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Columns

The Weight of This Place

And outgoing thoughts

By Jenny J. Choi

A certain cognitive dissonance defines my temporary stint in Seoul as a child. Seoul was a place where the sheer number of tall apartment buildings made their own concrete mountains, while a taller green serenity hummed in the background from every angle. Mountains cover 75 percent of the peninsula, though the detached image of the outdoors runs in stark contrast to South Korea’s general eagerness to succeed within the global system. Even as a child, I felt a stress to achieve in the fluorescent streets of Seoul, a mental cacophony that was assuaged by chong, the quintessentially Korean expression for human-to-human affinity.

Every Sunday, the family debate dealt with the pros and cons of using the remainder of the precious weekend to go out and hike. And when we did, boy was it an ordeal. In many ways, outdoor activity in Korea eagerly subscribed to the forces of capitalism. The hustle and bustle of the outside was allowed to seep in. Technical gear—moisture-wicking apparel, hiking poles, and sun protection, to name a few things—was a requirement, not a luxury, for hikes that lasted at most five hours and were half an hour away from home. Food and beverages—and portable gas stoves for especially ambitious trips—were divided evenly among the family’s small daypacks. We depleted the stock by eating or sharing everything before we’re even halfway there.

And so, hiking was Korean to me before it was White.

Hence my surprise when I came back to the United States at eight and gradually realized that hiking here seems to be grasped by a Thoreau-ian solitude and the desire to escape worldly forces. This is not to deny that the woods, to a certain degree, perform the same irresistible magic on everyone everywhere through creating spaces of self-reflection and genuine connections. But I also cannot deny that I initially felt uncomfortable and fake in my flannel shirts, a style that traces its way back to the white pastoral scene of Welsh farms and owes its popularity to L.L. Bean-esque lumberjacks. Eventually, the calls of assimilation and “fitting in” were just as alluring as the reflective serenity of the woods. Soon, what had been a quintessentially Korean family activity turned into an anxious self-reassurance of Americanization.

I dedicate the bulk of my last column this semester to this lengthy reflection because it shows how little control we have over our identities, self-identities, and the factors that shape both of these things. We do indeed exercise choice in designing our lives; after all, we dress a certain way, associate with certain social circles, and take certain opinions because we make decisions to do so. However, we also owe thought to deconstructing the larger social context in which we make these choices and decisions. What are the social pressures and hierarchy of cultures that led me to let hiking serve as leverage for expressing my whitewashed American identity rather than a proud vestige of my Korean identity? How much agency do we really, ultimately have in shaping the person that we convince ourselves we are at the end of each day?

If I have been taught one thing at Harvard, it is that we must think critically about our surroundings. But questioning the world in relation to ourselves often comes in direct conflict with our urge to succeed, the external metrics of which are so tied to the world as it unfairly and unjustly remains. The world can sometimes seem to spin around you at a suppressing momentum, but we train ourselves to be okay with that in order to survive. Harvard Yard can sometimes be a suffocating place for the identities upon which its prestige was not built, but it’s also a place that people of precisely those identities are compelled to embrace in order to move forward in the world.

Contradictions on contradictions. That is the weight of this place.


Jenny J. Choi ’16, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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