Episode 81 │ The K-pop, the Cha, & Her Wardrobe (SOUTH KOREA)
Updated: 14 hours ago
"When studying abroad, the way you gain friends and they're from so many different countries and different languages, it just really makes you look at the world and how vast and beautiful it is... There's just so much knowledge out there, and you just want to find it all!" (April, Episode 81)
(Reminder: My guest appearance on the Why We Wander podcast is now available for your listening pleasure! I'm on episode 53.)
And... we're back! I took a break starting in May, popped in briefly to do a 3rd anniversary episode on Juneteenth, said I hoped to be back with new episodes in July, but then I decided to push it to August. And for this first new episode of Young, Gifted and Abroad in August, I got to interview one of my favorite podcasters/K-pop enthusiasts/fashionistas of all time: April Jackson! Along with her Londoner friend Girl Davis, April (a.k.a. April Jay) co-hosted a hilarious, opinionated, very Black, now-retired Korean pop culture podcast called Jinjja Cha, which I avidly listened to for the entirety of their five-year run ending in November 2020. As a fan of theirs it was my pleasure to do an interview feature with them for WOC Podcasters back in 2019, and knowing that April in particular had studied in South Korea, I was delighted when she accepted my invitation to be on Young, Gifted and Abroad this summer. April lived in Korea twice, first as an English teacher, and then as a student in a Korean language program.
As a Midwestern girl from Kansas City, April was passionate about fashion long before she knew anything about Korea. Following behind her grandma the master seamstress, and then her uber-stylish mom, April is the third generation of a select few members of her family who've inherited "the fashion bug". What started as learning directly from her mom and grandma evolved into making barbie outfits and clothes for the family dog, and evolved even further into April pursuing a bachelor's degree in fashion at the Kansas City campus of Art Institutes International. Her program offered an opportunity for all interested students to study fashion in Europe, but as a first-generation college student who was "born with a plastic spork", April couldn't afford to go. Thankfully, however, one of her fashion instructors informed her about the possibility of teaching English abroad (while doing freelance fashion projects on the side). So after struggling to find fashion opportunities and sustainable employment in Kansas City post-graduation, April worked with a recruiter to get placed in a school in South Korea.
It's important to note that before college, it was actually Japan that had captured April's attention. For the longest time she was fascinated by early-2000s iterations of Harajuku and gyaru fashion styles. She even began seeking ways to move to Tokyo so she could study or work in fashion there, but she learned that getting a work visa would be more complicated than she thought. (For instance, American citizens are ineligible for working holiday visas in Japan, so even going just for a year to test things out would not be an option for April.) Additionally, once she watched the 2009 movie 'Ninja Assassin' during her college years, became infatuated with its lead actor, and discovered that this actor was actually "an iconic singer in South Korea who does hip-hop dances with no shirt on" by the name of Rain, April kicked her Japan interests to the side! Now it was all about K-pop, Korean fashion, and all other things Korean. In fact, two weeks after moving to Korea to teach, she attended a Rain concert at the Olympic Stadium in Seoul.
April taught English for two years, and for that first year she called the coastal city of Samcheok home. At 22 years old, this was her first time living on her own, first time in Korea, first time leaving the U.S. period. Despite the friendly people, the location right on the East Sea, and notable attractions like bat caves and phallic statues at Haesindang Park/Penis Park (yes, it's real and that's what it's called), April's terrible work and living conditions made it hard for Samcheok to truly feel like "home". She taught at a type of private, after-school tutoring academy known as a hagwon, which didn't seem to care very much about giving April the means to do her job well. Most of her co-workers were incredibly passive aggressive (or just plain aggressive) to her, her work computer gave out and was never fixed, sometimes she was paid late, and it was nearly impossible to gain or maintain the respect of her teen and preteen students. (On that last point, April admits that generally she and teens do not get along, "I think they were all created in Hades somewhere." So perhaps those difficulties were to be expected.) To make matters even worse, the housing that her school provided was basically a basement apartment with no windows.
It's no wonder that April took a four-hour bus ride to Seoul every weekend, escaping to the big city to hang out with friends and attend all kinds of fashion and entertainment events. In hindsight, April told me that if she had left Korea after that first year, she probably would've been too jaded to ever return to that country, and would've stopped participating in Hallyu (the increasing global popularity of South Korean culture and K-pop fandom). But she wasn't totally ready to give up just yet, and when her recruiter learned that she was leaving her school in Samcheok, they offered her a different position at a public middle school in Gyeonggi-do, the province that surrounds Seoul. Now she was only a 30-minute bus ride away from the city proper. Overall, the public school was a much better experience for April, but of course it had issues of its own—the vice principal made her feel like more of a puppet or prop than an instructor, requiring her to greet the students outside every morning and be available to speak English with them in the library instead of preparing her lessons in peace. Ultimately, after that second year, April concluded that teaching was no longer right for her, and it was time to go back home.
