June 21, 2024

In January, the travel and fashion influencer Devin Halbal decided to take a trip to Kurashiki, a city in the Okayama Prefecture of Japan. Ms. Halbal, a Queens-born 26-year-old who goes by the username “Hal Baddie” on TikTok, had spent four years traveling around Europe with an extra-long selfie stick and a dream, sharing videos with hundreds of thousands of followers.

Ms. Halbal had become known for coining inspirational phrases, like “doll check-in” as a proud calling card to her fellow trans girls, and “Met Gala behavior,” for when you’re feeling and acting confident about what you’re wearing. Her fame seemed to peak in 2022 when she was profiled by W magazine and Rolling Stone, and invited on a brand trip to Ibiza by Loewe. But after globe-trotting and a few months off with friends in New York, she wanted to do more than “fashion and affirmations,” she said in a recent interview.

It was with this mind-set that she set off for Asia. Ms. Halbal said she loves finding places that are off the beaten path and close to nature — and Kurashiki, a small city of less than half a million people known as the birthplace of jeans in Japan, fit the bill.

She was experimenting, posting different types of travel videos. At the same time, she was learning Japanese, and there was one word she kept hearing everywhere: kudasai, which translates to “may I please have.”

“It kept on ringing in my head,” she said. “I would just be sitting down on a random Tuesday and I would just be thinking to myself: kudasai, kudasai.” She decided to make a video of herself using the word while walking down the street: “Sushi, kudasai,” (sushi, please) she says in a sing-songy voice while strutting with her selfie stick. “Ocha, kudasai.” (Tea, please.)

To date, the video has gotten more than 13.5 million views.

“I had no idea, out of all my content, that the one video that just goes super, super viral all throughout Asia is me saying five words,” Ms. Halbal said.

The video’s success convinced her to extend her stay in Japan; she went to Tokyo, Takamatsu, Mt. Fuji and Yamanashi, making videos about food, travel and the Japanese language. She made friends and volunteered on a farm. She started not just getting recognized on the street, but swarmed by fans. A quick trip to pick up some bubble tea became a two hour meet-and-greet. Then the fan accounts started cropping up, as did media coverage, calling her the “kudasai girl.”

“Now, ‘kudasai’ is the trend word in Japan,” a Japanese TikToker named Sorari said in a video posted last month, expressing surprise about how quickly and thoroughly Ms. Halbal’s content spread.

Ms. Halbal’s trip, originally planned for two weeks, turned into two months, and her reach expanded beyond Japan to other countries.

She started getting comments in Korean, Thai, Hindi, Nepali and Mandarin. “I’m like, ‘I have to do an Asia tour,’” she said. “What better way to continue learning about other cultures and continue learning about languages?”

Ms. Halbal attributes her success to the way she tries to actually speak the language and engage with different cultures wherever she goes. “I’m actually trying to pronounce the food in the way that they pronounce it — I’m not doing it with an American accent,” she said.

Last month, Ms. Halbal left Japan and traveled to Busan, South Korea. She’s still saying kudasai, but now she’s also started incorporating Korean into her vernacular, including the word for please, juseyo.

Now, the largest percentage of her followers on Instagram, where Ms. Halbal also shares her videos, are from the United States, but South Korea comes in second. At a recent meet-up at Korea University in Seoul, hundreds of fans crowded around her on the street, jostling to take selfies with her, or to give her food recommendations and ask her to speak in their language.

“Showcasing people’s food, showcasing people’s culture, in a way is a sense of community,” Ms. Halbal said. “You’re saying: I respect you, I value you and I value your food.”

She is continuing to tour Asia, with plans to potentially go to China, the Philippines and Malaysia. She said she was also weighing a permanent move to South Korea or Japan.

“I feel really at home here,” Ms. Halbal said. “People are so sweet. They treat me like I’m their family. So even though I’m ‘solo traveling,’ I never feel alone here.”

In South Korea, she said, some fans have started asking her to get into pop music.

“Especially in Korea, I think there’s a certain rhyme and cadence to the way that I’m speaking that they really want me to make music,” she said.

Is she ready to make the leap?

“I’m entering my K-pop star era,” Ms. Halbal teased.


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