South Korea and te ao Māori seem worlds apart, but watching Korean shows, movies and online content, Siena Yates found many similarities between the two cultures. Here, she writes about how a recent trip to the home of the K-wave not only confirmed those perceptions, but also showed her what was possible for the future of te ao Māori, and especially te reo Māori.
“What brings you to Korea?”
I was asked this about a hundred times after landing in Seoul in June. When I said it was mostly because I love K-pop and K-dramas, I got one of two reactions. The first was a knowing, familial nod of recognition which said: “Me, too.”
And the other, from people who just didn’t get it, was some variation of a snort or an eyeroll. I could tell what they were thinking — that it’s all just a fangirl obsession. And I’m not ashamed to say that it definitely is that.
But there’s a bit more to it too.
My love of all things Korean began during a Covid lockdown in 2021. While other people got into baking sourdough and learning to rollerskate, I got into a South Korean idol group called BTS.
Seven young men (RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook) who sing, rap, dance, act, model and have their own variety TV shows. They’re a big deal: more than 70 million Instagram followers, and the top-selling band in the world in 2020 and 2021, second only to Taylor Swift last year.
There’s a saying in the BTS fandom — known as ARMY — that you find BTS when you need them. That’s how it was for me. I was taking a mental health break from work and grieving a recent loss. Searching for ways to lift myself up, I asked my friends on Instagram what made them happy. “BTS,” one of them replied.
So I looked them up. With the nation in lockdown, I had nothing else to do but watch them for hours on end.
But it wasn’t BTS’s music, dance moves or ridiculous good looks that first drew me in. It was their behind-the-scenes shows, videos and posts. It was the joy of watching a group of brothers find happiness together in the most mundane things — playing games, taking trips together or just sharing a meal.
Something about the wholesomeness and simplicity of it all just clicked. There was an element of comfort and self-soothing. Suddenly, happiness didn’t feel so wildly unattainable. And besides, to keep up with the subtitles, I had to watch with my full attention. No multi-screening. No outside distractions. It was a mental health tool I didn’t know I needed.
Within a month or two, I’d gone from “What’s that guy’s name?” to shelling out cash to stream an online concert and buy merchandise. And soon, my interest in BTS led to watching other Korean variety shows and many, many Korean TV dramas.
Variety shows like the hit series Running Man offered light, fun, laugh-out-loud viewing as well as the warmth of getting to know each cast member — while K-dramas offered everything from cathartic explorations of death and the afterlife to escapist fantasies and silly comedies.
It didn’t stop there. I found myself craving Korean food, desperately seeking out Korean fried chicken, and ploughing through packets of shrimp snacks and ramyeon (noodles). Without really trying, I started learning Korean phrases. Now, when I’m in a public place, my ear is almost as attuned to picking out the Korean language as te reo Māori.
Fast forward nearly two years to this June, and the obsession hadn’t faded as Covid retreated. Quite the opposite. Travel was back on the cards — and soon enough, there I was in the middle of Seoul, running around a palace in 35-degree heat wearing a traditional hanbok, living out my best K-drama fantasies.
This is the power of hallyu, better known as the Korean Wave — the flood of Korean pop culture taking over the world.
Even before Parasite became the first non-English language film to win an Oscar for Best Picture in 2019, and Squid Game became the most-watched show on Netflix, South Korea was already becoming a cultural powerhouse, winning devoted fans around the world.
And not by accident. It’s the result of a specific strategy adopted by the South Korean government in the 1990s to boost both the nation’s economic growth and international soft power through the export of popular culture, which even included the formation of a Ministry of Culture with a dedicated K-pop department.
Proof of its success lies in the fact that I find fellow fans everywhere, even in the most unexpected places.
Here at home, I’ve formed long-lasting friendships with fellow BTS ARMY throughout the country, even attending their weddings. I’ve also taken great joy in following Māori and Pasifika hallyu fans online, who translate songs to te reo Māori, wear moko kauae in their TikToks, or make Pasifika-inspired K-pop art. Even acclaimed writer and academic Paula Morris writes a K-drama blog called koreanseen.com after she, too, fell down the rabbit hole during lockdown.
At every fan location in South Korea, and even later in Tokyo, I met other fans from all around the world and clicked immediately. I spent entire days with strangers who I sometimes couldn’t even talk to without Google Translate.
And all of this, based on nothing but the fact that we’ve all been slapped square in the face by the K-wave.
For me though, there was another element to its appeal. I came into the K-wave at the same time as I was coming into my own Māoritanga. And because of that, I’ve found it endlessly fascinating to watch a people who’ve managed to uphold and maintain their traditions despite colonisation and modernisation.
It was a relief in a way to be immersed in drama where the world wasn’t dominated by western culture and people, and where the main characters were people whose values and worldviews seemed closer to my own.
