Can an American score higher than two South Koreans on the English-language portion of a Korean college entrance exam?
American expat Dave decided to find out and took a mock exam with his Korean colleagues, Jin Ho-hyun and Jeong Hyo-sun, who both scored higher than 90 percent on the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC).
The test, which should have been a cakewalk for a native English speaker like Dave, revealed some surprising results. While Dave barely passed the English-language exam with a 76, the Korean test-takers scored a 96 and a perfect 100.
However, when Dave tried to speak to Jin and Jeong in conversational English, neither of the two Koreans were able to comprehend or respond to his questions.
“Even if we score perfect on tests, in front of foreigners, the reality is that we can’t even utter a single word,” Jeong said in Korean. She added that she wished she could speak English more proficiently instead of performing well on written exams.
Most South Korean companies hire recent college grads based on their TOEIC scores, according to the Korea Herald. Large conglomerates such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai and CJ require job applicants to have a minimum TOEIC score of 720, although many students say a 900 is the benchmark for employment eligibility.
In 2013, South Korean parents spent more than $18 billion in private education to give their children an advantage in the college entrance exam, particularly in the English-language section.
According to EF Education First, a Swiss-based language learning company, South Korean students receive about 20,000 hours of English education from kindergarten through college. However, these long, rigorous hours of studying do not necessarily translate to English proficiency.
“A lot of my friends who are studying TOEIC/TOEFL have trouble with basic conversation, which is why I created this video experiment in the first place, to see the contrast between testing ability and speaking ability in English,” Dave told the Korea Observer.
“They have spent years practicing and honing their test taking skills, memorizing hundreds of words at a time, and it’s come to a point where an English question is no different than a simple puzzle to a lot of the students.”
A South Korean woman has taken to the Internet to seek justice against her abusive pastor husband and extended family. In a series of posts published on a Nate Pann blog under the username “Please Help Us,” a woman identifying herself as Lee Jung-hee has accused her husband of abuse and rape over the last 20 years, as well as forcing her and their two American-born sons into prostitution for over 10 years.
The Pann blog posts, the firstof which was published on June 20, have gone viral among netizens. On Tuesday, Lee and her two sons uploaded three videos to YouTubeasking for help and emphasizing that their accusations against their father, whom they called a “devil,” were true.
Wearing surgical masks, sunglasses and hats, the family implored netizens to spread the word about their dire situation. In the video, the two sons reveal that they have attempted to sue over 30 people who had continuously raped them, but claim that the police have been unable to help due to their father’s influence. They also mention that their father has been making efforts to censor any reports about their abuse in Korean media.
“We are running away from our father because he is currently and consistently chasing us, like a coyote chasing a rabbit,” one of the sons says in a video. “None of this is a lie, we are telling the truth.”
“My children were never able to express what they were going through as they were growing up,” Lee writes in her June 24 post. “Now they are old enough to speak. … Give all the punishment to me, and let my children be free of that. They did not do anything wrong, and they have lived truly terrible lives.”
Their story has recently gone viral under #HelpJungHeeLee on South Korean social media and news sites, as well as on Western ones such as Reddit. Some commenters have expressed skepticism regarding the claims made by Lee and her sons, as there is no confirmation from major news outlets or the South Korean government. Lee also did not name her husband in any of her blog posts or videos, although some netizens have floated around an unconfirmed name.
Lee’s posts recount a disturbing story. She writes that she first met her husband as an oppa, or older brother figure, in church. When she moved to America (Los Angeles, Calif. according to one of the videos) some 20 years ago, he pursued her and eventually married her. He first raped her when she was 22, and the beatings and rape soon escalated into a regular occurrence, according to Lee’s second blog post. She became pregnant, and when she told her husband, he arranged for her to get an abortion through a fellow church member.
According to Lee, her husband began selling her as a prostitute in their home and a “camping car” he drove around. This continued for three years, after which she became pregnant again, and her first son was born (now 17 years old).
