Our families and communities often define us and our individual worlds. Community might refer to your cultural group, extended family, religious group, neighborhood or school, sports team or club, co-workers, etc. Describe the world you come from.
It was my turn to speak.
The Korean girl across the table and I had spent the past hour in a back-and-forth of stilted conversation. Our pre-collegiate institute had demanded that all disciplines “mingle,” and the silence told a story of two strangers–both in residence, one international and one domestic, one whose first language was not English and one whose was.
One of us would ask a question, the other would answer, and then it’d switch. From what I’d gained of our conversation so far, she was from a school in Seoul, she liked studying, and her concentration was in math. Mine was in writing. I’d tried talking about what I expected everyone at an academic institute to talk about: the commercialization of education, the increasing reliance of society on technology, destroying the patriarchy, but all those had proved to be unsuccessful. She’d tilt her head, which I’d come to understand meant that I either had to 1) repeat the question, or 2) forget it altogether.
There was a last resort. I’d been hesitant to use it, but it looked like I’d have no other choice.
“Do you know BTS?” I ventured.
At the mention of the South Korean boy band, her eyes lit up. “Yes. Yes! Who’s your bias?” The use of K-Pop jargon convinced me: we finally spoke a common language.
My interest in the nature of communication stems from the idea of connection, where the intersection of a Venn diagram is more important than the places where they differ. As an assistant on my mother’s trips abroad planning global symposiums, I’ve encountered many people who were vastly different in not only their occupations but their stories: the architect in Amsterdam who designed buildings for the environment, the engineer in Moscow who enjoyed frequent visits to the Tolstoy Museum, the taxi driver in Herzliya whose wife liked studying Chinese culture.Yet when you speak a word of their language–even if it’s only please or thank you or sorry, I don’t speak the language very well–you establish a connection, however vulnerable–a grounds for empathy across disciplines and continents.
Through understanding the impact of linguistic unity, I became fascinated by the development of communities in urban spaces. With mentorship from the Concord Review, I started researching the development of Koreatown in New York, curious as to how public space could serve as a microcosm for social formation.
As time passed, I expanded my research to other communities, not just the Koreatown in New York, but others across the nation. In South Bronx, I interviewed the primarily black and Latino neighbors in the area to write an article on how hip hop served as a language in forming collective identity. At YoungArts Los Angeles, I wrote and performed a piece in homage to Chinatowns everywhere, not united by merely race or ethnicity, but language and culture. This summer, after receiving a scholarship from the Mercury News to spearhead my own journalistic project, I spotlighted San Jose Japantown’s arts community, specifically how keeping the arts alive in the area could in effect, combat gentrification and reinforce cultural identity.
Through establishing relationships with others, I’ve discovered that sometimes the best conversations come from the simplest beginnings. Without commenting on the weather during an Uber ride in Paris, I would never have come to discuss the implications of climate change on the human environment. Without speaking up to a Japanese shopkeeper about buying his art posters, I would never have gained his insight into art’s role as propaganda in Japan’s colonization of Korea.
Behind statistics, there are stories. In a world that is becoming global, serving as a stranger in residence as a journalist, diplomat, and storyteller has helped me acknowledge the role language plays. For me, international communication is less a subject of politics and economics than connections, stories that demand to be heard. And a story is our turn to speak.