My Korean is trash. I grew up in Tennessee, and my high school didn't exactly offer Korean as a foreign language. In fact, I spent a long time suppressing my own heritage. I brought Lunchables to school even though my mom wanted to pack me bulgogi (which I love). I was almost proud of the fact that I couldn't speak Korean. My English is quite good, but is it worth not knowing my native tongue? Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like as a genuine bilingual. So many doors would open. Last year, I finally started to learn Korean. I was 21. Any advantage of prepubescent vocal development has long gone. I sound American. Yet here I am, in Seoul. I can't understand my co-workers. They can barely understand me. Normally, my aunt and uncle act as my safety net, but they left this morning to America until August. I'm in Korea for another five weeks through July, during which I gotta survive on my own.
On the plane from JFK to Incheon, I acted like I could speak fluently. When the stewardess came around to ask what we wanted to eat, I just said 나도, meaning "me too," after the guy next to me ordered. I can speak survival Korean, just enough to get by. This plane ride was actually a big milestone for me. In the past I would make it very clear that I did not understand what the stewardess was saying. Honestly, I still didn't. I got lucky because the guy next to me ordered well. The only opening I gave the stewardess to realize that I'm terrible at Korean was when she was handing out the customs cards. It was actually a proud moment for me when she tried to pass me a Korean form. I figured I better not fuck up, though, so I had to ask for one in English. 영어 주세요. English, please.
When I landed in Incheon, my buddy Taegyun met me. We met in high school at McCallie and both ended up going to NYU for college. I'm his senior, but he was my safety net. Thanks to TK, I was able to get a working SIM card. I stayed with him for a couple of nights, and he gave me a warm welcome into Seoul. TK is a big frisbee head. He plays for NYU's Purple Haze. In Korea, he helps the disc federation as a coach. We watched a peewee tournament, which was really fun. There was this chubby kid, number 22, who would belly bump his teammates every time they scored. I think his team won.
Taegyun is a homie. Brer got me a ticket to Ultra Korea, a music festival at the Seoul Olympic Stadium. Not only was that so much fun, it helped me quash my jet lag. We saw some great artists. My favorite was Dumbfounded followed by Dynamic Duo. They were really the only folks in the lineup I had ever heard of, and their shows were quite radical. Koreans party differently, though. I still felt a little out of place. It might have been because Ultra is an EDM festival, and I don't really listen to that. Also, young Koreans dance differently. They don't get low. They jump. A lot. A lotta jumping. I found myself getting frustrated at the white boys acting like fools. Like, don't come to a Korean music festival and start a USA chant in front of a European artist and expect me to not shut you up. Look, I'm American. I love America. But, calm down. I won't tell y'all what I said, but just know that if you are in Korea and you start that shit, I will make you stop. Koreans living in America don't be going around shouting "DaeHanMinGuk" everywhere.
I've actually spoken to a few South Koreans on what they think of foreigners in their country. Koreans are very racist. It's only been a week and I've heard the N-word a couple of times. In America, it is easy for me to explain to light skinned people that if they're around me, I don't want to hear it. In Korea, what do I do? The South Korean perspective of Americans is a mixed bag of feelings. Korea has benefitted greatly from American influence. That being said, several people have told me that they don't like how Americans act in their home. They feel that they respect their guests, but their guests don't reciprocate. I myself have a problem in this regard. The cultural gap between the west and the east is stark. For example, Koreans say hi and bow to their co-workers all the time. I'm expected to greet my bosses with extraordinary formality each morning and afternoon. I bow to everyone so much, and it still doesn't feel like enough. It's half-hearted. I'm just not the kind of person who enjoys bowing to people. The simple fact that I go for the hand shake identifies me as a foreigner.