Lee claims her husband later became a pastor in order to lure other church members into trusting him, so that he can slip drugs into their drinks. Once the church attendants became addicted to the drugs, Lee’s husband would keep them close to his side.
In her blog posts, Lee writes that her own family members knew about the abuse she endured, as they also worked in the prostitution industry. She says that her family even encouraged her husband to continue “taming” her.
Recently, Lee’s younger son wrote two blog posts—“Hello, I am a 13-year-old kid that wants freedom,” as he introduces himself—claiming he was raped by his father since he was 5 years old, as well as by extended family and strangers his father brought home. The family moved back to Korea when he was 4 years old—first to Seoul and then Busan, where the father became involved in a local church. At some point, the father confiscated his son’s American passports.
Lee’s sons claim that their father dragged them to “sex rooms” all over South Korea where he would solicit them for sex to random clients. Other times, the pastor would force his sons to take aphrodisiacs and rape their mother, while she lay unconscious from ingesting sleeping pills.
The younger son goes into further details about his hellish day-to-day life, saying he was forced to attend an international school so that he wouldn’t learn Korean and be able to communicate the abuse to Korean authorities. After school, his father would immediately bring him home and subject him to physical and sexual abuse. His older brother, who was subject to similar treatment, now receives treatment in a mental hospital due to the trauma.
Lee and her sons escaped from her husband’s custody sometime in or before 2014—it isn’t clear from Lee’s written account. Her husband apparently wanted to fake a divorce and have Lee sue around 10 people who had raped her in the past, hoping to profit from legal settlements. In order to make the fake divorce convincing, he told Lee to “pretend” to run away with their two children.
It was an “opportunity from God,” according to Lee, and she took it. She left her home with her sons and never returned, claiming that she wanted to “hide and live in a small town.”
Upon realizing his family’s escape, Lee’s husband filed an actual divorce suit and demanded custody of the children. In 2014, Lee reported her husband to the police, but the officers apparently did not take her call for help seriously.
Last October, Lee and her sons held a public press conference, but apart from a video on YouTube and a few hard-to-find articles, it’s difficult to find much coverage.
“I tried to contact all broadcast stations, regardless of whether they were big or small,” Lee says. “But my husband pressured the media from the other side, and I was in a position where I could not go on broadcast. All the articles [about our abuse] that were on the Internet were withdrawn in unison.”
In his most recent post, Lee’s younger son says he wishes to have a normal life and a swift end to his family’s terrible situation.
“I don’t want to live with my father or be anything like him,” he writes. “Please help us live. Please help us three live happily.”
To learn more about Lee Jung Hee’s case, visit the #HelpLeeJungHee campaign’s website or follow them on Twitter @HelpLeeJungHee.
What are some noticeable cultural differences between Americans and Koreans? YouTube user Aram Jeong decided to find out and uploaded a video on June 9 that depicts how Koreans and Americans behave differently in social situations.
The Reddit-trending video begins by comparing how Americans and Koreans act around their romantic interests. While the Americans in the video are portrayed as more outgoing and comfortable with exchanging contact information, the Koreans are seen acting shy while stealing wistful glances at their crushes.
As the video continues to play, it pokes fun at how the two cultures express heartbreak, share food and dance.
After uploading the video, Jeong and her American colleague, Alex, visited Somyong Girls High School in Bucheon to see how students would react to the cultural differences highlighted in the YouTube sketch.
Overall, the reaction to the video was positive. Many students said they found the differences between the two cultures to be interesting. Others expressed wonder after learning that Americans tend to not make fun of other people’s appearances, saying that it’s a common form of affection in Korean culture.
“I make fun of my friends’ appearances all the time,” said one student. “I found it really interesting that Americans don’t do that, and I realized some of the cultural differences after watching the video.”
Another student said, “When I was watching American movies, I was curious about their culture, but I could not ask questions. After we watched the video today, it was helpful because we could ask questions and hear about [American] culture from Alex.”
