You never walk alone: embracing identity through BTS and fandom

A writer shares how finding BTS and the fandom ARMY shaped their sense of identity and made them feel less alone.

How finding BTS and fandom made me feel less alone

BTS in Las Vegas in colorful outfits
Picture from The Atlantic.

These last few years have not been the best. We as a society have collectively been on the hunt for something, anything to numb that sweet existential dread. From baking bread to Squid Game, the role of “Panini-Savior” has been cast and recast a multitude of times. But only one has stood the test of time: BTS. 

I found BTS on August 30th, 2020. The week prior was, in a word, difficult. 

First, my arch-nemesis Immigrations Canada packed a punch when they set a too-high cut-off Permanent Residence score that I couldn’t qualify for again. In other words, I was about to be kicked out of the country. Second, a life-changing job offer was rescinded due to my permanent residence situation. And finally, I was homesick. It was two years since I’d last seen my parents.

Add to all of that, of course, a global pandemic. 

In bits and pieces, Dynamite became the inadvertent soundtrack to my miserable, self-pitying life. It followed me on Walmart grocery runs and on the radio during my Uber rides. It was an earworm thoroughly lodged in my brain. So on a particularly uninteresting Tuesday night, it was finally time. I took to YouTube to hear the song in its entirety. 

Once I was in, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of loss for not having discovered BTS sooner. However, a special group of people relayed that “One finds BTS when you need them the most.”  Who are these special people one might ask?

Well, they’re your mothers, your bank tellers, and your favourite celebrities (if that includes John Cena). They are the fandom of all fandoms: the BTS ARMY. 

Meeting the BTS fandom: ARMY 

When I first posted BTS on my IG stories, I was surprised by the number of acquaintances from high school, my old accounting life, or from my stint in the Indian comedy scene that slid into my DMs with a “OMG! You’re ARMY too!?”. 

These were people I’d not encountered in years. But BTS gave us a chance to come out from the woodwark, have open conversations about the impact of their music, and foster a community and self love. We each had different reasons for joining the fandom but the one thing that we all echoed was that BTS affected us. Now, when I encounter their stories and feeds, a sense of closeness envelops me; now we’re all ARMY. Now we all share the identity of being part of the BTS fandom.

But meeting fellow fans on social media was just the beginning. When the Las Vegas concerts were announced, I got to meet ARMY in person. 

I considered selling my extra kidney to see BTS at the Permission to Dance Stage in Las Vegas since the Ticketmaster resale prices were rough. Added to that anxiety, it would be my first time in Sin City and my first solo trip ever. But when I joined a dedicated BTS group on Facebook, my sanity and kidney were left intact. 

Because for every worry I had, the ARMY had a solution.

The power of the BTS ARMY

To combat scalping and Ticketmaster’s grotesque administration fees, the ARMY came up with their own resale system. It included trading tickets for the four sold-out dates and reselling them at face value so that ARMYs looking for tickets didn’t have to break the bank. They even organised a Red List that was circulated widely to protect desperate fans from scammers.

Vegas local fans put together a 15-page document entitled “The Un-Official Guide to Las Vegas for Armies” that detailed everything an out-of-towner ARMY would need to know: public transport, Korean restaurants, and meet and greet events for solo fans to meet up. 

ARMY lining up for floor access. Photo submitted.

It was different when acquaintances reached out to me. At least then I knew them. But these strangers put so much effort just so I could see BTS. There was something special here, connecting me to strangers to faded friendships. Dare I say, it was something life changing.

I know what you’re thinking. Life-changing seems a bit dramatic for a boy band. Trust me, I was right there with you. I’m usually an apathetic hard core cynic to celebrity culture. Why did the seven members have such an impact on me? I endeavoured to find some answers by journaling and chatting with Asian fans at the Vegas concert. 

The answer I landed on was threefold. 

Not English

Every time I see a spelling or grammar mistake in English and feel the urge to correct it, I can’t help but feel shame. While I do speak other languages, I think, dream and write in my colonizer’s language. And that hurts, bad. 

