By Jai-Ryung (Jenny) Lee
Many people have asked me how I transitioned to life in the United States. They say that traveling halfway around the world for four years of college would be impossible for them.
I just shrug. Transitioning from an Asian culture to a Western culture, adjusting from an international school with people from so many backgrounds to a university with one predominant race with its own distinct culture, was such an arduous but rich experience that a simple answer could not fully assimilate it. Simply put, I did not know how to answer the question of how my transition went.
I remember the first thought I had of Furman was how different I was. While everyone else had blonde or brunette hair, I had black hair. My peers wore sun dresses and cowboy boots; I wore jeans, a button up shirt and heels. Before even considering values, interests and personalities, physically, I was different from everyone else.
Physical difference cannot be masked, and soon I learned to accept that I was just different. It was a harmless fact. Once I came to acknowledge that I was different — physically and culturally — being different became my main goal. I continuously reminded my friends that I was from a different country and that I did not hold the same values. Oftentimes I went out of my way to try to set myself apart. I was afraid that as I adjusted to life in the United States, I would lose my Asian culture and identity. I insisted on only eating non-Western food when eating out. I refused to buy non-heeled formal shoes. I refrained from watching Western television series, and I only listened to Korean pop music.
My efforts to preserve my own differences, however, only negatively impacted myself and the people around me. As I continuously pointed out differences between my friends and myself, we had no time to discuss topics of mutual interest. I was not learning anything about this new American culture that I had tried to immerse myself in; I was not any different from the person I had been when I first arrived at Furman. I was depriving myself of development and missing out on the rich experience of studying abroad.
So I began to adapt. I found my interests and passions being altered and modified through a new willingness to consume Western media and engage with others in deep conversations. And I let it be. I stopped juxtaposing my values with Asian values and correcting myself had the two not matched up perfectly.
As I look back at my freshman year in college, I can’t deny the fact that I have grown. Who I am, the way I interact with my surroundings, my values — everything has changed. Perhaps “alter” and “change” and “different” are not the right words to use to define my identity. Life is not a mad dash from one stage to another, protecting one’s identity from being stained and changed. It is a process of finding pieces along the road to build one’s identity. Identity is something that is created as time goes by, something that is built upon through experience.
How did I transition to life in the United States? I developed my own identity. I understood that my decision to leave my friends and family to study in a foreign country was a part of my life that would develop me as a person and as an individual, an experience that would present a new piece of my identity, something always in the making.