What are your thoughts on the cultural differences depicted in the video? Let us know in the comments below!
On May 27, 2015, the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE) teamed up with Verizon to host the second annual #IAm Live Event at Los Angeles’ Japanese American National Museum.
The #IAm campaign launched back in May in honor of AAPI Heritage Month, and it became a chance to spotlight Asian American stories in media, food and entertainment. This year, Asian American role models Cassey Ho, AJ Rafael, Seoul Sausage and Joseph Vincent had a chance to share their own “I Am” journeys with a live audience.
The night started out with some delicious food all courtesy of Seoul Sausage.
Guests were also encouraged to take pictures on the red carpet where they could instantly print their images.
The event was hosted by Kollaboration founder and comedian Paul “PK” Kim. Before introducing the guest speakers, PK cracked a few jokes about raising his three children to warm up the crowd.
“Whatever you’re doing, I’m doing with three kids,” PK joked. “Literally me being out right now is like clubbing.”
Singer and songwriter AJ Rafaelwas the first guest to take the stage, and he opened the night by performing one of his well-known originals, “We Could Happen.”
On stage, AJ discussed his humble beginnings and evolution as a singer-songwriter. He shared stories about his late father, who was also a musician and composer, and how he was greatly influenced by him.
“For me, it was all about the journey. The YouTube journey was really learning about your audience in the beginning and having them see you grow. That’s what I tell a lot of people who want to start content creating. It’s like they want to put up a professional thing out right away,” AJ said. “So, what I tell them is to do some vlogs, ask the audience questions. It’s a community and you can start from there. And really, there are no boundaries and don’t edit yourself.”
Although YouTube has become oversaturated with Asian American musicians and vloggers in recent years, AJ said this was not necessarily a bad sign, claiming that the Asian American community still provides strong support to its artists.
“The fact that there are a lot of Asian Americans on YouTube–I think it’s a great thing that we can create our own content and not be controlled by what’s happening in mainstream media,” he said.
After AJ shared with the audience his passion for Disney (and his impressive Batman tattoos), Seoul Sausage founders Chris Oh, Ted and Yong Kim took the stage. The trio first rose to fame when they won the third season of The Great Food Truck Race back in 2012. Since then, Seoul Sausage has continued to bring Korean cuisine into the mainstream dining experience, with one wildly popular restaurant on Sawtelle and another branch soon opening in Downtown L.A.
“We want to bring good food to good people. It so happens that we are Asian American, Korean American,” Chris said. “The reason why we put Korean flavors into a familiar form, like a sausage, is because we want to break barriers … We want to do what the California roll did for Japanese food.”
Seoul Sausage went on to talk about how they came to apply for the Great Food Truck Race, claiming that they were bored and submitted their audition video a day before the deadline. When they were casted the next day, the three Korean Americans made a pact to stay in the race at least halfway, not expecting to find so many people embracing their unique fusion dishes.
“I really didn’t think Korean food would translate in Amarillo, Texas,” said Yong, adding that the group had renamed their menu items to cater to their non-Asian customers. “But that was like our third episode, and when we got first place there, we rocked it and killed it. We [were] like, ‘I think people are ready for Korean flavors, but they just don’t know about it.’”
Indeed, Korean cuisine has been experiencing a kind of renaissance in recent years, with the emergence of several talented Korean American chefs, including Beverly Kim, Kristen Kish and Hooni Kim. When KoreAm/Audrey asked Seoul Sausage about their thoughts on the rising popularity of Korean American chefs, the trio said they were happy to see Korean cuisine garnering more media attention.
“The more of us are out there to represent, the more familiar people would be with Korean flavors and Korean chefs,” Ted said. “It’s only going to be beneficial to all of us. We’re all in this together.”
Seoul Sausage added that they recently visited South Korea to film a 10-episode web series called One Shot Seoul, which is slated for a tentative July release. The three men expressed excitement over the new culinary trends in Korea, and said they were excited to introduce them to the audience.
