Category Archives: Cultural Exchange

The Single Space Between Korean and American

By Jacqueline Choe

Throughout middle school and high school, if someone asked about my cultural heritage, I always said, “I’m more American than Korean.”

Korean American. That single space between Korean and American divides this compound word in half. Obviously, nationality and ethnicity aren’t as distinctly partitioned. But language is a tricky thing, and English had fooled me into thinking that I could develop only one half of my cultural identity without missing the other.

I’m a second-generation Korean American, but I grew up speaking English, and only English. I’m from a small suburban town half an hour’s drive from Seattle. In high school, I knew of maybe three or four other Korean kids, but  I didn’t know them on a personal level. My Koreatown was the H Mart (the local supermarket) in Bellevue, the only place outside of our own house where I could eat jjamppong and jajangmyeon and practically the only place where we could buy them.

Photo by Laura on Flickr

My brother and cousin don’t speak Korean either. On New Year’s, when our family meets up for mandu-guk, our parents would have conversations with our grandmother that we couldn’t understand. Sometimes our names came up. We accused them of gossip and laughed about it. Then we grasped for words in the common language between frustration and loneliness: two lands in which we are not outsiders.

Photo from Wikipedia

Los Angeles is different. Los Angeles has the largest population of Korean Americans in the country, and Koreatown is the most densely populated district in Los Angeles county. In a world like this, Korean Americans are Korean American, and that single space between the two words is not a divider, but a connector. Identity is intrinsic to life and vice-versa. Language and culture bond people together in ways I didn’t understand until I came to LA, walked down a city block, and saw what I couldn’t be a part of because I had spent so much time disregarding my Korean identity.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Continue reading The Single Space Between Korean and American

The Beauty and Dissonance of Learning Another Language

By Cody Uyeda

As a fourth generation Japanese American, one of the most common questions I get from others is whether I can speak Japanese. However, aside from some basic vocabulary and simple phrases, I’m always forced to admit that I can’t. Growing up in a predominantly non-Asian neighborhood, this lack of linguistic ability rarely posed much of a problem. In fact, it wasn’t until college that I even thought about the fact that I couldn’t speak Japanese. 

As a native English speaker, natural-born fluency is both a blessing and a curse. Because English is the standard form of international communication across the world, fluency in it opens doors that no other language can. However, this advantage also lulls one into a false sense of complacency. When the world caters to your language, there is often little incentive to see the value in others.

In undergrad I began taking classes in Japanese to fulfill my major requirements. However, I never felt that I truly understood the language. Whenever I found myself confused or lost, I knew I could retreat to the safety of English, covering up my embarrassment with nervous laughter and offhand comments. In short, I wasn’t really learning; I was picking up words and phrases, sure, but I was relying too heavily on having the safety of English at arm’s reach, knowing that when the professor dismissed me, I could simply leave my foreign language learning anxiety behind.

I might have gone through college never knowing any other perspective, but what changed my understanding was when I decided to study abroad in Japan the summer of my junior year. As my plane touched down that gray, cloudy morning at Narita Airport, I walked out of the terminal full of expectations, the biggest of which was the expectation of being accepted. As someone who is ethnically Japanese, I expected to feel at home among the people of my ancestral country. However, it was not the homecoming I had imagined. 

Within minutes, I realized just how lost I was. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t read the signs around me. I couldn’t understand anyone on the street. I couldn’t even write down what I wanted to say. With barely a rudimentary understanding of Japanese, rather than feeling accepted, I felt like I didn’t belong. 

Throughout my time in Japan, there were many instances where I would walk out of a store and feel like crying because I felt so stupid; a faker with a Japanese face but no words to match. In the middle of Tokyo, I was surrounded by people, yet I had never felt more alone. There were nights where I would wander the neon-lit streets, wondering what I was doing here when I was so illiterate that I could barely get by on the subway, much less ask anyone for directions or figure out where the nearest bathroom was. 

This isn’t to say my time in Japan was unenjoyable. On the contrary, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my college career. Nevertheless, when I landed back in LA, I returned with a newfound respect for other languages. I realized that in order to fully appreciate Japanese, I needed to let go of my English language crutch, and feel the full discomfort in just how much I didn’t understand. I was forced to confront the weaknesses in my own learning, and appreciate the amount of privilege I had as a native English speaker attending a school where so many others lacked the fluency I took for granted. As I continue to explore Japanese, as well as other languages, I am reminded to be patient and humble; that the dissonance and discomfort of not understanding is not a detriment; and that appreciating the beauty and complexity of a language is only possible when you put aside your fears and step out of your comfort zone.

