For her mother in South Korea, SuJin Kim is a failure: She is over 30 years old, single and does not work for a large Korean corporation.
But to her millions of followers in Latin America, she has become a relatable friend and teacher of all things Korean. In Mexico, where she lives, they know her, in fact, as “Chinguamiga”, her online nickname, a mix of the words for friend in Korean and Spanish.
Her success was propelled not only by her resourcefulness and charisma, but also by a wave of South Korean popular culture that swept the world, driven in part by a government effort to position the country as a cultural giant and exert soft power.
In her homeland, Ms Kim, 32, struggled with the grind of a hyper-competitive society where success is defined narrowly. and young women face diminishing job prospects, stressful 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 followers on TikTok 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.
“It’s a package she came with,” said Dr. Renato Balderrama, who heads the Center for Asian Studies at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León in Monterrey, an industrial hub. with an expanding Korean presence. “She had all this training in Korea, in this new Korea, which allows her to land in a place like Mexico and be successful.”
A sort of teacher of comparative pop culture, 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 about her confusion with tips. (South Korea is a no-council country.) She showed followers how Korean students flocked for exams. She began traveling through Mexico tasting regional delicacies.
Her social media success attracted invitations to events, an award appointmentsmagazine spreads and sponsorship deals, and gave popular business instruction Korean language classes online. She moved from Monterrey to Mexico City to gain more exposure and grow her brand.
Ms. Kim’s burgeoning empire now includes an online store of Korean beauty products. She will be featured as a contestant on the second season of HBO’s “Bake Off Celebrity” show.
Ms. Kim’s success traces the growth of Korean influence in Mexico and the region. More than 2,000 Korean companies have a presence in Mexico, part of a so-called near-docking strategy that has pushed larger corporations — Kia, LG, Samsung, Hyundai, among others — to benefit from a free trade agreement with Canada and the United States.
South Korea not only arrived in Mexico with jobs, cars and cell phones, but also with something more intangible: its own idea of modern culture. K-pop, K-beauty, and K-dramas showed Latin Americans a new, different way to be cool.
K-pop groups have been performing to increasingly large and sold-out venues since 2012. This year, a summer festival will bring 16 Korean groups to Mexico City, with ticket prices starting at around $170.
Some newsstands specialize in magazines, posters and merchandise about South Korean celebrities. Netflix offers dubbing in “Latin Spanish” for Korean shows. Cinemas stream live K-pop concerts performed overseas.
Mrs. Kim grew up in Seoul but after working study in Canada and traveling through South America, she returned home and found 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 avoid severe exhaustion. She worked for a Korean multinational corporation and found the work rhythm too familiar so she started teaching Korean.
Then the pandemic turned the world upside down.
“It’s my moment, I have nothing to do,” she recalled thinking before she started posting her Korean classes on YouTube. “I had zero sightings, nobody saw me.”
Her videos were simple language lessons “Easy Words in Korean – 3 Minutes!” But then she pivoted to TikTok and uploaded a short clip, this time explaining Korean culture.
“That same day it had like 5,000 views and I was like, what?!” she said, her pointed fingernails decorated with bejeweled stars, bows and 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 class per week.
When the class started, 76 students had logged on. There were young girls and bespectacled moms and at least one long-haired businessman, spread across Central and South America.
Ms. Kim’s light blue curls bounced on the screen as she shook her head approvingly.
When a student trying to figure out how to pluralize singular nouns asked, “Not plural?” she chirped: “No! How neat, huh?”
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 her most popular videos. She has spoken openly about being hospitalized to take care of her mental health.
She attributes her burnout to Korea’s culture of sacrifice and grinding that helped the country become an economic power after the Korean War.
“Everything is fast, fast, right now, right this second,” Dr. Balderrama said. “This has created a culture where there’s no room for mediocrity, there’s no room for those who don’t want to compete.”
In Mexico, Ms. Kim hoped to find a happier life: “I saw what Latin culture is like, how Latin people live and they live happily,” she said. “I don’t want to waste a single moment when I’m in Latin America, because it’s very precious to me.”
But if Ms. Kim found a passion and a business, she didn’t quite find the peace she was looking for. She is in therapy to deal with what she described as some depression and anxiety.
Her large following and popularity fostered fear: “I feel like people will forget me, that no one 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 comments from people that affect me,” she added.
She is indeed criticized online by users who say she should go back to Korea, who ask if she pays taxes in Mexico (she says she does) and who consider her another foreigner lured by life on the cheap and who contribute to the gentrification of parts of the country at the expense of Mexican residents.
In a recent video,how she prepared go home for a visit, she showed an ID card, which she says is proof of her status as a legal resident. She wanted to dispel any rumors that she had to leave the country because she was on a tourist visa.
Ms. Kim declined to discuss her citizenship with The New York Times, but months ago she posted a video in which she said she took the exam become a citizen of Mexico.
By many standards, Ms. Kim made it. 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 fact for her,” she said after her visit home. “She’s still more worried than happy for me.”
However, after meeting Ms. Kim’s boyfriend and his family in South Korea, her parents promised to visit her in Mexico.