To Kunming and Beyond: Reflections on Korea and Future China Adventures

It’s strange how a place that was once so uncomfortable has become my second home. As an adopted Korean-American, I had feared that I would leave with even more questions about my identity than when I arrived. However, over the course of one year, I have come to love the fast-paced, soju-filled chaos that is Seoul. I have learned KPOP dances (click the links below), immersed myself in the couple culture, picked up the local dialect through my studies and my travels across the country, and have met not only my “seoul”mate (hahaha get it?) but also my birth mother. As I look back on my time in Korea, I have no regrets – I can honestly say that I have accomplished everything that I had hoped to accomplish during my year-long stint in the homeland. I just never thought that it would be this hard to say goodbye.

KPOP Dance Medley

Ice Cream Cake – FEVER KPOP Dance Team

couple

(couple outfits from head to toe in front of Everland)

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(설악산 Seoraksan – one of the most beautiful and famous mountains in Korea)

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(우도 Udo – a small island off the coast of 제주도 Jeju Island famous for its peanut ice cream and beautiful beaches)

Thoughts on the Passage of Time

My time in Korea has gone by faster than I ever could have imagined. It seems like not so long ago, I was boarding the plane from Beijing to Seoul, and yet my time in Korea is almost over. It’s a scary reminder that time waits for no one, and we all must try to live in the moment before it passes us by. To be honest, after my first semester, I was ready to leave Korea. I was frustrated with the language, with the societal pressure, and I missed my friends back at UNC Chapel Hill. However, I’m glad I didn’t give in and returned to Yonsei University for a second semester, because it was during this semester where I really became comfortable with Korean language and my Korean heritage. I went from only being able to say “죄송하지만 저는 한국말을 못해요” (I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Korean) to being able to converse comfortably with taxi drivers about everything from my adoption to my ideal type.

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(pictured left: my first week in Korea; pictured right: my last week in Korea)

For me, learning to speak Chinese was easier than learning to speak Korean (obviously writing is a different story) for three main reasons. 1) During my semester in Beijing I only studied Chinese, and we had a language pledge that prohibited us from speaking any other language outside of Chinese. 2. When I arrived in Beijing, my Chinese was so bad that I was the only student in my class. 3. Chinese grammar is so much easier than Korean grammar – there are no levels of honorific speech and the sentence structure is pretty similar to that of English. As a result, my Chinese speaking ability improved rapidly. In contrast, at Yonsei I have taken a wide range of courses ranging from International Law to Asian Philosophy; although I had Korean class everyday, it was only for two hours and had a class size of around 12 students;  and in Korean how you speak to someone younger than you, someone the same age as you, and someone older than you is all different, as Korean has many forms of hierarchical speech – not to mention the grammar structure is practically the complete opposite of English.

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(pictured left: my amazing CET classmates; pictured right: my wonderful Chinese professor)

I was extremely frustrated during my first semester at Yonsei because my Korean professor kept telling me “중국사람처럼 한국말로 말하지마” (stop speaking Korean like a Chinese person). Honestly, I was really excited whenever I heard people speaking in Chinese because I could actually understand what they were saying – it was a reminder that I wasn’t a complete idiot. However, after returning to Yonsei for my second semester, people kept asking me “너 진짜 미국사람이야? 왜 사투리 느낌이 있어?” (Are you really American? Why do you speak with saturi – a regional dialect of Korea?) Also, my Chinese class this semester only had Korean students, and they were all shocked to find out that I was Korean-American. Somehow over Christmas break, my Korean magically improved.

For those of you who are also trying to learn a language, be patient with yourself. It’s not something that will develop overnight, but rather needs to be carefully cultivated. Don’t give up, and go live in a place that speaks the language! The constant exposure to the language and plentiful opportunities to practice speaking the language will greatly speed up your learning process.

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(pictured: my wonderful Korean mentors from last semester who always helped me with my Korean)

Also, when people say that the best way to learn the language is to get a boyfriend from that country, they’re totally right haha~~^^ My boyfriend has definitely helped me improve my Korean, and speaking with him in Korean everyday has definitely increased my confidence in my speaking ability.

