Tuesday, February 05, 2008

An Essay I Wrote for Class

Probably one of the most intellectually stimulating exercises I have experienced so far in college is a conversation that I had with a fellow student about the problem of identity for students who have been exposed to multiple cultures. It started small (as most conversations are wont to do) and rapidly escalated to touch on many different topics: psychology, sociology, religion, languages, and more.
Because of the fact that I am both Korean-American and have lived overseas for a large portion of my life, I often feel that I have been uniquely “internationalized” compared to other Americans, or even other Korean-Americans. My oddly schizophrenic identity separates me from Koreans both because of the language barrier and because of certain cultural traits which I either do not have or refuse to embrace; at the same time I feel separated from Caucasians both because of the fact that my appearance is different and because I have the additional experience of living overseas and in different cultures.
I have always taken this separation in stride; it is simply part of my identity. And from this challenge of being “in-between” cultures I have been able to grow personally, in being able to adapt to many different situations, and furthermore, being prepared for all kinds of changes. This was an ability that helped me in my transition to college- after moving and adapting every four years, moving once again to college life was not the enormous difficulty that faced some people I know.
But when I got to college I also discovered, surprisingly, that there were others who had gone through the same type of transitions that I had, who had faced similar barriers that I had face. One of my fellow students was born in China, and at the age of seven moved to South Carolina, then to Texas, then to Georgia, and finally here. Her experience of trying to settle her identity was affected by her own perceptions of herself (she has decided upon becoming an American citizen) and by her observations of other Chinese-Americans who had “settled in” to American life: those that became insular in their own communities; those who tried to become as Americanized as possible; and those who had tried to accept the “best of both worlds”.
More than just swapping stories about adapting to places where we didn’t exactly belong, the stimulation of sharing our experiences led me to begin to consider the unique possibilities that I have and have had, sitting exactly at the nexus of two worlds. I have never been good at fitting into a mold and have thought of myself as having a proclivity for sticking out like a sore thumb wherever I go: casual Midwesterner in a university dominated by driven kids from the East Coast and the South; not quite Baptist, not quite Methodist, not quite Catholic; a rare social and political conservative in a sea of liberals and liberality. But the conversation I had sparked the desire to use and embrace all of these facets of myself rather than just to try to find my own niche where I can be passed over and ignored.
The difference that this conversation made intellectually was by its modus operandi. I was not trying to impress a professor or learn something for a test or swallow and regurgitate information. Rather, I was both driving and being driven through conversation, each sentence opening new and different tangents to be explored in a backhanded Socratic method— and through their exploration I found I was also contributing my own knowledge and information, a true exchange of ideas. The idea of “interdisciplinary” studies is bandied around many college campuses as an empty buzzword, but here, in a simple late-night conversation, it was alive in full force as we turned the issue of our own identities around and around, examining the same ideas from different angles and through different intellectual lenses, just as is idealized by the Platonic interdisciplinary concept. And furthermore, just as is idealized by academics, the discussion bred the internal desire in me to take action- to explore, both academically and personally, my identity.

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