When I think back to my childhood, the last memory I have of South Korea is in a taxi. I am propped up by the window, watching big mountains and small houses pass by as my family heads toward the airport. Sitting next to me are my two older sisters and my mother, who decided we would immigrate to the United States to be near family relatives after our father’s sudden death.
Twenty-seven years later, I am back in South Korea.
This time, I am a U.S. Foreign Service Officer assigned to the Embassy’s Public Affairs Section with the job of telling America’s story to Koreans in remote towns and villages. On the road, I find myself from time to time looking out the car window thinking back to my last day in Korea as a child, watching the same green mountains passing by. At the end of the journey usually awaits a high school or a university audience to whom I explain America’s culture and policies, as well as the value of the U.S.-Korea partnership celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
While young people in Korea have an insatiable curiosity about the United States and its people, I have been surprised at how young women, in particular, display the same kind of curiosity about my personal narrative. For example, during the question and answer period, the boys often ask me tough questions about the U.S.- Korea Foreign Trade Agreement or the presence of American troops at the center of the nation’s bustling capital. The girls want to know how I became a diplomat and still managed to get married and have children.
Most recently, I received 34 handwritten letters from a girl’s high school I visited in the small city of Nonsan – a one-hour train ride from Seoul. They shared their dreams of becoming a police director, UNICEF aid worker, architect, and publisher. And all of them said that they didn’t think they could pursue those careers and still expect to be happily married until they met me.
I have often wondered what it is about my narrative that causes the Korean youth to respond with their own hopes and fears. Perhaps it is because I am an American who looks like them. Or because I am not the U.S. official they were expecting – once an immigrant child, a former journalist and a mother of two young children. Perhaps it is the story of my husband who was willing to give up his business career to advance mine only to find his life’s calling as a pastor.
Whatever the reason, when I am surrounded by Korean students after a speech or by Embassy interns in the office, I relish the opportunity to tell them to lean in and fight back their fear of failure. I tell them that pursuing journalism, testing into the Foreign Service and choosing to become a mother didn’t all come without a fight against self-doubt and fear of failure. It all began with my mother overcoming the same fear 27 years ago when she loaded up the taxi with three little girls and a one-way ticket to the United States.