Building My Presence as a Korean Through Korean Culture

Building My Presence as a Korean Through Korean Culture

Written by Nayeon Shin


I grew up in a small city on the west coast of South Korea, near the Yellow Sea. Although it is technically a “city,” I like calling it rural because it lacks the image of a metropolis. There are no spectacular skyscrapers on every block that make you tilt your head back and look up at the sky. In the morning, I can see the sun over my window slowly rising behind the ridge of the lush mountains surrounding my neighborhood. As someone who thought my little hometown was the end to the world, attending college in the United States widened my view and made me more aware of my Korean identity.

I continued to use my Korean name, 나연 when I started college in the English-speaking country. It is romanized as Nayeon and pronounced like Nah-yawn. However, many people in the United States mispronounce it by stretching the sound A and uttering Nae-yon. I find it funny and interesting rather than annoying. Correcting practically everyone’s pronunciation can be exhausting, but it reminds people that I am a foreigner from South Korea, a country that does not speak English. Admittedly, it also lays the foundation for an excuse for my insecurity about English, such as when I ask about the definition or pronunciation of a word that everyone else in a class knows. After learning to enunciate the word “indicative” properly, I felt embarrassed in a Linear Algebra class. “Wait a minute, I thought it was the adjective form of “indicate,” thus, logically, shouldn’t it be pronounced in-duh-kay-tive?” These are the times when I feel strongly detached from people who speak English fluently without hesitation. Then, I remind myself that I am a non-native English speaker that does not even have an “English name.” In this sense, my exotic Korean name is a shield to justify my lack of vocabulary and protect my confidence in English.

Being away from home, I discovered my love of spicy food. I count down the days until my flight back to Korea and endure the difficult days by planning all the Korean food I will eat. As you can expect, the majority of it is spicy cuisine. Tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), Buldak (fire noodles), and Nakgopsae (spicy casserole with seafood) are some of my favorite Korean dishes. As a typical Korean who appreciates spicy Korean food, I need more spiciness in the meal from the dining hall to please myself. A Vietnamese friend questioned eating dinner with me in the cafeteria if all Koreans consume super spicy food because she learned that we have Buldak. I laughed and responded that while it is true that eating spicy food is enjoyable and helps many Koreans de-stress, there are some “special” cases, such as my father, who becomes stressed when eating spicy food. Aside from Koreans’ particular fondness for spicy food, many of us drink the popular style of coffee known as “iced Americano” (emphasis on “iced”). I need a chemical substance to power through my overnight studies as a college student. Because I dislike coffee’s bitter taste, I drink a lot of energy drinks instead. Looking at this atypical behavior for a Korean, two friends familiar with Korea were reminded and pondered why Koreans drink so much iced Americano and never sleep. It depends on the person, but I feel it is also a distinct feature of Koreans as a group that we drink iced Americano and are sleep-deprived due to coming from a competitive society.

One impressive quality of my non-Korean friends is their knowledge of Korean celebrities, particularly those in the K-pop industry. Before entering college in the United States, I hardly listened to K-pop or knew a single Korean singer about whom all my Korean friends raved. Then, people who are not even Koreans exposed me to the world of K-pop. This ironic and hilarious situation piqued my interest in Korean media and entertainment culture, and I can now name a couple of popular Korean Gen Z bands or shows. The meaning of K-pop does not end here for me. The success and popularity of K-pop have helped me establish my presence in a whole different country on a completely new continent. As K-pop celebrities spread their names worldwide and more people abroad get interested in Korean culture, I feel more welcomed, seen, and heard in this foreign country. Meanwhile, I find solace in watching short clips of Korean songs and shows on YouTube, which allows me to think exclusively in Korean and rest my mind after a long day talking in a foreign language. The popular Korean music culture, combined with these people’s curiosity, makes me proud to be a Korean in the United States.

Currently, I am a third-year undergraduate student who plans to intern in the Bay Area this summer. As I embark on new adventures, I hope my Korean pride continues to serve me and build my presence in the workplace. Being Korean in the United States is difficult, and as a foreigner, it can feel like a social disadvantage. However, if it is not the case that Korea’s small geography limits its potential, we Koreans can shine in and influence considerably larger countries such as the United States.