Expat Life / Travel / Writing

My 20s in a Box

File box

Full of digressions, this post meanders through all of the short journeys I took going through an old box of papers. In a sense, this is also the prequel of expatkimchi.

I finally went through an old file box that my parents had driven all the way from Pennsylvania to California while my family and I were living in San Diego four years ago. They did that epic drive to finally reunite an antique bench they had given me, their prodigal (expat) daughter, years ago when I was in my 20s living in the Washington, DC area. I loved that my father also saw it as an opportunity to check off something from his bucket list (I never knew he had one) – to drive cross country. They didn’t bring much else with them although I had put lots of other boxes aside for them. Somehow though a random file box made it into the van, and I’m glad that it did.

My younger self was neatly stored in it. It was basically another relic from my early 20s in a bunch of hanging file folders. They were filled with manila file folders legibly labeled, even some with a typewriter, holding every application I ever wrote for graduate school, fellowship proposals and my senior thesis along with copies of the primary sources I used to research it. Personal statements, test scores, sealed envelopes of transcripts and recommendations – they were all in there. It’s funny though, the one application file that had very little in it was for The London School of Economics, which is where I ultimately did go to graduate school. I wonder what I wrote my essay about.

All of the important documents of my old American self were in there up until the point I moved to London and ended up staying in Europe for the indefinite future. I was reminded of passions and aspirations that I once had. Some have expired; I’m too old for an English teaching Fulbright Fellowship. Nor am I interested in teaching English. Some other interests can be rekindled if I seek and find the space for them in my current life. Amidst files from long ago defunct banks there was evidence of my once very active service-oriented self. I had done a lot of volunteering such as becoming a hotline counselor for a sexual assault hotline and served on the boards of a couple of non-profits including the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues. I had once advocated for the dignity and reparations for the enslaved sex workers euphemistically called “comfort women” by the Japanese Imperial Army during the second world war. To find the flames of fires of my youth almost put me in awe of everything I believed that I could accomplish back then. Just in this process of rediscovery, I stretched the parameters of my capacity.

I also found a kick ass proposal for a Watson Fellowship that I didn’t get. I still love my idea. I wanted to seek out the Korean diaspora around the world (namely Brazil, Australia, and Kazakhstan), interview families of the communities, and assess and compare levels of Korean language retention. I remember the moment I blew my interview though. It was that moment of feeling the blood drain from your face realising, “Oh, shit. Totally the wrong thing to say.” It was a complete amateur mistake. I felt young and inexperienced, and while I knew my proposal was good, I also had enough wherewithal to know where and exactly how I blew it.

I was amazed to discover how hard I worked on that proposal. There were countless drafts as well as print outs of various email conversations with a former professor whom I am still in touch with and all of the various other academics whom he introduced me to. There were also pages of feedback from my Bryn Mawr professors that were pretty brutal but helpful.

There were a whole bunch of job clippings too. All of these possibilities and roads that could have been pursued in different major cities across the country. Oh, to be young again, my heart fluttered for a second. But, I also know that in my heart, I am in a place where that heart belongs. Who knew back then, nearly twenty years ago, that it would be in western Germany with a fellow member of the Korean diaspora who spawned this initial fascination with diaspora.

–  Jane

4 thoughts on “My 20s in a Box

  1. What a trip for you down memory lane!

    As my life has changed a bit and I no longer work weekends, I have the time now to go through old files, clippings, patchwork templates, children’s drawings, you name it.
    There are a lot of pleasant surprises, but also some “Why did I keep this..?”

    But I’m glad to have the chance to rummage through some old stuff now. I lighten my load, toss things as I go, cherish the keepers, and move on.

    The fun part will be to read this 10 years from now. 🙂


    • I love being able to throw things out…that’s another post in itself! It’s a challenge (and burden) to figure out what truly is valuable, but I am more convinced that less is more.


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