In response to the prompt: We all have many individual identities (personality, hobbies, etc.) and group identities (race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ability, religious/political affiliations). Please reflect on a part of your identity that you are seeing or feeling in a different light.
For the past seven-eight months abroad (four in Singapore for exchange and three in Korea for my internship), I cannot help but reflect on my identity. I came to the United States when I was merely four years old. My parents spoke to me in Korean for my entire life, but as I became more and more fluent in English, I naturally lost my abilities to speak in my native tongue. Furthermore, I grew up in a rather conservative Korean household, yet at the same time, I lived in a very diverse neighborhood and in elementary, middle, and high school, befriended classmates of different races. I therefore would not necessarily label myself as an Asian American or a native Korean; I think I am in the awkward middle- the supposed “1.5 generation”. So, by traveling and living in Asian countries for the first time and for a while, I found it to be very intriguing to discover that I am seen and treated differently, country by country. I have also learned more about myself and my identity in the country I was born in, in the “motherland”.
Prior to this internship, during my time in Singapore, I was seen and treated purely as Korean regardless of my fluency in English. I believe primarily due to my appearance. Many classmates asked me more about my Korean identity or to teach them Korean words than about my experiences in America. Since I did not look like the typical “Ang mo”, of “western descent”, it seemed that some altogether dismissed the American half of my identity even though it is a major part of me.
Afterwards I headed to Seoul for this internship, and I knew it would not be an easy walk in the park. In America, we are taught to embrace our unique culture, identity, and individuality. We are taught to be hard-headed and stand up for what we believe in. However, in Korea, it does not seem to be the case. I immediately felt the the urgency to blend in- to follow trends- the need to dress like everyone, act like everyone and so on, especially where I live, Gangnam. Even though I lived in the states for more than ¾ of my life, I was expected to assimilate and already know the ins and outs of the Korean culture, unable to play the “foreigner card”
I really felt that different types of people have varying expectations of me. Some people, especially those of the younger generation, were very friendly, and they asked me about my studies or lifestyle in America. Others automatically labeled and treated me as an Asian American after seeing the way I dressed, hearing about my background, or talking to me and noticing my accent. But a small amount of people, typically those in the older generation, bluntly asked me sensitive questions and talked in a demeaning manner and as if I could not understand Korean despite being able to do so. Consequently. I became very self-conscious about my identity in Seoul.
The turning point for me was at an ALL YOU CAN EAT Korean BBQ place in Insadong. I was a part of a situation where two different people with different cultures clash. I received a bill with inaccurate orders of meat than what we had ordered and received. Startled, I tried my best to speak in broken Korean that there must have been a miscommunication. However, unable to clearly articulate what I intended to say, in frustration, I angrily blurted out in English that this was not what we had ordered. The owner sharply retorted back in both profanity and Korean, something along the lines of “your parents are Korean, you knew exactly”. Initially, it filled me with anger, then with confusion, and following with a bit of sadness for not knowing the Korean language well enough.
I believe that every mishap is somehow a learning opportunity, and so I was able to take away a valuable lesson. I learned that although I felt so wronged at the time, I was as ignorant and impatient for not being able understand the owner’s similar troubles of communicating with me. Whether or not one is a guest of a country, I recognized the value of really learning about a culture beforehand. I could continue on with bitterness of the “unfair” treatment towards me. But instead I choose to learn more about the Korean identity of me. I am thankful for this experience. I was able to reflect on cultural differences and the norms of living in my native country. I was able to connect with a part of my racial identity in unexpected ways.