I had the good pleasure of meeting Brother Caldwell on his recent sojourn at Yeonsi University in Seoul. He has the incisive intellect of a strategist displayed in part by his rationale for studying in Korea as well as an easy-going, inviting disposition. He can easily transition in and out of an array of topics in a single discussion. A paragon of the university experience, our discussion moved from the humanities to the liberal arts to guy talk. Kelvin seems to have no apprehension for the intellectually rigorous or the unknown. While many of his classmates opted for semesters in Ghana or Spain, Kelvin opted for East Asia. The current Morehouse student and future legal scholar shared with us a slice of his experiences as well as his observations on cultural literacy.
Sean: What motivated you to study abroad, Korea especially?
Kelvin: To study abroad… I feel that within today’s global society, cultural literacy is something that’s really important. I definitely feel that people should become well versed in other cultures that are very different from their own, simply because you have American things getting across [overseas].
I talked to somebody recently and she was telling me about how they had TuPac and Biggie in Berlin and in Spain as well. Places in Germany, they listen to American music and then you have LG and Samsung overseas. And you have— in the case of Japan— Sony. Everything is [merging] together, so it’s definitely important to keep abreast of global issues.
S: Did you have other options?
K: I was offered to go to Spain, Ghana or South Korea.
K: I felt like everybody was going to Africa. Africa is a place that I want to go to, but everybody in my school was going to Africa. Spain— they weren’t offering me any scholarship money. While I do speak Spanish, it was like, “No.” But I was able to raise enough scholarship money to come to Korea, so it was the obvious choice— plus I wanted to learn the language.
S: Absolutely. I feel it. My first study abroad program— and my first trip outside of the country— was to India. The way they kind of sold us on the trip, or how they made me feel better about it after I signed up, was by saying everyone’s going to Europe, everyone’s going to the usual places: London, France, Spain— but nobody's going to India and this is something different.
And I think for one thing— you’re from an HBCU. For me, I didn’t want to go to an HBCU because I felt I was very familiar with the Black experience. I wanted to know something different and I can see a parallel with that. Everyone from the HBCU is going to Africa, and I think on certain levels there’s a romanticism about Africa and it also may be easier to assimilate in Africa— at least superficially.
K: Superficially, of course.
S: Coming to Korea, I think that’s...
K: It’s like you stick out.
S: That’s a big shock.
K: Yeah, it is a big shock. It’s funny that you said the whole thing about the HBCUs because I actually didn’t want to go. That’s another topic in its own. My mom was like, “I went to a PWI (predominantly white institution), I want you to go to an HBCU.” And I was like, “But I don’t want to.” And she was like, “You’re going.” And I just haven’t regretted it since. I was like, “You know what? This probably was a good fit for me.”
But going back to Korea, that’s some place that I didn’t see anybody going to study. I’m the first student from my school that studied with this program. And previously, there's only been a handful of us to go to South Korea, especially from Morehouse. Spelman has a little bit more, but from Morehouse, I was maybe the third or fourth person in years to go.
S: In terms of cultural literacy, obviously, people know the US, when you go places and people in America know Japan.
S: And for me, when I first came to Korea— before I even chose Korea, I was focused on Japan. Now, when you’re telling people, “I’m going to Korea,” what are they saying to you? Because I feel like that could be a big… people may have a chance to demonstrate their lack of cultural literacy when it comes to Korea. I had cousins, for example, who would reference South Korea as, “The people at the corner store are Korean. We thought they were going to do kung fu.”
K: Right. It was a similar thing where people were just like… there was just a lot of ignorance on their part. Somebody would say, “Oh, make sure you bring back a bag.” I was like, “Oh, right!” Because the manufacturing and stuff here— which now that I’m here there’s a certain amount of truth to that— because there are cheap goods in certain respects in terms of fashion. But it’s just that people were like, “Why on earth would he want to go to Korea? Why? Of all places to go, why would you go [there]?” And I’m like, “Why not?”