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Reflections

When I was growing up, I felt really uncomfortable being labeled “Asian-American.” I was practically a white person: my parents are white, nearly everyone in my hometown is white, and I knew nothing about Korean culture or Asian culture in general. Still, I was discriminated against because of the color of my skin and the shape of eyes, and all I wished was to be like everyone else. I won a piano competition not because I practiced hard or am talented, but because I am Asian. I was the only person in my senior class to receive the National AP Scholar award, but it wasn’t because I am smart or because I studied my ass off, but because I am Asian. Not to mention the people who threatened my siblings and I with deportation from the US (which makes no sense because we are American citizens), or the teacher who asked my boyfriend at the time, in front of all our classmates, how his parents felt about him dating an Asian girl.

Thus, I became determined to leave Wisconsin and go to a more diverse and accepting place for college. Even though all my college friends fully accept me for who I am, after 18 years of blatant racism, I was still scared that if I tried to explore my Asian identity, they would label me as “too asian.” Furthermore, I didn’t feel comfortable around the majority of Asian Americans. They sometimes spoke to each other in a language I didn’t know and also shared a common background that I couldn’t understand.

However, after living in Asia for a year and a half, I can say that I feel much more comfortable with who I am and fully identify myself as an Asian-American. I’ve realized that dark hair and dark eyes are just as beautiful as blond hair and blue eyes, and despite my promise to myself as a young girl to “never date an Asian person,” I’ve realized it’s not so bad after all~~^^ I look forward to returning to UNC Chapel Hill as a better and more complete person.

I don’t know how to express in words just how grateful I am to all the incredible people I met during my year in Korea…so I will just say that each and every one of you is so special to me, and I will miss you all so much.

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(pictured left: FEVER KPOP Dance Team; pictured right: Yonsei Women’s Lacrosse Team)

To Kunming and Beyond

As I leave Korea, I leave with a mixture of feelings. Excitement for my summer adventures in Kunming, apprehension for the intense Chinese studies that are to come, and a heavy heart for all the friends I’ve made and my Korean family who I will be leaving behind.

Kunming, an Introduction

This summer, I will be studying Chinese language at 云南大学 Yunnan University in Kunming. I am very excited to have accepted UNC’s Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship to fund this opportunity to live in the south western region of China and learn more about the dialect, local minority groups, and how the culture and lifestyle differs between the North and the South of China. As a Carolina-Duke Global Leadership Institute Ambassador, I will be blogging periodically about my experiences in Kunming. I hope that you will join me in my new journey~~^^

For those of you who have never heard it, the Northern and Southern dialects are extremely different. When I visited Sichuan province with my friends over spring break last year, it was difficult to make out what people were saying at times. Even my Chinese friends say that it’s hard for them to understand people speaking the Southern dialect. Hopefully after 2 months in Yunnan province I will be able to easily understand more than just the most standard Chinese accent.

Yunnan is a fascinating province because 26 minority groups live there. To be honest, I know nothing about the history or background of these minorities, except that some of them are Muslim and have had clashes along the Chinese border with the extremist Buddhists sects in Myanmar. I hope that over the course of the summer, I can gain a deeper understanding of where these minorities came from and what it’s like to live as a minority in China.

I’m also excited to eat Yunnan food! If you know me, I love spicy food and I love fruit, making Southwest China my own personal paradise. Although I will dearly miss Korean food, especially 김치 찌개 kimchi jjigae, I will make my boyfriend buy it all for me when I come back to Korea for a week in August haha~~^^

 

(pictured left: 菠蘿飯 pineapple rice; pictured right: 過橋米線 across the bridge noodles)

Yunnan is also well-known for its beautiful natural environment. After remaining pale for a year and a half to conform to Asian beauty standards, I will use this summer hiking outdoors to gain a tan worthy of America. If you’ve ever studied Chinese and used the Cheng & Tsui textbook, you may remember the chapter that specifically talked about the natural wonders of Yunnan. Have no doubt that I will post my own self-taken pictures of these places later.

(pictured left: 虎跳峡 Tiger Leaping Gorge; pictured right:  Stone Forest)

Although I’m a bit nervous about re-adjusting to speaking a constant flow of Chinese (as Korean is more natural for me now), I am confident that after a week or two, I will feel at home in China once again (or at least that’s my hope).

All I need to do is get through my finals, and it’s off to China I go! Thank you Yonsei, thank you Korea; see you in August~~^^