On the last leg international stop of the travel portion of my sabbatical I, by some luck, was able to travel to South Korea, where I haven’t returned since my adoption almost two years after my birth in 1983.
The luck came in the form of an obscenely cheap plane ticket found on fly.com from Rio through London to Seoul, back through London with a final stop In Pennsylvania allowing me to spend almost a month rediscovering my roots by means of being introduced to the Korean culture for the first time ever.
I experienced a roller coaster of emotions from dire insecurity, and resentment to a feeling of acceptance of myself and my life as it is. As I look back at my time in Korea attempting to stay nonjudgmental in my reflection, I was uncomfortable and lost more than not, but there are moments of recognition and found a true feeling of home in the end.
Folks have been asking the questions, How did it feel, Did I fit in? Did I feel accepted even though I was an adopted asian who grew up in white America? Did I like it? Those are all simple questions with somewhat complex answers.
So, how did it feel?
The short answer is: awkward, terrifying, uncomfortable, strange and wonderful. I think the longer answer comes in the form of this article, conflicted with a tough start but with a positive out look at the whole experience.
Did I fit in?
Physically at first glance, to most people, I looked like I should fit in. The clothes magically fit, the shoes slide on my short wide feet perfectly, and they knew how to cut my hair. It was fantastic.
When I asked if natives could spot me as a foreigner (note: I use the word foreigner, they don’t use international or traveler, they very specifically use the word foreign) there was a resounding response of, “Haha, absolutely, duh.” from a well-intentioned hostel owner and others in Seoul.
It came down to a just few simple things: I smiled too much and showing teeth was unseemly for a woman. My talking and laughing loudly was tasteless and slightly disrespectful. I looked people directly in the eyes more than I should which made me come off as too confident, aggressive, and too proud.
My body was overly muscular and I was way too dark, as many girls and guys alike avoid the sun and go as far as skin bleaching and avoid heavy working out to avoid building muscle. I was about 10 pounds heavier than most Korean girls. I’m 5’2 and 110 pounds, not exactly someone westerners would say needs to lose weight.
I didn’t have thick eyebrows, because I pluck into a western arch, nor did I have the pretty-standard Korean 20-30 something plastic surgery, thinned nose, shaved jawbone to create a heart shaped face, and double-eyelid surgery to make eyes appear bigger, more open, and more western. I wasn’t wearing as much make-up (if any) like most Korean girls and my hair wasn’t perfectly coifed in the 1 of few standard cuts that were trendy (a bob, thick bangs, a perm or Victoria Secret sexy tendrils)
Even thought I didn’t show up in the standard travelers backpacker uniform, of cargo pants or leggings, a cotton tank top and my hair pulled back, I still didn’t fit in fashion-wise.
My outfits of sun dresses, stylish blouses, and tailored shorts, which I though presented a reasonable city girl persona from LA, didn’t match the same level of fashion consciousness that goes through Korea, as I wasn’t wearing high-fashion brands. Coach, LV, Tory Birch and others are more common in Seoul than in Beverly Hills.
As a general standard, the culture encourages super-girly, youthfulness with big bows, polka dots, ruffles, sherbet colors and things I well, find slightly eerie. I guess I’m not down with the notion that grown women should be dressed like little girls for a number of reasons.
On top of all of that, Korea is a very conservative place, and the fact that my shoulders weren’t always covered, was another glaring fashion and culture mistake.
This judgement took place was all before I even spoke or interacted with anyone. This wasn’t exactly the warmest of responses from well-intentioned Seoul locals, but one thing I could always count on was Koreans being painfully honest for good or well, less than great for my self-confidence.
Much of this wasn’t to the same extreme when I got out of the city, but for the most part, I noticed a superficiality run through the culture and I found myself a bit of an odd gal out.
Culture Differences and Similarities
Culturally, I there were feelings that I didn’t exactly fit in either. For 10 years, I have been trying to bust ass in a man’s world, trying to be more of a guy in the boy’s only club. Only now do I find some balance in being a female leader as an actual woman and not one wearing a tough guy mask.
At first glance Korea seemed to me to be the land of soft, quiet, demure little girls. The country still values traditional gender roles in its most stereotypical sense. By cultural rules, guys make major decisions, eat first, talk first, and are more than less, the bosses.
