Korea Notes : Week 3

Already, three weeks have passed. At the time of writing this, it’s Christmas Evening. The surreal feeling hit me that I am spending Christmas here in Korea. For the first time, I am spending my airplane day (gotcha day, adoption anniversary), Christmas, and my parents’ anniversary away from home, family, and friends.

This is not saying that I don’t feel that I belong or am at peace here in Korea. The last 21 days have proven to be full of exploration, rest, growth, and healing. A couple weeks ago, I was bedridden and completely incapacitated in my Harry Potter closet goshiwon. A lot has happened in a few weeks. After getting accustomed to my class schedule, building relationships and making friends through school and church, and meeting the rhythm of the city, I am finally feeling a confidence that I haven’t felt in a long time.

The most significant theme this week was finding friends and building relationships. It is always difficult to find a healthy community wherever you go. Many of my peers and transient young people have talked about it taking about a year to feel that they really adjust to new people and a new place enough to call it ‘home’. For me, days 15 through 21 have meant reprioritizing and slowing down.

The best blessings for me this week have been connecting with a church via a very close friend and mentor (Thanks Sarah!!!), and being invited into a life group that meets several times a week. Glen, the group leader and I have become pretty close. We geek out about baking and cooking, are both artists, and have similar themes in our upbringing. He has been extremely inclusive, welcoming, and… well, friendly since my time here. Our group goes to different cafes and restaurants every Sunday after church, and occasionally meet up on weeknights to have dinner after work/class. In a huge and bustling place, it’s nice to have people and time to just hang.

On a deeper note, it has been a long while since I have felt spiritually open and present. I had almost forgotten how important the act of worship is to me and my identity. Being in a completely new place with entirely different people has given me space to reflect on my spiritual and creative growth, which are very much so intertwined. There is something about a “clean slate” or “new soil” that provides room for reaching roots to find something to hold on to. As well as clean and uncluttered air for a trunk to grow and stretch it’s arm-branches.

Upon stepping away from a lot of things at home, I have had some space to breathe a bit. I struggle with valuing myself based on the level of productivity that I’m operating at, as well whether or not my passions and dreams are practical enough to pursue. There’s this image of busy-ness and the romantic/glorious “hustle” and “grind” that I fell into, thinking that in order to be good enough I had to juggle all these different projects and initiatives. Don’t get me wrong, the things I am passionate about are very worth pursuing, but it started to feel like running in a hamster wheel, needing a break, and stepping out to find myself on another hamster wheel. I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself to stand out, set a standard, and be more than myself.

After a mental and emotional reset in week 2, my priorities have become 1. Be a student, 2. Eat all of the food, and 3. Just go with the flow. Following this, I have entered in a season of some really great creative, emotional, and spiritual clarity that has lead to some much needed healing and rest. More on this next week! To finish, here’s a poem I wrote out of a place of newly found connections, peace, and fulfillment.

Korea Notes : Week 2

Hey everyone, this is a little bit late – sorry!

Last week I caught a really bad flu on Monday night. I was stuck in bed with a hot fever and awful, suffocating congestion all day Tuesday and Wednesday. Getting sick away from home is one of the WORST things. Whenever I get sick, though, I’m always reminded of the power of rest and of slowing down.

The last month and a half or so have been extreme go-go-go and getting here has been the only time that I’ve been able to catch a break – even a forced one. Through the first eight days of being here, I was on overdrive. Travel days, then settling down, then hitting some of the city pretty hard, and having getting a visa, finding a job, stress about money, and new classes all on the top of mind put me out pretty quick.

This isn’t naught without lesson, however. I started to have more energy on Thursday and Friday. I was able to get out of my goshiwon, go for a walk, and go to class. After a good breakdown about not feeling productive enough on Friday, I had some much needed time to reflect on the last week.

A very close friend and mentor of mine constantly reminds me “Be kind to yourself.” Self-hate, chokingly high expectations for myself, and a need to justify worth with productivity are big parts to my mental health and self-image. So, this message is one that is always welcome and always seems to come at the perfect time. All of the changes that happened put me on square-one, and on a completely different gameboard. I really expected myself to hit the ground running and pick up in the same spot that I was at back in the States. Which… is really unrealistic. And honestly afforded little grace for me to feel like myself here.

