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[LLG] Everything tastes better with 'Butter'

Hit BTS song pulled retired US teacher out of despair. Now she is reveling in fan culture at heart of K-pop, immersed in enriching cultural exchange, community

By Song Seung-hyun

Published : April 10, 2024 - 17:44

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Julia Bellaflores poses for a photo with photo cards of K-pop band WEi after her interview with The Korea Herald on Feb. 7. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) Julia Bellaflores poses for a photo with photo cards of K-pop band WEi after her interview with The Korea Herald on Feb. 7. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

A few years ago, Julia Bellaflores' life started to fall apart.

Bellaflores, a teacher in Texas, had been doing her classes online during the COVID-19 pandemic. When asked to return to the classroom in person, she decided not to, out of concern for her mother, whom she lived with at the time, but who has now passed away. Bellaflores was too concerned about the health risks her return to the school could pose to her ailing mother.

Her teaching license was suspended. On top of that, her husband asked for a divorce and she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

"My son didn't know what to do with me," Bellaflores, now 63, recalled, “Experiencing ups and downs, crying -- I couldn’t sleep either.”

Then, she stumbled upon the BTS song "Butter" as a Spotify recommendation. A specific line from the song -- "do the boogie, like" -- became an irresistible mantra that stuck in her mind.

"It brought back my inner 1970s teenager," she said, explaining that she would hear the term "boogie" often during her youth.

She also remembers that moment as the beginning of her journey of discovering K-pop. Until then, a vague memory of seeing BTS perform on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" had been pretty much her only exposure to Korean pop music.

Since then, BTS in particular has captivated Bellaflores.

"It was like Nam-jun (RM) gave me a strong hug and then pushed me off a cliff, urging me to fly into the rabbit hole of K-pop," she recalled.

Julia Bellaflores poses for a photo with a WEi light stick and instant photos after her interview with The Korea Herald on Feb. 7. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) Julia Bellaflores poses for a photo with a WEi light stick and instant photos after her interview with The Korea Herald on Feb. 7. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

As her fascination with K-pop deepened, it encompassed not only BTS but various other Korean bands as well, including The Rose and WEi.

WEi in particular holds a special place in her heart.

In 2022, during a WEi concert in Atlanta, Bellaflores organized a surprise birthday event for a band member, Yohan.

"I made these big cards, and when you opened them, two bunny ears came up with a picture of him and it said, 'Happy birthday,'" she said. "I made 200 of those and handed them out to fans."

As the band neared the end of the performance -- just before their farewell -- fans began singing "Happy Birthday to You" and held up the cards.

After the song, Yohan asked the audience, "Who did this?" while holding one of the handcrafted cards, and Bellaflores vividly remembers the moment when all the fans pointed to her.

"He came to the edge of the stage and said, 'Thank you,'" she added.

The fact that her late mother had played a role in making the cards also made the birthday card project more special to her, she said.

A while after the event, her mom asked her, "How is the kid with the bunny ears?" to which Bellaflores replied, "Mom, he's doing fine."

More than just K-pop

Julia Bellaflores poses for a photo with a WEi light stick and instant photos after her interview with The Korea Herald on Feb. 7. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) Julia Bellaflores poses for a photo with a WEi light stick and instant photos after her interview with The Korea Herald on Feb. 7. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Seeing K-pop help her escape a dark period in her life, her son became the most ardent supporter of her fangirling pursuits.

"Frankie's very thankful to K-pop," Bellaflores said.

He was also very supportive of the idea of her traveling to Korea to attend concerts.

Driven by a simple question -- "What's the worst that can happen?" -- Bellaflores embarked on her solo journey to Korea in June last year.

"I arrived alone," she said. "No friends in Korea, nobody waiting for me at the airport. But I've done fine, figured it all out."

Attending K-pop concerts and fan events, as well as socializing with other fans, were experiences she looked forward to in Korea. However, what she didn't anticipate was for K-pop to serve as a stepping-stone, connecting her to other aspects of Korean culture.

"There's so much more," she said.

Her life in Korea became richer after moving into a shared flat in Seoul, where she made friends with her housemates. Initially, she had resided alone in a "gosiwon," a type of budget housing with extremely small, cubicle-like studio rooms.

She formed a particularly close bond with one Korean housemate whom she affectionately calls "Dad" for the support he provides.

“He's eager to share Korea with me," she said.

Sharing meals with the housemate became a cherished routine for Bellaflores. From mashed potatoes and pancakes to miyeokguk (seaweed soup) and Jeju Island-style grilled pork belly, she described her enjoyment of cooking together and sharing food.

"We teach each other," she said joyfully.

As she started cooking more at home in Korea, Mangwon Market in Mapo-gu, a traditional market near her residence, also came to hold a special place in her heart.

"I bought sesame oil from Mangwon Market done right there. Mangwon Market is my Disneyland," she said.

The market evokes memories of her childhood before large supermarkets dominated food retail in the US.

"When my son came to visit, walking with him at Mangwon Market felt like taking him to the past where I grew up,” she reminisced.

The sense of community between vendors and customers is what brings her back again and again. She regularly buys fruit from a small family-owned business she now knows well, and gets meat from a butcher who recognizes her.

“I so want to speak Korean so I can spend time with them. The food and atmosphere is an awesome cultural experience,” she said. “I hope Korea continues to protect these communities.”

Bellaflores expressed concern about the city's plans to modernize traditional markets like that one in Mangwon.

"I hope the market stays the way it is," she said.

To her, Korea feels like that market.

"I know that not everybody's happy (in Korea) and I know that there are turbulent times. I'm not oblivious," she said. "But I love that Korea has preserved (a sense of community)."

Standing for living, loving and growing, LLG goes beyond the realm of daily news, exploring the vibrant tapestry of modern life, as told by real people. -- Ed.