South Korea Diaries, Day 1: Context

National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, photo booth on the interactive room (I’m the 3rd image!)

So what exactly am I doing?

USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy created the U.S.-South Korea NextGen Creative Fellowship as a way to connect the creative sectors in the US and South Korea supported by the Korea Foundation. The official overview states:

This program intends to engage the creative sector in furthering professional networks and relationship building between the United States and the Republic of Korea. It brings together early/mid career executives and practitioners in the creative sector in the two countries to explore key trends in storytelling and content creation, develop a deeper knowledge of this rapidly growing sector of commerce and culture, and examine implications for engagement practices and partnerships for a better international understanding.

Nine of us were selected for this inaugural run based on our work and prior relationship with South Korean culture. I mentioned I had no official version — just one of my closest friends, Hae, is South Korean. Over close to two decades of friendship, we’ve gone to film-fests, binged K-dramas, and shared playlists and food. She took me to my first K-SPA experience and still laughs every time I’m presented with a fork at a restaurant. When I applied for the fellowship, I mentioned that my knowledge was solid but dated: think JYP not BTS. The new hallyu (Korean wave) has arrived but I am definitely on the elder statesman side. Rain is on TikTok — I remember when he was on TRL sounding like his English tutor was a Valley Girl. (And yes, I remember when the internet was on a CD they mailed to your house, get off my lawn!)

The flight had a playlist for “Golden Hip-Hop” which are all the old jams I remember from 1TYM, Drunken Tiger, Epik High, Jinusean, BIGBANG, and Psy — I guess this is the Korean equivalent of hearing rap played on the classic stations. Every time this happens I hear Chris Rock’s voice in my head: not old, just a little too old to be in the club. And that’s the era of life I’m in — still down, just a little too old to sit comfortably with the 25 year olds. Good thing I managed to accomplish some stuff so I still seem cool.

The schedule for this is action packed. First day’s rundown:

(Yes, there will be a food diary but keeping that to my Instagram — @latoyap)

Since our schedule is packed, I’m going to focus on what stood out to me the most.

South Korea’s history is both beautiful and sad. The scar tissue of multi-generational trauma is evident, even in brief translated summaries. The pain of a nation divided is always a theme along with the hope of reunification — I watched J.S.A. years ago and it was interesting to watch the same themes play out in Crash Landing on You (complete with a J.S.A. shout out!)

The exhibitions in the Korean History Museum focused on resilience and resistance — while Korea has been the target of many nations, Koreans have fought for their independence, enduring deep poverty and sacrifice to establish and maintain their own independent nation.

As a Black American, it was deeply moving to walk through the museum — many of the struggles the Korean people went through mirror ours. There was a point where I stopped short reading about the system of tenant farming — it is sharecropping by another name.

South Koreans are also known for driving global culture — again, similar to the way that Black culture and language defines eras and travels around the world, the hallyu, KPOP and K-Dramas are rewriting the world’s perception of South Korea.

I finished day one with a much deeper appreciation and context for this small but resilient nation.

Tomorrow, we visit the creative capital — more soon!

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Latoya Peterson

Owner, @Racialicious. 2013 Knight Fellow @JSKStanford. 2014 @BerkmanCenter Affiliate. Forbes 30 under 30.