Assimilation

I am a product of two worlds: as of April, 2016, I would have spent 10 years of my life in South Korea and 10 years of my life in the United States. The Pacific Ocean separating the two countries has also created a distinct identity for me where I am able to synthesize the ingredients from the two worlds to form a world view that may seem like a potpourri of Eastern and Western culture.

My world view is paradoxically balanced. I find the juxtaposition of two entirely different practices in South Korea and the United States to somehow line up to create a refreshingly original customary practice. For example, the Korean ideal in the context of academics espouses the most diligent effort in all the studies one undertakes; however, the American ideal works a little bit different in that students are encouraged to find a new perspective of looking at studies, therefore reinforcing this “rugged individualism” idea that many Americans hold close to their hearts. To strike the balance between these two ideals, I approached academics in an innovative mindset, but instead of learning a smattering of everything, I worked to diligently make progress in the new path that I set out for myself.

So far, I did a decent job maintaining the two distinct cultural heritages in myself. Recently, however, I was struck with an imbalance of my two identities and found my American influence engulfing the South Korean ideal that I held dearly. My world is a constant battle of push and pull, and this time, it seems as if my American heritage pulled a little bit harder than my other side.

I am currently working at Exploration Summer Program as a residential adviser and a course instructor for fourth and fifth graders (affectionately deemed as the “Pioneers”). But in a watered-down term, I am basically taking care of 12 kids on my floor constantly, from 7AM to 9:30PM with only a two-hour break in between. And in the past five weeks of being a resident adviser for these fourth and fifth graders, I realized that this age group is at a very precocious stage of life. They have yet to develop a sense of identity for themselves, and they lack the ability to empathize with one another: the world is just as they see it and not according to anyone else’s. It’s wondrous what puberty does to a child with a parochial view of the world.

I, too, was once this narrow-minded child who lived by the motto “my way or the highway.” A brutishly egotistical child to say the least, I hurt a lot of people in my childhood growth. My mother would recount to me a specific story, where I savagely bit off a chunk of skin from a kid at a public playground because he refused to get off the swings when I told him to do so. Although my days of borderline cannibalism is put to rest, I still see the 9 year old me in some of the kids that are on my floor, and I wonder how different I would be now had I spent my childhood years in America.

Maybe that’s why I’m so conflicted with my attitude recently. Growing up in South Korea, I spent most of my days without the supervision of my parents, who were busy with work during the day. My parents were very laissez-faire when it came to my social interaction with other peers: they let me do whatever the fuck I wanted to do, partly because they were not there to see it.

So I made mistakes growing up, and I still look back and cringe at some of the things I did. I made some faux pas that I am not proud of, intentionally hit my friends with really no intention, and crushed on girls that I was too embarrassed to admit. Simply put, I was – undeniably and inextricably – a child in its purest form. But nothing curtailed my childhood; rather, my childhood naturally tapered off into puberty, and the transition was smooth because I learned from the mistakes I made. Admittedly, the lessons were all the more valuable because I taught them myself.

But at Explo, I am directly contradicting everything my childhood stood for. From the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep, I play the role of a surveillance helicopter, ceaselessly watching every minute interaction among the kids. Once I see a physical altercation ever so small as a pat to the back, I step in to make sure no “physical aggression” happens again. Initially, I justified my micro-management as one of the many duties a residential adviser must perform so that all students feel safe emotionally and physically.

However, it’s becoming scarily clear that I’m not doing this as an obligation but as an instinct. The American ideal of childhood seems to be marked with over-protection compared to that of South Korea. When I was growing up, kids were to be kids, and when a conflict arose, kids figured it out themselves. In America, however, adults usually intervene to appease the conflict between children. The self-pedagogy that was so essential to my childhood development is nowhere to be seen in this program, and I look around to see way too many staff members talking to students about problems that could easily be solved within the students themselves.

Even with this in mind, I once again find myself reprimanding a student for fighting over who has possession of the basketball. It’s an interpersonal conflict that’s easily solvable without my mediation. But I’ve assimilated too much to go back to who I was before.

Perhaps that’s why I feel hollow when the day is over and I reflect back on all the unnecessary interventions. Each student is like a mirror, and I always see myself and everything that I was when I talk to them. And each time I intervene, I am tainting the pristine condition of what used to be my childhood. It’s a wretched feeling when I want the kids to experience an undisturbed childhood, and yet I am the very agent that’s preventing them from doing so.

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Faith

In late May, Amherst had its reunion for the Class of 1950-2010 with intervals of five years in each of the classes. Each class received a tent in which parties were thrown, social gatherings were held, and conversations were created. Walking chronologically from the earliest class to the most recent, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was entering into a silent, black-and-white film and exiting out of an IMAX movie. Each tent was a historical snapshot of that time period: elderly white male comprised the class of 1950 tent, few African-American men held their martinis in the class of 1970 tent, and women engaged in political conversations in the class of 1980 tent. The campus turned into a conglomeration of alums ranging from their mid-twenties to early-nineties.

