In Search of Wholeness with BTS

Mimi Lok
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A long time ago, before I was a writer, before I was an ardent fan of the K-pop group BTS, I was an undergraduate art student. I spent my days in a cold building in the northeast of England manipulating photographs, wax, muslin, paint, collages, and knives. I was making work about memory and identity, and, somewhat appropriately, spent much of my time groping around in the dark, figuratively and literally—developing photographs in a darkroom, or experimenting with slide projections in an abandoned university administrative office I’d claimed for myself. I can’t remember what I took so many photographs of, only that I’d enlarge and blur them, then cut out details, and mummify them in squares of wax melted into long muslin rectangles that I then hung from the ceiling like fly strips or funereal party streamers.

At the time I was influenced by the work of the artist Christian Boltanski, specifically his installation works spanning the late ’80s and ’90s that he made, in his words, not “about the Holocaust but after the Holocaust,” and, more broadly, on the themes of loss and individual and collective memory. These haunting works often featured stark altar-like arrangements of re-photographed archival portraits, single black-and-white faces enlarged to the point of blurring into extreme chiaroscuro. The portraits were illuminated by bare light bulbs attached to black electrical cords that trailed along the floor of the exhibition space like sleeping Medusa hairs—the mechanics and artifice of these works on full display. To a viewer, this invited an unsettled, constantly shifting experience that alternated in focus between the individual images and the collection of images in concert with one another; between immersive communion with these unknown souls and objective appraisal of the artifact; between light and dark.

These works became the subject of my dissertation, in which I explored their connection to Carl Jung’s ideas of the collective unconscious(the idea that a form of the unconscious mind is shared by all humans, and contains the experiences, memories, and knowledge of our ancestors) and the shadow (the unconscious part of the human psyche that contains the rejected, repressed, and unaccepted aspects of ourselves), and the lasting impact of human experiences on the psyche. This dissertation was my first encounter with Jungian thought, and I remember being drawn to the shadow archetype as a way of understanding humankind’s propensity toward violence and war and, by the same token, understanding its propensity toward racism. Understanding shadow projection made the experience of racism no less painful. But it was a preferred alternative to the idea that one was deserving of it, and/or that such behavior was inexplicable and therefore without a solution.

I was also deeply attracted to Jung’s concept of a collective unconscious and its ties to personal and cultural memory. This collective unconscious is considered to contain archetypal images, or primordial symbols, that are passed down through generations and are common to all human cultures, representing universal truths and patterns. Jung believed that these archetypal images are expressed in dreams, myths, and art and literature, and that they can help us to understand our own lives and the lives of others. He also believed that the collective unconscious could be tapped into and used to positively influence our own behavior.

The notion of an unseen, unifying force linking past and present resonated with me, particularly as someone whose relationship to her heritage was characterized by a persistent feeling of incompleteness, and by a yearning that alternated between hopeless grasping and resignation. I was born and raised in England, to parents who’d immigrated from Hong Kong, and my family was one of two Chinese families in our small, predominantly white town. Growing up, I felt indelibly British in many ways, and yet daily experiences of racism and xenophobia, as well as the paucity of representation—I didn’t see myself in books, classroom curricula, or on the screen—undermined my sense of self and my hopes of belonging. At home I ate Chinese food, watched Chinese TV, and listened to Cantopop, but I couldn’t speak or read Chinese as well as I wanted to, and I did not grow up with any relatives around—all of them were in Hong Kong. It was only in the pages of books by writers like Maxine Hong Kingston, Gish Jen, and Peter Ho Davies that I found some companionship in my condition of in-betweenness.

I often wondered what it would take to feel complete, to feel whole. Jung’s ideas felt almost too good to be true. Did they really contain the answers to life, the universe, and everything? I delved deeper, learning more about his “map of the soul”—his theory of the human psyche—and the interplay of persona (the interface between the individual and society that makes up a person’s social identity); ego (the center of consciousness, the “I”); and shadow. I learned that the Jungian definition of wholeness is “the emergent sense of psychic complexity and integrity that develops over the course of a complete lifetime.” In other words, one must fully accept and integrate every part of oneself, and it takes a bloody long time. I was just scratching the surface, and already I was finding his writings intimidatingly vast, eclectic, and at times bewildering. I felt as if I were getting lost in a darkened, overgrown maze, and it was suffocating.

Something must have happened between my dissertation submission and my degree show, for which graduating students were required to make a culminating work. I did not want to make another monochromatic, funereal piece. Perhaps I was tired of spending so much time in the gray, somber zone. Perhaps I realized it wasn’t the only way to talk about memory and identity. For my final piece, I had an ambitious vision of a circus-like tent made of red satin, big enough to hold about fifteen people. Upon entering, you were greeted by a bouncy Mandarin love song from the ’60s. As you looked up, you saw a small army of fans made from knife blades hanging in rows from a rotisserie-like contraption, light glinting off the blades as they turned.

Looking back, I find the symbolism of the piece rather heavy-handed. But I admire my then self’s thoughtless, enthusiastic seizing of this vision that sprang from my unconscious depths. I was able to pull off that bizarre spectacle thanks to this lack of self-consciousness, as well as an apparent absence of institutional concern for visitor safety. To this day, I’m still deeply relieved that no visitors were harmed by a falling blade.

Art school was followed by years of restless searching. It feels strange to acknowledge that during this decades-long period of roaming across continents, cultures, and professions (I lived in Hong Kong and the States, and worked in the arts, journalism, education, and nonprofit human rights), I didn’t really think about Jung again. It almost feels like a betrayal, to have once been so inspired and moved by something, only to abandon it in favor of other sources of ideas and enrichment. But that is precisely what happened.

Late one evening in February 2020, I come across a YouTube video. The Korean group BTS are performing their new single “ON” at Grand Central Terminal in New York, as part of an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. I’ve heard of them and have previously seen a few of their performances on US chat shows, though they didn’t leave much of an impression. Nevertheless, something makes me click through.

The performance begins in a deserted, after-hours station concourse. A glittering organ intro. A group of unsmiling, black-clad dancers and marching-band members move in stiff synchronicity like a dystopian Rhythm Nation–like army. The camera swings low and welcomes an androgynous, blue-haired Asian man in white, who, entering the frame with sinewy, swanlike movements, sings the opening line in a breathy, honeyed voice. He, too, is unsmiling, and projects a looking-down-his-nose-at-you confidence to the camera. He’s soon joined by other members of the group, each singing or rapping different lines with the same defiant, intense energy (“Bring the pain!”). The transitions between one member and another are seamless, showcasing their distinct vocals while evoking a gang-like unity. The choreography has the graceful intensity of a John Woo shoot-out or a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fight sequence, and pulses and transforms at such a dizzying pace that it feels like witnessing a mathematically complex ballet. It ends with the clattering echo of drumsticks hitting the floor, and the seven band members turning their backs to the camera, arms flung protectively around one another’s shoulders and waists.

I am speechless, unsure of what I’ve just witnessed. I replay it a dozen times. I try to learn the part of the choreography that resembles a two-handed, zigzaggy window wash. I send the video to my family group chat, certain that every one of them, from my eighty-something mother to my preteen nephew, will also be awed by the brilliance of it. There are some polite thumbs-ups, but only my choreographer sister expresses her reaction in words: “They’re all such good movers! But the blue-haired one dances like he’s moving through water.” 

Later, I contemplate a detail from after the performance ends, when Fallon comes in to thank BTS and wrap up the show. In this moment, the members of BTS drop their tough, intense performance personae and let their total exhaustion show through. One of the members, on the far left, gives a floppy, Muppet-like wave to the camera before succumbing to a comically dramatic collapse. I find it surprising and endearing. In that cheerful collapse, I see a group of dedicated artists who are utterly committed to the performance, and, when it’s over, are comfortable with discarding that pristine persona. How fascinating, I think. That’s not something you see all the time.

