By Nadine Kam
There was a time I was considered “normal,” that is, someone who wasn’t obsessed by K-pop. In fact, it was an irritant when the first pochas started popping up in Honolulu with their big screens and K-pop blaring throughout meal times, getting in the way of any meaningful conversation.
This year I started K-pop dance classes only because of a friend who wanted company during her lessons. I needed to start an exercise regimen anyway and it was amusing to go to class and witness the other students’ wild, unbridled enthusiasm for the music and groups they stan.
Whenever the teacher asked what bands and songs they liked and which dances they wanted to learn they could easily spill out dozens of songs. My stock answer was that I didn’t know any of the bands or songs and I was just there for exercise.
How things change, and for me they changed because of Kim Jong-hyun. I don’t think I would have fallen this deep into the rabbit hole if not for his existence.
It’s sad that I never knew of him before his suicide on Dec. 18, 2017. It took another four months before I was curious enough to try to learn more about him and when I did, I was devastated. I am not an emotional person at all, so it’s still shocking even to me, but after watching his funeral and reading his suicide note I must have cried about three hours a day for four months. The songs he wrote reflected emotional truths that continue resonate with the people who love him.
To this day, I have trouble understanding why I feel so strongly about someone I never even met, but it was easy to get attached, not only due to his meaningful solo songs, fun songs with SHINee and colorful music videosbut also because of the many variety shows SHINee appeared in over a decade, from the time they were teens, that allowed me to get to know each of the members’ personalities and their eccentricities. I also love music, fashion, culture, art, beauty and storytelling and here were the six in one pretty, exhilarating package.
Watching “SHINee’s Yunhanam,” “Hello Baby” and “One Fine Day” in quick order, I watched them grow up overnight. Jonghyun, I thought, was the heart of SHINee, funny, bright, earnest and gregarious, but also somewhat awkward, giving him an approachable boy-next-door-quality. It saddened me to see him transition from a 14-year-old with self-doubt but big dreams, into a man with immense talent and intelligence, but as we learned, the same nagging self-doubts.
What hurt me the most in reading his suicide note was to know he had died thinking he was worthless and talentless, part of growing up in a competitive culture, that puts intense pressure on its youth who hear the message that they are not good enough. He made so many people around the world so happy with his music, for so long. He did not deserve to be so sad. I often wish I could go back in time to save him, but I cannot.
For the longest time, I would go to sleep crying, asking, “Why, Jjong?” I would wake up asking the same question.
I think it was a matter of so many worrying thoughts spinning in his head. He spoke many times of his depression, and had been tired over the previous two years, but said he got through it due to the love he felt from fans during their concerts. 2018 was to have been a glorious year for them as they hit their milestone 10th anniversary in an industry in which few bands last more than five years. Maybe he couldn’t bear the thought of an even more hectic schedule going into their 10th anniversary activities.
Their lives were also about to change in a big way with the eldest, Onew, joining the military this year. Jjong would have followed in 2019. Maybe his self-doubt left him worried that he would not have a career to come back to after his two years of service was complete. Or maybe it was the pressure of seeing their contract coming to an end and perhaps letting down his bandmates by not wanting to renew. I don’t know, but I think it was a possibility given his feelings about his celebrity status. (The others resigned with SM in May in the midst of their 10th anniversary promotions.)
Although the loss of Jjong left SHINee’s comeback with a melancholy tone, I feel like seeing the boys coming together, reconnecting and reminiscing, and seeing the love and support of their Shawol fandom, would have reenergized Jjong, and would have given him the strength to continue.
At this point, all the dreams they had as boys have come true. But for Jjong, the celebrity, accolades, riches and love of family and friends didn’t give him any reason to continue living. It’s why I still cry when I listen to “Our Page,” written in SHINee’s words, about still being those five hope-filled boys of May 2008 and being together on a difficult journey until the last page of their story is written.
Jjong’s last page came way too soon.
Many of us still miss him deeply, but it is of no help to wallow in sadness and despair. He would not have wanted that. We learned so much from him about integrity and giving this life meaning. We are his legacy now and if he can’t be here all we can do is try to do our best to honor his memory by living our lives in his spirit, full of love, caring and creativity, treating each other with kindness and being the light for those who cannot find their way out of darkness. I think he has become our Batman, a symbol of light for all who appreciate qualities of beauty, intelligence, sincerity and humility. It hurts to lose such a rare individual because I find it’s easier to admire such a person from afar than to remake myself in his image.