Featured image by Xuan Nguyen on Unsplash

Cody is a second year JD student at USC’s Gould School of Law. He is originally from Orange County, CA, and also completed his undergraduate degree in English and Communication at USC. On campus, Cody has been involved in a number of organizations, from Greek life to the Trojan Marching Band, and in his free time enjoys reading, writing, and exploring LA. As someone who has also studied foreign languages (Japanese & Korean), Cody understands the challenges of learning another language, and as such, has the patience and diligence to help others practice and improve their English skills.


China

By Sabrina Hsu

There isn’t much green in China. Beijing, China’s capital, is notorious for its horrendous pollution. So when I was given the opportunity to stay at a friend’s house in rural Qinghai, I was thrilled. Qinghai is one of the few well-preserved landscapes left in China – planes are not allowed to land anywhere near the small area and rarely do non-locals visit the place. Unfortunately, well-preserved usually comes hand in hand with underdeveloped economies and a heavy reliance on agriculture. But the experiences I had there, regardless of the poor conditions we lived in, will forever be some of the most precious and valuable memories I hold onto.


I was basking in the moonlight as I lied on the prickly grass in my friend’s backyard, looking up at a site so alien yet so familiar to me – stars crowded in the darkness, blinking down gently. I was in awe. This isn’t scenery one sees on a daily basis in China – in fact, in the 10 years I’ve been in Shanghai, there wasn’t a single day I could look up in the sky and see more than ten stars. We opted to sleep outside, on the moonlit plateau, to fully appreciate Mother Nature. Even though we ended up getting soaked from the downpour that night, it was still worth the experience. It’s an enchanting feeling to lie in the cradle of nature and let your mind run blank, concentrating on the things we usually take for granted. The noise that was usually covered up by cars honking or buildings under construction was crystal clear – birds chirped early in the morning, bugs buzzed around harmlessly, and the cattle and dogs roamed around freely, scraping at doors looking for food.

The next day, I rode in the back of a truck, my hair whipping in the wind as we drove through mountains of scenery. Though underdeveloped, the farms were kept in good shape and cattle roamed idly in the mountains. We arrived at our destination midway up a mountain. Changing into local clothes – long dresses with long sleeves that go way beyond one’s arms – I grabbed a bag of salt and started feeding the cows. I never knew cows enjoyed salt so much, but herds of old cows bounded towards me, scraping salt off my hands with their harsh tongues. In the end, I struggled away from the cows’ insatiable hunger for salt and tried to milk cows. The rhythmic movement of milking cows always looked so simple! But I failed again and again and didn’t manage to squeeze a single drop of milk out. I have plenty of embarrassing videos from that.

The entire trip was filled with so many activities and fond memories that I can’t even begin to describe how amazing it was. But I think the one day that will stick with me the most is the day I went mountain climbing – not mountains that have roads and stairs paved into them, but actual mountains that are almost 180° steep and if one falls, they fall to their death into the river hundreds of feet below. We had no harness, no map, and no guidance. The only things we had were support from one another and a lot of courage. By the end, we were exhausted physically from the climb and yelling chants to make sure we stuck together, but even more exhausted mentally from the fear of falling. To give ourselves a small celebration on achieving what seemed like the impossible though, we soaked our worn-out feet in the stream, which looked a lot gentler close up than from on the top of the mountain.

This trip taught me to open my eyes and fully appreciate the things and people around me. What we have will only become better if we make them so. It doesn’t matter where you go or what you do, as long as you put yourself into it completely, you’ll get something (good) out of it. And definitely, step out of your comfort zone and do something you think is impossible. Do something you love and always wanted to do – that’s what college is for! The friends who will stay with you for the rest of your life are the ones who will support you and stand by you when you fail or make a fool out of yourself trying something new.

Step out there and fight on!

Featured image from Pxfuel

Sabrina is studying Health and Human Sciences and minoring in Chinese for Professions and Managing Human Relations. Though born around the Bay Area, Sabrina moved to Shanghai, China at the age of 8 and has since then attended different international schools. She has 4 years of tutoring experience both in student organizations in her high school and outside of school. She was also a member of the National English Honor Society and took part in the Writing Center, which focused on editing student’s essays and helping students with their English classes. In her free time, Sabrina loves reading, hanging out with friends (exploring LA), and doing anything that makes her happy.