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.