Light on Me

The Development of Daon

My Love Letter to Shin Da On

If you asked me who my favorite character was after the first episode of the Korean BL drama Light on Me, I would have said Noh Shin Woo. I find myself innately drawn to compassionate characters who use an indifferent exterior to shield themselves from others. I like the layers that have to be peeled back in order to discover who they truly are and what damage caused them to shield themselves in the first place.

I still love Shin Woo. He is everything I adore in a tsundere character with a surprisingly warm personality. He’s romantic, loyal, selfless, and protective, genuinely embodying the characteristics that make for a solid, healthy relationship. He’s also openly gay without being overtly loud about it, expressing his sexuality in a subtle way that resonates with those he interacts with. He speaks in gestures rather than words and that touches me. Add these wonderful characteristics to a past of bullying and rumors, and he’s precisely the kind of “grew from but didn’t get tarnished by” damaged character I live for.

So, color me shocked when I realized halfway through Light on Me that my favorite character in this drama is none other than Shin Da On, and it has nothing to do with romance.

Every once in a while, I stumble on a show that delivers a character that speaks to my soul in a surprising, unexpected way. It can be anything from a specific personality trait to a certain personal struggle. With Da On, it is both. He came on a little strong for me in the beginning, this really bright character who literally exudes positive energy and kindness. He was much too happy, and I admit I was a little thrown by that at first. Not because I have a thing against happiness, positivity, or kindness, but because there was too much of it. It blinded me, and it reminded me a lot of … well, me.

Then came the pain.

I am Daon, and because of that, he both hurts me and lifts me up. Years ago, I was traveling for work. As a writer, I mingle with a lot of the same people at work events. I meet with authors, influencers, and assistants who all attend the same conferences to promote their work to the public and to meet our readers. At one such event, I had a friend approach me to tell me she’d heard a person I thought I knew well speaking about me to others. The comments made weren’t necessarily bad ones, but they weren’t kind either. According to this person, I was too bright to be real, that it couldn’t be possible for someone to smile so much and do so much for others without that someone being fake. Although I consider myself a strong person, and even though the biting remarks were nothing compared to things I’ve been through or things I’ve heard in my life, I cried for hours inside my hotel room. I sobbed because my smiles and my compassionate gestures weren’t fake, but they were excessively exhausting. It is mentally draining to spend so much time trying to please everyone while sacrificing your health to do so. Especially when, after everything, you are offered disdain instead of gratitude.

I was also hiding.

I liked being told I was nice. It felt good. I liked being thanked for helping someone. It made me feel needed. I hated saying no because it made me feel like a terrible person. But it made me feel even worse to suddenly be called fake for something I thought genuinely meant something to others. That’s when I realized I had created all these positive expectations from others because I didn’t want to face myself.

I was not being fake, and neither is Da On, but happiness can be as much a shield as indifference. I might be attracted to tsundere characters, but in real life, I am Da On. In truth, I still do more for others and say “yes” too often to my detriment at times. There is nothing wrong with kindness, but there should be limits that keep a person from being taken advantage of simply because they like feeling needed.

I’m not hiding anymore, but neither is Da On.

Although my childhood differed heavily from Da On’s wealthier background, we share absentee, disapproving parents. Both of my parents are deceased now, but I grew up knowing that if I ever came out to my parents, I would be disowned and possibly abused. My mother wasn’t a vindictive, uncaring person, so I’d like to think she would have accepted me as who I am. On the other hand, my father, was a violent man with strong opinions, and I didn’t dare express myself in front of him. The fear was real.

So, in middle school when I suddenly realized I had feelings for my same-sex best friend, I kept those desires close to my heart and struggled with my confusion in silence, all with a smile on my face. When I kissed a girl for the first time, and then awkwardly ran away because I didn’t know what to do with these huge feelings that consumed me, I screamed into a pillow and then went to school the next day, all with a smile on my face.

Smiles can be genuine and still hide pain. Smiles can represent confusion without being fake. Smiles can express desire and still be uncertain.

And this is how I fell down the Da On hole and realized I’m in love with him, and it had nothing to do with whether he or Shin Woo are right for Tae Kyung and everything to do with me. I fell in love with a smiling boy who was randomly outed before he’d even had a chance to figure himself out. I fell in love with a smiling boy who never realized the expectations people had of him were so big he didn’t know how to fit into them anymore. I fell in love with a smiling boy who took a step back, looked at himself, and decided to start over.

