Wow. I still can’t believe there are only 2 weeks left. In less than 14 days, I will be back in the Bay Area eating an It’s It Ice Cream Sandwich and probably sleeping a lot to recover from repeating an entire day.
It’s hard for me to summarize my experiences in Korea, but what I know is that this was never intended to be some sort of joyride vacation, as many people back home understand it to be. It also isn’t an objective language and culture program, where I sit impassively and soak in the experiences with nuanced and pragmatic observations, as most Koreans believe it to be. As a Korean-born, American-adopted person, this trip is fraught with layers of feelings, needs, desires, learnings, and a handful of expectations that most people will not relate to. This is not a vacation.
However, this trip also wasn’t an intense, visceral Motherland reunion either. While some adoptees do feel the intense connection and desire to “feel” Korea or to “become” Korean, I just needed to know (or reaffirm) that I am wholly comfortable in my own skin, that I can own my cultural identity as a Korean-born American, that I understand the impact of culture and race and adoption. No one will be able to fully grasp these concepts all of the way or all of the time, but I am able to see the impact on my own life with rationality and not project onto others feelings which belong only to me (something I was NOT able to do after my first trip to Korea).
For me, the biggest benefit to being in Korea was meeting and connecting with other people – whether it be the other adoptees in the program or the Koreans I have met – hearing their stories, making their stories part of my story. Like all experiences, no matter the duration, learning other people is my favorite part. (Yes, yes I remember having a 1:1 convo with every person from my law school section; I still hold that was a fabulous idea 😉 ) I think I learn most about myself when I see where my boundaries and intimacies lie with other people. I also have learned more about the people I already had in my life, about their commitment to our friendship/relationship, and about how long-distance communication really works.
So, what have I learned? In a nutshell: I learned how to use public transportation in a country where I speak and read almost zero. I learned that the kindness of strangers can be vast and surprising. I learned that Korea is not a mystical place or an emotional war-zone hidden with secret emotional triggers to wound me. I learned that being 21 is not a phase in life I enjoy repeating (Please, get me the f&*# out of this dormitory ASAP!) I learned I am not ready to do a birth-parent search, but will be soon. I learned that I must accept that my parents made mistakes in raising me as a child with a lost culture, but I am able to defend some of those choices in raising me – they cannot be pedastalized or demonized; I can help myself fill the gaps where they innocently or ignorantly failed to see that culture, and difference and diversity, matter. I learned I can’t give up on my career, as much as I would love to abandon it and start over (maybe my grandma was right – I should have just been a secretary?). I learned enough about Korean culture to understand I could never permanently belong here, though I’m going to challenge that lesson a bit more strenuously in the coming months. But, most importantly, I learned that I belong to myself. No matter where I go… or what I encounter… the best results will occur if I stay exactly who I am and have always been. This might not lead to a grandiose cultural transformation, but it makes me adaptable enough to know… I will be okay wherever I land.
Of course, what I know to be the ultimate truth is that it’s hard to assess an experience while you’re still in it. The real test of what I’ve learned will come in two weeks. But I’m pretty sure the It’s It Ice Cream Sandwich will help the make processing my experience so much easier =)
To say goodbye to new friends.
Lately, I’ve been having cabin fever. Except it really isn’t cabin fever, it’s more like desert island fever. It’s difficult to be with the same people everyday, and even harder when there is a language and culture barrier attached. I think each of the participants in the program has begun to feel the itch of redundancy and a lack of newness – and also, the grating irritation of sibling communication. We really are a little family here – warts and all. I find it interesting and endearing how quickly our group formed attachments, even if those attachments have not necessarily been deep, they have been intense in their own way. As the saying goes – no one chooses their family, and we were thrown into this program together, each with our own distinct backgrounds, experiences, opinions, histories, and strong personalities. Little communication snafus have begun to occur; personality quirks have taken a hold of interactions more regularly than before. However, we still have true affection and respect for one another. So, when outsiders try to interfere – WATCH OUT! We will circle the wagons to protect one another in 0.12 milliseconds (yeah, jerky guy from the Dog House – I’m talking TO YOU.) I feel bonded to the 9 other people in my program in a way I can only describe as its own family. I can list half a dozen things I love about each of the people I met in my program, wonderful qualities that make them unique and interesting to me. I feel I have learned something from each one of them and I will treasure the conversations, laughs, and memories for the rest of my life.
It seems absurd that it is already time to begin saying goodbye to these people that I feel permanently connected to in some way, but it is that time already. Two have already departed for new adventures, and two others will return home at the end of this week. I can’t imagine what it will be like when our Danish friends leave the meeguk sahrahm (Americans) behind, but next week will bring us to yet another phase in the program.
I’m trying to formulate words for how I feel about my time here in Gimhae, and the only thing that comes to mind is that I feel like it was necessary for me to run from my other life to find time to remember the things that are truly important. I am glad to have remembered that communication, learning, and connection to others is what I strive to accomplish everyday – and I am glad to have learned these things can be accomplished even when an entire ocean of cultural difference separates two people.
Now, as time draws close to an end, I have to refocus myself on my real life, on deciding what it is that I want on a larger scale… These are huge things to conceptualize… and while I wish they could be resolved in a dream – overnight – that simply is impossible. Instead, I must work one tiny step at a time, and trust that I can again make good decisions with my brain, and not only with my heart….
So, goodbye. So soon we meet again to say farewell… I hope that my new friends will stay in my life in some way for a long while and I look forward to seeing how their lives also evolve.
My time in Gimhae has been routine and busy at the same time. We’ve spent a lot of time just concentrating on studying for midterms, saying goodbye to some friends who decided to leave the program, and had the wonderful occasion of Jihye’s wedding (our IIIHR Program Coordinator). I also went on a job interview, applied for a bunch of jobs Stateside, and played an exorbitant amount of phone tag with people from home. It is with amazement and appreciation that I feel like living in Gimhae is just as normal as living at home, even if Korea never feels like home to me…
Here’s some photos from the last 3 weeks!