Taking a mental reset was needed and refreshing. And one that I could use a lot. Even before coming here, I would have benefited so much from stopping the physical and mental constant busy-ness, project-pursuing, and wheel spinning.

So I’m trying now to prioritize myself by eating the best food, learning Korean, making friends, and just taking a deep breath in my life lungs. I’m not trying to force anything, I’m not trying to plan out my next 12 months to the T, nor am I fixating on making my trip the perfect life chapter. It is what it is, and I am present in it.

The weekend was much better than my weekdays. I went to a church that a friend recommended to me and got connected with some great people. We’ve gone out to eat twice now and I’m going to an illustrator’s fair this weekend with one of the life group members. Finding a new community is difficult, but I have a feeling I’ll be able to connect with these people. More on that in a different post.

I’ve felt a lot more at ease to enjoy myself and enjoy being here not worrying about everything. It is way easier said than done. But, I am realizing that there’s no pressure on me to perform here, and I’m continuing to release myself from that pressure every day.

Thanks for reading. I miss you all very much. Wish my parents “Happy 30th!” As they are celebrating in Hawai’i right now for it.

Blessings and much love,

Karl.

Korea Notes : Week 1

Week 1 has been… a week of adjusting. I had orientation on Dec. 3, and actual classes start Dec. 9. I have been waking up at 6am every morning because of jetlag. I love being up early, but eventually I will hit the inevitable wall of “I hate mornings.”

Seoul is a huge city. The buzz, the vibrancy, vitality, and bustle is amazing. In 50 years, Korea’s per capita GDP went from 100 to 35k, and it makes sense why. The city’s sprawl and sheer size is jaw-dropping. During the day it’s impressive architecture and mostly concrete everywhere, but during the night it’s a beautiful sight to behold.

This accurately depicts my frequent places I’ll go – out at night, on campus, eating ramen, and holed up in my cozy goshiwon (box room). I love the architecture at Goryeo (shorthand name for Korea University). It is such a beautiful campus. I walked across the main pavilion and gratitude hit me like a punch made of smiles and private school tuition fees that I got scholarship for. Goryeo has one of the highest regarded reputations in Korea for its education.

Okay, next for me, is paradise. There’s a big market that’s really close to where I’m living. I was really lucky that I spent my money on some sheets, a blanket, and a pillow, and had 3 dollars left in my wallet (which I promptly bought some dumplings with). Otherwise, I’d go broke faster than you can say “kimchi”. This will be my first step into the language too. I’m dedicated to learning what it takes to haggle the women that run most of these carts and stands.

I love the colors, bustle, and thrum of the market. There are so many people milling about, arguments over prices, and some irresistible food stands. I couldn’t believe some of the eel, stingray, fishes, giant tubs of dried shrimp, and other oddities that people sell.

On Saturday, the last day of my week, I went to Gangnam with some German friends that I made. Gangnam is known for being a lively, modern, and stunning area of Seoul. All of the food and shops charged almost twice that what we could get back by our school, and everything was at least twenty stories tall. The Octagon, is a club in Gangnam, that apparently was ranked #7 in the world by a DJ publication. I’m not a huge fan of house music, but I love to dance, so we danced for five hours or so and it was a blast.

Honestly, after a week like this… I’m TIRED! It is going to be a balance for me (and my wallet) to want to experience a lot of new things, but also take time to rest and relax. One of my top priorities on this trip is to take time to meditate, journal, and pay attention to myself. Having physical and emotional distance from a lot at home will give me the emotional space to reflect and grow.

It’s been very interesting simply being here, observing, and listening wherever I go. My ear for Korean is already improving, and even using simple words and greetings everyday is feeling more and more natural.

A harder thing that I am feeling my way around is a deep shame (and conversely freedom) that I have around my Korean identity. My Korean-ness has lacked, been rewritten, discovered, embraced, and missing throughout my life. So, coming here without a lot of cultural and langual (word?) knowledge has been a bit stinging. No, Korean people aren’t judgmental or critical, but I have some mix between expectation and desire to fit in and “be Korean.” So, of course, admitting that I don’t speak Korean, blowing my nose at the dinner table, even having an English name have caused a lot of hurt to come up for me.