Every episode I found myself trying to catch glimpses of him on screen. Was he okay? Did he feel better about himself? Did he understand that, even though Tae Kyung and Shin Woo had a valid reason for being angry with him based on their own feelings, that he wasn’t actually a terrible person? Did he understand that it is still okay to be kind? Is he going to feel better about himself after he confesses? All of these thoughts kept pouring out of my heart because I’ve been that confused person who fell in love with myself by falling in love with someone else.

Remember the best friend I fell for in middle school? Remember the person I ran away from after we kissed? That was her. Her name is Katie. I haven’t seen her since our middle school days because her family lost their house to a fire, and they suddenly moved away, but she was my first love. She never questioned her own feelings toward me, but I certainly questioned mine toward her. She never got angry at me for being afraid or confused, and she didn’t give up on me when I avoided her for days after we kissed because I didn’t understand myself enough to understand my feelings. She simply waited, and then told me how beautiful and kind I was when I felt anything but. In her eyes, I meant something, and her love for me made me realize what I meant to myself.

I don’t know who Tae Kyung’s choice will be in Light on Me. I’m not really even sure it matters. What matters is how much all of these characters have developed since the first episode.

“Anyone who truly cares about you will like and respect you regardless of who you are”

NAMGOONG, Light on Me

What matters is that Da On, even if he loses Tae Kyung, gained something much larger than romance. He gained self-confidence, self-worth, and personal validation. Sometimes we forget that the greatest love stories are often the ones we have with ourselves, which is why both Namgoong and Mr. Seo Haet Bit, are also such important and valid characters. When everyone else was telling Da On what an awful person he was, they stood up and said, “You are a good person,” “You are my favorite,” and “Just be you.” That’s so much more important than “I love you.” To have someone build you up during a time of confusion is what real love stories are made of.

No matter Tae Kyung’s choice, I will be thrilled with who he ends up because it was his choice. Shin Woo’s love is a steady one built over time and full of reassurance. Every time he looks at Tae Kyung under his love sick, hooded eyes, my heart flutters. He suits Tae Kyung well. Da On’s love is new and a little uncertain, but it doesn’t make it any less powerful. Love is love. No love should undermine another love, no matter where you are at in loving yourself or someone else. Da On’s new love is shakier. It left him needing time, and in that time, he lost important ground in Tae Kyung’s heart. That’s how love triangles work. Two people in love with the same person open themselves up to possibly getting hurt by that love. I think Da On has more pain on his horizon, because Tae Kyung is reaching for something steady and sure. With only a couple episodes left, Da On may not be the steady Tae Kyung is looking for, but Da On is certainly the strong kind of love that snuck into my heart. And when or if he ever cries in this series, it will break me. Because tears for someone who only allows himself to smile is truly heartbreaking.

In truth, I wouldn’t mind another series about Da On, one where he falls in love with someone like my first love, Katie, whose patience gave me the wings I needed to fly. Someone who just kept standing there no matter how fast I ran so that she could catch me when I fell, pick me up, brush me off, and say, “You are beautiful. What we are doing is okay. What we are doing is just as beautiful as you are.”

Not everyone has the luxury or safety to come out to their family and friends. There are many who are even afraid to acknowledge their sexuality to themselves. We may all be in different stages of our truths and our lives and in love, but in Light on Me, Da On made me feel seen in a very special way. He made me cry in a drama I never expected to shed tears in while watching. He made me feel valid rather than fake. All while smiling through his pain.

Society has a bad habit of seeing confusion and taking time for oneself as selfishness and cowardice, but everyone goes through a period of confusion in their lives. Everyone goes through a stage where they question themselves and their choices. For some that stage is smooth and uncomplicated and honest. For others, that period is full of potholes, obstacles, fear, doubt, and lying to ourselves. To call anyone a coward or selfish for taking the time to face themselves, takes away from the bravery it takes to say, “I’m gay,” even if they fought it to begin with. Fighting oneself first simply means the battle was harder to win, but the victory is no less sweet. Da On, you are brave. You may not be Tae Kyung’s choice, and that’s okay. Starting over and moving forward to allow yourself to sometimes say “no” and to love whomever moves your heart is something that should be celebrated.

The character that felt too bright for me at the beginning ended up being the one that spoke to me the most. No matter how this drama ends or what kind of story it concludes with, this is the kind of impact a show should strive for. There are going to be a lot of love letters written to these characters, because each of them is going to speak personally to someone. For me, Da On stood up, raised his hand, and said, “Look at me.” And I looked.

Thank you, Da On, for growing. Thank you for letting us grow with you.