Following Seoul Sausage was Cassey Ho, the creator of the online fitness vlog Blogilates. She explained that she didn’t initially expect for the Blogilates channel to blow up. It all started with her first YouTube content, which was a workout video that was only intended for her previous pilates class of 30 people. But the video began garnering more and more attention from viewers all around, which eventually grew into the huge Blogilates brand it is now.
“I think the YouTube really opened up the gates for entertainment a hundred percent,” Cassey said. “Because of [YouTube] you have people making movies seen by millions of people. For me, I was able to get these DVD deals, these book deals, and all this crazy stuff because I could show that I had an audience on YouTube who wanted to see that.”
She credited YouTube for her success as well as many other Asian American entertainers; however, she’s also noticing that there has been a decline in new Asian American YouTubers since she began.
“Then when I started getting into it, like a year or two later, I noticed that a lot of the influencers were Asian (like Michelle Phan, Wong Fu Productions, Ryan Higa). But today, I actually notice that there’s less new Asian people. It’s really interesting,” Cassey told KoreAm/Audrey. “I feel like because YouTube is becoming more like ‘Hollywood,’ now there’s almost some type of glass ceiling where it’s harder for Asian people to break in.”
Cassey shared her fitness tips with curious audience members, but also reminded them that vanity reasons should not be your main goal. “I think a lot of people get into fitness for vanity reasons. Of course, you want washboard abs or sexy slim legs. That’s fine. But with my channel, I try to educate people and let them know that yes, you can work towards that, but you’re not going to find happiness in just that physical vanity. You have to enjoy the process.”
After Cassey shared her last words on positivity and motivation, the acoustic singer-songwriter Joseph Vincent stepped onto the stage where he serenaded the audience with the never-before heard song “My Girl.”
Setting his guitar aside, Joseph Vincentsettled into the hot seat when PK commented on the singer’s recent travels (as seen on his Instagram). The singer explained that he’s been touring, mentioning that listeners at his shows are a whole new demographic for him due to their young age. He then shared a fun story about one of his most memorable shows.
“I went to Sweden and they wanted me to do an acoustic act prime time at a nightclub. They play EDM stuff. I’m like, ‘Are you sure? Do you know what I do?’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, it’s fine. Bring your acoustic guitar and go on at 12:30.’ I’ve experienced a lot of cool things like that. It’s good to challenge yourself and try to put yourself in very comfortable situations and see how you’ll come out,” said Joseph.
When one aspiring musician in the audience asked Joseph for career advice, the singer-songwriter stressed the importance of social media platforms when it comes to publishing content.
“Make a YouTube channel, all the social media platforms. Take advantage of it. All of them are free, right? Facebook, Twitter… Just get your social media presence out there. Essentially, do it because you want to do it,” he advised. “Put music out and take the criticism in stride, and use it to better yourself. Don’t ever get discouraged. Don’t let anyone you can’t. ”
Joseph closed the questions segment with his predictions about Asian American produced music reaching the mainstream scene. “It would open up the floodgates. It would give a lot of us opportunity. Just to put it out there, it would make us a little more relevant again and something to jump onto. It’s gonna happen eventually,” he said. “I think it’s just our turn to go.”
PK thanked Joseph Vincent for his time, and called on Cassey Ho, Seoul Sausage and AJ to come back onto the stage for a photo opp.
The group did one final pose for everyone: the iconic two-finger peace sign.
You can learn more about CAPE on their official website. Check out the videos for this year’s #IAM Campaign speakers here.
The sci-fi romantic drama follows two couples—a pair of college students and two estranged thirtysomethings—as they navigate the challenges of their relationships within the rules of Department of Emotional Integrity (DEI), a government agency that monitors and grades every romantic relationship.
In the film, Randall Park plays a world-weary DEI agent whose job is to assign a relationship score to each individual and determine who is accountable for a failed relationship. You can learn more about Randall below!
