[SPEAK OUT]'Gyopo' walk paths of self-discovery

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[SPEAK OUT]'Gyopo' walk paths of self-discovery

Living in the United States for the last 12 years, uninterrupted by pilgrimages to my motherland, hasn't been conducive to a comprehensive understanding of the plight of Koreans. Gyopo like me -- Koreans who have long lived elsewhere -- joined the Korean American Student Association on college campuses and participated in the annual Korean-American issues conference. We held culture nights themed "Remembering the Han" and "One Korea, One People," inviting local fan dance and Korean drumming groups, and pulling relevant information off the Web to fill in the background and to give context to the events. Bulgogi, kimchi and japchae were must-haves, requisite crowd-pleasers. We thought we had Korean culture figured out by neatly packaging these elements into an evening showcase.

Stanford, my university, welcomed its first Korean studies department chair just a year ago. He taught a course on Korean state and society, the first of its kind in school history. Most of us didn't even know how to write hangeul, the Korean alphabet. The extent of our knowledge of Korea was a famine. And the worst part of it all was that we didn't blink an eye at our two-dimensional view of our ancestral home and its people. Only by parental persuasion or by our belated realization of a narrow worldview, we came to Korea, decked out in our American university degrees and our fluent English. Sinchon, the streets around Ewha, the Korean-American friendly clubs of Hongdae, and the bars of Apgujeong. See the pattern? An unmistakable Korean-American contingency marks these places as if we own the places. No wonder some Korean students think gyopo have an attitude problem.

It seems that when Korean-Americans come here for summer language programs or something similar, they mistake the intoxicating nightlife as the essence of Korea. "Seoul is such a funland," "The surreal nature of it all," and "The Korean won doesn't seem like real money" are the common responses I've received from friends. But such a warped experience is inevitable because it makes up the most easily accessible one -- the surface layer. By the same token, the most readily available conduit of Korean culture available to Korean-American women is through fashion and style. After dipping their feet into the surface layers and getting sucked into these niches for the duration of the language programs, the time comes to leave all the fun behind, but photos, memorable stories, a few catchy Korean phrases, and new hairdos provide stamps of proof that one was indeed "Koreanized." Amidst all this, the gyopo don't realize the luxury of their mobility.

Having said all this, please understand that Korean-Americans don't have it so easy either. The very nature of our hyphenated identity leads to a lifelong dialectic struggle and competing cultures. Due to the hyphen, our lives are bifurcated from our parents' lives and we have to qualify ourselves as the "1.5" generation. This divide looks small but really is a roaring gulf.

Simultaneously though, we possess the freedom to see and evaluate the best and worst of both worlds. And in this lies great power, the power of the observer. The beholder has the choice to ignore, abuse, or utilize his unique position on the cusp of both cultures. For the third to happen, we have to ask ourselves, "What lies at the heart of Korea? What is the core of Korea that holds all its layers together?"

There isn't one answer for all. But the process of arriving and digging for the answers will surely lead to self-discovery, an immersive cultural experience and an enlightened view of Korean culture. The road will also hold frustrating moments sparked by the querulous society, politics and the paradoxical existence of an abundant South Korea and its starving northern counterpart. Added to this is a profound sense of appreciation for the multifaceted layers that comprise Korea as a nation.

In the current sociocultural context of globalization and the Korean diaspora, a deeper mutual understanding and exchange between native Koreans and Koreans living abroad deserves more formal attention. Both sides should adopt a more interactive approach toward their counterparts and cultivate a desire to venture beyond their comfort zones.


Formerly an intern for the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition, the writer now interns in the Seoul office of UNESCO.

by Susan Lee

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