I realized that the ladies have found this interesting space of emulating the little girly-girl where they primp in public in front of huge floral motif mirror and take photos of themselves in coffee shops, but I heard pretty consistently, that they run the show at home with their husbands and sons. It’s a standard story that you hear. As soon as a woman gets married and especially after having kids, she becomes the tough tiger mom.
What I did get on a personal level was that I related to the plight of the Korean woman who is expected to do and be everything. At home there was an expectation to cook 3 enormous meals a day, clean daily and perfectly, teach and care for the children and, now, in the last 10 – 20 years, they are expected to have a well-paying career and be a professional.
There is a huge generational and gender roles shift much like the states so over time I empathized because I got what they’re going through.
Korean/ American Disconnect
For the first week, my original snap judgments were that Korea is a land of discipline, superficiality and conformity, where there is a complexity of gender issues.
Sometimes the over the top niceties and politeness get in the way of people honestly communicating or being able to move through social rank in Korea. It’s great that in the states, if you want to talk to someone you can reach out, but in Korea, you can’t meet new people in Korea unless directly introduced.
I’m glad to have grown up with an American mentality in many ways. Traditions and existing hierarchies matter less. I can be a small-town girl and the daughter of a welder and still grow up to go to a top university and run big meetings at huge companies.
I spent the last 12 years in economic and cultural diversity, learning from people around me as I went to school and worked in Los Angeles. I could move from the group to group, asking questions, reaching out to people who I wanted to meet because of their incredible story and felt richer for it.
It seems much harder to move around in the Korean society because last names matter so much and people are expected to fulfill specific roles.
In the states, we aren’t afraid to break some rules to get things done. During my time in South Korea I came to appreciate our somewhat western cowboy, look at ourselves as individuals, as Americans.
I also felt incredibly lucky for the first time, to have grown up in the US, with a childhood where I could play outside and get dirty. I became grateful that my home was a place where we didn’t lock doors and we could slow down to look at the lightning bugs. I was still a mini over-achiever as a young girl with dance lessons, and honors classes but generally I got to be a kid.
The stories I heard, were that a lot that kids didn’t have full childhoods because they were in massive competition with each other at such an early stage of their lives. They worked like adults with a million intense extracurriculars, tutoring, homework and really difficult and sometimes abusive school situations. (11 year old girls at a Buddhist monastery camp showed me their welted bruises from being smacked repeatedly with sticks and the plays they showed were of violence and yelling.)
Hard Observations from Seoul
The experience when I first walked into the Korean salsa club also demonstrated a stoic, determined, intensity around hobbies. I was sort of horrified and taken aback at how mechanical it was. No one danced alone. You could only dance with partner or you were kind of encouraged or forced into a corner to practice the steps in a group in front of a mirror until you adequately knew the steps so you wouldn’t embarrass yourself with a partner.
There was nothing emotive, sensual, or free about it. All of those things are why I love dance and it broke my heart.
You weren’t allowed to just dance they way I had been able to in South America, liberated and free to feel the music. It made me want to break every rule, get subversive and crush the dance on the floor. That was until I realized I didn’t know the technique or the moves. It made me appreciate their incredible discipline and through knowledge of what they pursue as a hobby.
I may have judged the addictive patterns of heavy drinking at night, hyper-caffeinated coffeehouse culture during the day, and chain smoking and technology in hands every time in between. Then I realized, it wasn’t too far from our recent American values, as we had exported many of them.
It scared me when I found out that the reason the subways were so sterile with sliding glass doors covering train tracks to protect society from themselves because of the enormous amount of jumping suicides. I felt sadness as I ventured through the underground tunnels in silence because most people didn’t want to shame their family by being a musician in the metro stops.
Let’s be fair
Early on I was overwhelmed with culture shock, which surprised me because I feel like I’ve had a bunch of experience traveling. I don’t mean to be overly negative about the country, and certainly as a visitor or outsider that wasn’t part of a guided tour, I couldn’t always get a clear idea of the culture.
It’s hard for anyone not to judge a place immediately, especially someone who has mixed feelings about a country exporting hundreds of thousands of babies to the highest bidder (a Korean native’s words, not mine)
Rejection, abandonment, confusion, feeling like I didn’t fit in. Those things weren’t the entire country’s fault. It might just be the starting emotional state of many adoptees because for me, just being back the country for the first time alone, brought up a lot of those issues.
I had some of my lowest lows of my sabbatical in Korea. It was overcast and gray many days and I felt like it reflected my mindset.
