View of the Ewha neighborhood from the roof of my building

Author's note: the Seoul Weblog is coming to an early end as unfortunate circumstances have forced me to remain in the United States. Allow me to take this time to thank you, my readers, who helped this website score almost 1,000 hits in its approximately three month run.

It was a strange summer. I'm glad you were around to share it with me.

-MSL


2004 September 2 - Reporting from 30,000 feet over Alaska

I'm writing this on the plane ride back to the states, and this will hit the web sometime after I've started to recover from the insane jet lag that inevitably comes with a transcontinental flight. I figured this would be a good of a time as any to collect and summarize my thoughts about the past summer in Korea.

If I had to summarize my experience in one word, it would be "challenging." This refers not only to the various difficulties I faced with the language barrier and the adjustment to life after Yale but also to the way this experience has prompted so much self-reflection about my identity as a Korean. Allow me to explain.

First, on the challenge of adjusting to life after Yale: this was perhaps the most unexpected difficulty I encountered during the summer. I believe most (if not all) of my readers should be aware of my fondness for my college years, so I suppose in some sense it should come to no surprise to you that the separation from Yale has not been easy for me.

Let me put it this way: of the people that I've met here in Seoul, I've gotten the impression that those who are thriving in the expat life--be it as an English teacher, student, worker, etc.--generally seemed to have come from a place they didn't find particularly satisfying. Disgruntled with school or work, they came to Korea looking for something different and refreshing.

Me? I loved Yale. I thrived at Yale. I was in no way disgruntled as I left; on commencement day I looked back at my four years there as the best of my life. Yale had provided me with great friends with common interests, difficult but fascinating academics, and that little thing we call the YPMB. It also provided me with the Light Fellowship, the means by which I would venture out into the real world and discover life beyond Yale.

And what have I found? That Yale is unique, and that the real world is vastly different from that of the Ivory Tower. Yes, I am still a student--I got to class 20 hours a week, that's nothing to sneeze at--but the academic and social environment at Yonsei's KLI is nowhere near as rich and compelling as that of Yale. This should not have come to me as such a surprise, but I couldn't help, and still can't help but feel disappointed by this.

The solution to this problem, a solution that only recently has fully dawned on me, is to stop dwelling on the past and accept the new social rules for what they are. Interactions and friendships must be made on even the weakest and strangest of connections. This isn't like the marching band where anyone can show up with an instrument (or even without one) and almost instantly be accepted into a social group of several dozen like-minded individuals. No, this is real life, or at least the expat version of it.

All these difficulties in communicating and relating to English speaking peers is almost enough to obscure the difficulties in communicating in Korean. Almost enough. Of course, I fully expected to encounter this problem, but that doesn't keep it from remaining highly frustrating. I know that my Korean has improved by leaps and bounds and that I am still at an elementary stage in learning a very difficult language, but when I find myself staring blankly at a store clerk speaking Korean (or worse, Japanese) to me, sometimes I can't help but think that I will never get good at this language.

And then I try to communicate with the relatives, which provides the perfect segue into the other side of the "challenge" that I speak of. I can barely communicate with them, yet they take me in as one of them and even consider me to be a Korean as opposed to an American. I've covered this quandry extensively in several other entries, beginning with the July 4th entry in which I unequivocably declared my American identity. Then, prompted by my great uncle's unambiguous declaration of my Korean identity, I began questioning other relatives and other Koreans to determine their take on this question.

One thing I can say for certain is that Koreans put great importance on the idea of Korean ethnicity and how it basically trumps everything else in me that has little to do with Korea or being "Korean." I am also certain that I still call America home and that there will never be another place in my life where I feel more comfortable. Furthermore, I can state with confidence that my fixation with this idea of labeling myself as "Korean" or "American" is somewhat irrational and in the end does not change who I am inside.

But I still find it endlessly fascinating. Never before in my life had I been presented with the idea that being "Korean" and being "American" were mutually exclusive. In Korea, I couldn't be both. I would like to think that I can, at least within the American context.

In closing, I would like to thank those who helped me get through this "challenging" summer. You know who you are, and I'd like you to know that I wouldn't have made it without you and your support. Jinshimuro kamsahamnida (thank you very much).

Till next time,

-MSL

Check out the archive for previous entries.