The Class of 2021 comprises students from twenty-seven countries. During the spring semester, the photography exhibition Home Away from Home? in David Saul Smith Union featured portraits of a number of these students. The pictures were accompanied by essays about what it’s like to study at Bowdoin when you’re often thousands of miles from home and family.
Over the summer, we’ll be publishing a selection of those photographs with the accompanying essays, and today the spotlight is on recent graduate Shinhee Kang’ 18, who also helped organize the exhibit.
Busan, Korea; Shanghai, China; Brunswick, Maine
I have always had a tenuous connection to home. I was born in Busan, Korea, and spent the first eight years of my life there. Before I could finish the first grade, my family abruptly emigrated to Shanghai, China. We moved almost every year in that city, packing up as soon as the lease was up. I never lived in the United States prior to coming here for college. Because I was used to this peripatetic life, I thought I would be able to adjust easily to life here. Instead, I experienced a drastic disruption in my life: Everything had repositioned itself—I felt adrift and rootless.
It isn’t particular to Bowdoin, though. In Korea, although my passport says I belong there, my tentative mother tongue and awkward mannerisms find a way to betray me. In order to return to China, where I have lived the longest, I must apply for a single-entry tourist visa each time. In the US, I face the tension between feeling proudly American—investing in her politics, poring over her literature, connecting with her people—and ultimately being an alien outsider whose existence in this country is forever precarious. I’ve been caught between three cultures, living in three places at once, feeling neither-here-nor-there and in-between.
I felt tolerated in America rather than welcomed. I think there was a point when I gave up on the very idea of belonging. The mimetic urge simply to assimilate to those around me—for that little taste of normalcy—never abated my unhappiness. So, I turned inward. I labored to let my background of ocean-crossing contribute to my sense of specialness, and to an awareness of my own cultural dexterity. I felt rooted in myself. By junior year, I began to find home in other people, too. Then, I became more hopeful about that whole “belonging” thing. My friends, my professors, and my host family have become home.
I used to be chronically homesick; now, I don’t know what it means to be homesick for a place that doesn’t exist. But I know how I miss the cacophonous sound of the Busan dialect that rings throughout the Jagalchi fish market. The labyrinth of Shikumen alleyways in Shanghai with lines of washing hung high between buildings. And I think I’ll miss the way it feels to walk out of my house in Brunswick before sunrise and leave my imprint on the pristine snow.
The exhibition Home Away from Home? was initiated, cocurated, and organized by Shinhee Kang ’18 and Cheng-Chun (Kevin) Yu ’19.