Almost three years ago, I made the decision to move back to South Korea, my motherland, the place that I was born. Months before I left, my parents and I argued a lot about my decision to move there.
“We came to America so that you can live a better life,” they said. “Why would you want to go back?”
But no matter how much we talked about it, I was adamant — convinced — that this was something that I had to do.
For as long as I can remember, I always struggled to understand my dual identity as a Korean American. What does that really mean anyway?
I always felt like my Korean identity was just this vague title that looked fine on paper but didn’t capture who I really was.
I was raised and educated in America so naturally I identified more as an American than I did as a Korean.
But no matter how hard I tried to ignore it, at the end of the day, my Korean identity was still a part of me. In many ways, it influenced my worldview, how I communicated with people, and even my general outlook on life.
The problem was that my Korean identity was so engrained in my psyche that I no longer had access to it. It was as if this part of my identity worked subconsciously as I pushed it back after all these years living in America.
So at this point, I felt like I came to a crossroad in my life, a quarter-life crisis if you will. Not knowing my other identity was like staring at a mirror and seeing only half of myself. And I had to ask, was this how I wanted to live for the rest of my life — not knowing who I truly was as a whole human being?
I came to the decision that I needed to explore my Korean identity and to dig into all of the nuance and history imbued in the word “Korean.” I believed that moving to Korea would help me understand this part of my identity better.
With that in mind, I was able to convince my parents to let me go back to Korea so that I can fully learn about my history and ultimately about myself.
In February 2019, I packed up my bags and headed to South Korea where I started work as an English teacher through a government-sponsored program called EPIK, which stands for English Program in Korea.
Once I arrived in Korea, I went through a week long orientation where I learned the dos and don’ts as well as some tips on adjusting in Korea, which were always very welcomed. After the orientation, I was plugged into my new school in the port city of Busan, which is the second largest city in South Korea.
The first three months of living in Korea was probably one of the most fun and challenging times of my stay here because everything felt so new and exciting.
I spent the first month familiarizing myself with the Korean work culture. I learned that in Korea, it’s always cooperative harmony over individual concerns. And nothing represented this more than hwesik which are social outings that all Korean workers are expected to attend.
During hwesik, teachers open up the booze and pour out what they really think about their life, school, and sometimes, with enough alcohol, about each other. Workplaces in Korea can be stressful. That’s why employers encourage their employees to join in on hwesik so that they can let loose and release their tension.
What I learned about hwesik was that it was sort of like Las Vegas, in that what happens at hwesik stays in hwesik (some teachers drink like they are in Vegas, but that’s a story for another time). What that means is that the teachers speak a bit more carefree and aren’t concerned about showing a lighter side of themselves that you wouldn’t normally get to see at work. But once everyone goes back to work the next day, everything goes back to normal, as if the hwesik never happened.
I learned that hwesik was great to attend if you’re looking to have a good time and get to know the Korean teachers better. I also think that it’s great for foreigners who are in Korea for the first time because Koreans can come off a little bit cold in the workplace and hwesik allows you to break the ice with some of them.
Another thing that I learned during hwesik is that beneath the surface, almost everyone is the same. Everyone has the same fear, same aspiration, and the same thing that they want in life, which is to be happy. And I found this to be true in Korea as well as back in America.
Another lesson that I learned in my time in Korea was how to work with people who might share different values than I do.
As an English teacher, we get assigned several co-teachers at our school. Our main job is to help supplement the lessons with anything that our co-teachers ask for. These can range from helping pronouncing the words to walking around the class and making sure that all the students are doing their assignment.
Working with a co-teacher was really interesting because it required a delicate balance where I had to teach to the best of my abilities without overstepping on my teacher’s authority.
For example, during one of our classes, my co-teacher made the mistake of writing “they’re” instead of the possessive “their” on the chalkboard. But rather than stepping in to fix her mistake, I had the good sense that I should leave it alone so that I don’t embarrass her in front of the class.
Once class ended, my co-teacher approached me and lightly smacked her forehead with her hand.
“John… It’s ‘their’ not ‘they’re’, right?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
She laughed it off and told me that she would tell the students about the mistake first thing next class. But before she left, she thanked me for not correcting her in front of the class.
I learned again of the importance of cooperative harmony over individual concerns.
After about three months went by, things at work and my general living in Korea started to feel more familiar. I was getting the hang of teaching in my class and I was getting used to understanding what was expected of me.
As I became more comfortable with the rhythm of everyday life, I started to take in my surroundings more, and I did this particularly in my classroom where I observed my students and their behaviors more closely.