Full name: Randall Park Age: 41 Ethnic background: Korean Where he was born: Los Angeles Where he was raised: Los Angeles
About the Film
1. Describe your character in three words. Efficient, lonely, hopeful
2. What is the most crucial part of being in a romantic relationship? Romance. Otherwise, it’s a not a “romantic” relationship.
3. What would your real-life relationship score be, and why? I think I’m a 90. Probably more like a 65. I don’t know, ask my wife.
4. Any bloopers or memorable episodes on set? We shot most of my scenes at a DMV. I’ve never had a more memorable time at a DMV.
5. What is your opinion of Wong Fu as film directors? They’re total pros and really good guys. I love them.
1. What always makes you laugh? Nathan For You. It’s a show on Comedy Central.
2. Your go-to comfort food? Mexican food.
3. Currently on “repeat” on your ipod? Alabama Shakes.
4. A guilty pleasure you don’t feel guilty about? Judge Judy.
5. Current favorite place? Home.
6. Favorite drink, alcoholic or otherwise?
7. Current obsessions?
My daughter. It’s bordering on unhealthy.
8. Pet peeve?
9. Habit you need to break?
10. Hidden talent?
11. Talent you’d like to have?
12. Word or phrase you most overuse?
“No worries.” I am way too laid back.
13. Favorite hashtag?
I don’t think I’ve ever used a hashtag.
14. Greatest fear?
Pigeons who don’t fly away when you get close to them. They’re insane, and they will kill you.
15. If you weren’t doing what you are doing now, what occupation would you be doing?
Want to get to know the rest of the cast? Be on the look out for their responses coming soon! Everything Before Us is currently available on Vimeo!
Emily Kwangsook Kim—better known as Maangchi—-gets approached all the time by strangers as she’s out and about. She may not recognize the friendly, excited faces that greet her, but to them, she might as well be their aunt, sister or close friend who’s been inside their kitchens for years, whipping up tasty Korean dishes and snacks.
Maangchi, as Kim prefers to be called, has become an online video sensation across the globe for her upbeat, easy-to-follow videos on how to prepare Korean food. She has a website featuring hundreds of recipes and a section where she posts stories of her travels and encounters with fans; a YouTube channel that’s garnered more than 580,000 page views; and a dynamic social media presence, including 11,600 Twitter followers.
In addition, on May 19, Maangchi comes out with her first major cookbook,Maangchi’s Real Korean Cooking(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) featuring her most popular recipes, from Korean soups and stews to kimchi to side dishes to noodles and party food.
How did someone with no professional culinary or video training become one of Korean cuisine’s most prolific and visible ambassadors to legions of home chefs? In today’s democratized Internet age, charisma, a well-developed skill and savvy for the online user experience can go a long way toward making the person-next-door into the next YouTube star.
Not only is Maangchi blessed with all of the above, she never even set out to become as well-known as she is today. Cooking was always a passion; making cooking videos, merely a hobby. It also hasn’t hurt that Korean food has undergone an explosion in popularity in recent years as hallyu, or the Korean wave, has become a tidal force.
Maangchi’s first video, uploaded in April 2007—and accompanied by the Morrissey song “Why Don’t You Find Out for Yourself?”—was about how to make spicy seafood stir-fry, ojingeo-bokkeum. “When I made this video on YouTube, I was very nervous.
I didn’t know how long I would have this hobby,” says Maangchi in a phone interview with KoreAm, from her home in Manhattan. “Once I uploaded my first video, I was very surprised. [Viewers] asked me to make my next recipe. ‘Interaction is really going well,’ I thought. ‘This is so fun.’ I thought I’m going to keep this as a hobby forever.”
Her site grew so popular, Maangchi was able to quit her day job as a family counselor at a nonprofit to focus on her website, maangchi.com, full-time. In 2011, her website was named among the “most useful” by the Korea Herald, alongside Visit Korea, SeoulStyle, ZenKimchi and Soompi.
