It was drizzling one afternoon in Seoul when I was waiting for a green light to cross the street. Across the way was an elderly man, probably in his seventies, who was biking in my direction. He was slowing down as he approached the red light, but his front wheel caught the curb and he fell—thankfully onto the sidewalk and not into the street—on his side. I immediately gasped, thinking that a fall like that could lead to hip replacement surgery. I wanted to rush over, but the light was still red and it was a busy intersection. There was a group of people only feet away from where the grandfather had fallen, and no one bothered to even glance over, much less help him up. It was infuriating. In a society where age is supposed to command respect, I could not believe that passersby did nothing. Yet what surprised me more was my reaction: as I watched the man slowly struggle to get back on his bike, I fought back tears. I would have felt the same anger had I been in Los Angeles, but I could not understand why I was so emotional to the point of tears.
On some visceral level, whether rightly or not, the fact that they look like me, my mother, or my father immediately makes it more personal and more emotional than were I to see someone in need in America or elsewhere in the world.
I was correct in expecting that living in Korea would cause some sort of identity crisis. When I am in the United States I consider myself Korean, yet when I travel abroad I consider myself American; I imagine this is how many hyphenated Americans feel. I may have been surrounded by Korean culture and customs growing up, but I am painfully aware of how much of an outsider I am in Korea. I have been yelled at on the subway for speaking English, and I have been frowned upon by taxi drivers for not speaking Korean fluently. Other foreigners in similar situations would not receive such negative reactions—in fact, Koreans would find it amusing and laudable if they tried to speak the language—yet I am made to feel ashamed.
Despite not being accepted or unable of becoming a true Seoulite, I think the reason why I was close to tears when I saw the old man fall was because of a sense of “this is my people.” Where was the concept of minjok (민족), our people, looking out for each other? I experienced this same feeling when my aunt told me that senior citizens aged 65 and over are being barred from joining gyms in ritzy areas of Seoul simply because of their age. I also get this same feeling anytime I see a homeless person hunched over with outstretched arms in some dirty corner of the city’s subway system. On some visceral level, whether rightly or not, the fact that they look like me, my mother, or my father immediately makes it more personal and more emotional than were I to see someone in need in America or elsewhere in the world; that man who fell could have very easily been my father or a relative. I find it interesting and disconcerting that I, labeled as an outsider, have such an intense reaction to Korean society’s forgotten people when the average South Korean citizen generally looks the other way.
Perhaps some of you have felt what I have felt. This past year here has definitely been a challenging learning experience about how to maneuver in between two very different languages and cultures. I haven’t come to terms with this internal conflict of mine, but I think it’s still too early yet; I’ll grapple with this well after I leave Korea, and the physical distance will probably aid in my reflection. I will say this, though: It’s gotten easier over time, and I don’t feel as much of an outsider as when I first arrived.