A few weeks ago I had brunch with one of my childhood friends and her younger sister who, upon hearing I was going to Korea in a few weeks, leaned across the table and said reverently, “I would give anything to trade places with you.” She stared into my eyes with an intensity that made me flinch. I laughed it off and offered to bring her a souvenir (to which she replied “A BOY”and I thought: “Hahahaha….You and me both, honey.”) Nearly every week leading up to my departure from the states I encountered someone– a high school friend, a club member, someone I’d gotten along with at summer camp– who had similar reactions. Some had studied Korean by themselves for years because schools didn’t offer it; some were administrators of Kpop news websites or fan forums, fanfiction writers, etc. The more I people I encountered like this, the guiltier I felt. Because: A) I promised to bring back way more souvenirs than I know I can afford and B) It was like being on the other side of the looking glass. Meeting all those eager, overexcited faces reminded me of a younger version of myself, before my first trip to Japan became a reality. Back then it was the hardest thing to watch other people go out and live my dreams while I was stuck chomping at the bit in a suburb of Birmingham, AL where people still thought any Asian language was Chinese. Now that I’m the one living out someone else’s dreams, my lack of enthusiasm almost offends me.
I just started studying Korean at university last August, and having completed my first year of Korean language study, was awarded a scholarship to study in South Korea for the summer. I’ve never read a book about Korean culture. Korea doesn’t lend itself well to small talk or casual conversation (at least, in my circle of close friends.) It’s a niche topic, unless someone wants to make political jokes about North Korea. I’ve seen a few Korean dramas, but I hardly expected them to reflect reality. So, on the plane to South Korea I found myself largely devoid of preconceptions. I didn’t expect anything other than to struggle with learning a new language and to burn off my tastebuds trying to eat really spicy food. At least at the moment, I don’t have any other motivation for learning Korean other than a purely academic one. I wanted to learn another language that was similar to Japanese because it might be easier to pick up. As a linguistics major, naturally I’m interested in why these languages are similar in the first place and in what ways they differ. If there’s a class investigating Korean and Japanese phonology, sign me up please.
Unfortunately, “I’m just curious,” isn’t really an acceptable answer to give when asked, “Why are you learning Korean?” by a curious passerby. As I listened to my classmates introduce themselves repeatedly over the course of the first week of classes, I’m reminded of all the people who’d approached me before I left the states. Some are Kpop maniacs; some have lots of Korean friends or family to talk to back at home. They have such a burning personal interest in the language, it can be a little scary. I’d feel like a bad person if I looked them straight in the face and told them 그냥 (just because) or 이유 없는데 (I don’t have a reason). Out of self-preservation, I was able to string together, “Because I want to watch more Korean dramas?” Which earned everyone’s approval. So that’s what I’m sticking to.
For once, I don’t have a distinct plan or a short-term goal other than “Get better at Korean,” which is the polar opposite of how I was in Japan. I knew what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go. There were things I’d been waiting to do for years, and I’d had dreams to fulfill, goals to reach. If my game plan for Japan had been on a whiteboard, there wouldn’t be any white left to see, whereas the one for South Korea is blank. There’s so much white space to play with. I used to have a need to fill up all the white space with plans and schedules and flow charts, but strangely, I’m devoid of those feelings. More and more I’m becoming okay with not knowing where I’m going or why. It’s okay if my friends and I don’t know where a restaurant is, or if we can’t find the museum. Or if I don’t have wi-fi 24/7 to look up which bus arrives at what time etc etc etc. The paths are winding and wide and crossing. I suppose you can never really see what’s there until you stop looking?
This isn’t like me. I should be terrified and scrambling for the nearest guidebook, a map, or searching travel blogs to find my purpose here. Instead, I feel I am watching another me be terrified. Who knows what my larger purpose for being here really is? Just living moment by moment: celebrating taking the right bus home, stopping to dance to the TI song blasting from a street vendor stand might be enough. Purpose will come around.