[INTERVIEW] YouTubers bridge Korean, Muslim and Latin American cultures

In a joint interview with The Korea Times at the newspaper's headquarters, Aug. 12, Moroccan YouTuber Ibtissam Harakat, above, and Peruvian Korean YouTuber Hanna Lew, offered a glimpse into their lives as creators whose contents aim to connect the Arab world and Latin America, respectively, with Korea. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Global Influencers Network (GIN) brings together 150 creators from 53 countries as a networking, branding platform

By Park Han-sol

The ability of a person to successfully bridge two cultures ― marked by different languages, social conventions and values ― has always been viewed as a notable strength.

And in the current age of social media, some of the major players who have risen to take on that role are none other than influencers with huge global followings.

In a recent joint interview with The Korea Times at the newspaper's headquarters, Moroccan YouTuber Ibtissam Harakat and Peruvian Korean YouTuber Hanna Lew offered a glimpse into their lives as creators whose contents aim to connect the Arab world and Latin America, respectively, with Korea.

Ibtissam Harakat's journey in Korea as Kim Miso

For Harakat, who goes by her alias, Kim Miso (as her given name means "smile" in English or "miso" in Korean), her life as a Moroccan YouTuber in Korea began with a chance encounter with the 2005 Korean romantic comedy series, "My Lovely Sam Soon," which was broadcast in her home country in 2010.

"I was like, what is this language? What country are these people from?" the 28-year-old told The Korea Times. "That was when I fell in love with the Korean language. Literally, I wanted to speak like the Korean people in the show."

She dove into the world of Korean dramas, binge watching episode after episode, and later discovered K-pop. Harakat made her first trip to Korea in 2015 and came again the next year.

In 2018, she returned to Korea with a long-term goal to settle down and work in the country that quickly became her "second home."

Upon her arrival, she turned to YouTube to share a small part of her everyday life with the Arab world as a Muslim woman living in Korea.

"For example, I wanted to share where one can find Halal food here and what people thought of me as a hijabi girl," she said.

Ibtissam Harakat, who goes by her alias Kim Miso, has amassed 1.23 million subscribers on her YouTube channel largely catering to the audience in the Arab region. Captured from Kim Miso's YouTube

Although Harakat had to stop wearing her hijab for medical reasons, she continues to stay connected with her large Arab fan base of 1.23 million subscribers on YouTube, producing videos that answer countless questions made by her viewers regarding Korean culture ― entertainment, beauty, lifestyle, dating, food, fashion and tourist spots.

Her channel is also sprinkled with K-pop dance and song covers as well as casual interviews with members of K-pop idols like KARD, Teen Top and XEED.

"In Morocco, or in Arab countries, girls are still not allowed to do a lot of stuff, so after coming here, I wanted to make my dreams come true by making a name for myself," the YouTuber said.

In fact, she explained that it was her status as "the first Arab girl that can do this and that" in Korea that catapulted her channel to internet stardom among her largely female audience in the Arab region, which continues to be characterized by gender inequality and low female economic participation and social inclusion.

"My fans would call me the first Arab girl (they saw) who is traveling alone, living alone, meeting BTS (at the music awards show), etc," she said. "It's a big thing to the Arab girls because I'm living their dreams. They would tell me that I'm challenging the rules and breaking down the walls."

And in May of this year, Harakat achieved another feat as an Arab woman in Korea who debuted and released her first solo mini-album called "DROP."

The music video featuring her and BAO of XEED singing and rapping in Korean, Arabic and English has amassed well over 3 million views. Within the first three days after its release, she explained, it was the No. 1 trending video in Morocco. The song trended in 21 other Arab countries as well, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia and Qatar. The popularity of the related dance challenge also went viral on Tik Tok.

"Me debuting here was kind of a big news in the Arab world, because they never imagined that an Arab girl could do that in Korea. They thought that only Asian people could do their music here," she said.

The message she has been sending via her channel, therefore, has been clear: "I'm just trying to live my life and show them that they can do it as well. Follow your heart and your dreams. You don't have to put yourself in a box."

Hanna Lew, YouTuber who connects Latin America with Korea through K-beauty

Even though she's the daughter of a Korean father and a Peruvian mother, Lew never had a chance to speak Spanish or learn about her Latin American roots as she spent her early years in Korea.

But her family crossed the Pacific and moved to the South American country when she was in middle school.

Understandably, it was a real culture shock to suddenly find herself in a different country, she recalled. The first few years were rough, as she was unable to find things that interested her and had difficulty adjusting to life in Peru, where she had less freedom to travel due to security reasons.

One day in 2018, a camera that she had previously received as a gift caught her eyes. With no clear plan in mind, she picked it up and began filming her everyday life in her Peruvian house on YouTube as a new way to pass the time.

Hanna Lew runs her YouTube channel, Hanna Coreana, with nearly 820,000 subscribers, sharing beauty and health tips and introducing elements of Korean culture to her Latin American audience. Captured from Hanna Coreana's YouTube

"I started recording myself in Spanish under the theme of 'a day in the life of a Korean in Peru.' I think that's what caught the local audience's attention. As more and more people began watching my videos, I felt like I was making friends. It really helped me ease my loneliness," the 22-year-old said.

