On Seoul and Being Korean

View from the rooftop "garden" of our guesthouse...looking out into the Hongdae district. by keaki83

Seoul is everything I expected it to be: loud, crazy, wonderfully busy. We’ve had a great three days getting to know “our” area, the Hongdae district, home to Hongik University. I know many people are overwhelmed when they first arrive, but I think all those conversations with other adoptees before we left prepared me well. One of the benefits of being a “second generation” (maybe second and a half?) Korean adoptee is that I’m not really blazing a new path here…others have made this journey, and I have the benefit of having heard their stories. I feel lucky in that way…and also grateful for the passing on of their wisdom. It’s certainly made my experience easier so far.

Yesterday as we were wandering around, one of the women in our group asked Brian and another spouse if they saw elements of us in the Korean women they see on the streets…or if we somehow looked different now that we were in Korea. I thought it was an interesting question. They both reflected that while they hadn’t necessarily seen anyone in particular that either of us looked like, there would sometimes be things that caught their eye. But also, just from the way we stand and move, the way we carry ourselves, they can tell that we’re different. And I can tell, too…although the moments when someone starts speaking to me in Korean are both lovely and intimidating at the same time.

It’s been wonderful to see the diversity of what it means to look “Korean”. I’m sure many adoptees get this, but many times, people guess I’m something other than Korean, or are surprised to learn I’m Korean. As I walk the streets, I try to find faces that look like mine, and honestly, I haven’t seen any yet. At the same time, there’s such a diversity in facial features that it makes me feel a little more at home in my body–not all Koreans have the same hair, or eyes…or flat nose. I knew this intellectually, of course. But it doesn’t hit you as real until you’re in a city of millions of Koreans.

When you live in a city in which you can pass entire days with only seeing a few Asians at a time, it’s hard to truly grasp the diversity of Asians.  I can describe white people well–I know how to pick out the defining characteristics of their faces, have many ways to describe the color and texture of their hair. Koreans? Not so much. Usually if I tell someone I’ve never met before what I look like, I tell them to look for the short Korean woman. Obviously, that’s not descriptive enough here. And so, I’m trying to learn a whole new vocabulary. It’s humbling, but liberating at the same time, to truly look at my body and feel like I can claim all of it.

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One response to “On Seoul and Being Korean

  1. Really love this post! Especially the new freedom you are experiencing in your body and your experience with a different level of diversity. I like how you describe the need to learn a new vocabulary! It would be liberating for us all to try to see one another in new ways.

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