Finding Myself in Korea

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.

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