Korea - America - Korea: In Search Of My Identity

By: Lindsay Joo Donohue, Unsettled Barcelona alumni

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It’s 8 PM on a Thursday night in Seoul. I’m grabbing a burger with some friends at a Couchsurfing meetup. There are a several people here who I haven’t met yet.

“Why Korea?” someone asks me. That’s always the intro question. Why did I decide to move to Korea?  What’s the reason I should give today?

I was born here.

I’m Korean.

I was looking for something to do.

The tech company I worked for was being acquired.

I’m looking for something, but I don’t know what exactly.

All of these answers are true,, but they all bring too many follow-up questions. Too many questions that I don’t have the answers to.

I shrug and change the subject, turning my attention back to my burger.

Thirties

My given name is Joo Yung Rong. People know me as Lindsay Joo Donohue.

In 2017, I’d just turned 31, and I woke up with a feeling of panic, as if something was missing, or more like missing out on something. My friends warned me that this is what turning 30 does to you.

Living Unsettled

At the same time that I was feeling like I was missing something from my life, a friend of mine announced that he was travelling to Buenos Aires – even though he had never been, didn’t know anyone there, and didn’t speak any Spanish.

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He had my attention.  

He explained that it was organized by Unsettled – a program of intense coworking retreats at destinations around the world

And just like that, I signed up to spend a month with Unsettled in Barcelona, Spain.

Having one month to explore and live with like-minded people from around the globe was a life experience that I will always treasure. I was able to train with international Taekwondo competitors, co-lead a marketing workshop, sail in the Mediterranean, experience some of the world’s best nightlife, discuss new ventures with global leaders, improve my Spanish, take a yoga class in a historical monument, visit some of the most famous artistic landmarks, scuba dive in the most serene waters, and make some life-long friends – it was these friendships that pushed me to grow the most.

This wasn’t just a coworking retreat; it was a trip designed to pack as much “life” into a finite time period as possible. While the trip was short for me, it provided inspiration that took me a little closer to feeling fuller and complete.

My Identity Crisis

As my time in Barcelona was coming to an end, I wasn’t ready to return home, I wasn’t ready to return to ‘normal’ life.

I’d originally seen the Unsettled experience as an opportunity to hit the reset button on my life - a chance to decide how I wanted to transition into the next step of my career. As a moment to step away and gather some head space to determine if I was hitting the pause or terminate button on my relationship. However, by the end of that month, I still didn’t have answers. I extended my stay in Europe, taking the opportunity to spend time with friends in France and Switzerland.  
 

"While I identify as Korean-American, I wasn’t sure what it meant to be Korean."
 

I really enjoyed my time in France, and I was seriously considering getting a visa to stay – the croissants and the romance of the language were calling my name. But the more I thought about it, the more my mind kept turning back towards Korea.

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Increasingly, my heart was telling me that perhaps by spending time in Korea I could figure out how to be Korean – I owed myself that opportunity. While I identify as Korean-American, I wasn’t sure what it meant to be Korean. Friends and colleagues were supportive. However, my parents, who had adopted me as a baby, weren’t thrilled. I’m not sure of the exact truth of my beginnings, maybe that’s where the curiosity stems from. I believe that I was born in Seoul to an impoverished, unwed Korean woman, who felt she had little choice but to relinquish her child for adoption, as she received no family support, nor financial support from my biological father or the government. That’s why I believe I was sent to a foster home. From there I was sent to the United States, to a family that wanted a daughter.

After much soul-searching on where I should live, I eventually made my decision on a rainy day in Paris, sitting at a sidewalk cafe in the bohemian neighbourhood of Montmartre, eating a final Parisian croissant. I knew that I had to follow my heart, I knew that I had to try and connect with my Korean identity. I was sad to be leaving Paris, but it felt really good to know where I would be living next, and that I was getting closer to understanding who I was.

Next Stop, Korea!

Arriving in Seoul, I had the essentials: a roof over my head, friends, and a 90-day tourist visa. I felt lucky and started to make my own way. Some plans worked out and others didn’t. Language was a struggle, since I only knew about 200 Korean words. On the other hand, the English-speaking community of expats in Seoul is very tight and I started meeting a lot of interesting people. That’s when things started to click. The law of attraction started to turn in my favor – the more things I asked the universe for, the more I was surprised by what came my way.

