Ananya: Maybe you could start by telling me where you are from, how you ended up at Yale, what you see as your future. Don’t feel the need to stick on that narrative, the conversation can flow, that’s fine.
Esul: I’ve never really had a specific “hometown” because I sort of moved around growing up. So, I grew up in Seoul and I was there until I was three, and then I moved to Singapore. I was in Singapore until around first semester of my sixth-grade year. And then we moved back to Seoul. Then I went to high school in Connecticut, which I started going to around when I was a sophomore in high school. After that, I came to Yale. My first year at Yale, during the fall, my parents moved to Arlington, Virginia. So now I say that I’m from the D.C. area, but it’s not really my home. I think if I had to pick a hometown, I’d probably say Seoul. It’s an important place and I have ethnic heritage there that really connects me to Korea. When I lived abroad I was always in these expat communities, for example, I went international school. I think that because of that I’m an international student, but not really in the same sense. I feel like I’ve always been American, just an American abroad. I actually think that it’s actually a product of how America society racializes you, but I think that I become less attached to my American identity the longer I’ve been in the U.S. I think it’s something that was really easy to hold on to when I was abroad, where I had this very multi-cultural, displaced community of American expatriates that led me to understand identity as a lot more fluid. I think that coming here, I’ve realized there is an inherent foreign-ness to being Asian. I think it starts in the small communities, but that it carries.
I don’t think privilege is ever binary, but I mean I do come from a certain kind of privilege. Both of my parents have a college education, I always knew I was going to go to college. The aspirations were that I would go to an Ivy League. I think I worked hard. I was a total nerd, loved reading. I went to private high school in Connecticut, and then things kind of fell in the right places. Once I had all these other opportunities handed to me, well, now I’m here. I think the crazy thing is that I’ve approached that journey a lot differently now that I’m here, at one would call an end point, or at least the end of the first segment of that journey. I think I became so much more critical of the systems through which I ended up at Yale, after I ended up at Yale. After the gauntlet, I benefited from all of it, and now I’m like wow, that was really fucked up. In terms of how narrow that path is, you have to be so lucky. And it isn’t even luck, it’s institutions that have been in place long before you were born. They just kind of work together to help you out. I guess that’s my Yale journey.
In terms of the future… I mean, I’m super interested in politics. That’s the thing I care most about.
A: [sarcastically] You? Interested in politics? Wow. I’m shocked.
E: Shook. I’ve thought about this a lot recently. What was that catalyst that made me like politics? It’s a strange thing for a young person to find themselves really into. Part of it was that 2008 was a crazy election. I think that really sparked an interest. But also living abroad, politics was one really concrete way for me to connect to my nation, my national identity. It was through politics that I found that identity. I’m also multi-racial, so I think I’ve always been insecure in being Korean, insecure in being Asian American, insecure obviously in being white, for all the reasons I can’t claim whiteness the way white people can. So, I think that I felt most American when I was a political American. I kind of felt like something that theoretically, even though it’s not true, all Americans have access to that I’m taking advantage of, I feel incredibly knowledgeable about. That’s a form a power I could use to hold on to this identity.
A: Do you feel like your passion for politics has changed or evolved given the way that you feel alienated from your Americanness or do you think it’s not something you’ve thought about a lot?
E: I mean like, 100 percent, it’s been influenced. I think that as I read more history, and race theory, I think talked to people that have had drastically different experiences, than I have, I think that my perception of American politics has changed. And I think that in some sense I’m such a fatalist, such a cynic, in politics. I think a lot of people hold on to that idealist American Dream, believe politics is the great equalizer, that if we can fix politics, everything’s fixed. And I just don’t think that’s true. Part of me really struggles with it. Is politics really the right way to do this? Is it true to my own personal politic that I work through the system, that I want to be a policy maker, want to feel like change should be made through the system? I think those are questions I still grapple with. But I think it’s important to have people who don’t always think how everyone else does in that sphere. I think it’s really important to involve more people in political conversations, to have people in rooms where policy is being made and say: “this is the history of policy, when you design laws that are like ‘colorblind’ but target people of very specific racial or ethnic origins. Maybe this is something we should think about more critically.” I want to be a different kind of voice in that room.