Over time, the clouds broke and the spring colors showed through. It gave me perspective to show me see how lucky I am to have the life that I have which I’ll explain in the latter part of the post because I think learned patience in Korea, to not snap to conclusions because some of my initial thoughts turned out to be unfair judgements.
The Nicer Observations
Some things I really appreciated were the amazing, thoughtful, product design whether it was energy and space-efficient washers in small apartments, or hanging racks above the sinks. Efficient thoughtful problem solving and clean design an integrated part of society.
I liked people’s level of respect for others. There was no loud obnoxious conversation on the metro and people were considerate of each others space. Folks queued up fairly anytime there was a wait. Earnest handwork was a standard practice, in every part of life from the work place to learning tango.
It was impressive that people too pride in style, skin care and fitness as a whole. I liked that even though sometimes people might have gone a bit far on the superficial exterior appearance thing, both men and women in Korea were generally really well dressed, were in shape and had tidy homes.
The Real Change Happens
The incredible shift in the trip was my stay at the Buddhist Monastery in Songisan National Park. I had a heck of a time getting there, as I didn’t know changing bus schedule or, well, how to read or speak Korean outside of the basics.
I had a hard time eating in the smaller villages on my way down because I didn’t know the rules that places closed at 8 or 9 or only served groups in a barbecue setting. The motion of crossing your index fingers to say no was repeated as I was turned away from a number of establishments.
Sweaty, tired, hungry and in tears after the depressing week alone in Seoul, I arrived pretty broken, and I had arrived later than I stated, a no-no in Korean culture when you don’t have a phone to let them know you would be late.
I intended to stay only a couple days but I connected with a some wonderful women who made my entire South Korean experience worth the hard times and I ended up staying almost 2 weeks.
The first person of note was the host and manager of the temple stay program at Beopjusa, Judy, a 50 something, retired ibanker who was tired of the city grind and loved spending time in the peaceful mountains and helping people connect to the simpler Buddhist lifestyle.
Once she understood my situation, a broken-down adoptee, returning to the homeland, she was full of empathy and understanding. She introduced me to cultural rules with gentle kindness and told me about her beautiful daughters and the difficulties of being a woman in Korean society.
Judy would tell people very curtly that they were to be kind to me even though I didn’t speak the language and sometimes did things that were out of place within their rules, as it had been pretty common that I get a disapproving look for not speaking the language fluently.
She yelled at one woman who broke down and hugged me and asked me for forgiveness for her judgement and for what her people did to generations of Korean adoptees – orphaning and removing them from the country. They both had daughters and couldn’t imagine letting them go through what I had gone through as a baby.
Another life changing person in my life was Bokwan, a gentle, sweet spirit who gave her life to the Buddhist Monk life 10 years prior to us meeting. We would sit and have tea and talk about the meaning of life or take long slow walks through the mountains as she would remind me to slow down, that life wasn’t worth rushing.
One night she knocked on my door to let me know that the lanterns for Buddha’s birthday were illuminated for the last time of the season and we walked the magical grounds taking in the beautiful painted, paper colors in the dark serenity of the night. Under the stars we chatted quietly and took photos of the beauty.
There was a fellow Korean volunteer was my age, Lemon, a high-fashion gal from Seoul who wanted to get away to the mountains for a weekend. She taught me the language and introduced me to all of the food and the significance o the lotus flower root and other delicacies and invited me out with her friends to go dancing once I returned to Seoul the night before I left the country.
I was a volunteer, only supposed to clean beds and sweep floors and other odd labor jobs but when they found out that I had skills in writing, marketing and design, I helped them with their Wiki page, traveler reviews and web updates.
Translating and rewriting online text describing the temple was part of my new job. I happily wrote so that English speaking travelers could have the same amazing experience I did: chanting with 30 monks in a candllit temple under the stars, eating delicious Korean vegetarian food, drinking from fresh water springs, hiking the pristine mountains and connecting with local Koreans.
I even got to teach a class to at risk middle school to high schoolers while they stayed at the Monastery. It was an inside look at how young kids are treated and how society trains them early to be who they are expected to be. Wonderful bright-eyed, misunderstood kids looked at me and saw me as a person and I reciprocated. I got what they were going through, trying to retain themselves when the world tries to tell us who we should be.
