Watching Shrek for the first time with my friends, there was a scene that I found to be particularly disturbing. What was even more disturbing was the fact that the problematic scene went largely unnoticed by my peers. Finally, I felt obliged speak up and point out, somewhat smugly, the flaw that everyone else had missed.
“Guys, they forgot to tell us who the muffin man is.”
The laughter that ensued is one of the more painful memories of my childhood. Right up there with flu shots.
Harry Potter was never told the tale of Babbity Rabbity and her Cackling Stump, and I was never told of the Muffin Man and his famous Rhyme. Adding to that list, I was also never told for sure whether or not Americans generally wear their shoes in the house. The IT guy that came at the wee hours off the morning to fix the Internet — a hero of sorts who so graciously kept silent his opinions of the pigsty of a den that was my room during high school — always wore his shoes in our house. But then again, my crush throughout the same four years kept his off in the house. Both were equally esteemed people in my world, with diametrically opposed shoe habits. What then, was the norm? Google didn’t really say for sure.
Such are the types of cultural ponderings and abrupt moments of enlightenment that serve as gentle little reminders that as a 1.5 generation citizen, you are never quite one of them. Over the years, however, such startling moments of discovery became increasingly sparse, and I came to consider myself as perfectly bicultural, having split my time most evenly between South Korea and the United States.
However, that quiet self-assuredness of my dual cultural backgrounds faltered with a backpack. It was an awkwad moment. Wave after wave of fellow Koreans filing in to grab their Yonsei International Summer School orientation packets, and I the only person lugging a backpack. Guys and girls — girls especially — were decked out in trim little jackets and shorts, with swinging designer bags over one shoulder and daintily carrying thin little files in one hand. I had heard vaguely that Korean college students never carry around backpacks, but honestly, I thought it was a joke.
It wasn’t. There I was, in the sea of carefully pressed, unburdened students, dressed in my Cornell rain attire consisting of a rain jacket and boots, which I believed to be appropriate for what was to be one of the worst monsoon seasons in recent Korean history.
Water, water, water, everywhere, in a bus without much ventilation, and off to school I went. The first 7 a.m. bus ride during the morning rush to my 9 a.m. course was memorable — the foundation, really, for the massive overhaul of schedule that occurred seven hours later. Nearly asphyxiating from standing on a bus jammed full of businessmen and students, on a route that seemed to consist solely of 90 degree turns and never-ending arcs and prolonged jams downhill and longer jams uphill, seemed good enough reason to drop that 9 a.m. and never look back.
During that first — and what was to be last — bus ride in the morning rush, I noted, to my wonder, that there were some who stood with one hand clutching a bus handle while studying papers held in the other, with the zen calm of Buddha throughout the rocky ride. They, I realized, were used to this. This is something they went through every day.
It was a culture, time and season of Korea that I had never experienced before, an experience that turned out to be much more worthy and educational than the six credits that had been the original objective. I realized that despite trying moments involving muffin men and conspicuous backpacks, being of the 1.5 generation — being bicultural — is beautiful in its own right. Spending time in one cultural frame, we become more sharply aware and continuously appreciative of the differences in the other.
And I will always remember with fondness the final days of summer school, when the apocalyptic rain finally relented to a beautifully relaxing summer. A summer of Melona ice cream bars and Mister Sushi King comic book marathons, of walking with the health conscientious crowd on the tracks along the Tancheon river at night, of prying off screeching locusts perched on the summer screens in the mornings. By then, I had completely adjusted to commuting and was studying my notes for the final in the rocking bus in the same kind of zen peace that I had so admired through my haze of sweat and dizziness during that unforgettable morning bus ride. After three transfers, I would climb a hill to the back entrance of the Yonsei Campus, with each throb of my calves reminding me that yes, this was precisely the reason why I had given up on West Campus housing.
Patricia Kim is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Better on Paper appears alternate Thursdays this semester.