I decide to learn their names. There’s RM, the leader, who learned English from watching Friends and wanted to be a poet, before he became a rapper. There’s Jin, SUGA (also known as Agust D), j-hope, Jimin (the blue-haired one from the “ON” performance), V (the collapsing, Muppet-waving one from the “ON” performance), and Jung Kook. I learn that BTS stands for “Bangtan Sonyeondan,” which translates to “Bulletproof Boy Scouts,” and also stands for “Beyond the Scene.” I learn that “ON” is a single from their latest album, Map of the Soul: 7, a Jungian exploration of the self, continued from their previous release, the EP Map of the Soul: Persona. Song titles include “Persona,” “Interlude: Shadow,” and “Outro: Ego.” At first, I don’t think much of the Jungian references; pop music, after all, frequently draws inspiration from a multitude of sources. But the more I listen, the more I am struck by what a rich journey the album offers, how intimate, transporting, and viscerally affecting the songs are. Framed by an unflinching appraisal of the group’s relationship to music, creativity, and fame, the ensemble tracks are complimented by seven solo numbers in which each member reflects on his personal journey. I am impressed by the depth and ambition not just of the album, but also of the associated projects celebrating its release, from the visually rich music videos to the contemporary dance art film commissioned for the album’s other title song, “Black Swan,” and their global art project, “Connect, BTS,” involving twenty-two artists making large-scale art installations on multiple continents. I hear about a book on Jungian psychology, Jung’s Map of the Soul: An Introduction by Murray Stein, and its reported influence on BTS. I buy it. Reading about Jung again, more than twenty years later, I feel a halting familiarity and curious apprehension more commonly associated with reconnecting with an old friend, uncertain if we’ll still like each other. Perhaps I also feel guilt for not returning his calls.

The tentativeness with which I reacquaint myself with Jung is in stark contrast to my eager tumble down the BTS rabbit hole. I learn that all BTS members are deeply involved in the creation of their music, through a mix of songwriting, producing, choreography, and performance direction. I realize, through watching their many award show and concert performances, that the intricate theatricality of the stagecraft and the blend of old-school charisma and professionalism make me at once nostalgic for the Hong Kong Cantopop concerts I grew up watching in the ’80s and thrilled by the genre- and gender-bending innovation of their music and aesthetics. BTS members wear makeup onstage for performances, music videos, and photo shoots, donning skirts, lace, pearl necklaces, et cetera, with great panache, particularly when combined with styling that would be considered more conventionally masculine. Their choreography ranges from intense, synchronized hip-hop movements to an airy, balletic grace. Musically, they glide between genres (hip-hop, R&B, trap, bubblegum dream pop, and rock, to name a few), singing and rapping mostly in Korean with smatterings of English. But what I find particularly exciting is their blending of the traditional and the contemporary that results in something that sounds, and feels, unique. Their 2018 song “IDOL,” for example, layers classical Korean instruments over the thumping drum and bass of gqom, a style of house music that originated in Durban, South Africa. SUGA’s 2020 solo rap song “Daechwita” is inspired by and samples daechwita, a genre of Korean traditional military music, as well as pansori, a genre of folk-musical storytelling. More and more, they seem to me the epitome of fluidity, building on the possibilities of pop music by combining their cultural past and present while looking to the future.

Something else that feels familiar about BTS—and very Asian—is the deference and gratitude they express to their fans at every possible opportunity (in BTS’s case, the diverse, devoted, many-million-strong fan base known as ARMY, an acronym for Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth, a nod to the group’s hip-hop idol roots). At first I’m not sure how to receive this earnestness, before (1) remembering that it’s a long-held practice among Cantopop singers and Hong Kong actors, including massive stars like Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung back in their day, a common utterance to fans and audiences being “Thank you for your support!”; and (2) learning about BTS’s humble underdog origins and their indebtedness to their fans. I discover that BTS started their career with Big Hit, a small management company on the verge of bankruptcy. Unlike the powerful “Big Three” entertainment companies (SM, YG, and JYP) that dominated the K-pop entertainment industry for the past two decades, Big Hit lacked both the money and the influence required to secure media coverage and coveted TV spots for the group. Instead, BTS engaged with their (then considerably smaller) fan base through social media, relying on grassroots support to sustain morale and achieve early success.

Over the following weeks and months, I binge BTS’s music videos, reality travel shows, and weekly variety shows; learn their personality quirks; and watch their live streams and tour documentaries. I learn they are extremely funny and self-aware. I forge close friendships over BTS, and get up after midnight to watch their pandemic “at-home” live streamed concerts, during which I exchange excited texts with fellow ARMY friends in other cities. These are rare moments of joyful, intimate communion during an intensely isolating time. Online, I am welcomed into a corner of the ARMYverse and am heartened to learn of many other fans’ similar conversions, their own tumbles down the rabbit hole invariably starting with “I’ll just learn their names.” I realize the closest I’ve previously come to this level of energizing discovery is when I’ve been writing the first draft of a story.

During this time, I am also journeying through BTS’s vast, eclectic discography on long walks or runs around my neighborhood. It does not surprise me to learn of their socially conscious themes, starting with their earliest work. In their 2013–14 School Trilogy (the first “era” of their career), they speak out against academic pressure in the song “N.O” (the music video shows them leading a classroom revolt) and income inequality in “Spine Breaker” (the music video’s DIY camcorder aesthetic reminds me of the satirical, anarchic wit of early Beastie Boys). Their subsequent eras—Most Beautiful Moment in Life Trilogy (2015–16) and Wings(2016–17)—affectingly capture the despair, adventure, and fragile hope of youth and growing up, and in the case of “Spring Day,” collective grief over a national tragedy. The song is widely acknowledged as a tribute to the victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, which claimed the lives of over three hundred passengers, most of them high school students, and led to widespread social and political upheaval in the country. The song is beautiful and poignant on its own, but the music video makes the experience of the song richly transcendent, and includes visual references to the movie Snowpiercer and Ursula K. Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” in which the happiness of a utopian community is dependent on the suffering of a child. In the music video, there’s a moment when the members sit on a colorful mountain of clothes. It takes me a moment to realize it’s a reference to another monument of memory, loss, and resurrection, by none other than Christian Boltanski. In 2010, Boltanski created large-scale, site-specific installations using tons of discarded clothes in the Grand Palais, in Paris, and in the Park Avenue Armory, in New York. Four hundred thousand items of clothing were heaped into a mountain, with other clothes laid out in the shape of rectangles, turning the space into a cemetery. In Paris, he called it Personnes. In New York, he called it No Man’s Land. While running forward with BTS, I feel like I’m going back in time.

This is not my first experience being part of a fandom. As a kid, I saved up my allowance to buy my first record—a-ha’s Take On Me. I had the posters, the tour merch, and the fan club magazines, and I went around confidently telling my school friends that (according to singer Morten Harket) gifting a cactus to a Norwegian is a way of telling them they’re an asshole. As a teenager I was a massive Cure fan: I went to countless concerts; I had the posters, the tour merch, and the fan club magazines. I could tell you that Robert Smith’s favorite beer was Sol, that he liked to drink tea in the bath, and that he took inspiration for one of their songs from a Patrick White short story. Later, I was an avid fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I memorized quotes, attempted to write fan fiction, read the comics, pored over analyses of characters and themes, and delighted in the academic studies that branched out from the fandom. In other words, I was, in theory, built for the BTS ARMY life. But the reality was that nothing could have prepared me for the level of joy, intensity, and comfort that being a BTS fan brings, or for it to be a portal back to Jungian ideas. And to chance upon all this on the brink of a global pandemic—to have the opportunity to cultivate a new source of passion, discovery, and community during a time of isolation and despair—was a truly unexpected gift.

You don’t have to be a fan of BTS to recognize the significance of their achievements: as a K-pop group addressing taboo subjects in Korean culture, including mental health issues, and their staunch support of LGBTQ rights; as an Asian group that has broken numerous records and barriers in the Western music industry (the tip of the iceberg: they are the first Grammy-nominated K-pop group, the first to chart a primarily Korean-language single, “Life Goes On,” at number one in the United States, and they grossed $230 million in concert revenue in 2022, outstripping Harry Styles and Coldplay; they have also won all four major categories at the Mnet Asian Music Awards for three years in a row); and as representatives for South Korea and Korean culture on the global stage. Since 2017 they’ve partnered with UNICEF on the Love Myself campaign, an effort to end violence toward children and teens. In 2018 they visited the United Nations, where RM gave a speech on the importance of finding one’s voice. They returned in 2021 as special presidential envoys for South Korea, rejected the labeling of today’s youth as the generation “lost to COVID,” and instead lauded their resiliency, curiosity, and inclusiveness. After George Floyd was killed, on May 25, 2020, BTS posted a simple message on Twitter condemning racial discrimination and violence and donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter. When explaining their decision behind the donation, SUGA said, “Ours are initiatives that any person who wishes to live in a just world would want to pursue. We aren’t trying to send out some grandiose message… It’s about us being against racism and violence. Most people would be against these things.” Inspired by this act, ARMY—which has a long and diverse track record of philanthropic activity—raised a further $1 million in donations within twenty-four hours.