Growing through this, though, is giving me a lot of freedom and liberation. I feel more empowered when I remember that people are just people. That I hold the highest, most outrageous expectations for myself. No one is judging me, I have the freedom to own my identity – American, Korean, creative, emotional, and otherwise.

This has been Korea Notes 1. Stay tuned for more. If you see my parents, drop them a nice word or two, they’ve been the most supportive through all of this. I miss you all! I am so so grateful for the love that you freely and unconditionally have for me.

-Karl

belong_ing pt. three : overcoming fear of being misunderstood

When I was a freshman in high school, there was a kid that bullied me by the bus loading zone after school. One day, I was sick of him telling me that Asian dudes have small penises. After a short altercation and in an emotional flurry, I fast-walked to the school counselor, swiping at tears along the way.

I slowly walked into the counselor’s office, pretty distraught. She sat down and asked me “What’s wrong?” and I half-sobbed to her something like, “He’s—-telling—-me—-saying—-asians—-dicks…”

There was clearly a lot going on here. For starters, this is probably the second time I had ever gone to a teacher about a racial bullying incident, I was convinced that she wasn’t going to get why this was upsetting me so much, I was a blubbering mess, and on top of that, my bus was going to leave in six minutes – I didn’t want to be that kid that missed the bus home, and then have to explain all of it to my mom. I left in a rush after a short, unsatisfying, half-explanation that left the counselor confused and probably helpless.

In the end, there was a stern talking-to with the kid that had said these things. He didn’t apologize to me, I was only told that it had been “taken care of” a day or two later. After it all, though, all I wanted was to be validated and to not feel constantly alienated or alone.


One of my biggest fears is being misunderstood.

Being misunderstood has caused me pain, shame, fear, and isolation.

One thing is for sure, this bowl of ramen will always understand me.

In my writing this morning, I contemplated this fear of mine. Why am I so scared of people not understanding me? Why does that matter? What’s wrong with being misunderstood? Questions that could be posed against many of our fears… These questions led me to conclusions that I’ve made above, and these answers are rooted in a lot of insecurities that I have. I’m ashamed to not be able to speak Korean here, where everyone assumes that I do. Like I am, but also am not, Korean. Communication is needed when building trust, and lack of both have really burnt me in the past. Lastly, Being very alone is something that has always scared the shit out of me.

Anam-Dong, my neighborhood in Korea, the night I arrived.

Moving to Seoul, South Korea, where I don’t know the language at all, is probably the biggest, riskiest decision I’ve made in my life.

But all of this comes with time, much like healing, learning, and growing. I’m here to learn Korean, absorb the culture, potentially find my birth family, and overall learn and grow my spiritual and emotional identity. Embracing the ambiguity, discomfort, and fear in this process will be part of why it is so monumental for me. There isn’t a magic answer to overcoming the fear of being misunderstood. But for me, it’s been through deconstruction and self-awareness, embracing some of the uncomfortable parts of growth, and trust in myself that I have integrity to why I am doing this that give me peace. Here is an affirmation that is helping me reframe my lack of language and communication:

Affirmation:

I am learning to communicate, with others and myself. Gaps in understanding do not make me ineffective, and there is no shame in lack of connection – there are just obstacle I haven’t found a way around yet.

Learning = New Connections = New Brainwaves = Growth.

In growth, I find peace.

After reading this post, I hope you consider these questions:

  • What do you feel when you are misunderstood?
  • How do you go about achieving mutual understanding with someone?
  • What are obstacles you have that prevent you from understanding others? Yourself?

belong_ng pt. two : humblebeast


I wish I had a dollar for the amount of emails I send with one of the following in the subject line or as a salutation – I would be rich:

“connecting”, “let’s connect!” , and “I’d love to connect with you!”

There are so many things that encourage or set us up for connection. Social media corrals us to find our communities and to follow who we relate to. Social movements establish common identities and call people to act and be a part of a change. Whether it be a subreddit about why water is amazing, or the global women’s march, people unite under almost any fandom or cause.

Communities like these uncover passion and purpose of their subscribers. These two concepts create baseline for connection.

