Korean Dramas Saved Me From Grieving Alone
In the wake of devastating loss during lockdown, Jane Dykema found healing in the distracting emotions of Korean dramas
In February 2021, in the deep winter of quarantine, I wrote to a colleague I was friendly with to ask a work question and to see how her novel was going. She said it had been going well, but in order to get through quarantine she’d abandoned it in the service of watching K-dramas, and that I should watch Crash Landing on You if I hadn’t already. So, I watched Crash Landing on You. In it, a South Korean entrepreneur, Yoon Se-ri, while paragliding to promote her sportswear line, gets whisked away in a tornado. She lands in a tree, dangling over the DMZ in North Korea, where we meet Captain Ri of the Korean People’s Army. Captain Ri, to our relief, decides to save her from being discovered. This show consumed me completely. It was sensational, but also very slow-moving, so the style and logic of the world began to seem realistic. I spent so much time with the characters I saw their faces when I closed my eyes. During the day, I soared with their triumphs and mourned their heartbreaks, and each night, I willingly rejoined the world so perfectly designed to distract and nurture.
Ten months earlier, at the beginning of the pandemic, my 30-year-old friend died of COVID. This is not an essay about who Zoe was or what it means that she’s gone, because even now, I don’t know and can’t conceive of it. What would I do, list the things she liked? Talk about memories we shared? Describe the sound of her laugh? She was a person, whole, and unknowable. It’s also not an essay about the role racism played in her death—not just in the treatment she did and didn’t receive when she had COVID, but in every moment of her life leading up to her final interactions with the people who were supposed to care for her. It’s just an essay about what it was like to lose her in this really particular way, from a distance, and in isolation.
I felt, in the early days of Zoe’s death, closer to her than ever. I dreamed about her at night and all day, I looked at pictures of her. I reread eight years of our texts, her stories, an interview with her, all the books she said she was reading in that interview. I looked at her Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, old emails. I watched videos she’d sent me and listened to her hockey podcast, which I’d never listened to when she was alive. I met friends from other periods of her life when we gathered virtually to remember her. I followed the poet I knew she’d had a crush on on social media. Paradoxically, I felt, at times, euphoric—like I was working on something, like I was in motion, moving away from the fact that her life ended in a facility in New Jersey, and toward her, and the way I felt when I was with her, a feeling I could still summon.
Feeling close to Zoe soon gave way to disorienting grief. Grief is disorienting on its own. Extreme sadness, extreme disbelief, extreme anger all tip into fear for me. Fear of the reality that causes the feelings, fear of the intensity of the feelings themselves. At the same time, while I was quarantined inside my house, it was easy to forget for whole strings of moments Zoe was no longer alive in this reality. It was easy to not understand that her death was real when I couldn’t see or touch anyone who knew Zoe or who knew that I knew Zoe. My daily routine was organized around trying to simulate some sort of school environment for my son, without which he showed more physical signs of stress. When I was supposed to be making lunch, I stared out the kitchen window thinking how Zoe’s dogs didn’t know where she was. I laid on the trundle bed attached to my son’s bed while he napped, thinking about the way Zoe’s room looked in graduate school, clothes and makeup and notebooks everywhere. Zoe really liked my son in a way that seemed genuine, different from the way you have to like your friends’ kids. She had a niece the same age and we would send each other videos of their mystifying behavior. She sent a lot of videos of her family, in fact, her mother, sister, nieces, nephew, and dogs, recording sometimes when they didn’t know it. Usually an argument, or Zoe laughing at her mom threatening everyone, or Zoe encouraging her nephew to explain his reasoning behind some outrageous claim. Often in these scenes they were sitting around the kitchen table, eating things Zoe had made. Now, Zoe’s sister, Mia, says her urn sits in the center of the table, so that she’s not lonely. But everyone stays in their own rooms. No more eating together, Mia said. No more laughter in the house.
After I watched Crash Landing on You, I watched 17 other K-dramas. They were each 16 episodes and between 60-90 minutes per episode, totaling about 340 hours of subtitled romance. When a show ended, I felt a manageable loss, longing for fictional characters. I might think, how could I ever love anyone as much as Se-ri and Captain Ri? And then I’d meet Dal-mi, Do-san, and Mr. Han in Start Up. And Hong Joo, Yoo Beom, and Woo Tak in While You Were Sleeping, Ta Mi and Cha Hyeon in Search WWW, Se Hee in Because This is My First Life, Hwi Oh and Min Kyung in Mad for Each Other. Sometimes I ask my friend Sunmi, also a friend of Zoe’s, for gossip about the actors. She’s from Busan and doesn’t watch K-dramas, or any dramas. She says they’re full of too many people to sympathize with, too many emotions. Which is exactly what I want, to be filled with distracting emotions.