For me, one of BTS’s most meaningful public statements came in the wake of the Atlanta spa shootings on March 16, 2021, in which eight people were killed, six of whom were Asian women. 

I was never the same again after that day. It was as if a dam had burst, and all the layered pain of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny I’d been holding on to over decades came rushing out all at once. In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, I struggled to make sense of my visceral anguish, let alone of the world around me, which seemed to exist in a separate reality. Nobody seemed to be talking about Atlanta or reaching out to check in. When I went for a walk, I passed by people discussing their lunch plans or their pets, or where to get a vaccination, and I noticed how jarring those business-as-usual words felt in comparison with the overwhelming grief I was experiencing. Online, my feeds were full of the same: by and large, life appeared to go on while I alternated between rage, tears, and disbelief, wondering if there was something wrong with me for having these feelings. The few mentions of Atlanta I did see online came mostly from Asian folks, BTS being the most prominent. In a letter posted to Twitter, the members said they felt “grief and anger,” adding: “What our voice must convey is clear. We stand against racial discrimination. We condemn violence.” The statement continued, “We recall moments when we faced discrimination as Asians. We have endured expletives without reason and were mocked for the way we look. We were even asked why Asians spoke in English.” They described their experiences as “inconsequential” compared with the Atlanta shooting, but said such incidents “chip away” at their self-esteem. I found their direct way of expressing their feelings, and their willingness to be vulnerable, deeply moving and admirable. During a time of feeling smothered by the silence surrounding this topic, their words felt like a sharp glimmer of light, reflected off a mirror in someone’s palm—not an SOS call, but an answer to one: No, you’re not crazy. Yes, it’s OK to feel grief and anger. We feel it too.

I thought about the burden of Asian public figures who are expected to channel their devastation into articulate, digestible sound bites; of Asian journalists tasked with reporting on the news while not having a chance to process their own grief; and of Asian folks in general expected to carry on—at school, at work, at home—as if nothing had happened. I thought about who else might be feeling isolated during this time, who else needed to feel seen.

In the days that followed, I talked with dozens of AAPI friends, acquaintances, and strangers I’d met at vigils and online solidarity gatherings. There was a wide variety of responses, ranging from detachment and numbness to despair and white-hot rage. We talked about how people we trusted and considered close had not reached out or acknowledged the shootings in a timely or adequate way, or at all. We talked about struggling with institutional silence and lack of care that ranged from making us feel invisible to uncomfortably singling us out as representatives of all AAPIs. We talked about how all this compounded the feelings of isolation we were already holding, which added to the existing layers of pain. We talked about the countless others who must also be going through this and feeling the same way, grieving in the wake of Atlanta and amid the larger wave of anti-Asian violence sweeping the country. We talked about how these latest attacks were part of a long history of injustice toward Asians in myriad forms—from microaggressions and legally sanctioned discrimination to expressions of lethal violence. With all I was bearing witness to, in myself and others, silence no longer felt like an option. I felt I had to do something, no matter how small, to break it.

I drafted a document that began with a brief description of what I and others in the AAPI community were going through, followed by a list of actions and resources. I titled it “8 Things You Can Do to Support the AAPIs in Your Life.” It was a way of demanding visibility, offering solace, calling for allyship, and also, I realized, it was a sort of wish list for how I wanted myself and others to be treated, and in the process of writing it, I was confronting the various ways I had learned over a lifetime to suppress and contort myself in order to accommodate others. These contortions were, I think, an example of the antithesis of the wholeness for which a Jungian psychological model advocates. I emailed the document to people who I thought might find it helpful, and also posted it online, not expecting much from the latter, since I am rarely on social media and don’t have many followers. But the resource ended up being shared more widely than I ever could have imagined. I received messages from AAPIs saying that they felt validated and seen, and from non-AAPIs who expressed gratitude for the guidance on how to be a better ally. But I was too exhausted to respond. At work, and also for my personal emails, I set up an out-of-office autoresponder explaining that I was taking time for myself in the wake of the shootings and would not be responding to anything that wasn’t related to supporting the victims and AAPI communities. I included a link to the “8 Things” document and a list of opportunities for donating or learning more. After that, I turned off my laptop and phone and let my eyes fall shut. I could feel myself crumbling emotionally and physically, and I knew I needed to seek professional help.

I don’t recall listening to any music at all at the onset of my mental breakdown. But a little further along in my depression, I turned to BTS’s more gentle, introspective tracks on their pandemic album, BE, for glimmers of hope and reassurance. And that summer, dealing with a family loss and a difficult move, I played “Let Go” and “Moving On” on a loop to help keep myself going.

A friend of mine, the author Ipek Burnett, wisely told me that “a breakdown can also be a breakthrough.” As I set about the work of self-repair, I wondered what it was I was trying to rebuild, and what I had broken through to. I had to ask myself the same question I’d asked half a lifetime before, when I was an undergraduate art student researching Jung: What does it mean to be whole? When I thought back to that time, I could picture only my then self in a state of solitude, moving about my art studio late at night or hunched over a slide projector in an abandoned office. I knew I’d immersed myself in the texts and art of others, but I couldn’t recall actually talking to anyone about any of this. 

This time around, the question of wholeness has felt much different. Through the lens of greater maturity; through meaningful time spent with friends, family, colleagues, my various AAPI communities, ARMYs both Jungian and non-Jungian; through the music of BTS; and through reading books and academic papers and listening to podcasts on mental health and Jungian psychology, this exploration of the self has felt richer and more creative, grounded as much in community and connection with others as it is in solitary reflection.

Essentially, I’ve become profoundly aware that the search for meaning, for wholeness—indeed, the experience of becoming whole—cannot happen in isolation. It requires interaction with those around me and with their ideas, and witnessing what these interactions illuminate inside of me, to bring clarity to my own thoughts and feelings.

In light of all this, I knew I wanted to start working on this piece by talking to other people about their relationship to BTS and Jung. My love of BTS is deeply entwined with a love of community, and it felt like a unique opportunity to learn about the different ways members of these communities draw their own meaning and joy from each, in turn enriching my own appreciation and understanding. It is also very much informed by my work at Voice of Witness (VOW), the nonprofit organization I cofounded almost fifteen years ago that uses oral history to amplify the voices of people marginalized by race-, gender-, and class-based inequity. VOW’s work—its book series, education programming, and community engagement efforts—takes a polyphonic, first-person narrative approach to gaining a nuanced understanding around human rights issues. In other words, if you want to learn about something, first talk to the people with direct experience of it, people whose lives are deeply shaped by it.

I’ll confess to another reason I wanted to conduct interviews for this essay: When I was first asked to write this piece, my initial reaction was giddy excitement at the prospect of delving more deeply into BTS and Jungian psychology, swiftly followed by abject terror at the prospect of writing a personal essay for publication. I have a long-held aversion to writing directly about myself; I’ve generally preferred to dwell in the realms of fiction and oral history, where fictional characters or real-life narrators take center stage, not myself, and why I’ve often felt a timorous admiration of certain memoirists comparable to my admiration of base jumpers: Wow, impressive, good for them, but nope, absolutely not for me, thank you. Some of that has to do with my private nature, some of it with my complicated, evolving relationship to vulnerability. So, much as I did in the aftermath of the Atlanta spa shootings (and in the aftermath of more recent violence in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, California), and much as I’ve been doing in my broader work toward wholeness, I looked to others to find the courage and clarity that were lacking in myself. Indeed, it was only after many hours of conversations with Jungians, ARMYs, and Jungian ARMYs, including family and friends, all of whose lives have been changed by BTS and/or Jung, that I was able to write the first sentence of this essay and anchor it around the word I.

These conversations delved into the impact of BTS and Jung, the role of shadow, and more. In the following sections, I’ve included highlights from these conversations, which took place over several months in person, in video chats and emails, and on social media. Through these longer-form excerpts, I wanted as much as possible to convey the participants’ thoughts in a way that preserved the authenticity of their perspectives and their voices. This intention, too, is informed by my time working on VOW books and related narrative projects. Reading a VOW narrative often feels like experiencing the narrator’s journey with them. Similarly, my hope for including my interactions with these members of BTS and Jungian communities is that you, the reader, can journey more fully alongside me, and also witness the lively wisdom of these perspectives in their original forms.

