Expat from the ‘90s
When I lived in Korea, there were four television channels. My group of friends and I thought the newest channel was the best: it had the funniest comedy shows, the best sitcoms and the most moving dramas ― and So Ji-sub was hot.
We’d go watch the latest American blockbuster downtown and snack on dried squid or meander around Myeongdong, eating ice cream, scuffing our shoes, and looking for cell phone ornaments. It’s probably obvious to anyone who knows even a tiny bit about Korea that I’m describing a bygone era: the ‘90s.
This Korea, the Korea I know best, no longer exists. But that’s my frame of reference; I left home soon after high school and haven’t lived there since. Now there are tons of channels on cable and I don’t even know whether So Ji-sub is still acting. I don’t know if people still eat dried squid in movie theaters, but I’m pretty sure the theaters we used to frequent are gone. The last time I went to Myongdong I barely recognized a thing.
The funny thing is, to Koreans I am still as Korean as I was when I left. People often sympathize with my living abroad, saying, “Oh, it must be so hard to have to use English on a daily basis.” They don’t realize that I have been speaking, writing, and thinking in English every day for over a decade and it takes me a second to re-immerse myself in Korean.
I never feel more foreign as when I go home, even as I enjoy the anonymity that accompanies being a racial majority. While my family still lives in the neighborhood I grew up in, nothing is the same.
The old buildings are mostly gone, replaced by tall, gleaming towers; the subway has four new lines and fancy safety gates; the buses have different numbers and follow altered routes and I don’t quite understand when I’m supposed to swipe my bus card before I get off. I keep referring to places downtown by landmarks that have disappeared or changed names. In short, I feel like an alien.
And yet, when I’m stateside, I am anointed the expert on all things Korean. Naturally, I feel like a total fraud. People ask me, “Do Koreans do this?” Or, “Is it like this in Korea?” The truth is I have no clue, but I can give them a 10-year-old answer. No one is pleased. Most people don’t think about a culture as constantly evolving, especially to the degree Korea changes. They think I should know all about Korea and Koreans, and the fact that I don’t is odd to them.
I have recently been asked which sport was the most popular among Koreans (me: golf?), whether soju cocktails are popular in Korea (me: I don’t know, but I know more Koreans drink wine than before?), if under Korean law, you can be sent to jail if you are mired in debt (me: that sounds wrong to me, but I’ll ask my dad), or whether “Old Boy” is my favorite Korean movie (me: I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m too scared to watch it). I get that last question surprisingly frequently. Sometimes, when I don’t feel like over-explaining, I just tell my interlocutor yes, and we end up having a deep discussion about the director’s unique vision.
Because of my lack of expertise on the current state of affairs, I am much more confident in telling people what it was like in the ‘90s. For some reason nobody wants to know about those glory days.
I sometimes tell people that Korean society changes so much that I don’t understand most slang and I have to ask my own parents what it means, much to the chagrin of my 15-year-old self. This makes many think that I am not an “authentic Korean,” whatever that means, or retort, “So how can you possibly be a translator?” Of course, neither my interrogators nor I are that well versed in current American slang either, but nobody thinks about it that way.
I guess I’ll always be my kind of Korean: somewhat alien-like, having to go to family members for accurate information, and more up-to-date on American culture and trends than Korean. One thing remains the same ― I still look out of place. Back when I lived in Korea, I thought it was the height of fashion to incorporate my dad’s khakis into my wardrobe, precisely because of how baggy and shapeless they were.
It’s an understatement to say that my relatives were horrified. Every time I visit now, my aunts, uncles, and cousins continue to chide me on my lack of makeup, my messy hair, my abundance of freckles, and my odd choice of clothing. At least my sartorial sense evolved enough to recognize that my dad’s pants really weren’t flattering on me.
Chi-Young Kim is a literary translator based in Los Angeles. She has translated works by Shin Kyung-sook, Kim Young-ha, and Jo Kyung-ran. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website, chiyoungkim.com.