Thursday, April 12, 2012

KOREAN MUSIC: The Story of Lee Michelle of SBS’s K-Pop Star

케이팝 스타: 이미쉘 (Lee Michelle, or Michelle Lee)

Last Sunday, the “K-Pop Star” contestants were given a mission to pick and sing a song from the list of songs suggested by fans.  When Park Jin Young selected Soulciety’s “U Just” for her, Lee Michelle said, “I think someone who could see my pain that I’ve been harboring inside of me had chosen the song for me,” as it is about “a poignant parting” (with the man the narrator of the song loves).  “But I didn’t want to reveal it ‘cause I thought I shouldn’t act like a baby, but gotta be mature.  I know all I have to do is loosen up a little, but I’m afraid I might break down if I do so. I've never expressed my true emotions in my life, even in here right now,” added she.

[Audio] Soulciety: "U Just" (2005)

In the pre-produced segment with Michelle, Park Jin Young wondered, “While growing up, she might’ve in such situations that she needed to learn to suppress her feelings (rather than to admit them openly).  I thought she should release herself not only for her performance but for her life.”  So Park let her sing in the dark.  She was so immersed in the song that she could finally burst into pent up tears.  She said, “I think it was a burst of mixed emotions – my memories of the man I loved about two years ago, past regrets of things I didn’t do for and to him, and resentments about my life that I have lived so far, keeping emotions repressed and buried.”  She said she would sing for those who have suffered the desperate pangs of failed (or unrequited) love.  And she added, “I think I will be singing the song, thinking of the man I miss, I am thankful for, and I should’ve been nicer to.”

Right after he revealed Michelle had to go home, Park said (to TV viewers and live audience) in an attempt to soothe her, “Michelle seemed to have had no outlet for her emotions so far (even when she sang) but (her emotional build up) eventually erupted tonight.  I once asked her why it was that difficult for her to express her feelings and she answered she just hadn’t been able to do it.  For she had been hurt by too many people while growing up.”  He said all parents should and must teach their children not to discriminate or bully people based on skin color or ethnicity.  “I’d like to give her a big hand for having managed to pull through without losing her cool and for showing, tonight, that she’s got potential,” added he.

Lee Michelle:  "K-Pop Star"
Soulciety: "U Just" (aired on 04/08/2012)

Now, I'll let you in on a little secret:  Koreans have been misguided by traditional false beliefs that they are homogeneous.  As a matter of fact, inter-ethnic or inter-racial marriages in Korea date back to the Middle Ages, when such Central Asians as Persians and Turks started to come to Korea mainly for the purpose of commerce: e.g., the Jang clan of Deoksu; and the Seol clan of Gyeongju that uses the Chinese latter “” (which means “clear”).  I don't know whether the actor Jang Dong Geon (장동건) and Jang Geun Seok (장근석), the late actress Jang Jin Young (장진영), the cellist Jang Hannah (장한나) or Hannah Chang, and the Korean-American violinist Sarah Jang (or Jang Young Ju, 장영주) belong to this clan as there are over sixty more Jang clans in Korea; but who knows some of them might.  And also a princess from the city of Ayodhya in North India, Heo Hwang Ok (33~189), married King Kim Suro of the Gaya Kingdom (the Southern part of Korea) and became the progenitor of the Heo () clan.  All the Roh () clans,  the Nam clan of Yeongyang, and the Hong clan of Namyang are of Chinese origin;  the Lee or Yi () clan of Cheonghae are descendants of a Jurche man, Lee Jiran (이지란); and the Lee or Yi () clan of Hwasan are descendants of the Vietnamese prince, Lee Yongsang (이용상).