For years April has struggled with that decision to leave Korea the first time, wondering if she foolishly threw away a good thing. As much as she grew to dislike teaching, being in Korea also afforded her "unimaginable" opportunities: doing YouTube collaborations with major websites such as the K-drama streaming site DramaFever, styling magazine covers for Seoul Selection Magazine, attending Seoul Fashion Week as an invited guest, training in singing and dance, and even auditioning for JYP and YG, two of the "Big Three" Korean entertainment companies. And that's just to name a few of the things April did! She'd felt that moving on from Korea was the best option at the time, and familial concerns in Kansas made her want to be more present to support her loved ones. But dealing with reverse culture shock, struggling once again to find work that was worthy of her qualifications, and having a toxic stepparent at home made her feel more out of place than ever, "It was almost like I was a puzzle piece trying to fit back into a puzzle that's been changed. I came from this puzzle, but this puzzle's different, so where do I fit in now?". As a result, April decided to give Korea another try in 2015. This time, she headed to Seoul, having been accepted into the Korean Language Institute (KLI) at Yonsei University.
Yonsei's Korean language program isn't the only one of its kind, but it was the one that April knew the most about, and she had high hopes since Yonsei is one of the three "SKY" institutions that are revered as the most prestigious universities in all of South Korea. After years of picking up words and phrases from the internet and day-to-day life as a teacher, she was eager to take full advantage of her first time learning Korean in a classroom. And undoubtedly, April did make remarkable progress in her Korean proficiency. Yet and still, the process was harder than it needed to be for a number of reasons. First, April was erroneously placed in the wrong class, one for learners who were already native speakers of other Asian languages. (She didn't realize this until the end of her time at Yonsei.) Second, Yonsei's by-the-book approach to grammar and vocabulary and emphasis on rote memorization didn't work well for April, who's a more visual or creative learner, "I have to connect pictures with photos and words and experiences to really get them to go inside of my head." She kept up in class, but it was a struggle. There was also the financial strain of living off of her savings, as well as the disheartening realization that the fashion opportunities from before that she sought to regain were now gone, "One thing about Korea is it changes at the speed of light... I really realized that you have to get it when it's there." April aimed to study at Yonsei for sixth months and then explore her options from there, but after four months her resources were depleted and she had to return to the States again.
From spork to silver
Despite the hardship of her second foray in Korea, April doesn't regret anything that she went through. She made friends with her Yonsei classmates and is "still cool" with most of them, and she even had an amusing experience with a Japanese classmate where they conversed over shabu-shabu in Tokyo, using the only language they had in common: Korean! And even though she wasn't thrilled with KLI's teaching style, it did give her the building blocks to continue studying Korean on her own. All in all, both her two-year and four-month stays in Korea matured her as a person and taught her about herself, what she wants in life, and what she will or won't take from people. Regardless of how positive or negative her experiences were, she appreciates them all. Furthermore, April takes pride in the fact that by trying things that others in her family didn't get the chance to do, her example and insight will provide something different for the next generation, "Here you go, here's a step for you... now you can have a nice little plastic fork instead of a spork! We'll move up to the silver soon."
To this day, April's interest in South Korea still plays an immense role in her life. From Jinjja Cha, to her long-running fashion blog (formerly Pink Fashion Ninja, now SweetxAesthetic), to her online fashion videos, to the handmade masks that she designs and sells, to her upcoming new podcast called A K-pop Fashion History, "Anything that has to do with fashion, sewing, or K-pop, it's me." April looks forward to returning to Korea one day, either for a nice month-long visit or an arrangement where she can live there doing the things she loves on her own terms. She's also eyeing Kyoto (for the geisha, the tea ceremonies, and the Samurai & Ninja Museum), Egypt (to live out her childhood Egyptology dreams), Thailand (to witness the glimmering shrine inside Phraya Nakhon Cave), Versailles (to gather ideas for the future French chateau of her dreams), and London (to visit Girl Davis, of course). April can be found at @april_jay88 (Instagram/Tiktok/Twitter), Etsy, her YouTube channel (April Jay), and her blog, sweetxaesthetic.com. A K-pop Fashon History can be found on Twitter (@KFashionPodcast).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "The K-pop, the Cha, & Her Wardrobe (SOUTH KOREA)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
HandSKorea (English teacher recruitment in South Korea)
Bunka Fashion College (Tokyo)