in a Starbucks writing this, in a remote town in north New Jersey. Back home after a little over a month of being in Korea, but it doesn’t quite feel like home anymore.
Before I left for Korea, I never really realized that sometimes I would be the only person of color in a store. But while in Korea, I was surrounded by people who looked like me and who spoke my native language. I’m listening to K-pop right now, and it almost feels… surreal. It almost feels as if I’m in my own bubble, surrounded by my “foreignness”, despite living in America for almost 19 years.
To summarize my time in Korea, I should start with the beginning. Being on the plane to Korea was an experience in itself – I was shocked that the flight attendants spoke to me in Korean (although, in retrospect, what else would they have spoken?) and once I heard the captain say over the loudspeaker that we had landed at Incheon, my heart was pounding in my chest.
My uncle greeted me as soon as I exited into the airport’s main area and I immediately felt overwhelmed with emotions. I don’t often watch Korean dramas, but one I did watch when I was younger (You Are My Destiny or 너는 내 운명) had a scene where a mother is waiting in Incheon Airport for her daughter to come back home and happened to be filmed in the exact same spot that I had come out of. I was also meeting my uncle for the first time in years – my parents said that the last time I had seen any of my family in Korea was back when I was a baby. I had only ever heard stories about them from my dad but I had never paid them any attention.
One of the first things I did in Korea was go to Gyeongbok Palace. My cousin took me before dropping me off at the Ewha dormitories and tried his best to explain what each building was and the history behind the palace. Despite how hot it was, several tourists were wearing hanbok. The dresses were beautifully embroidered and decorated, and I wanted to wear one, although the rational part of my brain won over and said it was way too hot outside to wear such thick clothing. The only time in my life I’ve ever worn hanbok was when I was in elementary school and had a multicultural festival that was focused on Asia. I wore the hanbok to school but eventually ended up changing into a t-shirt and leggings because I felt so isolated. But walking through Gyeongbokgung, I was the one in jeans while other girls were proudly wearing hanbok.
(I still took pictures anyway.)
On the first Ewha field trip, I had the opportunity to witness traditional performances and outfits at the Korean folk village. The performances were fun and lively, contrasting the soothing images of nature surrounding the village. The quiet beauty of it all was peaceful.
My first weekend in Korea was spent with my family – I remember taking the subway to Yeongdeungpo Office station and was surprised at how clean the subway cars were. After a failed attempt to go to the Han River park (it started pouring as we were walking along the river, forcing us to take shelter by a convenience store), my uncle and aunt took me to a Korean barbecue place to eat 삼겹살 and I was reminded of the Korean barbecue places back home in the US.
I could go on and detail every single experience I had in Korea (going to Myeongdong, doing an escape the room puzzle for the first time, my first time going to a PC bang, my first time doing karaoke, going to an EXO concert, eating at the restaurant at the top of N Seoul Tower, etc.,) but this essay would drag on and become repetitive.
It’s super cliché to say that my study abroad experience changed me and I hate describing it as a so-called “magical experience” but there definitely has been a shift in how I perceive myself as a member of the Korean diaspora. For years, I’ve felt as if I’ve been “faking it” as a Korean – I refused to learn the language growing up, I refused to eat Korean food like 김치찌개 or 순두부찌개, and I definitely was not interested in any aspect of Korean history or culture. That’s all on me, but growing up in a predominantly white town where anything that didn’t conform to the “norm” was considered weird was stifling to any attempts at connecting with my ethnicity. I was so afraid of being Korean, of being “different” that I cut myself off until college, which is when I realized that it’s okay to not be just “American”. I’m not nationally Korean – spending a month there and trying to adjust to all the cultural differences taught me that real quick – but I’m not wholly American either, like I wanted to be while growing up.
That doesn’t mean I don’t wonder about what life would be like if I hadn’t been adopted and brought over to the US. I mentioned that it’d be nice to visit the city of Suwon (where I was born) and a week later, I was in a car with my aunt and uncle driving there. I don’t really know what I expected, but I didn’t feel as if it was any different from Seoul. I found myself imagining my birth mother walking through the streets, and a small part of my brain imagined myself growing up there, walking with her.
Despite this, I didn’t feel like I truly belonged there in Korea – I felt as if there was always something distinctly “foreign” about me. But I still reveled in the fact that everyone had the same features I did and spoke the same language my parents sometimes spoke at home. I wasn’t a minority for once, and that alone made me feel something akin to belonging.
I’m a Korean adoptee. I was given the blessing of being raised by Korean parents, but I grew up more “American” than anything else. This trip to Korea gave me something – inner strength, perhaps? – something I needed in order to be able to reclaim the Korean half of Korean-American. I’m still reconciling the differences between Korea and America, and I’m still coming to terms with the fact that I won’t be going back for a while. But I’m determined to become more fluent in Korean in hopes that maybe I can spend a gap year in Seoul after I graduate college and explore more of this newfound part of myself.
I want to thank Ewha for the opportunity to visit the country where I was born and have fun while taking classes with the field trips. If I have the opportunity to participate in the International Summer College again, I definitely will.
To end this, here are some of my favorite pictures that I took in the month I spent there.