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What It’s Like to Be a Korean-American Designer Living in Seoul

What It’s Like to Be a Korean-American Designer Living in Seoul

Part One: A search for belonging

April of last year, I moved back to my motherland to test where I truly belong. Growing up in Southern California, I never considered myself American because I was born in Seoul. Seoul is where I learned to walk, talk, and do all the things you learn in your early years. And then we left. By the time I turned 26, I had lived more than half of my life abroad. And I knew in my heart that I was different because of it. My entire world-view and way of connecting with people are different from my cohort born and raised in Korea.

It was like an early existential crisis. Feeling like I had no origin, I turned to personality quizzes hoping for answers and to feel better. It became habitual. So here we are, I just took another test. This one is geared to creatives and is about behavior and the thinking process. I answered the questions instinctively, and then — I had a bittersweet moment. Out of the eight creative types identified by the test creators, it seems like I am the thinker.

When I was younger, I often hated the results I saw. I used to click quickly and retake the tests, seeking different outcomes. Perhaps I believed I was born with a unique artistic sensibility that they weren’t detecting. But alas, according to these quizzes and everything I’ve experienced in life, I have always been the thinker. I have the build of a philosopher. But I wish to be a dreamer, who is born to be an artist.

Eight years ago, my parents and best friends moved back to Korea. All of a sudden, I was alone in New York. I made new friends and joined new communities, but it did not fulfill my heart. Dating was not successful, either. I used to fret long weekends and holidays because my friends were busy doing their own thing. They were either traveling to an exotic place with their one-and-only or visiting their in-laws. So I preferred to work seven days a week because it saved me from longing.

Despite my struggles, I felt blessed to be a designer and was happy on the job. I worked with a passionate photographer and a caring design director. We connected through design. It seemed to me like they were born to do what they did. Their passion stimulated my heart. Being around them, I was proud to be an artist, and I devoted all my energy to the work.

The design director is my NYC mom. She listened to me and believed in me. When I felt trapped by loneliness in what felt like a depression dungeon, she noticed. We talked. Some conversations started with my tears but ended with my feeling empowered. And I felt reignited with a passion for pushing my craft. She helped me to transform my energy from negative to positive. I harnessed this power to build my design thinking processes which I still use today.

As a side note, I invited her to take the same creative personality test I’ve just taken. She is the visionary. Her strength combines a vivid imagination, practicality, and seeing the potential in everyone. This explains why I was always inspired to design better. She used her insight to fuel my natural strength as a thinker. We are one perfect match.

The photographer and I were known as the dynamic duo. His zest to create emotive images inspired me. Whenever he sensed that I was feeling blue, he pulled me into a photoshoot. Everywhere we shot, we focused on concepts. We explored angles to capture the perfect scene. We experimented. Looking back, he too helped me expand my capacity as a thinker.

This tight crew enabled me to explore ideas, innovate, and immerse myself in the creative world — without any judgment. Within that realm, I was free from my lonely battle. And, the possibilities opened up: I was a thinker, who was motivated by dreaming. I was a dreamer energized while analyzing. And I felt a sense of belonging in that space.

Part Two: You are not allowed to say that in Korea

“You should do it this way because what you want is considered wrong in Korea.”

I finally made the big move back. I was looking for balance, to feel happy even outside of the workplace. I regretted my choice only two days after arriving in Seoul. Right away, I noticed that my mannerisms no longer aligned with the conservative life there. My parents gasped at my perspective, words, actions, diet, dress code, and even makeup. They expected me to adapt to the place where I was now physically located. It was so hard.

I relied on my best friends for support because they had gone through this experience when they returned home. But their lives as new moms were too different from mine.

Let me paint the picture. In Korea, you are not allowed to shake hands first if you are younger than the person in front of you. Age creates a hierarchy in the culture, so asking how old you are at first sight is the norm. People call out when you look tired because Koreans show care by noticing emotions on your face. Eating lunch and grabbing coffee with your team during mandatory breaks is essential.

But I wanted to enjoy some time on my own. People perceived me as an outsider. You know, the one with the salad bowl alone at her desk. Also, I was not aware that brushing your teeth in public is typical until I saw girls side by side at the sink after lunch.

I was confused by the definition of politeness. In a country where hierarchy is set up by age, being polite could mean being obedient and not speaking up. The work process and language are also different than what I’m used to. Pronouncing English words with an American accent instantly labeled me as a four-year-old mumbling in a conference room. Every day was a panic. And the mismatch felt mutual. I saw that I had a different outlook and didn’t readily embrace cultural differences. I was exhausted by confronting disparities. Instead of trying harder to get acclimated, I started dreaming of going back to the States.

Imagine that.

So I started a remote graduate degree program through Parsons. For my final paper, I filled out a survey about my values and dreams. I would have been tempted to retake this quiz too (remember the old habit?), but I stopped in my tracks. Why? Because the results astounded me.

Let me explain. This questionnaire is designed to help you explore how your values manifest. The idea is that you operate with a mix of three philosophies:

  • Pragmatic bases the worthiness of activity in its utility in achieving desired goals. If the objectives are not clear, or it’s difficult to measure outcomes, the action is less valued.
  • Intellectual bases itself on rationalism and mysticism. Here, the worthiness of activity is in its contribution to understanding something big, like life and relationships.
  • Human bases itself on humanism and the community. How much activity impacts other people or relationships is critical.

You see worth, benefit, and goodness through the lens of your dominant operating theory, which you find out through your score. If any other type is a close second, it suggests you may feel conflicted when making choices.

I was in awe because my score explains my struggle to belong entirely. Seemingly, I’m an intellectual and pragmatic as a close second. So I’m in search of understanding and feel conflicted when that pursuit undermines concrete goals I want to achieve (like being close to my family).

If the pragmatic side of me wins, I will choose Seoul because speaking English and being with my beloved family is a huge plus. I’ll share with you a story to illustrate what I mean.

When I lived 6,863 miles across the ocean, I woke up one night with severe stomach pain. I teared up debating who to call for help. I knew that contacting my parents would not reduce my pain and would only make them worry. Sobbing, I hobbled out the door and hailed a cab. I Googled the nearest hospital and gave the driver directions.

“How do I get to the emergency room?” I asked the security guard by the info desk. He pointed at a huge sign, which I had not noticed. I walked into the E.R. and was shocked at how packed it was. I became empty-headed. I filled out the registration form and waited to hear my name to be called. Who knew how long this would take.

This experience is at the fore of my mind, as I weigh my future and where I belong.

Part Three: Learning to accept myself as a thinker

I still question which continent is a better fit for me. I still have to practice being okay living outside social norms. Yes, I am a thinker and an intellectual. And it’s challenging to find the deeper meaning of being in Seoul because I am not entirely well, emotionally.

Regardless of the practical advantages I’ve shared, I am conflicted about calling it home. Your appearance, education, and background are essential here. The premium of your financial wealth almost outweighs your mental wealth. It’s such a shock and wake-up call for me. After all those lonely years in the U.S., I crossed the ocean seeking emotional balance alongside my loved ones. What I have found is pressure to conform, which is creating the opposite effect. This is unreasonable and illogical to me.

I am craving inspiration. I am reflecting on the connection I felt with the passionate design crew from New York. Maybe in time, I will see something like it in this culture.

Perhaps I try to chase happiness when it is meant to sit softly on my shoulder like a butterfly when I turn my attention to other things. Does this mean I overthink? I am on a journey learning to accept who I am. I have big questions and think abstractly. I am slowly learning how to balance theory with practice. I am a logical thinker who values happiness. I am a realist whose goal is emotional well-being. And I’m an artist through and through.

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