A: Do you see yourself staying in the U.S.?
E: Yeah, I do. I think it’s really hard for me to imagine myself living elsewhere. If I were to live elsewhere, it would probably be in an English-speaking country. I consider myself a pretty bad linguist. I struggle. I’m still technically bilingual, but I’m not great at Korean. I can still speak it sort of fine, but I can’t really read or write well. I took it last year at Yale, and then did the Light Fellowship this summer, which helped a lot. But I would not function properly in Korean society, at all. Sometimes you feel foreign in the U.S., but I think American society is still the best place to be when you’re insecure about your identity. I think it is multicultural, in some sense. I think that everywhere else I have been is so homogeneous. I think it’s really hard to break through that. At least here you can find certain communities, certain spaces where you don’t stick out like a sore thumb.
A: I know this is a big jump, but do you think there was a big cultural difference between the expat communities in Seoul and Singapore?
E: One hundred percent. I think that Singapore for sure had a big expat community. Maybe I’ll go back on my multi-culturalism point. That was a super multi-cultural city. It has four official languages. You have a lot of people that have linguistic and cultural heritages they hold on to while still being Singaporean. I think that, even when you’re an expat, that’s super visible. Everyone in the expat community was American, British, or Australian. There are different kinds. It was a great place to grow up because it made me feel secure about my identity. I had so many friends that were biracial, multi-racial. It never felt like anything that was different. I think in Korea, expat communities were mostly Americans, or Koreans that had lived in America for a long time coming back. But they would have parents that were both of Korean heritage, largely had a stronger connection to the culture, the language, the food, still felt in some sense that they could integrate into Korean society. My school was an international school, but it was still 99 percent Korean. Strangely enough, I felt pretty racialized as white or white-ish when I was in Seoul.
A: That’s interesting. What made you feel that way?
E: I think it’s because people could tell. People would come up to me and ask me, hey are you biracial, where are you from. And there’s that whole kind of fucked up thing about white beauty standards. People would come up to my mom and say, “Your daughter’s really pretty. She’s not totally Korean, is she?”
A: Oh. Major yikes.
E: Super yikes. My mom would be like, “Yeah. My husband is American.” Stuff like that made it really hard for me to identify as Korean American growing up. Strangely enough, I was living in Seoul but I felt incredibly disconnected from that part of my identity. I think that going back on the Light Fellowship really changed the way I saw Seoul. I used to hate Seoul. I think going back this summer was totally different. I think that was a really interesting experience for me, trying to see those two sides.
A: I know you said you were a bad linguist, but do you see yourself learning any other languages while you are here?
E: I took Spanish for three years in high school, and I kind of want to get back into it. Also, I studied abroad in Spain in high school. It was one of those things where I was so close to being pretty functionally fluent and I decided at Yale that I wasn’t going to learn Korean formally unless I do it right now, which is why I did it my first year. Now it’s really hard to want to take a class that meets every day again. Especially because it's a language class. There’s a huge difference between wanting to speak that language and being in a class for five hours a week doing monotonous grammar stuff. If there’s a better way to do it, I would want to find that better way, I just haven’t found it yet.
A: You said you spoke Korean beforehand. Did you pick that up in Seoul or at home?
E: It was spoken in the house a lot. My mom and I have always communicated in Korean, and now we almost exclusively do. When I was younger, we’d speak a lot of English between too. Now, we speak mostly Korean. It’s really great. I think that it’s such an intimate language to me. It is home. It’s so wholesome, really. I think that’s why, even when I speak Korean with other people, there’s still some semblance of home there, and I really love that. I want to read Korean the way that I can read English, so that I can really connect to material, really notice what’s good writing and what’s bad writing. That’s what I want to do. I think it was relatively easy for me to discover that in Spanish, but it’s so hard in a non-romance language.
