My Summer Trip to Korea
This past June, I flew from my home to my motherland, from the “melting pot” to probably one of the most racially homogenous countries. I visited Korea for the first time ever since 2014 when I immigrated to the states, and I have never felt so Korean-American. Throughout my 3-week trip, the American part of my bicultural identity felt very conspicuous among the highly homogenous racial demographic and culture of South Korea; it was my first time spending time in Korea as a “Korean-American” rather than a “Korean”. Although it took a few days to become familiar with this shift in my identity, I found that my Asian-American perspectives, memories, and experiences made my trip so much more unique and personal in these following ways.
First off, food. I consider myself very privileged to live in an area with so many Korean cuisines nearby. A lot of the dishes I have tasted are quite delicious and they never fail to deliver me a sense of home. However, I always felt something lacking, something missing from these dishes that left me a little unsatisfied after each meal — authenticity. Right from the very first meal I had in Korea — warm, crispy pork cutlets and chewy buckwheat noodles at the Seoul station — I was showered with a sense of authenticity and home. I immediately grinned as the waiter walked me to my table with cordial Korean greetings and as I scanned the menu filled with Korean characters rather than awkwardly-broken English syllables that I saw back at home.
One specific aspect of Korean food I especially missed were the si-jang’s, the traditional street markets. Every si-jang boasts a festive, traditional ambience where you can see families bustling by fruit, textile, vegetable, seafood, clothing, and my personal favorite — food stands. To this day, I cannot forget the first sip of the savory, warm Kalguksu broth I had in one of the largest si-jang’s in the city of Daegu. I have had Kalguksu (knife-cut noodle soup) many times in the States, but this particular bowl at the si-jang was especially memorable to me not just because of its original taste, but also the vibrant yet friendly movement of people around me as I carefully cherished each bite of my meal. Constantly comparing and reflecting on the differences between Korean cuisine back in the States and these traditional Korean foods made my meals especially meaningful and tasty.
Besides the food, language is another part of this trip that encouraged me to appreciate my Asian-American identity in a way I have never thought of before. I got to spend a few days with a few of my high school friends, and as we always have, we spoke English to each other throughout most, if not the entirety of our hangouts. Although my friends and I interacted as we always do, to Koreans, we were probably a rare and amusing sight to witness during a random day in their lives. We received a lot of glances filled with curiosity, which provided us good chuckles but also a new perspective on how the bilingualism ordinary to us is actually quite unique to our Asian American identities.
Besides the few days I spent with my American friends, however, I spent the majority of my time in Korea with my Korean relatives and childhood friends, which meant I constantly spoke Korean. After a few days, I started wishing I had someone I could converse with in English — something I never expected I would desire during my trip. As I am a completely fluent Korean-speaker, I didn’t necessarily feel this way because I had trouble communicating with my grandparents and friends. Rather, I realized there are certain jokes, phrases, and ideas I have gotten used to over the past 8 years that I can only convey in English. Although I attempted to cure this unforeseen inconvenience by briefly calling some of my American friends, it wasn’t until I returned to the States and surrounded myself with English-speaking friends again that I realized how much of a privilege and a unique quality it is for me to be bilingual.
Lastly, I was constantly impressed by how convenient and adventurous it felt to utilize public transportation in Korea. Ever since I got my license and started driving myself around, I was convinced that transportation couldn’t get any more convenient and liberating than getting a car to myself. I was wrong. Very wrong. The public transportation system in Korea is extremely easy to utilize and speedy so that students, businessmen, or anybody can arrive at their destinations in no time at all. I especially took advantage of the subway system in all of the three major cities I traveled to: Seoul, Busan, and Daegu. Even though it was my first time getting around Korea in eight years, I had no problem navigating myself to department stores and restaurants I’ve never been to as long as I knew which subway station to get off at. Many shopping streets and restaurants tend to be populated around subway stations, which made my subway trips even more exciting and convenient.
Throughout my trip, I was not only filled with nostalgic delight but also countless new realizations and experiences that I was able to acquire because I visited Korea for the first time as a Korean-American. I am an ambassador of both the Korean and American cultures, and I can proudly say I truly embodied this responsibility throughout my three weeks in my home.