I tend to find it very easy to put my feelings into words. I can assign them an explicit label, contextualize them, and plot them on a spectrum. However, for as emotionally adept as I like to think I am, I find it impossible to adequately convey how much Sae Jong Camp means to me, especially now that I’m rushing to write this in the office only a few hours before I need to share it. This year marks my 15th year of camp- 7 as a camper, 7 as staff member, and 1 as staff chair; that’s almost two-thirds of my life, and it’s the longest time that I’ve ever associated with anything. Now that I’ve been involved for as long as I have, it is simply impossible to explain who I am today without tracing the bulk of how I’ve evolved as a person to camp. Please allow me the opportunity to share how camp has influenced me, and to also share my hopes for all of you now that I have been a part of it for so long.
At age 24, I feel incredibly privileged. I feel great about myself; I sincerely believe I have a lot to offer to this world. I have a loving mother, a beautiful girlfriend, and a diverse group of exceptionally close friends tucked into different corners of the country, and even the world. Every single one of these people makes me feel unconditionally loved and sincerely understood. I believe that to love yourself and to be loved make up the best feelings a person can possibly have. And while I do indeed love myself and feel loved today as a 20-something, it’s a stark contrast to how I felt when I was growing up.
I’m sure my experiences will resonate with at least some of you. I grew up in a culturally devoid suburb with virtually no people of color. I still remember being 5-years-old, looking at Sega Genesis games at Target, and an older boy pulling his eyes back and making ‘kung-fu noises’ at me. I still remember the first time I was called a chink when I was on the school bus in the 6th grade. I still remember thinking that I wasn’t ugly, but hearing white girls gossip about how they thought I was, and thinking maybe I was the one that was wrong. I still remember looking in the mirror and staring for hours trying to navigate the gap between how I felt I should look and the person that stared back at me. If I had to describe being Korean or Korean-American in one word at age 7, it would be ‘ashamed.’ I was disgusted by the idea that I came from a culture so foreign. I was getting an infinite amount of unwanted attention for being a novelty— I was treated as living proof of a hodgepodge of western stereotypes of East Asia—when all I wanted to do was to play roller hockey and play Sonic The Hedgehog 2. Public places made me anxious because I knew I’d have to face reactions ranging from genuinely innocent ignorance to flat-out viciously racist responses to me simply existing in shared space.
At some point when all of these things were happening in my life— I’m not sure exactly how the story goes— I either asked my parents to be allowed to go to Sae Jong Camp after years of hearing about it from them, or they convinced me to go. Regardless of what actually happened, I was registered to attend SJC 2000, and when the day came to be dropped off at the bus stop at Andover High School, I went into the week with low expectations. I didn’t exactly know how invested I wanted to be in learning more about Korea when it was the country that had given me up as a baby, and the reason why I was bullied so viciously at school. However, as an awkward 10-year-old with only a few true friends at home, I had nothing to lose. I was pleasantly surprised when I was treated with genuine respect by other campers of all ages, and somehow made a good number of close friends— people were actually interested in who I was. There was something intriguing about this place. There was something about being around people that looked like me that felt so comfortable, so much more like home than where I lived outside of camp, but I couldn’t quite describe it.
And so I kept coming. I wasn’t yet equipped with the words that could adequately explain why, but I knew SJC was where I wanted to be. I loved the way my cabin came together to try and get a perfect score on capers. I loved the feeling of getting a big pile of change-grams. I loved the incredibly sincere, honest, and at times, ridiculous conversations that I would have with my friends at night on the back porch, and especially at campout. I loved the excitement of asking a girl to dance with me, and I loved the ecstatic feeling I got when she said yes. It gave me the social opportunities that white kids at home shut me out of. I felt recognized as an individual by a crowd of people not so fixated on my ‘Asian-ness’ or my ‘otherness’. I slowly began to feel that being Korean-American was something that allowed me to have a very unique perspective and access to a tight-knit community that would watch out for me. Problems and frustration with middle school and high school persisted, but my understanding and love for what camp does for people like me, like us, grew. I knew it had something to do with the people, but that’s as specific as my understanding was at the time.
And so the years rolled by, each session of camp as fun, memorable, and impactful as all of the others. 2000 through 2006 went by in a flash; the evolution and changes I went through were too gradual to notice as I experienced them in the moment, but when I compared myself as a 6th grader to myself as a high school senior, they became much more prominent: I was once entirely insecure, self-loathing, and all-around unhappy, afraid to look at my own reflection as a kid. By the end of high school, I was fully aware of who I was and where I came from, and the thought itself didn’t scare me; I became able to fluidly able to mingle among several groups of very close friends, express myself freely, and feel as if the possibilities for my life were limitless. I sincerely started to love myself without hesitation. I was growing to love my sense of humor, my independent mind, my passion for reflection, life’s nuances, and experiencing new things. Growing up, my mindset toward other people was “do these people like me?” more recently, my mindset has evolved into the question: “are these people equipped to understand me?” if the answer is no, I disregard them and move on. I no longer have time to invest in people who cannot appreciate who I am on my terms. While a number of forces have had a hand in cultivating who I am today, camp has been the most influential one.
Having had such impactful experiences at camp, I knew I wanted to come back on staff to try and have a hand in creating the sort of experience that shaped me in my years as a camper. I can say that the experience of serving on staff has been the single most rewarding experience I’ve ever had in my life. It’s been a joy to see each and every one of you grow, evolve, and see how much camp is cultivating you into the fine young adults that you all deserve to be. In all of you, I detect a sense of wonder, curiosity, compassion, and yearning that moves me to the deepest depths of my soul. Seeing all of you, regardless of age, background, and geographical location come together as a family to engage, console, and elevate each other gives me a faith in the future that I don’t feel in my everyday life outside of camp. From hearing such profound insight on human nature in identity class to seeing some of the seniors helping a junior with assembling a costume for dinner themes– I notice all of it, and I want you to know how much joy it brings me. I sincerely hope that over the last 8 years that I have been able to empower you at least almost as much as you have brought joy to me. And it’s only after all of these years that I feel like I truly ‘get it.’
