I’m Korean and I’m Jewish – It’s an Unusual Combo

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When I told people I was going to Korea, I almost always got the same three questions:

1. Are you going with your mom? 

Nope, this had always been a trip for Andrew and me to experience together. It always surprised me that people assumed I was going with my mom, but I guess I kind of get it now?

2. Do you know anyone there? 

Yup, Dr. Henry. If you’ve been reading these posts, you would have noticed he’s come up a bunch. And you might be wondering who Dr. Henry is. My mom was an English teacher in Korea for a few years. Dr. Henry was one of my mother’s students. He only took classes with her for six weeks, but it blossomed into a friendship that has lasted over thirty years. Dr. Henry visited us when I was little every few years when he traveled for work. He came to my Bat Mitzvah, and most recently, he came to Andrew and my wedding. I’m grateful that he’s a part of my life. He’s an essential part of how I became me. Dr. Henry helped my mother adopt me when she was living in Korea so he sorta helped set this all in motion. When I say he’s known me all my life, he has literally known me my entire life.

3. Have you been to Korea before?

Well, I was born there. My mom and I also went to Korea when I was 14. However, I experienced that trip in a jetlagged stupor which means I remember very little from when we were there. I have a photo album of pictures of me in Korea and looking through them does not bring back many memories of the trip, but does served to remind me that indeed I had an awkward phase.

Ever since college, I have wanted to go back to Korea. And it mostly stemmed from a trip I had to Israel. Huh? 

If you’ve been reading this blog long enough (or since that sentence a few lines ago where I said I had a Bat Mitzvah), you could have probably surmised that I am Jewish. Or you might have assumed that Andrew is Jewish. Turns out he’s not, but you would not be the first to make that assumption. In fact, you wouldn’t even be close to being the first. When I was in college, I went on Birthright. Birthright is a free trip for young Jewish adults to Israel. I went my sophomore year of college, along with 60 others from Cornell and it was great. I was the only east-Asian person from Cornell to go and I never saw another when I was there. In fact, it seemed as though seeing a Korean person in Israel was so uncommon that I had people come up to me in the street and bow to me, while other yelled “Konichiwa!” and “Ni hao!” (neither of which are Korean) at me from afar. As a twenty year-old student, I mostly found these interactions amusing. They never bothered me and I never really thought much about them. Thinking back now though, I think it’s because I felt pretty comfortable in Israel. I mean, I was on a guided tour bus filled with people from my college, but even just being in the country felt ok. Even when getting questioned multiple times by multiple people at security before boarding the plane, I was secure in my Jewishness. I knew I had every right to be on the trip. At the time, I could speak Hebrew reasonably well, had attended Jewish Day School, celebrated Jewish holidays, and at the time would have described myself as Jewish before I would say I was Korean.

So how does this relate to Korea? I was honestly wondering how I would feel when I got there. Would we step off the plane into Korean culture and I would think, “Ah, this is where I belong? I get it.”? Or, five minutes after stepping onto the plane, would I be spoken to in Korean and as somehow who does not speak Korean think, “This is going to be a long two weeks?”. While I’ve always been secure in my Jewishness, my Koreanness has been a different story.

Turned out, it was neither.  During my time I Korea, I felt like what I was: a tourist. For the first time in my life, I looked like everyone around me. Aside from my high ponytail and apparently my lack of crazy fashion sense, I, for the most part didn’t obviously stick out as a foreigner. But I still felt like one. Everyone did try to speak to me in Korean. The culture was completely foreign. I spent a lot of time worried I was inadvertently offending someone because I didn’t fully understand the culture. I made Andrew buy everything and ask all the questions while we were there, just so I could avoid the awkward interaction of having to explain that I didn’t speak Korean. It seemed as a white guy and an obvious tourist, he could get away with more.  

That’s not to say I didn’t love my time in Korea. It’s a beautiful, interesting, awesome country and I would love to spend more time there. Dr. Henry was theorizing ways for me to find a job in Korea so we would have to move there, and I have to say, if somehow the opportunity came up, I’m not sure I would pass it up. Being in Korea certainly made me feel less Korean, but it also made me want to learn about my culture more than ever before. I started to feel a pride about being Korean that I had never experienced before.

And when I got back to America, those feelings were reinforced again. The day after we got back was the beginning of Rosh Hashanah. We gathered together with our big, wonderful community where people knew me. Some people know me as the baker or the engineer, but mostly I think (although I doubt anyone would admit it), as the 30-something (or maybe 20-something?) Asian girl. And there are a lot of people who don’t know me. I would catch the flicker in people’s eyes when they saw me and could tell they were wondering why I was there. So I did what I always do when I notice that silent questioning of why I was there – I sing a little louder, mouth the Hebrew words – my own little assertion that I belong. 

As I sat in services, I thought about what it meant to belong. It’s not about blending in with everyone else. It’s about finding your spot in the crowd. It’s about giving someone a little nudge, sharing your Korean plum candy, and embracing in the fact that you have the perspective and experiences and opportunity to widen someone else’s world. As I learn more about Korean culture I also learn how little the people around me know about Korean culture. If I thought going to Korea was going to answer some of my questions, I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was going to open me up to so many more. 

