The rise of Eat Your Kimchi

September 3rd, 2012 |
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As Simon and Martina Stawski were leaving a concert hall in Mountain View, California, they were mobbed by adoring fans. A two-minute walk for the operators of the website Eat Your Kimchi took nearly 40 minutes. Fans wore Eat Your Kimchi T-shirts and held up Eat Your Kimchi placards. “They had signs – people had signs with our names for the concert, instead of for Super Junior,” Martina recalled about Google-YouTube’s K-pop concert in May. “It was one of the most memorable experiences ever. We got separated. People were coming between us begging for pictures and grabbing our arms and holding us back. It was insanity. They were screaming for us. It was just totally ... we were shocked.”

In May the couple was flown to Google’s headquarters to help with YouTube Presents K-Pop Stars, where they interviewed some of the biggest acts in K-pop. The finale of the event was a showcase concert where several of the groups performed. Evidently, Eat Your Kimchi nearly stole the show. 

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The scene was emblematic of the explosion in popularity that Korean music has witnessed in the West in recent years. 

Eat Your Kimchi has been made famous for dishing out the latest info on K-pop in English — both the good and the bad. It is more than riding the coattails of K-pop’s success overseas; it has played a part in making Korean music accessible for international audiences, too. The videos they produce for their website have regular viewers from 187 countries.  

During the course of spending an afternoon with Simon and Martina back in Hongdae, Seoul, Groove Korea saw firsthand how the popularity of Eat Your Kimchi has propelled the couple towards stardom in their small, but growing genre. 

While shooting a video in the trendy Seoul neighborhood, the couple was approached by at least three different groups of fans in the course of only a few hours and within only a city block. The fans, who were undeniably star-struck, blushed as they had their photos taken with Simon and Martina and remarked on how much, and how frequently, they enjoyed the website. All of the fans, except for one, were tourists.

Meeting with Simon and Martina is in many ways like watching their videos. The enthusiasm and quick-fire succession of their words matches the raw footage from their video shoots — quintessentially them, but lacking the finer polishing that editing enables.

Simon and Martina responded enthusiastically and were genuinely gracious in the time they spent talking to people and answering their questions. Although they had been interrupted several times during their video production, they never responded with anything less than absolute friendliness.

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They also gave the impression that this was by no means the first time they had been stopped on the street. Simon admitted that although “the whole idea of celebrity is something that is very odd to us,” getting approached by strangers was a daily occurrence. “We’ve had people come up to us almost crying and asking for a hug. And for us it’s bizarre,” Simon explained. “I grew up under the impression that a celebrity is someone who is immensely rich and immensely talented at something, like Michael Jordan or Michael Jackson, and we don’t have any talents. We just make goofy videos.”

Interestingly, most of their popularity doesn’t originate in Korea. Ninety percent of all traffic for their website comes from outside the country, with 45 percent arriving from North America and a sizable demographic in Singapore. Overall, the website receives regular traffic from 187 different nations. So it is no surprise that the majority of people coming up to Simon and Martina on the street did not live in Korea. 

K-pop has been extremely popular with audiences in Japan, China and certain Southeast Asian nations for well over a decade, but a growing appetite for Korea’s dramas and music has emerged in Western nations. It marks a major turning point for this genre of music (yes, we think K-pop is its own genre) that saw little fame outside Asia just five years ago. 

A massive English-speaking audience grew from almost nothing. These new fans were pining for news and information about their favorite stars and singers. Eat Your Kimchi answered the call. It has grown to play a key role in this market for English-language Korean Wave news. Every week the website produces three to four videos detailing various aspects of Korean culture, life in Korea and information about K-pop. Its success to date has been staggering. 

Eat Your Kimchi is now the top source of information on K-pop in English. 

READ EAT YOUR KIMCHI'S EDITORIAL: TAKING THE 'POP' OUT OF K-POP

The rise of Eat Your Kimchi

Eat Your Kimchi started humbly enough. Founded in 2008 by recent newlyweds Simon and Martina, who hail from Toronto, Canada, the website began as a simple travel blog detailing the weird and wonderful adventures the couple had found for themselves in Korea.

