Influencer Jonah Aki sees growing acceptance of queerness in Korea

Posted on : 2023-05-21 11:02 KST Modified on : 2023-05-21 11:31 KST
The Korea-based choreographer is a member of the YouTube collective Neon Milk, which seeks to popularize queer culture
Jonah Aki poses for a photo at a dance studio in Seoul’s Dongjak District on May 5. (courtesy of Amnesty International Korea)
Jonah Aki poses for a photo at a dance studio in Seoul’s Dongjak District on May 5. (courtesy of Amnesty International Korea)
Editor’s Note:“It’s pointless to hate me.”That was the message sent out by the South Korean chapter of Amnesty International, a human rights organization, to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia on May 17 last year.The same phrase was used in this year’s Pride parade, garnering positive attention from both LGBT people and their allies.This year, Amnesty International’s Korean chapter has launched a campaign called “Hate Is Pointless 2023.” Whereas last year’s campaign showed LGBT people and allies fighting back against hatred and discrimination, this year’s campaign focuses on self-affirmation and living in the moment.The Hankyoreh has joined hands to take part in that campaign.

“The next stop is Gangnam Station.”

A blonde man in a tracksuit twerks while the sonorous haegeum from “Eolssiguya,” the Seoul subway transfer tune, plays in the background. The figure of the dancing man is transposed over an interior shot of the subway.

This “Subway Dance” TikTok video went viral and soon racked up more than 5 million views.

The twerking man is Jonah Aki, a dancer and choreographer, who has planned dance moves for such K-pop stars as Brown Eyed Girls, HyunA and BoA. He’s currently handling choreography for the group Alice.

Aki has more than 27,000 followers on his Instagram account where he posts his dance videos. After “Subway Dance” went viral, he also recorded a dance inside an actual subway station with the permission of Seoul Metro.

Aki first came to Korea ten years ago, on Feb. 4, 2013. It happened to be his birthday.

After graduating from university in the US, Aki wanted to get experience overseas, and Korea was the first place that came to mind.

Since first encountering K-pop in 2009, Aki had been an avid listener of popular Korean acts such as the Wonder Girls and Brown Eyed Girls. He’d minored in the Korean language at college and was quite fond of the country.

Jonah Aki warms up at a dance studio in Seoul’s Dongjak District on May 5. (courtesy of Amnesty International Korea)
Jonah Aki warms up at a dance studio in Seoul’s Dongjak District on May 5. (courtesy of Amnesty International Korea)

Aki made a living as an English teacher after coming to Korea, but that didn’t scratch his itch for self-expression. So he turned to dance, an interest he’d pursued in a dance club in high school.

“I grew up in Hawaii, and my mom was a hula dancer there. I think that helped me learn to move more naturally. When I dance, I forget about whatever I’m dealing with,” Aki said.

While Aki’s primary persona is a dancer, he moonlights as a queer influencer. He’s a member of a YouTube collective called Neon Milk, which seeks to popularize queer culture.

While Aki had been openly gay in the US, making no effort to hide his sexual identity, life in Korea has been more of a struggle. Koreans sometimes ask him questions that, while not mean-spirited, are baffling.

For example, he gets asked whether he has a girlfriend or whether he likes girls. Those questions stem from normative views about heterosexual attraction.

Aki’s experience in Korea reminded him of how his identity sets him apart from others.

“As soon as I got to Korea, I started wondering whether I should go back into the closet,” he said.

“I’m gay. I’m nice. I’m talented.” That’s how Aki describes himself.

While Aki was outed as gay in his teens, that just made him more self-confident.

“Since I’d been outed, I decided to be true to myself and not lie to other people,” he said.

Aki’s personality shined through his fluent Korean during the interview.

The subway dance video’s caption said, “When you’re getting off the subway, make sure you don’t fall in love.” Sure enough, Aki has been in love for the past eight years.

“I had no idea I’d live in Korea for so long. Love is the reason I’ve been here for a decade,” he said.

“I wish that everybody could experience love at least once in their lives. There’s nothing better than that.”

On the receiving end of Aki’s love is Bambi, the head of Neon Milk, whom he first met eight years ago. Three years ago, the two got engaged.

“One day, I was just looking at him and realized that if I ever get married, I want to marry him.”

That’s how Aki explained their engagement in the video “Gay Couple Proposal” that was uploaded to the Neon Milk channel in January 2020.

The two are currently planning the festivities. They’re thinking about having two ceremonies: one in Aki’s home of the US and Bambi’s home of Korea.

Aki and Bambi love Korea so much they want to wear hanbok (traditional Korean attire) at their wedding, but Korea’s legal system isn’t ready to embrace them yet.

“We’ve been together for eight years, but we’re not able to get married in Korea. If one of us has a medical emergency, we can’t serve as each other’s legal representatives. That’s what I’m most worried about.”

However, Aki said he can perceive a gradual shift in people’s attitudes.

“I’m not getting any questions about my ‘girlfriend’ these days. Fewer people use that word with me at all. I can also speak proudly about my boyfriend now. It may sound trivial, but I can tell that society is gradually changing.”

Aki, who has been fostering abandoned dogs since 2015, described Bambi as his “roommate” when he first picked up a dog from the shelter. A few years later, he updated that to “boyfriend,” and nowadays he writes “fiancé.”

“Shelter employees are pretty chill about it and just remark that the dog has ‘two dads,’” Aki said.

As Aki and Bambi’s relationship has matured, society has been growing more understanding.

“If people hate me, it’s probably because they don’t know much about me. I think that hate would disappear if we got to know each other and understand each other better,” he said.

But what if there are still some haters out there?

“It’s pointless to hate me because I’m already perfect,” Aki said, crinkling his nose.

By Yi Ju-been, staff reporter

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