After Dynamic Duo, I lost Taegyun. I was parched and went to wait in line for water. Tbh, I cut. Karma struck as I approached the front of the line when the power cut out and they stopped making sales. We waited maybe 30 minutes for water. It felt like forever. I made small talk with the people around me, English speaking folk. There was a white girl with a half-Asian girl in front of me and a white guy with a black guy behind me. We started a water dance. Eventually, we got what we needed, but I ended up by myself. I rested for a bit, then messaged my friend Min. Min and I met when we were in high school, and she came to NYU for a year. Now she studies in Korea, but it was good to catch up with her. Her and her friends were a lot of fun to hang out with, but I'm sorry, Asians look alike. Maybe it was the alcohol, but I was getting confused. Everyone was getting confused as to who was who. Like, one girl was getting very flirty, then her friend was like, "hold up, we don't know that guy." And I was there like, "hold up, you're not one of Min's friends?" Stranger danger. This happens at festivals, I guess. One thing I did notice, however, was a disturbing lack of respect for women. America has its own problems with this, but Korea is bad in this area. Min has a very pretty friend, and a bunch of creepy dudes that she didn't know were grinding up on her like they could just do whatever they wanted. I saw her slap the shit outta some scrub. It was one of the more memorable moments of that night. She smacked him silly. It was impressive. One dude, I saw, went up to some girl at the water line and just started touching her face. She had this WTF look for a good ten seconds after getting away. Maybe it's just the festival hormones of the EDM population that gets young people touchy.
Although Korea has a well recognized gender problem, I was quite impressed on my first day of work to see a balanced gender ratio. This is the first office I've worked at with just as many women as there are men. I work at an NGO called Save North Korea. We help defectors from the North integrate into Southern society. The organization is interesting, but again, I wonder how well I fit. I spend most of my days staring at my co-workers like a dumbass. Even though my Korean is trash, I am valued for my English. I spent the first part of the week editing the English version of a brochure and the history of the organization. It took some work to make it coherent, especially considering I came into the office with very little background knowledge. My supervisor gave me several handouts, all in Korean, describing the mission and goal of the NGO. On Tuesday, we went to Free North Korea Radio to talk to hear a defector story. I took photos and videos. I wish I could have understood his story. It seemed compelling.
My personal goal for this summer was to meet a former North Korean. I've been able to do so, but the language barrier has made me realize that the only way for me to access these stories is for me to improve my Korean. I have one co-worker from the North. He came when he was 17. He used to drive tanks. We also share the same last name, so he and I are of the same clan. The 백 family. I call him 형님, meaning brother. He speaks too fast for me to keep up. His accent is unique. I've not heard a Korean speak like him before. Everything about him is sharp. His language is sharp; his jawline is sharp; his motions are sharp; his mind is sharp. He is thin and short, but his presence is large. The thing about North Korean defectors is they are the most resilient survivors on the planet. Their worst enemy is themselves. South Korea is well known for its suicide problem, and a number of those come from defectors from the North. The BBC reported in 2015 that the Ministry of Unification estimates 14% of defectors living in South Korea commit suicide. This is three times the rate at which South Koreans do. The academic and work life of a South Korean is rigorous. I stayed with Taegyun two nights and another high school friend, Ryan, for one. Their fathers work incredibly long hours during the week, and full days on the weekends. When a North Korean comes to the South, they have to adjust to this kind of lifestyle. I hesitate to say that Seoul has more freedom than in Pyongyang. There is an obvious difference when it comes to human rights and standards of living, but is someone who only goes home to sleep truly free? I can't imagine what it must be like to escape a torturous regime only to drown in the rapids of South Korean society.
One thing our organization does is visit an after school program for defector children each week. Save NK connected with a Korean photographer, also from the 백 clan, 백승휴. He workshops the kids on how to take pictures. When I went, it was lecture style, but I believe next week they will get a chance to shoot on their own. The children were just like any other group of kids. They were falling asleep as they sat still listening to adults talk. Before the photo lecture, they had a dance class, so I imagine they were a bit worn out. Afterwards, we all ate sandwiches together, and the kids had some fun. It was funny watching them flirt and play. There was one good looking kid who was surrounded by all the girls. It's so easy for the "outside" world to alienate the people of North Korea, but they're human just like everyone else.
