Over the past few years, I’ve chastised my friend for being obsessed with Korean culture without understanding what Korean culture really is. I was angry because I thought her interaction with Korea, one many others I know share, only extended to winking k-pop stars and sickeningly cheesy Korean dramas. Liking the concept of chimaek (fried chicken and beer) because you saw it in a televised romance didn’t count as appreciating Korean food and culture, I thought, and I had no respect for someone who knew more about Korean celebrities than Korean politics and history.
Yet in believing this, I became a hypocrite, too. A few months later, I found myself eating dakgalbi with my dad and two second cousins I’d only met in my childhood and didn’t remember, discussing the upcoming Korean presidential election, and I didn’t know was happening. It was only then that I realized how I was in no place to be proud of it or defend it as my own. I knew nothing about it.
In hindsight, this disconnect has existed for longer than I remember. On my first day of kindergarten, I threw a tantrum because my name tag had my Korean name, Jeewon, on it, instead of Angelica. I felt uncomfortable in my name, in what might as well have been my own skin. Over the years, I started speaking English at home instead of Korean. I only kept in touch with my heritage in my annual trips to Korea to see my family, and spurned everything else that connected me to it.
Each time I arrive at the Seoul-Incheon International Airport, I bring with me a smaller vocabulary and a worse grasp of my first language. But this spring, I went to Korea determined to close the rift between me and my homeland in whatever way possible.
So I met family members I never knew existed, receiving their handshakes and hugs and memories from when I was too young to remember. We sat on traditional thin embroidered cushions in the living room, eating mandarin oranges, with the TV on to a typical Korean variety show.
I went to Jeju-do, flying to a rural tourist paradise and admiring the beautiful ocean scenery I didn’t know Korea even had. I learned how to play a traditional card game, Go Stop, in one of my five great-aunts’ living room, carefully learning the rules and laughing with my grandmother when I didn’t understand what was going on. I tried makgeoli (a traditional Korean rice beverage) for the first time with my dad, tasting the different flavours the restaurant offered. I walked around an old Korean fortress, admiring the country’s pre-colonial strength and taking in its rich history. During that trip, I immersed myself in the act of being Korean.
And suddenly, Seoul shifted in my heart from being the city I was ashamed of to being the city I love. I know, now, that no matter how far I stray from my hometown, I will always be able to come back to its loving arms. In that trip I found myself still rooted in the culture that will never erode from my veins. I’ve found solace in going to the place that used to give me anxiety.
Now, I jump around with my friend as we watch kpop music videos, because while my childhood was in Vancouver and my future awaits me in Providence, my heart will always be in Korea.
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