There is a saying in Korean: “improving foreign language, slipping mother language.” It is a statement that reflects living abroad for a long time, and a testament to the things I am beginning to realize.
For me, this august will mark the 10th year of my stay in the United States. Of course, stay in one place long enough, and anyone becomes accustomed to the location like it was the palm of their hand. But when that place is in a different country altogether, the language, the culture, even the nuances, such as the gaze and the word selection, or the tiniest of body language, start becoming clearer. Of course when I had first landed in Chicago O’Hare International Airport, I hadn’t even dreamt of being this far into being westernized. Only thing that was there was the all-consuming dread that I would be nobody, unable to speak a word, in a strange new world full of others who could speak their mind. I could not have been more wrong.
Being a foreigner is an extremely daunting task. Quite the opposite of my fear of becoming nobody, gathering attention was almost a given when everyone knew that you were new in the country, different in appearance, and especially for the teachers, falling behind in academics because you did not know a single word in the language of the land. Being paranoid as I am, I assumed that all the attention were negatively directed, and sought to blend in as fast as possible. An entire semester of dictionary-copying and other method of mastering the language ensued, and in no time, I was able to construct understandable, albeit unwieldy sentences.
To be fair though, once you got the language down – which is completely up to you concerning how fast you master it – the rest comes naturally regardless of where you are from. The people you befriend, the music listen to, the food you’ll come to enjoy, everything in almost every aspect will shape your character and personality, and that in turn will affect the people you attract, and what your interests might be. Take me, for example; in high school, I dipped my toes into theater for the first time. Before I knew it, not only did my interest in theater grow up until the very end of high school, I was in band class, helping out with choir, making friends with other theater and band ‘geeks’ who showed sparked my interest in classic rock. Truthfully, I could have easily taken a different path as well, but the one I associated myself with helped me open my eyes to a culture that I would have missed otherwise.
But that doesn’t mean it will be easy either. There are some things that you will really have to do some homework on, because not doing them means that certain aspects of life really just might throw you off – possibly even out of the country. As I got older, being from another country meant that legally, one really has to be careful what they indulge in, and how much they indulged in it. This can be tough when it is thrown in the equation along with high school and college, and the long list of vice that comes stapled along with it. But some homework are less fun, and can really put a person in a confusing state of not really knowing where they are, or worse, who they are. As I mentioned earlier, when a person lives in a place long enough, you really get to know it like the palm of your hand. But this creates series of identity crisis that could take years to resolve, and possibly may never be resolved. Who do you choose to be, when you can’t fool your appearance? Alas, the finer points of this struggle are mine to discover as well.
I’ve come a long way from where I’ve started, and I daresay that I’ve also given out many good advices to others who came to me seeking it. And I’ve been looked up by some of them as the one who adapted so well that they had suspected I was born from the US. But every victory is met with some losses, and I find mine to be immense. While I had focused so much of my energy synchronizing with my surrounding, blending in with the people that surround me, I had forgotten to do the one homework that tied me to my roots. It seemed that in my fear of being treated as someone different, I had chosen to become a stranger to a place that I originated from. While I perfected my English to draw more friends, my mother language had slipped from my tongues from lack of usage, just as current news, culture, and even its history quietly faded away in the back of my head. However, it’s never too late.
Having stayed in the US for almost 10 years, I know that in the future I may move again elsewhere, and perhaps end up staying there for 10 years. Whether that happens or not, I know that as long as I stay away from home, I’ll be a foreigner on the soil I stand on, facing continuous challenges of being a perpetual stranger. But I believe that moving away in search for something, like wanderlust, is something that is deeply human. I also believe that even if we finally find a home away from home, we should still remember where we came from, because in the end, it’s the place that you started your journey.
Jay Kim/ sociology, senior