On Considering the Power of the Shadow with Ipek Burnett

There’s a common refrain in the BTS fandom: “You don’t find BTS. BTS finds you when you need them the most.” I’ve heard people talk about Jung that way, too, and I wonder if this is because both Jung and BTS resonate with people and artists interested in exploring, and acknowledging, their shadow selves. One of the first people I think of is my friend Ipek Burnett, a novelist and writer who explores social, cultural, and political issues through the lens of depth psychology. Her most recent book is A Jungian Inquiry into the American Psyche: The Violence of Innocence. Over tea, we chat about how her interest in psychology and creativity led her to Jung, and about the role of the unconscious and the imagination in art, life, and politics. On the latter subject, I like how she describes the role of shadow with such clarity:

[Shadow] doesn’t have to be evil, it doesn’t have to be dark, but [rather] things that we don’t own in ourselves and project onto others. And for Jung and Jungian psychology, it’s a moral responsibility to understand and own our wholeness. Psychological insights can be very useful when we think about social, cultural, and political realities. Our narratives are so much about pride and power and victory. But in our shadow are all the repressions and oppressions, violent histories—the projection [of these shadows] between nations leads to wars. It can really help us reflect on political struggles, cultural polarization, and war.

On Considering the Power of Introspection with Yassin Adam

Although Ipek isn’t a BTS fan (she admits she doesn’t know much about them beyond what I’ve mentioned to her), her comments make me think about how BTS’s artistic (and commercial and cultural) power is uniquely derived in part from their ability to engage honestly with their shadows, and how crucial this is to their ability to embody this message authentically for their fans. This is also true for BTS fan Yassin Adam, an American actor of Somali descent based in Georgia. I first become aware of Yassin when one of his Twitter posts appears in my feed, in which he shares his admiration for BTS’s Map of the Soul era and the Jungian concepts it explores. In his other posts, I appreciate the succinct, thoughtful candor with which he writes about his hopes and struggles in his journey as an actor. I first reach out to Yassin on Twitter, asking if he’d like to share some thoughts for this piece, and we continue our conversation over email. He writes:

A few months prior to the release of their EP Map of the Soul: Persona, I was taking a psychology course and had learned a bit about Carl Jung’s analytical psychology. BTS had me revisit the lessons I learned previously in a deeper way. I loved to try and predict the themes of upcoming BTS albums and/or concepts, and release dates. In order to do so this time around, I had to do some research on Carl Jung’s works. I ended up also making friends in the fandom who studied or researched in that field as well. The Map of the Soul series came after the Love Yourself series of BTS albums. Map of the Soul expanded upon previous BTS themes by going deeper and exploring Jungian concepts of our personalities: the persona, shadow, and ego. My takeaway [from] this artistic progression was that in order to truly love yourself, you need a better understanding of who you are. BTS’s engagement with Jungian ideas allowed me to take a more introspective look into myself. I was going through a lot of personal struggles at the time of Map of the Soul’s release. The band’s taking me on this musical journey with them, exploring the self, allowed me to be able to relate to them on a more personal level. I related to them when they expressed their fears, and also when they expressed their aspirations. BTS didn’t let their fears stop them from creating. They were able to connect to fans on this level, even at the height they were at in this point [in] their careers.

On Considering BTS as “Total Art” with Murray Stein

These same ideas have been deeply explored by psychoanalyst Murray Stein, author of Jung’s Map of the Soul, the book that BTS cites as the inspiration for the naming of their Map of the Soul series. When I send him an email requesting an interview, it is without much hope of a reply; I imagine he is inundated with requests from BTS fans since the surge in popularity of his book, and busy enough outside that with his teaching, analytical practice, and writing. To my surprise, I receive a warm reply the next day, asking if it’s all right if we correspond over email, given the time difference (he is based in Zürich). In his written response to my questions, Murray tells me that initially he was unaware that his book was being discussed as an influence on BTS. He had no idea that the surge in interest was thanks to BTS’s Map of the Soul: Persona EPand Map of the Soul: 7 album. He writes:

One day Dr. Shin-Ichiro Otsuka, a student at the International School of Analytical Psychology in Zurich, where I teach, came up to me and asked me if I was aware that my book was listed on the BTS website as recommended reading. I asked him, “What’s BTS?” I had not heard of the group and am not a follower of pop-music artists. That was my introduction to BTS. The next thing I heard, again from Dr. Otsuka, was that BTS was going to use the title of my book in their new album and would be including in their lyrics references to the Jungian concept of the “persona.” This really surprised me. I was not sure how this concept would come across in their performances. But when I finally saw BTS’s performances online, I found them absolutely thrilling and fascinating. This is beyond music! It’s akin to opera, or what Richard Wagner called “total art”—music, theater, dance, lighting effects. A BTS performance is what we call, in the Jungian world, “numinous,” or what the scholar of religion Rudolf Otto termed “Mysterium tremendum et fascinans” (“a mystery tremendous and fascinating”). BTS’s performances and albums have that effect on their fans. It’s a type of religious experience. What convinced me that they were serious about using psychology to bring more consciousness to the world was their [2018] appearance at the United Nations and listening to the talk of RM. This really impressed me, and so I was delighted that BTS would be using their enormous popularity in the world to communicate an important psychological message to their millions of fans.

Murray has responded to the increased interest in his book, and in Jungian psychology more broadly, by participating in interviews and projects for ARMY-run sites and podcasts, including Speaking of Jung (a website and podcast that explores the psychology of Jung through discussions with Jungian analysts) and The Rhizomatic Revolution Review (an online, open-access, peer-reviewed journal focused on the art, fandom, economic effects, and socio-cultural forces generated by BTS and ARMY).

What strikes me while listening to his various interviews, and in our correspondence, is his sincere appreciation for BTS as both artists and human beings, and his efforts to make Jungian concepts as accessible as possible to people encountering them for the first time. Concerned that his book might be difficult to understand for younger BTS fans unfamiliar with Jungian psychology, he wrote the book Map of the Soul—7: Persona, Shadow, and Ego in the World of BTS, in which he offers an extremely accessible introduction to the fundamentals of Jungian psychology, accompanied by an examination of the album Map of the Soul: 7 that brings to light the layers of meaning within the songs—a kind of legend for the album for those interested in engaging with it through a Jungian lens. I can’t help but wonder what this book would have meant to me as a young art student beginning to grapple with questions of identity and wholeness—perhaps I wouldn’t have given up on Jung so easily back then if I’d had access to it. Murray sees BTS’s lyrics as:

genuine teachings about how the psyche functions [that] have had a strong educational impact on millions of people who would otherwise never have been exposed to these important insights. What BTS has done with the concepts is to give them a very personal expression, speaking about how they have incorporated them into their own consciousness and how they have helped them deal with their individual life issues. Their enormous success has created the problem all celebrities face, which is to stay conscious that they are not the image that people have of them—they are who they are. If they get too caught up in their famous personas, they lose contact with themselves, and this can have tragic consequences, as we often see in the short and unhappy lives of the famous. BTS have used themselves to illustrate the meaning of Jung’s psychological concepts.

In his book Map of the Soul—7, Murray writes:

They strike me as a serious, thoughtful group of young people raising consciousness… increasing self-acceptance, and fighting the plague of suicide that besets so many parts of the world today, especially among young people. They are saying that life is worth living. I support this with all my heart. And maybe [BTS’s] Map of the Soul will support these efforts, too.

On Following the Energy with Melissa Werner

Melissa Werner, an Alabama-based Jungian analyst, echoes these assertions. She describes “Interlude: Shadow” (SUGA’s solo track on Map of the Soul: 7, in which he sings and raps about his greed, ambition, and lust for power) as “maybe the best explanation of shadow that I have ever seen.”

I first learn about Melissa through listening to an interview on the Speaking of Jung podcast, in which she and host Laura London talk about their experience of seeing BTS in concert during the pandemic. I’m fascinated by Melissa’s perspective as a seventy-­one-year-old Jungian ARMY who came to both Jung and BTS later in life. Melissa became a Jungian analyst just five years ago and a fan of BTS three years ago; she talks about both in terms of joyful discovery, and how they have enriched her life profoundly. When we speak over a video call, I’m immediately taken by her bright energy and humor. She tells me:

I was a college professor in my forties when I went to a Jungian analyst and she said, “You need to pay attention to your dreams and record your dreams.” That was the beginning of an analysis that lasted more than twenty years. I had no idea I would become an analyst. Jung, in my personal analytic work, probably changed my life and saved my soul. It gave me a life that’s richer and fuller and in more abundance than I would’ve ever found without Jung.

