Kelly is an alum of the 2021 Korean summer program. This story was submitted as an entry to the NSLI-Y 15th Anniversary Storytelling Competition.
“Ready? 하나, 둘,셋—안녕하세요, 미국 학생입니다! ” One, two, three—Hello, we are
My mind blanked after bowing. The sight of a professional camera setup caught me off
guard. I gripped the microphone base, knees slightly shaking. Should we speak in English since we’re obviously foreigners? I thought. Or should we stick strictly to Korean for the entire time? Quick—what’s a synonym for “interesting” in Korean besides 재밌었어요? I felt my brain doing mental gymnastics. Time inched closer and closer. We had fifteen minutes until our reservation with the Bukchon Hanok painting cafe began. All I could think about was what to say that would reach our target audience.
Earlier that day, my Korean supporter Unnie was showing our NSLI-Y group the
illustrious exhibits in the Seoul Museum of Craft Art, the nation’s first craft museum to ever open. Just two weeks into its grand opening, our group was already immersed in the artists’ dedication to showcasing Korean pride. My classmate Kayla was taking photos of the jade pots while my other classmate, Javon, stood to the left, observing the golden clocks. Traditional and modern crafts live as neighbors separated by sturdy white walls. Sculptures mingled in each corner as if in line, waiting for our eyes to meet art. I wandered through the artworks in awe of the color schemes chosen by the artists, new and old. As one of three foreigners exploring the museum, I gravitated towards the horse statue—말, in Korean. The horse was my Zodiac animal in Chinese culture and the epitome of elegance in American. It represented the valor of being a first-generation college student in my family. Today, however, it represented opportunity: the freedom to live in another country.
Suddenly, Unnie encountered a crew of Korean workers. Both ahjumeoni, older women,
appeared to be KTV news employees: a taller, elderly camerawoman and a shorter, middle-aged journalist. They turned to us and grinned under their masks.
“Would you all like to be interviewed on Korean television?” Unnie asked our group.
I stood there, mouth slightly agape. The reporters wanted us? We were only a couple of
high school students from America visiting a craft museum for the first time. Teenagers who had hardly any knowledge about the complexities of Korean pottery. Just three Level One Novice Korean speakers. They wanted our opinions on not only the museum but the perception of Korean artisanship on behalf of the western world. Kayla and I exchanged a dubious look. Javon stood slightly apart from the group, fidgeting with his phone. A sudden smile appeared on Unnie’s face, and we all nodded. This was the perfect opportunity to use our language skills in hopes of reaching more Korean citizens.
“네,” I responded. “할 수 있어요!” Yes, we’ll do it.
Soon enough, Kayla, Javon, and I stood in the center of the white sculptures. Both of
them were equally as tense; I could feel their arms stiffen. Yet, when our eyes all met, there was an unspoken agreement that we would not back out. We were selected as NSLI-Y students for a reason: to foster international cooperation using our communication skills. This may be the only chance that Koreans, particularly Seoulites, will get to hear the perspectives of American foreign exchange students in the nation’s first craft museum. I took a quick breath and spoke:
“사실 이다 너무 예뻤어요,” I admitted in Korean. To be honest, everything was so
beautiful. “We learned so much about Korean culture and history in this museum.”우리는 이 미숙관에서 한국의 문화하고 역사에 데해 많이 배웠었어요. My sentences were starting to flow together. I then tried elaborating on the similarities and differences between Korean and American culture.
I paused. What was the word for pottery that Unnie taught us? Why didn’t I write it
down? It’s on the tip of my tongue. I have a feeling it’s 도자기 but I don’t want to accidentally mispronounce it.
I looked up at the ceiling, then to Unnie. With the limited vocabulary retained in my
head, I continued my comparison between Korean and American culture: “...정말 신기했어요
As I passed the microphone to Kayla, I flinched. I realized I had forgotten to speak in the
formal polite tense. What were Korean viewers going to think about foreigners? I thought to myself, anxious about the viewers misinterpreting my words and assuming that all American students were impolite.
No time to stall. Kayla was already speaking. I clasped my hands in prayer for her
success. She stammered a bit at first, slightly fidgeting with her Line Friends bracelet. However, she held strong eye contact with the camera. I nodded to let her know we were not just hearing her words; we were listening to them. She described the artworks as “아름다워요”— breathtakingly beautiful, and without a comparable English counterpart—using her left hand to highlight such motion. I relaxed my arms. After hearing Kayla’s perspective, I figured the viewers were likely paying more attention to what we were saying rather than how we delivered it. We were not native speakers, and that was alright. We came to South Korea to build an intercultural community between Koreans and Americans using art, history, and stories stretching back from the walks of human civilization. So long as the viewers took away that message, we were doing our part as U.S. Youth Ambassadors. Kayla tapped the microphone head, then passed the microphone over to Javon.
On my right, Javon hesitated for a moment. He started with a slight whisper: “네.” Agreeing with Kayla and me, he expanded on his passion for Korean history. His voice crescendoed into the echoes of the room. Using Konglish, a mix of Korean and English, Javon managed to convey his fascination with the museum’s artifacts. When he finishes, he hands the microphone back to me, and I close our interview off with another group bow.
In the corner of my eye, I peek at the reporters’ faces. They are still and listening intently. Not only could they understand what we said but they were also absorbing the messages we placed in the world. For us, Korean culture was far more than just finding the “I Seoul U” signs scattered across town or taking photos at the ever-so-popular tourist sites. Korean culture took the form of horse statues, Hanok cafés, and historical Hangul writing. It lives vicariously in the spirits of Koreans today who survived traumatizing wars, a divided country, and rapid changes.
We were talking into the void of a camera lens, and yet it felt like the world was staring
back at us, waiting for our next thought aloud. The voices of three students, haksaeng, spoke on behalf of America for a brief moment of dialogue. Our role as international facilitators became apparent that day, for Javon, Kayla, and I began internally screaming as soon as the camera stopped recording.
“감사합니다,” thanked the reporters. We bowed to thank them in return, still completely
fazed when Unnie came over in delight. In her hands was their business card, in case we wanted to watch the interview when it came out on live television. Of course, no NSLI-Y interaction was complete without a candid selfie: Kayla motions the camerawoman to get closer to the group for a picture together. Needless to say, we all held up the peace signs, saying “kimchi!” instead of “cheese!” If a picture was worth a thousand words, this one held at least a hundred in Korean—the rest were disseminated in the global community we touched upon with our stories.
Rest assured, Unnie managed to take our group to the painting cafe on time. Amidst the
sweltering humidity and furious cicada songs, we walked up the slopes of Bukchon Hanok
streets and stopped at an air-conditioned café. I nearly bowed twice to the store owner for serving us all ice-cold drinks. The four of us each painted something to remind ourselves of this trip: Unnie and Javon painted coffee mugs, Kayla painted a pair of ceramic slippers, and I painted a plate. Although our paintings were not quite up to the craft museum’s standards, we still posted them on our blogs because they were our precious creations. Whether we are simply making art or speaking about it in a news interview, I found that the end goal is not perfection. Rather, it is a desire to make more connections with other people through art. Art has no barriers—only gateways for intercultural sharing, and of course more language learning opportunities for NSLI-Y students like my group found that day in late July. With one more week left in our program, I could not imagine a more compelling opportunity to exchange cultures. The global community I sought so deeply in my home country lived in the friends I have made and people I have met. In just fifty-two days, we made a difference with our words, together.