Transitory Tales: Learning to Live with Multiple Cultures within You

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

A cheerful fortuneteller in an old part of town once told me it’s in my destiny to travel a lot. Bewildered, I touched my face. Is it on my face? Is it in my name?  What made her say that? But often it doesn’t take fortunetelling abilities to “see” that I’ve been living in other countries. People just know even before I open my mouth. Maybe it is on my face.

I was born in the States while my parents were pursuing their graduate studies. Once they got their degrees, they brought me back to their country. I visited the US often, but as a kid I never thought myself as an American because everybody around me was Korean.

Granville Island, Vancouver

Things changed when my family moved to Vancouver for a year in 1996. For the first time, I learned that it was possible to live in a country other than Korea. I also realized the importance of knowing one’s country well. I felt left out when kids sang “O Canada” without looking at the lyrics or used Aboriginal geographical names like “Chilliwack” and “Tsawwassen”. Despite missing Korea, a part of me wanted to become more like the Canadians. But a year went by quickly and I was to come back to Korea.

Stanley Park, Vancouver

Back in Seoul, my friends tested my Korean skills to see if I can still speak the language. I thought that was silly, but soon realized they weren’t kidding. They wanted to know if I was still a Korean who can eat kimchi and laugh at the same jokes as them. I quickly abandoned my wish of becoming more like the Canadians. I proved to them that I was indeed a Korean and a proud one too.

My Korean pride grew stronger as I attended an American international school in Seoul three years later. I felt like an independence fighter when I rebelled against the “English-only Policy” and boasted myself to be a master of Korean slangs. But as 911 brought all Americans together, it affected me too. When we heard the news, we had a moment of silence. I didn’t know exactly why, but I felt the powerful bond with all the people in the classroom that day.

After finishing middle school, my family moved to Vancouver once more. It became easier to immerse myself into Canadian life as I knew more about Canada than before. Some people thought I was a Canadian-Korean. (When I said I had an American passport, some of them were upset). I grew to love Vancouver and Canadians so much that I still consider Vancouver my second home.

A view from my summer sublet on East 30th Street, NY

When I graduated from high school, I finally felt the need to explore my American-side. So I moved to NYC for college. For the first time, I was living away from my family. I missed them, but was engulfed in the busy, shiny, life of NY. In that fascinating city, I partied with neuroscientists and cartographers. I tasted Ethiopian, Moroccan, and Peruvian food all on the same week, collected the “Met buttons” in various colors, and my class consisted of watching different plays every week. Simply put, I loved being an American! I especially appreciated having a New York state ID  and being able to vote. In Korea, I felt like a Korean, but didn’t have the passport to prove it. Officially I was a foreigner. Things changed within me and I started to entertain the thought of actually calling this home.

Obama Rally at Washington Square Park, NY

Then the economic depression hit and it became too expensive to live in NY with my non-existent income. People left. Suddenly I realized the party was over. What was I doing here? My family was in Korea, and my friends were all leaving. I wanted to make NYC my home, but didn’t have much ground to establish myself upon. I started to miss my family and the connectedness with people.

So I came back. It’s been two years. I’ve been exploring Seoul like an outsider, going around the city with my camera, taking pictures. I find hidden restaurants in the city and embark on adventures to other parts of Korea. Nature and architecture in Korea doesn’t have the grandeur of the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall, but I learned to find delicate beauties hidden in them. I didn’t know the clouds above Han River add a tinge of peach at dawn; I didn’t know how pretty a roadside in a rural area could be with a small cherry tree. I wasn’t able to appreciate these little things before. But all the experiences abroad had taught me to take nothing for granted.

Namhae Island, Gyeongsangnam-do

Old houses in Samjinae Village, Changpyeong

When I’m able to appreciate my home, I can appreciate other places, and in turn appreciate my home even more. The cycle continues and I think that’s why I always want to travel and explore.

I miss America. I miss NYC. The US is another part of me that I refuse to deny or forget, so I know I will go back one day. It’s difficult to manage two worlds when just one is hard enough. But those of us who had opportunities to learn and love more than one culture are lucky because they help us cherish who we are. It’s a blessing.

A morning view from my window, Seoul



  1. Cindy says:

    Gorgeous photos and a beautiful post. I’m glad I was able to experience with you some of your eclectic parties in NY (and I think I know who the neuroscientist and cartographer are…). And yes, Justine, it is on your face ;)

  2. Justine says:

    Thank you for your kind words, Cindy! Haha, of course you know who they are ;) I love that we share some of our great moments together. More to come, I’m sure. And I wonder which part of my face exactly…

  3. Vania Tong says:

    Didn’t see this post till now! Justine, though my experiences aren’t exactly the same, i totally feel you on this one! Home is a very complex and ever-evolving concept!

    • Justine says:

      Vania, thanks for your comment! It is! And my thoughts are still growing and changing. It’s fun to reread what I wrote two years ago and wonder if anything has changed since then.

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