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.