The couple — both registered teachers in their homeland — chose Korea over Japan in part due to Simon’s experiences teaching Korean students in Toronto. “When I was teaching in Toronto I remember being amazed because I taught at a high school in Canada as well as a Korean learning center and the Korean students at the center were angels. I was like … why not go to a country full of Korean students!”

For Simon and Martina, a video blog was the easiest way to alleviate their families’ concerns about international travel. Eat Your Kimchi, which now tows almost a quarter million followers worldwide, started with a video featuring the couple eating a dish of sundubu jjigae, a spicy tofu stew.

“Our very first subscriber, his name was Steve, he was from the U.K., sent us an email saying he was moving to Bucheon (Gyeonggi Province). That was kind of the catalyst that made us realize that other people could use our videos to help them out for moving,” Martina explained.

“I remember when we first saw the subscriber we were very suspicious. We were like … who the hell would be watching our videos? This is weird. Is this guy part of the Anti-English Spectrum (a group of Koreans who stalk foreign teachers)?” Simon continued. “We thought these guys were watching us and trying to kick us out for something, but it turned out he was a real human being.”

From that point on the couple began a furious regime of producing videos, a regime that they have maintained to this day. The blog initially focused on life in Bucheon and Seoul, as well as very pragmatic topics such as how to use a transportation card and classroom teaching material. “As more people subscribed, we started doing videos about K-pop for fun; that’s when the big boom happened as people were interested in K-pop and moving to Korea,” said Martina.

It wasn’t only the Stawskis’ fans who were taking notice of their popularity. Two years after beginning the website, serious means for monetizing their videos began to appear.

“YouTube offered a partnership. If you’re a YouTube partner they put ads on the bottom, and ads on the side and you get paid for that. We thought if we can make money off our videos, this could be a livelihood,” Simon said. He eventually was forced to quit his teaching job (more on that later) and decided to work on the website full-time “with his whole heart and soul,” even though initially the YouTube partnership was bringing in just $30 a month. 

Martina continued to teach English to ensure the couple could survive on more than just kimbap.

Dollars and sense

The YouTube partnership quickly gained pace and the couple was starting to see more and more money coming in. 

“We started to up the quality; it wasn’t just about shooting on our Handycam. We upgraded our equipment, we put money into better computers and we tried to make the programs more succinct and shorter, not as rambling as much,” Martina said. The more the couple improved the quality of their videos, the more subscribers they got. The more subscribers they got, the more money they made from their YouTube partnership and the more the couple felt obliged to continue improving the quality of their videos. This cyclic scenario produced a dramatic improvement in both the quality and the editorial direction of their videos.

Today, Eat Your Kimchi is a full-time venture for both Simon and Martina. Their registered company, as well as every single penny they have ever earned or paid in tax, is in Canada. This effectively sidesteps any visa or work issue they may be presented with while in Korea. Although the couple both started on E2 visas (language instructor) with Simon later holding an F3 visa (spouse of an E2 visa holder) the couple is now here officially as tourists, thereby allowing them to stay in Korea for six months at a time.

As well as money from YouTube, which the couple describe as more of a “distribution platform” than advertisers per se, Eat Your Kimchi makes money from selling advertising on its own website as well as the sale of merchandise. T-shirts of their super-famous dog, Spudgy, are a particularly hot seller. 

Simon and Martina, however, want to stress emphatically that they have never received any assistance from the Korean government or any Korean tourist board. 

“For the record, I will say this because it irritates me: We don’t work for the Korean government ...  We’re not paid by the Korean government to do anything!” Martina said.

“Korea hasn’t given us a penny, a single penny, for anything. I don’t think they even know that we exist,” Simon added.

