Interviewed by Kim
Let’s talk about Seoul Tribe. I’ve seen this idea take on many forms in the past few years. I first ran into its initial stages when it was just a space for you to write about your experience studying abroad in Seoul back in 2012. How did you come to create the Seoul Tribe that we’ll be engaging with today?
Haha, oh man. You’re taking me way back...
So as you said, Seoul Tribe has really been an idea that’s evolved and gone through several different versions. In its very first stages, it took the form of a blog called Memoirs In Seoul that I started in 2012. It was where I documented my personal experiences while studying abroad in Korea. It was a project that really put me back in touch with my creative self. I was shy and everything I made was pretty much crap, hahaha. But I loved doing it and thinking about it every day. It was the first time that I felt like I had a real thing to put my energy into outside of boring classes and work. For a whole year, I wrote, took photos, wrote reviews, and also tried vlogging. You can see those scrappy videos on my old YouTube channel still. The blog went defunct after I came back to California.
Between 2013 - 2015, I tried to revive the project by transferring it away from Tumblr and giving its own standalone website. I worked on it very spottily and it was an on-and-off project. Eventually, I gave up trying to revive the blog because I realized I was trying to build a project on nostalgia and not on anything relevant to the present. It lacked a clear purpose and didn’t have any framework I could work within. Most importantly, I’d outgrown the original project because it wasn’t able to keep up with how quickly my tastes and interests were changing.
After graduating in 2015, I took time away from Korean things, focusing on internships and jobs. It wasn’t until later that year that my passion for this world was rekindled. A close friend asked if I wanted to go with her on a short trip to Seoul so that we could meet up with some friends who were also traveling. I’d spent my summer in Europe and was hungry to travel again, so I said 'yes' right away. Three years had passed since I left so I was surprised that Seoul and its Korean creative scene still managed to surprise me and draw me into it in 2015.
I finally recognized that my love for the creativity flowing out of Korean culture was something more than just a passing interest for me — it was a permanent passion and a real part of who I am. So I decided I wanted to get more serious about it. I reached out to Amy and then you (Kim) to turn something that I was always doing alone into a more collaborative creative effort. It’s a project that’s really grown up and evolved along with me over the past five years.
For the time that I’ve gotten to know you, you’ve done so many side projects — Mastery Experiences, Seoul Tribe, and Wentworthy, just to name a few. How do you navigate your life in order to keep the hustle alive and the mind well?
I've never considered myself an ambitious person. I just think that I'm an impulsive project starter, hahaha. I’ve heard that a lot of people think the hardest part is getting started, but for me it’s always been hard to keep the project alive after I’ve started it. The honeymoon phase for side projects only last a little while and eventually they start weighing me with guilt for not doing more.
So I honestly struggle with keeping my mind well while also doing side projects on top of my full-time job. I'm working on it.
I actually got some really important advice from one of my all-star type friends. We were walking up the Guggenheim spiral when I mustered up the courage to ask her — How do you do it all? How can I do it all? She looked at me and just said, “Emerline, just do one thing!!! Don’t do three projects at once on top of your life!!! You’re crazy to think you can do all those things successfully at once.”
I really hated her answer because it was so obvious and true. I knew she was right (Thanks Misha). I killed Mastery Experiences and I put my other project Wentworthy on hold. My goal this year is to focus only on this project, Seoul Tribe, and a lot more on self-care. Self-care is vital if I want to be my best self at work while also growing this into its full potential.
You’re currently based in NYC and before that, California. You’ve written, in my opinion, a really amazing piece about the things you’ve learned in your first full year in NYC. Could you describe your how you ended up living and working in NYC and how it’s influenced your creativity?
I think I was really lucky in how I ended up moving to New York. While on that trip to Seoul in 2015, I got an email from someone I was connected with at a company I admired. The email basically asked if I’d be interested in an internship. At the time, I wasn't working and wanted something new. So I immediately went for it. It’s been one year since I’ve said goodbye to all my friends and family and ditched my comfortable life in California. After an 8 month internship, I got hired full-time by my current workplace in Brooklyn.
How has NYC influenced my creativity? NYC is hardcore. I mean, I've lived and worked in Seoul, Los Angeles, and for a short while in NorCal. But NYC is really something else. It's crazy busy and I'm learning to love it. The other day my taxi driver said, "New York City is great and perfect for people who love working hard." And I agree with him. This city can really move you beyond your limits if you let it. Its influence on my own personal hustle and creativity is indescribable. It never stops breaking me down while still inspiring me to get up and get going.
So you’ve got the East and West coasts down. You’ve traveled to Italy, Croatia, Japan, Switzerland, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, lived in Seoul, and more. How has each of your experiences in these places influenced your approach to storytelling?
International travel has always been a huge influence and part of my life. While I could dive into each place and its influence, I think that the overarching power travel has had in my creative path is that... It's made me keep in mind that how I see the world is only a fragment of reality. So whatever I make or put out into the world, I try my best to not position my perspective as absolute total truth.