A: It’s a whole different system.
E: Yea, and the mechanics are so different. You express yourself so differently.
A: Do you think you might go back to Korea someday? Maybe do another Light Fellowship?
E: Probably not another Light Fellowship. I think definitely to travel. My mom still has her roots in Seoul, so she’ll go back at some point. Though she’s applying for her green card right now, so she can’t travel for another couple of months till that goes through.
A: What prompted the move to Singapore and then back to Seoul?
E: Mostly it has to do with my dad’s job. Up until I was probably in high school my dad was a journalist—he still writes columns sometimes—and at one point was a bureau chief in Seoul. Then they asked him to take the Southeast Asia desk, so we went down there. But then the recession happened and he didn’t really want to do it anymore. At that point, he still had a lot of connections back in Seoul because he was writing during the economic crisis of the early 90s, which was a great time to do journalism, right. So, he decided he was going to play around with some consulting and PR stuff and write and edit on the side, so that’s when we went back. He’s lived abroad for most of his life. He left the U.S. when he was in his mid-twenties and never really went back. I think at some point he started to think about coming home and he was getting older and nearing retirement age, so I think that’s what prompted the move back to D.C. I went to boarding school for high school, so they were still in school.
A: What school did you go to?
E: I went to Choate.
A: Ahhh. Okay. What does your mom do?
E: My mom doesn’t work and she hasn’t since I was born. She met my dad because she was a secretary at a press agency, so she’d run into my dad at the foreign correspondents’ club.
A: That’s really cute.
E: Yeah, super adorable.
A: Did she ever feel weird about moving around a lot?
E: I mean, I think that she didn’t like Singapore because it’s so absurdly hot. I also think that it’s one of those things where it's a really boring place when you’re above the age of eight. I think they’re doing a lot for tourists now, but it’s so small.
A: It’s a banking city, isn’t it?
E: It is. I think that if you don’t work, and you’re not a kid, you can get really bored. And to do that for nine years was too much. I don’t want to speak for her, but I think she doesn’t feel really connected as a Korean because she doesn’t feel like a typical Korean. I mean, I don’t think she loved Seoul either. I think that she really likes it in Arlington, Virginia now for some reason. Especially now that it’s Halloween . She’s really intrigued by all of this. She’s like, “Why are there white ghosts hanging from the tree next to us? Why are people doing this? First the leaves changed color, and now people are spending their money on pumpkins.” I mean, it is kind of weird tradition. She asked if we had to do it to. So, we went to Target when I was back at home to buy a plastic pumpkin or something to join in on the festivities. I think she really likes it. Maybe she just likes suburbia. I don’t know.
A: Was moving around hard for you, because of all the jumps?
E: There were jumps. The good thing was that there was a lot of time between those jumps for me. Nine years was a long time. I think that was the hardest jump. I had grown up there. I had no real memories of Seoul because I was so little when I lived there. So, I think that to pack up and go to Seoul was the biggest change in my life. I didn’t know what it meant to not live where I had always lived. And then to be dealing with all this crazy identity stuff because of all the ways that other people pigeonhole you, I think that was really hard. I think it took me a really long time to get over that. High school was so great. I think moving around all those years, going to boarding school really gave me a sense of stability. Those buildings have been there forever, and I know they’re always going to be there. It gave me a sense of permanence, especially since I considered it a second home. Just knowing that it would be there when I went to college. Even if I didn’t go back. It’s still there. It’s also not just the buildings, having a physical home. It’s all the people that are connected to it that then form your home. I have so many great friends from high school that I love and that I know will always be my friends even though we don't talk every day. And teachers that have really shaped how I see the world. I think that’s great. I think that it feels really weird to say that about Choate. Because it’s an institution that historically for white, wealthy people.
A: But so is this.
E: And so is this. It is weird to love Yale. It’s one of those things where I think politically, people shouldn’t send their kids to private schools. I just have realized that it’s not a good thing.
A: So deeply problematic.
