3 members of Big Ocean on stage in front of purple background.

Big Ocean debuts as K-pop’s first hard of hearing idol group

An interview with the trio, who found harmony beyond hearing and are ready to create a more inclusive entertainment scene for all

From left: Chanyeon, Hyunjin and Jiseok

Parastar Entertainment

K-pop trio Big Ocean is breaking barriers in the industry by pursuing their performing aspirations despite disabilities. Comprising Park Hyunjin, Lee Chanyeon, and Kim Jiseok, they represent the first all-hard-of-hearing idol group. Hyunjin and Chanyeon experienced hearing loss at ages 3 and 11, respectively, while Jiseok has been hard of hearing since birth. Chanyeon underwent cochlear implant surgery in both ears, while Hyunjin has one implant and utilizes a hearing aid for the other ear. Jiseok relies on hearing aids for both ears.

Before joining Parastar Entertainment, led by CEO Haley Cha, known for nurturing talents with disabilities, each member had distinct paths. Hyunjin, a former YouTuber with a computer engineering background, was steered towards Parastar by model Kim Jongwook. Chanyeon, previously an audiologist at Korea University Anam Hospital, was introduced to the industry by deaf actors Troy Kotsur and Kim Lihoo, pioneers in their fields. Lastly, Jiseok, a former alpine skier, was scouted by Parastar.

Their debut on April 20 coincided with Korea's Day of People with Disabilities. Recently, I engaged in a late-night Zoom with Big Ocean from Korea. As someone with a physical disability, Cerebral Palsy, conversing with them was an especially poignant experience. Big Ocean talked about their artistic motivations and aspirations for reshaping the landscape for individuals with disabilities.

From left: Chanyeon, Jiseok and Hyunjin of Big Ocean.
From left: Chanyeon, Jiseok and Hyunjin of Big Ocean.

Daniel Anderson: What was your training like to become idols?

Kim Jiseok: I spent about a year and a half to two years training in dance and sign language. We were on a strict diet as well. What I found most challenging was to find harmony and chemistry with the other members.

Park Hyunjin: I also found difficulties working and collaborating with our members because the level of our hearing is different. One member dances faster or one dances slower than the others. It was hard to find the middle ground. That's why we started to work together even more to find harmony between us. The company also made suggestions that we should watch vibrations from smartwatches and use it as a metronome. We also used light metronomes from flashing monitors to visually dance to the rhythm. Another challenge that I had was learning how to dance because my body moves differently than what my mind would think. The strict diets also made things challenging.

DA: Given that you all are hard of hearing individuals, did you find that actually made you stronger communicators with one another in other ways?

Lee Chanyeon: So whenever we listen to the music for the first time, we share with one another which part we don’t hear and work together to make ourselves in sync. The communication process begins with sign language. 

KJ: When we learn choreography from our choreographer, we talk about the accuracy of the beat count with one another. We practiced on that and found the middle ground to dance.

DA: Tell me the meaning behind the name Big Ocean?

PH: Our name is Big Ocean because when you see the big ocean, it can be very peaceful and comfortable for people. We want to extend hope and positive energy to everyone like a big ocean. Our signature color is turquoise blue.

DA: You chose “Hope” as your debut track. It is a song originally released in 1998 by K-pop boy group H.O.T. What led you to choose this particular song for your debut?

: Yes, our debut song is a remake version of the song “Hope” by H.O.T. The original song was actually made during the IMF crisis here in Korea when the entire country was struggling financially. The song's message is about everyone standing up together and overcoming difficulties. That’s the message that we want to convey to the public with our debut.

DA: Your choreography incorporates Korean sign language, American sign language (ASL), and international sign language (ISL). Did you all grow up learning those sign languages or were some of them new for you?

KJ: I grew up learning Korean sign language because I went to a special school for students with hearing disabilities up until high school. Then I started learning ISL and ASL after I joined Parastar Entertainment and I'm learning them from a professional.

PH: Unlike Jiseok, I went to regular school so I didn't have the chance to learn Korean sign language. However, after I became a university student, I found a sign language club and I made more friends with hearing disabilities. I had more opportunities to communicate with them and learn Korean sign language with them. I also learned a little bit of ASL during that time too. I started learning more ASL and started ISL after I joined Parastar entertainment as well.

: I only started learning sign languages after I joined Parastar Entertainment so I'm learning all of those three sign languages at the same time. 

DA: How has the reaction been to your debut? Are there any particularly touching messages from fans that you have received?

KJ: The most memorable comment I got was, “Thank you for gathering up your courage to stand in front of the world.”

PH: A comment that I received was, “Despite your hearing disability, I'm amazed by how you guys can dance in sync. Your performance is amazing and it's very touching.”

