During my freshman year in college I knew that I wanted to learn more about International Affairs, so it was my first choice when I selected a major. For anyone unfamiliar with IR degrees before the end of your completed coursework you must obtain an intermediate-advanced level of fluency in a second language. Coming from a diverse background where more than one language is spoken at home I was enthusiastic about my language choices.
Growing up with a strong interest in learning about new parts of the world I decided to pick Asia as my regional studies focus. In doing so I needed to also select an Asian language for my degree requirement. At my school only two Asian language options were available: Chinese and Japanese. Due to more exposure to Japanese culture from childhood in art, manga, TV shows, food, etc. I chose Japanese as my language choice.
Choosing to study Asia as my regional focus made a ever-changing impact on my life back then and even now. I wouldn’t be where I am right now. Selecting my major had such a strong ripple effect on my life that it has become a significant part of it.
While taking language classes my first semester in school I was invited to many cultural events hosted by all of the international clubs on campus. Heading to an event one day, which I happened to be running late to, I came across a group of international students from Asia. I knew from their poster that they were South Korean. At that time I knew a little about Korea and much less about Korean culture and language. Since I had only intended to visit the Japanese scheduled events recommended by my professor I did not think to stop by any other tables. However, upon walking past the group of Koreans I was offered a flag.
A female student turned and held out a hand-size Korean flag (태극기: known as Taegukgi in Korean) to me. I felt that she not only wanted to share a piece of her culture with me, but also wanted to welcome me to join the group. Not wanting to be rude I accepted the flag and approached the table. She and another member greeted me and briefly explained to me through their flyer and pamphlets more about Korea and their club. After a couple of minutes they gave me some pamphlets, thanked me for my time, and waved to me as I left. This was my first experience in meeting with Koreans and receiving something symbolic of Korea.
Though this happened long ago, it’s an ever-present memory for me because little did I know that Korea would one day become my second home. Even though I studied Japanese throughout my four years in college, studied abroad in Japan, participated in many Japanese-related conferences and events, and once applied to teach in Japan I never felt a stronger closeness and wonder than I did to Korea, from afar.
Never having any Korean friends with the exception of one who I studied Japanese with I never learned a lot about Korea during my college years. However, throughout college I held onto to my Korean flag because it reminded me of the warm and friendly Koreans who welcomed a stranger and kindly introduced her to their culture.
Sometimes I think about my decision to go to Korea and not Japan as mentioned in another post on Reasons for Moving to Korea. Sometimes I wonder if all these years I was bound to go choose Korea as the place I would complete my graduate studies, as the place I would find love, as the place that I would feel full and complete. Every time I look up at my Korean flag hanging in my bedroom I wonder if my flag was a beckon for me. Encouraging me to not be afraid to take new turns, to not be afraid to learn new things, to not be afraid to venture to new places. Looking at my Korean flag so many times I felt inspired to try, and finally I did. I changed my path and started on a new one. One that led me to a small East Asia nation with so much to offer.
My Korean flag is an ever-present reminder to me of the life I live now, of the Asian culture and languages I know now/ have learned, and of the people I have met.