The Cultural Ambassador Committee is hosting the 1st International Festival from 3/27 to 4/2 on campus to appreciate the cultures of 13 countries Episcopal students come from. Each day of the week is assigned to each continent, and we’ll celebrate the art, food, and music of the countries represented by our students. We hope this to be an event that raises awareness on diversity, and give a voice to all students with various backgrounds.
I’m happy to announce that I won a Gold Key for mix media and two Honorable Mention awards for design and drawing & illustration at the 2017 Scholastic Art & Writing competition. Please take a look at my self-portrait “Remembering Home,” collage “Lost in the City,” and logo design “Episcopal High School” on my blog!
I still remember the day my mom got so mad when I announced that I would break our family tradition and be a rebel. She asked me if I knew what I was doing. She said I was out of my mind if I could not even realize I was dismissing the greatest opportunity in my life and abandoning years of effort I had put to art. She was deeply disappointed that I was firmly determined not to follow the path of life almost all the women in my family have gone through: going to her alma mater, learning traditional art, and pursuing a career as an artist. It was the day I finally decided to turn down the admissions offer from the top art academy in Seoul. Instead, I told my mom, “I want to go to Episcopal.”
Before I started my first year at Episcopal, my life had been defined by my passion for traditional art. With a mom who works as a freelance artist giving me lessons every week, I spent hours working on pieces of Korean traditional figures such as the tiger and the peony. I was amazed by the vibrant colors meticulously painted on rice paper. Every piece had a story of its own. It was where Korean history came from. The very old history was alive in the vivid artwork, and painting became a medium through which I could interact with people from centuries ago. I was absolutely mesmerized by the beauty of traditional art and devoted most of my time to developing my artistic skills.
However, after years of pursuing traditional art, I started to wonder what other cultures and traditions were like. Just as I became to love and embrace Korean traditional cultures, I believed that the cultures and art of other parts of the world would also have incredible stories behind them. I was eager to learn delicate Eastern European contemporary art, funky American country songs, and exquisite Chinese modern art, and interact with people from places that I was not well aware of. I believed that a better understanding of a wide spectrum of cultures would allow me to expand my views toward the world. I needed a place to break the walls surrounding me and reach out to learn diversity.
After months of looking at various schools in different places, I reached the conclusion that Episcopal was the perfect school to pursue what I was looking for. In a school located near the center of world politics and cultures, Washington D.C., I believed, could raise my awareness of various cultures through unique curricula such as the Washington Program. With international students coming from twelve different countries, EHS seemed to offer an amazing education that encourages students to be culturally aware. I was willing to take a step forward in my life, move out of my comfort zone, and take an adventure by starting my first year at EHS. I was looking forward to seeing how I would shape myself at Episcopal, how the new school would influence me, and how I would contribute to the community.
However, I had to learn that the reality was quite different from what I had imagined. After spending a few weeks at school, I came to understand that Episcopal has a relatively homogeneous population with students predominantly from the same region who share similar cultural, social, and political views. Such backgrounds shared by the majority of student body greatly influence almost every aspect of school life. During a Harkness discussion in my AP US History class, for example, I became involved in a dispute with a junior who claimed that the Confederate flag should be displayed in public as the representation of Southern pride. I understood that such a view does not necessarily represent the opinion of the majority of people, but I was still shocked that a number of students in the class strongly agreed with the student. In math class, I found out that some of my classmates assumed I was from China without asking me which part of Asia I am from. I was especially hurt when people, even my close friends, occasionally mispronounced my name even after I corrected them more than ten times. I was frustrated that a number of people in the community are quite biased against certain cultures and generally lack understanding of diversity. “This is not the place I was looking for,” I thought. I felt lost. I was disappointed. I wanted to go back to the place where my cultures, my views, and my art were appreciated.
It didn’t take me long to realize I was wrong. While I was extremely frustrated that people would not accept my cultural background, I had an amazing opportunity that allowed me to learn that there are a number of open-minded people in this community who are eager to embrace diversity. During the WPE in the first week of January on my sophomore year, I had a calligraphy class in which twenty sophomores taking Chinese got together to learn Chinese traditional writing technique. In the middle of the writing activities, Mrs. Wang-Gempp, the Chinese teacher, suddenly paused her lecture and told the whole class that she had something to show us. She started to project my art pieces on the screen and showed them to the entire class. Soon, one of my classmates shouted, “These are so amazing! Are these Korean traditional pieces? How did you do these?”
A few students followed her, and they started to ask tons of questions about my art, such as what the names of the pieces were, what the pieces symbolized, and what medium I used to complete my work. Since then, whenever people see me painting on a comfy chair in Ainslie or working on my portfolio on dorm, they stop by, ask questions, and tell me they would love to visit Korea one day and learn more about our art. I could not believe that a number of people I did not expect to get interested in my pieces would give me such responses. I was more than glad to finally realize that a great number of people in this community are in fact willing to learn the various cultures alive on campus. I have realized that it is my role to take the lead in bringing my culture to the community, and have decided to do so through art.