Her recipe for Korean fried chicken, yangnyeom-tongdak, recently surpassed her kimchi recipe as most popular on her website, hitting 2 million page views. (Save that one for your next spring potluck.)
Maangchi uploads a new cooking video every 10 days, using a digital Canon EOS 5D and editing footage on Adobe Premiere, which she taught herself how to use. Longtime fans who have been visiting her site since the early years may notice the considerably improved production values to her videos, as well as her upgraded kitchen with modern, stainless steel appliances.
With her charming enthusiasm, slightly high-pitched accented English, eclectic outfits and unique hairstyles (she’s been known to sport colorful wigs), Maangchi makes learning how to cook Korean food seem fun, easy and engaging. Her welcoming persona has expanded her network of online followers to points as far-flung as Moscow, Russia; Leipzig, Germany; and Pearland, Texas.
Maangchi with young fans.
Her clear instructions and collection of recipes elicit such feedback as, “I FINALLY found what I’ve been looking for: authentic Korean cooking as made by a Korean, for a Korean. This is my sister from another mother. Or, this is my mother from another sister,” as posted on updownacross, a blog run by New Yorker Joann Kim.
Maangchi also receives touching letters from fans, such as the woman who came across Maangchi’s site after her mother passed away, without having had the chance to learn how to cook Korean food from her. “‘One day I was cooking some of your recipes in the kitchen and my father came out from his room and said, ‘Oh, this smell reminds me of your mom! I feel your mom comes alive now!’” the fan wrote to Maangchi.
Maangchi peels garlic before making kimchi in New Zealand in 2011.
Maangchi, who is in her 50s, was born in Imsil in North Joella province and raised in the South Joella city of Yeosu, where her father ran a fish auction business. She was drawn to food from a young age. As a kid, she writes in the introduction to her cookbook, she would try dishes made by her mom, grandmother and aunts and “quietly determine who made the best version of each dish.”
That discerning palate took on a commanding influence in the schoolroom—Maangchi would organize group lunches in which each friend was responsible for a particular dish. Her Korean culinary knowledge is honed from family and friends, years of practice and sharing recipes with fellow Korean expats in Columbus, Missouri, where she lived when her ex-husband was getting his Ph.D.
“Since I was young, I have been cooking from memory, and sometimes, I’m learning from some other people,” Maangchi says. “Each recipe has my own story. Like for tangsuyuk, I learned how to make the crispy crunch batter from my close friend. All recipes over the years, I learned from my grandmother, all different people.” (The trick to the crispy batter, she explains in her book, is to mix potato starch with water in a bowl, allow the starch to settle to the bottom, then drain the water and mix the remaining starch with an egg white to create a coating. “As with crispy fried chicken, double-frying is essential,” Maangchi writes.)
Judging a Korean cooking challenge at Culinary Institute of America’s Hyde Campus in 2013.
Maangchi moved to Toronto from Korea after she and her first husband divorced, once their two children were all grown up. She worked various jobs, including as a cashier, movie extra, translator and interpreter. It was in Toronto where she recreated herself as “Maangchi,” or “hammer,” slayer of villains in the popular South Korean online video game “City of Heroes.”
The online moniker stuck—even after her addiction to the video game subsided after three-and-a-half years. By then, Maangchi had turned to a new hobby, making cooking videos and uploading them to a fast-growing video sharing service called YouTube.
Maangchi, whose tough name belies a sweet demeanor, credits her accessibility on camera to her years spent as an educator. She attended teachers’ college in Seoul and earned a certificate in social studies and a master’s in education.
In 2011, Maangchi was selected by YouTube as one of 25 up-and-coming video creators to receive a $35,000 grant through the company’s NextUp program. She used the money to travel and meet her fans all over the world in what she coined the “Gapshida! Journey” (Let’s Go!). She visited nine countries and 11 cities, sampling home-cooked foods in such places as Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.
