Once upon a time, at the age of 18, I imagined I would study, work and dwell within my rural town in New Hampshire for my entire life; that all changed once I received the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) to study abroad for eight weeks in Busan, South Korea during Summer 2018 and Gwangju, South Korea during Summer 2019. I thought the CLS would be a study abroad package deal that offered some foreign language proficiency and cultural exploration of a foreign country. What I did not expect was a bonus that included an exploration of myself. Multiple times throughout my trip, I was challenged about my identity as an American.
During my first CLS experience, a stranger asked me in Korean, “Are you the tour guide for this group of Americans?” This inquiry was not based on my Korean-speaking abilities that could deceive the ears of a native — I had not whispered a word. It was because of how I looked; often Korean people thought I looked Korean. In Korean, I explained myself in paragraphs because I just could not end at, “I am not a tour guide.” I explained: I am an American who received a scholarship to study Korean with my fellow Americans whom he referred to as tourists. I was born to two Nepalese parents in Nepal, but my experiences have been more American because I immigrated to America at age 10.
These perceptions of me as non-American felt familiar because, before I immigrated to America, I held an outsider’s view of American: Caucasian, tall, and speaking only English. However, I have had the privilege of living 10 years in the United States, which has resulted in me having a better understanding that defies my own previous stereotypes. I am of Asian heritage, short, and a polyglot — nonetheless, an American.
I realized I cannot explain my narrative to everyone that I encountered who challenged my identity; but I thought it was important for me to do something.
Before the end of my study abroad, I reached out to the local Gwangju International
Center about instructing a children’s cultural class on the topic of America and Nepal. By sharing a lesson as an Asian-American in Asia, I wanted to take the opportunity to speak about the multiethnic fabric of America.
If I had not studied abroad, had not been challenged in these ways, I would not have been granted the opportunity to understand my identity better. With a new way of thinking, seeing, and responding, I can say that my life truly changed after my study abroad and it will never be the same, ever after.
If you would also like to experience something so magical, start thinking about learning a language and studying abroad. You can explore the Critical Language Scholarship program more at https://clscholarship.org/. The Critical Language Scholarship Program is an intensive overseas language and cultural immersion program for American college students sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. You can spend eight to 10 weeks abroad studying one of 15 critical languages they offer including Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bangla, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Swahili, Turkish and Urdu. You can also find out about other study abroad opportunities and scholarships at https://studyabroad.state.gov/ to explore other opportunities.
Abrita Kuthumi was born in Nepal and immigrated to the U.S. at age 10. She currently lives in New Hampshire and attends the University of New Hampshire, pursuing a degree in English and International Affairs.