Samuel is an alum of the 2023 NSLI-Y Korean Summer Program from Miami, Florida. Samuel is interested in history and writing. He is also interested in sociology, linguistics, and culture.
From my daily commute to a regularly scheduled adventure, I always found myself at a crossroads between the novelty and familiarity of Korea. Seoul was where my childhood memories interfaced with the sweeping mountains and cityscapes of my home away from home.
To entertain me for a moment, I want to recall another trip to China that has become as illusory as my trip to Seoul felt. When I was 9 years old, in a sweltering hot sedan, with a pounding headache, I found myself at the rusted door knockers of a small siheyuan (Chinese house built around a courtyard) belonging to my maternal grandparents. The architecture was so novel to see in person, something I could only recall from storybooks. After some unpacking, we entered the rustic complex, and there, I found the brilliant smile of my aunt, cousins, and grandmother. The first words that came out of my mouth, hollering “Hello!” at my mysterious new relatives, meant nothing to them. I had never been able to learn my mother tongue. After this trip, I always felt severed from this other world of mine, unable to understand the rich history of my culture and my family.
Under NSLI-Y, I didn’t take the Chinese language program. I took Korean, which offered an entirely new experience. In the classroom, I recall our teacher regaling us on the demographics of the Korean language, giving us a glimpse into the manifestation of her culture and language from Chinese, Japanese, and even Portuguese influences! Especially intriguing was the word ssi, a concept of clans wholly inspired by how genealogies worked in mainland China. In Gyeongbokgung palace, the Confucian architecture and siheyuan style brought me straight back to that stuffy summer’s day of my childhood, but with colors and terrain as vibrant as Miami. In the regular subways and sprawling shopping districts, there was the most dynamic scene of urban culture, with Western-inspired teenagers, respectable seniors, and a breadth of metropolitan and polite life among the small businesses and rowdy consumers in the concrete jungle. Something oddly reminiscent of the same fanciful scenes that I had found in urban China. With my host family, I reveled in the furniture of the European romance period which they had transformed with Korea’s culture, while enjoying samgyeopsal and hybridization cuisine.
I love Seoul for the cultural significance it presents to both myself and the community that observes it. Its myth is etched into neon signs and painted wood. I loved the microcosms of city life, whether I was riding the subway, buying beef jerky from the local store, or engaging with my class on multiple personal and cultural levels. In multiple senses, I had not only the opportunity to immerse myself in Seoul but to take on an encore with the world I had lost as a child.