A few days after I moved to Korea last August, my host family had some friends over. I came home late from work and introduced myself before heading to my room. As I walked away, I heard one of them whisper, “ That’s the English teacher?”
During those first months, the days were hard. After dinner with the family, which I sat through hunched and self-conscious, I would grab my phone, put in my earbuds, go outside, and walk twenty minutes north until I reached the park. It was centered around a small mountain range, or what to my Midwestern eyes looked close to a mountain range. Really it was more a series of steep hills, the kind that make up the landscape of Korea: undulating ridges, dark green with a dense layer of trees.
Mountains cover about seventy percent of the peninsula, and this was fortunate for me. When things got confusing or painful, I knew I’d feel better if I just aimed myself toward a peak and started walking.
Many cultures place gods atop mountains, and the act of climbing toward them is a sacred pilgrimage. There are the easy metaphors: to climb and conquer. To gain elevation, and thus perspective. To overcome. The simple act of movement, of exertion, soothes my mind. I hike for all these reasons and more.
Maybe it’s an unusual pursuit for someone raised in Minnesota, a state whose highest and lowest points of elevation are only 1,700 feet apart. When I moved to California in 2016 and hiked my first proper mountain, Mt. Baldy, I hiked over twice that elevation gain in a few hours. I’d signed up for a hiking Meetup group based in Los Angeles; I begged someone in the group for a ride and borrowed my roommate’s stiff leather boots. I was woefully unprepared for the horror that is hiking with shoes that don’t fit properly, and the pain that followed.
But still, I came back. I got to know others in the hiking group, which mostly consisted of people at least twenty years older than my newly twenty-two, and even went on a trip to Yosemite with them. At that time, I was depressed, lonely, in a new city, and the hiking group gave me a healthy focus. The kind of achievement that hiking provides—reaching the summit—is obvious, unlike every other category of success by which I was measuring myself at the time.
I moved to LA for both Young Middle Class “Artist” Reasons and Korean Adoptee Reasons. The former: vague notions of driving down the coast in a baby-blue convertible, screaming Lana Del Rey songs into the wind; meeting important and interesting people who would teach me how to become more jaded; taking cool pics to put on Instagram; having a pinker wardrobe; going on wild adventures not possible in Minneapolis. The latter: I knew LA had more Korean people than any other city in America.
Korean and American were two outfits I chose between, depending on the occasion and whatever would make me most familiar to my audience, whether that meant downplaying my whiteness with fellow people of color, or downplaying my Koreanness with my white extended family. I was Korean, I was American: Two facts that were separately true, on opposite sides of a barrier. No matter who I talked to, I felt like a spy behind enemy lines. This feeling, probably common for many Asian kids growing up in a white community, was exacerbated by the fact that my parents are white. “Korean-American” seemed to preclude me; I was beyond the hyphen, nothing so much as a changeling.
When I was a kid, I would stare at my reflection in the bathroom for twenty, thirty minutes at a time, trying to see myself as Korean, as Asian. To see what others saw when they made jokes about my eyes or my liking rice or knowing karate or being good at math, or simply stared at me curiously in public. It seems impossible to me now, but until I went to college I truly saw myself as white, albeit an uncanny and alien phenotype. I literally could not see an Asian girl in the mirror. I guess that was how I resolved the cognitive dissonance of being both Korean and American. Because it was cognitive dissonance, two different songs playing in each ear. I’d learned that to be “American” was to be white.
When I visited LA before I moved there, every cab driver asked if I was Korean. Like riddlers in a folktale, three drivers asked me from three different perspectives: One was a white transplant from another state, the other was from Italy, and the third was a man who’d immigrated from Korea.
I had spent my whole life being mistaken for something else, or being asked to account for my illegibility. But in LA, I got in a cab, and suddenly I was a perfect equation that only spat out one answer. A steel ball bearing of an answer, dense and holdable, storable. I’d never experienced that before. I wanted to move to LA—to Koreatown, specifically—to chase that smooth feeling of comfort, the satisfaction of a latch clicking into place.