E: Let’s not help wealthy people become wealthier by accumulating their capital in very specific social spaces. But I’m still so grateful for that experience, that I got to have it.
A: Was it hard for you to go to boarding school and be away from your parents?
E: I think it was the first month of school where I realized that I hadn’t lived away from my parents. I didn't understand how it was supposed to work. Like, laundry. We were also operating on a 13-hour time difference, so doing that math. Other than that, it was totally fine. I think I’ve always been really independent. It was really good for me to not live at home the entire time. It also made college so much easier. I think first year at Yale would have been infinitely worse if I hadn’t lived on my own before. Yale was more of a transition where it was sort of a bruise to one’s ego. Right, you take a little bit of a beating. Then you work it out. Now it doesn’t matter. I think you find the things that you care about, and you realize that’s what everyone else is doing. And no one ever is a superstar. You realize that everyone’s a lot chiller than you thought they’d be, and that’s the best.
A: Do you ever miss Seoul or Singapore? Are there little things that you remember and miss a lot?
E: Singapore, for sure. I haven’t been back in six years. I went back once, when I was in the seventh grade, so right after I moved. But it's a long flight. It also has gotten so much more expensive since I lived there. So that’s tough too. But I miss it a lot. I think if I went back it wouldn’t feel as it used to feel for me. That’s bound to happen. But I really want to go to all those places I used to go to, remember how it is to be there again. I miss the summer. I think I’ve always been a summer kid. I miss the constant summer. I miss knowing that you could always go to the sea. I miss the water. I mean, Seoul’s not close to the ocean, so I felt really landlocked there. The sea’s not far here, but it's a 20-minute drive, so it’s not one of those things where you’re like always there. I miss the immediacy of it. I think that’s why I like the beach a lot, just being by the water. And with Seoul, I don’t know. There are certain ways in which Seoul operates that I miss. I’m a geek for urban policy, public transit. I really like that it has a functioning subway system. That’s so good. Every major city should have one. I miss how big it is. You can get lost so easily there. You can never really explore the whole city. It’s almost like there are 17 cities in one big city. You have to take each piece bit by bit. So I miss the bigness of it. Most recently, ever since I came to Yale, I missed high school a lot. I missed the people. The other thing I realized was that I don't ever miss physical places as much as I miss memories and the people associated with them. You can never recreate the memories, so you just end up missing the people.
A: How do you feel about Yale being a complicated place to love, knowing its history, the legacy?
E: Someone was telling me about this, and it's a great way to think about it. I think it’s an inherently political act for people of color to be here. I think that’s a really beautiful thing. I think in some sense I love Yale now because I see how it’s changing. And it’s slow and it’s really frustrating. But there are so many beautiful and amazing people that are here with me. And the very fact that they are here with me, that’s something to love. There are a lot of institutions like Yale, but I don’t think they feel quite the way that Yale does. Sometimes it’s really hard and it’s stressful, but it’s never as bad as it could be. I think it's a place where people make an active effort to not be trash. I think that’s underrated but it’s true. I’ve never seen someone study for a midterm and not invite someone to study with them, or not share their study guide, or not offer tea, or a shoulder to cry on when you’re having a hard time. No one’s ever that selfish, or at least I don’t know a lot of selfish people in my experience. That I really love.
A: That’s really pure.
E: I think that I’m a surprisingly pure person.
A: I think you have to make the distinction between pure and ~pure~. Pure is like white dress, low key, and ~pure~ is like taking care of your friends, apple picking…
E: I love apple picking. There you go. So, wholesome.
A: Tell me about your academic career. What classes are you taking right now?
E: Well right now I’m taking four poli sci [political science] classes. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way, but it did. All four of the classes are super different though. Sustainability, bioethics, contemporary Spanish politics, where I’m one of a small group of people. It’s so perfect. You essentially have to read the news for this seminar. Every class we just meet and talk about what’s happening with Catalonia. I didn't realize what a smart thing I was doing, but it’s really the perfect time to take this class. You learn everything that’s happening and why it’s happening, so that’s been amazing. I’m also taking this class, my favorite class is Race, Politics, and the Law. Incredible class. It’s about how the legal system and race interact, how law constructs race, and it’s depressing in some sense.
