August 7, 2017
The last time I visited Korea was thirty years ago. I was a young child, impressionable and curious, and as I prepared for this trip, I knew to expect a ton of changes throughout the country. What I did not expect was to have my multiracial heritage at the forefront of my mind throughout the trip.
The trip I just returned from was a whirlwind, two-week Fulbright International Education Administrators (IEA) seminar that took us through numerous cities, visiting countless schools, and exploring cultural sites at a hectic pace. I went to Germany on an IEA six years ago and thought I knew what to expect on this trip, but the vastly different cultures and my own heritage played a large role in my experience.
To prepare for the trip, I downloaded a bunch of apps to brush up my (very) poor Korean skills. I spent countless hours trying to remember basic vocabulary, practicing basic conversational skills with my Korean students, and reading articles about their current events.
While we (seven other higher ed administrators from around the US) were there, we visited countless schools. Often there would be curious looks that I had grown accustomed to my entire life—that speculation about my racial background. I could repeatedly hear hushed conversations in Korean with our Korean counterparts trying to guess if I was, in fact, Korean. Frequently I put them out of their misery early on and confirmed that my mother was Korean.
Other times, my accent with my few words of Korean were the giveaway. They were sure that my accent was too good to be a coincidence, and would assume that I was part Korean.
All this I expected and, to be honest, I was somewhat accustomed to in the US. It is rare that a week goes by where some strangers on the street take it upon themselves to try to guess my racial background. It is usually proceeded by some awkward story about that one time they had tried kimchi, or they visited Koreatown once or how they really love Eugene Yang/Steven Yeun/insert-another-famous-Korean person (though sometimes they get it wrong it and is just another famous non-Korean Asian person).
Nevertheless, the day that my mixed raced background really made me pause in Korea was when we did a day trip to visit the DMZ. While the history of the DMZ itself was interesting, I could not help but notice the large percentage of the room that looked like me. Numerous families that looked like my biological family—Korean mother, American father, mixed kids. All discovering more about this historical event that made their family even a possibility.
For those of you who have never been to a place as homogenous as Korea, it is hard to fathom what it is like. Often on the streets, you will see a sea of only Korean faces unless you are in a particularly touristy part. With less than 3% of the entire population being foreign, it was common for our group to stand out. Then to go to this space where so many families reminded me of my own wonderful upbringing with a mix of different cultures, heritages, languages, and ideas was so inspirational.
While the entire trip to Korea was truly enlightening, that day at the DMZ really reinforced how much I love my multicultural heritage. It was fascinating to watch all these families go through the museum together, learning about the years of conflict that, while still unresolved, has led to a wonderful blending of cultures that made their families possible. While not all the stories of mixed kids are positive, in that moment, all I could see were families bonding as they learned more about their own histories.
About the author:
Cory Owen, Ed.D. is the Assistant Dean of International Advisement & Diversity Initiatives at Julliard
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