New Roots: Discovering the Intricacies of Korean Culture Through the Sejong Korea Scholars Program
The following reflection is a guest post written by Mia Shay, an alumna of the 2022 Sejong Korea Scholars Program, which is accepting student applications until October 31, 2022.
Like many Korean American children, my Saturday mornings growing up consisted of a reluctant drive to Korean school and a subsequent trip to the Korean market. A day filled with bubbly Korean sounds and characters, Choco-Pie, and tteok-boki would flash past until Monday came around and it was back to flat intonations, Oreos, and bow-tie pasta.
If you asked me then, I would say that I was fairly knowledgeable of my Korean roots. Even though my language skills were never the best, I spent plenty of time with Korean relatives and knew my way around a menu. However, during the four months I attended the Sejong Korea Scholars Program (SKSP), my eyes were opened to the vast complexity and truth of Korea.
Every other week, I connected with incredible students from all over the nation who each offered unique perspectives, opinions, and knowledge. My classmates and I learned the country’s story from its beginning to its present from a multitude of renowned professors from diverse institutions. Dr. HyoJung Jang gave us access to a myriad of college-level resources and challenged us through thought-provoking assignments that were by far the most fulfilling I have ever done.
We learned the history of unique Korean architecture and fashion and the beautiful traditional practices infused into Korean life. We learned how King Sejong, the program’s eponym, created a new alphabet—the same one I had studied on Korean school Saturdays—in order to escape Chinese origins and give further distinction and pride to the Korean people.
However, we spent equivalent time learning about the country’s more unpleasant, bitter chapters. We studied how Korean society tends to measure the validity of a person’s “Koreanness” in terms of their race—the plague of ethnic nationalism. When we were given the freedom to explore any aspect of Korean history for our final research paper, I chose to research comfort women, the system of sexual slavery instituted by Japan during the occupation. In my studies, I investigated how deeply systemic misogyny runs in the cultures of both Korea and Japan, but also discovered the immense strength and anger portrayed by Korean citizens’ more recent protests of the Japanese government’s denials, revealing an important evolution in Korean culture.
Learning these difficult things gave depth to my comprehension of Korea: in order to truly understand the essence and culture of a country, it is also important to face the hard-to-swallow pieces of its history, its being, and its future. After completing the course, I became inspired to provide similar opportunities to my peers. I’m currently working on creating an in-person, day-long forum to help teenagers realize a similar depth of knowledge of Korea.
Taking SKSP transformed my perspective on life and my ambitions for the future. This program has sparked my desire to build a new relationship with Korean culture in college and beyond so that I can gain a deeper understanding of myself, my heritage, and my connections with the world.