North American imperialism demands that we communicate and create in English and looks down on us or keeps us to the fringes when we don’t. BTS and the BTS ARMY weren’t having that. BTS was the first Korean group to hit all the major accolades in the American music industry from the Grammys to the AMAs in a language other than English. Seeing them do it gave me a sense of vindication. 

Because maybe someday I too could dream in another language. 

The BTS fan base draws a lot of inspiration and comfort from the lyrics regardless that they aren’t in English. Bellina C, a Chinese American fan in her twenties believed that everyone is trying to communicate the same core feelings, just in a different language. By looking up translations, she appreciated BTS’ work more.  Let, a Filipino American fan in her sixties, resonated with the lyrics as well. She felt that they related to her experiences even if there was a generational gap. 

We don’t need English to feel an impact.  

See also: Colonialism: its impact on the Asian American experience

Learning to love my complex identity

I have always struggled with my identity. As a third culture kid, born and raised in the Middle East to South Asian parents, I never felt like I could claim either culture or identity. Growing up, I was a child of immigrants but then immigrated to Canada on my own, so what did that make me now? First gen? Immigrant? Immigrant squared? 

When I realized I was queer and non binary, my struggle with identity intensified. Who was I as the baby-queer? The non-binary? The immigrant? I could only see myself in terms of these strata. The person I was as a whole continued to elude me.

When I first heard “IDOL”’s iconic refrain (you can’t stop me loving myself), I disagreed. You could definitely stop me.

I wasn’t behind this sunshine and rainbows toxic positivity.  I barely knew who I was. Loving myself was definitely light years away. But as I made my way backwards through BTS’ discography and interviews, I realised I was wrong. 

BTS constantly struggled with the various facets of their identity. They struggle still. They acknowledged how hard it is to know and love yourself, but they wanted us to try anyway. They had hope that we’d figure it out someday, even if we don’t know now. That acknowledgement alone, shortened the light years I have left. 

ARMY incorporated self love into their lives through different ways. Michelle D, a Filipino American fan in her forties, got a tattoo from the song Mikrokosmos. She said it was an everyday reminder to love herself and the world around her. Indian Canadian Toronto natives Kiran and Sienne B got a boost of confidence through the band. They said that being their fan made them not care what others think about them. 

Chatting with fellow fans so openly about their self love journey was comforting. I don’t love myself yet, but I’m on my way. 

See also: Cultivating a space for Asian mental health conversations

Existential Dread 

What is my purpose? Why am I here? Will I ever know? How privileged am I to only have to worry about existential things? Am I doing anything with my privilege?  

No matter how many pages I commit to my journal, I will never have the answers to these questions. This used to scare me. I also felt alone in not knowing. But BTS came through again; they raised the same questions I did. In the BTS variety show In The Soop, members Suga and Jin talked about the search for purpose. They even questioned whether this (their art, their music, their celebrity) was for them or if they could have done more. 

Seeing the people who inspire me with their art question whether it’s enough to simply create changed the way I view my existence. I will never have answers to these questions, but that’s okay, because I’m not alone in not having them. 

See also: South Asian creative Harpo Mander on joy and creativity as forms of resistance

Community and joy through BTS

With anti-Asian hate on the rise, the enduring isolation of COVID-19, and the state of the world being what it is, we’ve been starved for connection and community. 

But finding ARMY online, talking to them in the queues, laughing at their creativity with posters and costumes, and doing the wave with the ARMY light sticks truly allowed the cynic in me to take the week off. Do you know that sense of freedom when you’re dancing alone in your room, music blasting? Imagine that exact bliss, but add two hundred and sixty thousand people singing and dancing just like you. 

BTS at Permission to Dance in Las Vegas. Picture from BTS twitter.

At the end of opening night at Allegiant Stadium, BTS leader Kim Namjoon summed it up perfectly: “The accolades, the status are all fine and good but are by no means the most important. This right here, this communication, this community between the ARMY and us is what it’s all about.” 

This sense of community by these complete strangers with just our love for BTS gave me hope. Sure, not everything was fixed at the concert. But in Las Vegas, I knew I wasn’t alone. 

Featured image from The Atlantic.

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