"I made my decision on a rainy day in Paris, sitting at a sidewalk cafe in the bohemian neighbourhood of Montmartre, eating a final Parisian croissant. I knew that I had to follow my heart..."


But I was also putting tremendous pressure on myself. I suppose we all do that. All anyone really wants is to be their best self – when there are obstacles in the way we strive to overcome them.
 

Who Am I?

Today, I walk around Korea knowing my blood is the same as everyone else, but that every other fiber of my being is not. I was raised to see the world from a completely different perspective than what it would have been if I grew up in Korea. For instance, I often find that when I make eye contact in Korea and smile at people, they shy away in suspicion. I pride on my ability to adapt, but I also find myself fighting the adaptive nature so I can retain aspects that are intrinsic to my birth identity. I see myself as a happy and positive person, because that’s who I am – even when people in Korea often scurry away when I smile at them.

 

"I’ve never felt more alive in my life. I’ve experienced just about every emotion since arriving in Korea, but complacency definitely isn’t one of them."

 

It often feels as if I’ve chosen to swim upstream in order to survive in my birth county. I find it incredibly frustrating because I feel connected to those around me, but also completely isolated by the language.

I’m often ashamed that the language feels beyond my grasp. I dream of speaking fluent Korean, but in reality I find myself spewing English to strangers. For example, when buying ice-cream in Baskin Robbins in Seoul, I have to speak English because they don’t understand my broken Korean. I sometimes wonder, is my American-ness is too abrasive in Korea? Shall I be ashamed of who I grew up to be in a strange, but familiar land?

The F-word

A Korean friend once announced to me: “we could be siblings because we have the same chin!” All my life growing up as a single child, I’ve never had someone say that to me. I didn't grow up with biological siblings, but I wasn't an only child. While I laughed it off at that moment, it also made me feel happy. Happy that someone could physically identify with my looks. I felt…connected.

  In  Puriface  work zone

In Puriface work zone

Growing up in the US, I always looked like a foreigner – I had to learn how to assimilate through language, clothes, and mannerisms.

In Korea, I look Korean but I don’t know how to be Korean. The clothes and mannerisms are easy to come by, but it’s difficult to mold myself into an identity that feels so different.

As I settle into a marketing role with a Korean-American cosmetic company that I helped found, I feel I’ve found a happy medium for my two worlds to live in symphony. We create Korean anti-aging skincare products and export them primarily to the United States.
 

Live Boldly, Even If It Scares You

It’s been 12 months since I left my home in the US and traveled to Barcelona.

And 10 months since my decision of moving to the Far East changed my life. Completely.

My parents initially freaked out because they thought I didn’t have a plan. And to be fair, I didn’t. But I’m thankful that I trusted myself and listened to my heart.

Perhaps it was crazy to move to a country where I couldn’t even communicate, but I’ve never felt more alive in my life. I’ve experienced just about every emotion since arriving in Korea, but complacency definitely isn’t one of them.

I have lived boldly, that I can say for sure.

What continues to amaze me is the enduring goodness I see in people. People all over the world believe in the goodness in humanity and continually extend their hands to help one another.

I haven’t yet solved my identity crisis. People still ask me if I’m Korean and I still don’t know the answer. Sometimes, I am. Sometimes, I’m not. It really depends on my mood.

When I’m the youngest at the table but forget to refill everyone’s drinks, I’m seen as American. When I’m pushed around on the subway, I’m glad to be looked as just another Korean, on her way to the office in downtown Seoul.

I see Americans around Seoul every day. They might not smile at me, but I usually smile at them, feeling proud of my American heritage and the bond that I share with them, challenging myself in this place far from my home.

It’s like a two-way mirror. I see them, but they may not see me, until I speak to them with my American-ness.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in this past year, it’s that no matter how scared you are of what might lie ahead, you owe it to yourself to take the leap that you’ve been waiting to take.

You can figure the rest out later. Or it’ll figure itself out.