This is me in Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul, in 2004…
Over the course of seven years, this part of the palace hasn’t changed. For the most part, my physical appearance hasn’t changed. Yet so much has changed with me and my relationship with Korea during that time.
During these seven years, my mother died, both of my siblings got married, and my father remarried. I worked at four different jobs and was about to start a fifth during the last trip. I lived at five different addresses in Korea, Alabama, and New York.
My life has changed in dramatic and sweeping ways, and yet the palace and I still look the same.
At the time of the first picture (2004), I struggled mightily with both the Korean language and my identity as a Korean. I had met dozens of relatives for the first time and could not reconcile the closeness of blood relations with the profound sense of alienation I felt from them due to language and culture gaps. At the time of my second picture (2008), I struggled less with the language and basic conversation with relatives, but still couldn’t fit myself into the larger context of The Korean People as I had just come off a rough year and a half working in a Korean-American community organization where I just did not fit in.
By the time of the last picture (2011), I had mostly come to terms with the fact that I would never feel like I truly belonged in any context that could be called “Korean,” be it in Korea or in the United States. Korea, Korean culture, and my relatives in Korea are only parts of my identity; however, they do not define my identity.
My sense of identity and comfort with it have grown tremendously, and yet the palace and I still look the same.
I find it oddly fitting that, in spite of all this change, and in spite of my feelings of Korea as a foreign land, this place, Gyeongbokgung Palace, acts as something of an anchor. It may be weird, and I may not be totally comfortable with it, but it’s not likely to go anywhere anytime soon. It’s been around for hundreds of years, was there on my last three trips, and will be there for my next three trips.
More to the point, though, it’s a reminder of the permanence of some things that persist in spite of incredible amounts of change in our lives. Fundamentally, I’m the same person I was in 2004 that I was in 2008 that I am in 2011. That person was shaped by forces hundreds if not thousands of years in the making. No amount of job changes or Korean language classes can change that.
The next time I return to Seoul, I hope to return to this spot and take another picture similar to these three. I hope I can use that as another occasion to take stock of my life: what’s changed and what hasn’t changed. I can only hope that I can say the same thing then that I can now: that with each additional picture, I found myself in a better place in my life than in the previous picture.