Thus began her life as a YouTuber whose contents on Hanna Coreana, mainly revolving around beauty and health, cater to the Latin American audience, especially in Mexico and Peru.

After her six-year-long stay in Peru, Lew returned to Korea at the end of 2020 due to the alarming spread of the coronavirus. But she continues to produce vlogs detailing her daily life for her nearly 820,000 subscribers.

She noted that it was her workout and skincare routines that have been in high demand among her largely female fans.

As a beauty guru, she has personally witnessed the rise of K-beauty products in the Latin American cosmetics and personal care industry, especially skincare products.

"Korea is such a fashion-conscious country with beauty trends changing every second," she said. "New forms of business and product lineups emerge every other month. I want to continue to introduce such trends to my Peruvian and South American audience."

In addition to beauty and heath contents, she has recently been producing videos featuring a male guest to go on a fictional date to showcase popular spots in Seoul like the Han River park and Lotte World.

"Fans would tell me that it's like watching a fun episode of a romantic Korean drama but in Spanish," she said.

"The comments I see most often in such videos where I introduce bits and pieces of Korean culture are about the neo-futuristic and modern look of Seoul. I think, in addition to the influence of K-drama and K-pop, my Spanish-speaking audience finds the country's dynamic and ever-changing characteristics to be fascinating in themselves," she added.

YouTubers Kim Miso, left, and Hanna Lew / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

While continuing to serve as a bridge between Korean culture and that of the Arab world and Latin America through their respective contents, the two creators have plenty of ambitious projects planned for the future ― from business expansion to even a concert tour.

"Last October, I launched my own cosmetic brand, Le Coreane, in Peru," Lew said. Her products, sold under the tagline, "From Korea to Your Dressing Table," currently fill the shelves of her own shop as well as retailers and department stores in the South American country.

She witnessed an overwhelming amount of support when she flew there to visit her store in June, which quickly turned into an unofficial meeting with more than 150 of her fans.

"I honestly didn't expect to see so many of them line up at the store, especially since I announced it on such short notice on my social media," the beauty guru said, adding that she plans to work on expanding the business further to introduce elements of K-beauty to the Latin American market.

For Harakat, her passion to create her own music, partially influenced by the big names in the K-pop industry like Lee Hi and BLACKPINK, has become the new driving force in her career.

Following a flood of positive responses her first mini-album garnered, her second album is scheduled for release around the end of this year.

"Like 'DROP,' it's going to have a mix of Arabic and Korean styles (in terms of its lyrics and music videos)," she noted.

And if things go well, the album's release may be celebrated in one of the most dynamic events of her career: her first-ever concert tour in the Arab world, joined by other Korean artists featured in her tracks as guest stars.

"I want to show the Korean artists in person that Arab fans really love Korean culture and K-pop. (At the same time,) I want to introduce the Arab culture to those idols as well," Harakat said.

Moon Hae-chan, operator of YouTube channel Korean Dost and CEO of Global Influencers Network (GIN), speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at the newspaper's headquarters in Seoul, July 26. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Global Influencers Network

Both Harakat and Lew are members of Seoul-based Global Influencers Network (GIN).

Founded in 2020 at the initiative of influencers, the organization aims to help individual creators represent themselves and network with each other, according to its CEO Moon Hae-chan.

Currently, GIN has around 150 members from 53 countries ― called "GIN ambassadors" ― with a majority of them being Seoul-based foreign influencers whose contents on Korean culture cater to audiences in their home countries.

"Cultural exchange ― that's what all of our influencers are doing in GIN as a bridge (between Korea and their target countries)," Moon said.

Moon himself is a YouTuber, who joined GIN last year as a mega influencer with 1.4 million subscribers on his channel, Korean Dost, and was appointed as the new CEO this April. His channel, mainly targeting the Southwest Asian region, consists of videos that show how Koreans and Indians react to each other's pop culture.

In addition to providing platforms to network with fellow creators, he added that GIN also intends to give creators additional monetization opportunities.

"Not every creator has an agency. As an individual creator, many of them do not have the capacity of branding themselves at a corporate level, agency level," he said. "And that's where GIN can help."

Despite its short history, the organization has been offering collaborative opportunities with companies as well as governmental and non-governmental agencies through its partnership with players like Tik Tok Korea and Seoul Business Agency.

Influencers attend a digital detox event in Gapyeong County of Gyeonggi Province, July 22, that was hosted by GIN. Courtesy of GIN

It has also been hosting its own events for its creators, such as the digital detox program and Global Influencer Award.

One of its projects currently in development involves mobilizing the GIN influencers to create engaging content-based Korean language courses for their respective target audiences.

"Many of our influencers have global audiences who are interested in Korea itself. And they want to learn about the Korean language," Moon said, adding that helping viewers learn the language through their favorite YouTubers would be a feasible model.

With Korea continually making its mark as a cultural powerhouse on the international stage, the CEO expressed hope for GIN to play a role in "creating a new K-wave" within the influencer-led online content market as well.

Park Han-sol hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr

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