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Manoa 14.2 (2002-2003) 156-157
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Once Upon a Time in America:
Jenny Ryun Foster
My arrival in the U.S. was without my knowledge. It happened to me. In the spring of 1974, I landed with thirty other Korean infants at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, where we were handed over to our adoptive parents. Then, like seeds blown on the breeze, each of us was carried away, scattered in all directions across the wide expanse of America.
Fate dropped me in a small industrial city in Michigan, where I grew up. As a child, I learned what it meant to be Korean very much the way one becomes aware of things in a dream. Ethnicity entered my consciousness at first only in odd and indirect ways. I hardly knew what being Korean meant, but I remember nevertheless being proud of it. It made me different from every other person in my small town: my classmates, my teachers—even my parents. Still, I never felt isolated or disadvantaged because of my differences. In fact, they allowed me to associate with everyone, of whatever race or color, and to have all the normal experiences of a small-town girl in America: a working mom, after-school rehearsals for the school play, diving practice for the swim team, a part-time job at the ice cream parlor.
And so I grew up dreaming—and living—in two worlds, and was never forced to choose between them. Slowly, though, I began to wonder what exactly it was that made me different and special. I graduated from high school and moved away to college, and it was then that my awareness changed. The large university I attended brought me in contact with people from all over the country, whose experiences were entirely different from my own small-town childhood. In learning about the great variety of family backgrounds, ethnic origins, mixed-up identities, and passionate points of view, I began to awaken to the world. Oddly, however, as a Korean I was still a singularity, and still found it difficult to learn very much about what it meant to be Korean American.I felt there was only one thing to do: go to Korea and live there.
Soon after college, I landed in Kimp'o Airport in Seoul with one suitcase and no return ticket. I was uncertain what to expect. Nevertheless, I was thrilled with the sense that this was what I was meant to do. I was meant to be standing here, making my way through customs, staring curiously at the airport's military guards—young soldiers no older than I, each carrying a rifle or machine gun, striding sternly along the linoleum walkway and among the passengers. I was meant to find a bus to Taejon, by using sign language and broken Korean from a phrase book. I was meant to travel for an hour and a half away from Seoul, wondering if I was on the right bus. And I was meant to encounter, at the end of that bus ride, the most wondrous, exciting, adventurous year of [End Page 156] my life, to be welcomed warmly by Korea and the many new friends that I was destined to make.
In the Korean provinces, I found to my surprise that being American was much more important to the way I was perceived than being Korean—just the opposite situation to the one in America, where being Asian had made me stand out from the majority of Midwesterners, and being Korean had made me stand out from other Asian Americans. Whenever I had had to fill out a form in America, there was always a box to check indicating my ethnicity. The only one that seemed to fit me was asian/pacific islander, although at times this question would appear as "optional." I wonder if the people that ask such a question think that to be Asian/Korean is optional.
At the end of my year in Korea I recognized the irony of being an "American" in Korea...