The last assignment I had in my abroad class was to practice coming up with a thoughtful and mature answer to the inevitable question: “How was your time abroad?” After having spent five months in Seoul, South Korea I thought that I could come up with a direct answer. I had plenty of time to answer it, too. Afterall, 69 was the number of days I had between coming back home from Korea to Swarthmore.
Now as I sit down in McCabe, typing my response close to midnight, I realize that the words that I had in mind can’t fully encapsulate the breadth and depth of my experiences in Korea. To say that it was incredible, challenging, and life-changing for me might be the understatement of the year. Suffice to say, so much happened that I can say that while I’m not different, I’m also not the same.
Let me elaborate — I blogged about my experiences as they happened to me while I was abroad. I called it “Finding my Seoul” (cheesy, I know, but I thought it was genuinely clever and would make Dakota Gibbs ’19 proud) since I wanted to discover who I was without Swarthmore.
See, I’ve noticed that the longer that you’ve been at this campus, the easier it gets to fall in line with the pack and develop a “herd mentality.” Now that I’m a senior I can confidently say that people are genuinely concerned about saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Word travels fast around campus, and you don’t want to become the pariah for the next week (or rest of the semester depending on how bad you f***** up). It’s hard to let go of a grudge, Lord knows that I’ve tried.
That was what was refreshing about Korea. I had the opportunity to make mistakes — you know, those things that everyone makes and what makes us human. As a result, I developed a better sense of myself as I weighed and considered issues everyone back home debated on my own terms.
This was invaluable since, as progressive and positive the Swat bubble is, the real world isn’t like that. It’s messy, complex, and oftentimes dismal. I discovered this through learning about the #MeToo movement in Korea, the North Korea-US Summit, and the history of Japanese military sexual slavery.
In regards to that atrocious history, I learned that sometimes the world operates in cycles. Back in high school, I learned about the horrors of the Japanese internment camps during WWII. In Korea, I learned about the history of “comfort women” (women forced into prostitution) and how the Japanese government set up that abominable institution for its soldiers.
To me, it was simultaneously ironic and mind-blowing that one group of people could inflict so much trauma onto others while receiving pain at the same time (in this case the same time period during WWII). It was troubling, but impactful since it forced me think of the ways I’ve been hurt by people in my past while thinking of the pain I’ve inflicted on others.
I focused primarily on engineering and economics while abroad, but history has been my best teacher. I’ve learned the importance of recognizing your own flaws and striving to be better on a daily basis. More importantly, I’ve learned how powerful an apology is and the importance of forgiveness. The biggest hope I have coming back from Korea is to right the wrongs that I’ve made and to forgive myself when I fail.
Before, I had set for myself a high bar for academic performance and personal interaction among my peers. There were always people on campus who I admired because to me they had it all together. I wanted to be like them because I thought they were the shit. Now I feel that no one really is, which is why I’m more elated to be my own person, flaws and all.
Being outside America, I disengaged from current affairs and political issues to focus on living my best life. While I was able to reach new levels of personal growth, I also experienced a unique existential crisis. I purposely detached myself from the visual onslaught of the lives robbed by the police. I don’t remember which video it was, as I’ve seen so many black bodies lay lifeless and become a Twitter hashtag that they’ve all blurred to me, but when I watched it the full reality of what it means to be Black hit me at full force. Waking up from a blissful dream into an awful night was made even more bitter when I didn’t have the community I fostered back at Swarthmore to help me process my emotions.
For a period of time, I fell into a repeating cycle of fear, rage, and sadness. Interspersed within these stages was guilt stemming from the fact that I had been given a wonderful opportunity from God to learn, grow, and enjoy what the world had to offer — forgetting the fact that my own community was suffering.
When you’re far away from your parents (like other side of the world far), they tend to worry a little more. When I called my father and told him about my recent lows, he gave me the same advice he’s been giving me all my life: “Whatever you do, don’t fall into despair.” In the past when he’s said this I’ve always had some sort of community to fall back on: either family or Swarthmore African-American Student Society (SASS).
However, since I was on my own I had to rely on myself to get out of my own funk, and in so doing, realized an inner strength that I didn’t even know I had. Getting out of that depression, I realized the significance of having a dream. Up until going abroad, I was going through the motions of trying to get two degrees and then landing a job afterwards.
It’s different, when you finally realize your passion. It gives you vision which in turn empowers you to push through dark days. For me, it’s honestly refreshing knowing the path that I want to take after graduation and the man that I want to be. Once you realize your gaps, you have nowhere to go but up.
Maybe this newfound purpose I’ve had for the past few months carried over into the way I am now. I don’t feel like I’m significantly different or “brand new,” although it’s nice to see your friends gas you up when it comes to your taste in fashion. I have to give credit where credit’s due and thank the friends I’ve made in Korea for opening my eyes to what style could be.
Despite the numerous cultural differences and the language barrier, I strongly believe that we as people are one in the same. We want to belong in a community, we want to have the space to express our dreams and fears without fear of judgment, and we want to contribute in some way that makes an impact — whether that be for your family, community, or nation. I’ll never forget the incredible experiences and wonderful memories I’ve made in Korea. I’m grateful to Swarthmore College for giving me the opportunity to study abroad, and I’m eager to finish my senior year and start the next chapter in my life.