Editorial: Can Non-Asians Compete In An Asian World?

“Anyone may participate regardless of nationality and gender.”

That’s what JYP says about qualifications for global auditions this year. But what about ethnicity?

Now, why would ethnicity even need to be highlighted? These auditions are known to regularly attract mostly only Asians. They’re Asian companies and the idea, the end goal, is to debut in Korea. But K-Pop acts don’t just debut in Korea, toast their success and call it a day. We now know that K-Pop isn’t limited to Korea and that even moderately success groups expand into Asia. It’s the Hallyu Wave as we know it and the results are mirrored in auditions. Asians of multiple nationalities have emerged for the chance to debut as a K-Pop star and some would say its been pretty effective. Miss A for instance – two Korean members, two Chinese members. F(x) – two American members, one Chinese member. U-Kiss – two American members.

So it’s pretty much a safe bet to say if you’re of a different nationality you have the chance to debut in a Korean entertainment company. But notice I said nationality. I didn’t mention ethnicity at all, just like how JYP’s Audition form doesn’t. All the aforementioned examples? Different nationalities yes, but their ethnicity is Asian. For these auditions, ethnicity is assumed to be Asian.

They’re Asian companies producing Asian talent in Asian countries. K-Pop has become more than just an Asian phenomenon however. When people refer to the Hallyu Wave now, they refer to it on a global scale and that global popularity has gained interest from non-Asians too. Not just interest as in “I like this music” but interest in becoming a K-Pop idol themselves, which has led to some pretty puzzled reactions.

“Why would you want to audition for an Asian company if you’re not Asian?”

Or, reworded, if you’re NOT Asian, can it actually be done?

We know that mixed Asian ethnicity is acceptable as evidenced by Insooni and Yoon Mirae (aka – Tasha) who are both half-Korean, half black, as well as Isak, Daniel Henney, Julian Kang and Ricky Neely Lee who are all half-Korean, half white.

But what if you’re not half Asian? Not even a quarter. You have no Asian ancestry or ethnicity in your blood whatsoever.

The non-Asians who have found pockets of success in Korea are the ones who speak Korean very well, if not fluently. But small pockets is not a close comparison to the success of native actors, singers, and MC’s. Regardless, it helps to understand what has worked so far to forecast what could happen in the future.

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Now these are some women that speak Korean WELL. REALLY well. They could probably out-Korean Nichkhun; that’s how good they are (hang in there Nichkhun! No one becomes fluent overnight!). Misuda, or Global Talk Show with Beauties, has acted (past tense here! The show ended in December) as a jumping board for some of the show’s panelists  to get into other outlets of the entertainment industry. But admittedly, very few of them expand outside of the show’s novelty “OMG! It’s a non-Asian speaking Korean fluently! What is this?!” factor.

Aside from half-British, half-Japanese panelist Eva Popiel, Jamilya (Djamilya Abdullaeva) is the only one who came close. She released a single, “Oppa I Hate You So Much” and an accompanying MV in 2008. Well it’s 2011 and the last update on her status is that she has returned to her native Uzbekhistan. Why didn’t she get farther? She even looks like Goo Hye Sun! When she first appeared on Misuda, her popularity exploded so much that her name was the most searched name on Naver for the two days following her debut and then suddenly, abruptly, her popularity just dropped without any explanation why.

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Luvada Dunford is the other really popular Misuda member. She’s never debuted as a singer but she does make small guest appearances on shows. She’s like a minor Korean celebrity, treated as an equal but humble in her acknowledgement of being a foreigner.

Other notable Misuda panelists that have appeared beyond the talk show include Brownwyn Mullen and Abigail Alderete.

Typically, the non-asians we see on TV in Korea are just making short-lived appearances on major TV shows, like the recently discontinued Star Golden Bell or Star King (but Star King really – anyone can get on this show if they’re talented enough and their talent is UNIQUE enough).

Pierre Deporte who is French had lived in Korea for eight years before making his debut as a lead actor on the drama Tamra Island. This example is, unlike the others given, more of a tremor to Korea’s homogeneous casting process. Another young foreign face from Belgium, Julian Quintart, played a supporting role in the film My Tutor Friend. It’s a breakthrough accomplishment to be in a starring or even supporting role in an Asian drama or film broadcast to a predominantly Asian audience. But the typical non-Asian role? That random foreigner who appears for all of 5 seconds. There’s one in every drama!

