Wenjia Tang

Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with two fans of the Korean-pop band BTS about how discovering the band rekindled their friendship when they had started to drift apart, and how the music taught them to be emotionally vulnerable.

The Friends:

Haley Samsel, 22, an editor at Security Today, who lives in Plano, Texas.
Anna Villano, 22, a nurse who lives in Plano, Texas.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Julie Beck: How did you meet?

Anna Villano: We’ve been best friends for 15 years. We were put in the same class in second grade, and we were put in an after-school program together, too. As a second grader, my process was like, I’ll make friends with the person that I’ve seen already. My initial thought, for some reason, was to ask her what her favorite animal was. My favorite animal at the time was zebras, and hers happened to be zebras too, and the rest is history.

In school, we were just attached at the hip. I remember always finding a way to be together for extracurricular activities and stuff.

Haley Samsel: Anna and I were obsessed with staying together. Anna ended up joining the high-school newspaper just because she knew I wanted to do it. [We were always like,] “We need to guarantee that we have a class together so we can survive high school.”

Beck: What were you into when you were in high school?

Haley: I think we've always had a lot of common interests. That was what brought us together, from zebras to music, and—

Anna: Basketball.

Haley: We love basketball. Also, I was a big nerd, so a lot of people didn’t like to listen to me talk about whatever I was obsessed with that week. But Anna really loves to hear people talk about what they’re passionate about, even if she has no interest in the topic. I was obsessed with the civil-rights movement and American history. She would just nod and be like, “I’m glad you’re excited about this.”

Haley and Anna in third grade.
Haley (left) and Anna (right) in third grade (Courtesy of Haley Samsel)

Beck: Anna, are you like that too? Do you have really passionate interests?

Anna: Haley makes it sound so one-sided. But when I have interests, I’m an evangelist for them. I’m always encouraging people to listen to what I’m currently listening to. Haley’s always been really supportive of all of my interests, no matter how ridiculous they were, like my high-school crazy One Direction phase. She had their songs in her playlist, too, because she wanted to be able to relate to me in that way. There’s always something new that we’re discovering through each other.

Beck: After high school, you guys drifted apart a bit. What happened?

Anna: Life got in the way. Haley moved to D.C., so we weren’t able, obviously, to see each other every day like we were used to.

Haley: I went to American University.

Anna: And I went to a community college here in Plano. I was trying to get into nursing school. And about a year after we graduated high school, my mom was diagnosed with leukemia, and Haley was far away. We would still talk on the phone, but being 18 years old and not really understanding the true gravity of your emotions at a time that’s incredibly hectic, it was hard. I imagine it was hard for Haley to reach out and gauge how I was feeling. I also didn’t [want to] feel like I was pouring everything onto her, because I know she was dealing with stuff too. And the fact that we were in school was just another thing piled onto it.

Haley: I was incredibly close to Anna’s family my entire life. I was mostly raised by my grandparents and my mom, because my dad wasn’t really part of the picture. Anna’s family was so welcoming. I stuck out like a sore thumb at every family event. We have so many photographs of me at Filipino Catholic events: a white, red-haired girl in the background.

Anna: We have pictures of my entire extended family in one room, and then there’s a little Haley also there.

Haley: It was really tough for me to leave Plano, because I felt like I was losing a big support system with her family. And then her mom passed away in November 2016. That was probably the hardest year, from November 2016 to November 2017.

A family photo featuring Haley Samsel. (Courtesy of Haley Samsel.)
Haley (second from right) celebrates Easter with Anna (far right) and her family. (Courtesy of Haley Samsel)

What’s interesting about friendship once you get older is that you have to figure out how to move from being friends because you see each other every day at school to whatever adult friendship is, which I’m still trying to figure out. In our case, we didn’t know how to navigate all these emotional situations, or how to communicate those emotions to somebody else. We hadn’t ever been super emotionally vulnerable. We had talked about my depression [before], but we had only touched the surface.

Anna: We hadn’t discussed it in depth.

Haley: It was like her mom’s diagnosis. We had not broken that down either.

Anna: It was hard for me to talk to other people, because I didn’t even know what I was feeling.

Beck: What was the result of that for your friendship during college?

Anna: In early college, we would check up on each other. I think Facebook Messenger was our main mode of conversation. We would talk about articles that Haley was writing and day-to-day stuff. It was surface-level small talk. It wasn’t conversations that dug deep into what we were truly feeling. It didn’t feel like our friendship wavered or anything—it was a constant. But it wasn’t as full-fledged as it is now, I feel.

