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Today, I would like to reflect on how NMH has changed me. Specifically, I would like to discuss how our past and our present shape how we understand success. But first, I must revisit the summer after I turned five years old: the first day of my English-only pre-school. “Americans are so fat!” I remember exclaiming to my friends as our kindergarten teacher, Mr. Adams, introduced himself in a language I couldn’t comprehend. He was a mildly overweight man in his late 40s, a foreigner, with closely-cropped blonde hair and a boisterous attitude that seemed out of place at my strict and hierarchical institution. This was my first encounter with a foreigner: an American.

Eleven years later, I realized that it has become easier for me to envision this memory of my past from the perspective of Mr. Adams rather than from that of my younger self. It was only natural that I grew more accustomed to the perspective of a foreigner; my four years’ stay at NMH as an international student was characterized by a successive chain of identity crises. I wrestled with the task of molding my sense of self in a way that appeased both the Korean and American cultures, while simultaneously striving to break free from the predefined norms that accompanied each.

A large factor contributing to this struggle was language. The English language, with its history, culture, and mannerisms embedded underneath, has escaped the pages of my textbook and crept up into my thoughts and conversations. As I grew stronger in understanding and analyzing English text, I realized that I have begun to internalize the perspectives and ideologies that seemed distant and intangible when read in Korean. In short, my cultural identity was irrevocably changed as a result of my bilingualism.

This change pushed me to into a scary domain I traditionally understood as not meant for people like me, people whose first language was not English and whose primary culture was not embedded in the customs and the history of the United States of America. The pristine and lyrical prose of Ralph Waldo Emerson, T.S. Eliot, and Mary Oliver seemed daunting and beyond emulating. My budding identity as an English writer, reader, and storyteller was not something I was eager to explore.

Before, I was protected by the safety of assuming the identity assigned unto me as a result of my foreign status. I used to believe that my English reflected my degree of assimilation; that because my English was fraught with holes, my sense of place at NMH, and by extension, the US, was also far from permanent. This meant I could always fall back upon a version of self that remained unmarred by my romance with English whenever I felt isolated or misunderstood — the version of self whose allegiance belonged to South Korea, my homeland, and thereby detached from the complex cultural transitions taking place within me. I especially compartmentalized my understanding of self my freshman year. When girls in my dorm would make fun of the way I pronounced a certain word, or when boys from NMH and, on one occasion, Deerfield, would approach me with the rhetoric of Asian exoticism, or when I recognized that my friends from back home and I were drifting apart, I would trap myself back into the homogeneous bubble of Korean culture to shield myself from the validity of such experiences and the subsequent damage they inflicted upon me.

Often, I would take a trip to this sacred, compartmentalized dimension during humanities and social science courses; when asked, “What is my place?”, my answer was simple: “Not here.” Predictably, I didn’t enjoy HUM I. My friends loved it. In response to my American friends’ enraged inquiries, I simply shrugged, then responded that I didn’t enjoy humanities. Sometimes, when I felt moody, I would retort that I didn’t have time to ponder upon life’s greatest philosophical dilemmas, such as what it means to be human, because my allegiance lay not with this happy-go-lucky liberal institution in Western Mass., but with the fast-paced and cutthroat society of Korea that pushed me to get ahead.

A part of this reasoning was true. My parents have always wished that I would pursue STEM, expressing worries that a humanities degree would hold no leverage in the ruthless American job market. Plus, aligning myself with the sciences meant upholding the marketable image of an Asian: hardworking, mathematical, and industrious, welcomed at both her homeland and in the US. I wished to adhere to the convenience of what I believed to be the grand narrative of success for a Korean study-abroad student, because then I wouldn’t have to justify the idiosyncrasies of my existence. I know, I was being pretty dramatic.

Spending more years at NMH helped me gain perspective. To put it in numbers, from 2014 to 2015, international students in Massachusetts made up about 6 percent of all students enrolled in higher education, which equals approximately 55,000 students. I realized that our experiences will become diverse and multifaceted, if they are not already so, and that my journey will be simply one of many contributing to the ever-expanding fabric of what it means to be a foreign national in an American institution. This was a very liberating insight.

As I look back on my time at NMH, a certain figure comes to mind. Amy Tan, a prominent Asian-American writer, once remarked, “I felt ashamed of being different and ashamed of feeling that way.” My time at NMH taught me the value of expanding my perceived narrative of success. I felt ashamed of not adhering to what I internalized as the reflection of success, then struggled as I felt ashamed for betraying my integrity. But now, I realize that I must appreciate and embrace the authenticity of my experiences in order to grow and learn. And I wish you do the same.

Thank you.

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