SimmieI’m Korean and I’m Jewish – It’s an Unusual Combo

Random Comments, Observations, and Generalizations About Korea

Simmie Travel 1 Comment

Over the course of our time in Korea, we both observed and learned a number of things and made a few grand broad generalizations:

  • The Korean Tourism Organization has done an amazing job making Korea more accessible for tourists from all over the world. Their app is great. We used it all over the country to find our way around and it was great. 
  • The Korean metro is great. It’s nationalized, so the metro card you use in Seoul also works in Busan. The subway also has an app which is everything I want in a metro app. It give station information, trip planning, timetables, etc. The subway station exits are all numbered which makes it so much easier to figure out where you are supposed to go. I love it.
  • Public toilets are prevalent, especially at tourist attractions. Plus, the signs are hilarious.

Korea - Day 7

  • It’s apparently a trend for couples to wear matching outfits. We saw numerous couples walking around in matching his and hers shirts. I tried to get Andrew to wear a matching outfit with me but he refused.
  • Driving is very aggressive, but still courteous. If you want to get over a lane, you signal and go for it, but the people behind you will generally comply and let you in. This is different than DC where signaling that you want to get over means the people behind you speed up so as to not let you in.
  • Koreans don’t get hot. Andrew and I would be dripping in sweat while walking around and we would see Koreans in long sleeves and coats. Also, AC would often be available, but it would be on very low so the temperature difference was not as refreshing as we wanted it to be.
  • Korean women don’t seem to wear their hair in a high ponytail. I felt like that hairstyle alone gave me away the most as an American.
  • Korean women are serious about their heels. They wear heels everywhere, even hiking. I don’t know how they do it.


  • Koreans don’t get thirsty. Andrew and I would be guzzling bottles of water. At meals we would regularly go through the pitchers of water. Everyone else was politely sipping their tiny cups of water or not drinking anything at all. Often water wasn’t even served with the meal. Instead afterwards there would be water fountains and cups for you to get a drink as you were walking out.
  • The girl squad is a real thing. Andrew had a fascination with them. He wanted to do an anthropological study on the Korean squad. Girl squads had personalities, most easily shown by what they were wearing. There was the Sports Hat Girl Squad, the Fashionista Girl Squad, the Middle Aged Lady Girl Squad, the Relatable Girl Squad, the Gossipy Elderly Lady Girl Squad…so many.
  • There are no public trash cans. We walked around many evenings with our trash in our hands, futilely looking for a trash can to throw it away in. Sometimes we just took it back to the hotel with us and tossed it there. The weird thing is that even though there are no public trash cans, there’s also no trash littering the streets. So I guess everyone just carries it with them? Or there are secret trash cans tourists aren’t privy to?
SimmieRandom Comments, Observations, and Generalizations About Korea

Korea – Day 11: Seoul to DC

Simmie Andrew, Eating Adventures, Travel 1 Comment

On Saturday morning we got up, stuffed the last few things we had into our suitcases and prepared to bid a final farewell to Korea. We were there for nine-and-a-half days and it wasn’t enough. There were things on my list that we just didn’t get to. There were neighborhoods of Seoul I wanted to explore. There were places I wanted to go back to. And there were whole swaths of the country that we didn’t even touch.

We had big debate on how to make the hour long journey to the airport. We could take the metro to the train station and then a train to the airport, but the prospect of lugging around four bags up and down the many many staircases in the metro stations left something to be desired. In the end we decided to take a cab to the train station and then the high speed train to the airport.

As we were walking to hail a cab, a guy saw us walking through the streets with our bag, stopped, backed up, and turned down our street to meet us. After some back-and-forth, he offered to give us a ride all the way to the airport for 20,000 won. It seemed too good to be true, but we figured it was easier, so why not.

Thirty-five minutes later, we pulled up to Inchon Airport and handed over our 20,000 won. You guys, that’s $16.75! For a 30 mile ride with two people and four bags! Say what?? Korea is awesome!

Anyways, we got through the airport, checked our bags, and made our way through security (woo! for not having to take our shoes off!), with hours to spare.

Korea - Day 11

I walked through the dozens of duty free shops before settling down to have one final snack before boarding the plane.

Korea - Day 11

Our flight left at 10:30 AM local time. We settled in for the 14 or so hour plane ride back to the US. The airplane food continued to live up to its high standards. I’m all for the spicy sauce in squeeze tubes.

Korea - Day 11

Korea - Day 11

We landed in DC at 11:15 AM, a mere 45 minutes after we left Seoul. Longest 45 minutes ever. Andrew’s parents picked us up and took us home. We made it back to our house at 1:30 PM, with just enough time to have a quick nap, take a shower, and get dressed, because we were off to a wedding! (Seriously, the fun never ends.)

This trip was amazing. We got to see, eat, do things that I would never have imagined. It was so good to see Dr. Henry again and get to spend time with him. It was so fun to experience another culture. I’m so grateful that I got to share the experience with Andrew (also, who else is going to eat wiggling octopus with me?) and it’s given us the itch to travel some more. I had so many feelings while in Korea and in the days following our return home…but that’s for another post.


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SimmieKorea – Day 11: Seoul to DC