Beck: And, ultimately, it was getting into the Korean-pop band BTS that brought you back to full-fledged friendship.

Haley: In November 2017, Anna messaged me on Facebook, as usual. She said, “Please take care of this,” and she sent me a video of a BTS dance practice. She was essentially telling me, “Do not make fun of me for liking this. This is important to me. I hope that you’ll just watch it and be into it.”

Anna: I have listened to music my entire life. I’ve listened to Bollywood music, Filipino music, bachata, everything. K-pop was a whole new genre that I was ready to explore. But it was really easy to be drawn to [BTS]. I was really excited to tell Haley about it. From there, I think we both dragged each other down the rabbit hole.

Beck: Could you tell me a little bit more about the band and why you like them?

A screenshot of a message about BTS.
Anna and Haley’s first conversation about BTS (Courtesy of Haley Samsel)

Haley: BTS is a Korean boy band made up of seven members. Most of their music is entirely in Korean, but it also has English choruses [sometimes]. They incorporate a lot of hip hop and pop music. They were definitely innovators of the genre. I think somehow this group melded with all of our interests. What drew Anna to them was their performances. I was an international studies major at AU, so I was already interested in like, "This music is in a different language. What's going on in Korean culture?"

And we really liked their lyrics. I think in American pop and hip-hop, you’re often drawn to the beat, and with K-pop, too, people are drawn to the sound. But the lyrics are so much deeper than anything I’m listening to in American pop right now.

Anna: They’re very poetic in a way that is hard to describe unless you actually look up the lyrics. They’re just so self-reflective.

Haley: Their message also—they have a “Love Yourself” campaign, trying to get people to think more deeply about mental health, and not being so hard on yourself.

Anna: Everything they talked about struck a chord with me, especially because I was just so lost after my mom died. They have lyrics that are like, “You never walk alone.” In their music, they discuss mental health, acknowledging emotions that you’re feeling and that other people are feeling the same thing. They always emphasize to their fans, too, that they’re there for us. It’s a deep connection between an artist and a fan that I haven’t ever felt before.

Beck: Are you guys involved in the broader BTS fandom? What is the vibe of that fandom?

Haley: BTS’s fandom name is Army, and among Army, people always talk about how BTS seems to have found them at a time in their life when they really needed the band. A time when you felt truly low. For me, it was when all my friends were studying abroad.

Anna and I found them in November. Then I came home for winter break, over December, and we lost our minds collectively. By January, I had created a Twitter account [devoted to them].

Anna: Haley and I started our BTS Twitter accounts at the same time.

Haley: It’s so much easier to connect with the fandom [that way], because you need translations in order to really understand what’s going on.

Anna: And [the band members are] very active on Twitter, too.

Beck: Are there a lot of fans who speak Korean and English who will immediately translate stuff from the band when it comes out?

Haley: Exactly, yes.

Anna: Haley and I both have notifications on for the members’ accounts and then the translation account so that we get those at the same time.

Haley: When you say it out loud, it sounds insane.

Anna: It sounds insane, but it makes it so much easier to connect to the group. Army is amazing.

Beck: Have you guys made other friends through that community?

Anna: Before I had my BTS account on Twitter, I was using my regular account, retweeting all of my BTS stuff on there, because, again, I am a musical evangelist. So the people following me already, who I had been acquainted with in high school, had seen that content. [Some people] reached out to me and after that, we formed really good friendships. Now we follow each other on our BTS accounts, and we hang out. We went to the BTS concert together. I probably would have never talked to them anymore after high school had it not been for BTS. And now they’re like my closest friends.

Beck: Is it just fandom generally, the act of connecting over something, that helps people get close, or was there something about BTS specifically that served that function for you, in a way something else wouldn’t?

Haley: I think K-pop [fans] have such devotion because it requires you to really invest your time and energy into I’m going to look up these translations. I’m going to watch these videos. Im going to wait for English subtitles. You have to really care about this.

I think there is something special about this group, but that’s because we are insane fans of them. But they bring so many different types of people together, and give people an opportunity to look past their bias against the language barrier, against whatever they think this music is, and just expand. I just feel like I’m a completely different person after getting into this fandom.

Anna: It’s super fun to keep up with, because for BTS and [other] K-pop artists, compared with Western artists, they are churning out content constantly. They make it so easy to be a fan of them, because you can tell how much they care about their craft and [connecting] with their fans.

