quickly and run to the dance area. Here, you’re not considered a cringe-y fan, you can easily replicate Twice’s “Dance the Night Away” choreography without any issue.

Separated distinctly, you find your K-beauty necessities, from face masks to snail creams (my absolute necessity, as I intend on never dying) in one corner. Booths of merchandise, from BTS pens to the latest K-drama posters wrap around the entire area, sometimes having to face challenges in order to win prizes for free.

In addition to the plethora of food booths a short walk away, there’s always McDonald’s handing out complimentary reusable bags, and samples. KCON, without a doubt, stays true to their word of bringing fans closer to their favorite stars. There’s booths where various artists make surprise appearances throughout the day, answering questions in front of an awestruck audience constantly screaming “I love you!” at the top of their lungs. If you get the lucky chance, you can even participate in the “Artist Engagement” with your favorite singers, through their meet and greet sessions.

There’s panels to attend, auditions, start-up business competitions, and giveaways. There’s not a shortage of things to do. Even as my feet ache, and my arm grows weary with the samples I insist on collecting, much to my brother’s dismay, there’s something so refreshing about being given the chance to take a glimpse into fellow fans’ lives.

I see a man my dad’s age with a shirt filled with only Girls’ Day members’ names. Toddlers are clutching their moms’ Seventeen posters, as they rush to the car to put it away. People casually singing along to the songs as if they played on the American radio. Even if it can be an attack on all senses once you step into the convention, you feel the unbridled enthusiasm that’s so prominent in the air.

After the convention, there’s a rush to go line up for the concert. The fans are excited, some rushing out with the cardboard cutouts of their favorite members, booth owners relenting as they could not be bothered with them anymore. The employees of the booths are desperately trying to sell their complimentary concert tickets for as little as $3, even begging those wandering outside the convention center.

The excitement was palpable within the concert area, opened up with violin covers of some of K-pop’s favorite recent hits. This was a chance for rookies to have their own concert, something that often isn’t afforded to them in Korea. It combines having artists perform their top songs with fun challenges in between.

The funniest thing about going to any K-pop event is that K-pop fans aren’t afraid to be loud, all while in unison as well. Group Dreamcatcher, with their impeccably choreographed dances, amazed the crowd, their squeals uniform. Roy Kim’s ballads elicited audible gasps and weeps from the audience. Pentagon’s “Shine” was belted from the crowd, nearly everyone getting up to dance the signature shoot dance in the choreography.

Groups like fromis_9, a rookie girl group shortly after performing their set, would be challenged to a dance cover battle with fellow artists. Chungha, after performing hit “Rollercoaster” and new release “Love You” performed a cover of “God is a Woman,” which had me screaming and falling to the floor because God truly is a woman (my brother was thoroughly embarrassed).

Group Seventeen, in the same vein of what Chungha was doing, also presented their new releases. English speaking members, many natives of the U.S. from Momoland, Pentagon, Seventeen, and Chung Ha as well would introduce acts in a series of stiff, scripted speeches that made everyone around me emit a slight chuckle.

kcon2 Escaping in the world of KCON
(Photo courtesy of CJ ENM)

Maybe it was because this year’s performers were primarily rookie groups and not yet jaded by the years in the entertainment history, but there is certainly unrestrained passion in the air, from both fans and artists. You are swept up in this world of K-pop, in all aspects. You dive into this experimental exploration, even with all these preconceived notions, and especially in the world of KCON, you get to forget.

You get to forget the responsibilities of your everyday life, and let yourself be a fan, and do your cult-like fan chant. Looking around, I see my brother at my side mindlessly mouthing along Korean lyrics. There’s just a few moments you are able to put off the weight of the world. For a few hours in LA’s unforgivable heat, you get to forget. It was just easy to be at KCON.

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