By Taylor Ha
The tears wouldn’t stop.
Sitting on the bus ride to Incheon International Airport on July 15th, the last day of my study abroad trip to South Korea, I didn’t want to face reality: saying goodbye to the country of my ancestors and heritage. For the past three weeks, I had done more than adore cute little souvenirs in tourist shops. I reported on life in Korea, befriended North Korean refugees and came as close as possible to North Korea, the country my grandparents escaped from so long ago. I met many of my family members for the first, and perhaps the last time, making me appreciate my four grandparents even more. I spent my 20th birthday in Changdeokgung Palace, one of the “Five Grand Palaces” erected by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty. But most importantly, I discovered half of my identity in a country thousands of miles away from home.
The language I grew up hearing was ubiquitous. Wandering throughout the streets of Seoul, I read all the signs with Hangul (Korean alphabet) letters, although I couldn’t always translate them to English. I explored historical palaces that my ancient ancestors were once familiar with. Using familiar, flat metal Korean chopsticks, I tasted my grandmother’s cooking in a small, cozy restaurant a few blocks from Dongguk University. Just like at home, kimchi was served with nearly every meal I ate. And everywhere I turned, I saw someone who looked like me. I saw myself in Korea. `
Yet I was always reminded that I was born and raised in the United States. I struggled to communicate with some of the salespeople at Gwangjang Market and was constantly surprised by the cheap prices of many Korean goods – a huge contrast to expensive American products. As I interviewed young students from Seoul Science High School, I also saw how starkly different our education systems were. I even felt like a tourist. Nothing could escape my camera lens, from a dried stingray in a traditional market to my Korean purple slippers – things that may seem commonplace to a native Korean.
But I am so, so thankful to be a Korean American, especially now that I have fully embraced my Korean side.
Before coming to Korea, there was always something missing inside me. I knew about Korean culture from my family, Korean dramas, K-pop and Koreatown, but not from living in actual Korea. I didn’t truly know what it meant to be Korean.
Confucius once said, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” I have not only seen the beauty of Korea – I have tasted it, touched it and breathed it in. I have lived as a Korean.
On that same bus ride home, I eventually succumbed to fatigue. After all, I had woken up at 5:30AM to catch a 10AM flight to America. But one thought arose before I drifted off to sleep:
Professor Haddad, words cannot explain how glad I am that you persuaded me to join you on this journey to Korea.