I started listening to BTS in 2020. I would listen to their music and I would cry. I even went back to my own analyst, who’s in her nineties now, and said, “What is wrong with me? I’m a grandmother!” I said, “What is going on? I am so moved by this music and these men. Am I missing something and there’s a real deficit going on in me and I need to address that within?” I could not figure it out, because it’s like this love affair but not with these individuals. It’s love here with this group, this situation, this worldview that came out of left field for me, came out of the underground, and it also gave me life. My analyst just reminded me that we are called to go where our energy is. And that’s where my energy is.

Of their broader cultural impact, Melissa says:

I don’t think of them as the largest K-pop band in the world. They’re the largest band in the world as far as I’m concerned, so it’s like they are a cultural movement. This, to me, is something so huge from the underground, from the chthonic place. I don’t think people realize this cultural shift is going on, this shift that’s centered out of this very small country that, for me, is surrounded by this music and this whole idea of loving yourself. The first thing you’ve got to take care of is yourself and your relationship to yourself, which is what we all are about as Jungians. It’s a movement. BTS, and the country of South Korea, seem to be capturing something about the future within the zeitgeist of the world. I’m curious. That is a future I’m interested in. It’s how Dionysus crept in. He crept in from the underground.

On the Duality of Eternal Youth and Maturity with Jeeyoun Kim

When I tell Melissa I’d love to hear from a Korean Jungian ARMY, she suggests that I speak to Dr. Jeeyoun Kim, a psychotherapist from Seoul. Jeeyoun has a unique perspective that encompasses multiple positionalities—as a Jungian analyst, as a Korean, and as a BTS fan. I’m interested in how and why she was drawn to Jung and BTS, and in learning from her about the broader influence of BTS in Korean society. Calling from Geneva, where she is now based, Jeeyoun describes her own introduction to Jung as deeply rooted in her country’s political history:

In my personal history, in my country, I was born and raised under the dictatorship. It triggered in me many questions about the nature of life—in Jungian terminology, it’s the “shadow of the self.” Who am I, what is the purpose of life, why can’t we live peacefully with our neighbors?

This ego and self, the ego’s journey to search for the self, the bigger entity, is all about this journey. We call it a “night sea journey.” So it’s a dark night and people try to find out the answer and they go through this, in the situation of hopelessness. But sometimes you have courage to keep hope. This is what I found in all the great writers’ books and in Jung’s books, and also in the songs of BTS.

When Jeeyoun talks about her initial impression of BTS, she says she felt the Jungian resonance immediately:

I was caught by the song “Fake Love.” It was their first performance in the United States. The song was really catchy and they looked extremely beautiful. Also, I was very impressed by their almost perfect dance.

Around that time, I was interested in a certain topic of Jungian psychology. I was giving a lecture about the so-called puer and the problem of eternal youth. I have some artistic clients. They have a specific psychology, which I used to have too—it was one of my issues when I was younger. In our psychology, there are two aspects. One is puer. The other is senex. Puer is eternal youth; you are creative, you are youthful, you are fun-loving. We can see these characteristics in BTS. At the same time, senex is the opposite, but this is what we need. It’s about self-discipline, humility and maturity and reliability. 

In ancient Korean history, there was a dynasty called Shilla. There were Hwarang—young male aristocrat warriors. Kim Taehyung [BTS member V] played this role in the TV series Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth. The Hwarang had to be excellent in academics, martial arts, and art, especially song and dance. And they wore makeup and accessories, earrings. In those days of the Goryeo dynasty and Shilla dynasty, the aristocrat males enjoyed this kind of beauty. Aesthetics were very important. It was almost part of the ethics. So there might be a combination or connection between puer and senex.

Then when I saw BTS’s performance, I thought, They’re personified puer and senex, an almost ideal combination of these virtues, because to reach their level of perfection in dance, they are not geniuses—they’ve practiced. I was very moved when I looked at their history, how long they had to endure [their training], and how devoted they were as very young men. This virtue is very rare. You don’t find it everywhere. But as young men, they endured this and they had very strong self-discipline. At the same time, they are fun-loving and a little foolish sometimes. And they’re very creative. So this duality looks very contrasted, but they have it all.

When I look at their songs and their lyrics, I find my younger self in them. When you really listen to their songs, the suffering they had to go through is who I really am. These all are sufferings to find out who you are and the journey to listen to the inner voice. I really like the song “Epiphany.” I share this song with many of my clients. This is our basic agony, the lack of self-love.

When I ask her to talk about the broader significance of BTS in Korean society, she talks about their song “Spring Day” as something that created a sense of community following the Sewol ferry disaster:

In Korean we called the song a “tear button” [“눈물버튼” in Korean, “nunmul beoteun” romanized] because it reflects this collective trauma. So most Koreans know it and what it means. People feel grateful to BTS. They don’t just sing something pink or sweet. That’s why we feel that all their songs are very authentic, and that they’re genuine. It’s always like they express themself as members of society who live in the same era as everyone else—of course, not only in Korea. We are all connected. The big, big Eros. I think they gave this sense of Eros to Korean society.

When I hear her mention “Eros,” I am struck by the frequent mentions of love in various forms—self-love, desire for connection and wholeness—in my conversations so far about BTS and Jung. And I think of how the various expressions of love for a group like BTS and what they represent are not simply forms of tribute but often result in the simultaneous expansion of one’s worldview and inner life. My friend Aku Ammah-Tagoe, the author of the brief K-pop primer that accompanies this piece, is an exemplar of this idea.

On Expansive Engagement and Concert-Going with Aku Ammah-Tagoe

Aku is an Oakland, California–based educator and writer. She and I have known each other since 2018, and I think she would agree that while our friendship predates and transcends our appreciation of BTS, it has grown richer through this shared connection. In the summer of 2020, when I was just a few months into my BTS rabbit hole but already deeply invested, I had a hunch she might also like them. It wasn’t just because I knew she liked pop music, or that I thought she was open-minded enough to listen to and appreciate pop music in a language she didn’t know. It was because I thought she might enjoy the layers of meaning within the songs and music videos, and the layers of meaningful experience that being a fan entails. So one day, while I was out on a run, I stopped by her apartment in the Mission District of San Francisco.

“We started talking and the subject of pop music came up,” recalls Aku when we meet over tea, “and you were like, ‘Oh, you mentioned boy bands. Do you know BTS?’ And I said, ‘No, not really.’ And so you very generously made me a playlist.”

Later, as we went for walks during shelter-in-place and as her interest in BTS grew, the band gradually took up more and more space in our conversations. By the following year, Aku was deeply immersed. Aku is the kind of person who, when she finds something she loves, takes the time and effort to learn about the context in which it has come to exist, to more fully understand and appreciate it—an embodiment of the motto “The more you put in, the more you get out.” In the case of BTS, she took an expansive, engaged interest in the history of K-pop and became a fan of other K-pop artists. She also started taking Korean-language lessons. More recently, she has been developing a podcast with the first season dedicated to K-pop. This kind of thoughtful investment and dedication is very Aku, and also reflective of many BTS fans.

“When I discovered BTS, I was a couple of years out of a PhD program,” she says, “and I found entering the world of ARMY just as intellectually stimulating, and sometimes more so, because people were talking about so many different kinds of things with so much depth. Most people who enter the BTS fandom in a serious way start thinking about, OK, what are the structures and systems in place to (1) produce pop music, (2) circulate it around the world, (3) talk about it and critique it, assign it cultural value? And then, (4), ask: How do other people respond to me and my interest in pop music and how is that meaningful?”

In terms of BTS’s exploration and embodiment of Jungian concepts, she claims to have only a passing knowledge of Jungian psychology, but she feels a strong affinity with its core ideas around wholeness. She says:

I would say it was something I was very attuned to already, and specifically my version of it was various forms of attention—being able to know yourself, see yourself, see what is really there, and be able to talk about it and describe it. It’s really empowering. So rather than trying to cut off or eliminate bad parts of yourself, being able to really understand who you are.

What I really love about Map of the Soul, and a lot of BTS’s music, is that you are looking at different parts of yourself, you are describing them, but then you’re also doing things that allow you to engage more fully with yourself. And this is where I think the dance-and-movement aspect of what they do is so important, and the style and visual aspects of what they do are so important. And even the act of singing, because I think all those can be ways of engaging with yourself. I think it’s a way of learning more. I feel like there was a gap between what I knew intellectually and what I knew in a really embodied way that I was actually able to put into practice in my life. And I think BTS, by presenting a rich embodiment of their own messages, is able to bridge that gap between what you know and what you are able to do.

