“Do you know BTS?”
– Min YoonGi, SUGA
Finding Healing One Song at a Time
by IAA Co-Founder, Joy Lieberthal Rho
My first favorite song of BTS was “Idol”, the sound of Korean traditional instruments in a pop song caught my ears. Yet, when a dear big sister/friend of mine asked to join her and her daughter to go to their concert in 2018, I poo-pooed the opportunity to go. Who would spend $350 on a ticket to see a Korean boyband? Still regretting that decision.
During the pandemic, after being on zoom close to 50 hours a week in sessions, virtual support groups, and workshops, I had little eye energy to watch my beloved K-dramas. For years, I had been logging in hours diligently watching Korean dramas, steadily building my Korean language abilities and becoming more comfortable with exercising the courage to speak Korean to my kids, my husband, my in-laws; even calling Korea a little more often to speak to my birthmother and brother. I could feel my internal self growing more solidly two-footed with cultural pride. Without the daily injection of Korean, I was worried I would forget it all again. Not wanting to “learn” Korean, I searched for music, three and four minutes at a time.
And then, I heard “Idol” again and went down the rabbit hole of Youtube to watch 7 Korean boys in gorgeous hanbok in front of Gyeongbok Palace for The Tonight Show. My heart burst with pride to watch BTS take the English speaking world by storm. But the English was bothering me. RM and his brilliance could not convey alone just how special this group of 7 humans were. It wasn’t until I found Korean interviews where all the members could get equal air time that I learned who they were as people. Their immense pride of being Korean came through without the hammy English they had to learn to please a Western audience. Their dialects, regional “personalities”, their cooking and mostly their love for each other made my daily work of listening to pain and despair for hours a little lighter and gave me permission to laugh and dance (ah, a pun!). Then I went to their songs, listening to them, searching for translations and trying hard to memorize the Korean.
BTS taking the American music industry by storm has allowed for my love for this group to culminate in some amazing professional-personal achievements. How often does the world want to hear from a therapist/adoptee/k-drama/k-pop enthusiast? Jae-Ha Kim, a pioneering voice reviewing and writing about the Korean music and drama industry, and I have become texting buddies. Her inclusion of my thoughts about mental health and adoption were published in Teen Vogue, “How K-Pop Stars Are Leading Mental Health Conversations for AAPI People and Beyond“, and in Rolling Stone, “Epik High’s Tablo on Trauma, Triumph, and the Truth“, magazines. Reading her articles and her personal stories of being Korean in America advocating for wellness, honoring her hyphenated existence and pure love for what is happening for Korea and music has allowed this middle aged adoptee to come out and gleefully enjoy all things BTS.
Who’s my bias? SUGA, AGUST D, Min Yoongi. To me, he presented unglossed, the serious one, the one who would drop plain truths without censure. Listening and reading his lyrics, the teenager in me needed someone like him in my life. This 20-something boy with all his rage, pride and curiosity has served as a beacon of what it means to process healing. To my birth country, Korea, I hope that people will use his words, his ambition to process and discover and maybe even engage in the work of inner understanding.
There have been countless headlines asking: why BTS? I think for me, it has more to do with what they do off the stage than on. Long before there was mental health tiktok, there was BTS partnering with UNICEF to create the Love Yourself campaign. Their legions of fans heard their rallying cry and helped create a global mental health hotline in the name of their love for BTS, A group of Korean boys telling the world how to love oneself? SUGA quoted saying that it’s ok to ask for help? A global group of young people supporting and holding each other? When we are seeing record number of teens and young people suffering from all kinds of mental distress, I am hopeful. In my small corner of the mental health community, I can attest to the demand and wish for help. While it is overwhelming, I am still heartened to know that our younger generation is not above asking for additional support and even more hopeful as more and more of them are stepping forward to ask for mentorship to be the helpers.
SUGA is on a world tour, as a solo ambassador of BTS, and I willingly paid A LOT for a chance to see him perform this time. A very dear ARMY friend guided me through all that a BTS concert entails completely unironically and with so much love and care. This concert was punctuated with getting to go with Korean adoptee friends and my 16 year old son. To see a stadium of people, mostly not Korean, singing, chanting, screaming for him was astounding. To see my son enjoying it was truly healing. SUGA, and his alter ego AGUST D, expressing his darkness, his trauma, his victories and his smile awoke the 16 year old in me who never imagined feeling any sense of connection or pride for her country of birth. His insistence in speaking Korean and his willingness to create in English felt intentional and generous. His immense pride in being a Daegu boy, his seamless integration of Korean traditional sounds all the while embodying the modern challenges of being Korean felt like a mirror to the map so many adoptees navigate. My journey of being Korean and adopted is one where I love and hate, yearn and repel, aspire and criticize, feel welcomed and abandoned.
I love that a month has been designated to celebrate the community of Asian Americans. I also love that we are in a time where we are also shining a light on the mental wellness of our community. You may never become a fan of BTS, but I do hope you get to read about some of the great work they do and take a moment to read the lyrics to their songs, they may just heal a little bit of you too.
Joy Lieberthal Rho, LCSW is the co-founder of IAMAdoptee. Joy received her Master’s in Social Work from Columbia University. She has been working in the field of adoption for 25 years professionally and through various volunteer organizations.