L to R: Members of a NYC gathering sample Maangchi’s homemade kimchi; Maangchi leads a Korean cooking class at Whole Foods Culinary Center in NYC in April 2011
“If I’m selected,” she recalled thinking, “I’d like to meet my readers all around the world. I want to meet them. We’ll make videos together. Sometimes I want to encourage my readers to make their own food and make them just like [I make mine].
“I had a chance to taste the food that my readers made, home-cooked food,” Maangchi adds.
Her zest for food—not only Korean, but of other cultures—is reflected in the panoply of global food friends that frequent her online forums and leave superlative comments. She re-posts their food photos based on her recipes and attends Meetup events organized in her honor. She also frequently posts about Korean food customs and personal recollections from her days growing up in Korea. She already has three self-published cookbooks through Amazon (downloaded more than 6 million times through her website).
Maangchi with her fans in Malaysia during her Gapshida! Tour in 2012.
Maangchi says visitors are drawn to her site for all sorts of reasons. There are the non-Koreans who have tried a Korean restaurant for the first time; the second-generation Korean Americans who want to replicate their mother’s cooking at home; and the Korean adoptees from all over the world. Not least of all, there are the Korean drama enthusiasts.
“Some people come [to my site] from Korean dramas—they love Korean dramas,” Maangchi says with a laugh, pointing out how they’ll seek out her recipe for jjajangmyun (noodles in black bean sauce) because their favorite stars have eaten it on screen.
As for her fans, Maangchi adds, “These people consider me as their sister or mom or relative. I feel really close [to them]. I never feel lonely.”
All photos courtesy of Maangchi
This article was published in the April/May 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the April/May issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).
As one of the most wired countries in the world, South Korea has constant access to some of the fastest high-speed Internet and niftiest smartphone apps. Consequently, Korean web cartoons, or “webtoons,” have swiftly become a popular and powerful storytelling medium over the past decade.
Several webtoons have already been adapted into successful Korean films and dramas, including Misaeng, The Girl Who Sees Smells and Secretly, Greatly.
According to KT Economic Research Institute, major search portals Daum and Naver attract more than 6.2 million webtoon readers daily, and the market size of Korea’s webtoon industry is estimated to double to $800 million by 2018.
However, webcomics have yet to reach that same level of popularity, accessibility and community in the United States—and that’s where Tapastic comes to play.
Billing itself as the “YouTube of webcomics,” Tapastic (a portmanteau of “tapas” and “fantastic”) is a San Francisco-based webcomics portal that offers more than 105,000 comics created by over 5,400 artists worldwide. The company launched only three years ago, but it now boasts $3.4 million in backing from Korean and American investors, including Daum Kakao, SK Planet and former Facebook Chief Technology Officer Adam D’Angelo.
Chang Kim, the founder and CEO of Tapastic, is no rookie when it comes to building new digital platforms. He co-founded TNC, a Korean blogging service that was acquired by Google in 2008, and subsequently worked as a product manager for Blogger. Prior to that, he was a content strategy manager for Samsung Mobile.
Kim recently took time out of his long train commute in San Francisco to speak with KoreAm about Tapastic’s beginnings and growth as well as the globalization of webtoons. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KoreAm: Can you tell us a bit more about Tapastic and its mission?
Chang Kim: Tapastic, in a nutshell, is an open platform and community for comics. For readers, it’s the best service to find and enjoy bite-sized, snackable comics. So overall, Tapastic is like YouTube or SoundCloud, but for comics.
We believe there are so many talented comic creators who want to express their awesome stories in a visual format. Our mission is to build the best platform for these comic creators to share their authentic visual stories, build a strong brand and massive fan base and make money from their creative works.
What inspired you to create this publishing platform for webcomics?
I remember Koreans using social networks, Internet telephony, virtual gifts, online gaming and many other Internet services as early as the late ’90s—when the rest of the world was only beginning to grasp what the Internet was. But the Korean companies that provided those services largely remained in Korea, instead of becoming global brands.
