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Goeun Park: Quest to find roots isn’t that silly

“I want to go back to Korea,” I told my mother on the phone the other week.

It’s a simple articulation of a feeling that’s been thrashing around my gut for a while now. A feeling that’s been crawling under my skin and clinging to my bones. I can’t seem to shake it off.

I told my mother about my grand plans to hop on a plane and “take a language class or something for a few weeks” with the nonchalant tone people use to talk about going to the beach or a new coffee shop over the weekend. As I’m typing this now, I realize how absurd I must have sounded. Of course I didn’t think my preposition through. Of course it’s not that easy.

But now I thought about it, and the more I think about it, the more I want it to happen. I want to visit Korea. I want to go back.

The term ‘diaspora’ historically means the dispersion of Jews from Israel. In a broader definition, it means the movement of certain people from their original homeland.

The cultural consequences of both forced and voluntary diaspora is personally interesting because it’s kind of what my summer research job is about and also kind of what my life is about.

What do I mean by cultural consequences? Personally, it means having to balance (or more accurately, juggle) two languages, two customs and two mindsets.

It means having a few identity crises every now and then and being asked if I’m rooting for Korea or the US in the World Cup, which is a fine and dandy question unless people frame it like they’re testing my patriotism. Then it’s uncomfortable. (The answer is neither. I am rooting for the team that I think will win: the Netherlands. I’m calling it.)

All that cultural consequence mumbo jumbo can feel like baggage, but it’s worth it to be here. Recently, I have started to see glimpses of what my parents saw over a decade ago: there is a future in this country.

There are doors for opportunity and spaces for growth, unlike my cramped motherland. I imagine living in South Korea could be claustrophobic — too many mountains and too much ocean, not to mention the threat of nuclear war looming every few years.

Yet. Yet, I want to go back. I need to go back and remember. I have long forgotten what my cousins look like, what my grandfather sounds like, what my grandmother smells like. I do not remember my roots.

And truth to be told, that hadn’t bothered me very much. Until now.

I don’t know why this suddenly feels important. The day I came back to Minnesota for a short summer break, I met a Korean foreign exchange student on a bus in the Cities. He said that I spoke our mother tongue well considering my background, and I’m sure he meant it kindly but I still felt embarrassed.

I felt ashamed that I could not speak my native language well but only well considering my background. I felt ashamed that I had denied my roots (which might be another cultural consequence) for so long.

Perhaps this is a misplaced quest to claim some sort of identity closure. And if that’s the case, well. People have spent a lot more money on sillier things, I’m sure.

Surprisingly, my mother did not sound all too horrified by the suggestion of sending her firstborn child across the big, bad ocean all on her own. If anything, she encouraged me to think about it. It’s a flimsy approval, but I’ll take it.

Goeun Park graduated from Detroit Lakes High School and attends college in California.