My Korean-ness

You know how people always say they want to “find themselves”?

I always thought that was a corny phrase, but I feel like that is exactly what is happening to me here. I am learning and becoming who I really am.

A Korean native told me the other day that I inspire her to be more Korean.

I was really surprised and touched. My first thought was, “Aw, really?  But I don’t even speak Korean!” Her comment made me realize that “being Korean” is about more than speaking a particular language. Several Korean people over the years have told me that it’s great how much I love Korean culture and want to be Korean, and I’m starting to appreciate and embrace that desire that has always been a part of me.

When I first got here, I basically tried to act as Korean as possible.

I started wearing more make up, bowing politely to market vendors, staring blankly at everyone I passed on the street, and elbowing people out of my way when I needed to get off a crowded subway car. Whenever I passed a white person, I would think, “Why are you here?” (as if I wasn’t also a foreigner). I also found myself adopting some Korean mannerisms, like covering my mouth with the back of my hand when I laugh (I think that’s Korean, right?), all the while secretly wondering if I was pretending to be something I wasn’t.  

I’m still not sure exactly what it means to be “Korean”–I’d really like to read some quality books on Korean history and culture to learn more (maybe after my intensive language class is over?)–but even if my intellectual knowledge is limited, I think I’m growing intuitively in my understanding of the parts of me that are Korean (not just an imitation) and the parts of Korean culture that I want to embrace.

I noticed the other day that I was half-smiling at strangers on the street, and that made me happy.

It shows I’m feeling freer to be “myself” here! Just because no one else ever smiles at me on the street doesn’t mean that I have to adopt that serious expression all the time–I can choose what parts of the culture to take in.

As I grow stronger in my sense of personal identity, I feel less of a need to be defensive about who I am and what I am doing in Korea. I used to constantly wonder what people thought of me when they passed me on the street. “Do they think I look American? Korean? Do they think I’m trying to act more Korean than I am? Are they surprised by how comfortable I seem to be here despite being foreign?”

Now I simply don’t worry about it. (Though I am still surprised when people occasionally ask me for directions.)

In some ways, however, I remain very “Korean” and am even becoming more Korean.

Calling my friends “older sister” and “older brother” is a prime example–a lot of my Korean American friends here don’t do that, but I love it. I’m also becoming more conscious of greetings when I arrive and leave places, and I’m trying to get better at sharing my food with friends and offering to treat people when we go out (which still doesn’t come naturally to me). Oh, and Korean food remains my favorite by far.

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Elizabeth is an American living in South Korea who believes in destiny, miracles, and living life intentionally. She holds to simple faith in a complex world, values the beauty of the everyday, and strives for vulnerability with other imperfect humans. She is always learning, laughing, and finding herself in awe of grace.

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