The life that couldn’t be

In case you didn’t know this about me, I moved to America at the age of nearly nine. (Two weeks before my ninth birthday. But I was actually ten already by Korean standards.) Educationally, relocating at that age made possible a very best-of-both-worlds opportunity, but culturally and socially, that was less true. Not only were my teen years spent completely here in the States, but having to adapt to a new country and deal with a language barrier made my first few years here fairly barren. In a way, I was stuck where I was in third grade while my friends there moved on with their lives.

That’s no longer true, and I don’t regret any of it. I do sometimes wonder, though, what my life would have been like if that critical event didn’t occur–if I had never moved. If I continued to live in Seoul, South Korea, in that third-floor villa which was atop a hill but didn’t actually have a view because an apartment building menacingly stood right behind it. I’m surprised at how different it could have been, but I shouldn’t be.

I’d still be playing the piano. A couple days a week after school, I’d go to a piano academy in my neighborhood, about five minutes walking distance from home. It was a pretty tiny place. Third floor (I think) of a neighborhood social/cultural center, had a main classroom for bookwork (which I didn’t really do) and four practice rooms. I learned for about two years, working up to Czerni 100 and Hanon, and saw the teachers change at least twice. I don’t think I ever developed a real passion for it, but I still liked playing and I made cool upperclassmen (in elementary school terms, mind you) friends. I had to quit when I moved and didn’t take it back up–even after my parents got me a keyboard, I gave up trying to teach myself after a little while and just played whatever I felt like learning once in a while. If I’d never quit, I’d be in my eleventh year now, and I’d probably want myself to perform. Maybe I’d even have learned how to play by ear. That’d be an experience.

The education fervor would have had killed me, but at the same time there are some things that I really wish I could have experienced in those schools. It’d have involved such undesirables as night study hall, arts/sciences majoring, and a race towards the College Scholastic Ability Test, but also more interesting things like class-wide, two-nights-and-three-days trips and social inquiry projects. I feel like I’d still have found ways to make it all memorable. My parents liked to put me on the elite path. Class president in all three years of my schooling there (they pick a new president every month in elementary classes, but I usually got it the most times), outside tutoring to keep me ahead of the curve, and lots of effort on their part personally. But to get the best education, I’d have had to attend a Special Purpose high school, like one of the Science Institutes or a Foreign Studies High School. It would almost certainly have got me into a top Korean college if not an Ivy provided that I worked hard, but would that have been what I really wanted? I don’t know.

(I found a recent picture of my old elementary school. It was under remodeling for the three years I went there, and the area adjoining the big round part and the rectangular wing on the left is where I spent my second and third grade years. But they lied to us! They said they were going to eventually redo the entire place. The left wing seems like the same old building to me.)

I don’t think I’d love music the way I do now. Part of why I got so into music–not just listening to it, but digging deep into the scene and eventually reviewing–was because it was one of the only ways that I could keep in touch with Korean culture in those first few years. I held onto that tightly and eventually it became a passion for music in general. If I stayed, would I have had more of an opportunity to experience music? Yes. I would have had access to concerts, countdown shows, indie performances, and even foreign artists’ concerts. Whether I’d take advantage of all that is a different story. You don’t appreciate stuff until you don’t have them anymore.

I’d have been part of… a lot of things. The Red Fever during all the World Cups (definitely would have been skipping school left and right) and other sporting events, for sure, but probably in more serious things as well. I remember watching how high school students organized the mass demonstrations and half-riots that occurred across the country during the FTA talks and mad cow controversy. I’m not even affected by the things that got those kids riled up, but I still agreed with a lot of it; and I’m no more a fan of the current Korean administration than anyone else. If I lived there, I can’t say for certain that I wouldn’t have been swayed by the anti-government fervor and been a part of those protests. Activism is good; less so is doing it to go with the crowd. I would hate to have acted on matters like that while young and realize later that I was wrong. So I’m actually glad that I got to sit in peaceful Lakewood and got to spend my formative years developing and strengthening my opinions.

I’d have a lot more culture in my life, but not necessarily more cultured. The discussion on music above sort of explains what I mean. I’d have been in the middle (literally. I lived within a few minutes of the Han River, which flows through the center of Seoul) of a vibrant urban area of ten million, with opportunities to enjoy as well as create all forms of art, to try things and improve myself, to live the city out. Not that those opportunities don’t exist here, but it would all have been a much more natural part of life. But again, would I have taken advantage of all that? Chances are I would have been too busy with other stuff to develop an appreciation for most of it. Still, I suppose you never know what might have happened.

I’d never have met my God. I was raised atheist, and never particularly cared for religion (even though I did go to a church-affiliated preschool) as a kid–which isn’t unnatural. Only after moving here did my parents convert fully to Christianity, and though it took me a few years, I eventually came around as well. The life that I lived in America is almost certainly more tumultuous than the life I would have lived in Korea, which partly made me rely more on a higher power. I doubt that my pride would have allowed me to believe in a God if I kept living that affluent (fairly, at least), elite-course life.

These examples are not able to describe it, nor my words able to illustrate it, but it’s a whole different world, these two places that I’ve lived in. A lot of the things I mentioned above make me regret that I missed out and couldn’t make them part of my life. But there’s so much precious experience from here, so many valuable people that I’ve met, that it’s impossible for me to say “I wish I stayed”, either. Korea will always remain the life that couldn’t be for me. I had enough wonderful memories growing up there to last a lifetime, and I’ve filled in the rest so far with my life here.

But sometimes, it’s hard to not get nostalgic, even wistful, about that childhood. About the city that started it for me. My city.

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