Written by Carolyn Carpenter
There is something that draws me to Korea, an unexplainable phenomenon that I am not able to articulate. Perhaps as an only child I find being called 언니[1. Older sister, used by a female speaker to refer to someone at least one year older than herself] or 누나[2. Older sister, used by a male speaker to refer to someone at least one year older than himself] oddly comforting. Perhaps I identify more with a small country like Korea that has miraculously endured more than a large country like my own. Perhaps I like the way that Korean words and sentences fit together like an intricate but logical puzzle would. Though most likely it is something else entirely. For as long as I have wondered about the precise source of my interest I have been plagued by four words: “You are so Korean.”
I have heard this expression countless times. I never know exactly how to respond. I say or do something that is expected for someone who is Korean but unexpected for me. I empty my bowl of rice into my soup, understand old four-character expressions like 부전자전[3. An old Korean expression that means “Like father, like son”], or hum the latest G-Dragon[4. A popular Korean singer] song. Predictably I am informed, “You are so Korean.” I simply stare back at them with blond hair and a confused look in my blue eyes. Should I even try to explain something that should be so obvious? Do I even have the authority to explain that I am not Korean if doing so inherently requires an explanation of what it means to be Korean? When I have exchanges like this with Koreans, it is as if they oversimplify what it means to be included in the very ethnic group to which they belong.
Yet the part about this I understand the least is how other people can so easily make the leap from assuming that because I am interested in something I am part of it. For me it was always simple: it is one thing to know, understand, even appreciate, but is another thing entirely to be. There is a clear distinction between identifying with something and identifying as something. Even if this is meant as a compliment, I cannot take it as one because it is fundamentally false. I am not Korean. Somehow these encounters always leave me questioning who exactly I am.
Being labeled Korean makes me jaded. I grow tired of explaining facets of myself to others that I do not fully understand myself. Instinctually I start to do the easiest thing I can: pretend to be someone I am not. I have conditioned myself to sloppily eat my rice with chopsticks, to feign ignorance on advanced Korean vocabulary, and to only hum G-Dragon’s latest hit in my head. I find myself continuously downplaying my understanding of Korea out of the convenience of not having to explain it to others.
Identities are a mix of things we can change and those we cannot. I cannot change where I was born or the person I have become as a result. Even though being Korean is not in my nature, I cannot deny that my identity has been nurtured by the connections I have developed with Korean people. Years from now when I remember my Fulbright experience, any nostalgia I have for the taste of fresh kimchi, the city lights or even long subway rides will fade. When I reflect on my time in Korea I will inevitably focus on the moments when I connected with the people, foreigners and Koreans alike, not because of a shared ethnicity but because of shared personhood. It is precisely the times when I am reminded of my connections with others that the pressure I feel to hide my understanding of Korea completely melts away.
One crisp fall weekend I made the journey to Seoul with a few new friends. It was my birthday and I could not wait to see my favorite Korean hip-hop duo perform. The lights went down and the spotlights shined on the stage as the crowd erupted in anticipation. The lights covering the whole spectrum of colors illuminated the lyrics prancing across giant screens. However, the visuals were only secondary. Hours seemed like minutes to my feet. Everyone there was immersed not only in the music, but also in the energy that was flowing throughout the room. I was overwhelmed. I could not help but sing along, shout, jump and wave my hands to the beat. I was no longer focused on others’ perception of my knowledge of Korea or Korean music; I was overcome by experiencing the music in a whole new way. By attending this performance, I gave up my own performance of doing what I have grown to assume was expected of me. I was so absorbed in what was happening around me that I did not focus on how because I looked different I should act differently. Instead, I just connected with those around me who were also experiencing the music.
Other times I find myself choosing to deliberately reveal who I really am. There are very few occasions where the busy lives of my entire host family collide and we all come together. Once, just before spring’s cherry blossoms began to bloom, we found ourselves eating chicken. We were at a restaurant next to our apartment complex nestled between the hustling and bustling city and a mountain. This was when my host father told me that I resemble my host sisters and my host mother. He told me that he thinks that I am smart and hardworking like many Koreans and that he is thankful I live with them. Since our moments together are so rare and precious, I was especially taken aback by his words. This was perhaps the highest compliment he could pay me – not that I am a part of his ethnicity or nationality because I cannot be, but that I take after the members of my Korean family.
That night when I finally retreated to my room, the music from that concert was still resonating in my mind.
“급히 따라가다 보면 어떤 게 나인지 잊어가 점점”
“Urgently chasing after forgetting what I am more and more”
Carolyn Carpenter is a 2013-2015 ETA at Cheonan Chungsoo High School in Cheonan.