Sometime before midnight, I mindlessly ambled into the class of 1970 tent and found an elderly couple sitting in the corner of the tent. The two seemed to be engrossed in a conversation as they did not see me approaching them. Call it an act of bravery or an act of foolishness, but I decided to sit right next to them and insert myself into the dialogue. It was only after I introduced myself as an Amherst class of 2018 that the couple put down its xenophobic barrier.

We drifted aimlessly into different topics, ranging from Amherst in its 1970s to American politics to the menu for breakfast to the bland taste of the bartender’s alcohol and to the couple’s marriage. When the topic of marriage surfaced, John and Sarah – the names of the couple – assumed a new demeanor, a demeanor that I haven’t seen until now: a demeanor of nostalgia. I asked them how long they have been married for. “40 years,” answered John, “and it was faith that kept us going all these days.”

Faith, in the context of relationship, is more than just trusting one another. There is a fine line between faith and trust that seems to elude me even to this day. When you get to know a person well enough, you develop a sense of trust for that particular person, but does that mean you have faith in him/her as well? To be honest, I can’t say for sure if I know the answer to that question, but I know there is a fundamental difference in saying “I trust you” compared to “I have faith in you.”

Last December, I started dating a girl from my dormitory who lived couple doors down from me. A ritual marked by innocence and naivete, we started on this journey called relationship together and learned to adjust to this new lifestyle. As winter changed to summer and summer to spring, other concepts and emotions entered our relationship, such as jealousy, miscommunication, love, intimacy, wistfulness, and future. But it was this summer that the idea of faith came into our lives.

Having been separated for over three months – and I know some long-distance couples are shaking their heads at the adolescent tone of my commentary -, I feel this constant emptiness in myself, an oblivion that seemed to have formed in the corner of my heart. This oblivion amplifies in times when I am by myself and have time to think, and the loneliness of not being with my significant other becomes hard to bear. But it is the faith we have in each other that seems to keep us (or at least me) going.

And it’s not just the faith in each other but a faith in the promise of the present and faith in the hope of the future. If trust guarantees security, faith promises eternity. When two people have faith in each other, they are not merely safe in the now, but they are eternally liberated from their past, present, and the future, and they have the ability to craft a life parallel to the aspirations of each other. I don’t like to think that relationship is a compromise between the two people but rather a transformation between two souls, and it’s through faith that this transformation can happen.

Through this time of separation, I can see this transformation happening inside us. We are so different from who we were seven months ago, and yet it feels like nothing has changed since that fateful day in December. Maybe that’s what being in a relationship really is all about: we are not changing constantly but rather changing in constancy.

When I realized all this, John’s sentiment towards his wife seemed all the more clear. Yes, it was faith that kept them going all these days, and how beautiful is it that John and Sarah are now living the faith of the future they used to dream of in their younger days?

Home

When the beginning of June rolled around, all I could think about was going home. Home to where my family was, home to where I could sit in my room and look at old memorabilia arranged across my shelf, home to a quick game of Super Smash Bros with my brother, home to where everything was familiar again.

Flash forward to June 22 and I am already packing to leave for Norton, Massachusetts, where I would be working as a course instructor and a residential adviser for Exploration Summer Programs. As I wait for the shuttle that would take me to Wheaton College, I think for a moment: is this my new home for the next two months?

I open the door to my room in a slow but succinct movement. The first thing I notice is the barrenness of the room. Everything is grotesquely clean: the white tile floors are spotless, the beds meticulously lined up next to the walls, and the desk making an exacting right angle with the corner. I set my luggage down next to the desk, hoping that my luggage does not ruin the congruence of the room.

When a person has time to think, all emotions heighten and all feelings amplify. Sitting there on my bed, I think for a moment. Not anything in particular, but I find comfort in the fact that I am thinking in this very moment and that I am proving my existence through it. My thoughts drift into nothing, and this nothingness drifts me into a state of loneliness. I look around my room and see the walls looking back at me. The white bricks sit neatly on top of each other, and they make a geometric pattern so mathematical that I couldn’t help but chuckle at the disorientation of myself.

‘This is my home,’ I think. Sooner or later, the desk will be filled with half-eaten snacks, my laptop, the water bottle I never use, paper copies of student handouts, and sunscreen. Blankets and bed sheets will sprawl across the mattress, disrupting the perfection that used to be this room. Dirty clothes will greet the white tile floor with malice, cabinets will be met with endless stacks of towels.

However, the more I try to organize this room like my home, the more I feel distant from it. They say home is where the heart is, but you can’t understand that concept unless you locate your heart first. Is this room my home? What is home? My heart feels the weight of the questions pushing down.

The questions still encircle my mind. Eventually, I will be leaving my traditional definition of a “home” back in Washington when I enter the so-called real world in a couple of years. When I settle down at a new place, this place will then be my new “home.” Home is an ephemeral concept; it is not bound by the construction of familiarity but freed through the ever-changing cycle of our lives.

But as I lie down on my Wheaton dormitory bed and think about what my mom, my dad, and my brother are doing back in Washington, I realize I am not ready to face the harsher realities of life. I go to sleep clutching my pillow with my arms and legs, unable to let go of the old habits ingrained in me since I was young.