Sarah Kim is from Phoenix, Arizona and is a 2023 Korean Summer Alum. She is currently a first-year student studying Industrial Engineering and International Studies at Northwestern University. After NSLI-Y, she continued studying Korean at Northwestern and will study abroad in Gwangju, South Korea this summer with the Critical Language Scholarship program.

안녕하세요? Hi! My name is Sarah, and I’m a NSLI-Y 2023 Korean summer alum. When I got the news that I would be studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea, the summer before leaving for college, I was ecstatic! It would be my first time going to my home country, and the first time anyone in my family has been since immigrating to the U.S. in the 90s. Like many other finalists, I remember that during the weeks before my departure, I would daydream about being in Korea. I would finally be surrounded by people who looked like me, which isn’t something that I was privy to from growing up in my predominantly white community. However, when summer arrived and I was in Seoul, I never felt more out of place.

I look Korean, and locals recognized me as such. This excused me from some of the more uncomfortable experiences that my cohort members experienced, like being stared at for looking out of place. While it sometimes comforted me, it also put me in uniquely difficult situations. Locals spoke to me in Korean—which, don't get me wrong, is excellent for language learning—but when I had similar language skills to my non-Korean-American friends, I found myself in embarrassing situations.

For example, my first week in Korea, I went to Dongmyo Flea Market with Nila, my host family buddy. I hoped that my appearance would prevent us from getting scammed (which still ended up happening), but it also led to an embarrassing miscommunication that I still cringe at. I saw a group of people surrounding a stall. I thought that if the locals were there, it meant that the shop had the best items. I tried to walk in, but the shop owner stopped me. I was confused at what he was trying to tell me, and after asking him to repeat himself, he said that it was an air conditioned tent for the elderly. To save face and to avoid seeming inconsiderate, I apologized for the misunderstanding and told him that I am American and do not understand Korean well.

That moment sparked the start of my confusion with my Korean-American identity. I struggled because I expected that by being immersed in Korean language and culture, I would feel more connected to my heritage. Instead, I began to gravitate more to my American identity to avoid embarrassment like I experienced at the Dongmyo Flea Market. I was worried that I didn’t seem foreign enough to be pardoned for miscommunications and my slower Korean language comprehension, so I started identifying myself differently to others. In Korean, I would explain that I am American with Korean parents. (In retrospect, I should have just learned the phrase for Korean-American, 한국계 미국인 or 교포.) I felt comfortable being perceived as an American, and my daily experiences reinforced that. By disconnecting from my heritage, I felt okay with being slower on the uptake to learning Korean compared to my non-heritage NSLI-Y peers. I felt okay with being less interested in Korean pop culture. And I felt okay with improving by less margins on the OPI (oral proficiency interview) than I had hoped.

However, studying abroad means that you will be uncomfortable. I kept encountering situations in which Koreans would think that I am a local, and I grew to seize it as an opportunity to improve my language skills. Looking Korean meant that clerks would speak to me in Korean but to my friend in English, even though our language skills were on par. We laughed about it in the moment, but looking back, I recognize that being a heritage learner presented a unique opportunity to communicate with locals that I may not have experienced if they immediately assumed that I could not speak Korean. For instance, I was so proud of myself the first time I successfully asked a gas station clerk to recharge my transportation card. Even though my Korean was shaky, I did it!

After reflecting on my heritage for 6 weeks through NSLI-Y, I returned to America with a more secure perception of my Korean-American identity. I learned that I am more than just Korean if people at home ask me, “But what are you actually?” or just American to Korean locals when I want to justify my mediocre language skills. My identity is nuanced, and yours is too. Studying abroad as a heritage learner is a unique opportunity to grow into your identity and learn what your heritage means to you.

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