In Mad for Each Other, No Hwi Oh (Woo Jung) and Lee Min Kyung (Yeon-Seo Oh) meet on their way to see the same therapist. Hwi Oh has just been through a series of frustrating events on the bus and in the rain, and when he loses his slipper, he asks the stranger behind him to toss it over while he holds his bare foot off the wet sidewalk. Min Kyung tries, but accidentally sends it into the street instead where it’s pummeled by traffic. She gets to the building first, and seeing Hwi Oh following her, tries to close the elevator door. Hwi Oh is late for his appointment and asks her to hold the door. But his urgency is threatening, and she hits him over and over with her umbrella. We eventually learn through their adjacent therapy sessions that Hwi Oh is on leave from his job as a detective for beating up a suspected drug dealer. And Min Kyung has recently recovered from an act of dating violence by her ex-boyfriend. Hwi Oh and Min Kyung are, to our delight, unknowingly next-door neighbors. After trying in vain to avoid each other, the two slowly fall in love, and we get to watch Hwi Oh save Min Kyung from being afraid. And Min Kyung saves Hwi Oh from being lonely. And everything ends well.
Min Kyung is admittedly pretty annoying. She’s paranoid and reactive. She peels her address labels off her packages and tears them up. She doesn’t trust that she’s turned off the gas. She seems selfish and alarmist. It isn’t until the end of the series that we see the footage of Min Kyung’s ex-boyfriend beating her in the street, pulling her up and knocking her back down, dragging her around, kicking her and stomping on her. Suddenly it makes sense that Min Kyung is so careful, even about things that seem logically unrelated to her attack. She doesn’t trust herself because she’d made such a huge error in judgment about this man. She doesn’t trust anyone else, potential sources of danger. She doesn’t trust anything because her world changed so suddenly.
Regarding COVID safety, my friend Caroline, who is also mourning Zoe, and I are still the two most observant people I know. Even if some of our rituals aren’t logical. Even if they make us more isolated and miserable than necessary. In the beginning, when we hung out outside, we sat 20 feet apart and wore masks. If I gave her a book, Caroline would back away from her trunk while I placed it inside, and then she’d leave it there for three days. We’ve now gotten three vaccines each that Zoe didn’t live to see, but we still meet outside at a reservoir halfway between our houses. We don’t share snacks, even though we know COVID doesn’t spread through food. We are aware of who is downwind from who, even though we know wind is not linear. We haven’t hugged each other in two years. Around us, people hold hands, gather for family photos, pile into cars. I watch them laugh and touch and think, fuck you, you’ll probably all be fine. And fuck us, Caroline and I will probably be fine, too.
For a while Caroline and I would Zoom late into the night. I would watch her cook herself dinner, eat, and do the dishes. Or fearfully venture into the basement she shared with her landlord, mask on, to get her laundry out of the dryer and fold it. “Keep talking,” she’d say when she muted her end to pee. We didn’t always talk about Zoe. We talked about her couple’s therapy sessions with her girlfriend. Her girlfriend moving out. Her girlfriend moving back in. Should we keep writing books? What will my son’s generation be like when they grow up? They’ve been taught their most natural impulses, to touch things, to be near other people, to see human faces, are dangerous. We decided to read Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels together. But then the books were over and Zoe was still dead. Caroline’s girlfriend moved back out and Zoe was still dead.
Part of what’s helpful about Korean romances is that they’re foreign. While I’m trapped inside the same four walls month after month, it’s a relief to spend time somewhere effortlessly unfamiliar and interesting. Another part is that these shows are perfectly designed for distraction. In his essay, “The Perfect Gerbil,” George Saunders writes about many of the reasons Donald Barthelme’s story “The School” is so successful, and one of them is the pattern. In “The School,” we see a series of escalating deaths in these poor kids’ classroom: trees, snakes, herb gardens, mice, salamanders, fish, but then, a puppy. When a puppy dies, we think, oh no, what else could happen? Then humans start dying, first ones we don’t know, then ones we do know, but it’s logical, they’re old. But then parents die. And then two students themselves. We get to know this pattern and we get a pleasure burst each time we see our expectations being met. When the pattern is interrupted, when the students ask about the meaning of life in hyperbolic diction, we get another pleasure burst by being surprised:
“One day, we had a discussion in class. They asked me, where did they go? The trees, the salamander, the tropical fish, Edgar, the poppas and mommas, Matthew and Tony, where did they go? And I said, I don’t know, I don’t know. And they said, who knows? and I said, nobody knows. And they said, is death that which gives meaning to life? And I said no, life is that which gives meaning to life. Then they said, but isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of —
I said, yes, maybe.