At the end of my sophomore year, I took the step forward to take action. I became the co-president of the Student Association of Visual Arts in May, and started to make plans for workshops and exhibitions that would give voice to hidden artists on campus by showcasing their unique cultures. Along with three other students passionate about making a change through art and raising awareness about diversity, we could come up with ideas on art-related fund raising events, monthly workshop sessions, and a student-run blog that would greatly impact the community. At the same time, I have continued creating pieces that now integrate traditional and modern values, and Western and Asian values that reflect the Western and modern values I have learned at Episcopal. I have not only tried to spread Asian cultures, but have also tried to learn Southern and American cultures. It is a give-and-take that fosters both the community and me.
Last night I had a long conversation with my mom on the phone. She asked me if I have ever regretted my decision to choose Episcopal over all the other options I had, and I proudly said, “Never.” The first twelve months at EHS has let me turn into someone who I could have never become otherwise; now I am a person who actively takes a step forward to enact change in the community by bringing my views and accepting new values and perspectives. Throughout the remaining two years at Episcopal, I wish to continue bridging through art. I believe one stroke of a brush adds vibrant shades to the ‘Maroon and Black.’
At the end of the school year, I was lucky enough to have my artworks published on the Daemon, the annual literary magazine of Episcopal High School. These are the two pieces of Korean traditional art I worked on last year. It was such a pleasure to introduce Asian art to the school community and have my works displayed besides poems and proses written by my classmates. Next year, as an AP studio art student and the vice president of the Student Association of Visual Arts, I look forward to promoting diversity through art by opening workshops for traditional arts from various countries and displaying my pieces on school exhibitions.
Earlier this year, the sophomore class at Episcopal had a group discussion on one of our summer reading books called ‘A Lesson Before Dying’ by Ernest J. Gaines. We had an in-depth discussion on the heartbreaking novel about a young, uneducated African American who was wrongfully convicted of rubbery because of mere color of his skin. In the middle of the hour-long talk, someone in my table threw out a question that asked us if we could relate the extreme discrimination the man experienced in the book to the reality of the societies we come from. People started to talk about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, campus racism protests at Mizzou, and a number of others that have been heatedly debated across the world. Soon, one of my classmates looked towards me and asked, “Is there racism in Korea?” People might have thought that my answer would be obviously no, as Korea is known to have a single racial group. However, my answer was different, “Yes, racism is quite serious in Korea.”
Korea, along with most other Asian nations, is known to have a homogeneous population with a single racial group. However, the country has experienced an unprecedented demographic change since the late 20th century due to the influx of foreign immigrants, mostly from Southeast Asia. This rapid change was caused by serious social problems of gender imbalance and shortage of labor that have been built up since the late 1990s. Such problems deeply entrenched in Korean society triggered massive increases of labor migration and international marriages. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to have a neighbor from Bangladesh who came to Korea for work and a classmate whose mother is from Vietnam. This massive increase of foreigners challenged the notion of homogeneity that Korea has hold as its national identity for centuries.
Korea has faced a backlash over influx of the new population in recent years. Just as how immigrants from racial minority groups such as African Americans and Asians were not welcomed in the early 20th century in the United States, evoking nationwide nativism, the new population is now harshly discriminated throughout Korea. Surrounded by anti-foreign sentiment, especially towards the Southeast Asians, people often tend to mistreat immigrants, judging them by their skin colors, appearances, and social backgrounds. Three years ago, I had an opportunity to interview two women from Vietnam at a damunhwa (다문화, referred as multiculturalism) family support center as a student reporter. I asked them what has been the greatest challenge to live in Korea. The two women burst out into tears when they started to talk about how they have been mistreated in Korea. Teachers and students judging their children by their backgrounds, patriarchal husbands suppressing them at home, and people treating them as second-class citizens made them almost impossible to survive in Korean society.
It is true that the Korean government and grassroots organizations have put an effort to improve the situation of the new population. Not only have the Korean government increased government spending for welfare programs for foreign residents, but also public and private schools have created afternoon activities that encourage the damunhwa students to be integrated in class. However, such effort has been headed to the wrong direction. Such programs have been focused on assimilating the new population to the mainstream Koreans without understanding and respecting their cultural identities. By simply ‘forcing’ them to absorb Korean cultures, the government has failed to reduce the prejudices towards foreign immigrants. In order to truly integrate the new group to Korean society, an effort to learn and respect their identities and backgrounds should take place.
It pretty much seems that the endless conflicts of prejudices have created a serious imbalance. Such desperate situation of ethnic minorities in Korea is no different than that of more diverse countries such as the United States, where racial discrimination has been constantly addressed throughout history. The only difference is that such serious social problems appeared only in recent years in Korea, unlike in the United States where the entire population is well aware of the discrimination that has developed since the ancient times. Although xenophobia in Korea has started to be exposed to the public through media recently, it has not risen awareness to all generations of people. Unlike the stories of Michael Brown who was victimized by the police brutality in Ferguson and college students at Mizzou, the detailed first-hand accounts of people suffering from prejudices prevalent in Korea are yet to be exposed to the public. More effort and should be put to spark a serious change in order to re-educate all generations about the importance of accepting the cultures of the new population and trying not to hold prejudices against them. The first step would be to raise awareness on the challenges Korea is facing regarding multiculturalism and to persuade people to be open-minded.