Kirstin Johnson is an alumna of both the 2014 and 2015 CLS Korean programs in Wonju and Gwangju, respectively. She is a proud New Orleans native (who dat!) and is currently in her senior year at the University of New Orleans, where she studies film and television as well as political science. She has five siblings, was homeschooled until her sophomore year in high school, and enjoys almost every genre of music!
Since I was young, I knew that I wanted to learn several foreign languages in my lifetime. I became interested in Korean, specifically, after my older sister introduced me to Korean music and dramas. While I think I could have easily been attracted to the culture for shallow reasons, I wanted there to be something deeper behind my desire to speak the language. At the time, Korean wasn’t a common language to study. In fact, several people asked me why I was studying it (instead of Chinese or Japanese, which seemed more practical to them). But to me, learning the language wasn’t just about professional benefits; rather, I wanted it to be a bridge between myself and people from a part of the world I hadn’t yet been to. Ultimately, being able to communicate in another language has helped me to relate to people and understand their world in a way that’s so much more meaningful!
From Korean dramas to documentaries
I will graduate this May with a degree in film and a minor in political science. In the future, I hope to be able to incorporate both disciplines by directing my own documentaries on topics mainly surrounding culture and race. I want to explore these two subjects both internationally and domestically in order to come to a better understanding of various communities and, more importantly, how to bring those communities together despite our differences. At some point, I’d like to create a documentary or a series of documentaries in South Korea. I’m excited to see where my proficiency takes me!
At the end of hardship…
On the program, I was challenged to do things that I never thought I would be able to do. The first time I gave a class presentation in Korean, wrote a two-page essay, or discussed topics like global warming with my teachers were all milestones for me. The moment I was handed my yellow belt in Taekwondo was pretty memorable, as well! Ultimately, through CLS, I learned how to do things despite my fear of failure. I think that’s what has impacted my life back home the most. I’ve become so much more open to taking on new challenges than ever before. One of my favorite Korean sayings is “고생 끝에 낙이 온다” (kosaeng keutteh naki onda). This translates as “happiness comes at the end of hardship.” I think this is so true in life, especially when you’re working towards the right things.
During the last weekend of the 2014 program, my host family took me to visit their extended family. Even though my Korean skills were pretty limited at the time, I genuinely felt like part of the family. We ended up hanging out at my host father’s sister’s restaurant. One of the aunt’s friends, an older man, also joined us at the table. He expressed that it was his first time seeing a black person in real life, and that he never thought he would get the chance to actually talk to someone like me. He said that I definitely wasn’t what he imagined an African-American would be like based on what he had seen on TV, and that I had really changed his perceptions of black people. He said that I taught him that, at the end of the day, we’re all just people. Even though my host sister had to help translate the parts I didn’t understand, I could sense his sincerity. Out of all my experiences, that was definitely one of the most impactful moments for me.
If you had one day in South Korea…
I would encourage everyone to take at least one trip to the capital city of Seoul, as well as one trip to Busan. They’re both major cities, but they have two totally different vibes, and I love them both equally. In Seoul, an area called Hongdae is a must-see. At night, it’s one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. You’ll witness tons of young street performers, pass by a lot of trendy clothing and accessory spots, and have a chance to indulge at some really hip food destinations. Also, I would encourage everyone to try as many flavors of bingsu (a Korean shaved ice dessert) as humanly possible!
Words of wisdom
Be nice to yourself. This is something that you may hear at either the pre-departure orientation or from your RD at some point during the program. Take their advice and mine. Trying to communicate solely in your target language is hard work, and it’s incredibly exhausting. So be sure to always get enough sleep, eat as healthy as you can, and don’t beat yourself up if you feel like you aren’t improving. As long as you’re giving it your best, you will eventually see improvement.