x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Emiratis 'captivated' by Korean culture

From food, music to soap operas, students at Zayed University are enamoured by all things Korean.

From left, Warda Saleh, Sanaa Saoud al Hamzi, Amina Ahmed al Ansari, Hanan Khalid al Amri and Latifa Ahmad al Romaithi show off their Korean pop culture collections at a Korean restaurant in the capital.
From left, Warda Saleh, Sanaa Saoud al Hamzi, Amina Ahmed al Ansari, Hanan Khalid al Amri and Latifa Ahmad al Romaithi show off their Korean pop culture collections at a Korean restaurant in the capital.

ABU DHABI // When Korean boy bands release a new video, Warda Saleh can hardly wait the few hours for her and her three best friends to get out of class to watch it.

To avoid wasting time, the 22-year-old Emirati, a student at Zayed University, finds an empty classroom and sets up the projector so they can watch their beloved fresh-faced, spiky-haired heartthrobs on the screen together.

When one is tardy the others call them. "Odi?" they say - "where are you?" in Korean.

Their ringtones often play songs from their favourite group, Big Bang, said Ms Saleh as she pulled out her phone.

Attached to it dangled two long strands of dozens of pictures of her favourite boy band pin-ups.

Like Ms Saleh and her friends, the dozens of young Emirati women who make up the Korean Club at Zayed University love Korean pop culture.

Many, like Ms Saleh, are obsessed with everything from the boy band members who grace their computers, notepads and compacts, to TV dramas, food, fashion, beauty products and language. They study Korean at the university. They order creams and make-up from South Korea. They watch Korean movies and cook Korean food and sing their favourite lyrics together.

It's the soft side of deepening bilateral ties between the UAE and South Korea that Seoul is eager to foster. As relations have gone from strength to strength in recent years in military, diplomacy and trade - including a 2009 deal for a South Korean-led consortium to build the UAE's first nuclear plants - the ambassador here has urged rounding that out with personal ties as well.

"Our nations ought to focus on better people-to-people and cultural exchanges to broaden and deepen how we relate to each other," Kwon Tae-kyun wrote in The National in April, adding that it was important for bilateral relations to "develop far into the future in a lasting and meaningful way".

Korean pop music, known as K-pop, along with Korean dramas have gained followings worldwide over the past decade in what is called the "Korean wave," or hallyu. Most of the fans are in East Asia, though a few bands like Big Bang have had hits in the West. Soap operas are subtitled in Chinese, English and Arabic.

Some of their appeal comes from their seeming more conservative than their Western counterparts. The lyrics are less vulgar than in American hip-hop, said Hanan Khalid al Amri, a 21-year-old student.

Ms al Amri also finds the dramas more authentic than the local shows. Poor characters don't wear full make-up, she said. Celebrities who appear on variety shows are willing to embarrass themselves in silly games, she said.

And then there is the inexplicable charm of boyish performers with sweeping bangs, matching outfits and winning smiles.

Amina Ahmed al Ansari, who visited South Korea last summer, said she stood outside the building of Big Bang's recording company for an hour. During her visit she spotted two celebrities.

"I was like this," she said, sitting with her eyes wide and mouth agape.

For the club's first Korean Day in March, the first lady of South Korea, whose husband was in the UAE on official business, toured the campus and cooked Korean food, in a visit arranged by the South Korean tourism authority.

The organisation also brought life-size cutouts of the performers from Big Bang.

For some students, their fun obsession is a means to more serious benefits, if they can use their language skills and cultural knowledge to get a job at one of the rising number of Korean firms setting up here.

"We might end up in a Korean company," said Sanaa Saoud al Hamzi, a 21-year-old business student who said she plans to get her master's degree in South Korea.

She and dozens of others are studying the language through the King Sejong Institute, which opened at the university last autumn with support from the South Korean government.

More than 50 people are taking classes, said Donald Glass, co-ordinator of the institute and faculty adviser for the club.

Mr Glass said even he was surprised at the flood of interest in all things Korean when he gave a talk about his experience living there in 2009.

"Who would think that students would be interested in Korea?" he said. "To my surprise, it was a full house. Standing-room only."

chuang@thenational.ae