Interview by Angie Kang ’20. Photos by Victor Alvarez ’19.
Haysung Yoon, who goes by Grace, is a student in the Brown | RISD Dual Degree Program concentrating in Comparative Literature at Brown and majoring in Graphic Design at RISD. A past writer for our very own blog, Grace has also been an active member in clubs such as the Brown Daily Herald and more. She’s drawn to finding narratives in the world and recounting them through the different mediums of art and writing. Read on to hear her personal reflections on her experiences in Providence and their impact on her life.
Where are you from?
That’s a difficult question! Well, I guess technically I was born in Washington D.C., but aside from that, my family I moved back and forth from Seoul, South Korea and New York. I lived in NYC during my middle and high school years and even during the first half of my college years, my family was still in the city, but my family is currently back in Seoul.
What is your major?
I study Graphic Design at RISD and Comparative literature focusing on English and French at Brown. This is my 5th year first semester, as I’ll be graduating in December of 2017.
So, as a comp lit major, what languages do you speak?
I speak English and Korea both fluently. I would say I know French more to the professional level. I know a little bit of Mandarin — I studied Mandarin for about a year or two in high school, and then when I switched high schools, I studied Latin instead. So there’s another language I guess I know.
Which clubs have you been involved in at Brown?
I did a lot of “club-hopping!” Some of the major ones I was part of… I was part of Brown Daily Herald, the student run daily newspaper source on campus. I started with layout there and then switched over to writing. I transitioned from the main newspaper to its lifestyle Post- magazine, and I’m still currently the creative director for that. I was also involved in some other minor publications, such as Unhemmed, a fashion magazine. I was layout editor for that for a time. Ultimately, of course, I joined IWB exactly last year. I joined in the spring of 2016 as an editor and was there fall 2016 as well.
Why did you decide to study at Brown?
For me, I was really drawn to the dual degree program. I’m not really sure if I can answer the question about Brown on its own because the program was a huge appeal to me. I also really liked the idea of no core curriculum, that definitely spoke to me a lot. To be honest, I went to a high school that had a rigorously structured curriculum, and I definitely could have used something different from that experience. As far as I’m concerned, Brown is known for its humanities and arts side, and at the time, I was fairly certain I would go towards literature. So, at the time, when just considering the liberal arts aspects of the dual degree program, knowing the strengths of the humanities, was very appealing.
How did you know you wanted to go into comp lit?
Yeah, so comp lit was definitely my first choice, mainly because at the time I was thinking: well, I really like French, so what would be a good way to keep it up to still maintain that and incorporate that into my studies. Well, Comp lit might be the right choice. I’ve come to realize that comp lit means so much more than mere “I’m fluent in this language and that language.” I think comp lit offers far more insight into philosophy and human conditions that really spark my interest.
What track are you doing for comp lit?
I’m currently doing the two language track. In hindsight, I kind of wish I had done the three language track and incorporated Korean. Only now am I realizing, why didn’t I consider my mother tongue? On one hand, I was very committed to keeping up my French, because a lot of my favorite novels tended to be those originally written in French, so I was certain I was drawn to French literature. But, you know, maybe it’s a little unfair to make that statement while being unfamiliar with, say, Korean literature. Yes, I’ve grown up speaking Korean colloquially, but it’s been such a long time since I’ve read Korean literature — I just don’t read Korean that regularly. I guess in that sense, maybe considering incorporating Korean in my comparative literature studies could have been a perfect opportunity to revisit my native language and familiar myself with my heritage. I would have to now admit that that had become a missed opportunity.
Looking back, what else would you have done differently?
I feel like, at the time, in my freshman and sophomore years, I was kind of mislead and kind of prioritized certain other aspects of my college experience over something more enriching. I feel like I was so preoccupied with trying to make myself a large presence on campus, and I definitely went out of the way to become involved with many extra curriculars, and tried to go to as many social scenes as possible, at the expense of more enriching experiences I could have taken away from my academics had I dedicated more time and attention to those. I definitely look back now and I wish I could have paid more attention to this class or this class, yeah.
On the reverse side, what are you glad that you did?
I only can now say this in retrospect, but glad that I took time off in the fall of 2015. I think that it just helped, and I’m totally just perpetuating this cliche that surrounds this discourse about taking leave, but it’s true! I think time off helped put this in perspective for me and it allowed myself to confront what kinds of things I needed to re-sort: my priorities, my interests, and it helped to remind myself what I wanted from my remaining time in Providence. I think it helped to have taken that time off, and after that time off, transitioning back to my life in Providence.
