How BTS helped me bridge my Korean and American identities

Growing up, I worried I would never be comfortable connecting these two worlds

Tears streamed down my face as I watched seven men my age sing in Korean to a sold-out crowd in Los Angeles recently. 

In a sea of flashing purple light sticks, BTS — RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook — sang their hit, “Spring Day,” while a crowd of 50,000 people of all ages, races and hair colors chanted every word and followed the lyrics flashing in Hangul on the Jumbotron behind the band.

These young men are the role models I had yearned for as a kid. I felt incredibly proud of how the world around me had changed and how this night made me think I could truly be accepted in this country.

But it wasn’t enough. Something still felt missing.

My family moved to the United States in 1995 when I was 2 months old and my dad began studying for his accounting degree at Boston University. They expected the move to be temporary and that we would head back to Seoul, South Korea, when he finished his degree. But after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, my parents decided that we would have more opportunities in the United States. My dad began pursuing a career as a college professor.

Joon Lee attends the BTS concert at SoFi Stadium on Nov. 28, 2021.

Joon Lee

I always felt the weight of my family’s history in trying to succeed. My parents lived halfway across the world from their loved ones so they could give me, and eventually my younger sister, a chance to be in America. My grandparents on both sides had lived through periods of extreme social and political turmoil before and after the Korean War. My dad lost his father in a car accident when he was 6 years old and his mother worked as a single mom. Whenever I brought home a report card that featured B’s, my mom would circle each one and tell me I needed to improve. 

While respecting their sacrifice and the Eastern values that shaped our family, I tried to adjust to a culture at school that differed greatly from the one at home. Most people at school did not know anything about the Lunar New Year of Seollal, when we would place photos of our family on a table of food, fruits, and wine and bow to photos of our ancestors. They didn’t know anything about the foods my mom packed me for lunch, with one girl screaming because she thought a fallen piece of seaweed was vomit. I figured that for the rest of my life no one in America would care about the music of G-Dragon, the acting of Gong Yoo or the joys of Bboongbboong-E, a children’s show featuring an orange goblin with a farting problem who teaches the alphabet.

In American pop culture, television shows, movies or music rarely featured Asian Americans, and the handful that did dehumanized or emasculated them. (A study from 2015-16 found that of 2,052 broadcast, digital and cable TV series regulars, only 6.9% of them were Asian American, with 87% on screen for less than half of the episode.) In Arrested Development — a show I loved growing up — the adopted Korean boy is reduced to a recurring joke where he doesn’t speak English. He isn’t even given the dignity of a name, called “Annyong,” the Korean word for “hello,” by the Bluth family. It played into the stereotype of the perpetual foreigner, which depicts Asians as outsiders, regardless of where they were born or how long they’ve lived in the United States.

The space that most frequently featured Asian faces was sports. Yao Ming represented a source of pride, but I found it difficult to relate to a 7-foot-6 man from Shanghai who made Shaquille O’Neal look like an average-sized person. There were few Asian Americans in pro football, but I gravitated to Hines Ward, the former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver who embraced his half-Korean identity. On ESPN, I watched Michael Kim on SportsCenter and Pablo Torre on Around the Horn, rare examples of people on television who looked like me.

It wasn’t until I dove into the world of baseball that I started to find something resembling my yearnings. One of the first times I saw an Asian portrayed in a positive light in American media came when I purchased my first sports magazine ever, an issue of Sports Illustrated for Kids from July 2003 that featured newly-signed New York Yankees slugger Hideki Matsui and the tagline Ruth. Mantle. Matsui? My mind reeled at seeing an Asian face stand alongside names associated with American legends of not just sports, but masculinity.

Hideki Matsui of the New York Yankees hits a two-run home run in the bottom of the second inning against the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 6 of the 2009 MLB World Series at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 4, 2009.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

But something still felt off. When I was growing up, most baseball players of Asian descent did not speak much English in public. Baseball’s culture of stoicism did not mesh with me, a chatterbox kid who used to walk down the street pretending I was Steve, the original host of Blue’s Clues, and whose third grade teacher would turn an imaginary volume knob around my belly button as a sign for me to quiet down.

