I’m almost 3 weeks into my study abroad program in Seoul, South Korea. Quarantine ended on July 11th and since then it’s been a “go, go, go” type of life. From the moment I got onto the plane to the times I have been out exploring districts like Myeong-dong, Yongsan-gu, and the surrounding district of Korea University, I’ve experienced what it means to feel included. In my home country, the United States of America, I had always had a feeling of being an “other”. As an Asian, I was mocked for my eye shape by kids on the playground and have been talked down to because people thought I couldn’t speak English. My experience thus far in South Korea has switched the roles I am used to at home.
Starting from the Plane
Arriving at JFK airport gave me a mix of emotions: excitement, nervousness, and anxiousness. The day has finally arrived and this trip, which was supposed to be my summer 2020 experience, is actually happening. Once I stepped up to the ticket counter, I was spoken to in Korean and this continued to happen through security, boarding, and the flight. I felt confused and chalked it up to being Asian and going to an Asian country as the reason for constantly being spoken to in Korean. Once we landed, going through customs and Covid-19 measures, everyone continued to speak to me in Korean. I could make sense of this confusion and the assumptions the workers may have had about me. In this part of my trip, I realized that my race was benefitting me. It was different from the states, because it was my turn to be able to feel like I’m not the odd one out and I can look around my environment and see people who have similar features to me. My ethnicity made me feel similar to what I feel in the states, a sense of being fake. My ethnicity is Chinese, and I am just one of thousands of babies that were given up for adoption. My history as always made me feel like an outsider even among other Asians and other Chinese people, because I didn’t have the same experience of growing up in an Asian household and I didn’t speak my mother tongue. When I hang out with some of my Asian friends who did grow up with their birth parents, I feel fake and white-washed. The term to describe a white-washed Asian is, “banana”, yellow on the outside and white on the inside. The same emotions that plague me at home parallel to my time in Korea. Some things aren’t so different no matter where you are in the world.
Going out and about, I’ve noticed that I still get spoken to in Korean. Some of what is said I can understand — not necessarily due to my level of understanding of the Korean language, but based off of actions and hand motions, as well as universal etiquette when going to restaurants and stores. I haven’t had too much time to be able to feel and acknowledge how my emotions from my above statements have changed or stayed the same. I have confronted another way my race/ethnicity has played a role in my perception of this trip. There is a stereotype in the US that Asians are always skinny, and it’s just a genetic thing they are “blessed” with. While some of the stereotype holds some truth, and countries like South Korea, China, and Japan put an emphasis on being skinny as a beauty standard, it shouldn’t be generalized to all Asians. Though I know this, and I know that everyone’s body is different, I can’t help but struggle and constantly compare myself to the beauty standards of my host country. I get into my head and think that others may be wondering why I am not skinny despite being of Asian descent. In. this way, I feel that my race presents differently in my host country compared to my home country. I do acknowledge that the beauty standards are different between countries, and my perception of how I see my Asian identity impacts the interpretation of my daily life while abroad.
Farewell for now
Overall, this trip has been fun and eye-opening in many ways. I have gotten to know many wonderful people and exploring Seoul has been an adventure, from getting lost in the subways to eating delicious food. It has further opened my eyes to how I view my own identity and how I fit in as a global citizen.