By Eric Park
During the summer of 2007, I made my first trip to my homeland, South Korea. After some time on the mainland, my family decided to visit the quaint Jeju Island just off the coast of the country. The island was a nice place to escape the bustling, urban life of cities like Seoul, and enjoy beautiful forests and rivers. At Jeju Island, one can really take their time and discover more about themselves.
I decided that here, it was a good time to look for a nice, cultural souvenir before going back to the mainland. My mother picked out a Korean snake (뱀) statue so I would always remember my experience in Korea. The statue is a humanoid snake dressed in a warrior’s armor, with a sword at its side.
My mother wanted me to display it on my desk and be reminded of two things every time I looked at it. The first is to never forget my heritage. Even though I considered myself an American first and foremost, I should always remember what it means to be Korean. My family back in Korea is primarily Buddhist. The snake, along with the eleven other animals of the Korean zodiac, is an important symbol in Korean Buddhism. These animals serve as the Twelve Spirit Generals of the Buddha, who protect the Buddha’s teachings with both power and virtue—hence the sword at the side of the snake. Looking at the statue reminds me of how important my Asian background is.
The second is to remember the qualities of the snake. My mother told me that being born in the year of the snake meant that I would be cunning and intelligent. However, those qualities would come with some drawbacks as well—other people could deem me cold-hearted and deceptive, just as the snake is often depicted in tales. This aspect of the statue reminds me to always be mindful of my positive and negative traits.
After I came back to America, I made it a life goal to keep the good personality traits of a snake in the back of my mind and avoid exhibiting the negative ones. I feel that learning more about my Korean heritage has helped me gain a greater appreciation of American values and what it means to be an American citizen. We, as Americans, are always looking for ways to be productive and contribute to society, to foster an even better group of Americans with each passing generation. Unlocking more information about yourself is the first step to truly being the best person you can possibly be.