I tried to make sense of the two different worlds I lived in at home and in school, but I never fully identified with either. I struggled to find role models that could help me figure out my place as both an American and a man.

I turned toward my family but did not find what I was looking for. Most of my relatives lived halfway across the globe. They didn’t know about LeBron James, The Killers or Blue’s Clues. My dad never talked about his feelings or his experience navigating America as an immigrant. He did not understand my dreams as an aspiring writer who wanted to make a career out of articulating my feelings. Our ideas of masculinity clashed, leading to screaming matches when we got frustrated with one another.

My loneliness ballooned as my search to find a role model in my immediate life or pop culture failed. In high school, when I told my family I needed therapy, my parents could not wrap their heads around why. Growing up in a country that did not address mental health, they did not know how to create space for those issues. South Korea has higher levels of internalized stigma about mental health and had the 12th-highest rate of suicide in the world in 2019, according to the World Health Organization. In a culture influenced by Confucianism, the social costs in Korea for a family with mental health issues often outweighs the desire to find help.

I was ashamed that my family’s background couldn’t create space for my dark thoughts. And I internalized the limitations of the pop culture I consumed and the model of masculinity I saw within my family. 

I figured I would be living in two different realities for the rest of my life. It was a given that I would need to change to fit into the world to find anything resembling inner peace.

When BTS started making waves in the United States, I initially wrote off their success. The group first popped onto my radar back in May 2017, when they got their first win at the Billboard Music Awards for top social artists. I saw their messages of “Love Myself” through their mental health and anti-bully campaign with UNICEF, but thought the whole thing sounded like corny home decor that reads “Live, Love, Laugh” and rolled my eyes. I expected them to fade into the background like other K-pop acts such as EXO, Girls’ Generation and 2NE1, who tried to make an impression on the American market but struggled to gain mainstream recognition.

BTS performs during the 2018 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 20, 2018, in Las Vegas.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

But the group kept popping up on my timeline: Videos of BTS becoming the first K-pop group to perform during a major U.S. award show at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards, tweets about them becoming the first Korean music act to receive certification for album sales from the Recording Industry Association of America, news that they had become one of the few groups since The Beatles to earn four U.S. No. 1 albums in less than two years. The turning point for me came in April 2019 when BTS became the first Korean musical act to appear on Saturday Night Live. That night, my mom and I watched the group perform the funk-pop song “Boy With Luv.”

I was fascinated seeing a group of Asian guys my age navigate the entertainment industry, speaking in Korean to audiences in the United States, South America, the Middle East and Asia. In contrast to the desexualized representation of Asian men in the media of my childhood, BTS had become sex symbols. They were named the best-dressed boy band in the world by GQ in November 2021, and members like Jimin pushed boundaries with gender-fluid fashion like kilts and fur boots.

I admired the way the group faced down dismissiveness and racism, from attacks on their Korean identity, parochial social media accounts that labeled them as an “Asian One Direction” or a German radio host comparing the group’s popularity to COVID-19. Others espoused a tired racist trope of K-pop criticism: that the group seemed like a bunch of robots from a factory music label.

But what resonated with me most was how BTS tore down the cultural norms in Korea about mental health, tackling the topic head-on through their Love Yourself series and their 2020 album Map of the Soul: 7, which uses the work of psychologist Carl Jung to explore identity, personal growth and self-actualization. The group’s message through their music and UNICEF campaign tapped into a most recent cultural wave challenging hypermasculine stereotypes through celebrities such as Lil Nas X, Harry Styles, the late Juice WRLD and Pete Davidson.

Joon Lee and his mom in Brookline, Mass. in January, 1996.

Joon Lee

Joon Lee as a child with his dad at Niagara Falls in July, 1999.