So I really wanted to give it a try myself—namely, spotting an interesting and innovative Internet service model in Korea and taking it to the global market. While researching the Korean market, I found out how crazily popular webtoons were and thought it would be cool to build a webtoon site with global content from global talent. That was the beginning of Tapastic.
Comics artists are able to self-publish their works on Tapastic. What would you say are some of the benefits for these creators?
Tapastic is not just a content publishing site. It is, first and foremost, a thriving community and social network around comics. Fans can not only follow their favorite creators but also support them on a monthly basis. It’s like buying a cup of coffee every month for their favorite creators to show appreciation and help them continue their awesome work.
We really focused on building awesome community, and as a result, we have fantastic community engagement. For example, our site’s overall engagement metrics grew by almost 10 times over the last year or so alone. So the first benefit for comic creators joining our platform would be becoming part of this very enthusiastic community.
We also help creators make money from their content through our monetization features. Creators can earn ads revenue, get monthly support from their fans or sell their completed comic series in our Premium section.
Why do you think webtoons are so popular in South Korea?
It’s simple: Korean webtoons have some of the most amazing stories. That’s how webtoons could attract mainstream users who didn’t necessarily read a lot of comics before (that includes myself), and also why some of Korea’s top TV dramas and movies are based on webtoons. By building an open platform and attracting talented visual storytellers, Korean webtoons were able to build a rich library of awesome stories, similar to the way YouTube attracted many new talents and a massive volume of fresh, high-quality content.
What differentiates Korean webtoons from traditional American comics?
The U.S. has a rich comics tradition. Everybody has fond memories of “mainstream comics,” such as Calvin and Hobbes, which actually once had a great impact on U.S. culture and society in general. But today, the comics industry in the U.S. has become a niche market—think superhero comic books sold in local comic book stores.
Though comics continue to be a major source material for blockbuster movies and TV dramas in the U.S., comics as a medium itself has largely become a niche. We hope Tapastic will help users, especially young millennials on mobile, re-discover the great storytelling power of comics.
There are, in fact, already quite a few popular webcomics in the U.S., such as The Oatmeal. What the U.S. doesn’t have yet is a platform and community like YouTube. That’s what Tapastic is trying to bring about.
Tapastic offers a translation service for its creators, which is a rather unique feature for a webcomics portal. How many series have been translated into another language?
We’ve translated more than 60 high-quality Korean webtoons. Given that webtoons started in Korea, there’s still a lot of great content that has never been introduced to the global audience. Right now, we’re doing translations by ourselves, partly because translating comics in the correct fashion is quite difficult. In the future, we plan to add crowd-sourced translation feature.
Are there any Korean artists from Tapastic who have successfully crossed over to the American market? And are there non-Korean creators who have found success in Korea?
Most of the Korean webtoons that we’ve brought on have been very well received by the American fans, thanks to great art quality and compelling stories. But in this age of social media, content quality is often only half of the equation. Creators that thrive are the ones who actively engage with their fans and constantly communicate with them. Content publishing is increasingly becoming a two-way street.
We’re now starting to see some Korean creators more actively engaging with their fans. Mika is a good example. She’s based in Korea and never published her comics outside of Korea before joining Tapastic, but now her fanbase lies mostly outside of the country. And she’s really actively interacting with her fans.
We’re also planning to introduce high-quality global webtoons to the Korean audience. A Tapastic comic series titled Juju’s Diary, which created by a Brooklyn comic studio, was introduced on Daum’s webtoon section and found great success, which led to the creation of the series’ second season.
Where do you see the medium of webcomics in the next five years? Do you expect to see more international collaborations?
We definitely think webtoons will gain more popularity outside of Korea. The concept of Internet-based open publishing platform and community around visual stories is obviously globally translatable. In the Internet industry there’s the saying, “Mobile is eating the world.“ Mobile Internet is changing people’s lives in a fundamental way (think Uber, for instance), and no industry, including the comics industry, will be spared from those fundamental changes.
Can you recommend some webcomics to our readers who are unfamiliar with the medium?
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