I love the song “Inner Child.” It just has such a pure sweetness, and it’s something that I know a lot of my high school students, for example, would be like, Oh, that’s so cringe. It’s not cool. I’m so embarrassed for that guy. Why is he singing to his inner child? But I actually think the refrain, “We’re gonna change, we’re gonna change”—just the act of saying that over and over and over, that kind of thing—is meditative, it’s a mantra. It’s deeply reassuring. The whole work of that song is imagining your inner child, talking to your inner child, and then trying to bring your inner child with you into the present, which is what many therapists would also tell you to do.

Early in Aku’s BTS journey, I invited her to join a group chat with me and my friend Shan, the first ARMY pal I’d made and whom I thought of as my Bangtan Yoda. Based in DC, Shan is a journalist and an editor at The Atlantic. She has been my early guide and fellow explorer through the world of BTS, often texting me updates, funny ARMY-made memes, and insightful observations on production, song arrangement, and the K-pop industry. Shan, Aku, and I texted prolifically—at a certain point I realized I was in touch with them more frequently than with my own family. At a time when the pandemic restricted our ability to safely travel and gather in person, this felt like a lifeline, a way to transcend survival mode and connect with joy.

During this time, the prospect of us ever getting to see BTS perform live felt like nothing more than a dim hope. The pandemic had forced the cancelation of their world tour for Map of the Soul: 7. Even if they did hold concerts in the future, we knew the general difficulty of securing tickets (the intense scramble for past tour tickets has been variously described by ARMYs as “a bloodbath” and “the Hunger Games”). There was also uncertainty around the members’ mandatory military service enlistment.

Then, in September 2021, as the Delta variant waned (and before Omicron was identified), BTS announced they would be hosting four concerts at SoFi Stadium in LA in November and December. Demand was predictably high. Hope was still dim. But miraculously, we secured tickets for two of the concert nights.

Seeing BTS live was a euphoric, emotional, and thrilling experience—due as much to their performance as to the energy of the sixty thousand other ARMYs in attendance. Watching footage of past BTS tours, I had known that their concerts are filled with a twinkling sea of fan light sticks (known as ARMY bombs). But being part of this sea in person brought an overwhelming feeling of communion.

Afterward, having danced and sung and screamed for over two hours, I was a bundle of sweaty exhaustion and restless elation. It was a feeling that brought me back to the avid, indie-gig-going of my younger days in London: leaving a venue at the end of a concert among throngs of other fans and heading to the nearest Tube station together, then piling onto a train carriage and drawing curious looks from the locals. The difference then was that the bond was mostly unspoken—it wasn’t cool to acknowledge that we’d just been to the same concert or that you admired the verticality of someone’s Robert Smith–esque back-combed hairdo. But at the BTS concert, both before and after the show, fans would openly call out compliments on a stranger’s outfit, especially if it was humorous and/or clear that the person had spent a lot of time and effort making it. Strangers placed freebies in my hands, mostly personalized pouches containing candy, friendship bracelets, sanitary wipes, and BTS photo cards. (As much as I am not a merchandise-buying ARMY, I am physically incapable of throwing away anything BTS-­related that someone has gifted me.) The post-concert atmosphere felt less like the aftermath of a show and more like the next stage of a festival, as fans continued to mingle, buy snacks and merch, and catch up.

On BTS as a Means of Connection, with Candace Epps-Robertson and Phoenix Epps-Robertson

It was in this environment that I met ARMYs in person whom I’d known of and admired only in the online ARMYverse. Among these were Candace Epps-Robertson, an English professor based in North Carolina, and her daughter Phoenix, a high school student. Candace found her way to BTS through her daughter, and over the past few years it has been delightful to read, through Candace’s tweets and her blog, about how their relationship has been positively affected by their shared connection to BTS. Candace tells me:

Phoenix asked me if I knew BTS. I said no and thought that would be the end, but it wasn’t. She filled our home with their music and changed our lives. I was in awe of her dedication to learning Korean, inspired by how she took every opportunity she could to teach us about BTS, and I loved her happiness. It was one of those situations where you are happy because the other person is happy, but at some point, that changed for me, and BTS became a source of joy and inspiration for me too.

Phoenix adds:

I decided to share my interest in BTS with my mom because it felt like something that was becoming really important to me. I had started to feel the positive impact the music was having on me, and I hoped it would have a similar effect on her. It’s given us lots of life-changing opportunities and a new thing to bond over.

Candace talks about BTS’s impact in terms of joy and authenticity:

Their music and philosophy are a great reminder of what’s possible when people work together to bring joy and respite through art. Because of this attention to joy, they’ve encouraged me to be a better parent, educator, and all-around human. I don’t mean to suggest that their focus is only on feeling good—it’s not toxic positivity, but their ability to bring to their fans a kind of authenticity that acknowledges that life is hard. However, we can still find joy and deserve happiness, even amid chaos.

When I ask her about the Jungian connection, she says:

Honestly, I’d not thought much about Jung before BTS. In grad school, I read Man and His Symbols and later read selections from Dr. Murray Stein’s Jung’s Map of the Soul. I would never have guessed my musical interests would have brought me back to Jung, but they did. I was most interested in how BTS’s use of Jung connects to themes around identity, growth, and the challenges of learning (and unlearning) who you are in relation to the world around you. I think about this quite a bit as it relates to being middle-aged, because this is another one of those moments when life’s transitions almost force us to confront the roles and patterns we’ve learned and ask questions about who and what we are. That it is indeed a journey to discover (or sometimes recover) who you are is a lesson I carry with me. It’s not easy to do at any age, but their music expresses this desire quite clearly.

On BTS Pulling You Through Hard Times with Chan Hoi Kei

When I visit Hong Kong in spring 2023, I meet up with my cousin Chan Hoi Kei (Kei Kei to friends and family), a fashion designer and longtime K-pop fan. I believe my first awareness of K-pop came from her—years ago I’d seen her Facebook posts about the group Big Bang, and I recall that in the summer of 2019, when she and her friend came to London and stayed with my parents, I asked her what her plans were for the trip and she replied, “We’re going to see BTS at Wembley Arena.” Having only a vague awareness of them at the time, I had said with a shrug, “OK, have fun.” (I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve wished I could have gone back to that summer and asked to go along with her. There might have been a chance to get a last-minute ticket; I could have been part of a concert that has gone down as legend in the fandom: it was BTS’s first time performing at this iconic venue, and it was at this concert that, during the encore, ARMYs surprised and moved BTS by serenading them with the chorus of “Young Forever.” I wish all this, until my wiser self shows up to remind me that it’s OK; I found them at just the right time.)

Since becoming a BTS fan, I have been in more regular contact with Kei Kei. In the past few years, our texts have started with BTS and ended with well wishes, and sometimes along the way we talk about the political situation in Hong Kong, and the psychological and economic impacts of severe COVID-19 restrictions that initially saw closed borders, followed by twenty-one-day hotel quarantine requirements for inbound travelers. (The government finally lifted its quarantine restrictions in September of 2022.)

My trip back to Hong Kong is my first since 2018. I notice the different kinds of quiet that now permeate daily life; many Hong Kongers have left in recent years, and most of those who’ve remained watch what they say in public. In June 2020, Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. The legislation criminalizes virtually all forms of dissent and gives police sweeping new powers. In recent years, activists have been imprisoned, journalists have been forced into exile, and teachers have been fired for mentioning the Tiananmen massacre to their students. The city feels both intimately familiar and deeply, irrevocably changed from the political turmoil of the past few years.

I meet Kei Kei at a restaurant in Mong Kok, where, without having consulted the other, we both have turned up in different BTS T-shirts. Afterward, we squeeze our way through the dense crowds in search of a tong sui stall to satisfy our dessert cravings, and on the way I point at a giant billboard advertising what seems to be a K-pop boy band. I ask her who they are, and she replies, “Oh, that’s Mirror. They’re a Hong Kong boy band. They got really popular during the pandemic.”