I feel that when it comes to say, America, nobody thinks twice— or another a big country, nobody thinks twice about it; like it’s an obvious choice, but I feel that no culture is better than another. They’re all just different. I don’t know, to come back to that, I would just let people know, “You see your cellphone? You have your Samsung cellphone: that’s Korea. These LG Appliances you have in your home: that’s Korea. Kia, Hyundai: Korea.” In America, people aren't really aware of globalization as much as people in other countries because there’s no real push for us to learn another language. Yes, we take language classes in schools, you can take French, most likely Spanish or maybe German and then more recently, Chinese, Japanese. But there’s no real sense of urgency for you to learn another language.
You speak English. But in other countries, it’s a push to learn English and learn another language in order to be successful.
I feel that they are more aware of the effect that globalization has had. Like McDonald’s is over here, Baskin-Robbins, all these different things, but we don’t think about it back home in terms of globalization. It’s just like, “My new Sony this; my new this, my new that.” You don’t think about where it comes from.
S: Now in terms of your own cultural literacy, it seems like you were pretty knowledgeable— at least in terms of Korea’s influence within globalization with the big corporations. What did you do to prepare yourself for South Korea?
K: I read as many blogs as I could, I talked with as many Korean individuals that I knew. Luckily I’d come into a fair amount of Koreans including my pediatrician. I was interacting with various Koreans and asking them to help me out because I had the benefit of them being actually from Korea migrating to America. So they were really just like, “Okay well, be prepared for this and expect this.” “You’ll be fine, etc.” and they just really helped me through the process. And I reached out to as many people as I could from Korean-American associations.
I was volunteering for the Minority Bar Association and I was talking to one of the… it was a co-op between the African American Bar Association, the Hispanic-American Bar Association and the Asian-American Bar Association. One time I said, “I can’t go to this event because I’m traveling to South Korea,” and everybody in the Asian-American Bar Association was like, “Korea? Why?” The Korean Americans that were there, they were pretty helpful with giving me some advice.
S: Absolutely. I would feel that they would be very flattered and honored that you’re going to their country. In some ways, it could be the other way.
K: Like, “Why are you coming?”
S: “Why are you coming here” —right!
K: “Stay in America.” I’ve sensed that here more so than in America, actually.
S: Like, “Why are you in Korea?”
K: Yeah— Why.
S: I got the same thing. I was telling you I had done a semester in Dubai. When I was there, people were like, “Sean, why are you here?” I was like, “Well, I really was excited about this part of the world. I really wanted to get here.” They were like, “Man, we’re trying to go where you’re from.”
K: Right. I think that everybody is unimpressed with their own culture. People asked me, “Why do you watch Korean dramas? Why are you listening to K-pop?” And I’m like, “Why are you blasting hip-hop? Why are there so many hip-hop clubs in South Korea? That’s a whole other thing— but it’s just like, just my experience being an African-American: Why? Why certain things, certain dress styles? Back home, I would be typecasted as being ignorant or ridiculous or hood if I wore some of the stuff that people wear here. But over here, it’s different because there’s no stigma attached to it.
I think it really depends on what perspective you’re coming from.
S: Yeah. So for you, what are some of the things you’ve been impressed by? What are some things that have kind of turned you off? Maybe the hip-hop club, I’m thinking…
K: Hell yeah! [laughs] But I’ll start with the positive first.
S: Okay, start with the positive.
K: Positive. Seoul has very few garbage cans but it’s so damn clean.
S: How about that?
K: The subway system is ridiculously complex and useful and clean. Me being from Chicago, I'm used to taking the subway. It’s fine. Here they have glass separating every thing, I don’t have to worry about falling down on the rails. It’s so new and modern— it’s very awe-inspiring.
The markets. I love how everything in Korea is so convenient. I can get groceries at the subway, I can get any damn thing at the subway station. In America, it’s not like that.
Also, things here are organized pretty well. Like, in this area, you have clothes, this is bars, cafés, this is the school area. It makes sense. Whereas in America it’s like, this market is over here, this clothing store is here. You may have small areas for specific things but it’s not like that everywhere in the cities where you go.
Haggling was an experience I actually liked. It helped me get comfortable with the language. It helped me get comfortable with the culture and it also saved me a couple of dollars on stuff. And especially when you get good, survival Korean definitely gets improved just by going out shopping.