A: I mean, policy and law are deeply depressing in this day and age.
E: Yeah. And then you throw race in there and it’s like. I’ve essentially lost all faith in our legal system, but also it’s fine. Now I know. We can all work together to alleviate this situation. And then Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration is also such a good class. Strangely enough, despite all being in the same department, it’s probably the most diverse course offering I’ve had. Last year, I did a lot of classic first-year courses. I took a seminar on religion and science fiction which was not what I was into, but it was so interesting and different. Best class I took last year was Postcolonial Asias. I really enjoyed the class. A lot of my friends happened to be taking it, so we’d all cry together. It was also, hands down, one of the hardest classes I’ve ever taken. I didn’t know it, but it was a junior seminar in English. I was not a junior English major. We read these really cool books and this crazy postcolonial theory and we were supposed to put them together. For half of the class, I couldn’t even begin to understand what we were reading. But it really pushed me and forced me to learn. It was so much, but I really enjoyed it. There were some crazy moments though. For the last assignment, it was me, Janis [Jin], and our friend Arturo and two other friends, and we were writing our final paper, which was supposed to be 10-12 pages. None of us had started ahead of time. So, we were literally writing it that day. I remember sitting in the Asian American Cultural Center at midnight and we were there until 7 a.m. I distinctly remember all of us typing away at this paper and seeing the sun come up, which is the weirdest experience. I have only ever done that twice in my Yale career, both times for this class. The other time was for our midterm, we were in the Silliman common room and we watched the sun come up at 6 a.m. When it’s dark out, you don’t really know what’s outside the window. Then the sun rose and Arturo was like, “Wow. Didn’t realize that we were across from Woolsey Hall. So beautiful.” And I thought, you know, this is crazy. I took a shower break, brought my pillow back, took a 30-minute nap. It was a whole experience. And then we did it again for this class. I remember walking back at 7:51 a.m after writing my final paper and it felt like a walk of shame. Except the shame is that I’m a terrible student. It was a horrible setup. I had three papers due in the last few days of the week... It was such a horrible experience. Please don't do that to yourself. Please check OCS for exam dates. Wow. I literally hate being a humanities/social science major. It's the worst.
I actually came into Yale thinking I was going to do English and poli sci.
A: What happened?
E: I did not want to take 125 [ENGL 125, at the time titled "Major English Poets I: Chaucer to Donne"]. No part of my brain wanted to take 125. And this was before they changed it. I just did not really want to read Chaucer. You do it for half the semester apparently, just read Chaucer. There are also so many Shakespeare and Milton scholars in the English department. And that’s great for OG English students, but I just really wanted to be reading and talking about reading, which I quickly realized is not what the English department is about. I also realized that the discipline is so taxing, it’s so much work. I also realized that Yale and academia is such an important thing and everyone knows the authors they read about by the time they’re a junior. It’s a thing where you end up speaking about academics the same way you would celebrities. Being introduced to that, I’ve realized that the stuff that I like reading the most is typically poli sci. And the way that I write my papers makes the most sense for poli sci. That was a really important realization for me. I did not make sense in English. I did not want to trace the significance of the word “we” three times, in a 700-page book. A lot of it is close reading. I like looking at big picture stuff.
A: When you were at Choate did you do any political stuff then?
E: They had politics classes, but the only real politics class I did was international relations. That was a one-term class, and we were on a trimester schedule. I also did the AP Gov[ernment and Politics] class, which is super basic. Honestly, I really was an English person at Choate. Those were the classes I did the best in. I was such a writer. I wrote op-eds for the paper, I wrote poetry, I did a lot of fiction, I was in a portfolio class my senior year. I did everything. So, I really thought I wanted to do journalism. Then I came to Yale and I didn't write for a bit because I think I got psyched out by it. Even though it was the most natural thing, it also felt so weird and I didn't want everyone to read my opinions because I was worried they weren’t important. Now, I’m in ¡Oye! [a spoken word poetry group]. I’m trying to put myself in more writing spaces because I think I want to remember how I felt about writing in high school. I was really confident about it back then.
