written by Jung Yoon Wie
GLFCAM Francis Richard Fellow, Cycle 8

When we were young, we could all draw, dance, and sing, and we were told that we should not invest our time in better things because we were not particularly talented. Nobody was ashamed of each other’s imperfections because we focused on doing, not judging others and ourselves. At that time, nothing mattered except having some fun and food, and nobody had any money or cared about who was smarter. I am unable to recall the clothes my best friend wore during my kindergarten, not because it has been too long ago but because I really didn’t care about what clothes she wore.

I grew up in Korea through middle school, where a strong sense of community and collectivism was emphasized. Those are good values that I still live by today, but they tended to happen at the expense of individualism, free thinking, and acceptance of otherness. Luckily, when I was a child, the expectations of these predetermined social structures did not apply to me. But when I got older, it felt like everyone around me had changed. Suddenly, being kind wasn’t enough to get me through life. Being creative and different was frowned upon, and people started caring about things like social status, pedigree, and even the neighborhoods you lived in. Though we were all homogenously Korean on the outside, people started creating ways to stratify one another. It made me feel misplaced and isolated. I thought that maybe if I went somewhere else to study, this feeling would disappear. And that is how I decided to come to the US for high school, landing in Tennessee.

On my first day of high school, I felt so hopeful that I remember the place even looked brighter and sunnier to me, imagining how I would make new friends and learn to speak a new language. But soon enough, I realized how foolish I was to think that I could escape the oppression of social stratification by running away to the US. The difference is that in the US where there is a lot more racial diversity than in Korea, it wasn’t as necessary to stratify people by social status when more convenient external differences could be used. In Tennessee, I found that I was now judged by my ethnicity and my ability to speak English, instead of what my parents did or the neighborhood my family lived in. I was sad because I realized that the need to separate and judge people into groups was not something specific to Korea or the US but is instead something learned as humans after transitioning from childhood to adulthood.

When I went to Boonville for the first session of the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music in 2019, Cycle 8 (Mallets and Strings), I experienced a community that did not judge one’s value based on race, language, and, more importantly, age. Gabriela gathered a group of composers who she thought were creative and could bring a strong sense of diversity to the group. This decision was not based on the assumption that a person from an international background or a person of color would bring diversity, but it was about their past experiences and personal stories about how they started playing and composing music. She recruited a group of composers who were passionate about composing, yet some were much older than others; some were late bloomers; some were improvisers and performers.

We need to learn about other people by listening to their personal stories and backgrounds rather than predetermine who they are based on certain criteria such as race, language they speak, wealth, education levels, and age. I believe that our inclination to categorize others and assume who they are come from the bias toward ourselves. We diminish the value of what we do and love, and we do the same for others by making unfair judgements about who they are and having to prove our worth at the expense of other’s. Yet, all of us were once children who would dance and not think of whether the dance was good or bad, would soak our sneakers in water because the consequences were small, and when nothing was boring.


Born in Seoul, South Korea, Jung Yoon Wie was chosen alongside Rufus Reid and David Biedenbender by the American Composers Forum to write a new work for the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble in 2017. Learn more on Jung Yoon’s bio page.

Gabriela Lena Frank