Bad things. Not too many bad things but the only thing that’s really gotten to me is the gross and unapologetic cultural appropriation that's present here. It’s upsetting and it’s really weird in a way. Like, to go into a hip-hop club where everybody’s doing [urban] dances and wearing [urban] clothes, but if I try to talk to somebody they’re just like, “Phew.” Or if I try to dance with somebody, they’re like “Phew!” But if I dance by myself, people would literally crowd around. People would look and try to see what I’m doing. I’m like, “Wait, I’m so confused. This doesn’t make sense.”
S: What will you take back to the States from your time in Korea?
K: As a person, I would say that it was a really wonderful experience and that I learned a lot about the culture. As an African-American, I would say that I feel that I never left America.
It’s so interesting because a lot of my fellow Americans are like, “Okay, be careful when you go there. People are going to be really racist, they’re going to be awful to you. They’re going to treat you horribly.” And I’ve had some people that were quite rude. And some people were rude specifically because I’m Black. And I’m like, at the same time, that happens to me all the the time in America. Like, it’s nothing unique. I feel this experience has taught me something about being, I know I keep going back to me being African American but that’s my experience and my lens. It taught me something about being an African-American in the world and not just being Black in America. Being black in the entire world and how people see us.
It was interesting because I met the girl from Spain and the girl from Germany yesterday. And when they were telling me about TuPac and Biggie, they were playing these songs on their iPods. I’m like, “This is 90s hip-hop.” I heard Jump Around in a club in Gangnam here and I’m like, Gangnam is a ritzy place to party and I was at The A, and I was like, “They’re playing Jump Around? Wait, this is…” and then This Is How We Do It. I was like, “This is 90s hip-hop. How did 90s hip-hop get over here?” And it just really made me think, it’s just like our culture gets around different parts of the world but yet we’re still viewed very negatively. It just really gave me inspiration to study harder and work harder in order to improve our image abroad and basically say that not all African-American people act this way.
I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with the Chair of Cultural Anthropology at Yonsei. I got hooked up through a Spelman sister. She travelled here, she’s like “Talk to my mentor, she’s awesome!" Her name is Kim Hyun-Mee and she laid out a lot of stuff for me that really helped me… it kind of quelled my anger a little bit because I did feel some type of way for a while. She basically told me that Korea went from being a small country and very poor, to being a wealthy nation for the most part in a period of 30 years. Not many other countries— I don’t think any other country has become urbanized or become a world power that quickly, in 30 years. She said, people are really struggling to tear down racist perceptions while moving into a global society where you’re exposed to people of different races and cultures and ethnicities. And it’s kind of hard to break those perceptions because it’s not a place like America where you have a bunch of different people from different races. It’s Korea, it’s homogenous, so it just really gave me inspiration to work harder, having those conversations and having this experience.
S: Absolutely. What advice would you give to a student who's trying to study abroad, but who sees finances as a big deterrent?
K: Students should not let their lack of finances dissuade them from going abroad. I had numerous financial obstacles that made studying abroad unlikely. Additionally, I was rejected by three scholarship organizations. My desire to travel to Korea was greater than the odds stacked against me however. I began a one-man fundraising campaign in order to finance my trip. I created a GoFundMe account and wrote formal letters requesting assistance from the program I was studying with. I also asked friends, relatives, business leaders and church members for help. Thankfully, the vast majority of my trip was supported by outside sources. I would advise students to remain diligent when searching for funds. I also encourage them to investigate unconventional or unlikely sources of funding. Closed mouths don’t get fed.
S: What is your travel philosophy?
K: Be open minded. Don’t let [things] get to you. I was taking classes and it’s like you have to remind yourself [of your purpose]. I didn’t come here for vacation, I came here to actually learn something. So as long as you go in with an attitude of “I’m not here for vacation— I’m here to work, I’m here to learn,” it’s what you make it. I’ve had bad things happen, I’ve had good things happen. But that’s life. You can have a good life or a bad life, what’s the difference? Your attitude.