“Ed Sheeran is horrible. Ed Sheeran IS horrible,” the teen in front of me repeats a second time (verbatim), announcing it clearly enough for most bus riders to hear. He continues to scroll down his friend’s phone as his friend peers over, eager to see where the first teen lands. “Yeah, this is good,” the first teen pronounces, affirming his friend’s choice of music. “This is okay. Mhm.”
A few scrolls later, the first teen hands back the phone to his friend, evaluation complete. “You should listen to Calvin Harris. And AC/DC,” he recommends.
His friend nods quickly in affirmation, “Ah, yeah, I’ve heard of him.” His choice of words sound like he’s nonchalant, but as they came so quickly after the first teen’s verdict, it sounded like he was keen to interject into his friend’s review – to prove him wrong.
From my seat behind the duo, I glowered at the first teen. If only my stare could convert into some sort of slap that he’d feel on the back of his hand. What kind of friend critiques their friend’s music choice like that, with such harsh words?
Also, to the one being critiqued – I wish you never believe (or quickly overcome the belief of) that your preferences need validation from peers.
I wish I knew in high school that was the case. There were so many things I spent unnecessary time on and so many things I suppressed to make myself acceptable.
One was pop music. Unlike my classmates, I did not spend ample time in cars listening to hit music stations with the latest songs. My family instead listened to Chinese radio programming, or if it was music, we would play musicals like Les Miserables and older singers like ABBA. I also perused Japanese rock (J-rock) as a result of my passion for anime, since they often featured J-rock songs as opening and closing themes.
I could never enter discussions about the music we were listening to without being exposed as clueless about Flo-Rida, Owl City and Rihanna. I don’t recall if my peers ever made negative remarks about my love for music genres that they had never even heard of, but I’m sure that my preferences for musicals and J-rock were met with silence. I felt like an outsider for not being able to relate to the stuff they liked.
Unlike the teens I observed on the bus, my experience was more of a self-imposed pressure. It did stem from my surroundings though, as my peers’ discussions informed me what was socially acceptable and what was not.
To rectify this, I started listening to the radio. Every single evening, as I did my homework, I’d place my Hello Kitty radio by where my head would be on my desk if I craned it over my textbook. I’d crank it up to a moderate volume that was just loud enough for me to hear, yet not annoy my family, since they were not big fans of pop music. Soon enough, I caught up, knowing all the lyrics to all the popular songs that would be played at school dances. I could sing along so dances never got too awkward, what with a bunch of teens straddling the line between wanting to dance and wanting to look non-committal for a school dance. With my knowledge of the lyrics and the songs, I proved myself up to date with the latest trends.
Another pastime affected by the desire to gain validation was my manga-reading. I started with manga that was pretty widely heard of in North America like Naruto, Bleach and Inuyasha, but eventually I dove deep into translated manga sites where entire genres of manga with thousands of titles were ready to be read. I voraciously consumed manga, particularly shoujo manga, probably dedicating at least an hour a day.
I didn’t talk much about that daily habit. When I did it was because the key figures in our class had gotten into a manga craze themselves, excitedly discussing Death Note or Prince of Tennis. I got into those two series myself as a result of those classmates. Their brazen discussions normalized manga and anime as a topic. Otherwise, my love for manga would also mark me as an outsider.
Towards Grade 11 or 12, I jumped aboard the Hallyu wave. I became entranced by how the coordinated limbs of K-pop idols moved in perfect synchronization in their music videos and live performances.
Not that I had anybody to express this interest to. K-pop was not something discussed in lunch times or break times, and so I kept it to myself. Of course, this was still concurrent with the overwhelming reaffirmations from my surroundings about the supremacy of western popular music, as evident from school dances to the school’s yearbook section on popular culture that focussed solely on western media.
This false perception that my hobbies needed to be approved continued into university. An experience that exemplifies this, and marks how I began overcoming it, is my first date in first year. My boyfriend at the time was older than me. He seemed so sophisticated, mature, and knowledgeable. Fresh out of high school, I found it hard to believe that I was dating someone like him.
Before we started dating, I didn’t mention K-pop at all for fear that it would make me seem unattractive, although King of K-pop G Dragon’s “Crooked” was my ringtone. I watched Wes Anderson at his recommendation, although I wasn’t particularly into artsy films at that time – I only enjoyed visual arts more broadly.
I wasn’t tailoring myself to be a different person, but there were certain aspects that I suppressed because I imagined that they would make others think of me as strange.
Please note that he did not at all contribute to my sense of this, and really didn’t give two figs about whether I liked K-pop or not, which I’ll describe later. The pressure I felt is something I carried in.
I carried this false perception in all the way into our first date. Once we confirmed that this was going to be a relationship, the first thing I got off my chest was my love for K-pop:
“By the way…I listen to a lot of K-pop.”
I don’t remember his reaction. It definitely wasn’t anything significant. Probably acknowledgement, before the topic naturally switched to other things.
I think that with that minimal reaction to my love for K-pop, I began to realize that I don’t need my preferences validated. I also have good friends to thank for, from high school and university, who share in my “strange” preferences, support them or do not think any less of me because of them.
Funny enough, the passion you show towards your interests can inspire others too. At a trivia game during a recent holiday lunch party, I proudly wore my K-pop fangirl badge, joking that I’d fail all the “Pop Culture” category questions unless it was actually “K-pop Culture”. This turned out to be a saving grace as one of the questions was about a K-pop boy group that made a splash at the American Music Awards this year. The tie-breaker round involved having knowledge about one of the K-pop industry’s most famous girl groups.
After I had helped my team win with my K-pop knowledge, a person who I had just met remarked it was amusing to watch me think through my answer to the tie-breaker question. It involved drawing upon what I knew of the members of that girl group, which impressed him.
Having gone over how preferences don’t need validation from peers, I do wonder whether the experience of feeling that way is necessary. Nevertheless, it’s a lot less stressful if you can get out of that self- and socially-imposed sensation earlier.