They said, we don’t like it.”
The students then ask their teacher, the narrator, to make love to the teaching assistant, Helen, so they can see what it’s like. Suddenly all the rules are out the window and we have no idea if the narrator is going to demonstrate sex to school children. Saunders says Barthelme now has his audience right where he wants us, wondering what will happen: “The reader honestly doesn’t know, but does care.”
Korean romances are composed of recognizable blocks but built into intricate and surprising structures. In each narrative, there is almost always a drunk scene, a first kiss, a playful scene, a secondary romance or two, a soon-to-be-discovered childhood connection between the lovers, a scene where one lover almost kisses the other when they’re asleep, sometimes a flatlining scene, depending on the genre, in which a single tear escapes the corner of the dying lover’s eye (before they are revived), a lot of meals at Subway. You feel like a genius insider when you recognize one of these scenes taking shape, but each one is surprising, too, positioned uniquely, doing different work for the narrative, and populated with singular characters. In Because This Is My First Life, the pattern is broken almost immediately when the first kiss happens in Episode 1. Ji-ho kisses Se-hee, a stranger, in an uncharacteristic move to get her first kiss over with. And a proposal of marriage happens in Episode 2 when Se-hee realizes Ji-ho is his roommate he’s never met, and her organizational skills have deeply moved him. There is always a point, sometimes this early, sometimes as late as Episodes 15 or 16, when we don’t know what will happen, but we do care.
In Mad for Each Other, Min Kyung asks Hwi Oh to teach her self-defense. They act out attacks together. She puts her hands on his shoulders. He runs alongside her shouting encouragements. After she graduates, he gives her a whistle to blow if she’s ever in serious trouble. She asks, if I blow on this, will you appear?
I, too, can make Hwi Oh appear. I open Netflix when I want to ask Zoe what to do about Caroline and our friend Jonathan who are in a fight. I turn on Mad for Each Other when I want to read the novel Zoe was writing, or complain about the relative success of our peers. “I want to send Zoe this.” I text Caroline a picture after my sister-in-law did my nails. “I want to send Zoe this,” Caroline texts me when she finds a postcard with the word FORTUNE written in black caps and can’t tell whether she or Zoe wrote it.
One of my first writing teachers said a few years after her dad died, she dreamed of him sitting outside, his body covered in a fine layer of snow. Caroline recently dreamed that Zoe took off in a capsule with her name written in lights. My brain hasn’t done the work of understanding that she’s gone. I can talk about it. I can even talk about it easily, in a practiced way. But when I see a picture of her, there’s a measurable amount of time when I feel like she’s here before I remember. I wonder what Zoe would think of me sitting in bed reading subtitles on my laptop all night, the sound turned down so I can barely hear the characters’ voices. I think she’d like it. She was always up late. She wrote at night. She cooked all night when she was stressed. But her sister Mia reminded us that Zoe said to her, “You know what your problem is? You like to dwell on shit.”
The last time I talked to Mia she said she was feeling a lot of conflicting things: angry, sad, jealous. I know what she means. The world is now talking about how we live with COVID, but Zoe is still dead. I keep thinking, if I never hug Caroline again, if I never go to another restaurant, if I never laugh or hold hands or pile into a car, if I do my best to keep from living, then I won’t have to live without Zoe. But Sunmi pointed out I’m soothing myself by watching shows in which people are near each other. They save each other from grieving alone. They pat each other lovingly on the back. They make each other want to live.
Recently, Caroline, Sunmi, and I met at the reservoir. By the water, it was bright and freezing, impossible to shield ourselves from the wind. We watched blocks of ice knock into each other in the waves and talked about whether Caroline should try couple’s therapy with her new girlfriend. Sunmi’s and my extended families got COVID in January, but they’re okay now. When we stood by our cars to say goodbye, we hugged each other for a long time.