Finally Being Korean
I am Korean American. Since birth, I’ve eaten Gerber’s baby food, Otter Pops, and McDonald’s hamburgers. Coming from a Korean family, of course I’ve had a bit of kimchi here and there, but that was as far as experiencing Korean culture went for me.
It was not until I studied abroad in Korea this summer that I ate Korean kimchi in Korea, not in my Irvine apartment. Being a Korean in America has left a void in my ethnicity but studying in Korea has filled it.
My parents’ tales of their youth were finally given a setting, and my Korean friends’ stories became visually and physically comprehendible. The way I was raised became more understandable, my family values became more valuable and my entire past made a little more sense to me.
Abroad, I was able to not only learn at Korea’s top university, but to experience and learn from cultural differences.
In school, the professors spoke English and understood that students abroad were on summer break and wanted to have fun as well as learn. They understood that, unlike Korean natives, American students also needed time to adjust to the culture.
Everything about studying abroad was culturally engaging, even the classes.
I took two-and-a-half hours of Korean every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. I became more familiar with reading, writing, speaking and holding a conversation in the the Korean language. I took the class with many people that didn’t know the language at all, such as Vietnamese and Caucasian students.
I also took a class on Korean shamanistic traditions. I learned about old Korean healing rituals. The class was actually scary at times, but it helped me better understand Korean culture.
Studying abroad allowed me to learn more about my culture while satisfy my major requirements. The workload was manageable and for the first time, I felt that studying complemented my cultural experience.
In Korea, it is common for professors and students to have close bonds. Professors would take students on field trips and even treat the class to a few drinks at the local bar. Our professors often took us to famous monuments, traditional sites, museums and galleries. Beyond being teachers, our professors became friends, counselors and guides.
While studying abroad, I was given the opportunity to meet and interact with natives my age and partake in their daily lives and culture.
One cultural difference I observed was that guys in Korea were more comfortable with each other. I was surprised, because in the United States, the guys would probably be called ‘homo’ or ‘gay.’ Being in a society so different from one the I was used to helped me acquire a broader cultural perspective.
The Education Abroad Program coordinator planned activities such as visiting famous and historical places, seeing musicals, going to theme parks and eating at all the well-known alley restaurants, making everyone’s experience unforgettable. There was also plenty of time to visit family or explore beyond the program.
School would have been a different experience if it weren’t for the friends that I made. Making friends from around the world is not done easily in the United States and it was a maturing experience that allowed me to learn more about myself and others.
Having been through such an intense learning experience together, my friends and I became closer to each other; they became my family and they still remain close to me, even overseas.
In contrast to the United States, there is always something to do in Korea at all hours. In Korea, activities and dining are generally cheap. Places never close, taxis are inexpensive and the subway system is efficient. I was always making the most of city life when I was not in school. With my friends, I went clubbing, shopped and ate. I also visited different bars and arcades. City life existed outside my door at all times, and there was never a time when I was bored.
Before I entered college, people always encouraged me to study abroad. Though they described their experiences as perspective-changing, I did not realize until I studied abroad for myself how holistic of a learning experience it was. Doing it for yourself is the only way to appreciate it.
Though I undoubtedly missed friends and family back home, I was disappointed when my time came to return to the United States. The only part about my trip I regret was that I didn’t stay long enough.
I can’t imagine a better way to finally be able to define my ethnicity. I’ve grown and matured so much from this experience, I would never consider trading it for anything in the world.