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Jamilya, Pierre Deporte and Julian Quintart

OK so up to now I’ve summarized non-Asians appearing on TV but where is this all leading? None of them are aspiring K-Pop idols, but knowing that the predecessor to appearing as a K-Pop idol for a non-Asian has been limited appearances on TV or being able speak the language really well, this sort of clues us in on what the level of acceptance is for non-Asians.

Recently Cube held auditions online and an overwhelming amount of non-Asians submitted their work via Youtube to qualify. Like most audition forms there was never any mention in regards to race or ethnicity, so while it might be assumed that the majority of participants will be Asian that also leaves the door open to non-Asians as well since nothing’s closing it.

Actually thanks to our lovable friend Youtube, a huge influx of non-Asian talent has emerged, mimicking Korean songs and dance covers and furthermore, gaining recognition from it.

Of the youtube personalities that have gained notoriety, there’s Pumashock, aka –Natalie White. Her own remix of Girls’ Generation’s “Gee” became a viral hit, was watched by all the girls and reached the ears and eyes of Star King who flew her out for an appearance on the show.

JD Relic and Ashilia are well known for their English remastered versions of popular K-Pop songs and they too have gained recognition from Korean entertainment companies.

Cube held their auditions in Vancouver, Canada. A Youtube contestant by the name of Akirashokk sent in his video to be considered and what ended up happening was that his skills ensured him a spot in the top ten. Akirashokk, real name Kyle Moffat, advanced into the top four before being eliminated.

Perhaps the most noteworthy accomplishment is by Shayne Orok. Half-filipino, half-white, he isn’t fluent in Korean and he is blind in one eye, but his passion for K-pop and his vocal ability earned him the chance to compete in one of the most prestigious auditions taking place in Korea– MBC’s Birth of a Great Star – and his inclusion thrust the idea to Korean audiences that someone who isn’t full Asian in terms of ethnicity can viably compete and stand next to their Asian counterparts.

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Shayne Orok, Pumashock and JD Relic

For a myriad of reasons, call it recognition or pure love, non-Asians’ participation has begun to grow in small amounts. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll see a non-Asian on Music Core anytime soon, but it does reveal a startling flip of the tables. It’s common to hear Asians fighting for recognition in the American music scene but non-Asians in the Korean market?? That’s a new one.

Then again, when a pop culture that was once exclusive to one country goes global, it’s anyone’s game.

What do I think of all this?

I can acknowledge that it’s unlikely and unrealistic given all the circumstances. But we have to be careful throwing words like “unlikely” and “unrealistic” around because that drives people and motivates people to try harder. People who are really determined are capable of almost anything. I can see both sides of the issue but as to how it’ll play out, that’s anyone’s guess. If a song that has lyrics that say “Then comes Saturday and Sunday comes afterwards” can become an overnight sensation and hit the #1 slot of every digital sales chart… then, can I really say that things are supposed to be a certain way and are guaranteed to swing in one direction? I really can’t. Though it’ll be interesting to see how representatives from companies like YG, JYP and SM Entertainment respond to the new filtration of non-Asians to these auditions.

I’ll leave you with some quotes from a few Youtube personalities gaining recognition for their singing and dancing talents as well as previously mentioned singer (and fellow Soompier!) Pumashock.

“I think anything is possbile becuase years ago people though asian music cpop, jpop, jrock, and kpop would not appeal to other countires outside of asia.” – Lalalalalatechno

“Korean culture differs a lot from western culture on some points, so for a non-Asian person to be completely accepted into Korean entertainment and appear on a show like that, I think they should familiarise themselves with Korean culture and language as much as possible.” – SeorinNorae

“Honestly, I think Korea is basically as prepared to accept a non-Asian as a pop idol as America is prepared to accept an Asian as a pop star (if not a bit less so). Sure, we’ve definitely made some progress in both directions, but it still seems a far-fetched feat. 

I’m wary to make any statement proclaiming the stance of an entire foreign country; but we have to keep in mind that the great pride a (very ethnically homogenous) country feels to see the world embrace and celebrate its culture doesn’t entail the desire to invite that world as prominent representatives of said culture.

All in all, we’re getting closer day by day…but we aren’t quite there yet.” – Pumashock

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