My students are some of the brightest and smartest kids that I’ve ever come across. They are always enthusiastic and always full of energy.
As the years went on, I started to get closer with my students and started to learn more about them.
There was one conversation I had with them that really stood out to me, and it had to do with their English education. One day, I asked my students why they wanted to learn English. Most said they wanted to learn so that they can pass their English exams. When I asked if anyone wanted to learn English for fun, no one raised their hands.
One of my students said, “teacher, I don’t know what fun is. I just study, eat, sleep, and take tests.” That student was a fifth grader.
I was shocked at first, but she merely brushed it off as if it was just a normal part of life, something that everyone her age did.
So I probed her and asked why she had to work so hard. What she told me next disheartened me. She said that she had no choice, that her parents expected her to excel academically. She wants to pursue arts, but her parents won’t allow it. Instead, she has to study for 10 hours everyday just so that she can pass one exam that she’ll take later in her senior year of high school. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, academics is one of the biggest indicators for social and economic mobility in Korea. That’s why Korea invests so heavily on education.
My problem, however, is that this education system incentivizes students to learn and forget rather than to learn for the joy of it.
After our conversation, I couldn’t help but feel bad for her, but I wasn’t in any position to offer her any advice. To this day, I still remember that conversation that I had with her. Sometimes I wonder how my life would’ve turned out had my parents decided to stay in Korea.
Now that my third year is coming up, I feel it’s appropriate to sum up the valuable lessons that I learned here.
First and foremost, I gained a new perspective about my parents — one of love, respect, and admiration for everything that they’ve sacrificed for me.
At random days, I catch myself thinking about what they did, what they must’ve felt moving thousands of miles to a strange and foreign land not knowing a single soul there. I also think about all the sacrifices and pain and failures that they must have gone through — the kind of things that they never showed me. And I’m reminded of the silent struggles they went through — all the mornings when they woke up too tired to go to work but did anyways.
Living in Korea has taught me to be more thankful to my parents and everything that they have done just so that I can live a better life in America.
Living here has also made me more empathetic to those who immigrate to America, because their reason for immigrating is probably more or less the same that it was for my parents.
Now, that ahjumma who’s working 9 to 5 at a nail salon isn’t just another worker in my eyes — she’s my mom, my dad, and all the immigrants who came before us yearning for a better life in America. The next time that I see someone like her, the first thing I’ll think about is, “what’s her story?”
Living in Korea has also taught me that it’s our moral imperative as immigrants to learn more about our roots and heritage as much as we can. As immigrants in a new country, we’re thrown into a new environment that we didn’t ask for. Right away, we’re expected to get good grades so that hopefully we can get into a good college and earn some big bucks.
For many immigrants, this is our roadmap in our new country. And to be fair, it’s a great North Star to follow. Achieving academic and financial success will not only allow us to have something to show for our parents’ sacrifice, but it will also set us up for a life of comfort later down the road — a kind of life that our immigrant parents could only dream of.
I also believe however that this can lead many of us to pursue career paths and life choices just for the sake of success alone, until we feel a sort of emptiness about ourselves and our career.
The remedy for this is to learn about our roots and where we came from. This will give us a fuller picture as to the reasons why we struggle to pursue a good life in the first place.
Living abroad can also help us see the bigger motivation behind why our parents left in the first place, which was to give us the kind of opportunity that they never had. This opportunity that I’m talking about is not about achieving academic and financial success, which are important — it’s about figuring out what we’re passionate about, what we were born to do, and pursuing it with all of our energy.
Living abroad can give us that physical and mental space to really reflect on what we want to do with our lives, and can help us chart a new course that speaks to our soul.
Sure, we can have the same epiphany from reading books and watching documentaries; but living abroad gives us the sight, sound, and experience that will always live in our hearts forever. There’s no real substitution for what living abroad can teach us.
Finally, in my three years of living in Korea, I learned to find peace with my Korean identity. I learned more about my culture and my upbringing during my time here, all the good and the bad. And while I can’t fully relate to my fellow Korean teachers or my students, I feel at peace knowing that I gained new perspectives about my life, my family, and my immigrant experience.
As I wrap up my final months here in Korea, I’m left wondering if there’s anything else that I need to do — any last minute bucket list that I need to check off before heading back to the States.
But I can’t think of anything more satisfying than knowing that my journey — which started with this burning question about my identity and ultimately culminated to finding peace within myself — has finally come full circle.