A: Do you think the belief you had, that your opinions didn’t matter, was a product of the typical Yale transition?
E: Yeah, I think a lot of it was that.
A: Do you think one thing in particular has lifted you out of it? Or have you changed?
E: I think time is a huge factor. I think it’s attitude adjustment. Now that I’ve experienced one full year of it, I feel like I can say things about it. I’ve had that lived experienced at Yale. I’ve realized that I do think I’m a good writer. I don’t think I’m a great writer. I think great writers are hard to come by. But I think I’m good. I know the mechanics, I don’t have a problem with writing. Especially in my poetry group, I feel really supported about my writing. So, I think a part of that is external validation, you know, boosting my confidence.
A: So how did you get into ¡Oye!?
E: I really wanted to be in it last year. Well, I really wanted to be in Word, but I didn’t get in. ¡Oye! had a lottery system, and you have more points in the lottery if you show up consistently. I didn’t know when the meetings were happening, so I sort of got hurt through that process. Then, they were always asking me to come back. I have a lot of friends in the group who showed up. It’s been really great. We have a show coming up in two weeks, November 10 and 11. I’m also in a writing-friendly suite.
A: Sounds pretty suite.
E: We’re gonna have a talk after this.
A: I feel so hurt! Anyway, you were saying how your parents aren’t adjusted to Halloween…
E: My dad is. He’s all-American. I’ve always wanted Halloween. I mean, I grew up on American cultural productions. I was really upset for a really long time that trick or treating was not a widespread phenomenon. Except in expat communities. Even then, none of the expats physically lived near each other. I mean, I wanted to do this shit all the time. Now that I’m 19, I can’t really go trick-or-treating because it's somewhat inappropriate. I’m living my American suburban dream. I don't think of it as weird. My mom thinks Americans are crazy. I tell her, just wait until November 1, then the Christmas ship is gonna go out, and then it’s gonna be like this until January.
A: I’ve been thinking a lot about food and how we associate food with home recently. In that spirit, do you think it was hard for you to adjust food-wise to Choate?
E: No, I mean I didn’t eat a lot of Korean food at home because my mom has a surprisingly low spice tolerance. If you don’t eat a lot of spicy stuff, Korean cuisine is not going to do it for you. We both love kimchi, but we can’t do hardcore kimchi. We also buy the milder version of the ramens that they sell. It’s so stupid. We’re basically white people. So, I would eat a lot of Western food growing up, and it was basically the same stuff.
A: Is there anything you wish people would ask you about that you don’t get to talk about?
E: I don't know. It’s not so much what I wish I could tell people. It’s more like… I wish people would stop making assumptions about how other people think on all issues based on one conversation they had. I know this is true in Dems because I did it when I was a first-year in Dems. I think I was known as a crazy leftist by a lot of other first-years in Dems who are now, like, friendly. But I think it can be kind of toxic to do that. Because I think it’s not super productive Also, I think it’s really easy to reduce people to labels here. I was complicit in that last year. I think it’s so much better when you don't do that, when you let people be complex, full, and different. Let them have their problematic stuff. I mean, acknowledge it. But there are also all these fuller inner lives that they live that we don’t get access to.
A: What happened?
E: I mean, I just had a rap. It’s more like I really would make it known that I thought race was important, as it should be. My entire platform when I ran for board was diversity and inclusion. I really wanted consistent politics. I wanted to make sure we weren’t doing things because of what everyone else was doing in the Democratic party. I was thinking about how we need to adapt our politics to the communities that we’re in. I think sometimes it can come off as you thinking about simple, minute things that shouldn’t matter. But the whole conversation is why they don't matter to you and they do to other people that are not in this room right now.
A: It’s so wild that you were considered the crazy leftist.