For all of the years I’ve been here, there’s been a lot of discussion or thought around what makes camp so special. To me, the answer is now obvious: it’s a culture that encourages respect, compassion, and appreciation of others, quirks and all, in an environment that helps us learn about our heritage and ourselves as Korean-Americans; and the people that unwaveringly uphold and convey this culture, making everyone feel welcome and valued. As my mentor Chull Victor Kim put it, “camp is how the world should really be.” With this in mind, I’ve tried for years to explore how camp has cultivated me into the person I am today. It’s only after 15 years of being here that I can explain, in concrete terms, the ways camp has influenced me.
So here they are, the 3 ways camp influenced me to be who I am now:
Camp raised the standard for what respect meant to me
As a kid, I would associate with anyone as long as we shared something in common. I was so desperate for attention and approval that I would allow others to crack racist jokes and put me down even when it made me feel miserable. Regardless of how badly I was being treated, at least people acknowledged I was there. Once I started going to camp, I realized that not only would people treat me nicely without having to sacrifice my dignity, but also people invested their time and energy to learn more about me individually. They didn’t just want to know the fun stuff, what shows I like, what music I listened to, what sports teams I liked, they wanted to know about the problems and hardships I faced back home too; they wanted to know as much about me as much as they wanted to share about themselves. This is a pattern I became used to at camp, people appreciating all of me. I can sincerely say that all of my close friendships today share this dynamic, this same level of mutual respect. The ability to say that I know just about everything about a person, and having them be able to say the same about me is something that I think makes life truly worth living.
Camp taught me to be honest with myself
While growing up, I wore a facade, a mask, in an attempt to try and get people’s attention on anything other than my race. I had an outrageous sense of humor that I think anyone who’s known me for a very long time can attest to, and I always had it on display to avoid dwelling on my own discomfort and feelings of self-hatred. I used to lie about who I was, what I had experienced, and what I had materially in a futile attempt to impress others or make them feel jealous of me.
Once I understood that the only people worth having around were the people that wanted to know ‘the real me,’ I also began to realize that all of the acting, all of the lying, was not worth the effort. It was draining, and it only made me hate myself more. Once I was able to become more honest with myself, I could easily recognize what I liked and didn’t like about myself, and I worked to try and amplify my strengths, and work out my weak points as a constant work-in-progress. Becoming more honest allowed me to connect with more people, and it organically compelled them to respect me. This cycle of respect and honesty helped me to realize the next way camp influenced me.
Camp reinforced that I am worth loving
Once I became more selective about whom I associated with and became more honest with myself, I came to a revelation that would have been shocking in elementary and middle school. I realized that who I am, flaws and all, is worthy. It is worthy not only of respect and honest evaluation, but of unconditional love. I initially grew to discover and reveal who I truly was because of camp, and I began to appreciate the things that only I could offer. Each person shares certain traits or qualities with any other person, but no one person is identical to another. And in that sense, through camp, I truly began to love myself- my unique, individual self- and began to truly internalize the fact that I am worthy of the love of others. The reassurance that this idea gave me has given me the freedom to pursue what I am passionate about, to share wonderfully full and honest relationships with others, and to be myself without fear.
And tonight, it is my hope that camp has or is able to do these three things for you: 1. To raise the standard of what respect means in your own life, 2. to allow you to be more honest with yourself, and 3. for you to know that you are truly worth loving, exactly as you are. Tonight you sit together with family; all of us share common experiences through the lens of being Korean-American, but perhaps more importantly, we share this week— this love together. We will, we are, and we have all experienced pain, joy, hardship, and triumph, and I want to reiterate that you can bring all of that here, come as you are, and be loved for exactly who you are. Isn’t it wonderful?
Camp allowed me to confront very dark parts of my life head-on. Camp was the family that offered an endless number of hands to help me back onto my feet when things were difficult. Camp helped me to refine and cultivate my anger into passion, my self-loathing and feelings of isolation into compassion and empathy. The struggles with race and identity that I dealt with when I was growing up were immensely difficult. However, what seemed like the world to me when I was younger is but a small speck of discomfort in the back of my mind now: camp helped to empower me to move beyond the difficult circumstances in which I grew up, and now I am free to live my life how I see fit. It’s a truly liberating and empowering realization to come to: I no longer feel pressured to act a certain way, like things I don’t care about, and deal with people I don’t like. I can be me on my own terms. I want the same for all of you.
If there’s one thing I want to emphasize as I close these thoughts, it’s this: you are not a finished product, you will always be a work in progress. You have the ability to grow into whoever you want to become, regardless of what obstacles are in your life right now. You are not defined by your weaknesses, even if you feel you have more weaknesses than strengths. You are infinitely dimensional, no matter how many people try to simplify you into insulting labels. Things always have the ability to get better once you recognize the source of your problems and seek to change them. Work outside of what you may be told that you’re capable of. For as happy and fulfilled as I feel now, this merely serves as a strong, eager launching point for the rest of my life. I hope that you can feel the same way. I hope that your experience at camp equips you with the tools to love yourself and make your life what you want it to be. I know that it has for me. And from me to you: always stay true to who you are. Always keep it real.
You are not alone.