My summer resolution was to return to the country my parents and grandparents call home and reconnect with my Korean roots through NSLI-Y’s unique language and cultural immersion program. Although aspects of Korean culture are still present in my everyday life, this past year I realized how detached I had become from the Korean side of my Korean American identity. I had lost the majority of my Korean speaking skills, could not write or read Hangul, and could not list South Korea’s most important holidays and traditions. My grandparents had constantly reminded me that I was Korean and that I should be proud to be from Korea. However, I questioned whether I deserved to be called Korean when I knew so little about its history, culture, and language.

NSLI-Y Students try on Hanbok

When people ask me how it felt to be Korean American in Korea, I always answer by saying that I have never felt more American than when I was in Seoul. Before coming to Seoul, I did not expect to experience much of the culture shock that I had learned about during the Pre-Departure Orientation; I thought I could simply just fit in. However, I had never felt more like a foreigner than when I first rode the subway to school on the first day of class. I stumbled to remove my T-money card from my wallet, spent at least ten minutes looking at the subway maps, and nearly got stuck between the subway doors. Luckily, after three weeks of riding the subway to school and back, navigating my way through Seoul’s public transportation network, and successfully giving directions in Korean, I no longer looked or acted like the clueless foreigner. My daily commute became my way of reconnecting with my culture by simply sitting, standing, walking, and living alongside other Koreans.

Elaine in traditional Korean dress

Elaine was a participant in the NSLI-Y 2016 Korea Summer Program.