Yes, I used to think Korea is a single-race country too.  Then why have Koreans believed they are a homogeneous nation?  Methinks it’s because (i) the clans of foreign origin have slowly and steadily assimilated to and mixed with native Koreans over the past 2,000+ years; and (ii) most importantly, they were basically from Asia and Asians share some common physical features such as dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, and tan skin color with golden or yellow undertone.  Of course, there were quite rare cases where some Dutchmen, Jan Janse Weltevree (1627) and Hendrick Hamel, Jan Claezen et al. (1653) were respectively shipwrecked and drifted on the sea, and finally arrived in the Korean Peninsula.  Weltevree (Park Yeon, 박연) and Claezen (Nam Buksan, 남북산) were naturalized in Joseon (조선, Today’s Korea) and became the progenitor of the Pak or Park () clan (Note that it’s one of many Park clans) and of the Nam () clan of Byeongyeong, respectively.  In short, the descendants of immigrants to Korea have rarely looked much different.

After the Korean War (1950~1953), however, over ten thousand of Korean women coupled off with American G.I.'s: Some left Korea with their husbands to immigrate to the U.S. while others were left behind and forgotten by their husbands and had to suffer from bias as well as poverty.  The deserted wives of American G.I.’s were despised and discriminated as (i) they were unusually married to non-Korean men in a “allegedly” homogenous country and more importantly (ii) the majority of them were engaged in prostitution one way or another and disparagingly called Yanggongju (양공주, “Western Princess”).  And their children were treated the same way for the same reasons, shunned as Twigi (튀기), a derisive Korean term for mixed race people that was once used to describe animal hybrids.  They got always noticed because their appearances were practically impossible not to notice and they were even more discriminated and bullied when they had African American, not Caucasian, (G.I.) fathers.   

In today’s Korea, more and more people get involved in inter-ethnic marriages and interestingly enough, unions between Korean men and non-Korean women are most frequent and common nowadays; it used to be the other way around until lately.  As Korean women seem to be no longer interested in marrying farmers in rural areas, the Korean male farmers have been matched up with their foreign brides through marriage brokers just like American frontier workers married women in developing countries through mail-order agencies.  Korea now has approx. 35,000 mixed-race citizens, and the majority of them are half Caucasians.  Unlike in the past, not a few Korean men wed non-Korean women and more white-collar Korean women wed non-Korean men. Accordingly, more and more Koreans are getting used to inter-racial romance and marriage. 

Even now, however, marrying foreigners is still likely to be despised by the society. Those dating foreigners may probably be subject to gossip.  Mixed race children can probably be bullied in school because of not being "allegedly pure" Koreans and because kids can be so naïvely cruel – this is why Park Jin Young emphasized the important role of parents teaching their kids not to discriminate or bully people simply they are/look different.  But Koreans are changing, although slowly; they are learning to set aside their prejudices and accept people for who they are, not who they aren’t. 

Now, can you imagine what kind of bias (against herself) Michelle has had to fight growing up (and even now)?  Until lately inter-racial romance was quite rare in conservative Korea and the stereotypes of inter-racial romance/marriage in most Koreans' minds in postwar Korea have involved American G.I.'s and prostitutes most of the time.  According to the two segments about Michelle’s family background, if I remember correctly, her parents split up before she was born and she has three other siblings: two of them live with their father in the U.S. and Michelle and her older sister live with their mom in Korea.  I don't want to speculate as to what her family might have gone through and I don't know the exact reason why her love never came true two years ago.  But to my best guess, her then boyfriend’s parents might have disapproved of their relationship because Korean parents just have undoubtedly taken it for granted that their children will marry Koreans as they believe in myth that they are homogeneous. Or her minority complex might have crept into their relationship and ruined it, or she might have not even confessed her love for him....  

Finally, here’s Michelle’s goodbye speech:  "I really thank you all for the love, encouragement, and support you have given me even when I still have a long way to go.  I really hoped that my mom and (older) sister could see me winning the (K-Pop Star) title and now it won’t come true, I’m sorry.  Yet, this is not the end; I’ve learned a lot competing on this show, and I promise I will practice harder to improve (my singing voice and performance).  Thank you."

