My Cultural Roots

In his college essay, Joon Pyun ’14 expresses his pride in his Korean heritage. He reflects on how his yearly visits to Korea and his grandparents’ unconditional love has helped shaped his cultural identity.

Seongjoon Pyun 2014From the outside, my grandparents’ apartment in Seoul, Korea stands out among the sea of new buildings. Constructed in 1974, the apartment has lost its appeal since its heyday. On a windy day, the white paint peels off the building like snowflakes falling from the sky. The pipes have rusted so much that water merely drips from the shower handle. However, when I am there, the building’s imperfections seem to fade away.

Unlike its ever-changing neighborhood, the apartment itself is a steadfast cocoon, a place where I was nurtured as an infant preserved like a museum. As my parents worked to finish their medical residencies in a different city, my grandparents raised me here for the first four years of my life. Now as an immigrant of six years and a boarding student living away from my family, I come here every summer to heal myself of nostalgia.

Evidence of my past can be seen in the form of pictures posted everywhere imaginable, from the fridge to the bathroom door. With so few things changed, I recall my childhood like it was yesterday. I remember carefully applying Vaseline on my grandfather’s leg every morning. Having lost his leg in the Korean War, my grandfather needs his leg greased before putting on his prosthetic leg. I remember eating enoki mushrooms with my grandmother. On a butter-coated frying pan, the mushrooms tap-danced to the symphony of sizzles.

On my arrival, my grandparents welcome me with open arms. Even after I started living with my parents, my grandparents and I call each other nearly every day. They are still so full of love. They even thank each other every morning for staying alive. After warm hugs, they usher me straight to the dinner table prepared with my favorite foods. They bring out the home-brewed barley tea in a reused orange-juice bottle and a main dish that I consider a traditional Korean delicacy, fresh crabs marinated in soy sauce. The crabs’ bellies are packed with tamale and orange eggs, and their legs are filled with white meat glazed in rich soy sauce. My grandmother smiles as she watches me eat. Knowing that this sight makes her happy, I overeat.

With my belly full and my grandfather by my side, I look out the window and see the Han River, just meters away from the apartment. I see my reflection superimposed on the view of the river and the skyline beyond it, and I see a parallel between my identity and the city’s identity.

After the Korean War, Seoul was utterly destroyed, and chaos ensued. Families separated and the infrastructure of the city became unrecognizable. To the survivors like my grandfather, rebuilding seemed like a hopeless endeavor, but through persistence, Korean citizens rebuilt the city that has become internationally competitive, yet culturally distinct. Seoul is now a fusion of cutting-edge technology and dignified tradition.

Similar to Seoul’s recovery to prominence, my transition from Korea to America was drastic and trying. I was separated from my family, friends, and all that I was used to. I had to accept that, at least for the time being, I would no longer be the top student or the class president. I would have to remain open to different views and ideas, but I always made it a priority to never let go of my roots, my identity as a proud Korean. Sure, there were times when I felt overwhelmed by the road ahead, but each time I persevered and developed new interests and passions unique to the culture in the United States. And I know how I became the confident, strong-minded individual that I am today. It was in no small part due to the undying love that I received from my grandparents in that special apartment, where I simultaneously experienced perfect contentment and built a significant part of my cultural identity.

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