She tells me that Mirror was formed in 2018 and have helped infuse the city with a much-needed sense of joy and escapism, as well as hometown pride. Their popularity appears to transcend demographics. The deep social divisions arising from these past few years—mainly between “yellow” (pro-democracy) and “blue” (pro–police and government) affiliations—have manifested in a multitude of ways, from ideologically opposed family members refusing to sit down to eat dinner together, to the boycotting of businesses whose allegiances do not align with those of their customers. So it doesn’t surprise me when Kei Kei says that pro-democracy Hong Kongers embraced the group only once they were satisfied that they “supported Hong Kong and not Beijing.” Although Mirror has avoided explicit political declarations, the group’s songs have been adopted by some members of the pro-democracy movement as anthems of perseverance, and the group has come under fire online from mainland China social media users accusing the group of supporting Hong Kong’s independence and promoting homosexuality. (Later, when I look up their videos, the influence of K-pop—and BTS in particular—is evident, from their choreography to their cheerful sincerity and even their logo.)

Kei Kei has been a fan of BTS since 2016 and cites their debut performance of “Blood Sweat and Tears” as her rabbit-hole moment. She was initially struck by their powerful performance, before being charmed by their goofiness in YouTube clips and on their variety show Run BTS. She credits BTS’s popularity in Hong Kong with what locals call their 貼地 (romanized: “tip dei,” Cantonese slang for “down-to-earth”) attitude, as much as their talent. Kei Kei tells me:

Hong Kongers see BTS as more affable and down-to-earth than other K-pop artists. They communicate a lot more with their fans. With the previous generation of K-pop artists like Big Bang, social media wasn’t as prevalent, and we just accepted a certain distance from them—they’re stars, they’re meant to be cool and aloof. And back then, they might not release new music for a long time, so you might not hear from them for a while. Actually, even today, with some artists there might be two years before a mini album comes out. And a lot of artists don’t go on social media and chat with fans as often as BTS does. It also feels like there’s more communication between BTS fans online, and so there’s more of an interactive, cohesive feeling within the fandom. Some artists might chat on social media at the beginning of their career, but after they get famous they tend to do that a lot less.

When we get back to my hotel room, we eat tong yuen while appreciating the evening cityscape and chatting more about BTS and Jung. Kei Kei describes how BTS opened up her interest in psychology:

When the album came out, I bought the book Map of the Soul—7. It was actually hard to find, because so many fans wanted to know the inspiration behind the album. I thought the songs explored the themes and concepts in the book really well. BTS had previously touched on psychology, through the song “Magic Shop,” but it was more fully realized in Map of the Soul: 7. The song “ON” came out just before the pandemic, but it seemed to have a rebellious, warrior-like feeling about it that matched the spirit of a lot of Hong Kong people at the time. It was the beginning of COVID and lockdown, and “ON” had this keep going, don’t give up energy to it, while “Black Swan” connected with the darker side, with feeling down. That song is about losing passion for something you’ve devoted yourself to and also about losing your sense of self in that passion. It made me reflect on where I was in my career as a designer, made me question my success and my path: Is this still what I want to do?

I’ve never been much of a reader—I’m not cultivated! If I hadn’t got into psychology through BTS, I probably wouldn’t have read a lot of other psychology books. Even if I couldn’t remember all the lessons at the time, it all added up. It helped me deal with depression after quitting a job because of a toxic boss. It helped me own my emotions. I felt like my EQ level increased.

Toward the end of the evening, Kei Kei shows me the small photo album she’s brought along containing BTS photocards and stickers. As we look over these together, it feels a little like we’re teenagers again, or kids sharing Pokémon cards. Of course we never used to hang out like this, given our age difference (I’m over a decade older) and the fact that we grew up on opposite sides of the world. But child me, growing up in a small English town without anyone to nerd out with over Cantopop—I know she would have really loved that.

I’ve taken away so much from all these conversations and felt many moments of illumination and connection that continue to reverberate months later. Kei Kei and Yassin talking about “Black Swan”’s exploration of the relationship between self, art, and passion—and Ipek’s and Melissa’s thoughts on the nature of shadow—echo my own contemplations. It has been only in the last few years that I’ve been able to articulate the power of shadow in my fiction writing, which is concerned largely with the histories Chinese women and girls inherit and what we do with them, and with longing, belonging, and connection in various forms. It is no coincidence that the stories that have felt the most scary, challenging, and thrilling to write—the ones that confront and explore shadow longings and fears—are the ones that have resonated most strongly with readers. Writers sometimes talk about the point at which they stop writing their characters and the characters start writing themselves. It can sound like some kind of mysterious writer-magic BS, but it isn’t really; it’s more about being tuned in to the deepest wants and fears of your character and acknowledging, then listening to, the unconscious parts of yourself that manifested this person in the first place. Yes, writers constantly draw inspiration from the world around them, but inspiration invariably takes root because it speaks to something deep inside you. I know writers who listen to certain songs, or entire playlists, to access a character, or describe the process as “getting into character,” like an actor does. I know of others who meditate so they can come to their desk with a more spacious, attentive mind, or take breaks to go on a brisk walk or run, or to do the dishes (anything mindless and repetitive to rest the brain but also allow the unconscious to slip through). I try to do some combination of the above, depending on the circumstances.

Meanwhile, what is usually described as writer’s block has tended to occur when I’m not tuned in to my mind and body—when I’ve taken a pause in journaling or when I’ve fallen out of my exercise routine and into procrastination, often a response to stress or fatigue. It’s no wonder that, during these periods when I’m closed off and lethargic, the creativity does not flow. When Aku described how BTS has helped her close the gap between intellectual knowledge and embodied wisdom and doing, it made me think of these “blocked” situations, and how BTS’s music provokes a visceral response in me—depending on the song, it can elicit an outpouring of tears or of joy, or an unshakable urge to dance or run. The effect is so immediate that it enables me to override my tendencies toward the overly cerebral and abstract. In this way, the combined effect of the messages in their music—how they embody them as individuals and collectively, and the physical response their music engenders—has helped me close the gaps between knowing, doing, and feeling, and move toward embodying.

The conversations for this piece have also made me think about how I previously tried to limit the expression of my shadow to my fiction, somewhat unsuccessfully. It was only after my first book of stories, Last of Her Name, was published that I realized my fiction wasn’t only a container for expressing and exploring shadow impulses (and, I’ll admit, an excuse to hide behind my characters), but also, once it was out in the world, a way to spark conversation and connection around taboo subjects. Talking about my characters forced me to step out from behind them, a rather uncomfortable but ultimately helpful sensation. And these recent conversations have no doubt led me to ways I might step out even further from my comfort zone, shadow not just in tow but leading the way. Writing this piece is one example of that. Another is speaking in March 2023 at an event commemorating the two-year anniversary of the Atlanta spa shootings, part of a live streamed, multicity rally that included Atlanta, New York, Denver, San Francisco, and Detroit. Being able to give frank, public expression to something that once felt so impossibly raw and shrouded in shame and silence feels like not just a sign of healing but also a means to it.

Candace’s emphasis on midlife as an almost unavoidable time to “confront the roles and patterns we’ve learned and ask questions about who and what we are reflects my own deeper questioning, in the wake of the pandemic and the Atlanta shootings, of what I needed to unlearn and relearn, in order to be whole. Thinking about Melissa’s embrace of a significant career and life change in her sixties, and her continued commitment to joyful discovery in her seventies, fills me with admiration, and a more expansive curiosity about what awaits me in my later decades, if I’m lucky enough to meet them.

These conversations keep reminding me of how BTS, collectively and individually, embody and express the desire for self-knowledge and self-acceptance so clearly, and that this is work anyone can engage in at any time of life, whether they’re a twentysomething global superstar, an octogenarian Jungian analyst, a high schooler, or a middle-aged writer. And I’ve become more conscious than before of the many other people out there who, whether or not their lives have been changed by BTS and Jung, are nevertheless grappling with their own challenges around identity and growth and striving to know and love themselves. At times this awareness moves me to the point where I can’t help but form a sentimental image of a vast, luminous sea, each dot of light twinkling with effort.

The period during which these conversations took place—between January and late April of 2023—coincided with my stepping out of my role as executive director of Voice of Witness. To leave an organization that I helped create and had dedicated myself to building over almost fifteen years, and that had been such a defining, fulfilling, and consuming part of my life, was not a step I took lightly. That I still loved and believed in the work, and held my colleagues in great affection and esteem, made it a difficult decision, and one I am still processing the aftermath of. But as sorrowful and frightening as it was to take that leap, the challenges and discoveries of the past few years have forced me to reexamine my priorities; it felt right for me to finally take some time for myself and see how and who else I can be.