Haley: As far as fandom culture, it is different because I know that if someone loves BTS, at least they have an open mind to listening to something that’s not “typical.” They’re willing to put in the time and energy that’s required to understand K-pop and Korean culture.

Beck: When you guys were starting to get into BTS, and rekindling your friendship, how did that go? Was it purely BTS talk at first, or did you get back into your old friendship groove right away?

Haley: I think we immediately were back into our day-to-day banter. It wasn’t just about BTS. Anna and I have like 60 different conversations going on at once. I think most best friends can relate to this—you’re texting, you’re on Facebook Messenger, you’re on Instagram, you’re on Twitter, you’re emailing. We’ll be trying to have a serious talk about something going on in my life, and at the exact same time, I'm messaging her a meme about BTS.

Anna: And I’m like, “We’re having a serious conversation right now. Are you really sending me this?”

Haley: [What really helped] our friendship develop again was when we started doing this book-club thing every week.

Beck: Explain what that was.

Haley and Anna videochatting.
Haley (left) and Anna (right) videochatting about BTS (Courtesy of Haley Samsel)

Haley: BTS released this series called Burn the Stage on YouTube Premium.

Anna: It was like a documentary-style thing for the tour that they were on the previous year.

Haley: Each week, we would just break down the episode. And that led to, “Let’s talk about things going on in our lives.” Eventually, I started keeping notes on my phone of things going on in my life to tell Anna during book club each week.

Beck: Why did you call it a book club?

Anna: You know how book clubs meet to talk about what they had read that week?

Beck: Yeah. More like video club.

Anna: But I just called it “book club” for some reason. It was every Wednesday at 9 p.m. after I had finished with class and Haley had finished at work.

A milestone for me as far as our friendship growing was when the news of Anthony Bourdain’s death came out. It really affected me because I had watched Anthony Bourdain, growing up with my mom. I was devastated. I was like, “Listen, I know book club isn’t in for another couple of days, but I really need to talk to you now.” I called Haley, and we had a really long, good conversation about our emotions. Then I got super sappy and made a whole Instagram post about it because I was just so happy to have Haley there as my friend.

That day didn’t change anything. It just solidified that Haley will always be there for me to talk about whatever. It honestly feels like it’s just like me thinking out loud, and my brain talking back to me. We’re almost psychically connected.

Haley: Just to clarify, the Burn the Stage series was only seven episodes or something. So book club turned into just, “We need to check in with each other.” This past year was tough because we’re coming into adulthood. You’re trying to figure out, Where do I end up next? How do I navigate these emotional situations with people who don’t really understand what I'm going through? Especially in Anna’s case, with grief and the loss of a parent. A lot of people our age don’t know how to respond to that. That was something that we talked about a lot: “How do I handle their reaction? What if it’s not the reaction I want?”

Anna: And what reaction do I even want?

Haley: Also right now there’s so much news about racial bias, gender, and religion. I think neither of us had ever really talked about experiences that people of color have, that Asian Americans have. BTS is challenging a lot of these stereotypes that people have of Asians and of Asian men specifically. So we got way deeper into, “What is going on with all these Asian stereotypes, and how is that playing out in Anna’s life?”

Beck: It’s interesting because I feel like at the beginning of our conversation, you were saying, “For a lot of our friendship, we didn’t really talk about emotionally vulnerable things.” But what you just described sounds like you were having very emotionally intelligent, deep conversations. Was there something that shifted that for you? Is BTS somehow involved?

Anna: The way me and Haley talk, we will go on like a billion different tangents. I am not exaggerating when I say our conversations last at least three hours. When we were doing book club, the first half hour would’ve been about the episode. And then it would be like, “Oh, did you see on Twitter how this person was talking about BTS in this way?” Then we would talk about how that relates to our lives. One thing leads to another thing.

Haley: We already have such a deep foundation of knowing each other’s lives inside and out. I think because we were connecting so deeply with this music, the person who was the most ideal to share that with was the person who already knows most of your life.

Anna: BTS opened the door as far as presenting us with an opportunity to have a conversation. We would talk about them, and it would all circle back to their whole message. They are just so honest with their music as far as how they’re feeling. It encouraged me to be more open about what I was feeling, and communicating that to other people.

Haley: Fans are often prone to saying, “This band saved my life.” BTS made us realize we have to save ourselves. We have to start connecting with ourselves emotionally, and start talking to each other more about what’s really going on, or else we’re not going to make it.


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