A review by Nalini Haynes
Hannah Cho lost her best friend Jacob Kim 3 years ago when he moved to Korea. A year ago, she acquired a new boyfriend but he just broke up with her. The reason? He’s a white American into K-pop and K-drama. He says they have nothing in common because she’s a Korean American who spent her life trying to be American. So she doesn’t even understand the language – the white American language – used by the BTS Army and similar fan groups. They’re not Seoulmates. But then Jacob returns for a visit…
Author Susan Lee is a huge fan of K-pop and K-dramas herself, which is evident in her story. She ships and fangirls like all the stans.
Hannah Cho’s story, that of trying so hard to fit in while effectively erasing her ethnicity, is not unusual. The sudden popularity of all things Korean in her peer group surprises her. She struggles to reconcile her identity and, I think, may grieve lost opportunities sacrificed to her goal of assimilation. Delving into personal exploration and growth enriches Seoulmates.
When my son was a Starcraft gamer – the kind who Blizzard and sponsors flew places to game then to commentate games – I learnt about the Korean training programs. Teenagers lived in houses where they trained for a substantial part of every day. Burnout was high. And for someone to reach 21 and still play? That was unusual. Presumably many acquired RSI (like my son). There were always new players coming up in the ranks.
Seoulmates talks about the Idol programs that launched K-pop groups like BTS. Once Jacob was “discovered” in a market by talent scouts, they put him in an Idol program as part of his training. In the story, he’s hounded, controlled 24/7, manipulated and living in fear. Then he returns to America to have a holiday while his ankle heals. During this much-needed break, he relaxes, rebuilds his relationship with Hannah while having fun.
The Korean training programs sound like a nightmare. A cross between Big Brother, Idol and school with less of the school so the participants are probably lucky to have a “fall back” plan if success eludes them. And now Western countries are feeding this toxic machine.
Seoulmates is a charming romance combining self-exploration, growth and nightmarish Korean training and K-Drama programs. The author, Susan Lee, obviously draws from her own experiences living in America and from her loves of K-pop and K-drama. This novel is a must-read for those who love K-scene and a romances dealing with real issues and “deep” characters. I highly recommend Seoulmates.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Imprint: Inkyard Press (HarperCollins)
Released: 2022 in the US, 2023 in Australia
Format: paper, 320 pages
Category: romance, young adult, social issues
Age: from 14