BACK STORY: I was born and raised in London, and I've never lived in Korea but my parents are both fully Korean and moved to London from Korea in the 80s. Thus, I was raised in a very Korean household - my first words were in Korea, we ate Korean food for the majority of our meals at home, and we took our shoes off when we entered the house. I speak Korean fluently with a near perfect accent, although it's definitely not on the native level, and I try to keep up with the cultural developments in Korea (in terms of music, slang, feminism etc.). I wouldn't class myself as a full Korean but I wouldn't say I'm purely British either.
I went to Seoul this summer for a month being super excited to see my relatives again after not having gone for 3 years and to re-experience Korea. But I didn't think that those 3 years had changed me into a different person and that I would have a more difficulty this time around adjusting to the "new" culture (although technically not new since it's a culture I was brought up in at home).
The first week of Korea was fairly okay. I wandered around the city by myself and revisiting some of my favourite areas. Compared to my last trip to Seoul in 2014, I felt less like a tourist trying to find all the tourist attraction spots to tick off my list, but more as a native exploring the city and yet still not quite a native. It was fun to really see what Seoul was like to live in, rather than seeing it merely as a tourist destination.
During the second week of Korea, I started to notice were the differences between the cultures of Seoul and London. I have always been aware of the obvious differences between the 2 cultures and, on top of that, my last trip to Seoul made me more aware of the subtle differences, such as the uniformity that Seoul seemed to value amongst its people, and that I did not necessarily fit into this uniform society. However, this time around I tried to see what it would be like to actually conform to these societal standards - mostly for the reason of trying to regain my heritage and understand the culture better from the perspective of a native, rather than a foreigner.
I found most other natives did not treat me as anything other than a fellow native and I finally felt like Seoul could be home. But every now and again I'd have trouble pronouncing English words with a Korean accent, or there were some every day Korean customs that I hadn't picked up on yet, at which point I would try and explain that I'm not stupid, it's just that I was raised in London. Some of the responses to this were nice and peaked people's interests to make friendly conversation with me about living in London. But others would treat me as a foreigner straight after and start talking to me purely in their broken English, almost like they forgot that they had no problems conversing with me in Korean before and didn't even realise that I wasn't from Korea until I stumbled over the English word (which is kind of ironic of me to make a mistake at an English word and not a Korean one) or whatever custom I didn't recognise and follow.
The third week of Korea, I was still processing this new idea that maybe I could make it here as a native if I could bush up on my Korean and get used to the customs, when I met up with a friend. She was not Korean (neither does she look oriental at all), but studied Korean and Linguistics at university back in London. So, whilst we could have converse in Korean without a problem, we spoke mostly in English - probably mostly out of habit. She then introduced me to her friend who introduced me to his friends etc. and this led to us forming a group where I was the only Korean by ethnicity, and the rest were foreigners in the eyes of native Koreans, despite their ability to talk fairly fluently in Korea and that they knew the Korean culture probably better than even I did as they had all lived in Korea for at least a year at some point of their lives.
The combination of speaking English in public and my friends looking like foreigners to Koreans, led me to mildly experience the life of a complete foreigner in Korea. So far I'd been able to pass off as a native or an ex-pat, but never as a complete foreigner so this was a new experience to me. It was interesting to see them receive "special treatment" from the natives: restaurant owners were often more chatty and friendly with them, giving us free food at times, and instead of receiving maybe looks of disgust that I might get if I made a mistake in Korean, the natives were more tolerant and even praised them for their slightly broken Korean. They probably have had moments where they had to deal with some sort of racism in Korea, but from what I could see and what I've been told by them, they loved living in Seoul and Seoul loved having them there. I started to wonder that maybe the key to having a great time in Seoul wasn't to be accepted as a native - a "true" Korean - but to be treated as a foreigner where societal pressures are lessened and people become nicer.
After the month long holiday in Korea and becoming somewhat more accustomed to the Korean culture, coming back to London wasn't the same as before. I've started to notice my change in preferences between the 2 cultures. I was relieved to be back in the city that is technically my home, and yet there are parts of Seoul that I miss and I know I would never be able to get here. Whilst I love being British - I love complaining about the miserable weather, I love seeing how multicultural the city is, I love the sarcasm used here - I miss the nightlife in Korea with most bars staying open until the sun rises and the cheap food that tastes amazing. There's something about the Korean culture that I find the people there more relatable and not at the same time. They were more friendly but also more judgemental. I fitted in better in Korea (visually at least) and yet stuck out completely (in a bad way).
I always thought of myself as part of 2 different cultures, but now I feel more like I'm not part of any culture. I don't feel like I belong in London nor Seoul. A friend once told me that he enjoyed living in Seoul as a foreigner, he embraced it and its perks and stuck around with fellow foreigners or even ex-pats, but I don't know if that would be enough for me. Somehow, I find myself wanting the sense of belonging more than before. I was always fairly happy to be different from others but now for some reason I want to be considered as the same. Maybe it's the difference between choosing to stick out from the crowd versus involuntarily being treated differently and often in a negative way. Or maybe I'm tired now of having to defend my differences from others and trying to explain myself. Maybe I crave the easy life (not that there really is one).
Right now, I'm confused as to which culture I prefer and thus where I would like to live in the future. I never thought of leaving London to live elsewhere realistically (although there often have been dreams of moving to California or Australia for the sunny weather), but somehow I've found myself now trying to make a plan to move to Seoul in the near future. It's funny because throughout the first 2-3 weeks of my Seoul holiday, I actually hated it and thought I would never go back. But I don't know if this was from having no real friends there, or from unnecessarily trying to fit into their society. But maybe distance does make the heart grow fonder; the more time I spend away from Seoul and the more I compare the 2 cultures of East and West, the more I want to go back to Korea. Or, you know, maybe it's just that I miss the cheap drinks and that low key alcoholism is accepted as the norm there. My ideal would probably be to have a new culture where it's a mix of the both and I'd be able to have more people who I can relate to. But for the time being, I guess I'm kind of stuck between the 2 worlds and I'll have to make do with dealing with each one separately.
There's a lot more I could say about this topic, but this blog post is already getting very long and I don't want to bored anyone so I'll leave it here for now.
TL;DR: My one month holiday to Seoul has now confused my cultural identity.