On one of our hiking group outings to the San Gabriel Mountains, as we took our lunch break, a group of twenty older Koreans passed by us on the trail. They warned us about a snake up ahead. I watched them go, tempted to shout out something in my unskilled Korean, so they knew I was, in a certain sentimental slant of light, one of them.
“Koreans seem like they hike a lot—you see groups of them all the time,” someone in my group said. I wondered if it was a Korean American thing, or a Korean Korean thing.
A month later, I was in Seoul on vacation, and was greeted by an almost identical sight: large groups of people decked out in fancy hiking gear, coming back into the city from one of the several mountains nearby. It was 2016, and it was my second trip to the country where I was born. The first was to meet my biological family, in 2014. Still on my hiking kick, this time I had decided to go on a solo backpacking trip to Hallasan, the tallest mountain in Korea, on Jeju Island.
Before my trip, I shared dinner with my family. After we ate, my grandfather insisted on taking me to a hiking store and buying me a shirt and pants for my upcoming trek. I cringed at the total: nearly two hundred dollars. My biological family, like most who make the difficult decision to relinquish their child for adoption, is not rich. My grandpa is in his seventies but, as far as I could tell, still worked almost every day as an industrial painter.
I know he feels guilty that he couldn’t provide for me. That the work (and joy) of my upbringing fell to someone else’s charity. And so he gives me things that, to him, must seem incomparably small. How do you compare a purchase to twenty years of presence in each other’s lives? Twenty years of birthdays. Slow, golden afternoons playing outside in late summer. A grandfather teaching his granddaughter the names of plants and constellations and neighborhood roads. Arguments, jokes, criticisms, chiding, teasing, the easy familiarity of family.
Some days I’m convinced blood means nothing. And yet adoption is one of those forks in the road where many of us try to glimpse through the trees to the other path, to the other world, to that fey girl who speaks fluent and clever Korean and teases her baby cousins and marries a man whilst wearing a hanbok. Who doesn’t need to move to LA to stop feeling like a shitty Jeopardy question no one can answer. With how many choices in life are the outcomes so drastically different? Perhaps the more distant something appears, the easier it is to uncomplicatedly long for it.
In one world, my childhood is six thousand miles and an entire language away. In this world, my grandfather and I are stilted strangers, unable to share even simple words. It’s maybe less about the language barrier and more about the unspeakable word for what it means to be separated so completely from someone whose fate was once tightly knotted to yours. Eloquence is impossible. So we give each other gifts, and look away quickly from one another’s eyes. The hiking clothes he bought me sat guiltily in my suitcase. I brought them back with me when I moved to Korea this year, even though I don’t plan on wearing them, for the superficial reason that they’re not my style: They’re like the hiking clothes I see on every ajumma (older woman) here, and I don’t want to look old-fashioned.
My grandparents were born in the 1940s. The Korea of their youth was leveled by war. I wonder what modern hiking culture looks like to them. What do they think of hiking turned into a weekend leisure activity, with all the according gear and purchases and aesthetic that comes along with that? When they were young, was hiking was just something one did on their way to do other things, in a country that’s seventy percent mountains?
photo courtesy of the author
For me, it became a way for me to work up the resolve to explore Korea. My Korean isn’t even good enough to send a package at the post office without confusion, so it’s a daunting prospect to navigate the buses and taxis required to reach the national parks alone, without a car. In America, I’m independent. I’m resilient; I can get from Point A to Point B without stress. But when I first arrived in Korea, my most salient emotion most days was doubt. My white foreigner friends living in Korea were quick to tell me how fun solo adventuring was. They told me stories of Koreans who gladly shared food and drinks with them, who offered rides and opened up their homes. It’s because you’re white , I wanted to say, closing my teeth around the bitterness in my mouth. If a Korean was to see me, a young woman, hiking alone, I figured they would think I was a weirdo, and possibly even disapprove.
