After a week at home with my family, I am already on my way back to my second home: the beautiful Hilltop, Georgetown University. My mom has the car stereo maxed out (seriously, I think they might break) as we fill these 8 hours with her favorites from my iPod.
I’ve used this past week to lounge around, catch up on sleep, see friends from high school, pack (kind of), and reflect on my trip to Korea.
I am very aware of the fact that I learned a lot on my trip, but when asked to vocalize these thoughts, the only thing I can say is that I received a sense of affirmation.
Allow me to clarify:
I grew up in a predominantly white area as a second generation Korean (meaning that my parents were born in South Korea, but I was born in the states). Because of this, I always felt like an anomaly and was the target of the typical schoolyard comments you would expect from preteens who don’t know any better.
So, I was always careful not to be “too Asian”, whatever that means. I tried to not be quiet, not to be subservient, to do athletics, to not only have Asian friends, and to not be what everyone expected me to be at first glance. It should be noted, however, that I have always been proud to be Korean. It was just not easy for me to strike a balance between my heritage and nationality.
Middle school was not a great time for me in terms of being comfortable with my racial identity, but I settled into it and by junior year of high school I felt as though I had achieved the idea of “Korean-American” pretty fully. This is entirely due to my parents, who have always done an excellent job of making sure I was learned in the Korean culture: the food, the traditions, the family structure, and what it meant to be a Korean in this country and how far we’ve come.
I’ve always wanted to go to Korea and this summer it finally worked out. Part of me expected to feel comfortable in Korea, around people who looked like me and who understood a part of me that nobody else had ever really been able to identify with. The other part of me feared that I would not be Korean enough for them. After all, I didn’t even speak Korean.
My trip, unfortunately, started out with an emphasis on the latter. I felt the need to explain myself to others, to explain why I was so, for lack of a better term, “white washed”. I found my subconscious trying to turn my middle school mentality upside down to prove to others that I wasn’t too American, to prove that I was, indeed, 100% Korean.
People in Seoul frequently told me that I didn’t even look Korean; that I looked Japanese, half-Asian, westernized, or ‘I don’t know, just not Korean’. This frequently took me by surprise since, for my entire life, I was one of very few Asian people in my community. I looked Asian, so I was Asian, and it ended there. Nobody ever questioned the specificity of my looks compared to my racial background.
I found myself finding more things about Seoul life not only familiar, but comfortable. I loved explaining parts of Korean culture to my foreign friends and speaking Korean to anyone who would listen to me try.
I’m coming out of this trip with no regrets and feel like I’ve achieved a lot. I’m now fully moved into my room at Georgetown, feeling the excitement that comes along with the promise of a new year. I’m also coming out of this trip realizing how much I’ve taken living in DC for granted. In Seoul, a 12 minute walk to the subway station in the awful humidity plus 40 minutes on the subway to Gangnam did not seem that far at all. In DC, I am too lazy to even take a 5 minute bus and 15 minute metro ride to check out all of the free awesome museums. I intend to travel around DC more (though it is much more expensive to do so here than it is in Seoul).
Thank you for bearing with me through this long post, but there you have it. The answer to the question “what did you learn in Korea?”
(oh I also learned international economics. It’s easy to forget that I was taking classes…)