K-pop and anime fandoms foster safe spaces on campus

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By Sama Nemat Allah

When Trisha Chockie Wong moved from Hong Kong to Canada in 2016, she was terrified of the inevitable feeling of isolation that comes with being an international student in a foreign country. 

It quickly dawned on her that Vancouver’s predominantly white population would make it difficult for her to make friends or meet people who looked like her and harboured the same interests. So when she discovered the University of British Columbia’s small anime club in her first year, relief cascaded through her. 

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, I found my people,” she said.

The club provided anime-lovers like Wong, who has since transferred to Simon Fraser University to study interactive arts and technology, with a space to relish in their shared niche interests—attending streamings of their favourite shows, cosplaying, going to conventions and socializing outside of their university’s monotonous walls. 

For Wong, anime clubs are a place where marginalized folks can come together and celebrate a marginalized medium in the West, she said. “It’s like a safe haven.” 

Shane Liu, a former Ryerson student who graduated in 2019, also found solace in fandoms at the heart of the Japanese art medium. As a previous executive member of Ryerson’s cosplay and anime clubs, Liu saw anime as a thread of connection between him and an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar people. 

Having immigrated to Canada in August 2013, Liu wasn’t sure how to connect with his Canadian peers. “As an international student coming from Trinidad, I didn’t know how to have a conversation,” said Liu. “But the one thing I did know was anime.”

Anime, which means animated cartoon in Japanese, is a form of visual entertainment with varied artwork styles and storytelling methods. Cosplaying is a performance art that enables fans to use makeup and costumes to bring their favourite characters from anime, television or film to life. 

According to Colleen A. Laird, an assistant professor in Japanese film and popular culture at the University of British Columbia, the anime fandom can act as a place of refuge for many marginalized groups, including racialized and queer communities. 

Laird explained that anime, as a visual medium, has the capacity to facilitate spaces for imagination, allowing followers to escape from the obstacles of everyday life. When fans unearth these safe networks of marginalized art and groups, communities slowly “become kind of a pseudo-family,” she said. 

“Part of the reason why people are drawn to [these communities] is because they’re looking for a safe space,” said Laird. “So when you have enough people that are looking [for a safe space] there’s a real desire to create that space and to protect it.”

“The entire fandom is a family. We created a community that supports and leans on each other”

Like anime, K-pop is another East Asian art form that allows its fans to identify and connect with a marginalized culture. Although devotees are commonly perceived as “socially withdrawn,” according to an article in The Conversation, Selena Chea, a member of Ryerson’s K-pop club, RU K-pop, asserts that the social aspect of her fandom is central to its existence. 

“It’s not just about the artists themselves,” said the first-year photography student at Ryerson. “The entire fandom is a family. We created a community that supports and leans on each other.”

For Chea, K-pop is more than just entertainment; it’s a vessel for representation that allows her to finally feel seen in the mainstream western world. 

“Growing up, you only saw white people making it in the world and you don’t really see people that look like me,” said Chea, who is Chinese-Canadian. “Now that I see people like me owning it out there doing amazing things, I think ‘Wow, I think I have a chance too.’”

In recent years, Japanese and South Korean cultures—and, consequently, the art mediums that derive from them, like anime and K-pop—have increasingly enjoyed their position in the mainstream limelight, transcending their East Asian borders and conquering imaginations in the West.

But despite the notoriety of these international cultural phenomenons, anime and K-Pop fans are frequently subject to terms used to mock their passion. ‘Otaku,’ which means nerd in Japanese, and ‘Weeaboo,’ as well as ‘Koreaboo’ are terms often directed at fans to poke fun at their perceived unhealthy obsession with East Asian culture. 

Wong and Liu soon realized that although their passions were mirrored by members in the fandom, they were often diminished by those outside of it. 

After posting a selfie of herself and her anime club on social media, Wong stumbled upon the same photo, reposted in a Facebook “cringe-sharing” group. “I was confused. Is it cringey that I’m happy? That I’ve found friends?” said Wong. 

According to Kyong Yoon, an associate professor of cultural studies at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, the negative connotations associated with anime and K-pop are rooted in racism and Western supremacy. 

“As Western—especially American—pop music is dominant in the global music market, non-Western music tends to be marginalized,” Yoon told The Eyeopener.

“For example, K-pop, its idols and fans have been racialized, as Asian culture has often been for decades, even before the introduction of K-pop.” This racialization, Yoon said, means deeming non-Western mediums as immature and illegible cultures that are inferior to the products created by mainstream and white media. 

“Growing up, you only saw white people making it in the world and you don’t really see people that look like me”

Chea said when she first started listening to K-pop, she was embarrassed to be known as a K-pop fan because of the negative connotations surrounding it. When people used to ask what she was listening to, she’d dismiss the questions, saying: “Oh, it’s just music.”

Now an active member of RU K-pop at Ryerson, she enjoys the community that she’s become a part of. Although the club can’t meet in person right now, they’re still finding ways to subsist by streaming performances on Discord, watching Korean dramas together and interacting with each other on Instagram. 

“I’m meeting new people through this medium,” said Chea. “It’s just really cool to see how this art form has brought so many people together.”

Similarly, Wong has learned to embrace her “cringe.” She has come to feel pride in her passion for art that has yet to be welcomed into mainstream media, but advises others to look beyond what they’ve become accustomed to.

“You’re missing out on so much. You’re missing out on the entire world.”

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