To her mother in South Korea, SuJin Kim is a failure: she’s over 30, single, and doesn’t work for a major Korean corporation.
But to her millions of followers in Latin America, she has become a recognizable friend and teacher of all things Korean. In Mexico, where she lives, they know her, in fact, as “Chinguamiga,” her online nickname, a portmanteau of the words for friend in Korean and Spanish.
His success was propelled not only by his ingenuity and charisma, but also by a wave of South Korean popular culture that swept the world, propelled in part by the government’s effort to position the country as a cultural giant and exert soft power.
In her homeland, Ms. Kim, 32, has struggled with the drudgery of a hypercompetitive society where success is narrowly defined and young women face dwindling job prospects, grueling work schedules, sexism and restrictive beauty standards.
In Mexico, the growing interest in all things Korean has made her a social media sensation with over 24 million TikTok followers and over eight million subscribers to her YouTube channel, allowing her to gain popularity, financial stability and a romantic partner, all on her own terms.
“There was packaging that it came in,” said Dr. Renato Balderrama, who leads the Center for Asian Studies at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León in Monterrey, an industrial hub with an expanding Korean presence. “She’s had all this training in Korea, in this new Korea that allows her to land in a place like Mexico and be successful.”
A comparative pop culture teacher of sorts, Ms. Kim offers lessons on popular Korean soap operas, lyrics, fashion standards, traditions, and social norms. She once worked as a waitress in Mexico for a day and posted her confusion about her with tips. (South Korea is a country without tipping.) She showed followers how Korean students prepared for exams. She began traveling through Mexico sampling regional delicacies.
Her social media success has attracted invitations to events, awards nominationsjournal publications and sponsorship deals, and produced popular business teaching Korean language courses online. She moved from Monterrey to Mexico City to gain more exposure and grow her brand.
Ms. Kim’s budding empire now includes a Online shop of Korean beauty products. She will appear as a contestant on the second season of the HBO show “Bake Off Celebrity.”
Ms. Kim’s success follows the growth of Korean influence in Mexico and the region: More than 2,000 Korean companies are present in Mexico, part of a so-called near-shoring strategy that has pushed the biggest companies – Kia, LG, Samsung, Hyundai, among others – to take advantage of free trade agreements with Canada and the United States.
South Korea came to Mexico not only with jobs, cars and cell phones, but also with something more immaterial: its own idea of modern culture. K-pop, K-beauty and K-drama have shown Latinos a new and different way to be cool.
K-pop bands have been performing in increasingly large and sold-out venues since 2012. This year, a summer festival will bring 16 Korean acts to Mexico City, with ticket prices starting at around $170.
Some newsstands specialize in South Korean celebrity magazines, posters and merchandise. Netflix offers “Latin Spanish” dubbing for Korean shows. Cinemas stream live K-pop concerts performed overseas.
Ms. Kim grew up in Seoul, but after a period of study and work in Canada and a journey through South America, she returned home to find life in South Korea stifling.
“I don’t want to go back to my old life,” she remembered thinking.
She moved to Mexico in 2018, driven by a desire to experience life in Latin America and trying to escape a severe burnout. She worked for a Korean multinational and found the pace of the work all too familiar, so she started teaching Korean.
Then the pandemic rocked the world.
“It’s my time, I have nothing to do,” she recalled thinking before she started posting her Korean lessons on YouTube. “I had zero views, no one saw me.”
His videos were simple language lessons: “Easy words in Korean – 3 minutes!” But then she took to TikTok and uploaded a short clip, this time explaining Korean culture.
“That same day it had about 5,000 views and I was like, what?!” She said, her pointy nails adorned with stars and bows and bejeweled moons.
Very quickly, her TikTok following exploded.
One afternoon this year, Ms. Kim welcomed her students to a virtual Korean class on Zoom; She charges $35 to $45 for each four-week session, with one 90-minute lesson per week.
When the class started, 76 students were logged in. There were little girls and bespectacled mothers and at least one long-haired businessman scattered across Central and South America.
Ms. Kim’s bright blue curls bounced across the screen as she nodded her head in approval.
When a student trying to figure out how to pluralize singular nouns asked, “Not plural?” he chirped: “No! How nice, right?”
After finishing college in South Korea, Ms. Kim said she experienced severe stress. “I wanted to die and I wanted to rest,” she said in one of his most famous videos. She has spoken openly about being hospitalized to take care of her mental health.
He attributes his fatigue to the Korean culture of sacrifice and hard work that helped the country become an economic powerhouse after the Korean War.
“Everything is fast, fast, now, right in this second,” Dr. Balderrama said. “This has created a culture where there’s no place for mediocrity, there’s no place for anyone who doesn’t want to compete.”
In Mexico, Ms. Kim hoped to find a more joyful life: “I’ve seen what Latino culture is like, how Latinos live and live happily,” she said. “I don’t want to waste a single moment when I’m in Latin America because it’s so precious to me.”
But if Mrs. Kim has found a passion and a job, she hasn’t quite found the tranquility she was looking for. She is in therapy to deal with what she described as depression and anxiety.
Her large following and popularity have generated fear: “I feel like people will forget me, that nobody will like me,” she said, worried about the toll of having to come up with creative content to stay relevant.
“I also have this problem with haters, with people’s comments, hitting me,” she added.
She is criticized online by users who tell her she should return to Korea, who ask if she pays taxes in Mexico (she says she does), and who see her as just another foreigner attracted to cheap living and helping to gentrify parts of the country at the expense of Mexican residents.
In a recent video, while he was getting ready Returning home for a visit, she showed an identity card which she said was proof of her status as a legal resident. She wanted to dispel any rumors that she had to leave the country because she had a tourist visa.
Ms. Kim declined to discuss her citizenship status with The New York Times, but months ago she posted a video saying he took the exam become a citizen of Mexico.
By many standards, Ms. Kim has pulled it off. But what about her mother’s standards?
“I don’t think she’s going to change her mind about success – that I’m not a success, that’s a given for her,” she said after her home visit. “She’s even more worried than happy about me.”
However, after meeting Ms. Kim’s boyfriend and his family in South Korea, her parents promised to visit her in Mexico.