P.S.  When I first saw Lee Michelle among Cho Kwan Woo’s backup singers on MBC’s “NAGASU” (나가수) or “Naneun Gasuda” (나는 가수다, “I’m a Singer”), aired on July 3, 2011, I spontaneously thought she was a Korean-American.  For her name is Lee “Michelle,” not like the names of older generation mixed race Korean singers such as Kim In Soon (The Korean diva Insuni’s birth name), Yoon Su Il, or Park Il Joon.  When I saw her the second time on the same show, I thought she was in the MBC chorus.  Then she suddenly disappeared, so I forgot about her.  And when I saw her again at the preliminary audition of “K-Pop Star” (07/11/2011), I didn’t recognize her ‘cause she looked quite different.

You can check Michelle at 05:50 and 06:28

Lee Michelle: Chain of Fools (12/11/2011)

P.P.S.  I wish you all the best, Michelle!


  1. Excellent post. You are quite knowledgeable about things Korean! My wife and I are Filipino and like many around the world are totally enamored with Korean culture. The food, the martial arts and the music are just a few things we love. I am often intrigued by segments of shows with people in blackface. Not knowing or understanding the context, I reserved judgement, although I find it hard to think of any production value in that today. I was happy to see Lee Michelle do well. I'd like to see her experience more celebrity. I enjoyed reading your post. Thank you.

  2. Thanks. This blog is for those who want to dig deeper into almost every facet of Korean life, culture, society, etc. So I'm very excited to know that you enjoyed reading my post. :)

  3. Thanks a lot for translating what she said on the kpop star, I watched it without subs and I couldn't understand most of what was going on lol By the way, is Michelle a teenager? I've read that she is very young but at first I thought she was in her 20s because she worked as a teacher and appeared on TV before...maybe I got it wrong.

    I'm also glad that you explained how non homogenuous the Korean population really is. I used to think thatiartio tarppleva they actually were so homogenuous.

  4. Michelle is 21 in Korean age; hence 19 or 20 in Western age. Still very young, isn't she? BTW, this homogeneity myth, I think, might have been a propaganda creation.

  5. Hey, thanks for the info :) Yes, she's still very young and I hope that she will be signed to a label (maybe YG) soon.

  6. You're welcome! Michelle undoubtedly has a talent that no one should ignore. :)

  7. Dude what are you talking about? Genetically and historically speaking Koreans are homogeneous.

    MORE homogeneous for example than Ashkenazi Jews who trace common descent from ONE ANCESTOR. I'm not speaking about qualitative impressions I'm talking about scientific examination of the gene pool. There's probably no population to this day that is as homogeneous as Koreans were at the start of the 20th century. Don't obfuscate facts or fool yourself in order to make a point, no matter how worthy that other point may be in your eyes.

    The rest of the stuff I think you make some good arguments about discrimination but you do logically understand that mentioning a few or even a few hundred mixed people over hundreds of years doesn't refuse the identity of Korea as a homogeneous nation when you're talking about a genepool of hundreds of millions over the time you're discussing?

    As for your other point, Korea isn't "slowly changing" it's changing at a stupefying rate. It took a hundred years from 1965 to 1965 for blacks to get equal rights in America. Chinese arrived in the US in the 1840s and still face discrimination 170 years later in media, college admissions and employment. Not to mention social discrimination for Asian American males. Korea had fewer than 20,000 NON KOREAN, non US military foreign population in 1996... in the space of 15 years it's approaching Western convention in terms of acceptance of racial diversity. Every year new protections are being passed and people who've been away for even 5 years are shocked how much it's progressed. I know people who used to bitch about Korea on blogs in the mid 2000s who now find many Koreans are even more progressive than they are.

    I honestly wonder when the last time was you were in Korea. Korea has a long way to go, as does the US to being an ideal place but I honestly wonder about your perspective and longheld stereotypes.

  8. Thank you for sharing and I respect your thoughts and opinions even though I still think it depends on how strictly we define homogeneity. I think the phrase "more homogeneous" contradicts itself.

    I had, have, and will have no intention to compare Korea with US, especially in terms of discrimination, hence I don't understand why you did that. I myself live here in the US, one day feeling respected, then the next day discriminated. This will probably never change as people have a tendency to discriminate one way or another. So, if Korea is really rapidly changing in a better direction as you mentioned, good for you!


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