Seventeen minutes into the first episode, I knew that I would not like Yeo Joon.
Here is what I knew: my dislike for him was a firm thing, and by episode’s end, it was still there. By Episode 2, the dislike had sprung roots. Its branches finding purchase in my discomfort with his desperation to be liked. Yeo Joon (Park Ji-hoon) lacked sincerity; he reeked of falseness. He was a walking red flag. For every individual that fell for his imitation of a smile, my wariness increased. When Nam Soo-hyun (Bae In-hyuk)—good boy, sweet boy, precious boy—saw right through him, I rejoiced. Soo-hyun instantly recognized the artificiality of Yeo Joon’s performance. Yeo Joon was nice, but he was not kind. Kindness, which is consistent and rooted in authenticity, does not seek to appease. It is grounded in a moral foundation that niceness is not. Niceness is a flimsy mask that shifts and morphs depending on the recipient. We witnessed this when Soo-hyun called out Yeo Joon on his behavior. The response was swift. The mask immediately gave way and Yeo Joon—without pause—lashed out.
To be clear, Yeo Joon was not a character whose actions occurred in a vacuum. Strategically placed scenes allowed us to view the lessons he learned from childhood abuse. We witnessed how conflict made him deeply uncomfortable. We saw how his need for love and validation was constantly rebuffed. His only ally—whom we later see was his older brother—was only capable of offering protection via cruel words and rejection. Kindness and empathy were not in Yeo Joon’s repertoire. The environment he was reared in left no room for the vulnerability those emotions required. Yeo Joon was primed to understand seeking approval from others not only provided security and safety; it was survival. If he could avoid anger, he could evade pain. Unsurprisingly, this coping mechanism, while helpful within the context of an abusive situation, became toxic when it bled into everyday interactions.
Yeo Joon’s history of abuse and the resulting trauma explained his actions, but it did not excuse his treatment of others. He bulldozed through personal boundaries and frequently manipulated the people around him. His interactions with Soo-hyun and So-bin (Kang Min-ah) were the most prevalent ways the drama depicted this. Instead of respecting Soo-hyun’s demand to be left alone, he imposed himself on the other man. He forced his way into Soo-hyun’s life to counteract the anxiety associated with encountering someone who quite clearly did not care for him. He took advantage of So-bin’s timidity to push her beyond her comfort level. He smiled while taking advantage of her emotions to force attachment. It was clear Yeo Joon had not learned to interact with the world healthily. He was emotionally unstable and still grappling with the traumatic effects caused by domestic violence. It was evident how a relationship with him could easily turn abusive, a repeat of the dynamics he learned from his parents. Perhaps he would never physically lay a hand on So-bin, but the risk for emotional and mental harm was there.
I can’t leave my personal experiences and perspective at the door when I consume media; no one can. I felt that, regardless of the resolution, I would always question Yeo Joon’s actions and sincerity. There is only so much work a writer can do to bring a character to life. The rest is dependent on the viewer and the context their unique perspective brings. The lens that colors our view of life also directs how we feel about character portrayals. It informs the actions we can excuse and the offenses we aren’t capable of forgiving. It dictates the personality quirks we either find endearing or annoying. It makes the experience of watching dramas richer because we are coming to it with the tapestry of our lived experiences as a backdrop.
Therefore, I can’t help but react to Yeo Joon from my perspective as a Black woman living in Western society. Daily, I have to navigate the pressures of a world built for whiteness. It requires constant vigilance and being hyperaware of who is and who is not operating with false sincerity. For some, this awareness can be a simple matter of learning who not to trust. For Black women, the consequences are never simple. I can’t afford to be oblivious to how niceness is used—often by white people, most skillfully by white women—to manipulate. I am constantly re-negotiating my boundaries based on the environment to minimize harm. Intellectually, I understood the intent behind writing Yeo Joon a certain way. I knew that his actions were rooted in trauma and the point was for us to be uncomfortable. I actually loved that. Yeo Joon’s wariness of people was valid, but so was my wariness of him.
“I don’t know when I started to like you. From spring to summer. From summer to fall. And from fall to winter. Do you know when the season changes? Do you exactly know when the winter ends and the spring begins?” – Cha Eun-ho, Romance is a Bonus Book
Reader, I grew to love him.
Here is what I knew: between the beginning and end of Episode 8, my discomfort with Yeo Joon had morphed into fondness; my irritation became warmth. Despite the transparency of his smiles, Yeo Joon’s personal shields had always been opaque. Even So-bin realized at one point that despite opening up to him, Yeo Joon had never once reciprocated. In fact, he made it clear to her that he never would. But then he did! He opened up in a way that was messy but beautiful to see. He shared with Soo-hyun his worries that who his mother believed him to be was who he was. He was vulnerable, he was honest, and above all, he was sincere. For the first time, it felt like Yeo Joon was actively choosing to engage with the world in a healthy way.
The more Yeo Joon opened up to the people around him, the more he respected the boundaries of others and set his own, the more I, in turn, opened up to him. It must be stated that Yeo Joon’s growth did not excuse his prior actions. You cannot undo the harm caused. However, what it did was provide the space for forgiveness.
I cycled through many emotions as I watched this perfectly imperfect drama about youth. I examined my inability to take to Yeo Joon despite understanding the context for his actions. I wondered if I was unfair. Did I have irrational views about who is and is not deserving of sympathy? If a character or person is messy, if their journey towards betterment was yet to begin, were they not, still, worthy of kindness? Is it as simple and complex as being unable to detach my lived experiences from the media I consume? Was I incapable of extending grace? Yeo Joon allowed me to ask myself those questions, and ultimately, to answer them. For that, he will always have a place in my heart, this sweet boy who learned how to give and take sincerity.
Yoldine (merisoo) is a Pharmacist whose first and most persistent love has always been writing. She believes every Black girl deserves to see herself on the page, especially if it involves mastering magic, saving the world, and finding love. You can find her tweeting thoughts and then deleting them on Twitter at @merisoo.