And, -laughs- this might sound like a PR thing but I actually do genuinely mean it when I say, in tandem with me reintegrating myself with Providence, I joined IWB. And that was my way of coming back and it did wonders for me. I did find it very cathartic to find this platform that tried to to establish a community of people who also grapple with these questions about sense of belonging at the midst of all these changes that occur within themselves but also in their surrounding environments. I just found so much joy in working with writers and getting to hear their stories. Though these are unique and individual stories from these writers, I would still see some parallel between their stories and mine, and just being able to find and make these connections with writers as well as with other editors and illustrators, through this process of storytelling felt immensely gratifying for me. It also helped a lot during my period of transition and it definitely helped finding a new set of friends that offered far deeper connections for me than before.
What were some cultural difficulties?
The closest thing I can think about cultural difficulties is how I’m perceived as a korean student at a prestigious american research education institution. I think that there is this weird, sharp divide between Korean-American students vs Korean international … more so at RISD than at Brown in my opinion. But there is definitely this kind of double standard of whether you are “Korean enough” and can speak Korean fluently, or if you give off this Korean-American persona. A lot of times, especially at RISD, people would assume that I can’t speak Korean, especially based on my English pronunciation, even if at some point, I switch to Korean, the other international students would be so surprised and still wouldn’t speak to me in Korean in subsequent interactions. It was just kind of this weird experience where I felt like my identity as a Korean woman was being denied by people of my very own race. I definitely felt a bit of frustration with that and that would trigger some doubts as to whether my Korean was good enough. So, I think some of biggest challenges when it comes to cultural adjustment: how to wrestle with interacting with Korean international students and Korean-American students. Do I position myself one community or the other? Do they have to be totally mutually exclusive? Is it okay to be in this space of liminality where I don’t confine myself to one or the other? And again, I feel like in some sense because I have met other Korean students in IWB, I feel like it was a safe space where you don’t need to choose between international community or domestic American community.
How do RISD and Brown communities differ?
I just want to preface this by just saying it’s my experience and is not representative of everyone’s experience. My experience as comp lit concentrator must have been drastically different from that of comp sci or engineering student. Comp lit for me has been very independently driven. I definitely don’t have to be in same class setting as students to work on my analytical or research paper. I just need to independently submit it to my professor. Consequently, I don’t think it’s been that natural for me to make friends necessarily through being in classes together or all that, while at RISD because our studios are 5 hours minimum… Although you could argue that GD could be a fairly independent driven major, at the very least, we have this Design Center, a physical space where students can work at studio desks. That spatial setting definitely has its impact in how people interact and what kind of connections people make. Because studio course are longer and we do have this physical space for students to gather together outside of class, it’s been more natural for me to foster deeper connections on the RISD side.
How has living here changed how you act or interact at home?
I think it’s been a matter of change in perception and noticing things that I, at the time, didn’t notice. When I go back home and have conversations with parents or maybe just pick up on a TV show that I’ve been watching growing up, I would just start noticing things that might be problematic that I at the time was not aware of. I think for me, altered perception is like the biggest thing. Also, coming to terms with differences and my point of view vs parents’ point of view when it comes to certain social or political issues. It’s like a question of how do I navigate my conversations and interactions with parents to reconcile these differences as smoothly as possible?
How have experiences influenced the art you make or writing, if any?
I think that before starting this program, I definitely had this proclivity for narrative and voice, but over the years, just after taking a series of comp lit and graphic design courses, both actually fed into each other, and both literature and design vantage points have reaffirmed the importance of narrative. Over the years I’ve continuously striven to make works with meaning and I’ve tried to elevate some sort of message or voice that others may not notice or could go unnoticed otherwise.
It’s just been this continuous trial of how far I can go in terms of making someone’s voice heard. It’s manifested through even doing those kinds of journalistic investigative stories as part of BDH. One time, I did a huge feature story on students’ experiences of racial discrimination at Brown. I interviewed many students of color and had many intense conversations about the sad but real experiences of how we confront uncomfortable experiences due to our identities. Looking back, I actually think that’s one of my proudest work. I think Brown and RISD have this attitude of being “we are very liberal, we are so ‘woke’ or diverse” but underneath the surface, there are still so many problems entrenched in our everyday interactions with people. So for me, that article was good opportunity of talking about how there are remaining problems on campus that are unaddressed and these are the real experiences of students of color attending a liberal institution like Brown.
What do you see in your future in relation to art and creative work based on experiences at Brown and RISD?
I think I’m pretty resolute on trying to immerse myself in journalism, publication, media, etc. I definitely want to be immersed in process of storytelling, finding good stories and then finding creative innovative ways either from writing editorial or just design to find compelling stories that need to be told, and if so, in what kind of compelling or engaging way. That’s becoming important now more than ever because of this whole rise of information or overwhelming amount of information exchanged flying across this flux of digital platforms. We can all get very political here and talk about how do you tell apart fake content/news from real truth if there is real truth, and again, what is our role as creative people to guide citizens, people, users, to the right and relevant information? That got very philosophical -laughs-