I studied abroad for one academic year as an exchange student at Sogang University in Seoul, South Korea, where I took two semesters of Korean in addition to regular courses. But the main component of my project involved just being in Korea. I wanted to experience Korea as a way to learn and grow personally. I got to practice using Korean through everyday life situations, and I got to experience various aspects of life in Korea firsthand.
The greatest transformation that took place was something a little bit more subtle, yet equally as profound. I got to learn so much more about myself and others. You see, I’m a Korean adoptee who has been interested in Korea for as long as I can remember. I didn’t really get to meet many Asian people growing up until coming to OSU. I believe I was very naïve at that time, and maybe I still am. But to give you an idea, I didn’t know that Asian Americans could differentiate themselves from Asians in their respective countries. Maybe part of it has to do with the fact that I always wondered what it would be like to have Asian friends who looked like me yet was never able to. There’s a Korean idiom that sums it up pretty well. To me, it was always the rice cake in the picture (그림의 떡). Now this may sound a bit funny, but it really was always a fantasy of mine. After coming to OSU, I came to learn that as an adoptee from a smaller community in Iowa, I didn’t really have that much in common with most Asian Americans, let alone Asians who grew up in their respective places. I had always thought I was Korean or Asian growing up, but I guess I didn’t really have a very clear definition of what that sort of thing was. It wasn’t until I got to meet more people that I came to understand things differently.
By the time I got to Korea after spending three years at OSU, I think I was better prepared to embark on my yearlong journey as a Korean adoptee in Korea. It’s surprising considering how introverted I am, but I talked with many different people during my time in Korea, and usually only in Korean too! I think this actually let me hear the honest perspective of the person I was talking to, as opposed to if I had mostly spoken in English. Through the many conversations I had, I got to see all kinds of different perspectives regarding who I was. Some people indicated that I was more or less a complete foreigner, some people would tell me I was full Korean, and of course still others would sort of view me as being anywhere in between. I think these things helped me decide for myself that my identity really wasn’t my own in a sense. Regardless of how I feel, others can still think completely different. So I came to just hold onto the facts which I did know. I was born in Korea. I was adopted. I am more familiar with Midwestern cultural norms. And etc. When talking with others though, I would just go along with what they seemed to think about me. If I was a foreigner to them, then so be it. If I was Korean to them, then cool. If what I was confused them, then I guess it couldn’t be helped.
And even though I can’t change the way people think about me, I was able to take action on my part to just do my best and try to learn the ways of those around me. It was of course hard at times, especially being that I’ve always been a misfit of sorts. And I couldn’t please everyone. Maybe to some people I was trying too hard and looked silly. And perhaps others thought it looked cute, me being a fish out on dry land doing its best while flopping around outside the pool of familiarity. But I learned so much through it all. I made mistakes. I learned from some of them. I made the same mistakes again. I regretted past mistakes. But this process was so helpful because it only helped me become more aware of reality.
I think the main thing that let me get the most out of this experience was the effort I put into it. Not just the effort that’s apparent on the outside, but also the effort that comes from within. I made it a priority to speak very little English during my time here. My Korean is still very bad and I lack confidence tremendously, but I did get used to speaking in only Korean and I learned to tolerate others who would look down upon me for my poor language ability. Sometimes it would hurt. I would wonder why a Korean person would look down on another person who at one point had the same culture yet lost it by means not of his own. If I was trying so hard, wouldn’t that be something that at least deserved some respect? But not all people are forgiving, and I have to remember that I can be the same too!
Another thing I got to experience was the disparity between academia and the real world. The Korean language classes were okay, but I learned that no amount of formal language training can prepare someone for the actual world in which it is used. I learned so much more by just finding outlets to use what I knew and then go on from there. And prior courses I took related to Korean studies weren’t always relevant when it came to being immersed in the everyday life. During my second semester I decided to be brave and took two regular university courses taught in Korean. In one class I was the only non-domestic student. It was weird because I looked the part yet perhaps I was the only one who knew I didn’t really belong. But what I got out of it was not the material covered in class, but rather just being able to have such a unique experience considering my background!
I think the other experiences that took effort were similar to the first one I mentioned. When interacting with people, I would often be expected to follow certain norms that I didn’t know about beforehand. I wondered if it had to do with the fact that not only did I have the same appearance as a Korean, but would also speak the language that was more comfortable for the other person. So maybe that is why some people would forget to give me grace—grace that would take into account the fact that I was never brought up in such a way that I could know these things, grace that would recognize that I didn’t speak a word of Korean until I began trying to learn on my own when I was just sixteen. But this came as a double-edged sword. I imagine that people without Korean ties would get off the hook easier, but perhaps having it easier would at the same time mean being even less accepted compared to a foreigner of Korean descent.
What I learned in Korea during this time couldn’t have been learned anywhere else. It wasn’t easy, but I am convinced that we learn the most through the most trying of times. I think I may have left a little boy and come out more of a grown-up, at least to some extent. I grew even more appreciative for my family back home, which I didn’t even think was possible as I’ve always felt closest to them. Regarding people, I learned that we are all similar yet different. It’s not all that profound, and I guess everyone could easily agree with this statement too. But in this regard I see it as having been a long-term project on induction. And as expected, Korea wasn’t at all the glitzy scene that is portrayed in Hallyu nowadays. It’s just another place on this planet with people. It happens to be the place I was born. It may be the place I end up, or maybe not. But it’s certainly a place that changed me over the course of the full year I spent there.