Complete editorial control of their work has been of the utmost importance to Simon and Martina. On separate occasions the couple has gone as far as refusing to comply with producers while working on shows for both KBS and SBS.

Simon and Martina acknowledge that they are in the privileged position of not having advertisers to interfere with editorial decisions and have been blunt with potential partners. “We have had companies occasionally approach us and be like ‘Hey, we want you to do this video for us and we’ll pay you this much money if you do this!’ And we’re like, this sucks, our audience won’t like this whatsoever. We’ll never make a video we think our audience will be uncomfortable with.” They said those companies, whose names they did not share on record, gave the impression that they were doing Eat Your Kimchi a favor. 

Cultural differences in the perception of bloggers by Korean and overseas companies have also been eye-opening for Eat Your Kimchi. “North American companies, European companies, even Australian and New Zealanders fully understand that there is value in the Internet and that it costs money. Korea is always like, ‘Do this for me for free!’” 

Simon and Martina freely admit that the website, and the businesses associated with the website, are now successful enough that they do not have to worry about the security of their livelihoods. In fact, their new financial freedom has allowed them to expand to the point that they now have a video editor working with them part-time.

However, this hasn’t given the couple free rein to speak as they please. 

Far from it.

The backlash

The couple finds themselves walking a proverbial tight-rope of editorial content on a daily basis. Attacks from one side, a majority of whom are misinformed expats in Korea, accuse the couple of being a shill for Korean popular culture and not being critical enough. This is the so-called “sunshine and lollipops” representation of Eat Your Kimchi. On the other side, diehard fans of K-pop and Korean netizens are often the first to jump on even the slightest critique of Korea or anything Korean that the couple may present.

“We try to avoid talking about the negative aspect of our personal experiences on our website because there are lots of websites out there already … for that. We want to focus on the positive things; that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things about Korea that don’t upset us,” Martina said.  

The lowest point for Eat Your Kimchi came about innocently enough during the 2010 South Korean local elections.

The couple, whose Bucheon apartment overlooks the town’s city hall, was plagued day and night by noisy electioneering trucks that projected piercing music and campaign slogans promoting local candidates. 

“We couldn’t sleep worth a damn in the afternoon because all you hear is these people blaring their trucks,” Simon recalled. 

“So instead of me going and flipping trucks over I said, let me try a creative output for this. So I did a video of me dancing with the ajummas. It was like Stockholm syndrome almost. I figured if I can’t stop it I may as well join in with it. Then I wound up asking one of the people running (in English) ‘If you are elected, do you promise to turn off this music?’”

Martina interjected: “He didn’t respond to it. He just said, ‘Thank you.’”

The backlash to the video, which has since been removed from their site, was almost instantaneous. Critics considered Simon’s actions to be “extremely rude” and that it was incredibly unfair to speak to a candidate in a humorous manner in a language the candidate didn’t understand, especially considering he was older.

“People claimed that Simon was mocking the process by dancing with them,” Martina said. “We simply responded to those comments by saying that it’s ridiculous (and) it has nothing to do with elections.”

The original backlash had been confined to Eat Your Kimchi’s regular audience, with some Korean viewers even defending the couple and agreeing that they hated the trucks as well. However, all hell broke loose once the video made it to the Korean internet portals and was scrutinized by Korean netizens. “We just got, I mean, flooded with angry and racist comments. The problem wasn’t just that they were angry comments; they were racist. Like ‘Go home Americans!’ We’re not American, but okay, we’re white so we must be American,” Martina recalled.

Their problems were just beginning. The couple’s schools began receiving angry and aggressive phone calls from outraged responders. This was especially surprising for Martina considering she wasn’t even present in the video. 

“People called my school anonymously and harassed my poor, poor secretary who is just the most adorable secretary, screaming at her, ‘Keep your foreigner in line!’, ‘Keep your foreigner in check!’, ‘You shouldn’t do these videos.’”

Following the response, the management from both Simon and Martina’s schools sat them down individually to discuss the issue. 

