Kayla Ann Villanueva: I moved to Korea for K-Pop

Kayla Ann Villanueva: I moved to Korea for K-Pop

Music inspired a U.S. student to learn Korean and travel to Seoul

Growing up on a quiet farm in rural Indiana, I never dreamed about living anywhere other than in the American Midwest. 

In high school, my small group of friends and I were quite absorbed by our anime obsession. We gathered together, had sleepovers, watched countless different series, and squabbled about anime for several years. 

My fixation continued as I attended a small, local university. I spent most of my first semester’s free time catching up on the latest subtitled shows and discussing them with my friends.

The catalyst

It was during Christmas break freshman year that it happened.

I was bored and stuck at school for a few days, so, naturally, I browsed around the Internet searching for subbed links of a new show.

After clicking a link (for what I thought would lead me to the show I wanted), I was actually taken to the first episode of an Asian drama. The language, I instantly recognized, was not the cute Japanese I was accustomed to, but it intrigued me nonetheless.

For some unknown reason –- perhaps it was boredom from being snowed in, or maybe I had just watched a bit too much anime that semester –- I decided to give that first episode a shot.

I knew that I had to get to Korea so that I could find more of that gratification.

And I loved it. I loved the absurdity shoved into every situation and the slightly overdone drama emphasized by the music. I loved the flow of the language and the perfectly polished actors.
After finishing the first episode, I felt so conflicted. I was still in the middle of my hunt for the new anime I wanted to see, and I felt a little guilty for wanting to abandon my anime quest in favor of watching more of the silly Asian drama.

Ultimately, I chose the latter. The show -- which, after a few episodes, I learned was a Korean drama called "Boys Over Flowers" -- quickly became a new fascination for me. The storyline was ridiculous, I knew, but it captivated me all the same. And the background music, though a bit overplayed in my opinion, was pretty catchy.

It did not take me long to finish the series. Once I was done, I felt such an emptiness in my chest. I wanted more, more, more. I searched the Internet, looking for names of the actors, trying to find the songs, searching for another show just as entertaining and gratifying as "Boys Over Flowers."

Before long –- and thanks to the vast resources the Internet provided -- I was watching YouTube videos of artists from the drama’s soundtrack, such as SHINee and SS501, and I was promptly flying through similar dramas.

Kayla Ann VillanuevaIn the audience at Rain's The Best Show concert.
Before I knew it, my computer was full of SHINee songs and my walls were covered in SS501 posters. Korea’s softer portrayal of masculinity was a nice break from America’s brawny interpretation, and I welcomed that break with all that I had.

Language and culture 

With my new interest in Korean culture came a desire to learn the language, and with my fervent fascination with Korean pop music came a longing to attend concerts and go to the popular music shows I could only see through my computer screen.

My small, liberal arts college was just not cutting it, so, sophomore year, I transferred to a larger university -- Indiana University -- which offered both a Korean language program and a study  program in Seoul.

More on CNNGo: How far would you travel to see Girls' Generation?

During my first year at Indiana, I began studying Korean language and applied for my coveted overseas study program. Also, unable to suppress my inner fangirl needs, I flew out to Los Angeles during Labor Day weekend for the SM Town concert, which my family eventually heard about over Christmas break. 

Live concerts

I was finally able to see my favorite Korean groups live, including boy group SHINee and girl group f(x). Watching them -- with their flawlessly coordinated choreography, spectacularly matched outfits and performing their songs seamlessly -- just added a whole can of fuel to my fire. Gazing at the artists whose music and styles that I loved so much made me so happy, I knew that I had to get to Korea so that I could find more of that gratification.

The writer, posing with friends after watching a Marionette show on her first full day in Korea.
I was accepted for the Council on International Educational Exchange study abroad program in Korea for the 2011 fall semester, and I have been here in Seoul since August. Since coming to Korea –- along with taking classes at Yonsei University and language classes at the Korean Language Institute -– I’ve been to music shows (MBC’s Music Core, Arirang’s Wave K) and some concerts (most notably Rain’s The Best Show, YG Family Concert).

Being able to visit various sites made famous in the fan-world by idol groups or dramas is something I still cannot get over. Having the opportunity to finally be in the crowd at shows and concerts and yell along with the fan chants is so thrilling.

It’s truly exhilarating living in Seoul, South Korea.

While I will be heading back to Indiana this June, where I will finish up my senior year, I intend on returning to Korea after graduation to look for a job.

The opinions of this commentary are solely those of Kayla Ann Villanueva.

CNN Partner Hotels

Destination Berlin

It's crowded and outdated, but Berlin's hexagon-shaped Tegel air hub has won a place in the city's heart