I had made the decision just before I began working on this piece, and somewhat naively didn’t foresee how fortunate I was to be accompanied by all these Jungian and ARMY voices through this fraught, uncertain time of transition—voices that, essentially, affirmed the rightness of questioning and seeking, and the necessity of closing one chapter in order to open a new one.

At the time of writing, it has been three months since my transition away from Voice of Witness. I’ve taken more time than ever before to rest, reflect, and spend time with loved ones near and far. I’ve been writing and reading more, while also resisting compulsive productivity (good antidotes being immersing myself in K-dramas, going on aimless drives, and staring at trees and clouds). I’ve severed relationships that I realized were causing me harm, and allowed new, healthier ones to flourish in their place, meeting new people and having rich conversations about life, art, death, food, AAPI storytelling, and everything in between, while also periodically retreating into hermit mode. And I’ve begun writing down my dreams, a practice also kept by Carl Jung.

Through all of the above, and through various other forms of doing and not doing, I suppose I have been trying to open up space and stillness in myself, and in that new space, letting different possibilities for the next phase of life take root without trying to control too much. Back in my young artist days, my attempts to engage with Jung and the exploration of wholeness felt like getting lost and frustrated in a darkened maze. This time around, the exploration is no less mysterious. But the maze feels less like a claustrophobic puzzle and more like a structure holding multiple openings and possibilities, and where hitting a dead end isn’t the end of the world; it just means you turn yourself around and start walking in another direction.

BTS is currently on a break. They made the announcement to fans in June of 2022 on YouTube, on their ninth anniversary. Sitting around a dinner table in their once-shared apartment, RM, Jin, SUGA, j-hope, Jimin, V, and Jung Kook shared the news with frank and sometimes tearful honesty. With visible frustration, RM said:

I started music and became BTS because I had a message for the world. But at some point I haven’t been sure what kind of group we are [anymore], and for me, it was a big deal that I didn’t know… I’ve always thought BTS was different from other groups, but the problem with K-pop is that they don’t give you time to mature. You have to keep producing music, to keep doing something. There’s no time left for growth. I’ve changed as a human over the past ten years, so I needed to think and have some alone time. Right now when we’re at our best I feel like I should be contributing something to the world, but I don’t know what that is.

Jimin said the members were “slowly trying to figure things out now” and that “we’re starting to think about what kind of artists we each want to be remembered as by our fans… we’re trying to find our identity and that’s an exhausting and long process.”

SUGA clarified, “It’s not that we’re disbanding! We’re just living apart for a while,” and j-hope added, “I hope you see that it’s a healthy plan. It’s something we all need.” Jung Kook revealed that Map of the Soul: 7, released two years prior, was intended to mark the end of the group’s “first chapter.” That record should have culminated in a lengthy world tour and opened up this next chapter of the members as individual artists. “This timing should have come to us earlier, but I guess we held it off. We’ve got to do it now,” he said.

In his book Map of the Soul—7, Murray Stein predicted this turning point in the band’s journey. He wrote that the titular album was an indication that “BTS is finished with something. They are finished with a hugely creative phase,” and that “BTS is… foreseeing a transformation and rebirth process.” When I ask him about the band’s announcement of the break, he says, “When RM said they had lost their way, I understood this to indicate the typical individuation crisis when an old identity is outgrown and a new one has not yet formed. I call this in-between phase ‘liminality.’ It’s a period of transition, and often it is characterized as a period of drifting, experimenting, and searching for a way ahead. The BTS members are going through this phase now.”

Since announcing their break, BTS have transitioned gracefully into their tenth year in 2023 with a reflective celebration of their journey as a group, closing this first chapter with their anthology album, Proof—a three-disk project released in June 2022 comprising lead singles, favorite tracks chosen by BTS members, and various demos and previously unreleased tracks—and beginning the next with opportunities for individual expression. Members have released solo singles and albums, each revealing different (and sometimes surprising) sides to themselves, including Jin’s shimmering, upbeat single “The Astronaut”; RM’s reflective and sonically diverse Indigo (the album opens with the lines “Fuck the trendsetter / I’ma turn back the time / back the time, far to when I was nine”); j-hope’s restless, searching Jack in the Box (“Where’s my safe zone?”); Jimin’s Face (a portrait of his pandemic experiences, ranging from stripped-down folk to heartbreak-on-the-dance-floor synth pop); Jung Kook’s garage-inspired single “Seven”; V’s melancholic R&B-, soul-, and jazz-inspired Layover album; and SUGA’s D-Day, the third release in his Agust D solo trilogy, whose title track, “AMYGDALA,” sees him confronting past traumas with astonishing, powerful intimacy. He also embarked on a solo world tour, and I was fortunate to attend one of the Oakland Arena concerts in May 2023, a stunning storytelling experience that felt more like an immersive black box theater piece or performance art than a conventional concert. If SUGA’s solo track “Interlude: Shadow” from Map of the Soul: 7 was a potent illustration of the concept of shadow, his concert felt like a captivating and uncompromising exploration of the psyche. The stage design was dark and stripped-down, punctuated by visual flourishes from pyrotechnics and strobe lights whose vertical beams resembled a cage (this and other moments implicated the audience in unsettling ways). Over the course of the evening, as SUGA journeyed through an extensive solo discography characterized by meditations on trauma, love, mental illness, fame, and societal ills, pieces of the stage broke off and floated to the ceiling; by the end of the night, the stage had been fully, starkly deconstructed, leaving cables and equipment exposed (in a way that briefly reminded me of Boltanski’s earlier installations). SUGA, cutting a solitary figure on the arena floor, sang his final number, “The Last.” In her review of the concert for The Atlantic, Lenika Cruz, to my mind the best journalist writing about BTS today, wrote of the ending:

Then the spell was over. The moment the song ended, the house lights went up so that we could see him walking in silence offstage. No goodbye, no drawn-out thank yous and waves to the cheering audience. Not even a glance backward… people exchanged confused looks, shocked by his sudden exit. You could perhaps see this whole finale as a quiet confrontation with an audience, a grand assertion of the self by a beloved artist. But if it was a confrontation, it was one rooted in trust rather than condescension. Trust that the audience can sit with discomfort, that they’re self-aware enough not to be offended or horrified by what he’s showing them.

Over twenty-seven performances, ten cities, and two continents, SUGA ended the concert this way. But for the final encore performance in Seoul, on August 6, 2023, SUGA concluded the night by walking toward a white door spotlit on the stage. After opening it, he paused on its threshold and turned toward the audience with a smile and wave before passing through and closing it behind him. Fans realized that all this time, the concert stage had been meant to echo the set in the “AMYGDALA” music video, which sees SUGA desperately trapped in a spare, dark void of a room with a locked white door while tormented by flashes of past traumas. That he chose to end his tour with this final, liberatory statement of healing, and the symbolic closing of a life chapter, not only offers emotional narrative satisfaction but is also a testament to the patience he brings to his storytelling, which wouldn’t be possible without the mutual trust he has with his fans.

At the time of writing, SUGA is preparing to begin his mandatory South Korean military service. Several members (Jin and j-hope) have already begun theirs, and others are soon to follow. The timeline is unclear, though BTS have spoken of a hoped-for reunion in 2025.

I never could have predicted becoming a BTS fan. Or that becoming a fan would reconnect me with an early artistic influence in Boltanski; with a guide to knowing myself and others better in Jung; with previous versions of myself (not just twenty-year-old art student me but also, yes, inner-child me) with whom I can resume a gentle, curious dialogue; and with a sense of connection with a vast, diverse, and deeply engaged community. Jung would call all this “synchronicity”—a meaningful coincidence of events, one inner and psychic, the other outer and physical. ARMYs would call it “BTS finding you when you need them the most.” I’ll let Boltanski have a word in, too: he once said of his work, “I accept all interpretations.” Mostly, as all of this converges with this new, uncertain chapter, it feels like a chance to live an even deeper, bigger life than I’d previously thought possible.

Meanwhile, through their solo endeavors, and their time away from the spotlight, each member of BTS—RM (Kim Namjoon), Jin (Kim Seokjin), SUGA (Min Yoongi), j-hope (Jung Hoseok), Jimin (Park Jimin), V (Kim Taehyung), and Jung Kook (Jeon Jung Kook)—is exploring different ways to continue their path of individuation, to understand and express themselves more meaningfully, more fully, as human beings and as artists. I’ll be cheering them on—and myself, and all of us out here striving for wholeness.

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