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
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,
Check out the archive
for previous entries.