The strangest thing has happened. I'm sure there is no one more surprised than me. But I have a confession to make: Never in my life have I had a more intense desire to be Korean. Of course, I'm Korean by blood. But I mean really Korean, as in Korean-ized, fluent in the Korean language, living and dying by Korea's Olympic fortunes, singing all the pop songs in my sleep, and popping the collar on my polo shirt. Okay, maybe not the collar!
In the last few weeks, I've had several chances to explore various neighborhoods by myself, wandering through labyrinthine side-streets, past countless restaurants, bars and no-rae-bang's. I weave my way through oncoming groups of three, four, five, eight people, wondering where they're from and where they're going and what they're talking about. I walk behind a pair of women who are unaware that I'm eavesdropping on their conversation. But like the proverbial tree falling in the woods, is it really eavesdropping if you can't understand what they're saying?
I've quickly discovered the vast disparity between my intense curiosity about the native Korean experience and at this same time the virtual inaccessibility of Korean culture to me. My short time here has highlighted how NOT Korean I am, between my unfamiliarity with the language and the culture, the habits and practices of the people. This experience has profoundly accentuated my sense of being alone, of not belonging. This is much different than feeling lonely. What I mean by "being alone" is not having a sense of belonging to a people or of having a social "home" where you can fit right in.
This is particularly ironic because I LOOK so Korean (so I've been told). I can remember at least five times people have approached me for directions on the street or in the subway station. If you could see the look on their faces when I speak to them in English. It's as if they heard a Nigerian speaking Mandarin. Yet despite my typical Korean appearance, Korean culture is opaque to me.
I'm truly a "tweener". I've known this for some time, but my experience in Korean has been a vivid reminder of this. I'm not Korean enough to be really Korean, and I never will be. And I'm not American enough to be really American, and I never will be. I am neither/nor. There is certainly a distinct place in between where I feel at home as a Korean-American, but that doesn't subdue the wish to jump in and blend in.
I've enjoyed the experience of looking at Korean culture as a foreigner, with fresh eyes. But it would be nice if I could say that here in Seoul I feel at home with my people.