My Asian American Transition to Korea
This letter is from Alyson Kung, one of the Young Adult Volunteers whom
Kurt Esslinger and Hyeyoung Lee mentor
It’s been over a month now that I’ve been in DaeJeon. Life seems to have settled into a rhythm – class, site visits, grocery store visits, and laundry rituals. The question arises: How are you adjusting to Korea?
My transition to this new home has been surprisingly smooth. Though I don’t speak the language, I grew up not understanding my family when they spoke Cantonese or Burmese. I picked up on body language and pointing. It seems a familiar thing to me here as well. Korean food is a favorite of my parents also, so the switch to eating kimchi and rice wasn’t really even a switch. I don’t miss pizza. My diet at home involved mostly Asian food. The benefit of living in America near a big city was that I could eat Chinese food, Thai food, Japanese food and Korean food all the time if I wanted to (though I do miss the other Asian foods). Even without eating out, eating rice everyday at home was normal.
Language class even reminds me of taking Mandarin 1 and 2 in high school. Following along in class has been okay despite being mostly in Korean. My limited Chinese has even helped me pick up Korean and understand my Chinese classmates. Having traveled in Asia before gave me the benefit of being familiar with the large air conditioner units in each room, the heated floors, and the hot water available every where. Growing up in an Asian household means that I’m familiar with the hospitality and the fight over the check at the end of a meal. I know generally how to be polite already, even if I’m not perfect at executing it. Products are made for people like me – for example the glasses are made to fit my nose and don’t rest on my cheeks like they do in the States. So the adjustment to Korea has been completely seamless then, right?
Actually no. I am experiencing culture shock, but perhaps not from the source that was expected. The biggest challenge to the way I’ve lived has been moving in with my four other American housemates. I realize that the food we eat and the habits we have are pretty different from each other. My assumption that we are all American and therefore all have a general understanding of what is “normal” was way off base. Alexis and Emily are both from Florida, Linda is German American and from North Carolina, and Will is from Arkansas. We don’t agree on what a jacket is, or what is “common sense” for being polite. We don’t agree on what tastes good, or if it’s okay to wear shoes in the house, and I’ve noticed we all have very different communication styles. They’ve taught me about bubbly water, why and when it’s used. I’ve learned about German foods, and had a chance to talk through different cultural perspectives on politeness. My housemates have cooked some delicious meals that aren’t Asian at all. Words like “gal” get tossed around occasionally. I am constantly learning from my housemates how they see the world differently than I do.
I’ve perhaps been caught off guard, and feel a little foolish to go to Korea and learn what it means to be American while I’m here. This experience has opened my eyes to the sheer diversity of a country that could swallow Korea several times over. And for the first time in my life the way I do things is the cultural norm rather than the exception (as far as I can tell so far) even though I am not Korean at all. It has also made me examine what my identity is in all of this. I’m more hyper aware of the ways in which I differ from my friends whom I’m supposed to be like. I’m still trying to answer the question “What does it mean to be Asian American in Asia?” It seems the answer is not so simple.