Being Korean but being unable to actually be Korean makes me feel like I’m wearing yellowface. Pretending to be one of them until my mouth opens, or until it becomes obvious that I don’t know the proper social ritual, and then the ruse is up. But it isn’t a costume; I can’t take it off. Ironically enough, in the one place where I should ostensibly feel more comfortable with my race than anywhere else, I sometimes find myself longing for the thing I haven’t longed for since high school in a Minnesotan suburb: the ability to be white.
When I came to my school in Korea, one of my first lessons was about stereotypes. I asked my students what stereotypes they had about Americans.
“Their hair is blonde!”
If I were white, my incompetence in Korea would have an immediate explanation. The same comfort of being legible that I felt, briefly, in LA. My lack of ability to speak Korean, to properly read cues, to navigate, would be easily ascribed to my Americanness. Koreans seem to be more forgiving to American foreigners than to non-Americans. Instead, my worst anxiety is that Koreans see me—on the street, in the classroom, at the bus stop—not an foreigner who’s worked hard to be even barely competent here, but as a failure of a Korean.
When I went on a solo hiking and camping trip last fall to Woraksan, I was worried I would be scorned as a foolish single woman going on a hiking trip alone. From what I’ve observed, it’s rare for young people to hike alone in Korea; it’s a group activity popular with the older generations. But my fellow hikers seemed more curious than judgmental. I got a lot of questions and comments on the trail: Are you alone? How old are you? Wow, you’re tough!
When I got back to the campsite that night, I saw a man who I’d met on the trail, probably in his mid-fifties. He greeted me and asked if I was Korean. I explained, yes, I am, but I’m from America. He asked if my parents were in America. Unwilling to get into the specifics of my adoption—which makes Koreans of a certain generation apologize and stare at you sadly as if you’re a human version of those puppies in the Sarah McLachlan “Angel” commercials—I told him yes, but I don’t speak Korean with them, so that’s why I can’t speak Korean well.
He told me that my parents must be worried. He also repeated a word a couple times: ssikssikhae . I didn’t know what it meant, but I wrote it down in my phone to look up later.
ssikssikhada : (be) manly, valiant, brave, courageous, gallant, vigorous
The next morning, as I was stowing my tent, he came over to me with a cup of hot coffee, a still-warm hardboiled egg, and an apple. I tried to refuse, but he insisted. In Korea, you call adults of a certain age “aunt” and “uncle.” It was clear he’d taken me on as a kind of niece. We didn’t have tables or plates, so I had to take the coffee from his hand and drink it in front of him, eat the egg and discard the shell. I was struck by a tender, terribly vulnerable feeling; I ducked my head to hide it.
photo courtesy of the author
I’ve since returned to my town, to my job at my school, to the little stresses of the everyday and the bigger stress of never quite belonging. When I recall that moment, I still don’t know what the word for that feeling is. The emotion that bowed my head and made it hard to look that man in the eye. Whatever it is, it’s something that makes me less interested in that chimerical alternate universe Korea through the trees, and more interested in what’s ahead on my path in this one.
And it’s a reason to not be so scared of what Koreans think of me. When I started my job, I constantly worried that my co-teacher thought I was lazy, bad at my job, mannerless. All those hook-sharp insecurities, tugging at the back of my mind. One day, he told me: “I think you are very brave, to come to Korea. It’s not easy.”
Sometimes my fears may be true. Sometimes, it’s just inertia—a story I tell myself only because I’ve told it to myself for so long, one that prevents me from recognizing the open-heartedness of people around me. Yes, some of the people I meet here may think of me as a failed Korean. Some of them will think I am brave.
And yet perhaps a better conclusion is that it doesn’t matter what they think of me at all.
It would probably be beautiful to live in a world where I belonged in Korea. There is also beauty in a universe where Korea isn’t really mine, but I insist on having a piece of it anyway. I wanted to come to Korea because I knew it would hurt me, like hiking a mountain—in the way that muscles hurt at first, and then you’re stronger; in the way that new shoes hurt, and then they don’t and you’ve walked a hundred miles. I don’t think this is a mountain whose peak I can ever reach. But I’m so lucky that I get to try.