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November 15, 2010 » 8:07 am

Finding Meaning and Renewal in Korea

말없이 살다보면 도심이 자란다.

Rest. I needed it, and I got it. But it didn’t quite come in the form that I had originally planned, and it ended up moving me in ways I did not expect.

Back in July, coming off of a massive project and some difficult events in my life, I found myself longing for white sand, crystal clear water, and no interruptions. I wanted to go on the kind of vacation where you did absolutely nothing, and I wanted to go for a long time.

Well, the usual stuff started happening, the stuff that had prevented me from taking any kind of extended vacation since founding Blue Oxen Associates. I was talking to potential clients, I had people who were depending on me, and I didn’t want to go on vacation until I had more certainty in my schedule.

Enter my Mom. We had traveled to Korea together in 2002, just before I founded Blue Oxen. It was a beautiful and important experience for me on many levels, and I had been wanting to go back ever since. About a year ago, my Mom told me she was planning a trip there, and she asked me if I wanted to join her. I said yes, but the usual caveats applied: I’d get back to her when I had more certainty around my schedule.

Mom and Jessica

Several months later, as I found myself wondering how I was ever going to take a vacation, my Mom reminded me of her offer. Without hesitation, I said, “Let’s do it.”

Putting that stake in the ground was critical. I’d probably still be postponing and making excuses otherwise. I wasn’t going to be lying on a beach sipping something fruity. However, I was going to have a special opportunity to spend quality time with my Mom and my younger sister, Jessica, who decided to join us as well.

Moreover, I was going to Korea, and that had added significance for me.

Being Korean has always been a strong part of my identity, a fact that sometimes surprises people when they hear it. I emote American. Most people recognize me immediately as such from how I carry myself, how I speak, how I am. Warren Buffett has often noted how lucky he was to have been born in a time and place where his unique skills and personality were both accepted and advantageous. I’ve always felt exactly the same way. I love this country, and I love how it’s shaped who I am.

The beautiful thing about being an American, of course, is that this country was founded on the premise of heterogeneity. It is a melting pot, a delicious soup of diverse identities. I have never had a problem reconciling my multiple facets, nor have I ever felt a need to go out of my way to express any of them. I’ve always been able to appreciate my commonalities with others while remaining conscious of and comfortable with the differences. That probably explains my eclectic social circle and my career focus.

As easy as it’s been for me to be a Korean in America (and I know that my experience is not universal), it doesn’t work nearly as well the other way around. Korea is as homogeneous as the U.S. is diverse. Koreans don’t celebrate differences; they sort them into a rigid hierarchy. Hierarchy is so engrained in the culture, it’s built into the language. When you meet Koreans, they’re more likely to ask your age than your name so they know how to talk to you.

Koreans are both individualistic and conformist. They expect you to take care of yourself, but they don’t want you to stand out too much in doing so.

Shame is a pervasive emotion. The word for Korea is 한국 (hanguk), which literally translates to “great country.” But 한 (han) has other meanings, including “collective shame.” Many things seem to trigger this shame, and the consequences are often dire. Not surprisingly, Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world.

I understand how things are, and I don’t necessarily like them, but I also see their upside. Then there are the things that I love. I love the work ethic, the pride, the passion. I love the Korean aesthetic, the love of story, of song, of intellectualism, and of beauty. I love our relationship to food, which is the very essence of life and culture.

I’m proud of my Korean roots, and I want to know more.

And so a month ago, I found myself in Korea for the fourth time, sharing the experience with my Mom and younger sister. We spent most of our time in Gyeongsangbuk-do, a province on the southeastern side of the country, an area known for its rich traditions, its farms, and for giving birth to Confucianism in Korea.

I unexpectedly found peace on the stark, lush island of Ulleungdo. It started on a cliff beside a towering mountain peak overlooking the East Sea, where I closed my eyes and felt the strong clean wind rejuvenate me. It continued as we explored the island, immersing ourselves in its beauty and culture.

From Ulleungdo, we travelled to Andong, which served as our home base in Gyeongsangbuk-do. We spent that week getting lost in the countryside, travelling along rolling fields of rice and the all important chile, visiting traditional temples, villages, and Dosan Seowon, the 16th century school founded by Korea’s most famous Confucian scholar, Yi Hwang.

We ended our trip in Seoul, where a Korean Wikipedian, Cheol Ryu, organized a meetup in my honor. I cannot describe what it meant to me to meet my peers that night, Koreans who cared about the world in the same way that I did, who are working hard to make a difference there.

It would take me a year to try to capture all of my experiences there, everything that I felt and learned. One month later, I’m still trying to collect and organize my notes from the trip.

Over the next week or so, I hope to share at least some of my experiences. For now, I hope that this brief taste (along with some pictures and videos) will do.

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One Response to “Finding Meaning and Renewal in Korea”

  1. Thanks for revealing the meaning behind the name of our local Korean supermarket (Han Kook). Grocery shopping there will never be the same again. 😉

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