Diversity + Outreach, Predental, Predoctoral

How embracing my two cultures impacted me as a dental student

I am an immigrant, and I am a dental student. I was born in one country and raised in another. I’m also the first of anyone in my family to pursue a career in dentistry.

There are a lot of things new to me and my family right now, but we are adjusting well like we always have.

We moved to the United States when I was 2 years old. From then, I’ve been constantly adapting to something new and different. While now I am learning to assimilate into the dental world, growing up, I had to learn to assimilate into American culture.

In elementary, middle and high school, I fully embraced my Korean culture at home and only at home. I watched Korean TV shows with my parents, listened to K-pop and obsessed over Korean celebrities with my sisters. At school, I had to be American. I couldn’t talk about my favorite Korean TV show of the season or my favorite foods because my friends would not have been able to relate. In elementary school, I hated when my mom would pack me Korean food because of the comments, stares and scrunched noses. Yet as I made more friends and as times in America changed to better accept different cultures bit by bit, I was able to find an identity in both of my cultures.

My family, friends and personal experiences have molded me and helped me define my identity. I tried so hard for many years to be my own definition of “all-American” and pushed my Korean culture aside. Now, I identify as a Korean American. Depending on the setting, sometimes the Korean side of me comes out stronger than the American side or vice versa, but I never forget about either one. I take pride in having roots in two places, and there is beauty in being able to take part in two cultures, two sets of traditions and knowing two worlds.

Finding my identity was not that quick and easy, though. During this time of acclimating to American life together, my parents and I grew apart in a way because I was adjusting far faster than they were. They already had deeper roots in Korean culture, while I was just starting to find mine here, in America. Growing up, my friends had sleepovers from which I was always picked up early. Dating was OK only if I was at an age to be able to get married — my current apartment in Augusta is still just a temporary dormitory in my parents’ eyes.

When I was younger and more naïve, I used to think that these differences in ideas and opinions were huge roadblocks. I would get angry and frustrated with my parents because I thought they did not want to listen; now I know these were just a few examples of cultural differences that we had (and will continue to have) that we can use to build an understanding together.

As first generation in multiple aspects, I had plenty of practice venturing into the unknown alone and finding a mentor along the way. My parents and I experienced American public schooling for the first time, hand in hand. Since kindergarten, I sat down with my mother every Friday in elementary school and explained my “Friday Folders” to her in Korean. I was the translator at all of the parent/teacher meetings, and in middle and high school, continued to translate for her.

Both my parents went to college and continued their education beyond bachelors’ degrees, but that was in South Korea. Applying to American colleges was a brand new concept to us, so I sought help from school counselors and, at times, my equally confused peers.

The journey to and through dental school is not very different. I find help from resources outside of my family, but because of all the practice venturing into the unknown, I have learned to quickly adjust to changes and simply enjoy the bumpy ride of life in dental school. Today, I do not hesitate to step out of my comfort zone and embrace the thrill of finding familiarity in the unknown. The biggest difference now is that, today, I am more comfortable in my skin than ever before.

In dental school, I have deeply connected with so many classmates of different backgrounds and cultures. I have laughed and cried with them as we shared our stories. In the clinic, we cross paths with so many people from around the world and even between states and cities, and I have been able to exchange so many wonderful stories based on our different cultures. Through this, I have learned that there will be times of tension when we as students do not understand a staff member, professor or patient. In any relationship, differences in culture can be seen as difficulties. I tell myself that these are simply inconveniences disguised as barriers. With a little more understanding and patience, we can connect with patients, professors and peers with more compassion and empathy.

~YeaRim Kim, Georgia ’22, Chapter Historian

YeaRim Kim

YeaRim Kim is a second-year student at the Dental College of Georgia. She was a nutrition science major and studio art minor at University of Georgia and graduated in 2016. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, and was 2 years old when she moved to the United States.

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