LC: There were a lot of people from the audience during our live performance or people who watched our performance on TV in their homes. Many of them told us that they didn't know at first that we were hard of hearing. They thought that the performance was fantastic and they hoped for the best.

DA: What daily challenges do you face that you wish more people were aware of?

PH: I like the fact that some people don't know we are hard of hearing. They naturally just learn and find out after they watch our performance. When we perform live on stage our disabilities are not seen and detected by the audience. But despite our disability, we can still put up a really good performance. I think that's what makes us more special.

LC: Because we are hard of hearing, there are times when we have to keep asking questions or asking the person to repeat what they just said, especially when we're in an environment that's not familiar or when we're talking to some people for the first time.

KJ: When I'm talking to some people in an unfamiliar environment, I also find it hard to get what they say right away. I hope that people understand and are aware that it may take more time for us to understand.

DA: Are there any changes or accommodations you'd like to see in the concert going experience for people with disabilities or in the entertainment industry at large?

LC: I want people to have a different perspective or change their perspective on people with disabilities. I want people to see us as people with special characteristics or features rather than disability. I want people to understand disability as just a trait.

PH: When I go to a concert hall, I find a lot of venues that are insufficient with infrastructure for people with disabilities. I went to a venue and there were only stairs so people in wheelchairs couldn't really access it. I hope more concerts are held in venues with more sufficient accommodations.

KJ: Other than seating arrangements at concert venues, I hope there are more changes to visually help people with disabilities. For instance, bigger letters, bigger signs and sign language interpreters. 

DA: Are you interested in producing your own music in the future?

KJ: I want to try making and producing our own music whenever we can.

PH: I actually want to try a unique concept because I have difficulty hearing. Since I was young, I was more drawn to quiet and calm songs like classical and orchestral music. I also learned the piano and I listened to a lot of piano songs as well. I don't know if the other two members will want to do this, but I want each of us to play an instrument such as flute or cello, all at the same time like an orchestra. We would have no lyrics, we'll just play our instruments, and we will just try to make our own tunes and melodies and communicate with each other musically.

LC: I want to improve my language skills, my vocabulary and my grammar. I want to be able to write lyrics in Korean and English and maybe put the two languages in one song together.

DA: And who would be some dream collaborations for you?

KJ: BTS’ RM is my role model. I hope to meet him one day in person and collaborate on a video.

PH: I also have a role model. Mine is Yeonjun from Tomorrow x Together. We are the same age and same MBTI type. I really like his personality, and I’m amazed by how he dances. I want to practice and dance like him one day. 

LC: I like Mark from NCT Dream. He’s known as the hexagon idol because he is so multi-talented. I would love to collaborate with NCT Dream.

DA: How do you define success? What are some goals you hope to achieve?

KJ: How I define success is realizing your dream by action. That's the only way you can go towards your dream. The goal that I want to achieve in the future is to have a world tour and communicate with fans, be with them in the same space, and maybe communicate with them in sign language.

PH: Success is the courage to challenge yourself. If you want something you have to have courage. That's the only shortcut to success. The goal I want to achieve in the future is, like I said, to have a concert and maybe play music in an orchestra format with my members. I want to perform an unprecedented type of new unique music to make our fans touched and happy.

LC: I define success by being able to continuously feel accomplished and satisfied. I told you that when I was pursuing my career as an idol, I was able to have this dream because I saw myself improving. Whenever I feel that way, I know that I'm heading towards success and I know that I'm on the right track.

From left: Chanyeon, Hyunjin and Jiseok.
From left: Chanyeon, Hyunjin and Jiseok.

DA: What impact do you hope Big Ocean will have? Do you have a message for others out there with a disability?

PH: I told you in the beginning when I was introducing our group that Big Ocean means we want to convey positive energy. I want to be able to share our energy and I want to inspire other people. That's how I want Big Ocean to be remembered.

KJ: I want Big Ocean to be remembered as a group that keeps growing. I want our group to be able to get a lot of respect from others. I want to say to our fans that I really feel grateful for them always giving us a lot of support and sharing a lot of positive messages and comments.

LC: I want people to know that whether you have disabilities or not, if you dream something, if you want to achieve something, you have to have an actionable plan, carry it out and prove it. I want Big Ocean to convey that kind of message.

Published on May 15, 2024

Words by Daniel Anderson

Daniel Anderson is a disabled Chinese American adoptee based in Seattle. His freelance writing specialties include K-pop, entertainment, and food. He believes that any restaurant can be a buffet, and the key to success is to take a nap each day. Follow his adventures on Instagram @danzstan.