I’m on the fairer end of the color spectrum, but one glance at my stature, my facial structure, hair texture, eye shape, and you’d never for one second think I was Korean or otherwise of Asian descent. So, why is my newest nickname — one that I’m quite proud of, I might add — “Korean Girl”?
Well, near my office is a small buffet restaurant run by a Korean Family. The food is mostly typical American fare (chicken dishes, salads, pasta dishes, etc), but because the owners hail from Seoul, there are a few Korean delicacies in the mix. During the past 9 months, chapchae, bibimbop and doraji have become my faves and the owners have been amazed by my consistent selection of their most authentic offerings. Add in my penchant for passing and receiving credit cards, business cards and receipts with both hands — a subtle sign of respect in many Asian cultures and a practice I picked up during my previous travels to China — and voila, in their eyes, I have been transformed into something other than the American brown girl that I am.
In attempt to find an explanation for what they perceived as unusual behavior, their focus quickly turned to my cultural heritage. Is my mother Korean? Am I sure? Is there some family secret I don’t know? Maybe my grandmother? Several weeks and many jovial conversations later, I finally assured my new friends that I’ve never been to Korea nor had any of my ancestors. So they declared, and I agreed, that maybe I just have a Korean soul. Nine months later and I still incite an occasional chuckle at my apparently authentic-sounding pronunciation of the foods. And, most recently, when I walk in the door, I am greeted with a joyful “Hello, Korean!”
I look forward to my semi-weekly visits to the restaurant and the inevitable cultural exchange that occurs. In a country where assimilation into the melting pot is encouraged, many of the people they interact with daily don’t pay attention to the ingredients, pronunciations or customs their trying to hold on to and share with us. I love being someone who does notice. I love showing them, my new Seoul-mates, a different face of America, especially brown America.
I think about my interactions with this family often and I realize that travel has changed me on some fundamental level. It has made me more sensitive to and respectful of cultural differences. It has encouraged me to embrace a spirit of curiosity and adventure in small ways and in small places even those in my own back yard. Today, whether you’re hopping on a flight or staying in your neighborhood, remember to bring with you the open-hearted spirit of travel and ask yourself how you can become someone else’s Korean, African, Latino, Polish, Romanian, Italian, Japanese or Indian girl or boy.