Youth in Bhutan are experiencing sweeping changes in today’s linked-up world, and none are more noteworthy than the trend of emulating the South Korean pop culture. Everywhere you look youngsters mirror the hairstyles and dress of Korean movie and pop stars, singing their songs and copying their dance moves. Korean drama series and cuisine are the rage as well.
K-pop fashion tops the list with Bhutanese youth, who pick up on every new look previewed by Korean stars. The “Koreanized” style is in vogue from head to toe. In Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, the latest in hairstyles and skinny tight jeans and jackets fit right in. And just as in Seoul, it is a common sight to see young people in Thimphu covering half their faces with a muffler or stole. The unique styles are available in all sizes in the capital's retail centres and in shops along narrow alleys and pathways.
The “Koreanized” style is in vogue from head to toe.
Many shops and video parlours in Thimphu offer an array of Korean TV series and movies. Whenever a high school hosts a concert in the capital, students choose a good number of Korean songs to perform, and they do so amazingly well considering that few if any have taken classes to learn the dance moves. Some of their freestyle dancing is exactly like that of Korean pop stars. Singers like Big Bang, Wonder Girls, and Shiny are extremely popular. When asked their favourite Korean songs, students say upbeat tunes from big-name groups are the top choice among their friends.
''We try to perform like the Big Bang crew, because they dance so well and many girls like them,’’ said Chimi Rinzin, a student at Pelkhil High School. He added that it’s very exciting and challenging to perform like the Korean pop stars.
Members of the Thai Boyz, a popular dancing crew from the capital, owe a lot to their Korean idols for their first-place award in the Druk Superstar dance contest in 2008. They readily admit that most of their moves were inspired by watching music videos of Korean pop stars. ‘‘The dance and performance are of the highest quality in the world,’’ said Tandin Kinley, a member of the Thai Boyz. Another member, Roshan Gurung, added that he always looks at how the Korean pop stars perform. “Some of the things they (Korean pop stars) do are simply amazing.”
Tracing back the beginnings
The introduction of the internet and television back in 1999 gave the Bhutanese people the possibility of experiencing different means of entertainment and styles from across the world. Young people began mimicking wrestlers from WWE and listening to Western music. They got hooked on US TV serials and, of course, Bollywood movies, which have earned a permanent place in the hearts of the Bhutanese people. More recently Korean fever began riding the digital wave into the once-isolated mountain kingdom and is taking fascination with the outside world to a new level among the young.
There are many K-pop fashion shops like this one in the Bhutanese capital.
In 2005 South Korea’s Arirang TV Channel became one of 60 or more channels that Bhutanese people could flip through. Arirang gave adolescents access to educational and entertainment programmes that were much to their liking and before long the influence was visible in the way they presented themselves.
Most of the Korean emulators can speak very little of the language apart from a few simple phrases like ‘aigo’ (cute or charming) and ‘oopa Gangnam Style’, which are recognized by even the youngest of children. It is only with subtitles that people are able to understand what they are watching. However, some young people do take up the language quite seriously.
Phuntsho Dorji Dhendup, a Bhutanese student who earned a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from City College in New York, is an ardent follower of South Korean culture. “For many years I have been watching and following Korean pop stars and drama series, so much so that I can now have a decent conversation with someone from Korea,” he said. When asked to demonstrate his linguistic ability, Dhendup sang the lyrics of the hit single ‘Haru Haru’ by Big Bang, shocking friends who were unaware of his talents.
Like everywhere else, Bhutan submitted to the ‘Psy effect’ of the global smash hit ‘Gangnam Style’. During the first few months after its release Bhutanese society was swamped by the happy and hilarious video. It played everywhere and small children could be seen performing Gangnam moves. ‘‘Just a decade back, people would be awestruck to see students dance the way they do to Korean songs,’’ said Tshering Dorji, a civil servant who has watched his own children adapt under the influence of their Korean love.
Taste of Korea
The San Maru Restaurant in the heart of Thimphu owes its popularity and perhaps existence to the new trend. The restaurant provides customers the taste of authentic Korean food in Bhutan. It is run by Tshering Tashi and his wife Lee Yeonji, who happens to be from South Korea. ‘‘People seem to enjoy Korean food because the spicy and bitter taste that Bhutanese people like are found in Korean food also,’’ said Yeonji, adding with a smile that business is really picking up. Most days the restaurant is full and both husband and wife can be seen taking orders and preparing mouth-watering Korean dishes. The most popular choices are ‘bi bim bap’ (cooked rice with a number of well-seasoned vegetables, mixed with sesame oil and a touch of red chili paste) and beef barbecue. The restaurant also serves a wide range of appetizers.
But while the rage for all things Korean has added culinary choices for Bhutanese as well as visiting tourists, the influence of Korean pop culture has also brought concerns, especially among parents. Some worry that it might deteriorate Bhutanese culture and traditions. “The way our children dress up today, they look more western (meaning Korean) than Bhutanese,” said one parent. Whether the concerns are justified or groundless remains to be seen, but by all indications this new-found cultural love of the younger generation is here to stay.