National Korean-American Day: South Korea in the Eyes of a U.S. Former Expat

(This article first appeared on Korea.Net.)

Admiring South Korean culture as "soft power"

Annyeonghaseyo! Hello!

January 13 is National Korean-American Day! The day celebrates and honors Americans of full or partial Korean descent. It marks the arrival of Korea’s first immigrants to the United States on the same day in 1903 in Honolulu, Hawaii.

An American former expatriate with a lustrous career in her field graces this piece. Rebecca, as she prefers to be called, reflects on her exciting life in South Korea years back. Now retired and settled back in the U.S., she relives those days and marvels at the current booming Korean culture in her country.

Angelica: How did you end up in South Korea?

Rebecca: Thanks to my background in international affairs and foreign languages, I was selected to work for an international organization in South Korea in the mid-1990s. That was a quarter-century ago! I miss South Korea and would love to travel there again soon. So, I’m trying to maintain and even improve my Korean language skills. Thank goodness for Korean dramas, films, and K-pop!

A: Did you have a strategy that helped you cope with the language barrier aside from studying Hangeul?

R: It would have been easy simply to speak mostly English, but I insisted on speaking Korean as much as possible. Of course, this challenged the patience of most Koreans I met, at least at first! But if I had not done it, I would have lost even the language skills I had acquired before arriving in South Korea.

A: What are the shared cultures and values between Koreans and Americans?

R: Our two countries have shared so much – tragic sacrifices as well as economic growth and prosperity made possible by mutual trade and investment. There has been a significant population of United States expatriates in South Korea as well as a growing population of Korean immigrants and their descendants in the United States since the Korean War ended. That --- along with many educational and cultural exchanges, tourism, business, sports, and other ties – has led to the popularity of Korean food and food with Korean culinary influences, Korean cinema, and of course, K-pop in the United States. Of course at the same time, American food, popular music, and pop culture have become major industries in the Korean marketplace. We share fundamental values that place importance on education, hard work, and faith in God or anyway faith in powers higher than ourselves.

A: You’re still fond of watching Korean dramas and movies. What makes you stick?

R: Actually, I have become a fan of Korean dramas only recently, in part thanks to you! Netflix has made it so much easier to watch them when I have time and to watch entire series from start to finish. The storylines, scenery, character development, and the morals of the stories they impart – all are reasons for their global popularity, in my view.

A: Aside from K-dramas, are you also a K-pop fan? What are your thoughts on the tremendous success of Korean groups, such as BTS and Black Pink, on the Western stage?

R: I am surprised and delighted by the explosion of K-pop worldwide. K-dramas, K-pop, and Korean cinema – plus Korean food – have all helped shape an incredibly positive global image for South Korea in the world. They have also inspired tremendous interest in South Korea from the outside. It shows what the impact of “soft power” can be. Chukha hamnida!!!

A: Any tips you could give to those planning to visit Korea for tourism or work?

R: Enjoy the many delights and sites of Seoul for sure, but also try to find a guided tour or another means of traveling outside of metropolitan Seoul - to Kangwon-do or Cheju-do or many other beautiful parts of the country – and meet local people, even if it’s only for a hike in the mountains, a shared meal, or an excursion somewhere.

Rebecca leaves this warm message for Korean-American Day:, “May South Korea and the United States continue to be the strongest of friends and allies!”

To all Korean-Americans all over the world, happy National Korean-American Day!