As I took my first step off of the plane into Incheon Airport, I felt my life change. Suddenly, I was a new person. A more worldly person. A world traveler. A jet-setter.
I'm kidding. I was actually expecting to feel a bit more something when I arrived in South Korea for my semester abroad, but an airport is an airport, I guess.
I am writing from the lounge of Media Hall, the building where I'll be taking all of my communications classes this semester at Korea University. It's very modern and a bit chilly.
I think too much has happened in the week since I've been here for me to do a "My First Week Abroad" post, so I'm going to write about one of the most interesting experiences I've had in Korea, which was my visit to the Kakao Friends store in Hongdae.
For those who don't know, Kakao Friends are characters used in the Korean messaging app KakaoTalk. Their pictures are sent like emoticons or emojis, and there are different characters like Ryan, Neo, Apeach, Muzi and more, each with their own backstory and personality. What I find really interesting is that these characters have become popular enough to garner multiple stores around Korea selling Kakao Friends merchandise, Kakao Friends cafes and even a Kakao Friends concept art museum. I visited these, and I am here to report that it was madness. But it was also so cute, and I won't deny that I participated full heartedly in all of the Kakao shenanigans and enjoyed it thoroughly.
Before I begin, you may be thinking, "how is this different than selling emoji pillows, making an emoji movie, etc.?" which is a valid question. I would say it's the level of popularity that makes them different; Kakao Friends perfectly capture the "kidult" market here in Korea and in East Asia, which is the love of cute and traditionally childlike things by adults. As seen in the photos, the Kakao Friends store and museum was completely packed, and it's that busy every single day. It's also interesting that nearly all of the customers are adults. I think I only saw three or four children in the store, and maybe two in the museum. Just based on what I saw, it's the level of popularity and the real love for these characters that makes it seem different for me, but I'm no expert (yet).
First, I went to the store, which has all kinds of Kakao Friends merchandise: phone cases, plush toys, magnets, clothes, stationary and even golf club headcovers. I bought an Apeach keychain and phone case because I'm a cog in the Kakao machine. The store was incredibly busy for a Wednesday and was set up like a maze of brightly colored characters. As I looked up from the pair of Apeach slippers I was holding, I realized I'd been there for nearly 30 minutes. Was there something in the air here?
On the next level, there was a Ryan (one of the characters) themed cafe, but I didn't get anything because coffee and other drinks are kind of expensive in Korea, especially in themed cafes like this one. A drink was about ₩10,000, which is a little less than $10. Yikes! But they sold drinks and cupcakes and other snacks with the character Ryan on them, which are perfect props for an Instagram photo.
By far the most interesting part of this experience was the exhibit on the third floor (yes, this has three floors!), which was called the Kakao Friends Concept Museum. I'll preface this by letting you know that while inside this exhibit, I remember telling my friends "I can't believe that this place was created" at least 10 times.
When you walk in, there are chairs covered in tiny Kakao Friends plush toys that people can sit on to take photos. As you wind through the exhibit, you enter a room filled with little busts of the characters sitting on columns, a room full of famous paintings that were remade to feature the Kakao Friends, and a "modern art" room of patterns and neon lights shaped like the Kakao Friends. The final room was just covered in balloons shaped like Ryan, and there was a line out the door to pose for a photo.
I still don't know how to describe how this exhibit made me feel. Something about seeing people line up to take an Instagram photo with a shiny balloon scared me, but also intrigued me.
The experience was surreal, bizarre and endearing. I was torn between letting myself fully enjoy the silly adorable funniness of it all and feeling like I was being indoctrinated.
Final thoughts: I would go again.