Shared Passion + Shared Purpose = Connection

Connection built on our Passion (what we love) and Purpose (why we love) instills a sense of belonging in relationships.


poster for the Prophiphop x Murs tour in 2016
the show I really met Matt and Kali

humblebeast records stands out as one of my favorite record labels. The signed artists release their music and poetry for free under values of creativity, humility, theology, and doxology. In a genre full of braggadocios, inflated egos, and traditionally toxically masculine monoliths, this stood out as an organization I could do more than just listen to.

I follow humblebeast with some of my closest friends – Matt and Kali. We consider each other family. We met each other at a concert in 2016, two days before their oldest child was born. I saw a very pregnant lady give an entire plate of peanut butter cookies to Propaganda and I was not only jealous of the cookies, I was honestly jealous because those cookies represented a connection with one of my favorite artists.

It turns out, we had been to several of the same concerts in our area over the past several years, leading up to this one.

Kali and Zion, Matt and Sojourner

Since then, we’ve shared many meals, obsessed over emerging and dated musicians, ranted over generalized trends in religion, and laughed at the quirky things their two beautiful children do. We’ve shared a lot of experiences and a lot of time. But we also are vulnerable with each other. By peeling back layers in our relationship, we’ve continued to discover things we love together – and reasons behind that love – shared purposes. Our belonging together represents emotional and spiritual healing, healthy relationships, and creating thriving communities.


So, what is it that you are passionate about?

What in your life gives you purpose?

How do you share those with people in your life?

Answers to these questions tend to be uniquely human and beautifully simple. Please share answers you have to these questions and see what you have common with other readers.

belong_ng pt. one : tennis

In 9th grade, I joined my school’s tennis team. We bussed to another school because our program was too small to establish our own squad. But my best friend Sam and I just wanted an excuse to play a sport together. There was a tennis court near our neighborhood and at first it was a place to take our sodas and candy and claim as a hangout. Well, we later found out via our parents, that tennis is actually a fun sport – so we went out for the team.

I remember the first day of Captain’s Practice. The captain took attendance and when he called my name, his eyes skimming the 20 or so boys for a “Karl Johnson”, my stomach twisted with guilt and I raised my hand.

“Oh, haha, you don’t look like a Karl at all.” He laughed casually.

Can you find me in this family Christmas photo?

I’ve had many accounts like this throughout my whole life. As an International Korean Adoptee growing up in a majority white community, school, and family, it’s easy to imagine the mixed bag of reactions I get. Things like: “Oh you don’t even seem Asian!” and “So, where are you really from?” are not uncommon for people like me.

The spirit these statements might be well-intended, or curious, but they all connect to the simple fact that: I am an other, and I do not fit in. 

The fact of the matter is that I’ve struggled to feel like I Belong in many aspects of my life. I’ve always had this displaced feeling. Like I’m not where or who I’m supposed to be, or that wherever I go, the “I do not belong here” shadow is always looming.

So this begs the questions:

What does it mean to Belong?

Where do we find Belonging?

Can we create a culture of Belonging?

That’s what this blog is set out to explore. 

Brené Brown has answered that belonging is the opposite of “fitting in.” These words are taken from her Netflix special “The Call to Courage.”

           “We’re hard wired for belonging, it’s in our DNA… The opposite of belonging, from the research, is fitting in. That’s the opposite of belonging. Fitting in is assessing and acclimating. Here’s what I should say, be, here’s what I shouldn’t say, here’s what I should avoid talking about, here’s what I should dress like, look like – that’s fitting in.

Belonging is belonging to yourself first. Speaking your truth, telling your story, and never betraying yourself for other people. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are, and that’s vulnerable.”  (Brown, 2019)

Until I started taking steps towards healing, it didn’t occur to me that my adoption was something that required it. I have always pit myself against others’ expectations of me, trying to measure up to an image that I would never be able to fill. With each interaction like I had going out for the tennis team, I had built up enough of an understanding that I would never be what people expected.

But, in turn, I’m now understanding that I don’t have to be. I’m starting to see how I Belong in every part of my own story. I hope readers are able to do this in their own narratives as well. Please comment your answers to questions asked in this post, or your own thoughts about belonging vs. fitting in.