Jamie Baik '14 in South Korea

Jamie Baik ’14 is an Art Studio major from Glen Rock, New Jersey. After spending a semester abroad in Siena, Italy, Baik decided to apply for the Lawrence Fellowship, which supports student projects that encourage self-reflection and personal development in contact with another culture, without necessarily a specific research orientation. The fellowship brought her to South Korea, the country of her own family’s origins.

Jamie in the process of having her hair professionally curled in Korea

Jamie in the process of having her hair professionally curled in Korea

Why did you decide to go to South Korea?

I went to a wide range of places in Korea, but primarily stayed in Seoul, Busan, and Cheorwon.

I was born in America to Korean parents who immigrated to America. I was originally able to speak Korean and went there once at the age of 4, but I gradually lost almost all of my Korean language abilities and most of my connections to the Korean culture after I started going to public school. I even became what I describe as a “self-loathing Korean” in high school and ignored the “Korean” part of my identity for many years. However, things changed after I came to Williams and started interacting with more Asian American and international students. And after going abroad for a semester in Siena, Italy (Spring 2013), I learned two things about myself that set the stage for this project in South Korea: one, that I was capable of learning a foreign language and utilizing it in another country, and two, the experience of living in a different country is eye-opening in so many ways, so why not use this opportunity to go to the country of my ethnic origin?

What does your project address? Will you incorporate this project into your major or your studies at Williams in general, for example through further classes, an independent study, or a thesis?

The grant I was given was specifically for projects of a personal nature. My research is twofold – the first part involves experiencing different aspects of Korean life and seeing as much of the culture as possible, and second, observing and documenting my experiences through photographs. As a studio art major, this project also gave me a chance to improve my shooting abilities and editing skills. “Editing” does not necessarily mean editing with Photoshop, but rather, choosing my best photos and creating a strong narrative with those images. I’m not sure yet if my senior art project will involve photography, but I will be taking a course on documentary photography in the fall (my second digital photography course).

What has been the most challenging aspect of your research thus far?

Getting over my self-consciousness as a photographer and artist, especially combined with the expectation that I should act like a Korean, since I look like one. It was actually easier to take photographs in Italy as I looked like a foreign tourist who would do strange things while shooting photographs, and my Italian wasn’t expected to be perfect. However, in Korea, most people generally do not make eye contact with strangers or take photographs unless you are a tourist. My accent immediately gave me away as a foreigner if I opened my mouth, and I would often get approached by sales associates speaking Chinese or Japanese if I had my camera out.

How has your experience in South Korea deepened your understanding of Korean culture? And, perhaps, American culture and your own identity as an American citizen?

This is a pretty big question with a long answer that I will cover in-depth in my report, so I’ll just stick to the most important part for me – I am definitely not Korean, but I am certainly not American either. For the past several years I’ve felt a strong disconnect with both cultures and couldn’t figure out why, and it’s because I am Korean American, which is another culture in and of itself. It sounds simple, but many people tend to conflate Korean and Korean American identities and I was often simplified to just an “American” in both Italy and Korea, or just another “Asian” in America. The differences inherent in being “Korean American” are often not fully acknowledged even by other Korean Americans, because we often grow up in a world pulling us in two different directions depending on the situation.

Why do you think it’s important for Williams students to spend time in foreign countries?

For me personally, I gained a much greater appreciation for the things I had back in America – namely, the immense variety of people living in America, my family, and Williams. I learned practical skills as simple as working up the courage to talk to strangers in a different language to learning how to ride different kinds of public transportation in various languages.

Finally, I gained tremendous respect for other people who have come to America, whether it’s to study for four years, or immigrate for a lifetime. They have had to overcome many challenges to do what they’ve already accomplished, and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface with my short summer project.

What was your favorite food that you ate while in South Korea?

After a long, sweaty hike up a hilly town in Tongyeong, a southern coastal city, we ran into a woman who had opened up her house as a small tea/coffee shop. There, I had the best “shikhae” I’ve ever had – a sweet and cold rice drink that’s often enjoyed in the summer. Shikhae is not even one of my favorite Korean drinks, but the timing made that one glass pretty much a lifesaver.