On Wednesday and Thursday, I had a chance to get to know a gentleman named Casey Lartigue. He is the co-founder of an NGO called Teach North Korean Refugees. TNKR is a free English tutoring service for North Koreans. In the DPRK, citizens learn Russian and Chinese. Although they learn some English, they typically don't know enough to do well in South Korean environments. South Koreans use a lot of English. Many words are borrowed from English. After the Korean War, Soviets and Chinese people occupied the North while Americans occupied the South. In this way, some argue that the Korean Peninsula never went through a proper process of decolonization after Japanese rule. That being said, the language evolved in the South to include a Korean version of American words. For instance, television in Korean is pronounced, "tel-le-bi-jon" or 텔레비전. I am by no means an expert on North Korean dialect, but Casey told me that refugees are eager to study English. They need it for different reasons. Some need it for work. Others want to travel. Students look for help in testing, particularly for the TOEFL. Each refugee has their own reasons for learning. Casey has a background in education. That's what he studied as a masters student at Harvard. TNKR has a very unique system of tutoring that allows the students to pick their teachers. He realized how ineffective it is for people to learn in group settings. A lot of his philosophy revolves around the freedom of choice, so his program is designed to give North Koreans options. They love it. Refugees are given a stack of volunteer resumes. By doing this, they are empowered. In fact, it's the volunteers who get nervous on whether or not they will be picked. Normally, it is the students who get anxious as to whether or not a school will accept them, but TNKR flips that system. Some students pick several different teachers. One might be a historian or a writer. Some are bilingual, good for those who need to express their ideas, while others only speak English, good for those who want to practice communicating. A tutor may speak too fast or too slow, but the student gets to choose. One defector, Yeonmi Park, came out of TNKR. Casey told me that she used to study 40 hours a week from tutors. She would take on up to five tutors at a time. Now, Yeonmi has become internationally known and even published a book, "In Order to Live," in English.
Casey came to Seoul with very little knowledge of North Korea beyond the general perspective that America has pushed. North Korea is crazy. Their leader is a joke and a criminal. Their nuclear power is growing, but they are not a threat. As he met defectors, he expected them to have a real disdain for Americans. On the contrary, they were quite thankful for America. I have also witnessed similar sentiment. North Korean defectors see America as a human rights blessing. 형님 told me that he is thankful for American human right law. He likes both Trump and Clinton because they both represent a healthy relationship between the United States and Korea. Interestingly, 형님 does not like the new leader, Moon Jae In. Understandably, refugees have deep disdain for the Kim regime. North Korean defectors think Moon Jae In and his fellow party members respect Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il too much. 형님's reaction? Fuck you. The fact that Moon Jae In is a politician who is sympathetic towards North Korea and China worries several people living in South Korea. There is no one on earth more anti-regime then defectors from North Korea, so when Moon Jae In indicates his willingness to work with the Kim regime, they can't help but feel anger towards this point of view. In fact, they prefer the party of Park Geun Hye. Though she herself was incredibly unpopular, the conservative party is more sided with America. I don't mean to say that Moon Jae In is against Americans, he is certainly not. It's just, in the defector's point of view, he is trying too hard to look like he is taking steps to bridge the gap between the North and the South.
Unification is a political talking point. No one actually thinks that it is in reach. The two nations are totally different. One might think that defectors think a lot about reunifying the Koreas, but as a minority population, they're worried about day-to-day life. They care about their jobs, which is why they want to learn English, as well as their education and families. They don't have time to think about these large political arguments that have no immediate tangible effect. Sure, the politically minded individuals think about unification, but for the most part, most people don't seem to care. South Koreans don't either. South Koreans are happy with their lifestyle. Reunification with the North actually threatens their status as a rich nation. I came into this internship thinking reunification was every Korean's dream, and I still believe most people would like one peaceful Korea. But realistically speaking, there is a lot of work to do. The process of reunification has become a political agenda that many defectors want nothing to do with. They don't want diplomatic relations with a twisted regime, nor do they want to be used as symbols of unity. They just want to be free.
One week of working in Korea has taught me a lot. I have to improve my Korean. There is so much I need to learn about the Korean peninsula. My goals as a Korean American need to be reevaluated to be more realistic. I feel so blessed to have the opportunity that I have this summer. To those of you who made it to the end, thank you. Please help me navigate my confusion.