Joon Lee

I appreciated that while the group’s message highlights personal growth, they didn’t pretend to have all the answers. One of the group’s singers, Jin, revealed he sought counseling in 2020 after experiencing burnout and imposter syndrome from the group’s success. Rapper Suga delved into his experience with depression and psychiatric treatment on his self-produced mixtape, Agust D.

“Some days, you’re in a good state; sometimes you’re not,” Suga said to Esquire in the Winter 2020/21 issue in November 2020. “Many pretend to be okay, saying that they’re not ‘weak,’ as if that would make you a weak person. I don’t think that’s right. People won’t say you’re a weak person if your physical condition is not that good. It should be the same for the mental condition as well. Society should be more understanding.”

As the group navigated the American pop cultural landscape as non-native English speakers, they ticked off everything I spent my childhood searching for in a role model.

Their music provided affirmation and a framework for me as I began exploring my own mental health journey. Seven months before I started listening to BTS, I began to confront my anxiety and depression in therapy. I had imposter syndrome at work and struggled to accept myself, in part, because of the lack of role models I related to. Going to therapy didn’t magically solve my struggles with mental health and it remains an ongoing process. But as I spent time with my family while quarantining, I talked openly about my struggles while both of my parents started talking about their feelings for the first time.

“I’m sorry for not listening to you when you needed help in high school,” my mother told me in Korean. “It’s one of my biggest regrets.”

For the first time, my dad apologized for not giving me space to fully be myself as a kid. My mom started to confront her lifelong anxiety, in the process becoming a bigger and bigger fan of BTS, turning to their music for affirmations on her mental health journey. As my parents began trying to heal their wounds, I started accepting mine.

But as the world started to change around me, the void inside me remained.

I needed to see for myself that the ARMY — as BTS fans are known — wasn’t just a bunch of Twitter bots, that this phenomenon, all of their albums sold, all of the hype, wasn’t just on the internet. That I wasn’t imagining the change I saw happening.

When I arrived at SoFi Stadium in November 2021, I saw a sea of people standing in line for merchandise, with some on Twitter testifying that they waited 10 hours to get to the front. The only place I’d seen a line resembling what I saw for the BTS merchandise was the lines in New York’s SoHo outside Supreme, Kith and Nike stores ahead of a hyped release for a seasonal clothing line or sneaker.

As I looked around at the crowd, I marveled at its scale and diversity. Next to my seat were a mother and grandma sharing a night on the town and a group of young women holding photo cards of their favorite members. People stood in anticipation for the group’s arrival onstage — it was the group’s first concert with fans in more than two years.

Throughout the show, the group switched between Korean and English. They sang their English-language singles, of course — “Butter,” “Permission to Dance” and “Dynamite” — but also performed Korean-language tracks such as “Spring Day,” “DNA,” “Fire” and “EPILOGUE: Young Forever.” The two worlds I maintained as a kid merged as I watched Western stars Megan Thee Stallion and Chris Martin of Coldplay join a Korean act onstage.

For so many years, I had sought validation from friends, family, sports and pop culture that someone who looked, acted and talked like me could flourish in America, and I came up empty.

But as I watched BTS fulfill the yearnings I felt as a kid — embracing their Korean identity on the biggest stage, speaking candidly about their mental health, owning their status as international celebrities — I realized that seeing role models and representation was never going to be enough to bring me the validation I wanted and fill what I felt was missing.

Tens of thousands of people singing at a concert in my native tongue for a Korean boy band could never force me to accept the cultural differences and tensions that shaped the different realities I navigated growing up. Even if BTS existed when I was a kid, even if I saw the exact representation of Korean masculinity in American pop culture I craved, the only person who could make me feel a sense of peace with me was myself. I realized I needed to listen to the phrase I once dismissed as corny home decor. I needed to love myself.

And as the screaming of 50,000 fans pierced my ears, I felt at peace.

Joon Lee is a staff writer for ESPN and appears as a regular panelist on Around the Horn. His writing has appeared in Bleacher Report, The Washington Post, SB Nation, The Ringer and the Boston Herald. He was born in Seoul, South Korea, grew up in Boston and lives in New York City.