Homecoming… sort of…

Greetings to my beloved USC family!!!

It’s been a little over a month since I came to Seoul, and I can say much of my time has been spent trying to adjust to my new life here.  There are so many things I had to learn and understand about Korea and even now, I am still in the process of learning.

Even though I have been to Korea numerous times, it is always an odd feeling each time I step foot here.  Despite being ethnically Korean, I have lived my life as an American and have made my home in the US.  It is when I come here, to the place that has my roots, my history, and my culture, do I truly realize how American I am. The realization that I will be calling Seoul my home till next June is still surreal and strange.

My first couple weeks here consisted mainly of me trying to adjust to everything about Korea: weather, lifestyle, transportation and even general cultural attitudes and behaviors. Upon arrival to Incheon Airport I was greeted with Panama-like humidity and heat, and a succession of typhoons one after another.

I have now ceased to say excuse me as I bump into people in the subway station, and have finally stopped being offended when being elbowed by other pedestrians. I have now been able to let go of any concept of personal space, particularly in the bus and subway where I often find my head sandwiched in between four different people.

I learned to never expect anyone to hold the door open while entering a building after having had the door slam into my face on numerous occasions. Although I still feel awkward about it, I have begun to feel less apologetic about being bowed to each time I enter a market by employees who stand at the door to serve just that purpose.

 I have gotten into the habit of sorting out food waste from plastic, paper, Styrofoam etc as Seoul relies heavily on recycling. I learned that in order to turn on hot water in my apartment I have to turn on several different switches and buttons.

I have begun tracking the number of calories I burn and the distance I walk when grocery shopping, as all shopping carts here measure both.

 I learned quickly how vastly different the educational system and student population profile in Korea is as compared to the US.

Along with several other Fulbright researchers, I began taking a course in Introductory Public Health. We, as foreigners, stuck out like a sore thumb in the lecture hall in our backpacks, tennis shoes, jeans and t-shirts while the rest of the class came in suits, dresses, heels and definitely no backpacks. These are of course, just the tip of the iceberg in my quest of complete immersion into Korean culture and society.

 At KyeongBook Palace

The altar for my grandparents’ death anniversary ceremony (horrible translation). First time I took part in this very traditional occasion.

Once I finally got settled in and adjusted to my living situation, I began to formulate my research work plan and to meet with individuals who could help and mentor my work. In preparation for this, much of my time has been spent talking to college and graduate students as well as professors familiar with social and cultural women’s issues.

If there is anything that prepared me for my move to Korea, it will have to be the practicum trips I participated in the past both as a student and as a practicum associate. The understanding that nothing can go as planned and to always adapt quickly to fluid situations is something one needs to always be prepared for while out in the field. This time, having no professors or mentors to support me, I had to rely on my practicum training and anything that I could work with here. The biggest roadblocks I faced were the attitudes and cultural stigmas associated with research of any kind by foreigners, as well as overall differences in the educational institution. Relationships and dynamics between professors and students, and even among students, are vastly different here. Understanding and accepting these differences was a challenge, and something I still need to remind myself each time I step onto campus. I also had to learn about social attitudes about women through many meetings and discussions with students. Despite being a supposedly post-modern society, Korea is still very conservative in their thinking and in their attitudes and beliefs. I learned that this especially holds true when it comes to issues regarding women. Women still do not share equal footing with men in almost all areas of life here in Korea, and much of this oppression has begun to cause an abundance of societal problems. One of these problems is of course, consistently increasing suicide rates, my topic of interest.

To sidetrack for those who aren’t too familiar with my research here, I am studying the cultural and social stigmas associated to mental healthcare among younger women and how this affects access to mental health services and ultimately its impact on Korea’s very high suicide rates. South Korea currently has the second highest suicide rate in the world, and is the highest among all the countries in the OECD. Although hard numbers are highest among the elderly, when looking purely at rates, young people have astoundingly high rates and are continuing to increase. Although men have begun to see a plateau, rates among women are still on the rise with no signs of slowing down.

When I first wrote my grant proposal, and even until just a few weeks ago, I had assumed that the problem was grounded in the fact that not enough people are accessing mental health services due to cultural stigmas. Although this still holds true, I have begun to learn that the problem is much bigger and has much greater social implications than I had previously thought.  One thing that I have learned from numerous conversations with sociology and anthropology students here was that, even if people do access these services, because of a lack of family and peer support, the positive effect from receiving help is almost negated. In other words, although an individual may ultimately choose to receive mental health care, because of the negative attitude exhibited by those around them, the positive benefits from accessing these services is inconsequential. The reasons behind this lack of support are deep-rooted in the culture and history of Korea. Probing into this will be a definitely challenge for me, as it will hinder the type of honest and truthful response that I will be needing to successfully carry out my work.

One of the greatest blessings I have had since coming here was meeting Dr. Hae-Joang Cho-Han of Yonsei University who is a cultural anthropologist and leading scholar on women and gender studies. Through her, I was able to speak to many other students and researchers studying cultural and social issues with regards to women, and I will be attending a workshop taught by a post-doc who just did her dissertation on suicide in Korea. Dr. Cho-Han has graciously opened up her facilities for my use and has put me in contact with her students and peers who have already given me an immense amount of help and support. Her students have met with me separately to get me culturally immersed into the student culture as well as to the educational system. Through my interaction with her, I have been able to begin creating a more solid framework and timeline for me research.

Lastly, as I end my first rather long blog on my journey in Korea, I want to thank all my peers and mentors back home at USC.  Without each and every one of these individuals, I would never have been able to come here and experience one of the greatest adventures of my life. The past 5 years of my life that I spent as part of the USC family has taught me the value of teamwork and the importance of trusting those around you. My only hope is that I can come back having contributed at least a little to helping this country with a severe public health problem that it faces, and to make my USC family proud.

Till next time!


(Posted on Joanne’s behalf)