Connected to a kind and talented Korean yoga instructor who taught at the camp, who said listening to ancient wisdom and connecting her mind to her body changed her life, was another highlight. When I would want to connect with Korean speakers, she became my translator. She even explained the the subtle nuances of interactions when the middle schoolers told me in so many words that they were appreciative for my time, what I was able to teach them and for seeing them as people. As a good friend would, she even drove me 2 hours to the bus station, giving me gifts and warm advice upon our parting.
The friends I made there called me sister or daughter and I realized I believed them. They taught me about the closeness of Koreans, that they considered each other family and and I was part of it. They gave me guidance on my travels and invited me to come back any time.
I felt so grateful and lucky that after feeling unaccepted, broken down and a bit of early disgust and resentment towards the culture, I could find empathy, sweetness and wisdom from such wonderful people.
Moving on from the temple was incredibly difficult but I landed in the south of the country, ocean side, where I visited monasteries on the water and connected with some cool local kids, one of which was the owner of the hostel where I stayed, Yeosu, backpackers.
They introduced me to even more delicious food, showed me around the town, shared music, and taught me more about what it was to be a Korean.
Coming Full Circle
FIrst impressions were rough, but they were around capitalist hustle and societal pressures and my insecurity as an adoptee. Once I moved away from that and opened my own mind and moved away from the fear of judgement, I found some really amazing things about the country and the people.
Once I got out of the hustle of the city, people invited me into their lives and homes like family. I’ve never felt that before. That feeling of being fully accepted and part of a culture immediately without trying. Just because of my face and being born in Korea, I became a little sister or a daughter.
I looped back up to Seoul to see the city with fresh eyes before leaving the country. I felt light as I stayed with a really bright expat girl for the last few days of my trip where I saw beautiful markets, walked parks and enjoyed city for the first time.
Folks in Seoul integrated nature through their city, and even though they didn’t always have respect for what was old, (they would knock down old cultural buildings to build 20 identical, looming, generic high-rises with ought a thought) they took care of their city with dedication and love. They were body aware, respectful, had thousands of words for flavors reflecting their passion for food and were people just like me, just trying to figure things out.
About the Biological Parents Question
I didn’t look for my parents, nor did I feel compelled to this time around. It crossed my mind and if doors started opening in that direction I would have jumped at it. I think it will be another time an place when I return. Visiting the orphanage and my foster family are on the list but I’d like to do more research and thinking about before I delve into that pandora’s box.
This trip was just me going from observing from the outside to acceptance, by my people and by myself.
Final Thoughts about Myself after this Trip
I’ve become proud of my heritage as an Asian and a Korean, but my upbringing as an American still define me. Being a women of this generation defines me. Being who I am, a creative, a writer, and an enthusiastic, open-minded but at times cautious person defines me.
Identities and roles are challenged and shifting everywhere, especially as people move towards or away from our current model of consumption. Thats what I noticed at home and abroad.
I like that people can’t guess everything about me at first glance, that I’m a deeper well than people might assume, whether it’s that I look young, am a goofy girl, that I’m an artist, look asian or don’t look asian enough.
It’s become kinda fun to surprise people and remind people not to judge a book by its cover- that someone young can have wisdom, a playful person can have depth, an artist can have a science brain and being asian isn’t easily defined.
We are in an increasingly more intricate and complex global world, and I realized I’m not alone in this one. People are raised by non-traditional families, have parents and roots of multiple races or have lived in 3 countries by the time they are 17. Maybe this notion of truly multi-faceted identities is becoming the new normal here and abroad.
Where did that leave me about the What ifs of my life?
Some of my internal questions were answered or at least I got some onsite on the direction of my life as a woman growing up as an orphan in Korea… What if I stayed? Where would I be, would people get me, would I fit in somewhere?
I’d probably look much like the girls I saw everywhere in Seoul, working a respectable job, living a pretty standard life and dressed in cute outfits with a set of societal standards that was normal to me.
Sounds kinda familiar- much like where I ended in America too.
This trip has helped me ask some hard questions and see some hard truths. I’m not part of one single entity. But i don’t actually think any of us are now, so I feel a little less alone in that.
I feel grateful now that I have multiple groups that think of me as family. The adopted asian network, through Seoul Searching, many Korean natives, my adoptive family in PA and the family of friends I’ve made in my life across the states and the globe are all my real family.
How lucky am I?
As James Pearson said on an Ember Arts profile of my story, “Our increasingly connected world gives us the opportunity to identify ourselves not only by our origin, but also by our destination, and perhaps most importantly by the journey we take to get there.” which i think wraps up the journey quite nicely.