For most of her life, Mary Kadhim, a 16-year-old Iraqi-born student at Deering High School, held a deep fascination with South Korean culture.
It started when Kadhim first tuned into “Boys Over Flowers,” a short-lived but hugely successful dramedy television series that follows a spunky schoolgirl trying to balance romance and education at a South Korean academy.
“At first I thought it was weird,” said Kadhim. “But then I started really liking it, and feeling deeply connected with Korean culture.”
Kadhim quickly began consuming other Korean language dramas and music. Tools, she said, that helped her deal with bouts of depression.
“When I was 13, I was going through tough times, with my mother's illnesses, being bullied at school, and my father away for a while. I started becoming depressed and distant from others,” Kadhim said. “Then I fell in love with K-Pop and it had a sort of power on me, it was very soothing even though I couldn’t understand a single word.”
For the uninitiated, K-Pop is a music craze that blends dozens of genres and features English phrases, snappy dance numbers, synthesized beats, colorful costumes, trippy audio-visual elements, and infectious pop anthems. It originated in South Korea, but has proliferated in popularity across Asia, Europe, and South America. Remember Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video, the first video to reach two billion views on YouTube? That was K-Pop.
Although sometimes criticized for exploiting its idols, hypersexuality, plagiarism, and meaningless lyrics, the genre has managed to captivate millions worldwide. It’s effectively reshaped Korea’s music scene, propelled dozens of young artists into wealth and fame, and spawned legions of diehard fans, mostly adolescent girls, some of which exhibit stalkerish behavior to get a glimpse of their musical idols. Back in 2012, the Korean boy band JYJ revealed in a press conference that they were stalked by fans for 8 years, and some had placed GPS on their cars, broken into private property, and tapped their phone calls. And they're not alone; many Kpop idols have expressed their anxiety over fans intruding on their personal life. (The most obsessed fans of K-pop are known as sasaeng, and the rise of them and their extreme invasive behavior prompted Korea to pass a new law in 2016 that saw the penalty for stalking K-pop idols rise to a $17,000 fine and up to two years in jail).
Kadhim doesn’t plan on taking her fascination with K-pop into a celebrity-chasing obsession. But she is committed to traveling to Seoul, South Korea, this summer, to fully immerse herself in the music and culture that’s had such a positive impact in her life. Kadhim recently got accepted into a study abroad program in Seoul through CIEE, and is trying to crowdfund $3,500 to make her dream trip a reality.
“But this trip is not just about me liking a musical genre,” Kadhim explained. “I want to be a bridge between cultures.”
Kadhim was born in Iraq and moved to America with her brother, mother, and father when she was 10 years old. Though she doesn’t wear a hijab and dresses in Western clothing, she’s a follower of Islam. She speaks Arabic and English fluently, and now, after three years of studying in her off-time, she can read, write and speak Korean. She says her skills are still a little weak, but her pronunciation is good.
According to Kadhim, her friends at school provided the impetus she needed to invest the thousands of dollars for the Seoul adventure. After hearing her stories of her friends traveling to places like Somalia or Burundi to visit family, she knew she had to do something similar because it could be “life changing.”
“Travelling can make you a better person,” said Kadhim. “A completely more aware human being. It can give you so many life experiences, from overcoming anxiety to stepping over language barriers, to getting lost and finding your way back. These experiences can give you power.”
As a Muslim immigrant, Kadhim already has experience dealing with some “travel hurdles.” While learning English and living her first years in America, she remembers having to communicate solely with facial expressions and hand gestures.
After arriving in Portland six years ago, Kadhim had to be a part of something that seems synonymous with immigrant experience: uncomfortable conversations. According to Kadhim, white people in Maine tend to look at her differently, act surprised when she acts “nice to them,” and are often shocked to hear that she’s a Muslim, because of the fact that she chooses not to wear a hijab.
“The perception of women in Islam is that men always control them, that they are weaker, that they can’t fend for themselves,” said Kadhim. “They think we are abused, and it’s simply not true.”
It’s these types of nasty stereotypes that Kadhim wishes to wipe away through traveling and talking to people. Although uncomfortable at first, having these conversations between people of different cultures is important and necessary to Kadhim, and it ties into her career goals; Kadhim plans on studying International Affairs in college and eventually becoming an Ambassador of Peace.
“As a person who’s blessed to have Arabic, Korean and American cultures in me, I want everyone else to have what I have,” she said. “To see the world the way I do, to become open minded.”
That’s why linking the seemingly disparate cultures of Korea and Iraq, through travel and studying music and language, is paramount to Kadhim. If she’s able to travel to Seoul this summer, she plans on returning to Portland with the social skills of a “cultural broker,” skills she says are desperately needed during the divisive times left in the wake of the election.
“Portland needs to come together as a community,” said Kadhim. “I don’t see complete unity here. I see fear in all of us.”
Do you want to support Kadhim’s language immersion goals? Check out her fundraising campaign here: https://www.gofundme.com/south-korea-language-immersion-trip