Tuesday, June 17, 2008

어떻게 왔어? or, Wine and Sympathy

Last night while I was out running an errand, I ran (almost literally) into an exchange student from the States. As we were crossing the street, this unknown girl suddenly stopped, waved, and called out to me. "Hey," she asked, "Would you like a bottle of wine?"
Silly question! If nothing else, it will fuel another episode of Bomb English!
Turns out she was a music student doing an exchange at a local university, and it was her last night before heading home. Her Korean friends came to check out what was taking her so long, and we all got to talking. That inevitably led to The Question:
How did I end up in Korea?
By and large, unless you're a hyphenated Korean-Japanese/Chinese/American/Russian/Gambian/whathaveyou, people wonder how you got here. Especially if you're a guy, people wonder if you're here because of your significant other's ethnicity or background. If you're a girl, they're just confused. Certainly even back home I was in the minority as a non-ethnically Korean person studying Korea. It seems to be a country where foreigners end up almost by accident.
My arrival was nearly accidental as well. Way, way, way back in high school I'd been on a summer exchange program to our sister school. I had a wonderful time, and the school I studied at suggested that I come back and study there for a full year after I graduated from my school in the US. I came home and proceeded to beg, plead, cry, and sob miserably in an effort to persuade my parents this was a good idea. But I had already started accumulating college credits (through the Running Start program), and my dad especially didn't want to see me waste the time I was putting in at the local college just to go back and do more high school. Instead, he made a deal with me: If I would wait, they would let me do an exchange as a college student. Deal!
I'd planned on going back to Japan, but my Asian History prof. suggested that I go on a new program to Korea. Korea . . .? I hadn't the foggiest notion of what Korea was like, but my professor persuaded me that that was a point in favor of going. I should experience something new while learning about a country that wasn't being studied as much as surrounding nations.
Well, the fact that the program was free didn't hurt either.
So I and a few friends applied that very day, and voila! we found ourselves Korea bound that summer. It was fabulous! It was a one month introductory Korean cultural program, and by the time I went home my research aims within anthropology had shifted west by a few hundred kilometers.
I was very lucky to be encouraged by a number of people both in and outside the field when I returned to the states. My adviser, an economic anthropologist who did all her fieldwork in Mexico, was wonderful and open even though I was the only person in the department interested in Asia. The only Asian history prof. at our school really took me under her wing, and deserves special thanks for being the one who initially proposed Korea as a place of study. Finally, huge thanks goes to the then-president of my college, who was born in Korea and took special pains not only to help me advance in my studies and give me opportunities to come here, but also consulted with me when I got back in how to best advance Asian studies at our own small school (the idea was that even though there was no formal major or minor in EAS, I had done a darned good job of getting so many Asia-related classes at my belt that there might be hope of having one in the near future at our school.)
To my booze-bestowing new almost-friend: Good luck, and I hope you make it back here. When you get home, be sure and thank the prof who sent you here for helping you find something a little more off the beaten path.

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