Its funny. As I flew to America, for the first time in eleven years, my goal in college was to have a diverse college life hanging out with all kinds of people; I wasn’t coming all the way to America just to meet more Koreans. Two months passed. I now look at myself and who I’ve chosen to spend most of my time with. I am back in the Korean community, and I could probably count off all the non-Korean friends I have with one hand. My dream of having a diverse clique of friends has gradually extinguished. I try to recall how this came to be. I then realize that I’m the one who chose to stay in the familiar, in my comfort zone. The Korean community in Berkeley was already so established that all I had to do was to fit myself in. I didn’t need to explore further than my arms’ reach; there were already various Korean clubs and activities planned, simply awaiting my presence. This close-knit community definitely has its advantages besides offering comfort for many but could it be a guiding light too bright that blinds us from other adventures and opportunities?
Let’s say that you like both Korean food and non-Korean food. Someone asks you, “If you had a choice between Korean food and non-Korean food, which would you eat?” We fall into a false dilemma, thinking that we must choose one or the other. In reality, the question in no part tells you that the options are mutually exclusive. But such typical understanding of these questions is so pervasive that we fail at coming to the most logical conclusion, of simply asking for a good balance of the two. The same goes for the Korean community. I feel like some Koreans within the college community are cornered into thinking that they indeed, only have two mutually exclusive options: hang out with Koreans or be excluded from the Korean community. It’s hard to find people in a truly ‘happy’ medium.
The scorn of some Koreans that view Koreans who aren’t wholeheartedly committed to the Korean community can be daunting. It could act as a bandwagon to bring in or fend off certain Koreans. Many who have ridden this bandwagon at some point forget that there are plenty of others that they can befriend on or off campus, who may not necessarily be Koreans. They stop reaching out for other people and end up isolating themselves. On the other hand, Koreans who tend to hang out more with foreigners may find the barriers of this already established Korean community hard to penetrate or crack at all. Even those capable of being in the happy ‘grey area’ are still often forced to succumb to being either ‘black’ or ‘white’ due to the unspoken pressure of the clear-cut Korean society. With all due respect, where is the justification for this pressure? Is it impossible for one to want a happy equilibrium of diversity and familiarity?
A Chinese friend of mine recently told me, “I’m so jealous of how all the Koreans know each other; doesn’t everyone know everyone?” This is another typical aspect of the Korean community that shapes its ‘black or white’-ness and pressures. Indeed, most Koreans do know each other – if not personally, at least through words of mouth. In one way, this is what creates the close-knit feeling of the community and how people are brought together. It’s a known fact almost everywhere in the world that Koreans ‘stick together.’ Just at UC Berkeley, Koreans have the single most number of clubs founded for the purpose of serving its own nationals. The advantages of this close-knit community, namely accessibility and intimacy, are clear and already well known by the people. What are overlooked are the drawbacks. People may be forced to stay friends with whom they simply don’t get along with; they may be forced to be committed to things just to save face, or stay away from being the target of any gossip. People who don’t even know you personally may be talking about you any moment from precisely the ‘words of mouth.’ Granted, some of these things may be inevitable in a small community; however, some may be prevented if everyone stopped overlooking these drawbacks, and reconsider what is at stake every time they were tempted to become a participant of the actions stated above. If this happens, perhaps the pressure from within will subside allowing those wholeheartedly committed to the community feel free to further explore in college and those from the outside to feel comfortable to commit more to their ‘home’ community. For either side, limiting oneself to a single community in college is just such a loss.
Don’t get me wrong – the Korean community is great, and this certainly is not a ‘dis’ article for it. It’s indisputably impressive the kind of a well-established, close-knit community Koreans have created some 6000 miles away from home. And it definitely could not have been accomplished without committed, collective efforts of generations of Korean students. And the advantages must have been the primary reason for its survival, and perhaps the overlooking of the drawbacks were considered ‘collateral damage’ for this greater cause. But perhaps we’re ready for further development and reconsideration of the drawbacks now. What I want to derive from the recognition of the drawbacks is that there can exist a happy ‘grey’ area that is neither black or white. That recognizing of the benefits and drawbacks of the black may help one incorporate the benefits of the white to find the pitch perfect grey. Social life shouldn’t be forced upon. Do you feel like you have ever been shackled by the flash of the Korean lighthouse yourself? Feel free to follow the light if it suits you; but if it doesn’t, remember you’re always free to look for other lights in college.