SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2002        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Joanne Johnson

Living and Experiencing a Culture

 In the summer of 1999, my family and I took a trip to South Korea where we would be reuniting with my momís family.  Plus, it was a chance for my sister and I to learn more about our Asian cultural heritage.  A plane ride later, we arrived into a whole new land, with new people, and new sights.  I soon noticed, that everywhere my sister and I went, people would stare at us or start whispering.  Throughout the trip, this motion continued whether we were walking to the corner shop or playing with my young cousins in the street.  My father was also drawn into these stares because he is a tall, white guy and stood out among the crowd.

 One quite humorous incident that I remember occurred on a bus ride into the capitol, Seoul.  My parents were sitting a couple rows ahead, and my sister and I were in the back of the bus talking, and giggling.  I felt bunch of eyes staring at us while we talked and wondered if we were doing anything inappropriate.  A Korean student approached us and asked, ìDo you know what time it is?î We didnít have a watch, but I noticed the individual who asked did.  After this, she started asking other questions, for example, where do you live, how old are you, and are you visiting family.  I told my mom this afterwards, and she said students in Korea start taking English lessons around junior high age, and the student most likely wanted to practice their language skills with someone who spoke the language fluently.

 It felt odd with peopleís eyes looking towards my family.  I realized that there was this distinct Asian look, but my sister and I stood out because of our mixed ethnicity, and my father because he looked completely different from the norm over there.  The experience was an eye opener because I was single-handedly noticed in a crowd of individuals.

 This ìsightî was different from my home in Southern California.  In South Korea, the norm was to see a homogenous group of people looking alike.  I was raised in an area of many cultures and races.  I realized how Korea is mainly one race with few others.  This is why my sister, dad, and I stood out so much from the rest of the crowd.  This was a 180-degree change from living in California.  When I was in Korea, the majority of the time I heard one language spoken.  This was completely new for me because even as I was going through elementary school and into high school, I always heard several languages being spoken by the students.

 My mom was quite aware that people would be staring intently at my sister, father, and me.  She responded to this by explaining we look ìdifferentî from the norm, and we are not ordinary everyday looking people walking on the streets of South Korea.  Also, they were probably interested in my mother as well because mixed marriages are not as common in Korea, since the population is mainly one homogenous race.

This incident landed me into a new country where everything I saw was different and intriguing.  There were some familiar experiences such as cars bonking their horns loudly and people cutting dangerously through immense traffic, a similar look to that of southern California freeways.   I was just not used to this homogenous looking population.  Although, there was a place in the capital of Seoul, where I saw many other white people, mainly because it was near the military base.  This area was notoriously marked by a row of American ìicons.î  For example, they had a McDonaldís, Wendyís, TGI Fridays, the Outback steakhouse. My family and I came to this area often to escape the daily rice meals.  Also, shops there sold and displayed posters and cds of different U.S. artists.  And it was only on this one long street  that I could find these American icons.  Contrast, in California there are different restaurants of different cultures everywhere, plus many subcultures as well.  If you wanted to have good Chinese or Korean food then head to the city of Garden Grove, or good Mexican stay in Anaheim or head to Santa Ana.

 This experience in Korea made me realize how by traveling to a completely different area, one can be perceived differently.  Plus, I wasnít traveling with a Korean tour guide or group, but with my momís big family, and here are my sister, my dad, and I part of this Asian family group.  The whole time I was excited to travel to a new culture, where I could experience and learn about the culture right there and then, and experience it with my family.  I remember my mom telling my sister and I on our way there that we would have a unique look in the crowd of Korean people.  She was right, this wasnít the happening area of bi-racial families.  I realize how fortunate I am that I was raised in an area of several cultures.

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