One of my mini philosophies as a storyteller is to only incorporate those cultural influences that I've truly made my own and to avoid embedding surface level influences. It doesn't change anyone if it's not really coming from a place of authenticity. Just because I've been to a city for vacation, doesn't mean I actually understand their culture and I don't ever want to sound like I'm pretending that I do. This is also how I tend to view other people's work and perspectives — Is this really you? Have you really owned this and made it something that's real? Or are you just trying to sound smart and fit in?
Music happens to be one of the important ways we want to extend our storytelling for Seoul Tribe. What has your personal musical journey been like? Was K-pop a part of that journey and how has your taste in music changed?
I started listening to Korean music around 6th grade. I remember being very uninterested in American pop music as a kid. I loved Disney movies and the original soundtracks, but I didn’t really dive into the Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, or any of those pop groups. Growing up in California, hip hop and R&B were definitely bigger forces and parts of my walk into music. My introduction to K-Pop came along the same time I started listening to hip hop music on my first iPod.
The first K-Pop song that got me hooked was Atlantis by BoA. I’d gotten my hands on one of my cousin's mix CDs who was visiting from Korea. My brain and ears were so shocked at hearing pop music in Korean. I think I replayed the song well over a hundred times. When my parents finally installed Internet at our house, I experienced a second level of shock to see that it was someone so young who was Korean just like me. The Internet opened all the doors.
Lee Hyori, Shinhwa, G.O.D., Big Bang, 2NE1, and all those other mega hit artists naturally became part of my world after that. It was kind of funny actually how I was listening to Missy Elliot, Kanye West, and Nelly while also listening to Lee Hyori’s flip phone commercials.
Lee Hyori's legendary phone commercials circa 2000's.
My taste in music has obviously matured and expanded, but those early influences definitely have never left me. It's crazy to see now how those two worlds are colliding today. I would've never imagined that hip hop let alone R&B could become the popular genre it is today in Korea.
What are your feelings about the American experience of Korean culture? Why do you think K-Pop is a big cultural export over other aspects of Korean culture?
For the most part, I love the fact that Korean music is now something that isn’t seen as something only Asian people enjoy. I grew up in a community that didn’t really have any Asian Americans that loved Korean entertainment and media as much as I did. I was made fun of for liking my own culture as a teenager and so I learned to keep it to myself for the most part. The exception to this was one of my best friends who is Filipino American, hahaha. I spent a lot of summers forcing the poor girl to sit and watch Korean dramas and clips that were mostly un-subtitled with me. By high school, I gave up trying to find anyone with the same interests as me in Korean culture and chose to express the American hip hop loving version of myself.
What I didn’t realize was how much the Internet had begun to change this reality. Years later, when I got to UC Irvine (a college campus with an extremely saturated number of Asian students) I was shocked to find an entire club dedicated to Korean culture made up of mostly non-Korean students. I ended up joining the student board with other Korean American kids who were passionate about spreading our culture.
With all this said, I honestly do have pretty mixed feelings today. I think a lot of the mainstream Korean companies have made the music industry into a black hole for fresh creativity. They did what Koreans are good at — developing a formula, excelling at it, and shipping the product like crazy. And it’s worked so far. But I believe that this is soon going to expire and become a thing of the past. There’s so much potential for Korean independent labels and creatives now to reach a wider audience. The problem is that they don’t always know the best way to communicate their work to this wider audience with the resources and tools they have.
Do you hope for Seoul Tribe to play a big part in this cultural exchange? I don’t know if this is a safe question to ask...
Woah. This is a big question, hahaha. You're basically asking me to share my aspirations for this venture. (I think on a normal night, I would’ve passed on this question… but I’ve had enough champagne tonight to let my guard down...)
Yes. I do hope that Seoul Tribe can eventually play a part in between the two scenes and I think now is the right time to jump into the game. There’s already promising evidence that proves this space in between is only going to thrive more as time goes by. We’re already past the days of Asian American YouTubers and BuzzFeed producers being novel. Now, we have rappers like Tablo collaborating with Gallant. Dean making moves in Korea after having successful stints in the American music industry. VICE producers and creative directors are building platforms like 88rising. My latest girl crush artist MISO just did her set at New York City’s Fashion Week. Collaboration is truly starting to blossom on a more polished and legit international level.
It’s not clear where or how we’ll fit into this space, but I’m confident we’ll figure it out with the right amount of hustle and high quality work.
Now that Seoul Tribe has officially been started, what do you look forward to in the upcoming year?
As I mentioned earlier, I look forward to taking absolute good care of myself so that I can put all my free time into Seoul Tribe. Top priorities for the next few months is to share a ton of great content and build our tribe via our newsletter/social media.
There’s a lot of other ideas and plans I have up my sleeve that I really want to get out into the real world this year. All the dots are in my head and I already know how badly I want this to work. I’m excited to see how these dots eventually connect and grow into something more.
founder, editor & content producer