Reconnecting with my roots (in Korea)

When my parents initially presented the idea of a family trip back to Korea, I immediately booked my flight. I met my parents and one of my younger brothers in Seoul. It had just been a month since I quit the startup I worked for. 

During an extended family dinner, we discussed my current “unemployed status.” While my relatives and parents encouraged me to go back to Google, my grandma told me the words below: 

As a child, you are learning how to be ‘human.’ You’re struggling to understand your emotions and setting your moral compass. As an adult, you are defining the ‘person’ you want others to recognize and remember you for. Sadly, many become so caught up on becoming a ‘person’ that they forget their ‘human’ roots and lose sight of themselves. I’m proud that you still remembered your roots, had the courage to walk away, and rediscovered your path.

Those words struck me. I began to wonder just how many people felt morally obligated to stay in their high-paying jobs, buy houses with manicured lawns, and to pay the bills. How many people are maintaining an image of success defined by society and not by them? In a world where pop culture celebrates billion-dollar unicorns, lavish lifestyles and catered lunches, have people lost touch with their “human” side? My American optimism hopes that this is not the case. I did lose touch for a moment. In retrospect, I probably did chase the potential “billion-dollar” exit instead of evaluating the startup on what really matters: the people and culture. Fortunately, I had the luxury to walk away and take the time to reconnect with my human roots. 

It was fitting that my first trip abroad during my time off was to where my life began. I am a “1.5 Generation Immigrant.” I was born in Korea but moved to the United States when I was two years old. I am uniquely divided between my American upbringing and Korean heritage. From the day I first stepped onto American soil, the color of my skin and shape of my eyes already set me apart from my classmates in a predominantly white neighborhood in the Midwest, even though I rooted for the same sports teams and followed the same bands. Whereas in Korea, I looked like everyone else albeit darker-toned, but I did not follow the same boy bands nor worried about cram school homework. 

Since moving to the United States as a toddler, I was fully immersed in the American way of life. I grew up believing that as long as I put mymind to it, anything is possible, even if other people tell me it’s not. On the other hand, I can lean on my Korean “family” for safety and support due by the strong bonds with my family and friends. The combination of my optimistic attitude in the face of the unknown, the confidence to question the status quo, and the trust built on strong relationships became invaluable for not only my career but also my sense of self.

Growing up was not easy. There was continuous conflict between my American environment and Korean upbringing. It was a source of countless arguments between my parents and me, with my younger brothers in the crossfire. Proper etiquette as deemed by traditional Korean households did not play too nicely with the experimental attitudes of rebellious American culture. The silver lining is that I learned the art of negotiation and compromise at an early age. I accepted that I was not an adult (yet), so I played by my parents’ rules by getting the grades and performing my familial duties as necessary. In exchange, I was able to participate in the extracurricular activities of my choosing. 

Among the laughter, smiles and a few scoffs during dinner, I remembered why relationships with my family and friends (who are basically family at this point) were so important to me. My family was the initial hub from which all my daily experiences extended from and where I feel the most comfortable in. During periods of turmoil and uncertainty, my family provided the stable foundation so that I can experiment and push my personal boundaries. I can fail gracefully knowing that my family and friends will always be there to get me back on my feet and move forward. Even though I could do with one less question about when I’m “going to settle down” or “get married,” I am still incredibly thankful for the unconditional support and sacrifices my parents made in order for me to grow up in America.