I’m staring at another one of those first-day-of-class questionnaires, my pencil stopping at a question along the lines of “what one song describes you best?” I mentally go through the playlists on my phone and try to decide if I should choose a song in English, despite my lacking knowledge, or if I should be truthful and put down my favorite Korean song. To be honest, I’m more interested in turning this in and getting lunch, so I start writing the song title in Korean.
Sometimes it takes extra effort to translate a phrase, and this song is one that I can’t translate directly unless I have a dictionary in hand. Even then it would sound like a bad ad slogan at best, so I resort to scribbling an apology to the professor next to the Korean characters:
I’m sorry, I don’t know how I can translate this.
It’s not my first apology of this nature. The beginning of the fall semester is filled with “get to know each other” conversations, and music or TV show preferences tend to be the questions that keep on coming back like that one regular customer that no one wants to welcome. I can’t count the number of times the conversation would come to an awkward halt because I don’t listen to a lot of music in English, even though most Koreans do. Second, I never took time to find and listen to artists I may like. Third, I didn’t have Spotify until yesterday. The fourth (and probably biggest) reason? I don’t want to go for the easy answer of K-pop (Korean Pop).
“Who/what do you listen to?” can be a hard question to answer if you listen to a band or genre that not many seem to enjoy. It’s a hard question even if you listen to songs that everyone has listened to at least once. It’s not an easy task to pinpoint exactly what kind of music I like, and sharing what I listen to often comes with baggage. It’s full of implications and labels, both true and false.
That’s what I learned moving back and forth from several cultures. It’s a constant fight between wanting to fit in and wanting to be unique. I don’t want to stand out, but I want to be understood. I want to be understood, but I that means I need to risk the judgement that may follow.
Thankfully, I’m not my third grade self that was introduced to her first non-Christian English song (which was Owl City’s “Fireflies”) nor my fifth grade self that only knew Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift. Today, about 20% of what I listen to is in English. As for the remaining 80%, most of it is Korean, give or take a little bit of German, Arabic, Japanese, or instrumental.
You could guess now what our family road trip playlist looks like. I could start with anything between Maggie Rogers and Ed Sheeran, or add a little bit of guilty pleasure K-pop dance music in there. My sister would turn on a few German songs by Roger Cicero that her German teacher back in high school used to make her memorize, and I would stop her to play a long list of other Korean songs. Ever since I’ve experienced life in the Middle East, I haven’t found anything as exciting as listening to upbeat Arabic music in a car or on the plane. Listening to Arabic will make me feel at home. It’s a cliché thing to say, but music does really connect with memories, and it’s better when it can be shared with someone else.
I don’t listen to as much in other languages to feel confident enough to introduce it, but I was able to put together a playlist that could be a good start if you want try listening to Korean contemporary music.
I know it’s hardly everyone’s thing to listen to something that you might not understand a word of, especially if there isn’t any personal connection with the particular culture, but I think listening to music in a different language is an experience worth having.