Martina sat down with her director. “They really supported me. They said that ‘We don’t care what they say, we know what you’re like, we’re there for you guys and I’m sorry this happened.’”

The reaction from Simon’s employers couldn’t have been more different. “They were like, ‘We never want you to make another video again. What you did was terrible. We are very upset with you for it and you are a public figure and you shouldn’t be making any videos.’”

The director from Simon’s school handed him a piece of paper. It was a contract explicitly stating that Simon was never to make another video again. He was expected to sign it immediately. Simon rejected this proposition and returned later in the day with his own piece of paper. This one, which he had signed, was a letter of resignation.

“I said I’m done with this, forget about it.”

The couple was on the verge of leaving Korea for good. If it hadn’t been for Martina’s loyalty to her school they most likely would have.

K-pop fever

Although the couple had nothing but compliments and respect for their fans, they also acknowledged a growing trend among the fans of K-pop.

“We’ve discovered that we are really the only blog online that actually says negative things about K-pop, and that’s really rare to find because K-pop fandoms are really scary. People will get clutched onto like, let’s just say Super Junior for example, and they will say, ‘Everything they do is gold’ and they never criticize them. And then there are those people at the back who are like, ‘I like Super Junior but I didn’t really like this video.’ But if they say that, they are ripped into,” Martina said. “It seems like K-pop is less marketed as music, and more as a religion,” Simon added. “If you look at the way in which these people are described it’s shocking.”

Aside from hesitation regarding the idol status of some of their favorite groups, the two both adamantly enjoy the genre and this is positively reflected in both their K-pop videos and with the passion they speak on the subject.

“We’re big fans of the YG label; Big Bang and 2NE1 do very well.”

Along with the YG acts, the couple is also fans of T-ara and SHINee, and like, but don’t love, Super Junior.

As much as they enjoy K-pop, and acknowledge the success it has brought them, they want the blog to continue to represent a mixture of topics surrounding Korea and not become a vortex for K-pop fandom.

“People who hate K-pop seem to think that all we do is K-pop. They rip into us for that... We do K-pop once a week. We do one video on K-pop and then we do retro videos, then we do Korean indie music. Then we do food adventure videos and TL;DRs (Too long, didn’t read),” Martina said.

Eat Your Sushi?

Even before arriving in Korea, the couple knew that they would find themselves in Japan eventually. “We already bought the domain name, two years ago, because we thought we would be moving every year. Eat Your Sushi will happen one of these days,” Simon said with noted confidence. 

“Before the Google Wave (K-pop) concert we were sure; we said, ‘Summer 2013 we are going to be in Japan.’”

But the couple admits that with the new opportunities that have arisen following their time in California with Google, along with the fact that they are on track to being the first foreign media to get direct access to many of these Korean groups, it would be ridiculous to throw it all in now.

“It’s so exciting because we want to ask them stuff they’ve never been asked before and make them so uncomfortable! And we have skits planned with them that are ridiculous,” Martina said.

“I want to say not one year but two years. Then we’ll be confident ... Summer 2014 is what I want to say, but should we stay for the (2018 PyeongChang Winter) Olympics?” Simon joked.

Simon and Martina were very confident that a move to Japan would not necessarily mean the death of Eat Your Kimchi. With K-pop news and charts as well as their upcoming apps for iPhone/iPad/Android, the website could remain popular even without them in the country.

“Our future dream goal is to continue blogging and to travel to different countries, but we don’t like the idea of (being) one- or two-week visitors. We want to saturate ourselves in a country,” Martina said. “When we go to Japan, I want to GO to Japan.”

“After Japan, I would like to go to Europe somewhere and (start) Eat Your Baguette. But that’s difficult for people to spell,” the couple joked.

To follow the magnitude of Eat Your Things and traveling as much of the world as possible, Simon and Martina’s long-term plan seems to be simple enough.

“We will have a coffee shop called Drink Your Coffee. That’s the retirement plan.” 

Find their blog at eatyourkimchi.com.