For instance, the concept of manaakitanga is a recurring theme in any K-drama — how you always feed and care for guests, and how the reputation of an entire family could well depend on it.
I kept seeing the focus on relationships between tuākana and teina. Older people (even if only by a couple of months) are automatically afforded respect, given specific terms of address to acknowledge their age status, and generally obeyed or deferred to. In return, it’s the role of the tuākana to care for their teina. In modern settings, this generally takes the form of something like paying for the meal when they go out to eat. But in a historical drama, it could mean laying down their life.
I also saw the innate respect and care for kaumātua, and the responsibility to honour ancestors and provide for descendants. There’s a strong focus on people’s relationship to te taiao, and ideas of natural order and balance — often in a supernatural drama, these are the basis of various curses and powers.
Shamanism, with its rituals and karakia, is also repeatedly featured in K-drama, along with deep belief in ātua-like spirits, an annual honouring of the dead with kai (not unlike Matariki), and a deep connection to te ao wairua and the afterlife. The concept of reincarnation, for example, is the basis of many a K-drama.
Korea, like te ao Māori, has also been subject to invasion and oppression — perhaps most notably when its occupation by Japan, between 1910 and 1945, saw its language and culture brutally suppressed.
Yet Korean language and culture have not just survived but are thriving.
The medium that carries the K-wave is the Korean language. It’s everywhere, all the time, spoken by everyone. Shifting from formal to slang and from old forms to new with ease and flexibility. Its poetic, metaphoric flair still surviving in this modern world.
As any language revitalisation expert will tell you, for a language to survive, people need to see and hear it being spoken in variety of contexts. It’s something the K-wave has done extraordinarily well. One K-drama will teach you how to address royalty should you find yourself in a palace, while another will teach you to curse someone out and ask: “Do you wanna die?” if things get a little too heated in a bar one night.
Having that place and space for the reo no matter where you are is something we’re working to achieve in Aotearoa. That’s the dream — hearing and speaking our reo not just at the marae or kura, but in the playground, at the local cafe, in a nightclub, on the ninth floor of the Beehive.
There are certain Korean phrases — which I suspect are probably their version of kīwaha or colloquialisms — that I hear all the time watching K-dramas and which inspire me to add elements of more casual reo ōpaki to my kete. I think to myself: “How could I whakamāori that and use it in everyday life?” Nothing major, just random things like: “Wait a minute”, “All of a sudden”, or “What do I do?”. Phrases that, if you use them often enough, could easily catch on with the people around you and become a normal part of everyday life.
While in South Korea, I absorbed kupu and small tikanga like bowing, or giving and receiving with two hands without conscious effort. I wore traditional hanbok — which, I’m told, isn’t cultural appropriation but is actively encouraged by locals, as well as the government which rewards it through discounted tourism experiences. I got to see ancient temples and palaces with skyscraper backdrops and hear the Korean reo in every situation from historic tours to “Do you need a bag?” at the combini.
So, for me, the K-wave has been this beautiful, shining example of how our reo and traditions could be one day, in a very real and attainable sense.
I went to South Korea because I wanted to be in a place where the culture is so ingrained, and such a part of everyday life that you see it and feel it in a massive, fast-paced city like Seoul as much as in small pockets of the countryside. I wanted to feel what that’s like.
I came back feeling like we can get there too. And maybe some of the encouragement will come from the outside in.
A lot of the time, when I used to travel, people barely knew about New Zealand, let alone te ao Māori. This time, an elderly Korean man who helped me in the subway on my first day in Seoul noticed my tā moko. He knew it was Māori and wanted to tell me how great he thought we were. A staff member on a tour I went on shook my hand, then turned it over to look at my tā moko and exclaimed, “Ah! New Zealand!” like I’d given him an early Christmas present.
I met a woman from Britain who soon had her friend call me. When she passed over the phone, I wasn’t greeted in English or even Korean, but in Māori. Her friend — a fellow Brit — said “Kia ora” and followed up with a “Kei te pēhea koe?” and a “Kei te pai”, with pronunciation better than some people I’ve heard here in Aotearoa. Turns out, he’s a big rugby fan, loved the haka, and then made it a personal mission to learn more about te ao Māori and te reo.
The fact that a seemingly trivial interest can lead someone to a whole new country, culture, language and history, I think, is kind of magical.
A love of BTS not only brought joy to a period of my life where that felt impossible, but it went on to carry me to a place where past and present intertwine in the most wonderful way. Where old tikanga applies to modern settings and a reo continues to grow and adapt to the changing world around it.
It allowed me to see what it looks like when a people have bounced back from colonisation, reclaimed their culture and reo, and put their heart and soul into making sure it isn’t diminished again. It showed me what the future we’re dreaming of can feel like.
It felt special, but more importantly, it felt within reach.
Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.