“May I ask what you look like?”

It was such a simple question.  And it opened a whole world of thought and contemplation for me.  The woman that I take weekly hikes with is blind, and as we navigate the trails, we chat.  Last week, as we powered through the hot, sticky monsoon summer heat, she so sweetly asked me “죄송하지만, 아리아나가 어떻게 생겼어요?” – “May I ask what you look like?”  Of course – she’s never seen me.  I was embarrassed to realize, only then, how much I take being sighted for granted.  As I told her about my mixed race background, my chestnut hair and “round” eyes, I couldn’t help but think about how in many ways, the ability to see is a gift, yet might be at the core of racial discrimination.  If sight wasn’t a sense that most humans possessed, what would our impression of other cultures and races be?  Would we be more tolerant?  If we couldn’t see the shape of one’s eyes, the color of one’s skin, the texture of one’s hair, or the attire they dawn, how might we be?  Or can the same biases be learned through the other four senses?  As our world – and particularly the United States – continues to wake up to cultural injustice and bias, it begs the question of how much we decide with our eyes.

I’ve just hit the 4-month mark of being here in Seoul and in this overwhelmingly homogenous place, I look entirely non-Korean to most Koreans.  I suppose I have my mama’s blond hair and blue eyes to thank for my ambiguous appearance, but it’s not uncommon here for people to do a double-take when the see me, refer to me as “외국인” – “foreigner,” or ask right away where I come from.  I never take offense to it and happily engage in conversations about visiting Korea from the States, but it certainly makes me think about racial identity (for me particularly, feeling very white and very Asian at the same time) and how much hinges on what we see.  Though I’ve only had a glimpse into the world of people who are blind through this work over the last few months, I’ve been struck by how kind, appreciative, accepting, and powerful the community is.  I went down a mini rabbit hole on this idea and found this interesting interview/study on race and seeing from the Boston Globe – if nothing else, just good brain food for us to chew on…

The hiking crew, my partner “Double Sevens” second on the right.

On a perhaps-not-unrelated note, I’ve also been fascinated by modern Korean culture as of late, observing a superpower country that often has opposing forces at play.  It is a stunningly beautiful country with a complex and rich history.  From my perspective, I see a society that is at once very Western yet has immense pride for its cultural past.  It is a world where excellence, competition, and status are at the forefront of societal expectations, yet there is little room for innovative creativity and going off-trail.  There are holdovers from the deeply traditional Joseon dynasty alongside the pressures of a modern world, particularly with regard to gender roles and class.  I feel the importance of family and generational lineage, yet learned just the other day that the ROK has the lowest birthrate in the world.  It is a place where appearance and maintaining beauty is key, but diligence and productivity are taught as a non-negotiable.  There is great sentimentality for savoring the past, while “instant” culture with services like Coupang Rocket make Amazon Prime look like a snail.  Male K-Pop stars wear abundant makeup but the LGBTQ community here is nearly invisible.  As I jumped into a modern culture class at the start of this month, we started to explore some of these very topics; gyerogi abojee families, “manager mom” culture, world-famous plastic surgery centers, and the increase of millennial women in the workforce.  It’s been captivating to see the many sides of society, and to appreciate the yin and yang of what makes the world go ’round.  For those curious about some of the articles we’ve been looking at, feel free to click away:

On gyerogi abojee culture

On education


As I continue to try and soak up as much as I can while I’m here (where’s the “pause” button?), here’s a quick update on the last 6 weeks.  The end of the semester last month was followed by 2 weeks at “gayaguem camp” (think band camp but with ancient instruments!), a quick trip to Jejudo (Korea’s Hawaii) – where I had the chance to visit my auntie and summit Hallasan, a massive, inactive volcano – lots of studying (two short summer courses), and practicing around the clock to get ready for my upcoming concerts (why doesn’t my bow work today?).

In just a few days – with the unexpected restart of my summer festivals – I’ll be heading back overseas for a month and a half in the States and Italy.  Along with the stifling heat (heat indexes here hit 110 degrees often these days), humidity and monsoon rain, things here have also taken a turn for the worse with the pandemic.  The combination of the Delta variant and Korea being behind with vaccines have made the case load soar – and we’ve gone into a near-lockdown – apparently the strictest in all 19 months.  Schools have closed, no more than 2 people are allowed to gather anywhere after 6pm, and masks at all times.  Alas, it seems that my departure has come at a perfect time.  (Whole Foods cheese mongers, I’m on my way!)  Can we make some calls to see that things are back to normal when I get back in September?  헐.  Autumn in Korea is spectacular, so second semester will be something to look forward to =)

이경선 교수님, 김민지 교수님, 허효정 교수님께, 서울대 학기말 리사이틀들을 하느라고 수고 많이 하셨습니다 ~ 축하합니다!  덕훈 큰아빠께, 저한테 항상 친절하는 게 정말 고맙습니다.  영옥 고모, 우리 아름다운 서귀포 해수욕장에 갔던 날이 대단했습니다 ~ 요즘에도 계속 많이 드세요!  우리 서울 “교수 팀,” 지난 주에 두번째 티타임 파티가 진짜 재미있고 저는 박교수님과 조교수님의 판소리 “공연”을 절대 잊지 않을 것입니다 ^^ 승안이, 지은이에게, 내 남길 가방들이 보관해 주셔서 미리 고맙습니다 ~ 계산서를 기다릴거야 ^^ 여러분, 구월에 또 만날거예요!

And, as always, a photo diary…

Post-recital with SNU colleagues and students at the Performing Arts Center
My “gayageum camp” hosts – too adorable.

More cooking class time!
Taking a nighttime stroll along the beautiful ‘cheongyicheon’ water walkway =)
Getting some on-trail therapy for some neck pain (my hiking partner is a retired acupuncturist and she worked wonders!)…

…and my last hiking day with my beloved Joon puppy…he had to leave last week to go meet his “wife” in LA =)

Went to hang out with some beautiful flowers, bears, and other creatures at Seoul Grand Park & Arboretum…


Attending a ‘pansori’ opera and post-concert dinner with renowned gayageumist Jocelyn Clark!

Hello Jejudo!

Beach day…complete with an auntie-made picnic =)

Hiking Hallasan, its ancient lava rock paths, and the view from the top…

My Jejudo auntie, one of the most pure-hearted and special people on the planet.

Online family and friends time…my annual Crocs shopping date with Alma and a Father’s Day “party”…
Study time…I hope I don’t forget all the new Korean I learned while I’m away =/

My amazing teacher showing me the ropes…literally.
Newly re-soled climbing shoes (with the wicked heat, climbing was all indoors this month!)


Gatherings with friends and fam – this last pic is my dad’s two best friends from middle school!

Jangma! Monsoon season is real…
…and the beauty after the storms…

Giving a couple of house concerts…

…and summer market life.

Until next time…

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