Story by Albert Jung
It was a usual family gathering during summer break of 2009. I was back in South Korea and for the first time since the beginning of my college education my entire extended family had gathered at my grandfather’s house to see me. Everything was going well—we were eating delicious food, drinking fine liquor, and talking about my new experience at an American college. Then I killed the mood.
According to Korean custom, when two or more people drink together, a person never fills his or her own glass. Instead, people refill each other’s drinks before the glass gets empty. If you’re the youngest in the group, you have to be especially careful not to let an older person go thirsty. It’s a very basic Korean tradition, making my social blunder of refilling my own drink and completely ignoring my neighbor’s that much worse. Being polite, none of my family members commented on my rude behavior, but the good mood was gone. Later, my parents lectured me for hours about acting like a “foreigner” who doesn’t know anything about Korean customs. How could I, someone who spent his first 16 years in South Korea, not know what I’d done?
It all started with my decision to abandon my old identity and transform myself into a Western intellectual. Since I was little, one man’s devotion to humanity has fascinated me. Dr. Albert Schweitzer, a Nobel Prize-winning physician, philosopher, and theologian, spent most of his life in Africa as one of the world’s first humanitarian aid workers. Unlike many of his fellow Europeans who spent the early part of the twentieth century busy colonizing the “Dark Continent,” Dr. Schweitzer built hospitals to help suffering Africans. I found this idea of devoting one’s life to humanity refreshingly noble; all I was getting through Korean education and everyday life centered on competition and gaining personal wealth. I dreamed of becoming a person like Dr. Schweitzer by studying social science and eventually working for the UN, but whenever I discussed my dream, my teachers pressured me to instead become a highly paid professional. Seeing no potential to achieve my dream in South Korea, I decided to leave for Western academia.
In 2004, I went west. During the summers of 2004 and 2005, I studied English in Worthing, United Kingdom, and in San Diego, California. A year later I began my junior year of high school in Portland, Oregon. During this time my family stayed in South Korea while I lived with host families. I visited South Korea only in the summer, most of the time only for a month. Being so long away from my native culture, I quickly found myself assimilating to American ways. I listed to music in English; watched American-made movies and television shows; I even adopted an English name—Albert—in honor of the man who had inspired me to start this journey in the first place. As the years passed, my newfound American customs gradually replaced the lessons I’d learned as a child in Korea. When I graduated high school, I felt more American than Korean.
The following autumn, I started college at the University of Oregon. Being a freshman, I socialized with as many people as possible. It was then that I noticed how many of my new friends thought I was Asian American as opposed to being an international student. That people mistook where I came from didn’t bother me at all. In fact, I had already started to consider myself an American; by this point—five years since leaving home—I’d either forgotten or completely missed the chance to learn parts of the culture I’d originally known. What this might mean in the long run, however, I rarely thought of, preferring to imagine that I was indeed becoming a Western intellectual. In my mind, it was a good thing that I was moving away from the memories of Korean society that pressured me to abandon my dream. That is, until the event at my grandfather’s house the summer after freshman year.
While my parents were lecturing me that summer night, I realized that some of my family members considered me an outsider. Everything would be easier, I thought, if I could simply abandon my connections with Korea and accept myself as an American. However, when I returned to the United States that fall, I realized yet another uncomfortable truth: even if I cut all my ties with Korea and become an American, some in the US will still see me as a foreigner. Occasionally in the States I meet people who upon hearing me speak immediately start talking slower. It seems that they hear my accent and see my face and automatically consider me foreign.
This fact hadn’t originally bothered me, but after freshman year I understood what I would go through if I decided to abandon my Korean identity. The truth struck me hard: for the rest of my life I will be seen as a foreigner by both Koreans and Americans. Going completely back to a Korean way of life is impossible as I have forgotten or never known most of that country’s culture. Pretending like I’m American is also not an option seeing as my accent and ethnicity sometimes set me apart. I was lost and found myself struggling to answer what identity it was I actually wanted.
Thankfully, Dr. Schweitzer once again inspired me. He too has a unique cultural background. He was born in Alsace, a small region in between France and Germany where centuries of struggle have blended the two individual cultures. Such a heritage led to many hurdles throughout Dr. Schweitzer’s life. His German roots gave the French a reason to arrest him during World War I, suspecting him of being a spy. Four decades later, however, no one questioned his nationality when the now famous doctor won the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize. Throughout it all, Dr. Schweitzer never allowed himself to be solely defined by any one identity.
Certainly, that awkward summer night at my grandfather’s house is not going to be the last occasion I’m seen as a foreigner. As I continue to move around the world, which I will have to do if I get my dream job at the UN, there will be countless times where I am misjudged based on how I appear to be rather than on who I actually am. However, Dr. Schweitzer’s life shows that I don’t have to be bound by any one cultural identity. Instead, I can just be another Albert making his own way in the world.